The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”