The Guilt of Sin

Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in his law, that which he cannot perform? 

Not at all, for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts. 

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 4, Question 9.


A new concern 

Do I love God? Do I love Him with my whole being, so that He is always first, first in my desires, first in my thoughts, first in importance in all that I say and do? Is it the zeal for His Name and cause that characterizes my life? Do I rely on Him so completely that I say with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”? Is the chief ambition of my life to enjoy fellowship with God, to walk and talk with Him, to reach out in eager anticipation for that day when I shall see Him face to face? 

It is the child of God who is confronted with this question, as only a child of God can be confronted with a question of this kind. True, when we read the question and answer of our Heidelberger as it is written above, we notice that our Catechism speaks ofman in a very general way, as mankind is confronted with God’s holy law. Yet that mankind includes me. It is of personal concern whether or not I am motivated by the desire to keep God’s law. My only comfort in life and death, my inner peace demands that I, in submission to my God, can say, “Have Thine own way, Lord.” The new life within me pleads, “Search me, O God, and try my heart. If there be any evil way in me, lead me in the way eternal.” 

Already in Lord’s Day 2, question 5 we were confronted with the question, “Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?” There we answered, “In no wise, for I am prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor.” Instead of love to God we reveal the very opposite, we hate God and the neighbor. There the emphasis fell on the words “canst thou?” In Lord’s Day 3 we confessed that we cannot keep God’s law, because we are born in sin, wicked, depraved, incapable of any good, capable only to sin. There our depravity received all the emphasis. But here, in Lord’s Day 4, our attention is focused on the guilt of our sin. Today I stand as a guilty sinner before the tribunal of a righteous God. The burden of guilt presses heavily upon me, condemning me. I deserve whatever chastisement God may deem good to lay upon me. Were He to cast me away from before His face into everlasting condemnation of hell, I could only admit that I deserve exactly that. I have transgressed every commandment of God’s law. I have kept none of them. 

A bold question 

Let us take another look at the question placed at the heading of this meditation. I would suggest that we read it slowly, allowing its full import to penetrate into our consciousness. 

We make bold to ask, “Does God not do injustice to man . . .?” Our first reaction to that question must be, Perish the thought! When Paul in Romans 9 raises the question, “Is there unrighteousness with God?” he immediately adds in deep offense, “God forbid! . . . Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?” Let God be just, and every man a liar. He is in His holy temple, let all the earth be silent before Him. 

Why ask a question like that? Obviously our Catechism intends this as a rhetorical question that demands a strong denial. Yet our Book of Instruction does this with good cause. We may as well face it, our sinful nature always questions the justice of God in regard to the guilt of our sin. We like to rationalize sin, particularly our own sins, in order to condone them. When I was still very young, I made bold to ask my mother, “Why did Adam have to sin, and why must we suffer because of it?” The answer I received, as I recall, was a strong reprimand for raising a question like that. But that and similar questions keep coming up in the human mind. There are those, for example, who ask, Is it just of God to predestinate some people to eternal life and others to everlasting condemnation because of their sins? Or, is it just of God to make Adam the representative head of the whole human race, so that the whole world stands condemned by his fall? Or again, is it just that God should give His Son as a ransom for the sins of His people, and not for the whole world? Or even, is it not unjust of God to save some by the preaching of the gospel and to harden others by that same preaching? Or, finally, is it not unjust that God turns all things for good to His people, while He uses those same things unto the destruction and condemnation of the wicked? Many have found this to be such a hard, cold doctrine, that without exploring the Scriptures to find the answers to these questions, they conclude from their own reasoning that God must be a God of love, and not of justice. They create for .themselves an imaginary god, a weak, helpless god who appeals to their own sinful pride. 

Our Catechism makes itself very bold in bringing up the subject of God’s justice. Or let me rather say, the child of God places himself before the tribunal of God as he seeks an honest answer to the questions that persist in arising from his sinful nature. But he is confident in this, and persists in maintaining this as his main premise: My God is just in all His dealings with me. 

The Issue 

Once more we carefully read the question that is before us. “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in his law, that which he cannot perform?” 

What does God require of us in His law? 

Does God require that a husband love his wife, that he treat her well, care for her and for his children, and make a good home for them? Does God require of the wife that she respect her husband, have children, do her housework well, and show a good deed to her neighbor? Does God require that we ply an honest business, that we do not squander our earnings, that we go to church on Sunday, pay our alms, send our children to the Christian School, and show real concern for their training and future welfare? Is that the extent of what God expects of us? 

If so, our conscience should be at perfect ease as we stand before the tribunal of the living God. We are reminded of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with the burning question, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). The Lord referred him to the commandments on the second table of the law. This was nothing new to one taught in the rabbinical schools. He had been taught to keep the letter of the law, and he had tried desperately to do just that. This young man could honestly say, as far as the letter of the law was concerned, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” But he was still troubled with a guilty conscience. He had found no inner peace. Like Luther, he felt the burden of guilt still weighing heavily upon his soul. Jesus reminds this rich young ruler of the basic principle of the law: Love God, and love your neighbor for God’s sake. 

What a tremendous requirement! God demands that a husband assure his wife that he loves her in the Lord, that he treats her well because he is motivated by the love of God, that he cares for her and for his children in devotion to God, that he is always faithful to his stewardship because he seeks only the glory of his God. God requires of a wife that she respect her husband in deepest reverence for Christ, that she have children as a covenant mother for the gathering of the church, and. that she, do her housework and show kindness to others to give expression to her thankfulness to her God. There must always be but one motivation in all that we do: The love of God! 

I hang my head in shame and sorrow. I do not do that. I do not want to do that. I cannot do that. I cannot want to do that, because of the depraved nature in me. The very suggestion is so repulsive to my depraved nature that I sneer at the very suggestion of it, as if to say, “Who can live up to such a high ideal anyway?” May God ask the impossible of me? May He demand of a blind man to see, of a deaf man to hear? Is that just? Does not God then do injustice to me and to mankind by requiring of us in His law that which we cannot perform? 

The answer 

At this point I find a definite conflict within my soul, that while my flesh rebels against the demands of God’s law, my heart breathes forth the prayer, “O how love I Thy law, it is my meditation all the day.” With my Book of Instruction in my hand I go back to paradise, to our first creation, our original state of righteousness, our willful disobedience that brought about our fall. My Catechism points out to me that God endowed us with divine gifts which made us capable of loving Him as our highest Good. We did not merely lose those gifts through some accident; we willfully deprived ourselves of them by our disobedience. 

It can hardly escape us that the fathers do not hesitate to refer to the sin of Adam as the sin of mankind. Manwas made capable of keeping God’s law, but mandeprived himself and all his posterity of that capability. Our fathers simply accept the fact that God created Adam as our representative head and that the whole human race was included in him. When he deprived himself of his original righteousness, we deprived ourselves. His guilt is our guilt; his condemnation is our condemnation. Our fathers humbly bow before the testimony of Scripture, as, for example, in Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men,for that all have sinned. ” Do not fail to see the import of those words: Death passed upon all men, because all have sinned in Adam. On the other hand,, we also see already here the wonder of grace. For, as all those who were in Adam died in Adam, so also all those who are in Christ are made alive in Him. (I Cor. 15:22). O the depths both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! (Romans 11:33). 

Our Catechism speaks of gifts. God created us in His likeness and gave us gifts of true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, to know Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to serve Him in love. We were like God. Satan so completely perverted the truth, that he made us believe for a moment that to become like God we should do something ourselves, we should defy God and eat of the forbidden tree. What fools we mortals be! We squandered our most excellent, divine gifts. We died. 

Let it be granted that the fall came through the instigation of the devil. I often wonder whether the fall could have come in any other way. But the fact remains that we listened to the wicked, God-defying lie of Satan. We did that in willful disobedience. We deprived ourselves of the capability to love God, to trust in Him, to have fellowship with Him as a Friend with a friend. That is our guilt for which we are accountable. A cashier in a bank may steal and squander a million dollars before his crime is detected. Can he make the plea, “I can’t pay the money back; I don’t have it”? Will the law say, “You poor fellow, how can anyone be so cruel as to demand the impossible of you”? Or does justice demand that the man pay his debt or bear the penalty. 

God is just! The love of God compels me to bow before that justice. The wonder of grace is, that I will the good, even though the evil is present within me. I join the rich young ruler; arm in arm we sorrowfully approach the cross where our debt was paid, our salvation was merited, the adoption to sons was sealed, our hope in the heavenly inheritance was secured, once for all, even forevermore. 

Forgiven! Saved by grace!