Category Archives: Heidelberg Catechism

Why Would God Send Anyone to Hell?

This is one of those questions that tends to come up a lot in conversations with people in the community around me, even amongst professing Christians. When it is raised, it is not typically meant as an exegetical argument that challenges the Christian doctrine of justice, but it is a question that comes from a more emotional level. The reasoning looks something like this. “I don’t think that I could condemn anyone to Hell and God is more merciful than I am, thus he must not send people to hell.”

In my late teens and early twenties, I went through a number of years of rebellion against the church and the things that the church taught. During those years I never became an atheist per say, but I became a universalist based on the above idea. I used to say, “God is love and he is the perfection of love; hence, he must love even those whom I cannot find it in myself to love and surely love would not condemn someone to hell.” I used to tell people that I did believe that a hell existed, but I considered it vacant. 

There error in this line of thinking is two-fold. First, it demands that God define norms and actions on the basis of my preferences and standards. Because I could not condemn someone to eternal fire, then God must also not be able to do so. Secondly, it ignores the idea of justice, magnifying one attribute of God over and above all other attributes. In theological terms, God is “Simple,” meaning that not one aspect or attribute of God can be understood outside of the context of all the others — he is indivisible and perfectly consistent in himself.

The thing with justice is that it demands that punishment be given that is suitable to the crime that was committed. In addition, wherever possible, justice also demands that restitution is made. The example that I often give is that if I were to steal something from you, it is not good enough that I be punished for the theft, but you also want your things back (or appropriate compensation so you can repurchase that which was taken). And Biblically, were we to follow God’s established laws for Israel, restitution ought to be greater than the actual value of what was taken, depending on how important that thing happened to be. This greater restitution is designed both as a deterrent for those considering said theft and it is meant as a way of ameliorating the hardships caused by the theft.

And this has to do with theft. What of a more heinous crime like rape or murder? Certainly the punishment must be suitable to the crime. And, while no amount of money could ever atone for a crime like this, it would not be unreasonable to demand a certain degree of restitution from the criminal to compensate the family for medical bills, funeral expenses, etc… Further, a judge that decided to be merciful to a rapist or a murderer out of his or her love for the criminal, would be considered unjust and corrupt. He would be, in fact, promoting that which he should be punishing.

And now, we multiply. You see, all sin that is committed, is not only committed against others, but it is committed against God himself. And, as God is infinitely greater than man, the sin is infinitely more severe. Further, not only must sin be punished to see that justice is satisfied, but restitution must be made for justice to be fully done. Yet, how can man make restitution to God? Indeed, a perfect sacrifice had to be made in addition to the wrath of God being poured out in proper judgment over sin. And since you and I cannot make either the sacrifice nor endure the wrath of God, that is why Hell is our only proper and just punishment.

Does that mean that God is not merciful? That, of course, is the question that the Heidelberg Catechism poses on Day 4 (Question 11). The answer, of course, is to assure us that God’s mercy does not contradict his justice, that both are intertwined in and inseparable from the person of the God we serve. And so justice is served but mercy is shown through the suffering and death of his Son, who was sinless and could thus make a perfect sacrifice (restitution) and could suffer the weight of God’s wrath for all of God’s elect. Mercy, then, is seen in the giving of Christ for all who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Justice melted out on the Son on behalf of those God has chosen since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) means that mercy can be given to that same body of people.

And, what of those for whom Christ did not die? Justice must still be served and Hell awaits all who are outside of the body of Christ. Interestingly enough, even in this context, God gives a degree of mercy even to those who are reprobate and headed for punishment in Hell. How so? They have a life here on earth marked by many good things — friends, the joy of holding a child in your arms, the love of family, the simple joys of good music and good food. It is a small consolation, indeed, for eternity in Hell; nevertheless, even to those outside of God’s saving grace, God’s mercies can be seen (or at least ought to be seen). 

Good Confidence

In the original German edition of the catechism, the phrase here speaks of having guter zuversicht, it speaks of a good “confidence,” a good “trust,” or a good “faith” in our faithful God and Father. But what does it mean to have a “good confidence” or a “guter zuversicht” in God? 

Confidence refers to the level of one’s trust in another. Perhaps one of the classic illustrations of this trust is found in a child jumping off the edge of a swimming pool into the waiting arms of his father — perhaps fearing the unknown of the water but trusting in the strength of his father’s arms and with the assurance that his father will keep him safe. When the prophet instructs us what God demands of us as believers, one of those things is that we “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). That humble walk implies that we are walking having placed our confidence in God.

Interestingly, confidence in the western culture is sometimes viewed as being presumptuous and egotistical. Yet, this kind of overconfident attitude only comes when one is placing confidence in oneself. When one places his or her confidence in God by faith there is no room for bragging or pride. Instead, we are quietly relying on the strength of our God to deliver us from the threat of the situation.

The core of what the catechism is instructing us in question 28 can be found here. It is because God has ordered all things by his divine providence and because I belong to Him in Christ, I have no need to fear what is to come. I have good confidence in the plans and designs of Him who orders and ordains all things by his providence and I will not question his purpose. This, friends, is what it means to have a gut zuversicht.

Even so, sometimes the eighteen inches between the head and the heart can be a difficult bridge to cross. We understand an idea intellectually, but bring our hearts to a point where we live like it can often be a great challenge. We like to worry and fret over things, yet the scriptures and the catechism seem to make it utterly clear that we have a God who hears our prayers, who cares for us in our times of need, and who acts in this fallen world, ordaining all things that come to pass (Ephesians 1:11). So, in what shall we fear? We shall fear none but God alone and serve and love Him as our God and Father with good confidence because is our Father and will use all things to conform us into the image of his Son, Jesus.

Thankful in Times of Prosperity

You might be tempted to think that being thankful in times of prosperity is a given — an easy thing for believer and non-believer alike. You might be tempted to think that thankfulness during good times is quite natural. But, were this the case, the authors of Heidelberg would never have needed to ground faithfulness in a knowledge of God’s providential governance of his creation. So, perhaps genuine thankfulness is not as natural as we might initially think.

First of all, thankfulness, by definition, is a state of being grateful for thinks placed into your life. That sounds pretty benign at first glance, but it raises the question, “to whom” is that gratefulness supposed to be directed? The answer, of course, is that it is to be directed toward the one who brings the gift or blessing into your life. And, for most people, here is the rub. Yes, our neighbor might do us a favor and it is proper to thank him. Yet, God’s providence governs your neighbor’s actions. Yes, a relative might give us a gift and it is proper to thank them, but again, God’s providence governs the actions of our relatives — even of our pagan ones! Yes, good things may happen to me, but God governs all of these things. And, if God’s providence governs all things that take place in our life, then our gratefulness, in the ultimate sense, is to be directed toward Him.

You see, as Question 28 of Heidelberg points out, all things in our life are ultimately governed by God’s providence. So, when good things happen we ought to be thankful, but to be genuinely thankful, we must address that thankfulness toward God. The non-Christian does not naturally thank God — in fact, the non-Christian rejects thanking God for the good things and prosperity in his or her life. In turn, that means that they are not truly expressing thankfulness as they ought.

Yet, it is not just the non-Christian that often struggles with thankfulness, it is also the Christian. Often, thankfulness to God is our secondary response to good things in our life, not our first response. Often, we forget and have to remind ourselves to thank God for the events of the day and often we forget entirely to do so. Worse yet, often, when good things come into our lives, we assume them to be things that we have deserved or earned for ourselves. Yet, even the money paid for the labor of our hands (which is arguably earned) is something for which we must give God thanks for God has given us both the skills of our hands and the opportunity to use said skills in a productive way. All of this has been orchestrated and brought to pass by God’s providence, thus, again, we find ourselves needing to express gratitude to God.

Yet, often we do not express gratitude toward God in any intentional and meaningful way. We might say, “Thank you God for…,” but do we live in a way that demonstrates our gratefulness? Often we do not. As we continue to reflect on the catechism, do make a point of asking yourselves how intentionally you express your gratitude to God for all that takes place in your life…in this case, especially when it comes to times of success and prosperity.

Learning Patience

It’s nice to say that we must have patience in times of trouble, but how is it that we develop patience in our lives? Certainly, that is not typically an easy task and patience is clearly not a spiritual gift with which we are born. If you question that, spend some time volunteering in the church nursery next week. Patience is something that is learned, but how do we go about learning it?

For Calvin, learning patience took place as one sought the common equity of one’s neighbor. In other words, as you apply the golden rule, seeking to ensure that your neighbor receives just and fair treatment, you will (almost as a byproduct) grow in your ability to be patient both with others and during times of affliction. 

Let us suppose, for a moment, one of the classic illustrations of needing patience in western society. When we go to the store to buy a product or some groceries, imagine getting to the check-out counter and being stuck in a line that is moving very slowly. This is something that most westerners can relate to quite easily. Imagine discovering that the reason that the line is backed up is because there is a person who is checking every price as it is registered, arguing a discrepancy as to how coupons are to be rung up, and then counting out pennies to finish paying for their purchase! Then imagine that you have somewhere you are supposed to be in a short amount of time. For many westerners, especially Americans, that is enough to make you want to run up and choke the person.

From Calvin’s perspective, the Christian is to ask himself or herself, “How would I want others to treat me were I that person counting out coupons and pennies? Certainly, I would want people to understand my situation and give me the opportunity to take advantage of any discounts I can get. Certainly, I would also desire to not be rushed and to not have other customers rolling their eyes, grumbling, or otherwise making me feel like a lesser human being. And thus, for Calvin, intentionally treating the other person (your neighbor in a Biblical sense) as you would genuinely like to be treated, that develops patience in your person. 

But, how is that supposed to develop patience during times of suffering or persecution? To begin with, when you realize that, for the Christian, times of suffering are designed to strengthen our faith and reliance on God, then you realize the one with whom you are being called to be patient is God himself. And, since you know that the intentions of God are to conform you into Christ’s image, is not the end result a good and benevolent thing? So, shall we not patiently persevere recognizing the equity with which God works and desiring that His ends be done in our lives (isn’t that part of what we pray when we pray the Lord’s Prayer?). 

Finally, we often struggle with patience towards self. Yet, do we not wish to be treated equitably by others? If so, shall we not treat ourselves with that same equity? And in doing so, patience, even with self, continues to grow.

In the end, being patient during times of trouble is something we must do — and can do as a result of God’s providential governance of all things. But it is also a Christian virtue in which we must invest time and effort. The old statement, “Give me patience and I want it now,” does not apply here…

Patience in Times of Trouble

The thing that amazes me sometimes (and here I am preaching to myself also!) is how often we are surprised when bad things happen. No, I am not suggesting that people ought always to be looking at things pessimistically or be a “gloomy Gus” all of the time, or become a “nattering nabob of negativism,” but if we look realistically at this fallen and sinful world, what should surprise us are the good times when everything comes together exactly as planned, not the bad times when things seem to be falling apart at the seams. In fact, when we get overly comfortable with the blessings of this life, I fear that we also lose our hope of heaven — we cling to these things and fear that which is to come.

Now, I will freely grant that there is nothing wrong with praying for a peaceful, quiet life — that is a intensely Biblical thing to do. At the same time, the Christian should always understand that times of trouble will come because we are not yet in the glorified world and that it is often during these times of trouble that God shows his most profound grace in comfort…and no, it is not Mother Mary that comes to us…but it is God’s Holy Spirit. But how shall we face such times?

Many times, Christians approach such times, desperately clinging to hope and praying for endurance just so they can get through to the other side. And, to be entirely honest, this is a completely human and normal response. I can’t tell you how many times I have ministered to people, in the midst of a crisis, and the focus is, “Just get me to the other side of this.” And, I must confess, that has been my own reaction at times — endurance is a Biblical virtue.

Yet, Heidelberg presents a somewhat different approach that offers us an overall wisdom that is greater than our natural response. Heidelberg states that because of God’s providence (that he governs all things that take place in this world), our response is to strive for patience in the midst of suffering. And while patience is closely related to endurance, there is a difference between patient endurance and desperately seeking to get to the other side of what it is that you are facing.

The why, as to our patient endurance, is obvious. God has ordained whatsoever has come to pass and he has ordained it for our ultimate good, which is to be conformed into the image of Christ. What may not be as clear is the advantage of this approach to times of trouble. When you are simply focused on “just getting through” then it is the trouble and just the trouble that pretty much consumes your focus. When you approach trouble with patient endurance, you are not so much focused on the trouble as the opportunities within the trouble to point to Christ. One thing that I most commonly pray, when I am praying with people in the hospital, is that God would use this hospital stay to point others toward Christ — whether doctors, nurses, caregivers, staff, or roommates. 

There is a residual benefit to this mindset. It makes seeing God’s hand of sustaining mercy to you much easier. And maybe, just maybe, this “residual benefit” is one of the reasons that people prefer to grit their teeth and just get through it. Once we are on the other side of the “just get through” mindset, there sometimes creeps in a notion that we got through because of our own strength. When we face trouble with the patient endurance that only God can grant, and are faced daily (even moment by moment) with the grace of God’s sustaining mercy, it is a humbling experience. And being humbled is most commonly not a pleasant experience — but it is for our good and for our sanctification is it not? For Christ demonstrated the truest humility in coming down and taking on flesh — even the form of a poor servant. Shall we not be willing to do the same? Our opportunity to do so, very often comes in the guise of troubles that we must face with patience.

What is Providence?

In today’s Christian sub-culture, it is common for people to claim that just about anything unusual is a miracle. People talk about the “miracle of childbirth” or they speak of the raise they got at work as “miraculous” because it was unexpected and beneficial in its timing. Recovery from a disease or surgery is also spoken of as being a miracle as is surviving a car accident or other potentially tragic encounter. Interestingly, in almost every case, miracles are events that are seen as beneficial. Never once have I heard a Christian say, “It was a miracle that the tornado came through and destroyed my home” or “It was a miracle that the stock market crashed at just the right time that all my investments have been lost.” In common usage, miracles must, I think by definition, be good things. Yet, if a good thing for one person is a bad thing for another person, how now does it get defined?

Our problem, of course, is that we are self-centered as a culture and we also do not understand the difference between a miracle and God’s providence — the difference between primary and secondary causes for events. The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, places far more in the realm of providence than I think most Christians are willing to concede, at least in our modern era for Question 27 speaks of God’s providence as the way in which God sustains his creation and governs all things so that not one thing that ever happens in this world of ours ever happens by chance. 

Let’s start with the miraculous then. A miracle is an act of God’s divine interposition whereby he interrupts the normal chains of events and brings about a result that cannot be explained by ordinary causal relationships. God’s creation of the universe Ex Nihilo or Jesus changing the water into wine are examples of miracles. Biblically, miracles are also designed to testify to the authenticity of a prophet’s office or, in the case of the Gospels, be a sign that Jesus was who he said he was, God in the flesh. With the completion of the Scriptures, which is the ultimate testimony of God, the miracles no longer serve that function and thus are no longer normative for the church, that is, with the exception of God breathing new life into a dead soul when he regenerates one of his elect.

Does that mean that God no longer governs his universe? Of course not. Yet, what it means is that God no longer governs his universe by being the primary cause of events, but works ordinarily as a secondary cause — by his providence, massaging the causal factors in such a way as that they bring out the results He desires. In this work, his hand is still visible to the believer but it remains invisible to the wicked so that they may remain in their unbelief.

And so, God raises up governments and throws them down. God stirs up the storms and calms them. God raises events in people’s lives that stir them to action or that pacify them. All these things God does, but through ordinary means that do not require a miracle to take place apart from regeneration. Yet, as God is God, he still brings about all things according to the counsel of his will so that once again, not one thing happens by chance and everything that is experienced in this world (good, bad, or in between) comes from his Fatherly hand. 

A Faithful Father

Repeatedly, the Bible speaks of God as “Father,” and while we sometimes think of this as a New Testament distinction, we find this language in the Old Testament as well — God is the Father of Israel (Hosea 11:1), the father of the Messiah (Psalm 89:26), and the father of the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). Nevertheless, in today’s culture, many have grown up either without fathers or in contexts where their fathers model behavior that is abusive, neglectful, or otherwise self-centered. And in cases like this, the Biblical analogy of “Father” is often one with which people struggle and sometimes even recoil. In light of this reality, how are we to tackle this very Biblical notion of God being our Father.

To begin with, the one thing that we must never do is to abandon the Scriptural analogies. Many in mainline denominations prefer to speak of God as a “faithful parent,” as a “friend for the fatherless,” or even as a mother-figure given that oftentimes people’s maternal relationships have been more loving (though this is certainly not always the case). The big problem with this model is that it presumes the dysfunction of someone’s experience as normative and then rewrites the Biblical norm in light of the dysfunction.

Instead of throwing out the Biblical analogy, we ought to embrace it recognizing that God is the Father who sets the perfect ideal — an ideal that even the best of our earthly fathers never fully live up to and of which they commonly fall short. The reality is that no matter how dysfunctional our earthly fathers are and even if they are absent from much of our lives as was my own biological father, children crave time with their dad. We can try and substitute a variety of things for a father’s influence, but as noble and healthy as those things may be, they never quite reach the bar because God designed families to be constructed in a certain way — namely with both a mother and a father raising their children together and instructing those children in the Christian faith which they model.

And do understand, fathers can be absent without actually abandoning the family completely. How many fathers work so many hours that they never seem to be present in the home? How many fathers neglect time with their children because there is always one more thing to do? How many fathers flee to their workplace to avoid problems in the home with which they should be involved in discovering a solution. How many fathers abdicate their role of spiritual head of the family to their wives? And how many fathers are begetting children without first entering into a lifetime covenant with the woman who will mother their children? 

Rather than to do as the mainline churches do, the better solution is to embrace the Biblical analogy as the idea and to set the bar for our men, expecting them to rise to the call and be the kind of Father that God models for them. And then, to recognize that even though our human fathers often fall short — and we do — our heavenly Father never does and we can celebrate that because we all need strong fathers in our lives.

Ability and Will

One of the most basic principles of logic is that “Ought does not yield Is.” In other words, just because things “ought” to be a certain way does not mean that they will be that way. To assume this to be the case is what is called the “moralistic fallacy” and it would be the basis of what would later be called “Hume’s Guillotine,” in honor of the philosopher who popularized it. It should be noted that the opposite is true as well — “Is does not yield ought.” In other words, just because this “is” what happened does not mean that it “ought” to have been so (to argue thusly is called the “naturalistic fallacy).

Why is this important? There is an important principle that can be drawn from these two logical axioms. Just because you have the ability to do something does not mean that you will be willing to do so. Similarly, just because you have the will or desire to do something does not mean that you have the ability to do so.

Let’s take the simple example of a phobia — an irrational fear of something. I, for instance, am afraid of heights. I am fine on a six or ten foot ladder, but much higher than that my body shuts down and it takes a tremendous amount of intentional will-power to just complete the task I set forth to do. Early on in my time here where I serve as a pastor, one of the men of the church tried to get me to climb the ladder to the top of the bell-tower (about 50’ high). I did get to the first tier where the church bells were kept, but as soon as my eyes perceived my height through the ventilation grills, my legs turned to jelly and I never made it to the top. While my body had the ability to climb to the top of the tower, I did not have the will to do so.

Outside of phobias there are other examples of this notion at work. I do not like liver. In fact, my dislike for liver is intense. When I was speaking in Moscow in 2009, one of the meals I was served was liver and rice (and the rice had a liver-gravy on it). Usually, when I travel, I try and “Do as the Romans do…,” but no matter how hard I tried to be polite, I could not stomach more than a couple bites. Again, the ability was there, but my aversion to liver was so strong that my will did not cooperate.

It works the other way around as well. I went through a season of my life where I wanted to learn to play the drums, but I have no sense of rhythm. My band instructor would clap out a beat and ask me to mimic him, and try as I might, I couldn’t do so. Similarly, in college, I tried a semester of Chinese, which is a tonal language. The problem was that even in the language lab, I could never hear the difference between the four tones. The will was there but the ability was not.

Examples abound, but to do a thing, whatever that thing may be, requires you not only to have the ability to do that thing, but also the will to do it. Intentions are great, but where the rubber meets the road lies with two things: the ability to do it and a will to do so.

And that is the beauty of the final clause of Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It reminds us that God has the “Ability to do so because he is Almighty God” and the will to do so “because He is my faithful Father.” Ability and will, but for what? To govern all things by his providence and to take every event that happens in my life (even the bad ones) and turn them for my good, further conforming me into the image of Christ. Devils and men often try and pull one over on God, but they are never successful in doing so. He is Almighty God and he is my Faithful Father. So, what have I to fear when storms of challenge come crashing into my life?

For My Body and My Soul

“Throw down your burden on Yahweh; he will provide for you and he will never permit that righteousness be swayed.”

(Psalm 55:23 {verse 22 in English Bibles})

Not only does the catechism promise that God governs all things and that he even uses evil events for the good of our salvation and sanctification as believers, but the language also reminds us that God is the great provider who will give to us all things that we need. Yet, when we think about God providing the things we need, often the first and primary thing of which we think has to do with our physical needs — He provides a place to protect us from the weather, food for the belly, and clothes for the back. And while all of these things are important to us, they are not the most important thing — more necessarily, God provides for the needs of my soul as well.

He provides this ultimately through Christ, who did for me, body and soul, what I could never have done for myself. Christ opened the gate into heaven that I might come in. He nurtures and nourishes my soul through his Word and instructs it through his Word and Discipline. And ultimately, he conforms me into the image of his Son that the Imago Dei that has been warped and twisted within me due to sin, can be straightened and prepared for glory. And indeed, this spiritual care is my greatest need. I can survive for a season on the morsels and tidbits of food that I can scavenge, but I cannot survive for a moment without the care that God provides to my soul. Woe to the one who is apart from God; how wretched is their state of spiritual death.

So, as the Psalmist reminds us, cast your cares on Yahweh, recognizing that these cares are not just those things that plague you in the physical world — nor are they primarily those things that plague you in the physical world — but those cares for the state of your soul as well. Lay your cares upon Him and he will carry you through even the darkest days this life brings.

Turned Toward My Good

One of the great contributions that the Heidelberg Catechism brings to the table of Reformed confessions is that it is so very much first-person and pastoral in nature. As I have noted before, instead of speaking in the abstract, it uses words like “I” and “me” and “my” to convey spiritual truth. And the language of question 26 is no exception to this rule. 

The whole phrase that the catechism uses here is: “whatever evil that he sends to me in this valley of tears will be turned toward my good.” That is a remarkably powerful statement. The bottom line is that this world is filled with awful experiences. There are wicked people both inside and outside of the church and tragic events that take place all around. Yet, as Christians, we can be assured that all these events are under God’s sovereign control (Ephesians 1:11) and as a result, they will be used for our good (Romans 8:28).

The real question that we must ask is, what constitutes our God? Romans 8:29 clarifies this as well — that it is to conform us into the image of Christ. And thus, the evil that we experience has a purpose and it works into God’s plan — even the wicked being tools in God’s hands to refine the elect. That is the result of a sovereign God.

Some would argue that God is not absolutely sovereign over all things. And those who claim this, cannot claim the language found in this catechism question — or the promises that God makes to his people in the Bible. In fact, the only assurance that we can have of any good in our life is based on the premise that God is sovereignly in control…but if he is sovereignly in control, then all things are under his control and in his plan — and will be worked for my good — little by little, conforming me into the image of Christ.

Eternal Government

For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “government” is the government of elected officials that oversee our federal, state, and local communities. These governments seem to be ever-changing between republicans, democrats, and the occasional independent candidate. Despite the varying opinions that people have regarding the laws that get passed or the taxes that get charged to the citizenry, these leaders do have an important role to play in our society. We sinners cannot be governments unto ourselves…if we tried, we would fall into anarchy. They are God’s ministers of justice in our midst and they play an important role in keeping society functioning. 

Yet, to look only at the various civil governments that have been established over us is short-sighted. God also governs all of his creation by his eternal counsel and providence. By the way, this is one reason that we, as Christians, reject what is called “the Watchmaker” analogy. That would be the view that God brought creation into being (like a clock), wound it up, and then let it go on its own according to natural laws. Ultimately, such is the view of the Deist, but not of the Christian.

For the Biblical Christian, God not only made everything that is, but everything that takes place has its origins in His will, His design, and His plan. God truly orders all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians) and nothing that is can be apart from his design and plan. Indeed, he holds all things together in Christ (Colossians 1:17). Were God to cease governing his creation, the creation itself would blow apart into a million-billion-trillion bits and pieces and would instantly cease to exist. And this government is eternal in the sense that it is rooted in a God who is eternal and has a plan for all he has made.

All too often we do not give honor where honor is due, when we look at the ordinary things of the universe. We see things that look like cause and effect occurrences and treat them as if they are simply explainable by the laws of science. Yet, the laws of science are nothing more than descriptive of what we observe. Furthermore, what we observe is governed by the will of a reasonable and orderly God. So, we should say that the laws of science, rightly understood, are little more than explanations of the orderly government of God over his creation. And, when rightly understood, it ought to drive us to praising God for the order found in this world of ours. Such is the proper (and intended) secondary result of God’s eternal government.

Ex Nihilo: Everything from Nothing

One element of the Christian faith that makes it differ from religious and non-religious beliefs around the world is the idea that all of creation was created out of nothing by an eternal and changeless God. Pantheistic religions like Buddhism argues for a pre-existent natural realm that is an expression of the divine, Greek religions believed that the gods created all things out of pre-existing matter that was formed into the world around us, and atheistic groups hold to the position that matter is eternal. Christianity, though, takes a very different view.

In Christianity, all matter and all life was created out of nothing by divine fiat — God said, and it came into being. This makes all things to be dependent on God for their very existence. Were God to cease to exist, all matter would burst into an infinite number of particles. In philosophical terms, we would say that God is the only “non-contingent” being and all things apart from God are contingent — in other words, our existence depends on God’s, not the other way around.

Why is this important? If God is God…that is, if God is who he says he is…that means he is greater than any being in existence. Yet, to be “greater” or the “greatest” that means he must rely or depend on no one and nothing. Were God to rely on something else for his existence, then that something would be greater. 

Why can’t nature be eternal? The Greeks certainly taught that as do the atheists of today. It is primarily because nature is changing and thus contains the potential to not exist. Furthermore, if it cannot provide a first cause (what philosophers would call an “efficient cause”) that actualizes the potential. In other words, every effect must have a cause and that cause must in turn have a cause as well. At the very least, there must be an initial cause who needs no cause (in other words, that initial cause is pure actuality and has no potential). 

To some of you, that may seem like another language, but the heart of the matter is that the material world, according to logic, is dependent for its existence on a force or being that is independent or “non-contingent.” 

But, that is a broad, philosophical perspective. The more basic Christian perspective is that our Bibles teach that God created all things that are. In other words, prior to Genesis 1:1, nothing but God existed — He simply was and he existed in perfect harmony within his Triune Godhead. Genesis 1:1 begins the work of his created order…and thus it is His to be used as He intends — he governs and sustains it, in other words, but we get ahead of ourselves.

It has become popular in our recent age, to deny the historicity of God’s creative work recorded in Genesis 1-2. People often treat these chapters more as if they are a grand myth and not as if they were historical narrative. Of course, the whole Bible treats creation as historical narrative and the early church believed that a belief in the principle that God created all things was essential to the Christian religion (remember, in Heidelberg Question #26 we are dealing with the Apostles’ Creed). They would go as far as to say that you cannot even call yourselves Christians if you denied the principle that God created all things. Why do we think differently?

True and Eternal

“Yahweh is the true God; he is the God of the living and the eternal King. The earth shakes from his wrath and the nations cannot bear his curse.”

(Jeremiah 10:10)

There are many adjectives that are applied to God: mighty, glorious, faithful, etc… but perhaps two of the most common and most important are that of true and eternal. Essentially, what these adjectives communicate is that God is the one true God — there is no other and all others who seek to present themselves as God are false and only lead mankind astray and into eternal condemnation. In addition, this is the way it has always been and will always be, for not only is God true, but he is eternal and not bound by the constraints of time as are we. To God there is no before and no after; he never changes, learns new information, or weakens. He simply is. And thus, if we are going to stand in this life and in the next, we must stand upon the foundation He has laid.

And thus, as Question 25 of Heidelberg comes to a close, it affirms both of these adjectives in the context of who our Triune God is…and who he will always be. So note, not only is this statement being made in the broad sense of God, but in the catechism, it is being made of the Triune God. Numerous heresies have arisen around the nature of the Trinity (some say that God did not become Triune until the birth of Jesus, others say that he is divisible, others say that God was just taking different forms), yet the catechism affirms that God is Triune, he has always been Triune, will always be Triune, and that this is the only true way to understand who God is.

Why is this important for the individual Christian in his day to day life? First, because the things that he has been taught (assuming they were taught correctly) are not going to change. God is the same yesterday, today, and eternally. This, my friends, is the true faith in service of the true God. If one would be saved, let him believe on these things.

God Revealed

You will notice that in question 25 of the Catechism, when asked about the Trinity, the answer begins with the language of “because God revealed…” At first, that might seem like a simple enough phrase and one that is not that important, yet, from the perspective of the Christian faith, it is of significant value. While indeed, the creation testifies to its creator (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), such knowledge is not sufficient to save or to produce saving faith for faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ, not by works or by innate knowledge (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2). Further, that Word cannot be found in nature…no matter how hard you may look or how far you may search. That word must be revealed to us by God himself.

With this in mind, we Christians have a faith that is a “revealed faith.” Apart from the revelation from God, we are lost forever. Left to our own devices, we will seek to earn a salvation that we can never earn and thus be lost in despair. Left to our own devices, our imaginations will create gods after our own image which would be molded by our own hands — little gods that cannot save us from our sins. Left to our own devices, we will create philosophies that will justify our own preferences, thus leaving us in utter moral relativism where each man essentially becomes his own god.

And so, God reveals himself to us and while he did so in many ways (think Hebrews 1:1 — dreams, prophesies, history, poetry, wisdom sayings, etc…), the culmination and compilation of the entirety of God’s revelation is found in His Word. Nothing outside of the Bible (66 books, Genesis-Revelation) is the Revelation of God and thus even the most noble and wisest observations of men must be scrutinized by the light of God’s revelation (not the other way around as is done in many liberal circles). 

The sad thing is that many people today would prefer subjective experience to the objectively revealed Word of God. Many prefer their own pragmatic insights to the revealed wisdom of God on high. And many more would prefer a god of their own making to the God of Heaven. Many prefer a god they can control rather than a God who can make demands of them. Such is the nature of fallen man and such is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion — for Christianity is a revealed religion, not one constructed by men.

A Personal God

Our God is a “Personal God.” You know, I never really grasped what that statement meant until I was in seminary. Really, but that goes to show how the phrases we commonly use or hear affect our theology. Think about it this way. I grew up in a Methodist church out in the country and especially as I started coming into my late teen years and early twenties, the church took on a more evangelical and pietistic tone. As a result, what I heard people saying is, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” That is the kind of thing that Billy Graham always said, wasn’t it?

In the years following my conversion (I was born again in my early twenties), I became more and more involved in the evangelical and renewal movements that were connected with my denomination — Walk to Emmaus and the Confessing movement amongst other things. And again, that is what we talked about… “a personal relationship” with God.

Now, to me, what I understood by that was that my relationship with God was personal, deep, intimate, and in many ways, unique to my personality — much like I might have a personal relationship with a close friend of mine. Thus, my relationship with God would look different than yours might not because one was better or worse, but because it was unique to my personality. Surely, my relationship with Jason looked different from my relationship with Heath and that looked different from my relationship with Denise (who became my wife!). So, shouldn’t my relationship with Jesus look different than Jason’s. That’s how I thought at least.

The problem is that there is a gulf of difference between talking about having a personal relationship with God and having a relationship with a personal God…or, more accurately, having a relationship with a personal God through the person of Jesus Christ. The first is the common verbiage of the modern evangelical movement; the second is the verbiage of historic Christianity. 

Now, if you are reading this, don’t get all excited and angry with me just yet. What I am not saying is that you should not have a deep relationship with God. Have that deep relationship; strive for it and grow in it. Jesus called his disciples “friend” just as God did with Abraham. It is right and proper to desire this kind of relationship that has been shared by so many saints that have gone before you — and that I have been blessed to share as well. This is not of what I speak. So, bear with me.

“Personal” can be used in a variety of ways. We can use the word to refer to something that belongs only to me (my unique relationship with Jesus). We can use the word to refer to an action I take in my life (my personal finances…or the personal/intimate aspect of my relationship with Jesus). Or, we can use the word “personal” to refer to someone who is a distinct person, not an idea or a force of nature (God being a person, not a force). And, when you recognize that this third way of using the term — that God is a personal God…hence He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — three persons — then that gives you a little bit of perspective on what the church has meant by a “personal God” (at least up until the 20th century).

So, theologically, when we talk about God being “personal,” we are talking about the reality that he exists as a person (in the case of God, as Three Persons). This distinguishes him from the gods of Hinduism and other pantheistic sects which have a view of their gods that presents themselves as forces of nature. That distinguishes the God of the Bible from the god of Buddhism, which exists more as a cosmic force that unites all things together. It also distinguishes the God of the Bible from Deism which views god as being distinct and separate from mankind and thus impersonal in every sense. Even the god of liberalism can be viewed in an impersonal ways as he is viewed as little more than a social construct and not as a sovereign God. The god of Islam, could arguably be spoken of as “personal” in this sense, yet he is certainly not the kind of person with which one could have a relationship in any meaningful sense of the term.

And so, perhaps when we talk about God being “personal,” we ought to listen more to historic Christianity than to twentieth-century “Billy Grahamesque” pietistic evangelism. Perhaps we ought to be saying, “Do you have a relationship with the personal God of the Bible through Jesus Christ?” That’s more of a mouthful, but it conveys a deeper and more accurate truth than I was given, given the language I heard growing up. 

Only One God

“Hear of Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

“You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons believe that also…and they tremble.” (James 2:19)

“A mediator means there is more than one, but God is one.” (Galatians 3:20)

“And now, Yahweh our God, please save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you, Yahweh are God and you alone.” (2 Kings 19:19)

“One who sacrifices to a god shall be destroyed; Yahweh alone — to Him alone!” (Exodus 22:20)

The Bible is clear that while God exists in three persons, he is one and exists over and above all things both that he has created and that has been created in the imaginations of men. The question sometimes gets asked, “Aren’t there other gods that people worship?” 

To answer that question properly, one must first offer a definition of what constitutes a “god.” If, by a “god,” what you mean is anything that people worship (rightly or wrongly), then I suppose that we could say that there are many gods. There would be the obvious things that come to mind: images of Buddha or of the Catholic saints (or Mary), Asherah or Totem poles, and idols to Hindu gods like Shiva. Money falls into this category as people will pursue it with all of their energy rather than pursuing God with all of their energy. Famous people are another illustration of the gods people bow down before and fawn over.

Self also can be defined as a god by this standard. We live in a culture of narcissism and people obsess over their looks, their image, their pleasure, and their self-gratification. Body art, plastic surgery, and even “gender re-assignment” have become commonplace and drug use has become an epidemic. On one extreme, people are working to genetically modify embryos to emphasize “more desirable” traits and on the other hand, children are being murdered in the name of “Family Planning.” Worse yet, like the Israelites in Canaan who ignored and participated in the paganism in their midst rather than pushing it out of the land, the Church largely ignores these false gods in our midst rather than pushing these false gods out of our churches.

And further, when you broaden the definition of a word so much that it can mean almost anything, then the word ultimately means nothing. To put it another way, our ability to communicate with one another is predicated on the idea that words have a limited semantic range. If “god” is defined as anything that man bows down to, everything becomes a god and the word is ultimately meaningless. 

To this end, let me offer a more narrow definition from a Christian perspective. And this is to borrow the definition that St. Anselm used when he was devising his “Ontological Proof” for the existence of God. His definition is: “God is a being which no greater being can be imagined.” To narrow that down even more, one might point out that this definition demands that God not be one of a subset of gods but instead, that God is in a class of his own — the being par excellence. By this definition, there can only be one God — and this is the definition found in the Bible. Whether people worship themselves, the works of their hands, or demons, none fo these are in the same class as God — he is truly unique and alone in terms of his person and character; none is like him, no not one.

And to this end, both Christian theology and Hidelberg Catechism, question 25 insist on God being defined as One being even when we are defining him as three persons. It is an essential of the faith and non-negotiable in Christian theology.

Trinitarian Theology

There are many different religions in this world of ours and sadly, there are many different people who claim that all religions are simply different cultural expressions of the same faith. Of course, the latter portion of that statement is utterly irrational as all of these different religions are mutually exclusive in nature, but that is not my focus this morning. My focus this morning is on the nature of our Triune God (Three Persons but one Divine being) and how our theology reflects that reality.

You see, when the Heidelberg Catechism begins to explore the Apostles’ Creed, it asks, “How are these articles (the Articles of the Apostles’ Creed) divided up (Question 24)? The answer, of course, looks back to the nature of the Trinity and states that they are broken into three parts based on the person and work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

For most of us who grew up in traditional churches, this is pretty straight-forward language. We speak of the Trinity because that is how the Bible presents our God and those people who reject the doctrine of the Trinity reject the God we worship and are thus not Christian (again, this is why the Christian God is not the God worshiped by the non-Christian tribes and nations). But the question I would like to explore is why it is important that our theology reflect the Trinitarian nature of our God.

Again, we could approach this from a number of different angles. We could explore all the texts of the Bible that support the Trinity — there are many. We could point out that our Baptisms are to be in the Triune name and that the Christian benediction also employs the Trinitarian name of God (2 Corinthians 13:14). But even more basic than that, what is our starting point for theology? The answer to that question needs to tie in with the essential nature of our God.

God is both one and three — one in essence and three in person. Thus our theology (which literally means, “Things about God”) needs to be essentially a reflection of our three in one God. Wherever the Father is, so too is the Son and the Spirit. Wherever the Son is, so too is the Father and the Spirit. And, wherever the Spirit is, so too is the Father and the Son. These three persons are not truly separable from one another in their works or in their attributes though each tends to be described in the Bible as being a primary actor in certain ways: God the Father in Creation, God the Son in our Redemption, and God the Spirit in our sanctification. And hence, the Apostles’ Creed is designed to reflect this reality. A theology that does not stress and protect this united nature of our Godhead leads people into error of one sort or another.

In the end, both Heidelberg and the Creed seek to preserve this tension and keep us focused on our Triune God. Hence its answer and hence a starting point to ensure that our theology is Christian by ensuring that our Theology is Triune in nature.

There is Intellectual Content to the Christian Faith

Soapbox time… One of the things that really bugs me is when people believe that they can believe whatever they want to believe and yet still be called a “Christian.” True, there are certain things that are disagreed upon within the Christian faith — subject and mode of baptism, forms of liturgy, and the nature of the end times for example. But there are also some ideas and facts that are non-negotiable and are a “must be affirmed” part of the Christian faith. 

This means two things…first, that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith. In other words, there are ideas that a person must positively affirm to be considered a Christian. Or, maybe even simpler yet, Christianity is not a set of feelings that you might have toward God or fellow man. It is not that “fuzzy-warm” sense that all things are going to be okay. And being a Christian (and with that, your assurance of salvation) has a great deal more to do with what you think than what you feel inwardly. 

Think about it this way: there is a saying in America that the only things that are guaranteed are death and taxes. Let’s take the second part of that. Every year, come mid-April, people in America need to file their income tax paperwork (or an extension in some cases). If you do not file your taxes by this time than you can be assured that the IRS is going to visit you at some stage of the ballgame. As Americans, we are assured of this — that is the job of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). That assurance does not come from any set of feelings that we may or may not have. It comes from the facts that surrounding what the IRS is and what it is designed to do. It is built on an intellectual content about the IRS that is defined not by you, but by the IRS.

Similarly, when it comes to our assurance of salvation, we too must recognize that this assurance does not come from our inward feelings or preferences. It comes from our knowledge of God — who he is, what he has done, and what he has promised to his elect. Feelings and preferences are irrelevant in this case. We know what we know about God because God has revealed these things about himself…feelings about God are irrelevant. All weight must be based on what has been revealed in the Scriptures.

The second thing that this means is that if we are going to call ourselves Christian, we must affirm those things that God reveals about himself and cannot confirm that which is contrary. For example, there are some people who claim to be Christian yet deny the Triune nature of our God. Such is an untenable position. The God presents himself within the Scriptures as three persons yet one God. The creeds and confessions do not create this doctrine, the creeds and confessions simply articulate in a concise form what the Scriptures teach in a more exhaustive way. And thus, there are not only teachings that the Christian must positively affirm to be a Christian, but there are also positions which one cannot reject.

And thus, question 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, what does the Christian have to believe (intellectual content of the Christian faith)? The answer? “All that is taught in the Gospel…” And what is the Gospel? Good News — and that is all of Scripture. What comes next is how the Apostles’ Creed is helpful in explaining this in concise form (so long as we understand the Creed rightly). And though we are not saved by our knowledge, those who are brought to Christ in faith submit their understanding to the authority of Christ just as they do every other aspect of their lives.

Nothing is Truly Free

It’s been closing in on twenty years since my wife and I packed our bags and moved from rural Maryland to Jackson, Mississippi so that I could attend seminary. And though that seems like almost another life, one question I was asked stands out still today. You see, part of my application to attend seminary included a telephone interview in which I was asked to share a little about my faith and walk with Christ. In that interview, the interviewer asked, “Are you saved by faith or by works?” My response, one practiced both in my personal witness and from the pulpit at that time was, “We are saved by grace alone; not by works.” 

The interviewer pressed me, “Not by any works at all?” I said, “My works are of no benefit to my salvation.” Once more he asked the same question, “Any works?”

Now you see, my mother didn’t raise any dummies, so I got to thinking more closely about the interviewer’s question. What was it that he was trying to fish out of me. I knew my theology and I knew what the Apostle Paul said in Romans and Ephesians about salvation by grace, but I recognized he was fishing for something, so I thought it through again. Were there any works involved in my salvation? Certainly not on my part. My own salvation was a story of God’s glorious victory over a rebellious sinner, a sinner who only came to faith kicking and screaming because I knew the lifestyle to which God was calling me. My only contribution was dragging my heels as best as I could against God’s irresistible grace. No, there were no works of my own that contributed to my salvation, it was entirely a work of Christ. And right there, it struck me as for what the interviewer was fishing. I said, “It is only by the work of Christ that I am saved.” And I could almost see his smile through the telephone.

One thing that we sometimes miss is that God’s grace, while free to us, is not truly free. It cost someone something, and that someone was His Son, Jesus. The just demands of the Law had to be paid and they had to be paid in full. I can’t do that for myself, let alone for another. And thus, this work Jesus did on my behalf and on behalf of every believer throughout the history of mankind. This is the work that Jesus did on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, it was a work found both in Christ’s active obedience (fulfilling the Law of God perfectly in this life) and in his passive obedience (receiving upon himself the wrath of his Father for my sins and the sins of every believer throughout history). And, in this sense, we are saved by works — works found in the merit of Christ. In that, we receive free grace so that no man may boast.

And so, Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism closes with this as a reminder: “These are freely given by God and he does it out of grace alone for the sake of Christ’s merit.” It is what theologians will call a “vicarious” sacrifice — one in which Jesus does the work in which we benefit. We receive it freely by God’s grace alone…yet, it is for Christ’s merit and he is rightly praised for this work. Though we receive it freely, there was a terrible price paid for our redemption.

Forgiveness, Everlasting Righteousness, and Salvations for Others and for Me

One of the beauties of the Heidelberg Catechism is that much of its language is found in the first person — “I” believe this to be true or that applies to “me.” Unlike many of the other Reformed Catechisms and Confessions, this makes Heidelberg stand out as a very personal and intimate profession of belief with rich pastoral overtones (a testimony to the pastor’s heart of Ursinus and Olevianus, its principle drafters). 

Question 21 illustrates the importance of this approach in first person as it asks about the nature of true faith. And here, one of the statements is that the person with true faith believes not only that forgiveness, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are possible and worked by Christ for others, but the person who confesses this answer of the Catechism professes that these things are worked for him or her personally. More simply, it affirms that with faith comes the assurance of salvation. And, pastorally speaking, assurance is one of those questions that people struggle with the most. 

What is interesting is the question of how and where people seek to find their assurance. In pentecostal circles, assurance is rooted in experience and feelings, hence worship services are built around seeking to generate that experiential faith in the person. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. First, experiences can be created and manipulated — lighting, hands in the air for prolonged periods, and music are all designed to artificially create in a person a sense of euphoria which is then equated with the work of the Holy Spirit. The second part of the problem is that when a person bases assurance on their experience of God’s presence (no matter how genuine that experience might be), that sets them up on a kind of spiritual roller-coaster because for every height of experience there will be lows as well. This leaves a person with no ongoing assurance of salvation.

In Arminian circles outside of pentecostalism (Methodists, Freewill Baptists, etc…), assurance tends to be rooted in the decision the person has made to be a follower of Jesus. Not only does this make salvation God’s response to man’s action (something not testified to in the Bible), but once again it establishes a theological context where people can lose their salvation. Indeed, what if one, due to a series of events, “chooses” wrongly and loses assurance. Hence, in churches such as these, much more emphasis is placed on the “Altar Call” and on constantly renewing their commitment to Christ. As one person who grew up in the Free Methodist movement recently shared with me, “I felt like I had to be re-converted every service.”

In Reformed circles, assurance is not seated within man, but it is found within God where it belongs. Assurance is based on God’s promises to those who come to him in faith. And, since God is unchanging and eternal, those promises are such that they can be relied upon. Truly, that does not neglect the place of experience — Paul writes that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God — but our assurance is not based on that experience; it is based on the humble reliance upon God to fulfill his promises to us (personally and individually) as he has done so in others. Such is the nature of God’s assurance and such is the importance of this statement about faith. Faith is the assured knowledge that the things promised to believers in Christ belong to me personally just as they have been given to others — all through faith and because of the completed work of Christ. Thus, in Christ, all of the promises of the Old Testament are yes and amen.

A Sincere Trust

Remember those days when you were first learning to swim, perhaps with your father or mother standing beside the swimming pool, encouraging you to jump in and they would catch you? Perhaps it was learning to ride a two-wheeled bike for the first time and your parent (or maybe a trusted older sibling) was keeping you up, saying “trust me, I’ve got you.” Perhaps the thing to which you can relate is stepping out in a business venture and your partner or backers saying, “trust me, you got this!” 

We rely a great deal on trust…and to some extent, if you don’t place your trust in others you end up becoming a curmudgeon and a cynic and you isolate yourselves from relationships. But even though trust is a part of most of our relationships, often we do not spend much time thinking about what trust happens to be. 

The dictionary defines trust in terms of your “belief in the reliability” of another — in other words, it points to someone or something that is outside of you upon which you rely. In many ways, the word is almost synonymous with the word, “faith.” Trust is that recognition that if you rely upon another person, they will not let you down.

And so, when the Catechism, in Question 21, asks about true faith, it speaks of having a sincere trust that the Holy Spirit works in me through the Gospel. What is this all about? The Spirit has many roles in the life of the believer — he is counselor (John 16:7), teacher (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27), and giver of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) amongst other things. But most basically, His role is to conform the life of the believer into the image of the Son. 

How does the Spirit do this? The most basic way he does this task is through the Gospel — through the word studied and preached and applied to the life of the Christian. We might even more simply speak of this in the context of the “ordinary means of grace” or in the context of the “keys of the kingdom,” both of which we will talk about more later in this catechism. 

And so, an aspect of True faith, or saving faith as some would put it, is the trust that the Spirit is at work in me, conforming me into the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29) — in other words, that tomorrow I might look more like Jesus than I did today. Trusting also implies that we act upon that trust — striving as empowered by the Holy Spirit toward this goal of honoring Christ, whether through applying the Ten Commandments to my life as a way to grow in my sanctification or in seeking to be obedient to the many other commands we would see Jesus, our Lord, set before us. In other words, genuine trust requires an action on my part — a response to that trust — jumping in the pool, riding the bike, entering that business venture. We act in faith in the confidence that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel. 

And note one more thing…it is the trust that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel — this does not require (or even speak of!) supernatural works (this I would argue, ended at the close of the first century with the close of the Canon). It is through the Gospel — the written revelation of God contained in the Bible. A humble and faithful life, rooted in the Word of God, is a far greater testimony than all the “miracles” that man might like to think he can produce.

That Everything God Reveals in His Word is True

“The fullness of your word is truth; everlasting is the judgment of your righteousness.”

(Psalm 119:160)

“But he answered, saying, ‘It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:4 — citing Deuteronomy 8:3)

When the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, “What is True Faith?” (Question 21), the answer begins with the statement that true faith is “the confident knowledge that everything that God reveals in his Word is true.” Every time we recite a creed in church or for another event, we begin with the words, “I believe,” again, implying that there is a body of knowledge that goes along with true, saving faith. But what is the basis for that knowledge? It is the Bible and a commitment to the notion that it is the very word of God and that it is true.

Now, it is easy to critique the liberal church today, which largely seeks to ignore, trivialize, and strip the Word of God of any divine power. And it is even easier to critique the more broadly evangelical churches for picking and choosing what they wish to follow and consider authoritative — paying lip-service to the idea that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but flatly ignoring things that shake their theological paradigms. It is also easy to critique those churches that are heavily committed to ecumenicism, for they all-too-quickly set the Word aside in favor of fellowship. But fellowship on what basis?

But, let us turn our attention a bit closer to home. We who claim to hold to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, do we really believe that everything written in his word is Truth? If we genuinely believe that, why are we so often so quiet when people around us treat God’s word as if it is a lie? 

Think about it this way, if someone was doing a math problem around us, and was doing the math incorrectly, would we not say something to correct them? If someone around us is using a word wrong, would we not say something like, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”? If someone mentions that they have been eating chicken, lightly toasted, but still largely uncooked, we would insist with them that they cook the meat to prevent an infection. 

So, if we will insist on true principles when it comes to earthly things, why not with eternal? If we really believe that one of the marks of true faith is a belief that everything in God’s word is true, we should insist on it and stand for it not only in our own circles, but in the world around us. And, we should insist upon it with ourselves. In other words, if we know the Bible says we should do this or that, we should do this or that — whatever it is that God commands. Whatever.

Is Everyone Saved?

Okay, so call me a naive, but people still surprise me with things that they say and do. For example, a family at the Christian school where I taught exploding at me because I said that regular church attendance was an essential part of growth in Christian maturity (and their Southern Baptist pastor supported them! Yikes!). Or, when first getting involved in the pro-life movement and only one or two protestant pastors in my area being willing to support it (what’s with that?). But probably the time when I was surprised the most (and when I simultaneously angered the most area pastors) was when I was publicly asked, “Is it possible that someone could go to heaven apart from faith in Jesus?” And my answer (that apparently made heads spin) was: “No. Scripture says that Jesus is the only way to the Father and to suggest any other way means that our Bibles are lying to us.” Silly me…no, not really. What a sad state our churches are in if pastors (of all people) will not take a firm stance on that truth).

Nevertheless, there are some professing Christians and some who labor in our communities as Christian pastors who have embraced such a pluralistic view of faith and religion that they are articulating a gospel that is not the Gospel of the Apostle Paul and of the Bible — they are (in Paul’s words) an anathema — accursed. In the words of the Apostle John, they are antichrists. And still, to be politically correct, we accept them into ministerial groups, Christian fellowships, and other associations that are labeled as Christians. Sometimes I wonder with whom do I share more in common, mainline and liberal Christianity or Mormonism? That’s scary. It’s not that I am advocating that Mormons share the Biblical faith, but instead that liberal churches are just as great a cult and a threat as are the other cults of our land. It’s a brave new world in which we live — one where anything and everything can be labeled as “Christian” regardless of whether what they believe lines up with the Bible. 

And so, the logical question to ask is, if everyone is lost in Adam (due to Adam’s Original Sin), then is everyone saved in Christ? And the answer is no. One is saved by Grace through Faith (Ephesians 2:8) and only those so ingrafted into Christ by faith are saved (John 3:16-18, 36; 6:44,65; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 3:21-26…and the references go on and on and on). The notion that there is salvation in no other name but in the name of Christ is not only one of the most Biblically defensible positions in the Christian faith, it is also fundamental to the Gospel. If it were possible that people could be saved in any other way than by faith in Jesus Christ, there would be no point to evangelism or missions work…why bother. But, it we take our Bibles seriously, we have a divine mandate to let the world know the good news of Jesus Christ, for how can they know unless one has taken the Word to them and preached it (Romans 10:14-17)?

So, no folks. There are lots of roads that one may take in this world, but only one (not all) lead to heaven. All others doom those upon them to a fiery and dismal death — horror of horrors. If we would be Biblical and faithful to the Word our God has laid down before us, we must hold to this truth and proclaim it regardless of whose feathers might be ruffled in the doing.

The Gospel in the Old Testament

One of the earliest heresies that the church had to face was that of Marcion and his rejection of what we call the Old Testament today. Marcion went as far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful and angry God and that the God of the New Testament was a God of love, acceptance, and peace. He went out of his way to emphasize the dissimilarities between the Hebrew Scriptures and the distinctly Christian Scriptures rather than to emphasize the unity between the whole of God’s word.

Such an error has not been unique to Marcion or the Marcionites. While Classic Dispensationalism does not outright reject the Old Testament as Marcion did, they do emphasize disparity between the Testaments, in particular in their view that Old Testament Israel was different from and not a precursor to the Christian Church…thus presenting Christ as having two distinct brides. This has arguably led to some churches identifying themselves as “New Testament Churches,” though I’m not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean. Most recently, the popular preacher, Andy Stanley, has taught that the church should “unhitch” itself from the Old Testament and that Christians are not required to obey the Ten Commandments. So much for God being the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow or that not an iota or a dot will fall away from the Law until the heavens and the earth pass away.

We, on the other hand, teach that the Bible is one, united book and that everything from Genesis through Revelation is perfectly consistent and that the New Testament but that it is impossible to really understand the New Testament without being well-grounded in the Old Testament (hence we give out full Bibles, not just New Testaments and Psalms when we evangelize people). Further, I would argue (as I have stated many times before) that the Gospel is found interwoven throughout all of the Old Testament, and again, the Gospel as seen in the New Testament doesn’t make much sense apart from seeing the Gospel in the Old Testament.

The Heidelberg Catechism puts this notion succinctly when it states (answer 19) that “God initially revealed it (the Gospel) in Paradise (this is a reference to Genesis 3:15), but afterwards proclaimed it through the holy Patriarchs (Adam, Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc…) and prophets (Moses and the Prophets of old), as well as foreshadowing it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the Law. In other words, as you read the scriptures of the Old Testament, you should see Christ showing up everywhere. The 19th Century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, argued that the Bible was like a roadmap where every verse leads to Christ if you know how to read the map properly. Amen and Amen to that.

And to those who would look for ways to “unhitch” from the Old Testament or to deny the continuity of the Scriptures from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, repent. You are not only robbing yourself of the richness and the fulness of God’s Word, but you are leading people astray from the whole Gospel. You will be held accountable for this (James 3:1).

What is Non-Negotiable?

There is a well-known phrase that goes back to Saint Vincent of Lerins (died AD 445) that goes as follows: “In Essentials unity, in Non-Essentials liberty, and in all things Charity.” And, in principle, the idea is a good thing. Confessing Christians are commanded in scripture to treat one another with love — ἀγάπη (agape) even. Those who cannot or who will not act with love toward other Christians are not really Christians in the first place (1 John 3:14-15). Further, there are plenty of areas in which we might disagree with Christian brothers (the application of this verse or the interpretation of that passage) and no essential piece of theology is altered. I remember the first time that I preached the “Parable of the Steward of Unrighteousness” (Luke 16:1-13). At the time, I was in seminary still and looked up 17 different commentaries on the parable and each commentator approached the text differently. Go figure…

The real problem with this phrase of St. Vincent is not the latter two clauses, but the initial clause. What defines the “Essentials of the Faith.” Or perhaps, to use more Biblical phraseology, what defines the “Faith once and for all time delivered to the saints.” What points of doctrine are we compelled to be united on lest the Christian faith be lost and we fall into outright heresy? This is a somewhat more hotly debated question.

Some theologians tend toward a more minimalistic approach — if we can all agree on the Apostles’ Creed, we can claim that we are Christians. Yet, Mormons would claim to hold to the Apostles’ Creed and even most mainstream denominations would identify the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints as a cult and not as a Christian denomination. Why is that? It is because the LDS church has redefined some of the terminology to suit their theological views. 

Others have suggested that the four so-called Ecumenical Creeds together form this Essential view (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athenasian Creed, and the Christological Statement of Chalcedon). These four certainly draw us much closer to the answer and add some much-needed definitions to the terminology of the Apostles’ Creed. Yet, the Pope would affirm these four Creeds and most protestants would argue that the Pope is in serious error and many of us (particularly in the Reformed school of thought) would argue that the Pope is an antichrist.

So, where do we go next? While the next logical step is to appeal to the Confessions of the Church, we must be reminded that the purpose of a Confession is to clarify distinctions between Christian bodies, so confessions unapologetically cover things that may not fall into the realm of “Essentials.” So, that still leaves us asking the question, “Where is our starting point when it comes to Essentials?”

The answer has to fall back to looking at the Bible — the sixty-six books that comprise the Old and New Testaments. But, we need to go a little further than that. We ought to clarify that it is these books, treated as the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, consisting and treated as a unified whole, not a collection of disparate books gathered by the church. When the Scriptures become our starting point and our only rule for faith and practice, we now have a substantial basis upon which essentials can be distinguished.

The Bible is also the only place where we can know the Gospel. Gospel, of course, is a word that is used rather broadly — it refers to the four books that begin the New Testament and it also refers to the message of salvation we might would use in evangelism. In its most basic sense, though, the word means “Good News” and the Gospel (in that sense) is the whole of the Bible as the Bible contains the good news of God’s redemption of man throughout history. Beginning to end, it is the only place where we can discover the good news of the forgiveness of sins and a hope for eternal life. That is our Essential — everything else we hold flows out of this one book.