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.
July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Heidelberg Catechism
Q.4 What does the law of God require of us?
A. Christ teaches that in a summary, Matt. 22:37-40, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.
It is so easy for us to become lost in what we know and accomplish as Christ-followers, but the scriptures always point us in the direction of love, which is exactly what Jesus did when church leaders attempted to trap Him with a question as to the greatest command. Rather than argue details, Jesus cut to the chase and took them to the heart of the commandments. He would spend the evening of His betrayal teaching His disciples to love one another. Paul would later write in beautiful prose that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13), and in 1 Timothy 1:5 he says that the goal of all sound doctrine ‘is love.’ John adds that a church can be ecclesiastically bullet proof, and yet miss the whole point – by forgetting its ‘first love’ (Revelation 2:4).
So what is our take away? It is that love was not only the motivating force behind our redemption, but the goal as well. And I have to take this as a challenge to revisit every motivation and action in my life. Is the goal love, or is it perfection, love or reputation, love or an appearance of righteousness, love or a spotless record? And what exactly am I passing on to those around me?
Q3. Whence do you know your misery?
A. Out of the law of God.
I remember a particular time in my life when the law of God did what it was always designed to do. Until then, I didn’t understand the gospel, and so I thought God’s law was given to help me know how to live a perfect sin-free life. Naturally I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but at the end of the day this is what I was thinking. Some how I had found a way to internally rationalize my ‘lesser’ sins (IE a way to manage my guilt). Then I sinned past my ability to recover (that is, I crossed my own artificial line of righteousness, and none of my contrived means of resetting my ‘perfect’ record any longer worked), and the Law that I thought I had kept until that moment, began to crush me in guilt and sadness.
It was then, when at the end of the rope and having finally acknowledged that I never really had, and never could perfectly keep the law, that I met Jesus, the one true Law-Keeper. And this changed everything.
Q2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that you in this comfort may live and die happily?
A. Three; the first, how great my sins and misery are; the second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
The fact is that the ‘good news’ makes no sense until we come to grips with the bad news, that being the reality that we are sinners. Years ago I received a long letter from a woman who was upset because she felt that all I preached about was sin. I sat on the letter, and then unfortunately forgot to respond, until a year later when I saw her at our church. After apologizing for taking so long, I thanked her for her letter and offered to talk with her about it, but she said it wasn’t necessary. She said, ‘I understand now.’
What happened in the time between? She grasped the gospel. Initially all she heard was bad news because she couldn’t get past her own shame and guilt. Then she met Jesus, and He changed everything by showing her that the truth of her past was not as great as the power of His sacrifice for her. The good news made sense of the bad, and the bad led her to find comfort in a deliverance that comes from Jesus alone.
Q1. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all me sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three sections: ‘Sin & Misery,’ ‘Deliverance’ & ‘Gratitude.’ Interestingly, within the body of the Catechism is a study of the Apostles’ Creed as well.
Unfortunately many pulpits are marked by condemning spirits that make the good news (the Greek translation for the same word we get ‘gospel’ from) seem tawdry compared to the bad. But Heidelberg gets it right, because before launching into the misery of the fall, it takes us to the end of the story, all the way to the comfort of the gospel.
This is how all of us best respond, isn’t it? We take even the hardest doses of truth best when we know that the story ends hopefully. And immediately we see this here, because our status is entirely saturated in God’s grace. And our comfort is not determined by what we have done, but by what Jesus has done on our behalf. It was His blood and sacrifice and it is His Spirit’s testimony that preserves us in the assurance of the gospel. We are recipients of God’s grace, demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice, and continuously rehearsed by the internal assurances of the Spirit who lives within us. In a sense, the first Q&A of the Catechism is a retelling of the entire Christian experience all rolled up into Jesus and His deliverance. Now, rather constantly looking over our shoulders in fear we have been told the truth, beginning with a comfort we could never acquire apart from a God who has entered into our despair with redemption. Truly a stunning first statement.
The Heidelberg Catechism is gracious, yet solid, written chiefly by two men, one, Ursinus, a theologian, and the other, Olevianus, a lawyer-turned-pastor. Frederick III of the Palatinate, in Heidelberg, Germany, commissioned them in the latter 16th Century.
It is divided into 129 Questions and Answers. It begins with redemption, namely with our comfort in Jesus Christ, and then takes us through the Faith. Through the years I have found Westminster to be a great tool for teaching (and we’ll consider this in the future), but Heidelberg a better resource for public confession.
While Ursinus did the lion’s share of writing, it is believed that Olevianus’ experiences with the sorrows and brokenness of the people in his pastorate brought the redemptive beauty and warmth this catechism is characterized by. In doing so it marries doctrine and humanness, and makes the Faith something we can both grasp and relate to. Tomorrow, Q&A 1.