A theology for suffering

All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.

—John Calvin

Calvin knew the truth of this in his bones.  As Peter Sanlon writes in his essay “Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken,”

It impossible to read Calvin’s work and not see that he spoke from experience.  Calvin himself had a sense of God’s goodness to him, even in trials and struggles.  Exiled, bereaved, persecuted, reviled and unhealthy—Calvin’s life was one in which he still felt God goodness toward him, personally.

Sanlon’s analysis of the ways that Calvin’s suffering shaped his theology, and his expression of his theology, is fascinating.

Read the opening sections of his 1536 Institutes.  The famous first sentence is present in a recognisable form:  ‘Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts, knowledge of God and ourselves.’ . . .

in the 1536 edition, Calvin, after his opening sentence proceeds to assert, ‘Surely we ought to learn the following things about God . . .’  He then lists four lessons all should learn. In the next section, about the knowledge of man, he follows a similar approach of listing the main lessons.  All he says is true and important—but the tone is in stark contrast to later editions of his work.  After Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva in April 1538, Calvin wrote another edition of his Institutes.  This version, published in 1539, added the words:  ‘Which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’  A note of uncertainty, humility and awe begins to permeate what had previously been merely a clear explanation.

The humility Calvin seemed to feel before the awesome reality of God, climaxed in his 1559 edition, which may be seen to be markedly different in tone to the edition published in 1536.  Calvin probes and explores the obscure and intangible links between knowledge of God and humanity.  Gone are the three or four points that must be learnt; added is the section on piety quoted above.  The final 1559 edition carried readers into an experience of the knowledge of God, precisely because Calvin had himself matured and entered more fully into a personal sense of God’s goodness in suffering.  Doubtless there were people that Calvin ministered to in his time of exile from Geneva; they and us benefit from the embarrassment caused to Calvin by his experience of suffering.  Calvin’s sufferings were a shaking which caused his knowledge to be more personally appropriated.  His struggles inculcated piety.

Calvin’s suffering developed his theology in a profound and unusual way.  Many theologians have developed a theology of suffering, wrestling with it as a theological abstraction.  Calvin ended up writing a theology for suffering, in which suffering is incorporated into theology.  Suffering gives theology living depth, moving it from an intellectual exercise to an existential truth, apprehended at the deepest levels of the heart.  In turn, theology gives suffering existential meaning.

Suffering and sadness is a large part of our lot in this fleeting life.  It is how the theology of Calvin is shaken, so that it can be truly refreshing to those who drink it.  I would like to suggest that Calvin was cognizant of this need for theology to be shaken by life’s sadnesses. . . .

Calvin is teaching that a personal, existential appreciation of God’s kindnesses is essential to real Christianity. Indeed, bringing about such an experience is a key goal of his theological endeavors. There must be a sense of God’s kindness which goes far beyond the speculation so highly prized by Aquinas. Piety necessitates a ‘heart certainty’ (certitudinem cordibus) Inst.1.7.4.

A heart certainty which is to be sensed and experienced, must be forged in the travails of life. By definition that which is sensed cannot be attained by mere speculation. Calvin placed great emphasis upon the fact that knowledge of God must ‘not merely flit in the brain, but take root in the heart.’ There it must be ‘felt, sensed and adored.’ It must ‘affect’ and induce ‘wonder.’ Inst.1.5.9. With these and other terms Calvin urges readers to appropriate his theology.

The sufferings of life shake Christians; the result is that they experience, by faith in the Spirit’s power, God’s goodness in the midst of sadness. Such piety is not, as many Christians imagine, merely an extra, optional comfort to some who suffer. Rather, it is essential for all real Christians. Calvin’s theology must be shaken by life’s trials before it can be tasted for the revitalising drink that it is.

As Sanlon says, “One of the most satisfying aspects of Calvin’s views is that they taste best when shaken by life’s sadnesses.”  This is a great gift to the church.

“God made me this way”? Not exactly [REPOST]

(The original of this post is from 2009.  I need to get back to blogging the Heidelberg soon.)

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 6
Q. Did God create people so wicked and perverse?

A. No.
God created them good1 and in his own image,2
that is, in true righteousness and holiness,3
so that they might
truly know God their creator,4
love him with all their heart,
and live with him in eternal happiness
for his praise and glory.5

Note: mouse over footnote for Scripture references.

There’s a real tendency these days to appeal to genetics to explain behavior—and increasingly, to excuse behavior, as action is reframed as identity. The church can’t appeal to the word of God with regard to homosexual activity without someone (usually a good many someones) standing up and saying, “God made me this way, and therefore this is how I’m supposed to be, and therefore God can’t really have meant that.” Unfortunately, the steady repetition of that assertion has convinced a lot of folks (especially younger folks) who consider themselves evangelicals that it must be true. That has done considerable damage to the authority of Scripture in the American evangelical church.

I have no interest in the debate over whether or not or to what degree homosexual desires are a matter of genetics. To be blunt, I consider the whole question a red herring. We recognize this when it comes to other issues. From the studies I’ve seen, the heritability of alcoholism is about the same as the heritability of homosexual preferences, but nobody uses that as a defense for driving drunk. Certain cancers, we well know, come to us through our genes, yet we don’t tell cancer patients, “God made you this way, so he must want you to die of cancer.” (The federal government might, if Obamacare passes, but that’s another matter.) It would be quite consistent to label same-sex erotic desires just another inherited disease—but we don’t do that. This makes it clear that it’s not the genetic element that’s driving the argument, it’s the affective element. It’s the fact that those who practice such behaviors don’t want to give them up.

Since the appeal to genetics has been effective (whether logical or not), we can expect to see it raised as a defense for other behaviors as well. In time, it will become impossible for the church to call people to holiness without hearing, “God made me this way!” As such, it’s important to remind Christians that the Scriptures give the church a firm answer to this, to which the Heidelberg bears witness: No, he didn’t. We are all sinners, we are all bent to defy the will of God and to prefer evil to good in at least some areas of our lives, and all of our natural tendencies, preferences, orientations and desires arise out of sin-distorted hearts—but God didn’t make us that way. God created us good, in his own image. Our sinful desires are someone else’s fault altogether.

Just because something is natural to us doesn’t make it right. Just because we inherited it along with our hair and eye color doesn’t mean that God approves of it. All it means is that we’re born sinful—just like everybody else.


Photo © 2006 Joonas L.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

This is depressing

I haven’t been over to Viola Larson’s blog, Naming His Grace, for a while—in large part because, for a lot of reasons, I’ve been very low on energy for dealing with the internecine warfare in the PC(USA)—and now I rather wish I hadn’t. Nothing against Viola in the slightest, and in fact it’s a good thing that I know about this . . . I just wish it wasn’t there to know about.

In an attempt to get the Presbyterian General Assembly to not receive the paper Christians and Jews: People of God the Israel/Palestine Mission Network lied about the Jewish organizations in the United States suggesting that they sent a bomb to our Presbyterian headquarters and burnt down a church. They also lied about the Jewish people in their synagogues. The Israel/Palestine Mission Network lied.

Why won’t more Presbyterians speak up? Surely even those Presbyterians who believe that everything Israel is doing is wrong can’t believe that lying about Jewish organizations in the United States is the right thing to do? Why isn’t there an outcry from fellow Christians about this?

The IPMN insists that the rising anti-semitism, the caricatures of Jewish people, in all countries, is caused by the Jews themselves. That is an old story. Less than eighty years ago such lies led to the death of six million Jews.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, driven by this queer alliance between the Western Left and the anti-Western wing of Islam; it’s grievous to me to see people trying to use the PC(USA) to further it.

One unique incomparable Savior

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 18
Q. And who is this mediator—
true God and at the same time
truly human and truly righteous?

A. Our Lord Jesus Christ,1

who was given us
to set us completely free
and to make us right with God.2

Note: mouse over footnotes for Scripture references (does not work in IE 6).

As Reformed Christians, we affirm that salvation is all of Christ and none of us, because no one but he could have accomplished it. He is unique, and not in any minor way; he is the only one who could encompass the work that needed to be done and the price that needed to be paid so that we might be saved, and no one else could even have begun to approach it. We don’t have to be worthy, we have no claim on pride in our own salvation, we cannot undo or lose this great gift—it is all of Christ, bestowed on us through his Holy Spirit by his incomparable grace and unfathomable love toward us who were his enemies, until he redeemed us despite ourselves and made us his friends.

Now, who is this church thing about, again?

I was blown away last night by a great post from the Vice Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Byron Wade. I’ve never met him, but I’m confident in saying two things about him: 1) he’s good people, and 2) he’s on the liberal side of things in his beliefs. He was, after all, chosen for this position by the Moderator of that GA, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, of whom both those things are also true. (GA always elects liberals.) I’ve had various interactions with Bruce online—on this blog, and his, and Facebook—and I like and respect him a great deal; he’s the sort of person who can disagree with you with grace, respect, affection, and an honest desire to understand where you’re coming from. That’s all too rare (and probably always has been). As such, though I don’t know the man he chose as vice moderator, in my book, Byron Wade comes well recommended for character.

All of this is by way of saying that the following passage comes from someone with a real heart for the church, but not from an evangelical (as in fact he says himself):

The surprising thing that I have heard in my travels is stories about pastors/laity who do not preach and/or mention Jesus Christ. While I have not heard it a lot, it has been said to me enough that it caused me some alarm. . . .

I am in no way a Fundamentalist or a person who is considered an “evangelical street preacher.” What I am saying is that I believe that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ may want to preach him to others, for if we don’t people will go elsewhere. And I would hate to think that we are losing out on witnessing to others because we don’t talk about Jesus.

Byron titled his post (quite properly, I think) “Is it just me or are we supposed to be talking about Jesus?” Read the whole thing—some of the stories he tells truly are worrisome. As I read, two thoughts struck me, both rather sad. First, it’s a wonderful thing to hear this point being made by somebody on the liberal side of the aisle; I don’t say that all liberal Christians shy away from talking about Jesus, but one doesn’t often hear liberals calling out the American church for its Christlessness. Second, several of the stories he tells may perfectly well have happened in churches that consider themselves “evangelical”; when folks like Jared Wilson and Michael Spencer criticize the Jesuslessness of the church in this country, it’s not Ivy League liberals they have in mind.

As such, it’s a good thing to be able to make common cause with more liberal folks like the Vice Moderator to ask the American church together, “Is it just me, or are we supposed to be talking about Jesus?” Who knows—maybe coming from someone like Byron, it will actually scandalize the church into paying attention.

Thoughts on argument and talking with “the enemy”

inspired in part by Penn Jillette—not that these are new thoughts for me, but just that his video that I posted the other day has me thinking about them.

The sort of encounter Penn describes in that video is one which is drearily familiar to a lot of us on the conservative side of the American church. It’s a type of spat I’ve seen many times (and in which I’ve participated) during my time serving within the Presbyterian Church (USA), as an ex- or soon-to-be-ex-member of the PC(USA) lambasts someone who is not leaving the denomination: “How can you stay in that denomination?! They deny the authority of the Bible, they are faithless to the teachings of Christ, they have denied their heritage, they have compromised the Christian faith beyond recognition! The Word of God is not rightly preached, the sacraments are not rightly administered, and church discipline is not only not rightly exercised, it’s mocked and rendered unenforceable—the marks of the true church are nowhere present! That denomination is apostate, your money is going to causes contrary to the Word of God, and you are aiding and abetting it! They are using you to do evil! Why haven’t you left yet?!”

Yeah, I’ve heard that sort of thing once or twice before. In my own case, it’s actually ironic, since I’m not Presbyterian by ordination; I am ordained in the Reformed Church in America, and all I’d have to do to leave the denomination is go serve a different congregation (though I have no intention of doing so). I am only Presbyterian in that God has called me—twice in a row, now—to serve in this denomination. Of course, from a theological perspective, I don’t believe God does anything by accident, and so I operate from the understanding that I serve as an evangelical within the PC(USA) because God wants me to, for reasons which serve his good purposes; and from that I draw what seems to me to be the reasonable inference that there are others, probably many others, whom he calls likewise.

I further point out that the PC(USA)’s liberal wing is far from all of the denomination, that to pronounce them apostate is to declare them to be in desperate need of the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ, and that to respond to that need by turning one’s back on them and cutting ties with them is a profoundly un-Christlike stance. Whatever anyone on the Right might say about the Presbyterian Left, Jesus could have said far worse about the Pharisees and Sadducees (and with far more right to do so, since unlike any of us, he was sinless)—and yet he didn’t break off all contact with them. Instead, he kept right on preaching to them just like he preached to all the other sinners he met.

I make these points, and I make others, but somehow, they never impress my interlocutors much. They point me to Paul’s command to the Corinthians to cast out the guy having the affair with his stepmother, and they hit me with lines like “Come out from among them and be separate”; I point out that these are all commands dealing with the local congregation, and that we have no Biblical warrant for what they’re talking about—we have no example of, let’s say, Paul commanding the churches in Sardis and Colossae to cut ties with the church in Ephesus because of the outbreak of heresy there—but they remain unmoved. It could be that my arguments are just that bad, but (biased though I may be) I don’t think they are. Rather, though I’m not going to label those firing on me from my right as heretics or pay them back in kind (I’ve been called a heretic once or twice by those folks, but I have no desire to return the favor), I do believe they’re wrong, on a fairly basic level. I don’t say they’re wrong in their own decision to leave—I would have no way of even beginning to know—but I do say they’re wrong in judging all those who do otherwise.

Now, of course, the term most frequently applied by folks on the Left when they want to smear Christians on the Right is “fundamentalist”; they love to use the same word for folks like the Taliban so as to imply that conservative Christians, too, believe in murdering their daughters for smiling at men. It’s really a pretty slippery term, due to the ways it’s been used; in its origins, fundamentalism was and remains a good thing, denoting a commitment to the fundamentals of Christian faith and the concomitant refusal to fudge or elide those fundamentals for the sake of compromise with the world. In that sense, though I might offer a slightly different list as properly fundamental or first-order, I too could be quite properly described as a fundamentalist.

There is another sense, however, in which I am not by any means a fundamentalist; that would be the sense that drives the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals in America, and has ever since the likes of Charles Fuller and Carl F. H. Henry led that separation a half-century ago. It’s less a matter of theological commitments (or at least, it once was) than of one’s attitude and approach to culture; to grossly oversimplify the case, the stream which continued to be known as fundamentalism believed in taking the command to come out and be separate very broadly, holding themselves apart from all unsaved culture (something of the Roger Williams approach), while the stream that would come to be called evangelical believed in taking the risk of exposure to culture for the sake of being able to reach and (one hopes) transform the culture.

As such, the argument I’m talking about could be described as a form of the evangelical/fundamentalist argument—and so could the argument Penn had with Tommy Smothers. The spirit and attitude that is commonly meant when most Americans talk about fundamentalism, after all, is one which exists within all movements, not merely within Christianity (or Islam, for that matter); it exists among liberals and atheists, too. Tommy Smothers, in attacking Penn on that occasion, was operating out of what can only be called the most closed-minded and arrogant sort of fundamentalist spirit and approach, while Penn was playing the evangelical role. (That, as I recognize even if he doesn’t, is the reason why this video, as well as the earlier one in which he tells of his encounter with a Christian fan who gave him a Bible, have struck such a chord with so many Christians.)

Now, standing up and advocating talking respectfully and honestly with “the enemy” is the sort of thing guaranteed to get one shot at by members of “one’s own side,” and usually by people who have no compunction about pulling out the heaviest artillery they can find (not always merely rhetorical, either) and blazing away indiscriminately. At the same time, if you talk with those with whom you legitimately disagree about major things, just because you are trying to be respectful and to listen to them honestly doesn’t mean they’re going to have any such commitment in response; oftentimes, they’ll unlimber the biggest cannon they have and fire at will, too. All of which is to say, this can be little more than a good way to put oneself at the center of a circular firing squad. Why bother? Why on Earth would one want to put up with that? Why not just shut up, give up, and go do something else?

There are a couple reasons for persevering in such an approach despite the difficulties it entails. One is that for our own sake, we need to get outside our comfortable little echo chambers and talk to people who have points of view with which we disagree, concerns and interests different from our own, and questions we haven’t already learned to answer in our sleep. We need this because if we only talk seriously with people who confirm us in our own opinions and priorities, that breeds arrogance and ignorance. It leaves us thinking we know and understand more than we actually do, which gives us a higher opinion of our judgment and the rightness of our ideas than either actually warrants; it leaves us ignorant of why people actually disagree with us, of what they actually think and believe and value, and why (think of Pauline Kael’s fabled reaction to Nixon’s victory—she was bewildered that he could have won, because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him); and it leaves us unable to properly perceive the flaws and faults in our reasoning and ideas (or, for that matter, in ourselves).

The truth is, there are always things we need to learn that we’re highly unlikely to learn from those who agree with us, because they’re likely to have the same blind spots—and even if they don’t, they’re not likely to be motivated and looking to see them in us. We’re only likely to learn them from those who disagree with us, who are looking for the chinks in our factual, logical and rhetorical armor, because only those who are looking for those chinks (usually to take advantage of them) are going to spot them and point them out to us. It’s only when we’re tried and tested that we truly discover our weaknesses, much less find the motivation to address them—and it’s only when challenged by someone who disagrees with us and is motivated to try to prove us wrong that our beliefs are truly tried and tested.

This is, of course, exactly the reason we so often tend to avoid such conversations; and at its root, it’s a perfectly natural discomfort with learning. Anytime we enter a serious conversation, we create the possibility that we might learn something. That sounds like an unalloyed positive, because we’ve been taught to think it is, but psychologically, it isn’t, at least for adults. After all, to learn something means to have it demonstrated that we were either wrong or ignorant on a given subject; this is uncomfortable at some level even when it comes from people who agree with us, who are likely to be teaching us something we find congenial and to be doing so in a gracious spirit. To learn something from someone who disagrees with us is frequently far more discomfiting, because it may very well be something we don’t want to hear, and will often be delivered in a triumphalist spirit—as their “victory” over us. Emotionally, this is something we would prefer to avoid.

Even so, we need to persevere. We need to do so for our own sake, and also because part of showing respect for other people is taking them seriously, which means we have to take their beliefs and arguments seriously. To do so in any meaningful way, we have to engage those beliefs and arguments as seriously as we are able. That seriousness is, of course, limited in part by their willingness to engage with us, which is something we can’t control; it’s also, often, limited by their emotional connection to their beliefs—some people, by temperament, are inclined to take any disagreement with their beliefs as a personal attack on them as individuals, and thus respond to disagreement poorly, improperly, and in ways which are not constructive. This was a lesson it took me a long time to learn, to recognize that there are such people and that they must be approached differently, and far more carefully, than simply through intellectual argument.

That said, if people are willing to have a serious, substantive, respectful discussion of their beliefs and ours, and if the circumstances permit, then we need to match their willingness. To refuse to engage with the beliefs of others is to treat them with disrespect, because it’s essentially to say that their beliefs aren’t worthy of being taken seriously—which implies that we don’t think they are worthy of being taken seriously. To take an idea seriously is to test it, to apply stresses to it to see if it holds up, factually, logically, and in other ways; we should always do so with an open mind, not assuming its failure before we ever begin the test. We do so, of course, by argument, deploying the facts and reason at our command in an effort to break it down, because that’s the only way we have to tell if an idea is in fact valid. The goal is not, or should not be, “winning,” being seen to be right and to prove another person wrong; the only proper goal of argument is to discern truth.

This, as far as I can tell, is the approach Penn is taking in talking with those who don’t share his positions; and this is what Tommy Smothers denounced as being wrong in itself. That fact suggests that Smothers’ real concern is not for truth—actually, it suggests that at some level, he’s afraid he might be wrong about some important things, and is strongly resistant to allowing himself (or anyone else within earshot) to consider that possibility. This is very human, and indeed a common psychological response to the awareness of dissent; but it’s far from noble, and stunts our intellectual and spiritual growth.

Now, there are those who would argue for the sort of defensive response Smothers showed on the grounds that it’s necessary to protect the truth; but I disagree. God tells us to stand firm in the truth, but I don’t recall him ever telling us to protect the truth. In a very real sense, I don’t believe truth needs to be protected—it can take care of itself, because God can take care of himself, and truth is of God; and while people’s adherence to the truth may be far more fragile, protecting believers from any sort of challenge is neither a helpful nor a productive way to address that fact. We must, rather, work to address it by deepening and strengthening their understanding of the truth, and their knowledge of and relationship with the God who is Truth; and we do so not by protecting them from questions and challenges, but rather by helping them face those questions and challenges.

Part of that is helping them to understand that just because they don’t have an answer to a given question does not mean that there is no answer to that question; oftentimes, there is, but we just don’t know it yet. That, too, is one of those things one learns by arguing out issues with people who disagree with us—including that it applies just as well to them as it does to us: just because we pose a question or a challenge that someone else can’t answer doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer for it. (If we fail to understand or remember that fact, sooner or later we’ll get blindsided for our arrogance.)

We need an extraordinary savior

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 16
Q. Why must he be truly human
and truly righteous?

A. God’s justice demands
that human nature, which has sinned,
must pay for its sin;1
but a sinner could never pay for others.2

Note: mouse over footnotes for Scripture references (does not work in IE 6).

This is the keystone of the dilemma: no one who is not truly and fully human, fully participating in human nature and human life, could possibly serve as the mediator we need and pay the penalty for human sin—it had to be one of us; what human beings had put wrong, another human being must put right. At the same time, no one who participated in human sinfulness, no one who was himself or herself guilty of sin, would have the ability to pay that price. “Pretty good” isn’t good enough for the salvation we need; not even the best human being we’ve ever known or heard of is up to the task. No one less than a completely perfect human being could do it.

Q & A 17
Q. Why must he also be true God?

A. So that,
by the power of his divinity,
he might bear the weight of God’s anger in his humanity
and earn for us
and restore to us
righteousness and life.1

Logically, then, we need a savior who is both fully human and fully God, since only God can be perfect enough to satisfy his own demands. And yet, there’s more to it than that. Only God could bear the weight of what had to be done; only God could endure bearing the near-infinite guilt of all human sin and suffering. Only God could lay down a life of infinite worth, in a deliberate choice of infinite love, as an act of infinite grace, to wash away that near-infinite guilt.

Scandalizing the church

Over a couple weeks of being head-down with the congregation, one of the things I didn’t do was keep up with Jared Wilson’s blog, The Gospel-Driven Church; so now I’m catching up. I was interested to note that at the top right now is a post, which I think is a repost, dealing with the need to convert the church to the gospel. As Jared sums things up,

We are in a weird—but frequently exhilarating—position where the gospel is scandalous even to Christians.

The main thing I would suggest is that you go read the post—and also the one a couple posts down, which is a critical evaluation of Rob Bell’s statements in a recent interview, because I think they really tie together. Why is it that the gospel is scandalous to many in the church? Why is it that people have learned to look to the church for things other than the gospel? Because we’ve had an orientation in the American church for several decades now toward focusing on and addressing felt needs, whether in individuals (the conservative wing) or in society (the liberal wing), which makes people comfortable (and thus more likely to come, give $$$, etc.), rather than challenging people and making them uncomfortable by driving them to consider their true, deep need: their total inability to do anything on their own to please God, and their total need for the gospel of salvation through the grace of God alone, by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, through the power of the Holy Spirit alone, “not by works, lest anyone should boast.”

What’s the solution? Well, to complete the trifecta, I think Jared lays it out well in the next post down, a comment on his approach to preaching:

I believe our flesh cries out for works, we are wired to worship, and we want to earn salvation, so we know what deeds are good deeds. And we need to be helped with specific advice in specific situations and we need to be reminded to do good, but our most pressing need is to be challenged on that which we forget most easily, which is not more tips for a successful life, but that we are sinners who need grace to have life in the first place.

We all know what good works look like. We just don’t want to do them. And that is a spiritual problem exhortations to good behavior cannot solve. The clearly proclaimed gospel is God’s prescription for breaking a hardened heart. . . .

What I strive for (imperfectly, fallibly) in my teaching is to uphold Jesus and his atoning work as all satisfying, all sufficient, all powerful, all encompassing, and call others to uphold it as such in their hearts. My belief is that when someone really loves Jesus and has been scandalized by God’s grace, they will really follow Him into a life of scandalizing others.

Some will contend that spending most preaching time calling for listeners to savor the work of Christ, cling to the cross, find satisfaction in Christ’s work alone, and trust His grace for salvation does not offer real help because it doesn’t give a “takeaway,” it doesn’t tell people what to do. I say it does tell people what to do: it tells them to savor, cling, find satisfaction, and trust. That is real help. And that’s what I want people to take away. And my trust is that if people are actually doing that, because their affections have been transferred in repentance from self to Christ, their repentant hearts will bear the fruit of a living faith, by which I mean a faith that proves itself with works.

That’s right on.

The answer to the dilemma

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 13
Q. Can we pay this debt ourselves?

A. Certainly not.
Actually, we increase our guilt every day.1

Note: mouse over footnote for Scripture references (does not work in IE 6).

God’s justice must be satisfied; restitution for our sin must be made. Unfortunately, it’s beyond us to do it—we can certainly work to improve ourselves, but we can never even get to the point of perfection in this life, let alone become good enough to start paying the price for past sin. If we’re going to get out from under this debt, we’re going to need help. But from whom?

Q & A 14
Q. Can another creature—any at all—
pay this debt for us?

A. No.
To begin with,
God will not punish another creature
for what a human is guilty of.1
no mere creature can bear the weight
of God’s eternal anger against sin
and release others from it.2

In other words, nobody and nothing else in this world is able to pay the price for us either. Which leaves . . . who?

Q & A 15
Q. What kind of mediator and deliverer
should we look for then?

A. One who is truly human1 and truly righteous,2
yet more powerful than all creatures,
that is, one who is also true God.3

This is the crux of the matter. If there was ever to be any hope for our salvation, it could only come from God; if anyone was ever to satisfy the demands of God’s justice and deliver us from the penalty due our sin, it could only be God himself.

The necessity of justice

Heidelberg Catechism
Q & A 12
Q. According to God’s righteous judgment
we deserve punishment
both in this world and forever after:
how then can we escape this punishment
and return to God’s favor?

A. God requires that his justice be satisfied.1
Therefore the claims of his justice
must be paid in full,
either by ourselves or another.2

Note: mouse over footnote for Scripture references.

This begins Part II of the Heidelberg Catechism, its account of our deliverance from sin and death; but where we might expect this to begin with an immediate declaration of the good news, the text demurs. Its authors knew that we can only understand the good news of the gospel as good news if we have come fully to appreciate the bad news from which it sets us free. The good news isn’t that God thinks we’re good enough as we are; the good news is that we aren’t good enough as we are—indeed, we’re worse than we think we are—but that God loves us anyway, and that though we cannot be good enough to satisfy him, he made a way to be good enough for us.

Understanding that begins with understanding the greatness of God’s righteousness and holiness and the absolute character of his hatred of and intolerance for sin; grace must begin with the satisfaction of his justice, either by ourselves or by another. As M. Eugene Osterhaven writes (44-45),

God requires that the creature made in his image give him unconditional obedience and love, and that man love his neighbor as himself. this is the essence of the law. Law and obligation are necessary because God is God. . . .

Man thus stands in debt to God. He owes him the obedience of perfect love but does not give it. Nor is there any escape from full payment. . . .

God is not a man who forgets. He is rather a righteous judge who will “render to every man according to his works” (Romans 2:6). He does not live in some distant place and he does not forget those whom he has made in his own image nor their moral relationship to him. He is the Lord of heaven and earth and he tells all men everywhere that someday they shall stand before him to give account (John 5:28-29; II Corinthians 5:10).

This is why James doesn’t say, “Mercy replaces judgment,” but rather says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” God’s judgment doesn’t disappear, nor is it set aside, it is redirected in his mercy.