Lord’s Day 4 brings us to the end of the first section of the Heidelberg on the nature and origin of our sin and misery. This is one of the three things that is necessary for us to know in order to embrace the comfort of salvation in Jesus Christ. Unless we can understand and accept something about our condition, we will never accept such a radical and humbling solution as the death of the Son of God on our behalf.
The Heidelberg does not purport to answer all the questions that arise over this doctrine. It approaches the issue from the perspective of what we need to know as believers, not from the perspective of intellectual curiosity or satisfying all the philosophical debates. The Catechism impresses on us the truth that man is collectively responsible for our own state; it was the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden that doomed us all, because Adam acted as a public person, a representative of the whole race.
One could protest the unfairness of this collective responsibility; why am I guilty for the sin which Adam committed? The first answer to this question is simply that God the creator makes the rules. But look at the issue a bit further- do we not in our own lives agree constantly with Adam’s decision? Do we not by our own selfishness and pride show that we would have done what he did, if we were there? If we insist that we are judged on our own merits, does anyone wish to subject his life to the perfect and holy judgment of God? We may plead that we’re not that bad, that we are basically decent creatures. But consider all the evil that is done in the world, all the murder, oppression, hatred and lust, the satisfaction of one’s own desires with no consideration for how it hurts others, the waste of God’s good creation when so many go starving, the lying and manipulation for one’s own benefit at other’s expense, the misuse of power and authority. The list could go on and on. We always think it’s the other guy, and always have some excuse for my own contribution to the problem. I was born in modern America, growing up in a Christian family surrounded by Christian values. Should I get credit for that? How would I have lived my life had I been born a Viking warrior or an Arabian princess in the ninth century?
If we protest that my inclusion in the sin of Adam is unjust, then in addition to furthering my rebellion against God’s ordering of the world, I also close off the possibility of being included in the righteousness of Christ. If one is unjust, then so is the other. And then I am exposed to the full judgment of God against me, standing alone and naked before His all-seeing eye. I must give account for my life before His perfect righteousness, and cannot plead any of His good gifts for my own merit. Indeed, all the good things that God has given me will only count against me as I am forced to explain why I did so little with the great bounties that God poured out on me. Despite my background, my education, my material blessings, my loving family, my innate gifts and the opportunities which a free society afforded me, I lived for my own pleasure and consumed God’s good gifts in my own lusts. Did I use God’s blessings to help the poor and weak, to advance truth and justice in society, to be a good and careful steward of what God entrusted to me, including my own body? Did I do unto others as I would have them do unto me? Did I even follow the dictates of reason or my own conscience? If anyone protests against the justice of God, then explain why you failed to follow even those moral standards by which you judge and condemn those around you.
It is only God’s restraining hand of grace that prevents any man from being as wicked as He could be. Once again, I get no credit for that. Every man will be judged for what he is of himself, not what he was when enjoying God’s undeserved blessings. If I physically restrain a man from murdering me, he gets no moral credit for saying that he didn’t kill me because I wouldn’t let him.
When I am cut off from God’s good gifts and fully subject to His wrath, I will only persist, fully unrestrained, in my bitterness, my rebellion, my self-justification and pride, only earning for myself more wrath. Thus the reason why that punishment will be eternal- in that state I will continue to heap up more and more reasons why I am deserving of judgment. Having rejected God’s grace, I would be cut off from the only power in the universe that could reverse my condition and free me from my misery.
Thank God then that He has granted to us salvation in the blood of Christ, purely of His free grace, to rescue us from our dreadful, self-imposed condition! Let us never forget what it is we are rescued from, that we may remember to thank God for His great grace and mercy on His people.