Creed (Heidelberg, wk. 2)
July 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Heidelberg Catechism
Q.9 Is God, then, not unjust by requiring in His law what man cannot do?
A. No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.
The catechism answer almost says it all but it is worth delving into. First the obvious: It would absolutely have been unjust for God to give commands to Adam and Eve that they could never have possibly obeyed. But Adam and Eve could have obeyed – they had perfect natures and a very basic command, yet they rebelled.
And it remains fair, even now for a single reason: God has made perfect obedience possible, through Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the One True Law-Keeper, and so through faith in Him, we are considered pure in God’s sight. It is not our own righteousness, but Christ’s. Amazingly, because of Jesus, we are perfect law-keepers.
Luther puts it perfectly in his paper, Concerning the Letter and the Spirit:
These then are the two works of God, praised many times in Scripture: he kills and gives life, he wounds and heals, he destroys and helps, he condemns and saves, he humbles and elevates, he disgraces and honors… He does these works through these two offices, the first through the letter, the second through the Spirit. The letter does not allow anyone to stand before his wrath. The Spirit does not allow anyone to perish before his grace. Oh, this is such an overwhelming affair that one could talk about it endlessly!
Q.8 But are we so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil?
A. Yes, indeed; unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
This is a difficult one to accept, I know, and it is why I believe it was important for the Catechism to begin with our comfort in life and in death through Jesus. In arriving at the good news of the gospel we have to journey through some pretty deep – and dark – waters. The scriptures’ teaching on sin is hard because it is brutally honest.
What makes this particular teaching (we call it ‘Total Depravity’) difficult is that we see do good out there – in people – in causes – in communities, etc. This is no illusion, and something in all of us wants to believe that there is some redeemable quality in man that can overcome sin.
But if we are ‘wholly incapable of doing any good,’ then where does this ‘good’ that we observe come from? The answer is that God allows for good in spite of the presence of sin in a fallen world. We believe a doctrine called ‘Common Grace,’ and this doctrine says that God has sprinkled all Creation, including mankind, with His kindness, to varying degrees. If He hadn’t, we would live in utter self-destruction and complete anarchy. Instead, we are restrained by the grace of God.
So back to our corruption. If we can get past our initial sense of offense this makes sense, because when it comes to anything that is pure, there is no middle ground, right? Think about it, either something or someone is completely pure, or it is polluted. An ocean with a single drop of poison in it cannot be completely pure, but this doesn’t mean you can’t swim in the ocean. Make sense?
So what does this mean for us? It means two things, I think. First, we need God to change our hearts – We can’t do this for ourselves, because we are part of the problem. We need God’s Spirit to give us what Ezekiel 36 refers to as ‘hearts of flesh’ (vs. 26). It is an inside job, and though we will wrestle with that old nature for the rest of our lives, the simple acknowledgement that we bring nothing to the table before a holy God brings relief from the torment of trying to justify, excuse and rationalize our inner corruption. In other words, admitting our inner depravity doesn’t condemn us – it sets us free, and bears evidence to God’s regenerating work on our hearts.
But second, it means that we have no alternative but to live lives in complete reliance on God’s grace, looking to Jesus, the One who not only sprinkles kindness on a fallen world, but who has sprinkled our sins with His own blood, making us clean. Our corruption is our signal to look to Jesus for grace for cleansing. But there I go, getting ahead of myself again…
Q.7 Whence, then, comes this depraved nature of man?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we all are conceived and born in sin.
In theological circles we call Adam our ‘Federal Head,’ that is, that he represented all of mankind in his fall. At various times I’ve reflected on this dynamic, because something in all of us – myself included – instinctively see it as unfair that we would be held responsible for Adam’s sin. We ask why we didn’t get the same chance he got, but instead we are born with sin natures because of his ‘original sin,’ that is, we were born as though we had committed it! How is this fair?
But when you think about it, it only makes sense. Adam sinned in a pure environment – a perfect garden. He had no memory of sin – for him it was little more than a concept. He had no memory of sin, no experiences with sin, no examples of sin or sinners, and no history of sin in his life. In other words, with no propensity to sin, Adam sinned. In a perfect world! So if Adam and Eve would sin in a perfect world, then is it really credible for us to assert that we should have been given an opportunity to live perfectly? Or maybe a more practical way of putting it: Just try. Go ahead. Try to live a day without a single sinful action, thought, motive or imagination.
You can’t, can you? Neither can I. Why? Because the same thing that was in Adam and Eve is in us.
There is a better way (and again, I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it fits, so bear with me). The better way is to look to whom Paul calls, the ‘second Adam’ – Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:45). To this Paul says (in Romans 5:19), “For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners [a reference to the first Adam], so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous [guess who].”
So we can either spend our energies disputing the reality of our nature, or we can look to the Perfect One who had made us what we could not make ourselves, on any day, or even in a perfect garden.
Q.6 Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?
A. By no means; but God created man good, and after His own image; that is, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him.
There is something in all of us that wants to blame God for our sin – or anyone for that matter. We hate taking responsibility for the evil we struggle with. But God is not the source. Admittedly so, this is a bit of a mystery because while the scriptures clearly teach that God is not the author of sin (James 1), they also present Him as sovereign over all things and all that takes place in His Creation.
But rather than blame God for our evil impulses, it is far more fulfilling to marvel that He actually made us to be good. In fact, we were created, the scriptures teach us, in His image, that is, we were created to bear His likeness on earth – we reflect God. We were created with the capacity to love and reason, and to live in communion with God.
It is so easy to get lost in the ‘blame game’ and to shuffle responsibility for sin, even on God. But this completely misses the point. The point is that God wants us to enjoy what He has created us to be – He is invested in this desire – personally invested – through Jesus. In other words, what was shattered in the fall has been restored in Jesus, and until He makes all things new, we live in that reality through His work on our behalf.
Accepting this is the passage to enjoying Him until we make it home.
Q.5 Can you keep all this perfectly?
A. In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
This was Luther’s conclusion. In fact, his zeal to perfectly obey only caused him to loathe God, having concluded that a Father should never put such an impossible weight on a child. But He doesn’t (Luther later finally understood this). Instead, He put the weight of perfection on His perfect Son, Jesus, who took our sins to the Cross (I’m getting ahead of myself here!). Suffice it to say here that God didn’t save us to make us perfect, but His.
But why the weight of a law we could never keep? Ask yourself this, ‘Would I even look to Jesus if I didn’t feel the press of the law’s perfection?’ It just may be that the law’s primary value is found in where it causes us to look. It reveals what we actually think of one another, and of God, and it is the means by which God causes us to look to someone other than ourselves!
The best way for me to illustrate this is to describe how we taught our children to drive straight, when they were pursuing their licenses. Their instinct was to keep the wheel perfectly straight, and the car wove all over the place! So we told them to look to the end of the block where the stop sign was – to stop worrying about driving perfectly straight, but to just drive. You know what happened – They drove straight!
So this means that those pangs of guilt that sometimes nag at you – they come from God’s Spirit who has written His law on your heart. He is applying the force of the law to cause you to look past your own righteousness, which is no righteousness at all – to Jesus. Trust me – better yet, trust the scriptures, that simple shift of focus is all the difference between living to be perfect before a cruel tyrant, and desiring to live obediently to a loving Father.