The Personal Absolute: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 9

26. What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?
That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that is in them,1 who likewise upholds, and governs them by His eternal counsel and providence,2 is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father,3 in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul;4 and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this valley of tears, He will turn to my good;5 for He is able to do it, being Almighty God,6 and willing also, being a faithful Father.7
[1] Gen. 1:31; Ps. 33:6; *Col. 1:16; *Heb. 11:3. [2] Ps. 104:2–5; Matt. 10:30; Heb. 1:3; Ps. 115:3; *Acts 17:24–25. [3] Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5–7; Eph. 1:5; *Eph. 3:14–16; *Matt. 6:8. [4] Ps. 55:22; Matt. 6:25–26; Lk. 12:22–24; Ps. 90:1–2. [5] Rom. 8:28; *Acts 17:27–28. [6] Rom. 10:12. [7] Matt. 7:9–11; *Num. 23:19.

If you ask yourself the question, “Why does ‘A’ exist” where ‘A’ is any entity at all, probably the answer will be that some other entity ‘B’ brought it into existence or caused it somehow. If you then ask the same question about ‘B’, you come to ‘C’, and so forth. Eventually though, you will arrive at some entity for which the question “why does this entity exist?” will be answered with, “It just is.” Once you have reached that point, you have reached your absolute. There are really only two places you can stop this train of thought and arrive at your absolute—either at the impersonal universe or a personal God.

There are religions such as Judaism and Islam who posit the existence of a personal God who created the universe, but Christianity has something unique- the Trinity. With the Trinity, God’s personal nature and His desire for fellowship and communion is not accidental, but is part of His eternal nature. If your religion posits an absolute God who existed alone before anything else, then that God can exist perfectly well without anyone or anything else to fellowship with. The God of Islam or Judaism are to some degree personal, having arisen from the same tradition as Christianity, but their relational quality is accidental; they can exist perfectly well all by themselves, and therefore their communication or fellowship with the beings they created is not essential to who they are.

If your absolute is just the cosmos, then that is the ultimate impersonality. Blind laws of physics don’t care about anything. Justice, purpose, meaning, love, beauty or any other values are totally arbitrary, not any kind of real property of the universe. A person can choose to be a just and good person, or a cruel and deceptive person, but there’s no real benchmark to judge the superiority of one over the other. Only physical laws are absolute. The old pagan religions all fall into this category as well. They posit the existence of gods, but these gods were not eternal. They were part of the cosmos. They were born and could die. Only the cosmos was eternal in these systems, involved in an endless cycle of creation and destruction, and the gods were just part of this cycle.

But with the interpersonal relationship of the Trinity at the heart of the Godhead, Christianity’s Absolute is fully personal. Unlike the monistic gods of Islam and Judaism, communion lies right at the heart of who the Christian God is, One in Three. Heidelberg Catechism question 26 lays the implications of this out beautifully for us, showing that the One who created all things, the ultimate mover behind all that exists, the Absolute uncaused Cause, is for the sake of His eternal, perfect love for His Son Jesus Christ my heavenly Father. That absolute love, that fellowship at the heart of God Himself, therefore shapes my very existence and the whole way I view everything that happens in this life.

I can therefore say that nothing just “happens.” Everything that occurs in my life is part of His perfect and personal plan for me. His absolute Personality shapes every aspect of my existence. If I am united to Christ by faith, then the Father’s eternal love for the Son comes to inform every circumstance, every event, every joy and sorrow in my life. He is almighty, absolute in His power, and thus everything that happens in this life is under His control. But He is also my faithful Father, absolute in His love, and thus everything that happens is part of His good plan for my life.

The Bible tells me what that plan is, as well. It isn’t for me to be rich or healthy in this life. It isn’t for me to have a successful career, meaningful work, lots of friends or competent political rulers. We have no right to expect any of those things, for they are not promised to us.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Rom 8:28-29 NKJ)”

He promised to make us like Christ, to conform us to His image, so that in that image we might enjoy the perfect bliss of fellowship with the Father for all eternity. Because He is a faithful Father, we know that the desire is there. And because He is the Absolute, the One whose nature determines all of the rest of reality, we know the power is there to make it happen. We can therefore learn to be confident and joyful in all our lives, even in times of suffering, knowing that truly all things work together for God’s perfect and benevolent purpose for His children.

Trinitarian Salvation: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 8

24. How are these articles divided?
Into three parts: the first is of God the Father and our creation; the second, of God the Son and our redemption; the third, of God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.1
[1] 1 Pet. 1:2; *1 Jn. 5:7.

25. Since there is but one Divine Being,1 why do you speak of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Because God has so revealed Himself in His Word,2 that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.
[1] Deut. 6:4. [2] Isa. 61:1; Ps. 110:1; Matt. 3:16–17; 28:19; 1 Jn. 5:7; *2 Cor. 13:14.

Trinitarian Salvation

God is a Trinity, which is not at all the same thing as saying there are three Gods, or that there is one God who sometimes acts in different ways. It is saying that there is one God revealed to us in the Scriptures, perfectly united in will, in essence, and intention, but that there are three persons, three centers of consciousness that share this one essence. Everything God does He does as a Trinity, meaning that the three persons of the Trinity cooperate to do together whatever God does. But the distinction remains, among other reasons, because these three Persons are each involved in different aspects of the process.

This matters because if we want to understand anything that God does, we must understand Him acting as a Trinity. Now nobody comprehends the Trinity fully, because God is beyond our comprehension. But we can grasp what God reveals about Himself, and we need to grasp it, or we will fail to understand what God has revealed about His works. It is easy to become imbalanced in our thinking about our salvation, and focusing too much on the work of one Person of the Trinity or neglecting the work of another Person will inevitably lead to these kinds of imbalances. Arminianism, hyper-calvinism, sacerdotalism, Pentecostalism, the social gospel and many other errors can all be understood to some degree as focusing too much on just one person of the Trinity (Son, Father, Son, Spirit, Father, respectively) and therefore just one aspect of our salvation, and neglecting the work of the whole.

The Father is the ruler, the ordainer, the decider. He dictates what will be. He is the creator of all things and upholds and orders all things by His will. He sent the Son to Earth with His mission of salvation. Jesus frequently emphasizes that everything He does and says are the will of His Father. The Father decrees who will be saved and the way that they will be saved.

The Son is the Word of God, the communication of God’s decree. He communicates the power of the Godhead to creation. He achieves what God wishes to achieve. In creation it was the Word of God which was the instrument by which God called into existence everything that was and is; and in our salvation it is Jesus who came to earth and achieved the victory over sin and death and the redemption of those the Father elected to salvation. He died for the sins of His people, freeing them from misery and slavery, the consequence of sin, and He lived the perfect life of a faithful servant, fulfilling the demands of God’s law on our behalf and earning us a place in the favor of God.

The Spirit is the Power of God, the executor of the Trinity. It is the Spirit who works in the life and heart of the believer to achieve what He wishes to achieve. He works faith in the elect of God so that they can understand and lay hold of Christ’s work of salvation. He then communicates the power of Christ’s salvation to us through the means which He has appointed (Word, Sacrament and prayer), to form Christ within us, to teach us repentance from sin, to turn us to God’s law to reform our character, to make us what God intends for us to be. As the Spirit is an equal partner in the Trinity, so His work is indispensable. Without the work of the Spirit applying the salvation of Christ in our hearts, the death of Jesus on the cross serves no purpose and the intention of God in salvation, to call a holy people to Himself, would go unfulfilled.

Though the Three are equal in terms of their being and essence, yet in terms of their operations there is order within the Trinity. The Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son together send the Spirit. The designation of the three persons as first, second and third is not arbitrary; it is the order in which they act. But in terms of our subjective experience of salvation, the order is reversed. First we experience the work of the Spirit in our lives, teaching us repentance and faith. That work of the Spirit unites us to Christ and to His life, which is then formed in us by that power. Paul says, “Nevertheless it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We are united to Christ through the Spirit, and that is the link that drives our salvation. The ultimate purpose of being united to Christ is to be reunited to the Father. He came to show us the Father, to bring us to the Father so that we will dwell in fellowship with the Father for all eternity.

Understanding what the Scriptures tell us about the Trinity and the role each plays in our salvation is a wonderful way to maintain balance in our understanding of salvation, to give proper weight to all its different aspects. It also fulfills the very purpose of our existence, which is to know God and glorify Him in perfect fellowship.

“…elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied. (1Pe 1:2 NKJ)”

True Faith: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7

20. Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in
No, only those who by true faith are engrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.1
[1] Jn. 1:12–13; 1 Cor. 15:22; Ps. 2:12; Rom. 11:20; Heb. 4:2–3; 10:39.

21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word,1 but also a hearty trust,2 which the Holy Spirit3 works in me by the Gospel,4 that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God,5 merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.6
[1] Jas. 1:6. [2] Rom. 4:16–18; 5:1. [3] 2 Cor. 4:13; Phil. 1:19, 29. [4] Rom. 1:16; 10:17. [5] Heb. 11:1–2; Rom. 1:17. [6] Eph. 2:7–9; Rom. 3:24–25; Gal. 2:16; *Acts 10:43.

22. What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe?
All that is promised us in the Gospel,1 which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in summary.
[1] Jn. 20:31; Matt. 28:20. *2 Pet. 1:21; *2 Tim. 3:15.

True Faith
Having identified Jesus as the solution to mankind’s problem, the next obvious question is whether all mankind indeed benefits from the solution. Is there a hell, and will anyone be in it?

The answer the Catechism gives us is that only those who possess a certain something will benefit from this saving work of Christ, and that not all possess it. That something is saving faith, or true faith. It is very important then that we know what saving faith is.

There are many who attribute mystical significance or spiritual importance to believing in anything at all. This is so-called “Peter Pan” faith- it is not so much what you believe that will benefit you, but believing in something. If you believe you can fly, you can! But believing in something false does not make it true, just as not believing in something doesn’t make it false. As writer Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It is the truth which sets us free, not wishful thinking.

So the Heidelberg in question 21 teaches us that the first element of saving faith is a sure knowledge. I need to assent to the truths of the Scriptures. The believer does so as an act of will, holding for truth all that is revealed in the Scriptures. This will be true despite the fact that many things in the Scriptures will be unknown to him, or obscure or even misunderstood. That phrase “holding for truth” shows not just the perception of the truth of something, like noticing the sky is blue; it is a decision that a man makes that God is trustworthy and the Scriptures are His word. This first element is not about the amount of doctrine you know; you do not need to be familiar with every doctrine or fact taught in the Scriptures before you can claim to have it. It is rather a pre-commitment that one makes, that the Scriptures are true and whatever they can be shown to teach, one will hold. When one recognizes the Scriptures for the word of God by the power of the Spirit, then one will make this commitment.

That first part is really the difficult part. Even in times past when the Bible was widely regarded as reliable, this assent was very often more nominal than real. A man may say that he believes the Bible because he knows he is supposed to, but when confronted with some teaching of the Bible that is uncomfortable for him, will give himself some excuse for not believing that particular truth. Many will refuse to hear the teachings of the very Scriptures they claim to believe, as was true of many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Such a one does not “hold for truth” all that is contained in the Scriptures, whatever his claim.

The second element is trust. The definition of “trust” sometimes is ambiguous, and different theologians will express it different ways. But the Catechism here defines it clearly, and in such a way that one might really fold it into the first element, holding God’s word as truth. If I truly do hold God’s word as true, then I’m going to regard is as true for me and trust it personally. This is what the Catechism says, that unless a person regards the truths of the gospel as being true in his particular case, with respect to his own situation, then he cannot be regarded as having a true and saving faith. Faith is not the ability to get the questions on the confirmation examination right. Faith is a personal, existential knowledge, or what the Puritans would call an “experimental” knowledge, that is, a knowledge that actually impacts the way I live. Another way this quality is often defined is a personal trust in Jesus to save me, a “resting and receiving” of Him as Savior.

The Catechism’s definition of faith is quite simple and straightforward, and we should resist the temptations that sometimes arise to load up faith with a lot of extra qualities. Certain levels of emotional intensity, degrees of sanctification, doctrinal sophistication or the like should not be included in the definition of saving faith, as this usually ends up importing a lot of man’s work into that definition. We should not be ignorant of a constant temptation to elevate my own contribution to my salvation. One of the great hallmarks of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and we should be careful of subverting that doctrine by redefining faith to include a lot of things that I do, or else the gospel risks being overthrown.

Jesus’ perfect righteousness and sacrificial death on my behalf is the way that I am rescued from God’s wrath. Faith is the way that I receive that benefit. Faith therefore must remain a simple passive receiving, or else I have substituted my own effort to some degree in the place of Jesus’ redemption, and that is the road to ruin. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul answered simply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is one of the places that the Heidelberg Catechism implicitly teaches the doctrine of predestination, since this saving faith, according to Q. 21, is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. It does not arise from us. Not all have this faith according to Q. 20, and therefore the Holy Spirit must choose to work this faith in some rather than others. The Heidelberg does not deeply delve into predestination; the other two of the Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt, have more to say on the subject.

How am I to know, then, that I am predestined? That is clear from this question. Those who possess this faith, who hold the teachings of Scripture to be true and who trust in the merits of Jesus Christ for their salvation, are saved. Therefore they are predestined, since only those in whom the Holy Spirit works that salvation will have it, and the Holy Spirit works in those chosen by God. They can be assured of that salvation, assured of God’s favor in their lives, assured that they belong to Christ and only to Christ, and that nothing can stop them from receiving all of His blessings in due time. The assurance of that salvation is in fact one of the marks of true faith, that I have that hearty trust that the promises of the gospel belong to me.

The Faithful Servant: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 6

16. Why must He be a true and righteous man?
Because the justice of God requires1 that the same human nature which has sinned should make satisfaction for sin; but one who is himself a sinner cannot satisfy for others.2
[1] Rom: 5:15. [2] Isa. 53:3–5.

17. Why must He also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath,1 and so obtain for2 and restore to us righteousness and life.3
[1] Isa. 53:8; Acts 2:24. [2] Jn. 3:16; Acts 20:28. [3] 1 Jn. 1:2.

18. But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man?
Our Lord Jesus Christ,1 who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.2
[1] Matt. 1:23; 1 Tim. 3:16; Lk. 2:11. [2] 1 Cor. 1:30; *Acts 4:12.

19. From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself first revealed in Paradise,1 afterwards proclaimed by the holy patriarchs2 and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law,3 and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.4
[1] Gen. 3:15. [2] Gen. 22:18; 49:10–11; Rom. 1:2; Heb. 1:1; Acts 3:22–24; 10:43. [3] Jn. 5:46. Heb. 10:7. [4] Rom. 10:4; Gal. 4:4–5; *Heb. 10:1.

The Faithful Servant
God created man to be His true and faithful servant, demonstrating and expressing God’s glory in creation by being an image and representation of God. As we saw before, Adam and Eve rejected their role as God’s servants and tried to be independent of Him, and thus fell into ruin along with all their offspring. The Catechism tells us that the One who is to rescue us from that ruined state must be holy Himself, and the reasons are apparent.

If He is not a holy man, then He is under condemnation Himself, and cannot satisfy the wrath of God against anyone else, since His suffering could only ever be applied to His own condemnation, and never satisfy even God’s wrath against Himself. But more than this, the Messiah’s redemption is about a lot more than just getting us off the hook. It is about succeeding where we failed. When Jesus came to earth, He not only paid for our sins, He also perfectly obeyed the law of God. The prophet Isaiah identifies the Messiah as the “Servant of God”, and Jesus emphasizes that He does the deeds His Father does and speaks the words His Father gave Him to speak. This is why the temptations in the desert matter- each of those temptations mirror a failure of Israel in the wilderness, Israel being another archetype of a people that God had blessed and called to be His servants, who failed. So Jesus succeeded in trusting and obeying God where Israel failed and proves Himself to be the faithful servant.

This is hugely important for understanding our salvation. It means that our salvation in Christ is truly complete. He did not just clear the slate so that we could try again with God; He did not die so that earning God’s favor would be easier for us. His entire life and death completely saves us. He fulfills the requirements of the Law in its entirety. He is what Adam was supposed to be. He therefore redeems not only us as individuals; He redeems the very concept of humanity itself, justifying God’s pronouncement over His creation as “very good.”

So question 16 of the Heidelberg tells us the reason why He must be a true and righteous man, expanding on question 14. Only the perfect obedience of a true man can satisfy the demands of God’s law for man, and only a man can pay the penalty for man’s sin. Man’s sin ultimately is not specific acts of wrongdoing, but failing to be what God created man to be. So only by a man succeeding to be what God’s law requires of a man can the righteous requirements of God’s law be fulfilled. Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Scriptures, fulfils the obligation perfectly.

He likewise possesses the power to actually accomplish this herculean task because He is God, and His deity, in a mysterious fashion, upholds His humanity to be able to endure the whole weight of God’s wrath against sin, and to do so in a finite period of time. This is how we can resolve the promise of God to show His people mercy while still exacting the full demand of His justice. He suffers the penalty of His justice Himself and attributes the merits of that perfect obedience and that satisfaction to His people.

So we can have full confidence that Jesus is that Savior. He alone fulfills the promise of God from the beginning, that God Himself would bring salvation to His people, to show them mercy and forgiveness while never abandoning His essential justice. He promised that a man would one day come to Israel, sent by God, the perfect servant of God, to reverse the damage done by Satan to the human race, and bring salvation to Israel and to the whole human race as well. He is the son of David that will sit on the throne forever, the seed of Abraham that would bless the whole human race, the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. That was the promise developed throughout the Old Testament and finally fulfilled in the New.