Archive for the ‘Catechism’ Category

The following is a satirical catechism put together by John Owen, highlighting the consequences of Socinian error.

Question 1: What is God?
Answer: God is a spirit, that hath a bodily shape, eyes, ears, hands, feet, like to us.

Question 2: Where is this God?
Answer: In a certain place in heaven, upon a throne, where a man may see from his right hand to his left.

Question 3: Doth he ever move out of that place?
Answer: I cannot tell what he doth ordinarily, but he hath formerly come down sometimes upon the earth.

Question 4: What doth he do in there in that place?
Answer: Among other things, he conjectures at what men will do here below.

Question 5: Doth he, then, not know what we do?
Answer: He doth know what we have done, but not what we will do.

Question 6: What frame is he upon his knowledge and conjecture?
Answer: Sometimes he is afraid, sometimes grieved, sometimes joyful, and sometimes troubled.

Question 7: What peace and comfort can I have in committing myself to his providence, if he knows not what will befall me tomorrow?
Answer: What is that to me? See you to that.

Wow! Owen wasn’t pulling any punches. How we think about God goes a long way in how we think about life and reality and whether we can find comfort in God’s providence. Carl Trueman observes:

[T]he issues at stake when it came to the doctrine of God had profound pastoral implications; and the Arminian and Socinian proposals were not simply intellectually disastrous; they were also disastrous for the economy of salvation, and thus for Christian pastoral practice, and for the experience and aspirations of the ordinary believer as well. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 66.

Doing theology isn’t merely an exercise in mental gymnastics. No, it’s immensely practical. In fact, it’s the only way we can explain and cope with reality in this beautiful, yet sad, world.

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The first question (taken up last week) in the Heidelberg Catechism was: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

The second question regards how we come to that comfort. It asks: “How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?” And then it goes on to say there are “Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.”

Note for a moment how clear this teaching really is. It doesn’t say, “since there are many things to know, it is therefore unhelpful do delineate any universal principles true to everyone’s situation.” No, rather it lays out a very clear and concise summery of the basic ingredients of knowledge that are essential to Christian life.

First, the greatness of my sin and misery.

However unpopular talking about sin might be, the Reformed were clear on this point: nothing is more practical and indeed essential than that we understand the nature of man and his perilous predicament. Indeed, it is man’s nature as a sinner before the righteous judgment of a holy God this is particularly and perennially out of style.

But how to we come to know our misery? By the Law of God.

God gave the law first from Mount Sinai saying, “Love God, and Love your Neighbor.” Later Jesus further explicated the law on the Sermon on the Mount telling us how we love must from the heart and even love our enemies. Thus, the law gives us God’s righteous standards. In sum it commands us to “Be perfect.”

“Oh come on now,” someone might object. “It doesn’t actually mean ‘be perfect.’ Everybody knows we can’t be perfect. God wouldn’t be so unjust to require of people something impossible for them to perform.”  But would God really be unjust? Is God actually merely saying, “Oh, you can try hard enough, and if you’re basically a good person all-around, I’ll let you into my kingdom”? In effect, does God just wink at our sin?

Somehow, down deep inside, we all know this doesn’t ring true. We have a sneaky suspicion that God probably isn’t very happy with us, and is actually probably pretty mad at us. Furthermore, in the deeper recesses of our consciences, we also probably have a pretty good idea why God is angry with us and that he has good reason. We are all sinners and we know it. We are unrighteous and deserve to be punished one way or another. As Paul writes to the Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin (Rom. 3:19-20).

But we’ll never come to this realization unless the law drives us there. Rather, we’ll ever end up stifling such contemplations and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.  Only the law of God in its pure, unadulterated intensity, can waken drunken sinners from their perilous stupor. Only the law of God can cut someone to the quick like is demonstrated by the tax collector  who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13).

Paul goes on to say in Romans 7:

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (v. 24-25).

Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.

That “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11) which sets the prisoners free is none other than that declarative message, indeed that announcement of the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Paul called this of “first importance.” That which he received, he also delivered to others:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

Notice the historic emphasis in all of this. Paul is not talking about a mere sentimental experience he had, but about what actually happened in space, time, and history. This stuff would have been on the evening news! And it was being announced all throughout “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This was a message, with a particular content. And it was essential that it be heralded to all the world. This is why Paul could cite the scripture, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15) and come to the conclusion, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

But what really is so good about this supposedly good news anyway?  Isn’t the gospel kind of like a ‘new law’ in the end anyway?

That’s a great question, and the answer is a big no. The gospel is not just a new law. In fact, the gospel is not the law, nor law at all. It is gospel! It is entirely and categorically distinct. The law commands, the gospel promises. The law says “do,” while the gospel says, “done.” In fact as one person put it, “the gospel gives what the law demands.”

“How does this happen?” one might justly ask? The answer comes through the doctrine of justification by faith alone: By believing upon Jesus Christ, God not only forgives one’s sins, but also imputes the righteousness and holiness of Christ unto the sinful believer. This means that not only are our sins taken care of at the cross, but Christ’s perfect obedience to the law is also credited to us who believe.

This means the gospel is not just a cosmic do-over where God presses the restart button and gives sinners a second chance: “Okay, I forgave your sins, try harder this time.” God isn’t just the God of second chances. Rather, God saves sinners, period!  He’s the God who kills and makes alive. He’s the God who saves to the uttermost, those who were dead in their trespasses. There is a profound sense in which God, by sending Christ into the world, was not merely rewinding the tape to give men another opportunity to save themselves.  He was not just putting man back in the garden with another try at resisting the forbidden fruit. Rather, he was putting Christ, the Son of God, in the garden. And this time, the second Adam would drive out the serpent, crushing its head, and earn the eternal inheritance for all his people . We must make no mistake, “salvation is of the Lord” and it is a gift. God is doing the saving — all of it. And he alone will get all the glory.

So if this is true (which it is), how do we get all this benefit? How do receive all these blessings? This forgiveness of our sins? This righteousness imputed to us?  Oh, friend! Now we enter into the most important question of all. And the answer is by faith alone!

“[W]hat must I do to be saved?” asked the Phillippian jailor. And the Evangelists reply: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).

“By faith alone?” someone might wonder. “Isn’t that too easy? What about obedience to the law, and overcoming our sin? Doesn’t it say somewhere that “only the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom 2:11) and that a person “is justified by works and not by faith alone: (Jas. 2:24).  Well, those are all good questions, and have been taken up in more detail elsewhere.  But in short, yes the “doers of the law” would be justified by the law — if in fact there were any such doers! But the clear witness from scripture is that there aren’t any such “doers of the law” except for Christ: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24). James’ point is that this faith (which alone justifies) will never itself be alone in the justified, but will ever be accompanied with good works. Just as it would be absurd to consider a new heart transplant (a heart of flesh) that didn’t begin pumping new blood through the veins (and would function just as the old heart of stone), so it would be absurd to say assume one has faith without works. We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Such a faith would be a dead faith, and indeed not true faith at all. But faith itself, not our works, is the alone instrument of our justification. And this must be so. For only faith can look away from our sinful, pitiful, selves and flee to Christ. Faith is my nature extra-spective and looks to Christ alone for righteousness and forgiveness. And “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Paul relates,

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. … God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).

And as Christ our Lord has said: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

So this is the doctrine of justification by faith alone and it is at the heart of the gospel. As the Reformed were fond of putting it, justification was the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. According to Calvin it was the hinge (or axis) upon which the whole Christian religion turned.

But we don’t understand the importance of justification apart from the law. In Romans 5, we read that “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” So the Law paves the way for the gospel. It brings men low so that they might first realize their need for the gospel and for Christ.  That is why it so important that we never divorce the law and the gospel. In fact, the gospel makes no sense apart from the law.  If people have a low view of the law, they will inevitably have a low view of the gospel. Invariably they will think themselves righteous and in no real need for the gospel.  Such a person will not find Christ glorious, nor the cross very important.  And for the righteousness of Christ imputed to the sinner? Who needs such a thing? What a stupid doctrine! They will say.

Thus, it is only those who have been humbled by the law, who have tasted something of the weight of their sins, and felt the guilt of their just condemnation, who are then ready (indeed made able) to receive the gospel. To them, then, the gospel of grace is the most beautiful, wonderful thing in the whole world. And oh how they or overcome by the sheer mercy and goodness of God in Christ.

Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Paul says in Rom 12:1:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Having been justified now we get to serve God and follow his ways and walk in his righteousness — not because we have to but because we want to. The law no longer has any condemning power over us. And what’s more, we’re no longer under the power and dominion of sin either.  Although we still struggle with indwelling vestiges of our old nature, our old heart of stone has been thrown out and a new heart of flesh put in. Thus it is impossible that we still want our old sin like we used to. In fact it is unavoidable: we will desire the things of God and want to honor Christ. For we have been regenerated, the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).

But, how do we know what pleases God? Well we know it from the law of God, as mentioned before. But now, because of our justification, we can offer obedience without fear of punishment or reproach for sin-stained and imperfect works. And furthermore, we are motivated out of gratitude to God and a certain, sure, anticipation of the glory to come.

In conclusion, this threefold division of the things necessary to know are then explicated in the remainder of the Catechism under the categories, Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  For the Reformed, this threefold structure, provided not only a clear outline of basic doctrines but also a helpful theological instruction as to the order in which we come to them.  There must be a clear logical flow from the Law (showing us our sin and misery) and the Gospel (showing us how we are redeemed from all our sine and misery and enabled and energized to respond thankful obedience). We don’t find one doctrine irrespective of the other. We can’t come to the gospel, without the law first driving us to our knees. And likewise, we don’t ever bow before the law without immediately looking to the gospel to find forgiveness and grace. Similarly, we never grow tired of the gospel or outgrow its relevance in our lives without finding again our need for the law to show us again how much deeper our sin still lies and how much more we still depend upon the gospel. And finally, we never rest in the gospel without at the same time being renewed in the inner man so that we delight in the Law of God and seek wholeheartedly to please Christ our Savior and Lord.

Paul says as much when he writes to Titus in the wonderful little letter by that name:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.  This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone (Titus 3:3-8).

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What is your only comfort in life and in death? Thus opens the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism. And one must admit this is a pretty good question.

But is it too ‘man centered’ to be thinking about our own comfort, let alone thinking about it first? Shouldn’t we rather be thinking first about God and his glory? Well, the authors to the Heidelberg Catechism (Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus) didn’t think so. They understood that recognizing man’s abject and real need was not contrary to the glory of God, but rather tended toward it. God is glorified when we recognize our total dependance upon him for life and salvation.

But let’s dwell on this question a little more? What really is man’s only comfort?

In life, we might look to the various comfort we see around us: friends, family, jobs, cars, homes, sports, hobbies, etc.  And these surly can be comforts.  But what happens when these fail? What happens when our loved one dies, or our families let us down, or we loose our jobs.  More importantly, what happens when our life ebbs away and we approach death itself? What is our only comfort then — in life and in death? Even thinking about death (something us Americans are so good at avoiding) can be unnerving. It’s so final So dark. So unknown. So scary.

And, surely, death is all those things.  And that’s why this question is so helpful. Inevitably we’ll have to face times when our worldly comforts pass away, and we’re left with the question: what is our comfort?

The first part of the answer starts out: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own… Full stop! Wait a second! How can this be comforting? How can our not belonging to ourselves be comforting. Not to ourselves, but to somebody else!?!? Are you kidding me? These authors must have been in another world! How could that ever be more comfortable? Couldn’t they have come up with a better idea to start off with? Let’s think about it.

In our day, ownership of other individuals isn’t exactly culturally preferred.  In fact, there’s much controversy about people not being able to “own” their pets (dogs and cats and such) because it’s against animal rights. Yeah… Beneath all that, our culture still has some communal remembrance of the atrocities of slavery, which only further obscure the notion of ownership.  And yet the Bible tells us that we are not our own — that we belong to another, even to Jesus Christ. And furthermore, it tells us that we are not only his servants, but even his slaves.  How is that possible? More to the point, How is that comforting?

Well, in NT times, slaves were common.  And one of the things that kept slaves from being mistreated by other people was the fact that they belonged to another master. So, if someone, for any old reason, wanted to beat you up, they’d have to think twice before doing anything to you. Why? Because you were someone else’s servant. You belonged to another.  So you can imagine how it was a privilege to be the servant/slave of an important and respected master. People couldn’t just mess with you, they’d have to answer to your master. So you were relatively safe.  (Now, I suppose this depended also on the relative strength and power of one’s master as well.)

Interestingly, this idea of ownership is the one taken up by the Heidelberg Catechism. I am not my own… but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. See how this is comforting? We belong to the best, most powerful, most kind, most considerate, master in the world. And not only does he love us so much that he died for us, but he’s stronger than any other master in the world and can deliver and protect us from every enemy.

The Catechism continues: who with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and has redeemed me from all the power of the devil. Heb. 2:14-15 says,

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

And John says:

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (Jn. 8:36).

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 Jn. 3:8)

So we see how this is tremendously comforting. What can man do to me? What can the devil and all his demons to? They have to answer to Christ. And all dominion over heaven and earth has been given unto him. He is Lord over all the universe.  And I am his servant, indeed his slave. What better place can there be? What safer place can their be? What greater comfort can there be in life and in death? And we see that the answer is, None at all.

And [He] so  preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily reading and willing to live unto Him.
(Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 1: Question 1)

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