(Lord’s Day 5)
Q. 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favor?
A. God will have His justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction either by ourselves, or by another.
Q. 13. Can we of ourselves then make this satisfaction?
A. By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt.
Q. 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?
A. None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man hath committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.
Q. 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?
A. For one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.
This fifth Lord’s Day introduces the second part of our Heidelberg Catechism. We recall here that the Catechism, according to its subjective, experimental viewpoint of the truth, divides its subject-material into three main parts: the first treating of sin and misery, the second of redemption and deliverance, the third of Christian gratitude. This second part extends through the eighty fifth question and answer, and is, therefore, by far the largest of the three divisions of our instructor. It treats of many subjects. After a few introductory questions and answers, setting forth the necessity of a divine-human mediator for the deliverance of the sinner, it follows the line of the so called Apostolic Confession in the discussion of the contents of the Christian faith, which is concluded by a chapter on the justification by faith in Lord’s Day 23 followed by a Lord’s Day on good works in relation to that justification; and to this is appended a rather elaborate discussion of the means of grace, especially of the sacraments, while the whole is closed by the treatment of the subject of Christian discipline, or the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
The first main part of the Catechism had left the natural man in an absolutely hopeless state and condition. He is guilty and worthy of damnation. By nature he stands opposed to the law of God, for he is prone to hate God and the neighbor, while the demand of the law is love. He is wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil, member of a corrupt race in which he is conceived and born in sin. From the moment of his birth every man lies under guilt and condemnation, and is dead through sin. And there is no way out. In his sinful state he cannot hopefully look to God. God is the terror of the sinner. The living God is unchangeable. He is God—not man. The sinner may seek consolation in his own conception of God, but in this attempt there is no salvation: he cannot change God. He is a rock in all His virtues. He cannot deny Himself. Upon the rock that is God the sinner and all his vain hopes must needs suffer shipwreck. Unalterably God demands that man shall love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. And this demand is not changed or retracted because the sinner is incapable of meeting the requirements of the law: God once endowed him with all the gifts necessary to keep God’s commandments, but man squandered these gifts by his willful disobedience. And God punishes sin in His just wrath, temporally and eternally, in body and soul. Nor is it effective to appeal to the mercy of God in opposition to His righteousness and justice, for God is one in all His attributes, and even His mercy is forever a righteous mercy. It is exactly because God is as He is that there is no hope for the sinner in his guilty state and corrupt condition. His plight is absolutely desperate.
Such is, in brief, the truth concerning sinful man as expounded in the first part of the Heidelberg Catechism.
And now the second part, which treats of the redemption of man, is introduced. The question still is: Is there no way out? Granted that man’s condition is as was described in the first part of the Catechism, and that “by the righteous judgment of God we deserve temporal and eternal punishment,” is there no hope even then? How can we escape this punishment and be again received into favor? This question may seem to center around man. lit does not appear to be theological in scope or viewpoint. It is concerned with man, or rather, in it man is concerned with himself. It might be objected, as some have done, that the Catechism does not assume a high standpoint. A more exalted and sounder standpoint would have been concerned with the question of the glory of God, rather than with the sinner’s desire to escape punishment. However, let us not overlook the fact, first of all, that no matter how strictly theocentric may be the standpoint we assume, the salvation of man remains a very important subject, the fear of death and hell is very real, and the Catechism certainly takes its standpoint foursquare on the basis of this reality, when it asks the question: how can we escape this punishment? We must be careful lest we pretend to be able to assume the attitude that we are wholly indifferent what becomes of us, whether we go to heaven or to hell, if God only is glorified. Secondly, we cannot separate the glory of God from our salvation. The two are inseparably connected. Even though the question of the Heidelberger here is concerned immediately with a possible escape from temporal and eternal punishment, it does not follow that it is not concerned with the glory of God. Certainly the escape from this punishment is only the negative side of that state in which we will be able to enjoy God’s fellowship and to glorify Him forever. And, thirdly, the Catechism itself reveals that its view of the matter is quite sound by the addition: “and again be received into favor.” By the escape from punishment it does not refer to a mere escape from temporal suffering and eternal hell, but to deliverance from the wrath of God and from the state of being forsaken of Him. And, therefore, the positive content of the question is: how can we be restored to the favor of God? And the search and longing after God that is implied in this question is certainly theocentric. It is the yearning that is expressed in the well-known words of Ps. 42:1, 2: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?”
The answer of the catechism to this twelfth question may seem rather disappointing. It is really evasive. Instead of giving a direct reply to the question the Catechism answers: “God wills that his justice be satisfied; therefore we must make full satisfaction!” And many a modern preacher would probably grow somewhat impatient with the Heidelberg Catechism, and complain that it makes no progress at all. Especially if he would have to preach to his congregation on the basis of one Lord’s Day at a time, as is the custom in Reformed Churches, the “evangelistic- ally inclined” preacher of today, anxious to “bring souls to Christ”, might conclude that the Catechism is altogether too slow in its progress of developing the truth, that by this time we have heard enough about the hopelessness of the sinner’s condition and the unchangeable justice of God, and that it is high time a full and direct answer were given to the question: is there no way of escape ? But one who would so reason would make a serious error. Before the question as to a possible way of escape may be answered, it must become quite clear that as far as man’s efforts are concerned to open such a way the matter is quite hopeless. And this truth the Catechism demonstrates and emphasizes by stressing at this point the necessity of satisfaction. God will have His justice satisfied! Somehow we must make satisfaction, full satisfaction of the justice of God. Yes, but this means that we can never escape the punishment of sin, for to make satisfaction implies that the punishment be endured to the end. And again, this also implies that on the sinner’s side the way is closed forever. He cannot make this full satisfaction. We cannot even see a possible way of escape. If salvation is to come to us, it must come from above, and it must come in the way of a wonder of grace. The way of escape, if there be any, belongs to those things which eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, and that have never arisen in the heart of man. It must be opened by Him who quickeneth the dead, and who calleth the things that are not as if they were. Salvation does not lie within the scope of humanly conceivable possibilities. And this we must learn to acknowledge, not only as a matter of doctrine, but in true, heartfelt humiliation. We must indeed become nothing; Christ, the revelation of the wonder of God’s grace, must become all. We must come to the hearty confession that with us the way of escape is impossible, and that all our works and efforts, all our wisdom and philosophy, even all our piety and religiousness, mean absolutely nothing and are of no value whatever as far as obtaining again the favor of God is concerned. All boasting must be excluded.
No flesh must glory in the presence of God. We must cast ourselves unconditionally upon Him Who alone doeth wondrous things. But then we must not speak too lightly of a way of escape. And, surely, we must not speak too superficially of “saving souls.” To save a soul is an amazing wonder, higher than the highest heavens, deeper than the abyss. For God will have His justice satisfied, and we must make this full satisfaction before we can ever be restored to the favor of God!
Satisfaction is a term that expresses one of the main themes of Holy Scripture. The word denotes the same idea as the Dutch “voldoening”, or, better still, “genoegdoening’’. It means “to do enough”, “to make sufficient”, to comply with a certain demand, particularly with respect to a debt accumulated or an offense committed. And the truth that God will have His justice satisfied is a theme that runs all through the Word of God from beginning to end. All through history God instructed His people in the truth of the necessity of satisfaction. As soon as they had fallen into sin He taught them that they could be restored into His favor only in the way of satisfaction, for it was He that made for them “coats of skins” presupposing sacrifice and the shedding of blood, instead of the aprons of fig leaves with which they themselves had attempted to cover their nakedness before God and before one another. He it was that taught Abel to bring a sacrifice “of the firstlings of the flock and of the fat thereof”, Gen. 4:4, and thus to bring a better sacrifice than Cain, “by which he obtained witness that he was righteous,” Heb. 11:4. He plainly taught His people, by means of all the shadows and of the service of the tabernacle and of the temple, that there was no way into His favor, no approach Into His presence as He dwelt in the Holiest of all, except by means of perfect satisfaction for sin. And In the New Testament it is the same truth that is emphasized throughout its teaching. Christ gives His life as a ransom for many. He is the propitiation for sin. And as “almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission”, so Christ, “once in the end of the world hath appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Heb. 9:22, 26. Surely, that God will have His justice satisfied, and that there is no other way to be received again into His favor, is one of the fundamental truths of the Bible.
What is this satisfaction of God’s justice? In general, satisfaction implies that a person has certain obligations with respect to another, that he has failed to fulfill these obligations, that he is in arrears, that he owes a debt, and that now he makes a full payment of that debt, and so restores the proper relationship between himself and him to whom he was obligated. Applied to our relation to God, this means that we have an unchangeable obligation to love Him. The obligation is a moral, ethical one. It never changes, for God does not change. Always He says to us: “Love Me with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.” Never may we do anything that is not motivated by the love of God. If we love Him we are the objects of His favor. The moment we fail in the payment of this love-debt, we are no longer in His favor, but become the objects of His just wrath. This cannot be emphasized too strongly and repeated too often. Nothing can take the place of this love of God to make us the objects of His favor. Nothing else than this love of God with all our being is righteousness. All our imaginary piety, our Phariseeism, our work-righteousness, our willingness “to do something for God”, our humanitarianism, is of no avail to take the place of this one obligation to love God. To love God with our whole heart, to love Him in all that we do, in the very thought of our mind, in every desire of our soul, with every word we speak, in every deed we perform, with every step we take on life’s pathway, in every relationship of life,—that is our sacred and unchangeable obligation before God. And nothing else can possibly take its place.
In that obligation we have failed and do fail continuously. Hence we are in arrears, we are in debt with God! And let us not be deceived by this word debt so that, perhaps, we think of our relation to God in terms of a financial obligation. A man may owe a debt of money and think little of it. He is going to pay it sometime, at his convenience! And as long as his creditor does not trouble him too much, there is little for him to worry about. But with our relation to God this is quite different. We owe a love-debt. And our creditor is not someone who lives far away from us, and occasionally knocks at our door to demand payment, but he is the living God, the Lord of heaven and earth, in Whom we live and move and have our being! He is the Lord of life and of death. In His favor there is light and life and joy; in His displeasure there is darkness and death and everlasting desolation. And He is not far from us. He surrounds us. He encompasses our whole being. And the moment we fail to love Him, that moment He is terribly displeased, filled with holy and just wrath against us. He makes us feel His just wrath. He punishes us with death. He makes us unspeakably miserable. He does this, not in some future state only, but now, at once, the moment we are in debt and fail to love Him. His hand is heavy upon us, and by His wrath we pine and die. But let us not forget, that even so, even while He pursues us and encompasses us in His wrath, and inflicts the punishment of death upon us, He still demands: “love Me!” It is quite essential to understand this clearly, in order that we may comprehend somewhat the terrible reality of satisfaction. Our obligation is to love God who is GOD! We must love Him as He is, because He is good! He is good when we love Him and He causes us to taste His blessed favor. But He is good, too, when we fail to love Him and He causes us to taste His goodness by inflicting upon us the punishment of death, by making us unspeakably miserable! Hence, we must still love Him, even while He lays His heavy hand upon us! To love God was our obligation in Paradise, where man was surrounded by the favor of God. To love God remained his obligation when God executed the death sentence upon him, and he was driven out of paradise and from the fellowship of God. To love God is man’s obligation even in the eternal desolation of hell. Even there God says to man: “Love Me as I reveal Myself to thee here in my righteousness and justice through the agonies which I cause thee to suffer in outer darkness!” The love-demand never ceases, never changes. The love-debt remains forever!
To understand the implication of satisfaction for sin we must bear in mind this unchangeableness of our love-debt to God. Not the mere bearing of the punishment for sin, even in hell, is satisfaction. Surely, the damned in hell fully suffer the punishment for sin in eternal death and desolation. Yet they never atone, they never make satisfaction for sin; their suffering never becomes a sacrifice that blots out sin and. restores them to the favor of God. When capital punishment is inflicted upon a murderer, we may often read in our daily papers that the murderer atoned for his crime. But this is not correct. Justice satisfied itself by inflicting the punishment of death on the murderer, but the murderer did not atone for his crime. He did not offer his life. He did not willingly seek the punishment that he might atone. He probably sought the help of an attorney in order to escape the electric chair. But his life was taken away from him by force, against his will. His death is no satisfaction. So God will surely punish sin even with eternal desolation, and glorify Himself in the damnation of the wicked. But the suffering of hell is no satisfaction, for even there God’s demand remains unchanged: “Love Me!” And this demand they cannot fulfill. Hence, the act of satisfaction is the payment of the love-debt to God as He reveals Himself to the sinner in the depth and darkness and unspeakable misery of hell! If there were a sinner that could perform this act of love, that could pass through the woes of eternal desolation, through the darkness of the depth of hell and be motivated by the love of God, that sinner would satisfy the justice of God with respect to sin. Or, to express this truth more vividly still, if there were a man that would be so motivated by the love of God that he would seek that punishment, that for God’s name’s sake and to fulfill His righteousness would desire to descend into deepest hell, and, realize that desire,—that man would make full satisfaction for sin. Such is the sinner’s love-debt to God. He is obligated to say to God: ‘For Thy righteousness’ sake let all the billows of Thy wrath pass over me, and even then I shall love Thee!” If he performs this act of love He makes full satisfaction. And in the way of this full satisfaction he will be the object of the favor of God! And this satisfaction is absolutely necessary. The Arminian, who, because of his denial of limited atonement, cannot and does not maintain the truth of satisfaction, may claim that God can accept something else instead of this perfect sacrifice of atonement, a tear, a prayer, a temporal affliction, an example,—but he misleads the sinner. The modernist may make light of this truth and speak of it mockingly as “blood theology”, he only mocks at most dreadful realities. For God cannot deny Himself. He will have His justice satisfied. Satisfaction for sin is the indispensable condition to be restored to the favor of God.