Heidelberg Catechism Question 4: God’s Justice

God’s Justice

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.

Heidelberg Catechism Question 3: The Nature and Cause of our Misery

The Nature and Cause of our Misery

If man is indeed in a state of misery, as the Catechism taught us last week, then the obvious question that arises is, “How did we get into this situation?”  That’s relevant not just out of intellectual curiosity, but for two very important reasons.  First, we need to understand how we can reconcile our creation by a good and holy God with our present state.  Did God create us like this?  Is this His intention for us?  If so, there’s no reason to try and do anything about it.  It would also call into question God’s goodness.

But the Catechism points us to the first chapters of Genesis, as well as many other statements from the Bible (note the prooftexts for question 6), to show that God created us good, in His image.  That means that we bear the stamp of God’s nature, or at least we did when we were created.  We reflected who He is.  God’s initial plan for Adam and Eve’s creation was a glorious one.  They would be kings and priests before Him, which meant they would rule the physical creation on God’s behalf, enjoying, tending and improving it, and living in fellowship and harmony with God and with each other.  It would have been wonderful.  Just imagine, even now, what life would be like if you woke up one morning and everything was exactly the same except nobody sinned.  Nobody lied, nobody stole, nobody envied what others had.  Even remaining problems like disease and natural disasters could quickly be reined in with the tremendous resources that could be diverted from war, government and waste.  In that glorious state, though, God was still sovereign.  It was necessary to God’s own nature that all His good gifts be enjoyed with an acknowledgement of that truth, that they came from Him.  Therefore God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden to make just that point— by withholding that tree, and only that tree, from Adam and Eve, God shows them that He is sovereign.  Every time they passed by the tree without eating from it, it was a bend of the knee to God’s rule.

There are a lot of questions unanswered by the Catechism that have perplexed Christianity’s best thinkers for centuries.  If God is sovereign over all things, did He know that mankind’s rebellion would happen?  Why did He permit the devil to enter the garden at all?  Was the Fall all actually part of God’s ultimate plan, and if so, does that make God the author of sin?  We do not need to answer all of these questions right now to understand the basic truth of what happened in the Garden of Eden, as Genesis 3 tells it.  God made man good, but man rebelled against God by violating His law, resulting in death, which was the result God promised them if they disobeyed.  That death is manifested in the breakdown of all their relationships- with God, with each other, with creation, and ultimately even with their own selves, seen immediately in their shame over their nakedness and ultimately in their physical death.

The second reason the cause of our state is important is because the nature of the problem tells us a lot about our solution.  If our state is the result of God’s judicial punishment against us for our sin, then there is nothing at all we can do to reverse our state without dealing with God.  We are not stronger than God and cannot reverse His judgments.


We also cannot do good works to make up for the sins which have already been committed.  For one thing, there is no “balancing out” of good and evil works; good works are just what is expected.  We were created to be perfect, and therefore any shortcoming of that perfect state is enough to merit God’s judgment.  If I contract with my boss for eight hours of work and then slack off for three of those hours, I cannot plead the five hours that I did work as proof that I kept our contract.  So too, any failure to be perfect as God created me to be is enough to earn His wrath against me.  Further, the consequence of the rebellion was death, and that spiritual death makes it impossible for us to do any real good works anyway.  It is our connection with God which is our life; having lost that connection, we have lost any ability to be what we are supposed to be, and therefore any ability to do works pleasing in God’s sight.  God restrains our evil to some degree by His grace so that we are not as evil as we could be, but that is no credit to us.  This is what the Catechism means when it says that we are “prone” to all evil— meaning that our very nature tends in the direction of all evil, and is incapable of all good. The solution to that problem must therefore come not from us but from God, as question 8 tells us—a new birth by the power of God is our only hope.


The Definition of our Misery: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 2

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 2

The Definition of our Misery

We all know there is a problem with the human race.  The Catechism takes no time to demonstrate that there is a problem, but rather jumps straight to its diagnosis.  That there is a problem is immediately evident to all of us.  We do get very good at distracting ourselves from this or at blaming our difficulties on circumstances or other people.  How many people do you know who are blind to their own self-destructive behavior and constantly externalize all the guilt that arises from their own choices by shifting the responsibility to someone or something else?  I think pretty much everyone I know is guilty of this to some degree or another.  What then is the likelihood that I am free of the same behavior?

And over all of us hangs the Judgment Day, the inevitable coming moment when we know we will be held to account.  We skim our little boats across this great dark sea, doing our best to ignore the almost-empty gas tank and the vague, hulking shapes lurking beneath the waters, but we will not be able to ignore it forever.  The imminence of judgment is not simply an abstraction, but a reality which presses upon our minds constantly in the form of guilt, fear and anxiety, and no pleasures, pursuits or pharmaceuticals can do anything other than push the problem out of our minds for a little while.  Ultimately the problem that plagues the human race, the symptoms of which are war, theft, murder, hatred, poverty, sickness, oppression and injustice, is our problem as well.  We are not bystanders.  We are part of the human race; thus, we are part of the problem, and there is therefore no way to avoid dealing with it.

From where do you know your misery?  What is it that will truly tell you the reason for your terrible state?  From the law of God.  From the truth of what God created us to be, ones who love God perfectly and love our neighbors like we love ourselves.  When we hear this, we instinctively know it to be true, for it is written on our very hearts.  When we compare our actual state with the model of what we are supposed to be, then we can see the real nature of our misery clearly, and the cause of it.  The space between our actual natures and God’s original vision for humanity shows us why we are miserable and the form that misery takes.  We are miserable because we are alienated from God and from our fellow man, and we are unable to do anything about that misery because that is not a choice we make but a state we inhabit.  We are prone by nature to that state of being.

Mankind has continually recognized that if people would work together and live in harmony, a great many evils would be reduced or eliminated.  Despite this fundamental awareness, mankind has utterly failed to live together in harmony.  Large, bloody and destructive wars continue, with the largest, bloodiest and most destructive war in all of history within the last century.  And if history is insufficient witness, we all know our own experience of the awareness of self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors, and the great difficulty or even inability to change those behaviors.

The answer of the Christian faith is that this problem has nothing to do with environment or education, that it cannot be fixed by personal improvement, the accumulation of wealth or through the performance of rituals- indeed that mankind’s problem is not one that is susceptible to any solution rising from within mankind at all.  The Catechism will go on to explain the remedy in detail, though the first question already told us in essence what it is- that we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.  But the only way we will ever accept such a solution, that we will ever be humbled enough to accept the charity of blood, is when we realize and admit the true nature of the problem.  It does not lie outside of us, but in us, in our natures which are not what God created them to be.

My Only Comfort: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #1

My Only Comfort:  Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #1

A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Paul Fowler, told us that he thought the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism was the finest expression of the Gospel anywhere outside of Scripture itself.  One of the things that has always made the Heidelberg so beloved is its very warm, personal and pastoral tone, and the first question is a great example.

The whole of the Gospel is the subject of this first question.  Our only real comfort in all the circumstances in life are found in that Gospel, in the truth that by the redemption we have in the blood of Christ, we now belong to Him, are part of His family and His nation, and can live our lives in complete confidence in that truth.

Without that truth, we have a number of problems with no good solutions.

First, we live under the constant shadow of guilt.  Whatever people claim, their own consciences testify to them that they are in a state of condemnation and alienation from their Creator.  This simple fact explains a great deal about the destructive behavior of the human race; guilt and the fear of God’s wrath that comes from guilt drives our politics, our addictions, our tribalism, our envy and hatred of others, and a great many other problems.

Second, we live in a seemingly random, chaotic world.  There is no way of knowing what the future will bring; people who work hard and make all the seemingly right choices nonetheless have terrible things happen to them; disease, war, natural disasters, terrible religious or political leaders and a hundred other things can ruin a man’s life at the drop of a hat, with no recourse.

Third, our own real inability to overcome our human nature condemns us to repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again.  We are slaves to our lusts, to our ignorance, and to our weakness.  Good intentions repeatedly give way to the desires of the moment.  How do you protect yourself from yourself?   How can you guard yourself against the desires of your own heart?  All the self-help in the world won’t do you any good when at the moment of crisis, you don’t want to avoid the destructive behavior—you want to do it, so you do.  Thus the misery of man is great.

Coming into the redemption of Christ solves all these problems, and the first question of the Catechism explains how it does so.  First, it frees us from guilt, not by trying to hand-wave the problem away, not by minimizing it or giving me some token work to do to assuage the problem myself, but by accepting its severity and dealing with it.  Such a huge problem can only be adequately satisfied by the death of the Son of God Himself on our behalf, propitiating the wrath of God against sin and offering me the benefits of that sacrifice as a free gift, so that both the wrath of God and the mercy and love of God are given their full weight.

Secondly, it then brings me under the protective umbrella of God’s providence.  The world is no longer random and pointless; now a sovereign God is directing all that happens to ensure that my salvation comes to its completion.  If God would give me such a tremendous gift of the sacrificial death of His own Son on my behalf, what would He withhold from me?  Having invested so much in my salvation, how will He ever permit anything to rob Him of His goal?  I need therefore fear nothing that happens in this life.  Though there will certainly be suffering and deprivation, I can live in confidence that all of those things are part of God’s perfect plan for me.

Finally, I now have the gift of the Spirit of God.  He supernaturally works on my very nature, applying the work of salvation to me, so that I am assured of its reality.  He works faith in me, teaching me to trust in Christ, and that trust works every manner of benefit in me.  When I trust God then I can begin turning away from all the foolish self-destructive behaviors that are borne out of fear, pride, envy and lust.  I can have confidence that God will bring every good thing to me in His time.  That trust also works love toward God, arising out of thankfulness for all He has done, a love that gives me a desire to please Him with my life.

The faith that connects me to Christ in this way is not simply wishful thinking, a sort of vague optimism, or even the most intensely emotional “hope-so”— it is a faith that has content, and the second question tells me what the content of saving faith is- a knowledge of sin and misery, an understanding of the way we are saved from that sin and misery, and the response of thankfulness that results.  This provides the outline for the rest of the Catechism.