We concluded our preceding article by calling attention, generally speaking, to the various doctrines as set forth before us in this beautiful confession, our Apostles’ Creed. In our fourth and final observation we reminded our readers of what we read in Articles 4-7, which speak of our Lord’s humiliation and exaltation. We now continue.
Fifthly, in Articles 8-12 we have the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and of the church and the related blessings of salvation. Here we have, first of all, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. And how important it is that this article in re the Holy Spirit appears here where it does, between the glorification of Christ and the church! We believe an holy catholic church. The Dutch translation adds the word “Christian.” Of this church we read that it is holy and catholic (universal). And all this is concluded in Articles 9-12: the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
All this, now, is necessary for us to believe. This is what we read in Question 22 of our Heidelberg Catechism: What is then necessary for a Christian to believe? And the Apostles’ Creed follows in Answer 23. Shall we and do we grasp this? Why must we believe all these things? Why must we take hold of all these fundamentals? Why must we believe in the Trinity, in the truth that our Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal, the only and natural Son of God, in the Incarnation, in particular atonement, in His wonderful exaltation at the right hand of God and His return to judgment? Why? Can we not be saved without these things? Is this doctrine, after all, that important? Is it not far more convenient to have a gospel upon a thumbnail? . . . and, much more practical? Must we read and study and familiarize ourselves with all these doctrinal truths? Is it after all not the important thing that we are saved? And is it not true that, to be saved, all we need do is believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? This is all that Philip demanded of the Ethiopian eunuch, according to Acts 8. What does double predestination (election and reprobation) have to do with this? What does the truth of the eternal Godhead of the Son have to do with it? Why must we believe in the doctrine of the Incarnation? And must we understand and grasp His bodily and physical resurrection from the dead, His ascension, His sitting at the right hand of God, and His return to judgment? After all, the salvation of a lost sinner is really so very simple. All he needs do is to be sorry for his sin, accept the free offer of salvation, give his heart to Jesus and be saved. And now all this? Why complicate these really simple matters?
Why must we believe all the things promised us in the gospel and briefly summarized for us in the Apostles’ Creed? The answer is this: these things are necessary for a Christian to believe. It is exactly this that we read in Question 22. You either believe all this or you simply do not believe. To believe all this is necessary. Without it, your believing is impossible, and if you do not believe you cannot be saved. Perhaps you ask, but what must we say of an infant who cannot believe all this? To this we answer, first of all, that an infant is saved only because of God’s eternal, unconditional, and sovereign love, because of Christ’s particular atonement upon the cross and because of God’s irresistible grace. And, secondly, as we grow up and mature, we either believe these things, embrace them, or we deny and reject them. It is either-or. This is the truth. We must believe all this. Why? Why is this necessary?
Indeed, we can understand what is known as the “thumbnail gospel.” This is the gospel that can be written upon a thumbnail. Now the sinner accepts this gospel, first of all, because he is interested only in himself. His only concern is his escape from the misery of his sin and from guilt and the wrath of God, that he may enjoy the blessedness of life forever. He is not concerned about the “how” of this, how it may occur, or about any details of the truth, but only what he must do to be saved. It does not concern him that the purpose of his salvation might conceivably lie elsewhere than in himself. As far as the truth is concerned, he really could not care less. In the second place, however, this sinner is not concerned bout God. He does not care about the virtues of God’s holiness and righteousness and glory. And he does not care what happens to the virtues of God’s almighty and sovereign power and that a god (we deliberately write this word with a small “g”) desires the salvation of all men and saves only a few; he really could not, we repeat, care less. He surely does not understand, does not care to understand, that the Lord never gives His glory to another and that He never shares it with another.
To understand the necessity of this content of the knowledge of our faith, we will begin with the doctrine of the knowledge of sin. Why do we begin with this? We are dealing, we must bear in mind, with this question: who are saved? And its answer is set forth in Question and Answer 20 of our Heidelberg Catechism: only they who are ingrafted into Christ by a true and living faith. Only believers are saved. However, when a sinner is saved, consciously, his first knowledge is that of sin. What is sin? Sin is transgression of the law, the law of God. Sin is exactly as terrible as God is great. Sin can be understood only when viewed in the light of Him against Whom it is committed. Sin is the unbelievably awful refusal of a sinner who is less than nothing to serve the living God Who is God over all and alone worthy of all praise and adoration. This is sin. It is willful and deliberate. As a power, a spiritual power, it dominates us completely, all our heart and mind and soul and strength, so that we. cannot possibly move except in the service of sin. We are dead and blind and deaf and lame and dumb. But there is also guilt. As guilt it is the obligation to pay, to bear, in full consciousness, the awesomely eternal and infinite wrath of God. To be saved, we must be delivered from this sin. All our guilt must be paid, and this spiritual power of evil must be broken. To be saved, through faith, it is surely necessary to know this power and guilt of sin, and our absolute hopelessness; fact is, nobody is saved in any other way.
And now we go to the cross of Calvary. Why? The answer is obvious. When God saves a sinner He leads him to the cross, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. And what do we see there? We see there the suffering Man of Sorrows, but then as He is the eternal Son of God. An eternal wrath of God must be borne in the obedience of perfect love. Consciously he must be forsaken of God and praise God in all the wonderful outpouring of His righteous love and indignation. To bear that wrath of God, to pay for the sins of others, is possible, as the, Heidelberg Catechism and all Scripture teach us, by the eternal Son of God. This means that if Jesus be not the eternal Son of God, co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit, there is simply no atonement. And if there be no atonement then there is no salvation. Then no sinner can possibly be saved. But we see more upon that cross. We do not merely see the dying of a martyr; we do not see the suffering of a universal Christ, a Christ for all men. A Christ for all is really a Christ for none. Then Christ also died for those who perish. And this means that He never paid for sin, because had He blotted out their sin they could never perish. Is this serious? Indeed it is! But we see Christ, the Lamb of God, of Calvary, as He suffers for and pays the debt only of His own, even as Jesus Himself declares in John 10:11, 14, 26-29, and we quote:
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep . . . . I am the good shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine . . . . But ye believe not, because ye are not of My sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand: My Father, which gave them Me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand.
And why is it necessary to believe this? What really does this doctrine, the doctrine of particular atonement, have to do with our salvation? The answer to this question is really very simple. God’s justice demands that all our sins must be paid. If Christ suffers and dies for all men (as we wrote a moment ago) then He also died for those who perish. And this means that He never paid for sin, because had He died and paid for their sins they could never perish. And, of course, if our sins are not paid, no salvation is possible. The Arminian may declare, believing in a universal atonement, that he is saved. We will leave that personal matter between him and the Lord. We will testify to him what Scripture says. And, the Arminian may boast that he has a richer Christ than we because, whereas his Christ died for everybody, our Christ died only for some; we will declare to him that not all are saved for whom his Christ is reputed to have died, and also that the alternative is not between a Christ for all and a Christ for some, but between a Christ for some and a Christ for none. And now, as we stand at and before the cross of Calvary, we also see more. Fact is, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. He came to us and we hated Him, despised Him, would destroy Him, and surely tried to do so. What does this mean? It means that He loved us notwithstandingly. It means that He loved us first. In fact, God so loved the world (His world) that He gave His only begotten Son. It means that, as we stand at the foot of the cross and look upon that great Shepherd of His sheep, our hearts and souls go back from that cross into the depths of eternity, and we see behind it all a wonderful, unconditional, unchangeable love of God, that He loved, first, a wretch as I am.
However, besides the knowledge of sin and the truth of Calvary’s particular atonement, we must also believe the truth of God’s almighty, irresistible grace. We are saved by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. Indeed, no mad can come unto the Father except the Father draw him (John 6:44). The power that saves us is an almighty, irresistible, efficacious, explosive power and therefore also a very particular and sovereign power. Surely, if God must begin this work, He begins it as and where He wills. I ask, Is this necessary for us to believe? O, if this were not true how could a sinner possibly be saved? Can any saved sinner believe that he is saved because he chose and decided to believe? This is impossible. This is contrary to all the testimony of Holy Writ. That one believes is because it is God Who began His work in him. God alone caused him to see himself in all the filth and hopelessness of his sin; God alone made him free who was once a hopeless slave of his sin. Indeed, the Lord does not save in any other way. No sinner experiences salvation except as the fruit of divine grace. We will surely not permit any Arminian to lead us astray from these wonderful truths. Let us continue to glory in God, the God of our salvation, render to Him the glory due unto His Name. Of Him and through Him and unto Him must be all the praise and the glory, now and forever.
The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article.