In questions and answers 13 and 14 the Heidelberg Catechism demonstrates that, as far as we are concerned, our work, our efforts, our good intentions, the way is absolutely closed: through our own efforts we can never escape punishment and again be received into favor with God. This must become quite clear, before we can even begin to speak of a divinely wrought salvation through our mediator Jesus Christ. God will give His glory to no other. He does not step in to save man as long as there is any possibility that man can merit and bring about his own salvation. His work is always His work and must be acknowledged as such. His glory must be revealed, not only in the work of creation, but also, and even on a higher level and to a more marvelous degree in the work of redemption. His work, therefore, is always in the sphere and on the level where it is impossible for man to work. The camel must go through the eye of the needle. That is impossible, indeed, with man, but what is impossible with man is possible with God. And it is exactly through the accomplishment of the humanly and creaturely impossible that He becomes revealed as God who is really GOD, who as Barth would say is -the “wholly other.” He is the eternal I AM, the infinite, the Almighty, the All-wise, the absolutely independent, self-existent God. “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One . . . Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding.”. “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” . After all, the self-revelation of God and His glory is the purpose of all His works, even also of the work of redemption. And, therefore, it must become fully evident, that it is His work, and that what He performs is impossible with the creature. From this viewpoint questions 13 and 14 occupy a very proper place in this connection. They must not be considered an illustration of scholastic hair splitting or mere mental gymnastics. Presently, in the next Lord’s Day, the Catechism will speak of the mediator, the revelation of God in the flesh. But before this can be done, it is quite proper to set forth the impossibility of salvation by your power or wisdom, in order that it may become evident that this mediator of God steps in only to accomplish that which is impossible with man.
“Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction?” And again: “Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?” Thus the Catechism asks. And to both these questions it gives a negative answer, and furnishes the reasons for these answers. Of course, there are other elements in the work of salvation, besides satisfaction, that are impossible with man. But satisfaction is basic. Satisfaction must be made before man, the sinner, can even escape eternal damnation, and be again received into the favor of God. All the rest of the work of salvation hinges on this work of satisfaction. If satisfaction cannot be made, it is of no use to investigate further into the possibility of salvation. And, therefore, the Catechism centers on this question of satisfaction, and asserts that it is quite impossible for man to make this satisfaction himself, or for any creature, a mere creature, to make this satisfaction for him. And to appreciate this instruction of our Heidelberger, to see clearly how utterly impossible it is for man or any other creature to make satisfaction for sin, it is necessary that we keep in mind what in the preceding section we said about satisfaction. It is not the mere passive bearing of the punishment. Suffering of the punishment for sin is, of course, quite possible for man. He will suffer that punishment forever, unless he is saved. It were even conceivable that some other creature, or a group of creatures, would suffer that punishment for man, if the demand of God that His justice be satisfied were not so immutable. It is difficult to see, for instance, that salvation could not be through the suffering and death of an animal, if the only reason for such suffering is that God would teach us that we are worthy of such death, and thus would bring us to the acknowledgement of His righteousness and to sincere repentance. But God will have His justice satisfied. And His justice requires that we fulfill His law. And His law is not that we shall do this or that, that we shall bring this or that offering, that we shall do something for Him; it is not even that we shall suffer and die: it is that we shall LOVE HIM! Hence, satisfaction must be an act of love, of the pure and perfect love of God! We must love Him as He is, in His eternal perfections of righteousness and holiness. And since over against us sinners, He reveals Himself in His wrath, and His wrath is expressed in the curse, we must be able to love Him in His wrath, and to bear the curse and the suffering of eternal death in love, in the pure love of God! He who can voluntarily, in the perfect obedience of love, bear the wrath of God and suffer the curse to the very end, fulfills the demands of the law of God and satisfies God’s justice with respect to sin. This we must bear in mind in order to understand fully the instruction of our Heidelberger on this point.
Can we ourselves make this satisfaction? This question now has come to mean: can we ourselves actively bear the wrath of God against sin in perfect obedience of the pure love of God? How impossible! The Catechism is most emphatic on this point. By no means, it says, can we make this satisfaction. In no wise, by no power of our own, by no conceivable method or means, can we make this satisfaction. We have neither the power nor the will to make this satisfaction. Suppose that a man had the desire to be again received into favor with God. Suppose that in his early childhood, as soon as he came to self-consciousness, he deplored his sinful condition, and was filled with a true sorrow after God. Suppose that in this true sorrow over sin he went in sackcloth and ashes, deploring before God and men his sinful state and condition. Suppose that he wept bitter tears day and night, and that all his life he perfectly kept the law of God and lived in perfection before Him. All this is, of course for many reasons absolutely impossible, but let us suppose this impossibility. Would this sorrow and these tears, would this life of perfection satisfy the justice of God with respect to a single sin he may have committed even before ho mine to self-consciousness; or would it atone for the sin in which he was born? Of course not! If a person trades with a certain grocer and for a long time makes his purchases on credit, and accumulates a debt which he cannot pay; and if after a certain period, he begins to buy cash and pays for whatever he purchases; and if, besides, every time he makes a new purchase he bewails and deplores the debt that is still on the grocer’s books; does that debtor, by his wailing and by his paying for what he buys of that grocer, pay one single cent to wipe out his debt? Of course not! No more could any sinner by rendering to God what is God’s for fifty or sixty years what he owes Him every moment, and by bewailing that he ever refused to love and obey Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, satisfy the justice of God with respect to sin. He owes that love, that obedience, that perfection, that repentance over sin, that weeping and wailing, that going about in sackcloth and ashes, every day of the week every moment of the day. By all this he could never satisfy God’s justice He would still be under the wrath of God. He still would not be received into God’s favor. He still would have to experience the wrath of God in eternal death. And in eternal death, in hell, there is no possibility for mere man to satisfy the justice of God. There God takes His own satisfaction, but man has nothing to bring. There all is passivity, a being crushed by the wrath of Him who is a consuming fire!
But how absurd is the above supposition! For where, then, is the sinner that even approximates the likeness presented of him in the preceding paragraph? Where is the sinner who, for a time in his life at least, is sincerely sorry for his sin, and lives in perfection for the rest of his life? There is no such man among them that are born of women. The Catechism tuts off the very possibility of harboring the notion of such a possibility by adding to its emphatic negative answer to question 13: “but on the contrary we daily increase our debt”. Let us remember what we learned about the sinner from the third Lord’s Day. He is so depraved that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. He does not love God, but is by nature inclined to hate him. He is corrupt in heart and mind, darkened in his understanding so that he cannot know what is good, and perverse in his will so that he is incapable ever to will that which is in accord with the will of God. He will not, he cannot, he cannot will to love God. He chose against God in paradise, where he was surrounded by the abundance of God’s goodness every day; he does not love God in this world, in which things have not yet reached their final and eternal consummation, in which he still eats and drinks and is merry. How, then, shall he ever be able to bring the sacrifice of love to the living God, and satisfy His justice? How shall he be able even to conceive of the possibility of willingly offering himself up to the eternal wrath of God? You see how impossible it is. He does the very opposite: daily he increases his guilt. Every step he takes on life’s path (and he must take that step, he cannot stop!) defiles his way; every word he speaks (and he must speak that word, he cannot be silent!) testifies against him; every work of his hand (and work he must, he cannot be idle) is to his condemnation, every thought of his mind, every desire of his heart, every secret inclination in his inmost soul (and he can never stop thinking and desiring) makes him increasingly guilty before God. If (say this were possible) God would blot out all his sins up to a certain moment and give him complete forgiveness, the next moment he would surely have plunged himself once more hopelessly into the state of utter condemnation. How, then, shall that sinner ever bring the perfect sacrifice of love to God, that he may satisfy His unchangeable justice? It is impossible. As far as man is concerned the way is closed?
We daily increase our debt! What does that mean? It means that our life in this world is never anything else, and never can be anything else than a piling up of treasures of wrath for ourselves! For every day, and every hour, and every beat of our heart, we are working, thinking, willing, choosing, deciding, speaking acting. And with all this inner and outward activity we stand in the midst of the world, God’s world, in which we find the means to live and move and act. And with all these powers and means, with all this activity of our soul and body, our mind and will, we constantly face the demand of God’s living law: love Me! And a thousand times an hour we say: I will not! We increase our debt, each one of us individually, so that, if a man live and act eighty years he piled up for himself much greater treasures of wrath than if he had been taken away in infancy. But we also increase our debt daily collectively, organically, as a human race. For six thousand years men have increased their debt with God, and the treasures of wraith are piled astoundingly, alarmingly high in our present time. That is why it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for Jerusalem and for Capernaum; and it will be more tolerable for the latter in that day than for the final antichristian world. For we increase our debt through the centuries! And as the debt increases the wrath of God increases, even the wrath of God that is revealed from heaven upon our present world; and as the wrath of God increases we are given over into greater sin and corruption! Terrible, you say? O, but indeed, it is terrible to fall into the hand of the living God! But the point is that this dreadful condition is hopeless. For, before we even have the right to be delivered from it, satisfaction must be made. And we can never bring the required satisfaction ourselves. The way is closed!
But how about the possibility of substituting some other creature to satisfy the justice of God in our stead? The Catechism had referred to this possibility in the answer to the twelfth question: “we must make this full satisfaction either by ourselves, or by another”. And in the fourteenth question it investigates this possibility of making full satisfaction by another: “Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?” Ursinus in his “Schatboek” explains that the reference in the question to one, “who is a mere creature”, is intentional. “In the question there is added: ‘mere creature’, in order that the answer may be completely negative. A creature must satisfy for the sin of the creature; but not necessarily such a one who is nothing else than creature, for such a one could not possibly satisfy, as will be shown.” We face here a threefold question: 1. Can we satisfy the justice of God by substituting another creature? 2. Can another creature, who is not man, satisfy for the sin of man? 3. Can a mere creature, one who is nothing else than creature, bring such satisfaction as is required to deliver us? The first of these three questions is not directly answered by the Catechism, but the question is suggested by the answer to question 12: “we must make this satisfaction either by ourselves, or another. We, therefore, make the satisfaction, even though it be through another. If, then, that “other” is a mere creature, it must be a creature that we bring to God, that we substitute. Now, again it must be emphasized that this is unthinkable as far as man’s willingness and spiritual capability to bring such a substitute is concerned. For such a substitute he must bring to God in perfect love and in true repentance. One who daily increases his guilt is incapable of substituting any creature as a sacrifice of love. But, secondly, we cannot substitute any other creature, for the simple reason that we have no creature to substitute. Where in all the wide creation shall we find a creature we can so call our own that we can offer it to God in our stead? I may owe a man five thousand dollars, and if I have not the money but own a house, I may offer him the house as a substitute. But what shall I bring to God? Shall I offer Him all my goods? But what goods have I that are not His? All the silver and gold are His! And, besides, I am worthy of hell! Shall I kill a lamb or bullock and ask Him to accept it as a substitute for my life? But the cattle on a thousand hills are His! I have no creature that I can substitute to make satisfaction for my sin. And, thirdly, I have not the right to determine upon a substitution. This is even true among men. If I owe a man one hundred dollars, I have no right to decide that he shall take my old car instead. And surely, man has no right to determine that God shall be satisfied with another creature, even if there could be found such a creature, to atone for man’s sin.
And do not say that all this is mere abstract reasoning, quite out of touch with real life, for the very opposite is true. Always sinful man attempts to impose a substitute upon God to satisfy for his sins, to take the place of mercy and truth and righteousness. The old Pharisees felt that they did God a favor when they brought their bulls and goats to the temple, and when they gave tithes of all they possessed. And the fundamentally corrupt notion that we can bring something to God is still very general. A man gives a million dollars to some charitable institution, and in his heart he tries to feel that by this deed he is giving something to God that will make up for many a sin he may have committed in the past. He is trying to make God accept a substitute of his own. Or he will give large sums to missions to bring the gospel to the poor distant heathen, and probably attempt to smooth his conscience and feel that God may accept this sacrifice as a substitute for the evil he does to his neighbor next door, or for the hire of his employees whose wages are kept back by him through fraud. Yes, indeed, this notion of substituting another creature, even though it be not by killing bulls and goats, is a very popular one with sinful men. Missions have been established, hospitals have been built, theological schools have been endowed with large sums, in order that men might make satisfaction to God through another creature! The heart in man is deceitful more than anything! It is desperately wicked! For if it were not, man would understand that such a sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord of heaven and earth. If a man is in debt to the amount of one thousand dollars, which he never cares to, nor is able to pay; and if, then, on Christmas he brings to his creditor a dollar necktie, at the same time revealing in his entire attitude that he feels that his creditor ought to be ever so pleased with him, is he not a fool? And will not his creditor utterly despise him? How abominable, then, must man be in the sight of God, the sinner, who owes to God the infinite debt of love, who is worthy of eternal damnation, and who tries to substitute some of God’s own silver and gold to make satisfaction for his sin! If, therefore, the question is put in this form: can we bring a substitute to God to make full satisfaction for sin? The answer must be negative. We cannot and will not make such a substitution in the love of God; we have no creature that we can possibly substitute and bring to God, for all things are His; and we do not have the right to determine upon our own substitute and expect that God will accept it.