To avoid repetition, we must clearly distinguish just what subject the Heidelberg Catechism is discussing in the thirteenth Lord’s Day.
We must not, in this connection, speak of the mystery of the incarnation as such, the doctrine that the Son of God assumed our flesh and blood from the virgin Mary. For this is treated in the following Lord’s Day.
Nor is it the purpose of this part of the Catechism to discuss the mystery of the sonship of the second Person in the Holy Trinity, for this was treated in the eighth and ninth Lord’s Day of our Instructor.
But the Catechism is here explaining the words of the Apostolic Confession: “And in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.” That Jesus Christ is the eternal and essential Son of God, that the Man Jesus, Who was born in Bethlehem, and who left His life on the bloody tree of Golgotha, is very God Himself,—that is the definite point of discussion in this thirteenth Lord’s Day. It is true, of course, that, to bring out this specific truth in bold relief, it cannot be avoided to say something about the eternal sonship of this Jesus. But this is necessary only in so far as it is required to distinguish this man Jesus from all other men, to maintain and exhibit the infinite chasm there exists between His Sonship and that of all other children of God, especially that of His brethren.
Let us clearly understand the importance and the necessity of this distinction.
The importance lies in the fact that the Church confesses: “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Now, if in this confession she does not also clearly and definitely maintain that this Jesus Christ is very God, her faith is nothing but hero worship, faith in man, in self. Then Jesus is not the revelation of the Father, the God of our salvation reaching out to us from the mysterious depths of eternity and infinity, but merely the noblest product of the human race, the revelation of the wonderful possibilities that lie hid in the human nature. Then the confession: “I believe in Jesus Christ,” means:
“I believe in the man of Galilee, in his goodness, nobility, teaching, example, and that I have all the requirements necessary to follow him, and to make myself like him.” Then Jesus is not the revelation of the righteousness, and wisdom, and sanctification, and redemption of God, but of the righteousness, and wisdom, and holiness, and redemption of man.
Such is the Christ of modern philosophy.
It is this Christ upon whom the proud but hopeless structure of modernism is built. The keystone of this structure, that which makes it so hopelessly weak, is a mere denial: the denial that this Jesus is very God.
But the faith and hope of the Church cannot rest in man. When the Church says: “I believe,” the object of that faith is always GOD, the only God, the One that dwells in the light no man can approach unto, the Eternal, the Infinite, Who is not comprehended by time or space, but Who Himself spanned the chasm that separates Him from us by His revelation. He is the One Whom no one knows save the Son, and those to whom the Son will reveal Him.
Therein lies the importance of the distinction the Catechism here makes.
Deny that this Jesus is very God, and the article of our faith by which we confess that we believe in Jesus Christ means: “I believe in Man.”
Confess, however, with the Church of all ages, that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in an altogether unique sense of the word, and your faith and hope are still in the only true God.
And necessary this distinction is, necessary it is always again to insist on, to emphasize this distinction, and to set it in bold relief, because in the revelation of Jesus Christ God approached us so closely, He came so dangerously near unto us, that He, as it were, challenged sinful men to deny that He is very God.
In creation He reveals His eternal power and Godhead, and sinful men refuse to glorify Him, and to give Him thanks. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handiwork. In the theophany of the first Paradise, when Adam apprehended the approach of God in the cool of day, there was a clear revelation of His majesty, before which Adam hid himself. Even when He revealed Himself through the speech of angels, there always was some manifestation of divine glory that made men fear and tremble. Sinai is hid in smoke and darkness, it quakes and trembles at the approach of the Most High, and from its summit roars the voice of the Almighty as the voice of thunder, striking terror into the hearts of men. But in Jesus the chasm between the infinite Majesty and mere men, even sinful men, between the Creator and the creature, the Eternal and time, the infinite God and finite dust, the only Lord and His servants, appears to be completely abridged, eliminated. In the revelation of Jesus Christ GOD seems hid! In the manger He is a babe, helpless and dependent. In Nazareth Be grows up as any other child: He increases in wisdom and stature. He dwells among us, eats and drinks, speaks and works, is tired and sleeps, is troubled and weeps. Men can see Him, hear Him, understand Him, touch Him; even contradict Him, oppose Him, monk Him, take a hold of Him and bind Him, judge Him and condemn Him, kill Him and bury Him!
GOD in the flesh yea, in the likeness of sinful flesh!
O, how easy it is to deny that He is God at all! And this is exactly what mere men always did. They denied it when, in the days of His flesh, He walked and tabernacled among us, and they even killed Him because He confessed that He was the Son of the living God. And they denied it from Arius to the present time. They admitted that He was a wonderful man, a good man, a man that was more deeply God-conscious than any other before Him, a man that was entitled to the name Son of God, that was appointed to be Son of God, but they denied that He is GOD. And they still deny it.
And, therefore, it is very necessary that the Church jealously guard this truth, this Rock upon which she is built, and insist that when she confesses that she believes in Jesus Christ she means nothing else than what she began to confess in the first article of the Apostolicum: Credo in Deum. And because in the revelation of Jesus Christ, God is also man, there is no more effective way to preserve the truth of the unique Sonship of Christ, than by drawing clear and sharp lines of demarcation between the sonship of the only Begotten and that of the mere creature, particularly that of believers. Such lines the Catechism draws in question and answer 33: “Why is Christ called the only begotten Son of God, since we are also the children of God? Because Christ alone is the eternal and natural Son of God; but we are children adopted of God, by grace, for his sake.”
Christ, according to His divine nature, is begotten of God. He is the only begotten. Another Son that is begotten there is not. Other sons of God may be created, or they may be children by reason of a gracious act of adoption, they may even be born of God, but they are not begotten. But Christ is begotten of God. He is not created, i.e. He is not the Son of God through an act of God’s omnipotent will, in virtue of which He calls the things that are not as if they were; nor is He adopted, i.e. the right and privilege of being called Son of God are not bestowed upon Him by grace; nor is He born of God, i.e. He is not made a being outside of God endowed with a creaturely reflection of God’s virtues; He is begotten. True, He is also born. He is the firstborn among many brethren, the firstborn of every creature, the firstborn of the dead, but all this is true only of the Son of God in human nature. In His divine nature He is begotten, the only begotten. He does not have His origin in the divine conception, in the divine will, in the eternal counsel. On the contrary, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, He is the Subject of that counsel. He is begotten by an act of the Father in the divine essence.
Hence, Christ is the eternal Son of God. And this means, to be sure, that as Son of God He has no beginning and no end. There is no distinction of time between the Father and the only begotten Son, as if the Father were first, and thereupon He gave being to the Son. The Father was never without the Son, the Son was never without the Father, the Father and the Son were never without the Holy Spirit. But it also implies that the divine act within the divine essence, whereby the Father begets the Son, takes place in eternity, not in time at all. Eternity is not time, even as God is not the creature; and time is not eternity, even as the world is not God. There is a chasm between eternity and time that can never be abridged, even as there is such a chasm between God and the world, between the Creator and the creature, between the divine and the human. Time is change, flux, becoming, succession of moments; eternity is the unchangeable, infinite fullness of being and activity. That Christ is the eternal Son of God means that He IS Son in virtue of an unchangeable act of the Father within the divine essence, in which the Father is active with all the infinite fullness of the Godhead. Incessantly, eternally, with infinite perfection of activity of the whole divine essence, the Father gives life to the Son. This unfathomable deep mystery the Church tried to express by the term eternal generation.
And so, as the Catechism expresses it, Christ is, according to His divine nature, the natural Son of God. In virtue of the fact that He is begotten, and that, too, by an eternal act of the Father within the divine essence, the Son is essentially God. Having His origin as Son in the divine essence, He is of the divine essence, God of God, light of light, eternity of eternity, infinity of infinity. The act of generation being an eternal activity of the whole divine being proceeding from the Father, the Son is Himself God, possessing in and of Himself all the divine perfections. He is almighty, all wise, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, independent, self-existent, incomprehensible, the implication of all infinite perfections, and the overflowing fount of all good. He is the natural Son of God!
And, mark you well, Jesus is that only begotten, that eternal, that natural Son of God. He, the eternal Son, at His incarnation, did not change into man. We must not speak of a pre-existent Christ in the sense that before His incarnation He was in the form of God, but now changed into the form of man. His incarnation did not mean that He left the bosom of the Father, in order to become mere man. No, this Jesus, this Christ, this babe in the manger, this child of Nazareth, this man of Galilee, this sufferer on the cross, IS very God. More must be said about this in connection with the next Lord’s Day. But even now it must be remembered that we are speaking of the historical Jesus, when we confess that He is the only begotten, the eternal, the natural Son of God. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Isa. 9:6.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” means: “I believe in the God of my salvation.”
How different, how infinitely different from this eternal Sonship of the Christ, is our sonship as believers!
He is begotten, we are adopted, and born of God.
He is the natural Son of God, we are children of God by grace, for His sake.
He is the essential image of the Father, we are but creaturely reflections of His image.
He is Son within the divine essence, we are children without the essence of God.
He is God, we are creatures.
Adam, too, was the son of God. He was such by reason of his creation, by an act of God whereby He called the things that are not as if they were. It pleased Him to create a son. Hence, He made Adam after His own image, so that in his very nature he was adapted to reflect the virtues of God, was endowed with true knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness, and stood in the relation of a son to God, his creator Father. He was known of God, and knew Him; he was loved of God, and loved Him; he had the right to dwell in God’s house, and enjoyed His fellowship; and he served the Father in the freedom of a son. But he became disobedient. He rebelled. And he lost his sonship. He forfeited all his rights as a son, and became guilty, damnable, worthy of God’s wrath, an exile from God’s house with no right to return, worse than a stranger. And He also became in his very nature an enemy of God. The image of God in him was perverted into the very image of his father the devil He became darkness, unrighteousness, unholiness, a lover of iniquity. Man by nature is no longer the son of God.
But it pleased God, nevertheless, to have many sons, and to lead them to a higher glory of sonship than Adam could ever attain. He adopted us, i.e. He gave us the right to be his sons, and all the privileges of children of God. Us, who by nature are no children of God, but children of the devil, exiles from His house, enemies of God He adopted, gave the right to His love, to His care, to His blessings, and to the blessed fellowship of His tabernacle. Just as a human father may adopt a strange child, that is not of his flesh and blood, that is, give it the legal status of his child and heir, so God adopted us, who were no children, and thereby made us legal heirs of all the blessings of salvation.
This adoption is an act of pure grace.
And we may distinguish various aspect of, or, if you please, stages in this gracious act of adoption.
It has its source in God’s eternal counsel. For in that counsel He ordained His only begotten Son to be the firstborn of every creature, the firstborn of the dead, and the firstborn among many brethren, the Head of the Church; and in Him and unto Him He adopted all the elect to become sons of God. For He “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherewith he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” Eph. 1:5, 6. And Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. . . . and he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” Col. 1:15, 18.” “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first born among many brethren.” Rom. 8:29. In sovereign grace, therefore, He adopted us from before the foundation of the world, and that, too, in Christ, the firstborn from the dead.
And this adoption is realized in time, and will be perfected in the day of Christ, through the resurrection, and by the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
It is realized through the cross, the perfect sacrifice of Christ. For in ourselves, as we come into the world
in Adam, we are children of wrath, with no right to sonship whatsoever, guilty and worthy of eternal desolation. But the only begotten Son assumed the flesh and blood of the children, came in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, took His ordained; position at the head of all the elect took the whole burden of their guilt and sin upon His mighty shoulders, and with that c burden of sin upon Him took the place of God’s judgment and wrath in their stead, and in their behalf, offered the perfect sacrifice for sin, obtained for His own perfect and everlasting righteousness, the right to be restored to God’s favor, to become the sons of God, and to dwell in His house forever. God realized our adoption unto children and heirs through the death of His only begotten. And in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, this adoption received His own official seal. For He was raised for our justification. Rom. 4:25. Christ, crucified and raised, is the ground of our adoption. We are children for His sake.
This adoption is bestowed upon us, and realized in i us through the Spirit of Christ, and by faith. For the spirit of Christ is the Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry Abba, Father. And: “because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Gal. 4:6. He makes us partakers of the adoption unto children by the faith He works in our hearts, through the gospel, by which we embrace Christ and all His benefits, are confident that we are justified, and that for the sake of Christ we are the sons of God with all the rights of children. Besides, this Spirit witnesses with our Spirit that we are the sons of God, Rom. 8:16. And the same Spirit also realizes the adoption by causing us to be born of God, by restoring within us the image of God, and making us like the image of the Son as the first born from the dead. For what an earthly father is impotent to do, i.e. to make of his adopted child a son of his own flesh and blood, God performs by the wonder of His grace in Christ. He regenerates us, calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light, makes us partaker of His own life and love, and thus bestows upon us the grace of actual sonship.
All this is true only in principle as long as we are in the body of this death. But this adoption unto sons of God awaits its final perfection in the day of Christ. For we “ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit the redemption of our body.” In that day we shall be publicly and before all the world justified and manifested as sons of God, and the image of God shall be raised in us to the highest possible glory of a creaturely likeness, for then we shall be perfectly conformed to the image of God’s only begotten Son in the glorified Christ.
But forever Christ remains the only begotten, the eternal, the natural Son of God, whom we can never approach, but who reached out for us in the flesh; while we are forever children adopted, by grace, for His sake, highly favored, yet always creaturely reflections of the divine image.