I’ve decided that I don’t want to be stuck in Day 8 anymore, so we are going to do one more attribute and then move on. But before I do that I want to give you a few tools for you to use at home to better explain what we are going through on Sunday mornings here, which will explain these attributes and even more, likely far better than I can.
The first are two books on the holiness of God that I want to recommend to you. Holiness is an important concept that I simply cannot cover in one sermon, and understanding it will radically improve your relationship with God. They are modern classics, written in contemporary language, that you can get for a pretty good deal. The first is “Holiness” by JC Ryle and the second is “The Holiness of God” by RC Sproul. The Ryle book you can get free on Monergism.com and the Sproul one you can get from Amazon, but it’s also presented as a video series on RightNow. Matt Chandler has one too, and I’m sure it’s great.
In fact, if you go to the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media, I recently created a playlist called “Heidelberg Helps” that covers in much greater detail a lot of the topics that I’m going through right now. You can use them in small groups or in your private study time.
If you’d also like a couple of books that are great summaries of Christian Theology, then I recommend getting either (or both of) “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by RC Sproul, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll, or the newest one, “Pilgrim Theology” by Michael Horton. Those get progressively longer, by the way. Essential Truths has 300 pages while Pilgrim Theology has 450. Or, if you want a good challenge, you can read one of my new favourite books, an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Only Lane and Hilary Osborne. They took a 1000 page book and condensed it to less than 300 pages.
God in Relation to Man: Righteousness
Ok, let’s finish off Day 8. God’s Holiness in relation to man meant that God was set apart from us, different, special, pure, without any spot or stain, perfectly good. But where Holiness speaks of quality, Righteousness speaks of activity. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” Holiness is who God is, Righteousness is what God does – His “ways”. The Hebrews word is the same as “road” or “direction”. God always goes the right way.
To be holy means God is perfect in who He is. To be righteous means God does right things. He cannot do wrong. To do wrong is counter to His nature. If God does it, it must be righteous because he can do no other. And because God is always righteous and right means He is also just. He cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness. He cannot allow injustice to go unchecked in His universe. Therefore wrong actions, lawbreakers, moral failures, injustice, must be perfectly dealt with. It is contrary to God’s nature to allow wrong things, sinful actions, or sinful inactions, to go on forever without dealing with them. He must make the wrong things right. Certainly, God can choose to be patient with unrighteousness and evil, He can choose not to punish it immediately, but because He is righteous He must punish and correct evil. And conversely, righteousness and goodness must be blessed. (Ezekiel 18:20; 1 Peter 3:14). Galatians 6:7 says it this way, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Condemned in Our Unrighteousness
That’s a warning to us, an admonition: That our deeds are judged by God and our sin provokes His righteous anger. Knowing this, therefore, should compel us to seek after righteousness. Part of fearing God is fearing God’s wrath, judgement, and discipline. It means recognizing that sin is another way we are separated from God. So, as humans, our problem is not only are we stained by unholiness and therefore cannot stand in the presence of God, but we have also willfully done wrong things that God the Righteous Judge must punish.
The term “Righteous” is actually a legal one, usually, used by God towards people rather than the other way around. To be righteous means to be on the right side of the law, to be unrighteous a lawbreaker. If you’re following along, then you’ll know that this is what the whole first section of Romans is all about.
Turn to Romans 2:6-11. It says
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
God is not partial to anyone. There is no race or gender or social status that he prefers. Because God is righteous His concern is whether or not you are holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, guilty or not guilty. But, as we learn in Romans, the problem is that everyone is guilty, right? Go a little forward to Romans 3:10-12,
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
When we read the Law of God, as in the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rest of scripture, we realize that we are lawbreakers and stand condemned. That’s what verse 19 says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
No one can read the Bible and not think that they are a sinner. And, as we already learned when we talked about General Revelation, even without the Bible, our own conscience condemns us. We know we are unrighteous.
Made Righteous by Grace Through Faith
So what are we to do? If the warning is that we ought to fear God because we stand guilty before the One who must punish lawbreakers, then we’re in trouble. How can we get right before this righteous Judge?
Some might think that they can just start obeying the law and be ok? But that’s not how it works, right? If I steal something or murder someone I can’t just say, “Ok, I got it out of my system. I’m good now. It’ll never happen again.” No, I need to face the consequences of my actions. Justice demands that I pay for my crime. It would be morally wrong for a judge to let me get away with murder or not pay back when I’ve stolen because I promised not to do it again.
That means that no matter how much I obey from this point on, I’m still condemned. All those Bible rules we spend so much time talking about have no power to save — only to condemn. Look at verse 20,
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All the Law can do is show me where I’ve gone wrong and teach me what I’m supposed to do right. But it can’t save me from what I’ve already done wrong. Following rules can’t fix my unholiness or my unrighteousness.
How can someone be made righteous then? How can a sinner go from guilty to not-guilty without having to face the punishment for their lawbreaking? How can God be a righteous judge who doesn’t let anyone get away with evil, who punishes wrong, who defends the defenceless, who comes to the aid of those who are wronged, who makes everything right in the end… without sending every human being to Hell to pay for what they’ve done?
This is what almost drove Martin Luther mad. As a good catholic, a good monk, he knew that God was Holy, Righteous, Perfect, and Good. He knew that God must punish evil. And he knew that he was a sinner. The church was telling him that if he did enough good things – confession, confirmation, penance, visiting relics, prayers, service, tithing – that God would forgive him. And there’s a lot of religious today who teach the same thing. If you believe hard enough, do enough religious things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t litter, recycle your bottles, eat your veggies, give some money to people who need it – then God will be impressed and bless your life and let you into heaven. They see faith in God as transactional – I do something good for God, God does something good for me. And if I do enough good things, then I can kind of erase the bad things and God will just overlook them.
But here’s the problem that stuck in Martin Luther’s head. What if he didn’t balance it out properly? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he forgot to confess something? What if he was supposed to do something but didn’t realize it? What if his confessions weren’t because he was really sorry for his sin, but because he was scared of being punished? Didn’t that disqualify them from even being confessions? What if he wasn’t sorry enough? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he didn’t suffer enough? What if he enjoyed something too much? When he was a monk, Luther fasted and prayed so much that he weighed almost nothing and basically destroyed his innards for the rest of his life. Even the Augustinian monks who were known for being a very serious group– even the leader of the monastery – was telling him to chill out.
He would spend hours and hours in confession every day, pouring out everything he could think of, and then go out and do as many religious things as possible, and then come back and confess more. He never felt that he was good enough for God could ever look upon with any kind of grace or love.
But there is comfort. That Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross, has fully satisfied God’s requirements for righteousness and justice, and through faith in Him we can become righteous before God. What does that mean?
Keep reading in Romans 3:20–25,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
That section is so critical to understanding how we can go from unrighteous to righteous in the eyes of God. If doing a bunch of good deeds cannot save us and the Law of God only has the power to shows us our guilt and unrighteousness, then what can be done? God is the perfection of righteousness, perfect in all He does, cannot do wrong, and is the source of all right and wrong. He, therefore, cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness, lawlessness, moral failure. It is contrary to His nature to allow wrong things to continue and not be dealt with, to allow sin to go unpunished, to allow a wrong to go unrighted. He must make things right. That’s why the Bible says that righteousness comes from God.
So, here is God’s plan, and what saved Martin Luther’s soul. Humanity stood condemned in our unrighteousness with no way out. Then, God put Jesus Christ “forward as a propitiation”. In other words, God laid the punishment for our unrighteousness on Jesus. Something had to be done to pay for the sins. The fine needed to be paid. The jail time had to be done. The electric chair had to be sat in. Justice demands it. Every lie, theft, murder, rape, disobedience, disrespect, blasphemy, and everything else had to be made right. God’s perfect justice demands that the perfect punishment for sin must be handed out.
But who could do it? No human being could do it because every person has their own sin. The only one who could stand in the place of sinners would be one who could stand before the judge as not-guilty. So, God, Himself came. God sent His Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be born in human flesh, to live a perfectly righteous human life, to be perfectly obedient to God’s Law – but then to be unjustly tried as guilty, betrayed by humanity, nailed to a cross, and executed as a sinner for things He’d never done. On that cross, he not only faced the wrath of Rome and Israel but the full might of God’s wrath. Then, once He had paid the fine, done the time, he offered to trade himself for anyone who would believe in Him – regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done – “for there is no distinction”. There’s no sin that cannot be forgiven by God because of Jesus. All one must do is believe they are sinners and accept that Jesus took their punishment, died on the cross, then rose again in victory.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says it this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is no work to do, no Law to follow – just a person to believe. So, how do you know you are saved? I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf, facing the justice of God, taking the punishment you deserved, paying for the sins you have committed? Do you believe Jesus did everything necessary, that “it is finished”, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself? If so, then by that faith you are declared righteous. God places your sins on Jesus, counts them as paid for, and then sees and treats you as though you had lived the same perfect life Jesus did. In God’s eyes we become as righteous as Jesus. God is just and also the justifier.
Abraham Saved by Faith
Turn to Romans 4 and I want to read what is going on there. The question that Paul is answering here is “How was Abraham, who lived before Moses and the Law, before Jesus and the Cross, saved from his sins? Was it different back then? We know Abraham wasn’t perfect, he sinned just like anyone else, so was everyone before Jesus condemned? Or did God make allowances for sin because Moses hadn’t written the law yet? If salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, then how could anyone have be saved before He came?”
The answer for Abraham is the same as for us. Abraham was justified, made righteous, by His faith in the Word of God. Start in verse 20 where it speaks of Abraham’s faith:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So, the Old Testament way of salvation was the same as the New Testament way: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone. Abraham was an unrighteous sinner like everyone else, yet in His grace, God chose to save him (Remember, Abraham did not choose God.) Abraham then responded to God’s invitation in faith, leaving his homeland to do what God told him to do. Throughout his life Abraham struggled with sin, making bad decisions and disobeyed God sometimes, but he always kept his faith and grew deeper with God as the years went by. It eventually culminated in his ultimate act of faith on Mount Moriah, when he believed God’s promise so much that he was willing to sacrifice the only human who could have fulfilled the promise, his son Isaac. It was an act of supreme faith.
Just as God chooses Christians out of the world, so he did with Abraham. Just as Christians cannot be justified or made righteous by obeying the law, neither was Abraham. Just as we believe in God’s Word and demonstrate that belief through obedience, so did Abraham. But what did Abraham believe?
Move back up to Romans 4:1-5,
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
He simply believed what God had told him. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (John 1) and Abraham had faith in the Word of God. Abraham didn’t know the name Jesus Christ, but his salvation required a faith like ours. He was not justified by anything he did, not by works, otherwise he could have bragged that he saved himself. No, just like us, Abraham believed God’s Word, trusted that God would save Him, that God would provide, that God would bring forth the salvation of the world through his family line, and then demonstrated that faith by living a life that reflected those beliefs. He was the father of our faith.
Let me conclude with this. The admonition here is that we always keep in mind that God is right in all He does, meaning not only that He is trustworthy, but that He will make everything that has gone wrong right. He will punish sinners and fix everything that has gone wrong. It also means that for their own good, God will discipline any of his people that are headed toward sin. Therefore, we ought to take sin very seriously. We ought to pursue righteousness because Jesus said that God blesses those who do. (Matt 6:33)
But we also need to remember that even though God’s standard is absolute perfection, we cannot save ourselves by mere obedience or religious practice. The only way to be right with God is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you don’t believe that, then you are still in trouble, but if you do, that means that for believers, the pressure is gone. The pressure to perform has been taken away. The fear of whether or not we are good enough to get to heaven has been taken away. The worry as to whether or not God is punishing us for our sins is gone because we know Jesus took that punishment. It means knowing that you if you’ve asked forgiveness and believe in Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, how messed up you think you are, you are right with God. You have been declared righteous by God, and who has the power to reverse His decrees? No one. Jesus has done everything we need in order that you can be saved and made part of God’s kingdom, and there is nothing you can do to lose that (Rom 8).
The only question you must ask yourself when you feel like God is against you, when you feel unworthy of His love, when you are tempted to do something in order to impress Him enough to listen to you, is this: Do you believe that Jesus has done enough make you righteous before God? If the answer is yes, then rest in that, come before your Heavenly Father with confidence, and trust that Jesus work is enough.
If you’ve been following along, you know that we’re a little stuck in Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism and that a bunch of the sermons I’ve preached over the past while are actually one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. It started with a quick review of the Heidelberg and the importance of theology and doctrine to our relationship with God, then moved on to talking about the attributes of God. We started with the most complicated, that being that God is Triune, and then moved into a discussion of what theologians call “General Revelation”, which is how we can know there is a God if we don’t have a Bible or prophets or anyone else to tell us – and that is through Creation and our Conscience.
That brought us to the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and showed us that General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God did not leave us condemned. Instead, God gave us not only General Revelation, but “Special Revelation”, more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and how He is going to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to prophets, gave people visions, performed miracles, and inspired others to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, the most important of the Special Revelations is that we get to see who God is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the past couple sermons, we’ve been working through some of the attributes of God that God has presented in the Special Revelation of scripture. If you recall, we are breaking these attributes down into three sections. First, God in relation to the whole world. Second, God in relation to mankind. And third, God in relation to Himself.
We’ve already covered “God in relation to the world” where we talked about His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and his Omnipresence – or that He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Ever-Present. Today we are going to move on to talking about “God in relation to mankind”.
But, as I said before, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list a bunch of attributes and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to further divide the discussion into more helpful categories. That way we not only see what God has said about Himself but what it means to us as an admonition (or warning), how that brings us comfort, and how we see that attribute in the life of Jesus.
I apologize for this super-quick review, but if you want to catch up, I encourage you to read or listen to the other sermons. Also, stay around for Overtime after service and ask any questions you want. My hope here is to not only give you information to help you understand God but to inspire you to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with your Heavenly Father, and for that, as I said last week, it’ll mean some homework for you.
God in Relation to Man: Holiness
The first of God’s attributes in relation to mankind is His holiness. This is such a critical attribute because it helps us understand a lot about who God is and how He works. Some theologians and commentaries even call this the “chief attribute of God”. More important knowing that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, or even that God is love, is that God is holy. This is an attribute we see repeated hundreds and hundreds of times in scripture.
In scripture, we hear the host of heaven saying, “Holy, holy, holy” of God in the Old Testament (Isa 6:3) and Jesus in the New (Rev 4:8). The primary meaning of the word “Holy” is to be separate, special, different, set apart. God is totally different than man, totally separate from man, because God has no sin, no spot, no stain, no darkness. He is perfect in his moral purity and completely separate from His creation. We see glimpses of His holiness in this world, but they are only reflections of Him, like seeing the sun through the clouds, or light seen from around a corner.
But occasionally in the Bible, God chooses something out from His creation and comes near to it – and that place is called “Holy”. It becomes holy because it has come in proximity to the Holy God.
Holy by Proximity
When God was creating the world, he rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (Gen 2:3). When Moses came near the burning bush he had to remove his sandals because was now on “holy ground” (Exo 3:5). The High Priests robes and jewelry became “holy garments” because they were only used in the “Holy place”, the temple (Exodus 28). When Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan River, they “consecrated themselves” or “made themselves holy” before they went into the “holy land” (Josh 3:5, Psalm 78:54). When David was hungry in 2 Samuel 21, the only thing he found to eat was the “bread of the Presence” or 12 loaves of “holy bread” which were only for the priests to eat (1 Sam 21:4-6). Jerusalem is called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Rev 21:10).
In Jerusalem was the “holy temple” (Ps 5:7) and inside the “holy temple”, separated by a huge, heavy drape in royal colours and embroidered with pictures of angels, so no one could see inside, was “most holy place” or the “holy of holies” where sat the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the very throne room of God on earth (Exodus 26:31-33).
The veil wasn’t just to make the room separate though, it was a form of protection. It was in the Holy of Holies that God would appear, and even then he was clouded because anyone who would see the holiness of God would die. Therefore there was a veil and the only person allowed in this holy room was the High Priest, and he could only come once per year, and that only after washing himself, putting on special clothes, burning incense so the smoke would cover his eyes, offering sacrifices to atone for his sins and the sins of the people, and bringing sacrificial blood with him. (Lev 16:2, Exo 28; Heb 9:7). It was a serious and dangerous meeting because God is so holy it is actually dangerous to us.
Consider it this way. There are a lot of things in the world today that we can take a little bit of, but too much will kill us, right? This Christmas I bought my dad what I think is a unique present for Christmas. We went to a special store in Manotick that has bags and bags of different kinds of imported ————. (Not sharing! Dad reads these blogs!) He likes it so I made him a gift-set. Then I read an article online that said too much ———– can kill people 40 and over. So, yeah, I sent my dad a potentially lethal Christmas gift.
Actually, a lot of things in this world are lethal. We can drink a glass of wine, but too much alcohol and we die. Salt makes food taste better and we need it to live, but too much can kill you. Same with water. If you drink too much water in one shot, you can die. Humans need to work in order to live and function in this world, but if we only work, all the time, giving up eating, relationships, and sleep, we’ll die.
It seems that humans need impurities because pure versions of things tend to harm or kill us. We couldn’t see or live without the sun, but if we stare at it, it’ll burn out our retinas and we’ll go blind – stay out in it too long and it’ll cook you and then give you cancer. We need air to breathe, but pure oxygen will kill us.
Sin Separates Us From God
This is why sinful humans cannot be in the presence of God, why sin separates us. God’s holiness does not mean He cannot be around sin, but that sin cannot be around God. This is a really important concept and one that a lot of people don’t understand.
Sometimes we get this view in our head that the reason that sin is a problem, and why sin separates us from God, is because our sin would somehow taint His holiness. That somehow God keeps us away because He’s afraid that if we get too close that we’ll mess Him up. Some people believe that when the Bible says that God is “too pure to look upon evil” that it means he can’t see us, can’t be near us, can’t tolerate our presence. That isn’t it at all. Not even close.
The reason that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence and kicked out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t merely as a punishment, and certainly so that they wouldn’t infect God, but because their sin made the presence of God lethal to them. The reason for the veil in the temple was so people who got a glimpse in wouldn’t die.
God isn’t like that pristine white couch that your grandma or your friend had that no one wants or is allowed to sit on because you’re going to get it dirty. “No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His… holiness washes all sin away.” And that includes us.
Open up to Isaiah 6 and let’s read the call of Isaiah the prophet together:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”
Do you see what happened there? Isaiah has a vision of God and what is his reaction? Terror. So far all he’s seen is God’s entourage. He’s seen some angels, felt an earthquake, heard an announcement, and saw some smoke, and he is convinced he is going to die. Why? Because of his sin. And he wasn’t wrong! God hadn’t shown up yet and if He had, Isaiah would have been consumed by the holiness of God. So what does God do? He sends one of the seraphim to touch a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, to burn away the impurity, to atone for the sin. And then Isaiah can stand in the presence of God.
That’s why no one can be in the presence of God unless their sins have been dealt with first. Just as the High Priest needed washing, clothes changing, and blood sacrifice before he could even walk into an area where there was a clouded version of the merest hint of God’s holiness and glory, so any human needs to have their sin dealt with before they could be in the presence of God. Not to protect God from us, but to protect us from God.
This is why “good people go to heaven” isn’t true. This is why “if I do more good things than bad, then I can go to heaven” doesn’t work. This is why doing religious things doesn’t get you any credit with God. This is why not everyone goes to heaven. Everyone has sinned (Rom 3:23) and therefore literally cannot withstand the presence of God. When their sin comes near the presence of holy God they will be like straw before a blast furnace, they will be utterly destroyed.
The only solution is for us to be as holy as God, without imperfection, without blemish, without sin, without any condemnation, to be as perfect as God is – otherwise we are literally toast.
But how can a human become that holy? By ourselves, we can’t. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, to atone for our sins, to wash away our sins, to cleanse us from unrighteousness. We need Jesus, the God-man, to take the entirety of God’s wrath against sin, to stand before the blast furnace of God’s holiness as our propitiation, as our sacrifice, as our stand-in. We need Jesus, the only man to ever live a perfectly holy life, to take that wrath, to die the death we should have, take the punishment we should take, pay the price we should pay, and then live again to prove He has conquered sin once and for all and has the power to not only forgive us but to make us clean to.
The Torn Veil
When Jesus was on the cross, right when He died, Matthew 27:50-51 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment, something fundamentally changed about humanity’s relationship with God. No longer would we only be able to be able to meet God behind a curtain in a human temple after a bunch of preparation and sacrifices. Now, because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, perfect atonement for sin, because He had done His work, there was no longer any need for a barrier between God and Man that could only be breached once per year by one special person. Jesus stood before the blast furnace of God’s holiness and wrath and through His sacrifice made a way for us to stand before God.
Turn with me to Hebrews 9:6-14. Here’s how it describes the difference between our relationship with God before Jesus and after,
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Now, there is no longer a “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwells and which we must travel to visit. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus becomes a Temple and has the Holy of Holies inside them and carries God with them everywhere.
Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to God for this-this way in John 17:20–23,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
1 Corinthians 6:17-20 says it this way,
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
Let me close with our admonition and comfort in knowing that God is holy.
The admonition here, the warning, is that knowing how Holy God is, and how fundamental to His nature holiness is, God’s people should be filled with reverence for God and hatred towards sin. We should not take God lightly, use His name callously, or pretend that God is like us because He is decidedly not like us. That should inform our worship and words. And we should not take sin lightly. We should be pursuing holiness in our lives, our conduct, and our words, because we know that sin put Jesus on the cross, separates us from God, and has caused every problem in our lives and this world.
1 Peter 1:14–16 says it this way,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But the comfort here is that we are not left to pursue that holiness alone. In fact, we can’t. It is The Lord Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that or uncleanliness is taken away and we have the ability to pursue holiness. We can’t white-knuckle being holy. It must come from God. We must be dependent on Him (1 John 1:7).
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22–29. Listen to what God says there about what He will do and why:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
This is what Jesus did for all believers who call out to Him. This is what Jesus offers to all people who see their sin and hate it; all those who are sick of themselves, who are done trying to hide their sin or trying to impress God or others, but feel like garbage inside. This is what Jesus offers to those who know they need help beyond anything that this world has to offer; to those who feel guilty, shameful, used, worn, and afraid. He offers holiness and the ability to live a holy life in His presence.
The warning is that we must take the holiness of God seriously, that our sin condemns us, clouds us, and infects us and others through us – but the comfort is that God has offered to save us from ourselves, clean us up, and make us holy, if we are only willing to admit we are sinners, ask for his forgiveness, take ourselves off the throne of our life, and put Jesus in charge.
 ESV Study Bible (Isaiah 6:3)
 Brower, K. E. (1996). Holiness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Our celebrity-obsessed culture struggles with understanding what it means to actually know someone. People seem to fall in love with, give their allegiance to, or utterly hate someone they’ve never met, simply because they’ve seen them in movies or on TV. Their agent and their publicist work hard to craft a certain public image for them, and there are many in the public that connect far too deeply with that image. They follow their every post, change their thinking to match, defend them at every turn, even cry at their funerals – but they don’t actually know that person – they only know the well-crafted public image.
As I’ve said before, getting to know someone takes time, effort, and risk. With families, friendships, marriages, or the people we work with, there always seems to be a little more that we can know about the people – and always room for surprises. You’ve probably experienced this. You think you know someone, have known them for years, and then they do something that completely surprises you. Your child, who used to need you for everything seems to suddenly grow up and now you need to actually schedule time with them because they have so many independent things going on. Your extroverted friend, who was always out, always staying up late, couldn’t care less about responsibilities somehow morphs into a mature adult. The person who you thought was rock solid in their faith and morals suddenly blows up their entire life when something terrible is exposed in them. Or the person, who you had pegged as a total screw-up, does something to completely change your view of them and all their idiosyncrasies are suddenly seen in a new light, and you are suddenly impressed by them.
The Apostles Creed
Last week I told you that we are entering a new section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is concerned with introducing us to the person, character, and attributes of God. It is framed by a study of the Apostles Creed. If you want to know more about that, visit my website and you’ll see the introductory sermons I preached on it. But to frame our discussion, and remind us of what it says, I want to read the Apostles Creed and then get into question 24 of the catechism. But first, a quick review:
If you recall, we got here from a discussion on what it means to have faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg builds its arguments question upon question so I could go all the way back to question one as summary, but let’s just go back to Question 20. It was about how salvation works and who gets to be saved from the consequences of sin. It said, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ Just as they perished through Adam?” And the answer was “No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
So if only those who have true faith in Jesus are saved, then Question 21 follows up with the natural next question: “What is true faith?” and question 22 with “What, then, must a Christian believe?” That makes sense, right? If faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved from our greatest misery, then what does it mean to have faith and what are we supposed to believe?
The answer to question 22 is “All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” Which leads to the next logical question, number 23, “What are these articles?” That led us to question 23 where we read the Apostles Creed, an ancient summary of the most essential parts of what Christians must believe to be saved, which the Catechism explains in detail for the next series of weeks. It says,
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day, he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
Getting to Know Someone
This leads us to question 24 which says, “How are these articles divided?” Before getting into the line-by-line discussion of the points of the Apostles Creed, Ursinus takes a step back and makes us look at the structure of the creed because it’s important. The answer is that the Apostles Creed is divided, “Into three parts: the first is about God the Father and our creation; the second about God the Son and our redemption; the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.” That’s critically important because it gives us an outline for our discussion on who God is.
When you meet someone for the first time there are a standard set of questions that everyone goes through, right? What’s your name? What brings you here? What do you do? They are standard, introductory questions and they give us a framework to work with. If the person says my name is “Bill Smith” or “Mary Johson” we move on to the next question. But if the person introduces themselves as “Thunderclap Nelson” or “Jürgen Schmidt” that immediately tells you something and you’ll probably dig a little further.
Once you know their name the next question tries to build some common ground. People usually start with either the weather – which everyone experiences and leaves very little room for argument – or builds that foundation on their common location: “What brings you here?” The background of that question is: Why are we in the same place? What common things do we have? What is the most basic foundation we can have for building this relationship? If you’re at a wedding and they say, “I’m a friend of the groom” you can start there. If you’re at a party and they say, “I came for the free food” that tells you something else.
The next, most common question, is “What do you do?”, right? Now that I know your name, and by extension maybe guess a little something about your ethnicity, history, and upbringing – and we’ve established a common thread for relationship – we both know the married couple, we’re both cheering for the same team, we both like the Fall weather – we usually ask what the person does for work? Why? Because it is more specific. It tells us how they spend their time, what they are interested in, what their skills are, gives us a peek into the kind of person they are.
If they say, “I’m a student” that tells you something. If they say, “I’m between jobs right now”, that tells you something else. If they say, “I’m a doctor”, that makes them see you in a certain light. If they say, “I work at a gas station, but I sell aromatherapy candles and dreamcatchers at local craft shows” that adds to the picture.
It’s the same thing when we look at the Heidelberg, the Apostles Creed, and the picture that God gives us of Himself in scripture. In the Bible He’s answering the same sorts of questions: This is my name. These are my nicknames. This is what I’m interested in. This is the work I do. These are my likes and dislikes. In the Bible God gives us the foundation upon which we can get to know and build our relationship with Him. And the Apostles Creed is a summary of what the Bible says. Who is God, what’s He like, what does He do? And it’s broken into three categories? Why? Because God presents Himself as a Triune being.
LD8b: The Trinity
That’s why question 25 is,
“Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”
The answer to which is
“Because God has so revealed himself in his Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.”
Why do Christians talk about the Trinity? Why do we say that the One, True God is three distinct persons? Because that’s what God has shown us in The Bible.
If you remember, I referenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” last week. He had a famous saying that is often repeated: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” That simply means that if you keep looking at the evidence and deducing what it means and what it can’t mean, then whatever you are left with must be what happened.
We see Trinitarian views of God all over scripture. In Genesis 1 we see God creating the world, but the Spirit of God as well, hovering over that which existed before creation (1:2). At Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew 3(:16-17) we see Jesus get into the water, the heavens open up, the Father Speak, and the Spirit of God descend like a dove.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus prays to God the Father (John 17:1), but also does things that only God can do – He forgives sins (Luke 7:48), accepts worship (Matthew 2:11, 14:33, 28:9-10), commands demons (Matthew 8:28-34), and affects creation with a word by performing miracles like healing diseases and calming the storm(John 9, Mark 4).
The Gospel of John takes chapter after chapter to share what Jesus was teaching His disciples during the Last Supper, and it is incredibly Trinitarian. In Chapter 14 Jesus says that He is going to the Father to prepare a place and that no one can come there except through Him, but when Philip says, “Show us the Father”, Jesus replies
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (vs 9)
As His disciples grow more concerned about Jesus’ forthcoming death and ascension, Jesus comforts them by saying that when He leaves He will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit to be with them (John 15:26). Then He says something surprising,
“But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6–7)
Jesus says that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit than Him standing right in front of us! But what does Jesus say at the end of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, after He had died, rose again, and was about to ascend into Heaven and send the Holy Spirit?
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Are these contradictions? Was Jesus confused? Did the authors of the Bible get it wrong? No. I have a video I want to show you that was just released by The Bible Project and lines up perfectly with what we are learning here – and says it much better than I can.
I know this is a lot to take in – and in truth, the church has been trying to figure this out, and has been arguing about for a very long time – but, the concept of the Trinity is true. To know the one, true God, to speak accurately about Him, to speak Biblically about Him, we must speak of Him as Triune. Why? Because that’s what the Creed says? No. Because that’s how God has introduced Himself to us. It’s how God has told us to relate to Him. And so, to deny the Doctrine of the Trinity is to deny what God has said about Himself, and is therefore wrong. It’s misleading. To invent new ideas about Him is sin and error.
In the same way that it would be wrong to make up stories about you, call you by a different name, or give false testimony about you, it is wrong to do that for God.
To know God as Trinity means that God is a God of relationship, of perfect love, and has been in relationship for Eternity. God is not alone and did not create us because He was lonely. God was always in perfect relationship and always will be. But He desires to share that eternal love with us by letting us get to know Him and be in relationship with Him. That is comforting because that means that God isn’t needy, isn’t fickle, isn’t distant, isn’t unable to understand what it means to love someone – it means God loves you because God is love and always has been.
The Trinity is one attribute of God, but there are more. And these attributes, these truths about God, not only tell us something about Him but something important about how we can relate to Him. And now that we’ve covered the attribute of the Trinity a bit, I want to get into more of those attributes next week.
I’m a fan of the mystery genre. I like shows and movies where the main character, or the team, has a big problem to solve and has to use problem-solving ingenuity and cool technology to try to figure out what happened. One of my favourites is when there’s a missing person that needs to be found within a certain time or something bad will happen. The gathering of clues and working the problem is interesting, but once that sense of urgency is added, it becomes so much more interesting.
When someone goes missing in these shows, it’s often up to at least one of the investigators to interview the family and friends to sift for clues in the missing person’s personality and habits in order to figure out what might have led to the situation in the first place. What was this person like? What were their habits? Who are their friends? Did they have any enemies? Were they under any special stresses? Did they meet anyone new?
Right now I’m re-reading, for the third or fourth time, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and still loving it. Of course, he doesn’t have a team of investigators working with him when solving crimes, so he does all the interviewing himself.
Most times in the stories, the person with the problem comes into 221B Baker Street, sits down in front of the fireplace, Holmes sits back, closes his eyes and says, “Tell me what happened and spare no details.” Of course, for the sake of the story, the person usually has a very good memory of exact conversations and locations, but when they are done the great detective usually asks a few clarifying questions and says, “Ok, I’ll get back to you about this soon.” and invites the person to leave.
One of the best things about his friend Watson is his ability to stay quiet when Holmes is thinking because in a lot of the stories, Sherlock Holmes simply sits in one place – in his chair, a cab, a hotel room – and thinks. And Watson just sits there. Then, after a while, Sherlock with stand up, call Watson over, and say, “Let’s go, there’s only one thing I need to see before I know exactly what happened.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, at the beginning of the adventures says that there are three abilities that a great detective must have: The powers of observation, of deduction, and a great knowledge of past cases. Later, as he develops the character he adds two more: a good imagination and staunch determination.
I’ve actually mulled these over in my head quite a bit over the last couple years, and as I’ve been reading again. I think Doyle is absolutely right about these being necessary for a good detective, but I also think that they are also valuable for Christians who study theology.
The word Theology itself means simply, the study of God, right? To do theology is actually very much like a missing person case from those TV shows or a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Theologians, like detectives, search through the evidence around them to try to discover and understand all that they can about God – and that certainly needs the abilities to critically observe all the evidence, to be able to rightly deduce its meaning, and to have a vast and growing knowledge of history and philosophy and other studies. They need to be able to use their imaginations to put the immensity of trying to understand such eternal and sometimes paradoxical things together, and of course, the determination to keep working at it when it all seems too impossible to ever grasp.
But it’s worth it. There is something especially unique and pleasant about studying the person and the attributes of God.
The Joy of Studying God
Proverbs 9:10 says that
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Remember talking about Psalm 119:9-11 which says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”?
You see the interplay between reading the Word and meeting God because even though Psalm 119 is a love song about the Bible, but it’s just as much a song about the joy of studying God, because it is through God’s Word that we encounter the person of God.
And it goes the other way too. As Psalm 14 begins, and which Romans 1 echoes and expands,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
Part of what it means to be a Christian, part of the way we worship God, demonstrate our love for Jesus, and participate with the Holy Spirit is to try to “understand God”, to “seek after God”. What does that mean but to try to track him down? Like Sherlock Holmes following the evidence to solve the crime and discover whodunit, we follow the revelations of God to do the same – to answer questions like: Who created everything and why? What is the purpose of this world and what is my purpose as an individual? What is God like? What does He want? What does He expect of us?
That’s part of what we’re doing as we study the Heidelberg Catechism – we’re following the evidence, the apologetic, the arguments for not only whether God exists, but who He is, what He is like, and what that means for us.
It began where we must begin, with an explanation of why there is misery in our world and how that misery can be fixed. After all, mankind is nothing if not selfish and is constantly asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”. And so it starts with explaining our greatest problems and how those problems are only solved by Jesus Christ. It explains the depth of our grief and then presents Jesus as the exclusive answer.
But then it must defend that exclusivity, right? What makes Jesus special? Why Him? And what does it mean to have faith in Him alone? And once those questions are answered, presenting faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, inviting people to become Christians, the author of the Catechism does what any investigator would do: starts digging into the specific details. In question 22 it asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?”
As we move through the catechism the discussions become more and more specific beginning a line by line study of the Apostles Creed. It’s not enough to know the crime and whodunit. Remember, a good investigator, a good detective, a good theologian, must do more. They must observe as many details as they can, even to the minutia that no one sees. They must seek to deduce all they can about the means and motives behind what happened. They must meditate and study history so they can gain greater knowledge of how this has been seen in other areas of life. They must apply their imagination that they might try to experience what they are learning for themselves and understand it on a deeper level. And they must show the dogged determination to keep digging until there is no more gold to be mined from their study.
Studying Details Deepens Our Love
And that’s what Ursinus does in this catechism, especially in his commentary – and more-so those theologians who have come after. They dig and dig and defend and imagine and explain and apply all they can so that the Christians who are reading and listening can better discover the God they worship, the Saviour they follow, and the Spirit that abides in them.
Why though? Why do all this work? Sherlock Holmes is asked this question often too. He spends hours sifting through pieces of evidence, lays on the grass studying a footprint for what seems like far too long, speaks of the tiniest little things – like cigar ash or someone’s shoelaces – as though they are of the most immense value. And he is often mocked by other detectives for it.
That happens to a lot of theologians and studious Christians too. In fact, it happens to a lot of people that become fascinated with a subject. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You find interest in something – doesn’t matter what it is: art, chemistry, weather patterns, history, fishing. And as you learn, you get more and more into the minutia, the details, the obscurity of the subject. But the more you learn about the details, the more they fascinate you, the more important you realize they are. But when you try to explain it, others mock or get bored.
An art student walks into a museum and looks at a painting. Everyone else sees simply a picture of a dish, or a face, or a meadow, appreciate the colours and a couple details and then walks away. But then the art student walks up and begins to become fascinated with the thickness of the paint, the intricacy of the brushstrokes, the changes of momentum and how the thickness of the paint interacts with the canvas and the light. They pull out a magnifying glass and ooh and aah over the smallest corner of the painting – and everyone around them thinks their nuts.
The average people can sit around and talk about historical events like 9-11 or D-Day or Napoleon’s conquests, but a history buff can spend hours talking about how incredibly important the invention of paper currency was. They can argue the importance of the sextant vs the astrolabe vs the compass to ancient mariners – and while everyone around them is wilting like flowers, they’re enjoying every second!
My point is that learning the minutia, the details, about something you love doesn’t get confusing or boring, it actually deepens your love for that thing. It works in relationships too. In a good marriage, the two are consistently learning more about the other. They study one another, ask the other questions about their history, their current interests, their pains and their plans. And after 20, 30, 40 years, because people are such intricate creatures, there are still surprises, still things to learn. And as that knowledge grows, so does the love. One way you can tell that someone loves you, or that you love someone, is by how many questions they ask you about yourself, or how much you want to know about them. And in the same way, one way you can tell that someone doesn’t care is using you, or has lost interest, is when they don’t ask you personal questions. Love makes a person want to know more.
So this pursuit, this study of God, isn’t just about amassing knowledge. It’s not about getting the right answers. It’s not even about being able to defend our faith when it’s attacked by doubts or unbelief. The greatest reason we study God is to deepen our love for God.
Certainly, in the study of God, we gain much. As the scriptures, we read said: we gain wisdom for life, knowledge of lofty things, a peace and security knowing God is trustworthy. We gain an appreciation for purity and righteousness and desire to do good. But more than all that, we gain a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer He prayed before He was betrayed and arrested, began like this:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:2-3)
When Jesus came it was to save us from sin and death and give us a path to eternal life. We gain access to eternal life through faith and belief in Him. What must we believe? That’s question 22, right? We believe the gospel. What is the Gospel? The gospel is the knowledge of who God is and what God has done through Jesus. Which is why Jesus defines eternal life as the continuing and growing knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ”.
As God works in us to grow our knowledge of the gospel, so our faith in Him grows. As we submit to Him in prayer and study and our knowledge of who God is growing, our desire for and ability to worship grows. As we talk to Jesus and learn about Jesus, our humility and maturity and love for others grow. As we learn more about the work of the Holy Spirit within us, our peace and security and trust grow, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and we discover the purpose of our life.
And each of these new discoveries causes us to grow more in love with God. We learn to appreciate and embrace His justice, holiness, and discipline. We appreciate more and more His patience, grace, and fatherly heart. As we reflect on who He is, we see ourselves and everyone else around us for who we are – not only wretched sinners in need of grace but special works of art that were lovingly fashioned by a perfect Creator.
But this only comes if we are willing to learn. That growth only comes if we are willing to humbly admit that we don’t know everything about God, or the world, or ourselves. It means humbly coming before God’s general and specific revelations and trying to see what He wants to show us – not trying to bend it into what we want to see.
Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging – the introduction to the Trinity and the Attributes of God – and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality. I ask you, over the next while, to cultivate within yourself those attributes of a good detective so that we can not only grow in the knowledge of God together but also grow in love for God and each other.
Please open up to Romans 10:9-17 and let’s read it together, and then I have a short video to show you:
“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Quite a video, wasn’t it? This part of our study of the Heidelberg Catechism triggers me like crazy because it touches a passion of mine – that being the importance of knowing what you believe, why you believe that, and whether or not it’s true.
I know this sounds uncharitable and elitist or whatever, but that video drives me nuts. It’s a bunch of people who claim to be Christians, who say they attend church regularly but have no idea what they’re talking about. The interviewer didn’t ask any complex, theologically tricky questions either. Just simple ones: Will you go to heaven when you die? Can you trust the Bible? Is the church important? Are people basically good?
And they got them all wrong – as most people would in Canada and the US. It scares me, actually keeps me up at night, thinking that there are people here, that sit under my teaching, and would give similar answers to these people. It terrifies me to think that someone could sit in this church for a couple years and walk out each week thinking they are a Christian, but not actually have any confidence about what would happen to them when they die – and thereby has no hope when trials come, nor can give hope to others who they meet along the way.
That’s why I’ve written books, keep up a blog, have Overtime, teach classes, and make myself available during the week – so that everyone here can be, hopefully, crystal clear in what they believe, why they believe it, and whether or not it’s true.
And I’m not saying I get it right all the time. I wish I was more winsome and interesting and accurate so that you would hear what I’m saying with more clarity and comprehension. I know there are days that I don’t explain things properly or the sermon gets dry. I watch as the teens chat among themselves or draw or pass notes. I see the adults yawn and doze and stare blankly at me regardless of what I say. I see the same four people come to Overtime. I know the church is shrinking, the tithing is less, the ministries are drying up, and that I take some blame for that. And because of that, I feel more and more pressure to be more entertaining, more interesting, and constant wonder what I’m doing wrong that keeps people from being excited by Jesus and the Word of God.
This isn’t a chastisement, I promise. I’m not criticising you. If anything, I’m criticizing myself. As I said, it scares me to think that I could be pastor of a church for more than half a decade and that the people under my teaching would be in the same place – in knowledge, discipline, commitment, curiosity, service, financially, in repentance – as they were when I got here.
You want to know my greatest nightmare? What scares me the most? That if I were to die today and stand before God that He would say: “I know you tried, Al, but you failed your church. Instead of inspiring them towards love and good works, instead of discipling them to become greater followers of my Son, you bored them to death, lulled them to sleep, made Me look bad, and made the study of the scriptures feel mind-numbingly dreary. Your church grew no closer to me in your years than when you arrived. They don’t pray more, read more, know more, serve more, or repent more than they ever have. Your ministry was a waste of time.”
Now, I don’t think that’s true, but it scares me that I might be doing damage to the gospel. And it’s led me, many times, usually on Sunday evenings and Monday afternoons, to the brink of resigning and quitting the pastorate altogether. And I don’t say this so you’ll console me or pat me on the back. I feel your encouragement all the time. I simply say this because I want you to know that I am absolutely committed to helping you know what you ought to believe, why you ought to believe it, and whether or not it’s true. You keep me up at night! Because I believe that what we’re learning here at church are the most important things in the world. And if there is any way I can help you learn – any criticism you can give me or way I can improve so you can know God better – please let me know.
Faith that Leads to Salvation
Now, to our study: You can tell from the first word of our passage in Romans 10 that we’re jumping into the middle of an argument here. It starts with the word “because”, and there’s a whole lot going on behind that “because”, but we covered a lot of it over the past weeks, so I don’t want to get sidetracked by restating it all.
Hopefully you’ve been following along, but briefly, if you recall, as we’ve been going through the Heidelberg Catechism, we’ve been talking about man’s biggest problem (that being sin and death) and how Jesus the Mediator is the only possible hope for the salvation of humanity. [I just summarized four and a half hours of sermons.]
Last week we got into Day 7 of the study of the catechism which, in question 20, asks the question:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
, or in other words, “Ok, how does salvation work, then?” The answer was,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
And the next question, number 21, which we covered at the end of last week was
“What is true faith?”
If the only people who are saved are the ones who have “true faith”, then what is that? And the answer given was,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
[Just a side note to remind you of all the scriptural footnotes there that I’m not getting into but am hoping you are looking up on your own.]
So, what is “true faith”? Let me pluck out a few words there. “True faith” is “sure knowledge” and “firm confidence” in the Word of God and the Work of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews 11:1 says,
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Now, I ask you, the people in that video, did they have “sure knowledge”, “firm confidence”, “assurance”, and “conviction” in the promises of God? Not at all, right? They were like, “Gee, I hope so, maybe.”
So, follow my argument here. If the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8 that we are saved “by grace, through faith”, and in Romans 5:1 that we are “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1) in Jesus – and the definition of “faith” means having “assurance” and “conviction” in God’s promises as stated in the Bible, then are those people saved?
I can’t say I know the state of their hearts, because no man can, but Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15–16,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Based on what they have said, I can say with fair confidence that they are probably not saved. Why? Because they don’t have confidence in the gospel.
That means, that even though they call themselves Christians, that they go to church two or three times a month – that their souls are destined for Hell. These are regular people. These are your friends who you think are Christians, who talk about God and prayer, who maybe come to your small group or sit next to you in church, who take communion with you, but who do not have a saving faith in Jesus because they do not believe the Word of God.
Does that make you sad and scared? Does it frighten you that people you know and love, your friends, family, children, parents, may look like sheep but are actually, what Jesus calls in Matthew 23:27-29, “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean…. on the outside [appearing] to people as righteous but on the inside… full of hypocrisy….” That scares me. I hope it scares you.
That’s why we need to get this right. That’s why we need to know what we’re talking about. That’s why we need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and why it’s true.
What, Then Must a Christian Believe?
And so, it follows in the Heidelberg, that if a Christian must have true faith, then we must ask question 22:
“What, then, must a Christian believe?”
Right? What is a Christian supposed to have faith in? Some would answer “Jesus” or “The Bible”, right? And they’re not wrong, but those are sort of general, right? What are we to believe about Jesus? And of course there are a lot of parts of the Bible that people have differences of opinion on, so which parts are the most critical?
For example, the New Testament, in five different letters, commands us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14; 1 Thess 5:26; 2 Cor 13:12). Is that as important as the commandment in Matthew 6:15 that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”? Or, if someone were to come to you and ask you the question, “You’re a Christian, right? What do Christians believe?” it would be important to have a good answer, right? You can’t just say “I believe in Jesus”, because that’s really not specific enough. Atheists believe Jesus existed. ISIS members believe Jesus was a prophet. Even demons believe Jesus is God. And you can’t just sit them down and say, “Ok, let me read the entire Bible to you, starting in Genesis 1:1”. You need a summary, right?
So it’s important that we ask the question, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” and have a good summary of it. The answer to question 22 is:
“All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.”
So, Christians believe the “gospel”. Where do we find the gospel? In the “articles”. What does that mean? It just means “the parts of anything written down”. Then it says “of our catholic, undoubted, Christian faith…”. The word “catholic” doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic”, but simply means “universal”, held by and binding together all believers.
And what are those articulated, written down, summarized beliefs that all believers hold and have always held? That’s question 23. And the answer given is something very special. It’s something we call “The Apostles’ Creed” and it reads like this:
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; I believe a holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
The Apostles’ Creed
There have been a lot of creeds written over the centuries, and a lot of churches have many different creeds. In essence, as I said, a creed is merely a summary of what Christians believe. And a lot of churches, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, and even older Baptist churches have recited The Apostles’ Creed for a very long time – almost 2000 years. The Apostles’ Creed has been the standard for a long time.
Sure, there are some churches and Christians that say things like “no creed but Christ” or “no creed but the Bible”, but they are misguided. All Christians are confessional. We all have summaries of our beliefs which we can state quickly. To say “no creed but Christ” makes no sense. What they usually mean is that they are rejecting any human attempt to claim that Christians must believe things that God doesn’t explicitly say in His Word. And for sure, that’s important. We are told not to add or subtract from the Bible (Rev 22:18-19). But a well-written creed isn’t mean to add or subtract anything, but simply to summarize. That’s why the counsels and theologians who craft them spend so much time arguing about the exact wording!
What makes the Apostles’ Creed so special? First, I have to say that the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the Apostles’. It’s called that because it encapsulated what the Apostles’ believed. It was a type of “baptismal creed”, or a “catechism for new believers”. At their baptism they would be asked, “What do you believe?” or what is your “Rule of faith?” and they would rattle off a little creedal summary of the faith they held. It was essentially, a way to make sure that the person being baptized was a real Christian and gave them a chance to declare their faith publically.
When we do a baptism in our church today I ask you to give your public testimony but before we ever get that far – and you’ll know this if I baptized you – I sit down with you and ask you questions about what you believe. We talk about sin, Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Why? Because I want to make sure you are a believing Christian before I baptize you. Pastors have been doing that for a very long time. We want to make sure you know that baptism isn’t some magic ceremony that makes you a Christian, that reciting the creed isn’t some kind of magic incantation that makes God accept you. We want to make sure that your faith is a true faith.
They were doing this sort of testing right from the beginning of Christianity, even in the 1st and second century. You’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed, right? In the third century, when a bunch of heretics and confusion started to enter the church – especially concerning whether Jesus was truly God and man at the same time – Emperor Constantine, in 325AD decided to get all the best and brightest theologians and pastors together to hash out the problem and write a short, clear summary of the most basic beliefs that Christians must have about Jesus as they appear in scripture. That became the Nicene Creed. But that creed wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It was an adaptation, or rather a clarification, of a creed that had existed for a long time – called the Caesarean Rule of Faith. Most churches had their own creed around this time, but they were all pretty similar. In this case, the creed from Caesarea was used.
The Apostles’ Creed, though it’s difficult to date, even predates that. That’s one of the reasons it’s so special. It is considered to be the oldest, official church creed and takes it origins from around 140 AD, only a few decades after the last Apostles’ died.
One church historian says,
“… as the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue [10 Commandments] is the Law of laws, so the Apostles’’ Creed is the Creed of Creeds.”
But it’s not just its age that makes it special. It doesn’t really matter how old it is, how wonderful the words of a Creed are, how pithy it is written, or how many people agree with it. All that really matters is how much it agrees with scripture. And the Apostles’ Creed is special because it is a biblical document. The authors of the creed didn’t want to make anything up, so almost every word of it is a copy/paste from the Bible. That’s why so many theologians, from the early church fathers to John Calvin to modern times, have studied it and used it as a teaching tool for so long.
We are currently on what is called Lord’s Day 7 of the catechism, in question 23, and we are going to stay parked in the Apostles’ Creed until Day 22 and question 58! We are going to spend a long time in this document. The Heidelberg takes apart almost every single word of it, defends it from scripture, and then explains it’s importance to believers. Why? If you remember my summary of the history of the Heidelberg, it was because people’s theology and faith was all over the map – their knowledge was confused, their hope was lost, their unity in the Spirit under attack, the adults and preachers ignorant, the youth falling away from God – and they knew that what these people needed most was a solid framework to build their faith on so they could rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ and find their hope in Him.
The passage we started with in Romans 10 ended, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” How do we build up faith? How do we make sure the people we know and love are saved? How do we build up our own hope during troubled and confusing times? By hearing the truth about the Word of Christ in the Gospel, in the Bible.
That passage says, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Which is great news, but then it says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
People can’t be saved if they don’t believe. And they can’t believe if they don’t hear. And they can’t hear us if we are too afraid to talk because we don’t have confidence in our own faith, right? This is why I implore you to pray, read the word, study, and meet together. Because you are surrounded by people who need to know the hope that is within you – and they’re not going to come talk to me. They’re not going to come to church. And some of them believe lies. You have very words of life within you. I want you to have the confidence to share them – not because you feel guilty, but because you know they are true.
 Know the Creeds and Counsels by Justin S Holcomb pg 26.