There is an old saying that is often attributed to Baxter, which goes: “Save for the grace of God, so go I.” There is great truth in those words. God declares that we are righteous not by fulfilling some of the Law, but that we need to complete every last bit of the Law to please God (Deuteronomy 27:26). Jesus will later reinforce this idea when he reminds his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount that not even the smallest bit will fall away from the Law until the heavens and the earth pass away (Matthew 5:18). Every last bit. And, if you listen to the rest of Jesus’ sermon, it is not just that the letter of the law must be fulfilled, but the intention behind the law must be fulfilled as well.
It is like one of those impossible traps that we get caught in — if you do not thread the needle perfectly in every corner and in every context, you fail. One small slip is all it takes to fall. And the fall is not just a little stumble, it is a catastrophic loss of everything — it is a plummet into Hell. As Moses writes and as Paul later affirms, “Cursed” is everyone who does not fulfill everything written in the book of the Law. And so, save for the grace of God so go I…and you…and every human being.
And so, in Heidelberg Catechism, Question 10, the point is driven home — why am I under such misery of because of my sin? Indeed, we are miserable because we have failed to live up to the Law of God and are thus under the curse. And woe to the one who thinks they can pay the wages of curse on their own merit. Lest anyone be unclear or unsure, left on our own, every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or who will ever live, no matter how noble, gracious, or honorable, will face divine condemnation apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior and Substitute. Such is the heart of part 2 of the catechism where the grace of God in Christ is taught…but apart from the grace of God, so go I…and you too. Wretched creatures are we.
If you have grown up in the church, you know that the only just punishment for sin is Hell. You also know that Hell is described in the Bible in three general ways — a separation from all goodness that God brings to existence (2 Peter 2:4), positive retribution for our sins (Mark 9:47-49), and a process of eternal destruction and dying without ever being annihilated (Matthew 10:28). But, sometimes people ask, why does it have to be eternal (Matthew 25:41)? Are our sins that bad that they deserve eternal condemnation? The answer, of course, is yes — this indeed is the testimony of the Scriptures. But again, the question before us is “why”?
Perhaps an analogy is helpful. Do you realize that the one against whom you commit a crime determines (at least in part) the severity of the crime? For example, if I walk down the street of our local town of Zelienople and punch someone in the nose, I will get in trouble (rightly so!). Since I do not have a criminal record, though, I probably would just be given a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, and maybe even some community service. If I happened to break the other person’s nose, then I would probably have to pay any medical expenses.
But imagine the difference in the scenario had I walked up to a police officer and punched him in the nose…or to the mayor. The punishment would be more severe and lengthy, would it not? Now, imagine again that I did the same thing, but I did so to the president of the United States. Now, I might be locked up in prison for a season (if not longer!). Can you see how the severity of the crime is greater given the importance of the person offended?
Let’s build on the analogy, though, and shift the offense from an active crime to a matter of disrespect. Imagine that I am walking through downtown Zelienople during Horse Trading Days (a local community event where craftsmen and artisans show their wares. Now imagine me walking by a painting by a local student — it is skillfully done, but will probably never hang in a museum. Now, imagine that as I walk by I mock the painting and the one who painted it. That would be quite disrespectful, but how much more disrespectful it would be were there a world-class painter showing his or her wares and I did the same?
To go even further, imagine that you invite me over for a meal and you have worked the day away in the kitchen preparing the meal to your best ability. It would be disrespectful were I not to show my gratitude for the meal and my appreciation for your creation. Yet imagine that you were a world renown chef and had done the same thing. Would it not be even more disrespectful were I to have shown contempt for his or her skillful labors?
The point is that God is infinitely more powerful than the President of the United States. And, his work is infinitely more praiseworthy than the greatest painter in the history of mankind or of the greatest chef that the world has ever produced. He is God! That means that the punishment for our sin against God — whether that sin is an active offense, a matter of scorn, or that of passively neglecting to honor Him with worship for his greatness — is infinitely more severe than a sin we could commit against another human. And since the sin is infinite in its greatness, it only suits that the punishment is infinite in its severity and duration.
And, we also need to be reminded that every sin that we commit against man is a sin that we also commit against God (Psalm 51:4). And so, just as the punishment issued by a righteous judge is commiserate with the crime and cumulative on the basis of the number of crimes committed, our punishment for sin is eternity plus eternity plus eternity in an infinite progression given our countless sins against God, against his name, against his creation, and against his people. And so, hell is eternal — “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law” (Deuteronomy 27:26).
Question 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism states that God is not only displeased with my actual sin (that is a no-brainer) but that he is also displeased with my inherited sin. Wait one cotton-picking minute! Look, I get that I am guilty of the things I have done, but does that mean that I am also guilty of the sins of my father? Yes, it does…and more so than that! You and I are guilty of the sins of our father’s father and of our father’s father’s father before him…all of the way back to the first sin of Adam. Oh boy, we are in deep!
Here’s the thing, folks, God says that he will visit the iniquity (another word for sin) on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9)…and, well, we have already talked about our natural inclination to hate God and fellow man…even as Christians! What a mess we are in.
The implication is that even if it were possible for one person to live perfectly according to God’s law and never to sin in thought, word, deed, or intention, that person could still not earn his way into heaven because of the inherited debt from his forefathers. Jesus told a parable about forgiveness that Matthew records at the end of chapter 18. In the case of this parable, the man owed 10,000 Talents to the King. When people today come to terms with the quantity of money that 10,000 Talents represented, the natural response is “How did he accumulate such a large debt?” And that would have been one of the first questions the people of Jesus’ day would have been asking themselves, too. The only logical answer is that he inherited it from the mismanagement of his father and of his father and of his father…you get the point.
But, wait a minute, Jesus had no sin and lived a perfect life. What about him? Who is Jesus’ Father? God the Father himself is! That means that Jesus entered into this world with no inherited guilt of sin from his Father before him.
But how is that fair? I have very little control over the sins of my father or of my grandfather and I never met my great-grandfather. How can I be held accountable for their sins? Okay, I am waiting for it, “That’s not fair!” Perhaps it is not “fair” by human standards, but grace is not fair, either — though it is just. And justice is far more important than fairness — the first is objective and the second is purely subjective.
The fairness, then, is not relative to the conversation, but the justness is. Adam was our covenant head — our first representative and our mediator with God. When Adam fell, all of us fell. That’s the bad news, because Adam’s sin was really, really bad and ours has followed suit. The good news is that Jesus Christ entered into humanity and sacrificed himself to satisfy the demands of the law (justice!) for all of God’s elect…every single one.That means, in Christ, the sinless one becomes our Mediator and Covenantal Head and that means that inherited debt (remember the 10,000 Talents!) is forgiven along with our actual sins…in and because of Christ. That is good news indeed and while not fair, it is just and again, that is far more important.