Usually, when we think of “satisfaction,” we think in terms of the context of what satisfies us. A nap on the sofa in front of a fire in the fireplace, a nice thick and juicy steak dinner, or a favorite book are satisfying things that come to my mind. For those of us who do, preaching and teaching the Word of God is one of the most satisfying of all things to do in life — as one pastor said, “preaching is my vocation, my avocation, and my vacation.” Amen to that, there is nothing quite like it in the world. And as Christians, we ultimately are to find our satisfaction in Christ. Indeed, if God is “well-pleased” in Christ (Matthew 3:17), then oughtn’t we be the same?
Yet, there is another kind of satisfaction — one that is objective in nature and has to do with the Law. When a law is broken there is a punishment assigned to that law which is said to “satisfy the demands of the law.” Thus, if you drive too fast on the road, if you fail to pay your taxes, if you steal from your neighbor, or if you perjure yourself, then there is a penalty to be paid. Sometimes that penalty is measured by a fine, sometimes it includes community service, and sometimes it requires jail time. Whatever the punishment assigned by the Law and applied by the Judge, that is required of you to “satisfy” the Law’s demands. Once satisfied, you can then go about your life as normal.
Yet, when we shift from earthly things to eternal things, we find ourselves with a dilemma. Our sins are not just sins against the earthly community around us; they are sins against God and against His law. And since God is eternal, the consequences of sin against God are eternal in nature as well. Hell is in fact the only suitable and proper punishment for our sin.
The problem with eternal is just that…it is eternal. In other words, unlike paying a fine or even going to jail for a sentence, those things end and we can come out on the other side. Eternal means that it never ends. And Hell is a frightful place given the Biblical definitions — unlike what the popular culture celebrates, it is not the place that any would ever or should ever want to go. And, when it comes to God’s law, because he is just and righteous, the demands of the law must be satisfied either by us or by another (as Heidelberg Catechism, Question 12 puts forth).
This is the very heart of the Gospel. How do we escape the wrath to come? How do we escape the wrath we deserve? What is worse, as Question 13 points out, we can never make that satisfaction for ourselves. Why not? It is because we are finite and cannot endure infinite wrath. It is also because we are sinners and tainted by sin, so even our best works are not good enough to earn merit in God’s eyes. We are indeed in a fix.
Many years before the Heidelberg Catechism was written, Saint Anselm wrestled through this question as well, pointing out that man needed saving but he could not save himself while the God who needed no saving was the only one who could save man. Thus God had to become a man to save men. The questions that follow in Heidelberg are designed to flesh out Anselm’s answer for us, but more importantly than that, they are designed to teach us that the only place to which we can run to escape the wrath we deserve is to Jesus Christ the Son of God. He made satisfaction for his people — not for all mankind, but for all that God has elected to trust in him as their Lord and Savior — the rest are condemned already (John 3:16-18). Flee to Christ, dear friends, flee to Christ.