The Impossibility of Satisfaction

The second question that must be answered in this connection is: “Can another creature, a creature that is not man, satisfy for our sin?” The Catechism answers: “God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man committed”. This will of God to punish only the creature that sinned and no other creature is not arbitrary. God’s will is always in accord with His justice, and justice and righteousness belong to His very Being. And God cannot deny Himself. And He certainly would deny Himself if He would punish another creature for man’s sin. This statement does not exclude the possibility of a substitute. For a substitute is not another creature, but another person, and the relation of one person to another or to others may be such that be is permitted according to justice to take the place of the others in judgment. But here it is the question of another creature. It is a creature that has not the same kind of nature as man. It is different. It has not the same body, mind, will, experience, life as man. It does not live a human life, and it cannot die a human death. Now, whether that creature is animal or angel, it could never receive man’s punishment for man’s sin in his stead. For if the justice of God demands that an evil be inflicted upon the sinner which is commensurate with or equivalent to the sin committed, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” then it is evident that only human death, i.e. the suffering of death in and by human nature can be the proper punishment for the sin of a human being. Hence, God will not punish the sin which man committed in any other nature than that of man. Besides, it must not be forgotten, that the ultimate purpose of punishment is that the sinner must acknowledge that God is good. Sin is really an attempt to deny the goodness, i.e. the holiness, righteousness and truth of God. It is transgression of the law. It is the realization of the intention to set up another standard of goodness .than the will of God. And God maintains His goodness, and compels the sinner to acknowledge that He is the only good by inflicting the punishment of death upon him, by thus causing him to experience the unspeakable misery of departing from and rising in rebellion against the living God. But this purpose could not be attained by punishing another creature, a creature that exists and lives outside of the scope of man’s experience, for the sin of man. It is in the experience of human nature, of the human body and the human soul, of the human mind and will, that God’s holy wrath must be felt, and that He must make Himself known, even in opposition to sin, as the sole Good. Hence, the same creature that sinned must receive the punishment for sin. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Heb. 10:4.

The third question is closely related to the second: can a mere creature substitute for us? At first blush it may appear as if this question had really already been answered. If man cannot satisfy for himself, and if another creature cannot take his place, then it stands to reason that there is no mere creature anywhere that is able to satisfy the justice of God with respect to sin. Yet, this last question considers the matter from a different viewpoint. The question now is, not whether another kind of creature is able to take our place, but whether a mere creature, one that is nothing but a creature, one that is no more than a creature, even if it were permitted to substitute for us, would be able to bear our punishment and to restore us to the favor of God. And to this question the Heidelberg Catechism gives a double answer: (1) no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin; and (2) no mere creature could deliver us from that wrath of God. All emphasis should be placed here on the word “sustain”. One could not substitute a term like “suffer” here. The German uses the term “ertragen”. The word conveys especially two ideas: that of actively bearing any burden, and that of bearing such a burden to the very end. In our discussion of the implications of satisfaction we stressed the fact that the wrath of God must be endured as an act, in the obedience of the love of God. To satisfy the justice of God one must not merely suffer, passively bear, the punishment for sin. That is done by the damned in hell, too. Yet they never bring a sacrifice for sin, and they never atone for their guilt, for the simple reason that in suffering the wrath of God they never perform an act of love. God inflicts punishment, He takes payment from them, but they never willingly give it. Now, no mere creature can ever so sustain the wrath of God that he performs a willing act of obedience in the love of God. For the punishment of sin is death, utter death, physical and spiritual death, eternal death. In order to be active in death, to perform the act of death, one must have a life that he has the power to lay down. And that is not true of any creature. The creature’s life is given to it. It is never its own. He may forfeit that life, and he does, if with it he does not constantly consecrate himself to God in the obedience of love. And if he forfeits it, his life is taken away from him and he suffers death. But never can he have the right and the power to lay it down so as to bring a sacrifice to God. He has the right to consecrate that life to God in life; he cannot possibly make it a gift in death. One must be more than a mere creature in order to lay down his life and to perform the atoning act of death. But to sustain, “ertragen”, also expresses the notion of endurance to the end. In order to satisfy the justice of God, one must be able to finish the act of bearing the punishment against sin. He must get through with it. If he does not finish it, he must be crushed under the burden of the wrath of God, and there is no deliverance. In other words, he must have the authority so to lay down his life, that by this act he obtains the right to take it again. And he must also have the power, the ability, the capacity, so to lay down his life that through death he will live. He must be able to live and act even while he is dying, and so performing the act of death he must emerge from all death as the living one. And it is evident that no mere creature can ever emerge from death in his own power. He has no life in himself to overcome death. It is evident, then, that no one who is not more than a creature could ever sustain the wrath of God.

Besides, the Catechism reminds us, that a substitute must so bear and sustain the burden of the wrath of God, that he delivers others from it. And this implies, first of all, that by the act of laying down his life such a creature must obtain the right, according to the justice of God, to deliver many from that wrath and to restore them to God’s favor. And how could a mere creature ever so perform the act of death? Suppose there were a creature that had a life to offer, and that was able to offer it to God in sacrifice; and suppose such a creature was in a position to offer it as a substitute; how could the sacrifice of that one life ever serve as a substitute except for only one other life similar to the life that was offered? A mere creature is never capable of bringing a sacrifice for many. But it implies, secondly, that after the creature has sacrificed his life, he must have the power to actually deliver us from death and impart new life to us. We are in death. We are not like prisoners that have been condemned to death and still await the execution of that sentence; we are already in the power of death. We must be delivered. We must be quickened. And one that is to save us, must have the power so to deliver us that the shackles of death are broken and we are quickened unto new life. But to speak of the possibility that a mere creature, that has no life in himself, would have the power to deliver us after he laid down his life as a sacrifice for sin, is absurd.

The conclusion, therefore, is that as far as we are concerned the way is closed. There is no possibility of satisfaction. Our case is strictly hopeless. We can sin, but we can never atone. We could fall from a state of righteousness by willful disobedience, but we can never return to that state. We can make ourselves worthy of God’s wrath and of His just sentence of eternal damnation, but we can never do anything or bring anything to God that will again make us worthy of His favor. We can cast ourselves into the prison of sin and death, as we did through the fall and disobedience of our first parents in paradise; but after we do so the door is locked and we can never unlock it: the justice of God keeps it securely barred. And not only is there no power or possibility in and with us to deliver us, but in all creation there is no hope. Wherever we turn, there is no possibility of satisfaction. There is no way out?

The Possibility of Satisfaction

Where, then, must we look for salvation? If there is no hope in self, and if in all the universe there cannot be found a creature that is able to bring satisfaction for sin and to deliver us from the guilt and power of sin and death, whither shall we turn? That is the next question asked by the instructor in our Heidelberg Catechism. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for? It would seem that there is no longer room for a question such as this. The way has been closed. It would appear that all possibilities have been considered and thoroughly investigated. We must satisfy the justice of God, and we cannot. Unless that justice of God is fully satisfied we cannot be received again into the favor of God. We have no right to be delivered from the power of sin and death, no right to life, unless the justice of God be first completely satisfied. But it seems that this is an impossible demand. The condition of satisfaction, so we have seen, we can never meet. Nor is there another creature, a mere creature that can take our place in the judgment of God and satisfy in our stead and in our behalf. Must we, then, riot give up all hope? And is it not absurd at this point to ask the question: what sort of a mediator must we then look for? It certainly would be, if the question meant that we should investigate once more the possibility of salvation on our part. But this is not the intent of the question. It is not the natural man, but the believer that asks this question concerning a possible mediator and deliverer after all creaturely possibilities have been exhausted. It is a question of faith. And faith is an evidence of things unseen, the substance of things hoped for. It regards not the things that are seen, but the things that are not seen. It clings to God as seeing the Invisible. It is not desperate, it does not hopelessly give up the search after salvation when it is proved that there is no hope in the creature. It knows that with God all things are possible. It understands that it is the glory of God to reveal His power and wisdom exactly there where human power is utterly inadequate. And so, it is not dismayed, but rises from the creature to the almighty God. And it is that faith that continues the search for salivation and asks: what sort of a mediator and deliverer must we then seek for?

We must understand that the Catechism here does not yet speak of the real, but only of the possible mediator. It intends to demonstrate in the next Lord’s Day the necessity of the incarnation. It would give an answer to the question of Anselm: Cur Deus homo? why must God become man? This answer is supplied in the first two questions of the next Lord’s Day. It might appear as if logically this question should have been the first question of Lord’s Day 6. Yet, this is not the case. The question as it appears here, at the end of Lord’s Day 5 is a summary and conclusion. The instructor of our Heidelberger considers, as it were, once more the condition of the sinner with a view to possible salvation. It measures carefully the gap caused by the fall of man, in order to ask the question what kind of a deliverer would be able to fill that gap. And it reaches the conclusion that only a mediator that is real and righteous man, and that is at the same time very God, would be able to fulfill all the conditions of a deliverer from sin and death We must look: “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, then, is the conclusion after careful consideration of the condition of the sinner in the light of God’s demand for satisfaction of His justice, and after investigation of all possible creaturely mediators and deliverers. For, as we consider our condition and measure the gap made by our fall into sin and our rebellion against the living God, we find that we must have a mediator, one who mediates in our behalf, who takes our place in judgment and makes satisfaction in our stead, for we ourselves could never bring that satisfaction. He must, therefore, be a representative person, for otherwise he had not the right to substitute himself for us. We found, too, that he must be a man, for only in the human nature will God punish the sin man committed. He must be very man, flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, living our human life, and entering into our human experience. He must be able to bring the sacrifice of his life and enter into all the suffering of death willingly, and make of death an act of love. He must, therefore, not be a sinner, but a perfectly righteous man. However, we found, too, that a mere creature is not sufficient, for he must be able to deliver many, and his sacrifice must have infinite value. Besides, he must be able to die and live, to lay down his life and to take it again, and to deliver us from the power of death and impart eternal life to us. He must, therefore, be more than mere creature, that is, he must be very God. And so the Catechism draws the conclusion that our condition is such, that, if we are to be saved, there is only one “sort of mediator” that can meet all the requirements and fulfill all the conditions: Immanuel, God with us, the Son of God in the flesh!

The reasons for the necessity of the incarnation with a view to our salvation we need not now discuss in detail, for the Catechism considers them in the next Lord’s Day. But surely, the question forces itself upon our minds and hearts: how must it be explained that the condition of fallen man is such that his salvation requires the incarnation of the Son of God? Here we meet with a striking phenomenon! The state of fallen man is exactly such that only a divine-human mediator can save him! The gap which he caused by his fall and disobedience is exactly of such size and shape that the incarnated Son and He alone fits in it! How must this be explained? Surely, one cannot be so blind as to attribute this striking fact to mere accident or coincidence? There must be a plan and purpose behind ah this. The one must be adapted to the other. When you see a large building erected, and you notice that as the walls are being built by the masons large rectangular gaps are left therein; and as you continue watching the construction of that edifice you discover that in those holes left in the walls window frames are placed that fit exactly in the gaps to fill them, you do not conclude that it is a happy accident that those windows exactly fill those holes in the walls, but you know that the latter were intentionally built into the wall, in order that there might be room for the former. There is purpose, there is design in the work of the builders. Well, here you behold a condition of fallen man that requires the incarnation of the Son of God, if man is to be saved. Would you conclude that this is a mere coincidence? Or shall we say, that the incarnation of the Son of God is an afterthought of the Most High, and that it is determined by the fall and disobedience of man? Would you say that the shape and size of the windows in the edifice of our illustration were determined by the shape and size of the holes that were left in the walls by the builders? You reply, of course, that exactly the opposite is true: the latter are determined by the former; the architect had designed exactly those particular windows for that building, and the holes were left in the walls accordingly. But would you, then, speak differently of the work of the Most High? Would you say that it is a terrible accident that man by his disobedience caused the gap of sin and death, and that afterwards the incarnation of the Son of God was designed to fill that gap? You know better. How then could God be GOD? Rather, when you examine the condition of man from every aspect from the viewpoint of the question of his salvation; and when you discover that there is one and only one possibility of his salvation: the coming of the Son of God in the flesh; you draw the conclusion that the former must serve the latter: the fall and disobedience of man, the temptation of the devil, and all the work of darkness must serve the purpose of opening the way for the coming of Immanuel. For, He is the Firstborn of every creature. And by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. 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. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell. Col. 1:15-19. And, therefore, as we stand by the gap caused by the fall and disobedience of man, and discover that only Immanuel fits into that gap to save us, we know that divine wisdom so designed all things that even our sin must serve the purpose of opening the way for the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. O the depth of riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!