A Farewell Address in the Upper Room
On the night before Jesus went to the cross, He had a lot of things to say to His disciples in the Upper Room. Matthew, Mark and Luke give some of the story like what Jesus said and did, but it is the Gospel of John, written 30 years later, that fills in a lot more of the details of what happened.
John spends five whole chapters sharing what Jesus taught that night – and it’s some powerful and critically important stuff. In chapter 13 we see Jesus wash the disciple’s feet, demonstrating the kind of humble, servant-hearted love His followers are supposed to have towards one another. Then, after predicting Peter’s denial and telling Judas Iscariot He knew what was up before Judas left to betray Him, Jesus gives a very long talk.
He tells them that He will be leaving them soon and that if there is one thing they need to remember once He’s gone is that He loves them and that the movement He has just instituted must be known for one thing: Love. John 13:34–35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
With that as the jumping off point, that Jesus is leaving and they need to love one another, He gets into the details of what that means. In chapter 14 Jesus speaks of where He is going – to prepare a place in heaven with God for all the people who follow Him. They’re confused, as usual, and want to know how to get to where Jesus is going what He’s talking about. Look at 14:6. Jesus tells them flat out how to get where He’s going and why He has the authority to say what He’s saying. He tells them that a relationship with Him is the only to God, because He is God Himself!
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him…. [then verse 10] I am in the Father and the Father is in me…”
This gives some comfort, but Jesus sounds pretty serious about leaving and the disciples are concerned that if Jesus leaves then everything they’ve been experiencing will stop. They’re worried they will once again be left alone, afraid, powerless under the thumb of the Pharisees and the Romans. They won’t know what Jesus wants them to do, and won’t be able to do anything of worth because He’s not there, and that they might fall back into old patterns of sin because they no longer have Him around. But Jesus isn’t done teaching yet and what He’s about to say will radically alter how they and everyone else perceives their relationship with God.
Even though Jesus is leaving, Jesus isn’t going to leave them alone. Look at what He says in John 14:15–20. I want you to notice the interplay, overlapping and distinctiveness of the persons, roles, and individuals in the Trinity:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. It’s not that the Holy Spirit wasn’t around until that moment. We see the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and we know that none of the disciples would be able to follow Jesus or understand even a tiny bit of what Jesus is saying if the Holy Spirit wasn’t working on them. But now, after Jesus dies, rises again, and leaves them after the ascension, the Holy Spirit will be with them in a new way.
The Helper: The Holy Spirit
Continue reading in John 14:25–31 where Jesus speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit and explains once again that He is going to be murdered by sinners, but they won’t be left alone:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
Now we come to chapter 15 where we read the famous section about us being branches, Jesus the “true vine”, and God the Father “the vinedresser”. Jesus just said He is leaving them but will be sending the Holy Spirit. But look at how he words this. How can He say that they must remain connected Him if He’s going away? There’s a lot going on in this passage, a lot of imagery, and a lot of pointing to teachings we see in the Old Testament, but the core of the message to the disciples is this: Even though Jesus is about to die a terrible death and be buried in a tomb, they are not alone. They have each other, His love, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then later, after Jesus has risen from the dead, He’s going to leave again, ascend to the right hand of the Father – and they still won’t be alone. He’ll still be with them.
So their natural question will be, “How do we stay connected to you while you are gone? How do we keep in contact with you when you’re not standing in front of us? How can we have access to your presence and comfort and answers and hope if you go away?”
Jesus answer is, “I know you can’t do anything without me. I’m the vine, you’re the branches. If you disconnect from me, you’ll die. I know that. What I’m telling you is how to remain connected to me. In fact, you need me more than you know.”
Look at what Jesus says in John 15:18–20,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Following Jesus isn’t going to be easy. Jesus says, “When I go away, not only will you have spiritual enemies, and Pharisees and Rome to deal with, but so much more. As you spread my message of love, the world is going to hate you for no reason – and they’re going to try to stop you, hurt you, and kill you.”
Left Alone and Afraid?
Now look at chapter 16, because it gets worse. John 16:1–4,
“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me…”
How scary is that? “As you follow Me”, says Jesus, “it’s going to go from bad to worse. Even your friends, family and neighbours will hate you because of me.” I can just imagine the fear and desperation in their eyes. Remember, these guys are not strong men. They’re not military guys, great warriors or heroes. A very short time after this they are going to get to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is going to be arrested. Do you know what most of the disciples do? They scatter! One guy is so scared when the soldiers grab his cloak, he tears it off and runs away naked. Peter puts up a bit of a fight and sticks around for a bit, but ends up denying Jesus a few hours later to save his own skin.
These guys are terrified. Do you know where the disciples are the first time Jesus appears to them after rising from the dead? They’re not preaching the gospel… they’re hiding in a locked room afraid that they would get the same treatment as Jesus!
So Jesus says this and these guys are freaking out. How do I know? Look back at chapter 16:4-6,
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.”
Of course, it had, right? Their teacher, leader, guide, protector, friend, Saviour, Messiah, and connection to God just said He was about to be killed, and would be leaving them alone very soon… and after that everything was going to go really sideways for them. And they knew everything Jesus said was the absolute truth.
“Jesus, if you leave, how will we be able to be with you? If you go, how will we connect with God? If you go, how will we not fall back into sin? If you go, who will protect us, teach us, guide us, show us what to do, where to go, how to live, and how to pray? How will we be able to defend ourselves against demons and enemies? If the whole world is against us, how will we have the courage and strength and wisdom to be able to share your message with others? How are we supposed to do anything without you, Jesus?”
Have you ever asked those questions? I have. Have you ever prayed that you could just see Jesus for a minute? That you could just hear His voice, feel His hand on your shoulder, sit at His feet, put your head in His lap? Just hear one encouraging message, one solid direction to tell you where to go, one proof of His love… right from His lips. Have you ever, after a trying day, or a difficult time of temptation, or a long battle, longed for the presence of Jesus – wished that He would come to you, or take you home, or just come sit at the end of your bed and tell you it’ll be ok?
I think all Christians feel this way. They long to be with Jesus because He is their friend, their God, their protector, their hope, and they not only want to know Him better but are also afraid of what life would look like without Him. Things get confusing or hard and they just want to hide behind Him like a child hiding behind their father’s pant leg or digging their face into his neck during a thunderstorm. I think anyone who knows Jesus, who have learned about Him and has learned to love Him, trust Him, believe in Him, knows the feeling of wanting to see, hear, and touch Jesus – and has had that moment of fear for what it would be like if Jesus left them alone.
I think all believers have faced that temptation to think that Jesus has left them, has abandoned them, is powerless to help them, or that He has forgotten them in their struggles, pain, temptation, and fear. And it’s a terrible feeling. I think that’s what the disciples felt.
It is Better That I Go
I want you to look at what Jesus says in verse 7.
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away…”
Jesus looks at the sorrow on the face of His friends, the ones He loves so much… the ones who long for His presence, and say, “It’s actually better that I’m going away….” That’s hard to hear, isn’t it?
Some of you grew up in homes where you had an absent father or mother – because they were gone or drunk or sick. Or maybe you were abandoned. Maybe you were abused. You longed for their love, protection, comfort, and help, but they weren’t there for you, or they hurt you. And it soured you on all kinds of relationships. In your loneliness and fear, you ran into the arms of people who hurt you. Then, in your hurt you closed off your heart from others; even from those who wanted to love you and help you, even from God.
Some of you even heard these words, “It’s actually better that I’m not there. It’s actually better that it turned out this way.” and those words didn’t bring comfort, they stung. It was like a slap in the face. “Better that you were gone? Better that I was alone? Better that you hurt me?”
Maybe, as you read these words of Jesus, you see them through that kind of lens, and it puts you on the defensive. One more person who is taking off on people they say they care about. Jesus is supposed to be all loving, all kind, all wonderful – and here He is seemingly ditching the people He just said He loved – and telling them that it’s actually better! How can that be? How can Jesus say, “it is to your advantage that I go away.”
Let’s read. John 16:7–15,
“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. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Skip to verse 20,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus is speaking of His arrest, trial and crucifixion that would be coming within the next hours. The disciples would be in complete sorrow, utterly confused, totally lost. And Jesus knew they would forget everything He had been saying to them that night. He knew they didn’t understand – but He also knew that after He left, after He ascended into heaven, He would send the Holy Spirit to them, and He would remind them of exactly what Jesus said, teach them what it meant, and expand upon that teaching so they would finally understand and have hope.
Jesus said it was better that the Holy Spirit comes not because He was going to abandon them, but because while Jesus was on earth He could only be in one place at a time, only have one conversation at a time, only teach a group of people at a time, and not be able to walk beside everyone at once. But, the Holy Spirit would carry Jesus’ presence and Jesus ministry to the entire world at all times. The very presence of God, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, would then dwell inside believers.
Remember that verse from Ezekiel 36:26-27 last week? God says to His rebellious people,
“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.”
What’s better: Having Jesus walk beside you, but you have a heart of stone that can’t understand what He is saying, and refuses to listen and obey – just like the Pharisees and followers and disciples couldn’t understand Jesus for the whole three years they were with Him – or having the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God dwell within you, changing your heart, mind, and soul to be more like Jesus’, and giving you the conviction and power to actually “cause you to walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules”? Which is better, the physical presence of Jesus without conversion, or the presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart after His gift of conversion?
Jesus says that in God’s sovereign plan, the way that salvation would come about would be that the Holy Spirit would not come in that new covenant power until Jesus died, rose again, and then ascended into heaven.
Listen to John 7:37-39,
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Jesus said that not only would the Holy Spirit be with them, but He would go forth and “convict the world”, turning many who hate Jesus into faithful disciples. But, that life-giving water that comes from Jesus, that will flow out of Him into the hearts of believers, bringing life to all those who encounter it, would only come after Jesus had been raised from the dead and glorified after ascending into Heaven. There would be no outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a new way, no tearing of the temple curtain to expose the Holy of Holies, no expanding the Kingdom of God to the whole world, no new covenant power sent to believers to courageously spread that message if Jesus remained on earth in bodily form.
The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in the same and yet distinct – and none of this could happen – the conviction of the whole world, the empowerment of the disciples at Pentecost, the presence of God dwelling in all believers giving them spiritual gifts, making them part of the body of Christ, empowering them beyond their abilities, guiding them places they would never go, teaching things they could never learn on their own, and making them bear fruit in their lives beyond what they would ever imagine – if Jesus stayed on earth in physical form. That’s why it was better for Him to go. Not to leave His disciples alone, but so that He, God, could be with them in a new and better way they couldn’t experience if He didn’t. Jesus is not like us. He doesn’t take off. He is ever faithful and only does for us the things that cause us to grow closer to Him – even if we must be sorrowful for a short time.
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve been trying to understand what it means to live in the Spirit, walk by the Spirit, and tap into the power and presence of God to be able to get through the challenges of life. I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to have the presence of Christ inside me, how to find hope in that, and how to connect with Him if He’s not standing in front of me.
Next week we are going to talk about what the ascension of Jesus and the consequential presence of the Holy Spirit means to Christians – and it’s so very important because understanding who the Holy Spirit is and how He connects you to Jesus is everything to a believer.
But I needed to go through this section of scripture first because I think it’s important that we understand that Jesus taught us how important the Holy Spirit is – so important that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us than Jesus Christ Himself walking beside.
That’s a big thought and we’re going to discuss it more next week, but let us make our application this: Let us thank God for not only our salvation through Jesus Christ, but for Jesus sending us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And let us pray that over the next couple weeks we will understand and learn to love Him more and more.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was either heaven or earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divine breath inside us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, satisfying choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show one does not believe God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between creator and creation, rejection must be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they now knew “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be in relationship with evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love, He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of the decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that they had sinned all of creation was marred and effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. Everything changed because of sin. God’s wrath and justice were at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with the death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started over using Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we can get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but who was willing to listen and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save this one family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God used it to raise Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made to his family. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation to be the slaves of Egypt. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God. This would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sins of the nation on an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is death. God had the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before Adam and Eve ate that cursed fruit.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just as wiping away all of humanity in a flood, leaving only one, good family didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned from the law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter is a sort of in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and it would last 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But it was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Lawgiver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred for sin and how much He wanted them to come back to Him, warning them about the dangers of sin, and saying He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. One who would finally obey. They spoke of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. Raising up nations, setting the stage for the birth of Jesus at exactly the right time. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of His life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as King, the one who they should submit to, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where love and grace are removed and physical and spiritual death reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not wrath or gluttony or lust or abuse. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement against sin on Jesus. We will never understand the full measure of the suffering Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him so we could be restored back to God.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires a choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through our conscience. He shows us his plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law and dying for sin – and then He makes each of us an offer. Will you accept Jesus as your only Lord and your only Saviour?
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then extends his pierced hands and offers the freedom He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…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.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His first story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to the next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known: That you were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose, and life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career. That your instinct towards justice and desire for hope and peace can be fulfilled. That your decisions have eternal consequences. That you need not fear death and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into great victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bibles, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
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.
Last week I told you that the sermons over the past month have all really been one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. We started with a quick review of what we’ve talked about so far in the Heidelberg Catechism and how studying theology and doctrine will lead to greater love for God. We then moved onto talking about the attributes of God, beginning with one of the most complicated, that being that God is Triune – that the one true eternal God has revealed himself to be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then moved on to what is called General Revelation where I said that “God wants to be known” and even without the Bible He has shown Himself to humanity in obvious ways.
If you recall, I quoted one commentary which said it concisely:
“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 studied Romans 1:18-20 which said it this way,
“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.”
This led us to talking about the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and why, in the face of what God’s General Revelation has shown us in Creation and Conscience, all humanity stands condemned. General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and that we have sinned against God. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that God did not leave humanity condemned. His revelations about Himself are not merely general, but specific, what theologians call “Special Revelation”. He has given us more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and His plan to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to people and gave them dreams and visions. He performed miracles and appointed people to be His ambassadors on earth. He inspired people to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, we encounter who God is in the person of Jesus Christ who is the very person of God in human flesh.
Today, what I want to do is go through some more of the specific attributes of God that He tells us about Himself in the Bible. Beyond what we learn in Conscience and Creation, into the Special Revelation we have in scripture that tells us who God is in a much more specific way.
We are going to break these attributes into three sections. First, God’s attributes in relation to the whole world. Second, God’s attributes in relation to mankind. And third God in relation to Himself.
However, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list them and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to divide it into more helpful categories and then seek out not only what God has shown us about Himself, but what that means to us as an admonition (or warning), what it means to us as a comfort, and how we see it in the life of Jesus.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipotence
The first of God’s attributes in relation to the whole world, in fact, the whole universe, is that God is Omnipotent. This is from the Latin words OMNI, meaning “All” and POTENTIS meaning “powerful”. When we talk about a spice or a drug we talk about how potent it is, how powerful. God is Omni-Potent, all-powerful. Another good word is Almighty. Psalm 115:3 says,
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
To be omnipotent means that God has ultimate power, ultimate authority, and can do whatever He wants. He can create anything He wills and do anything He desires.
The story of Gideon from Judges 7 is a great illustration here. God calls a cowardly young man to lead an army against an invading nation. The enemy nation, the Midianites, had 135,000 soldiers and God told Gideon to raise an army to fight them. Gideon made the call and 32,000 people showed up. And here’s what happened,
“The LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…” (Jdg 7:2–4)
And God whittles down Gideon’s army to 300 people to defeat Midian. Why did God do that? Verse 2 gives the answer. Because God wanted everyone to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the situation was so lopsided that the victory had to have been a miracle and therefore the glory belonged to Him.
We see this in the life of Jesus, of course, in His miracles. He turns water into wine, makes those who are blind from birth see, calms storms with a word, multiplies a small lunch to feed thousands, and even raises the dead. Hebrews 1:3 says that it is by the power of Jesus that the whole universe is sustained
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
The admonition here, the warning, is that we should humble ourselves before God Almighty. Our greatest allegiance, our biggest fear, our largest concern should be what God thinks, what God desires, what God has to say. Jesus said it this way, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). This is why we sing so much about God’s power, might, and authority, because it is one of his chief attributes. When we worship, we are telling God his “worth” to us, meaning we are singing back to Him His own attributes and what they mean to us.
But if the warning here is that we ought to fear God above all else, the comfort is that because God is omnipotent, God is trustworthy and capable of helping and protecting us. He is not like humans or the petty ancient gods of old who grasp for power, are limited in their abilities, and are easily manipulated. If God wills it, it happens. Period. This is a comfort to us because that means that regardless of what is happening in our lives, no matter how difficult, God is in control of it, God has ordained it, God has allowed it, God can use it for His glory and our good.
This is one reason we are invited to and ought to pray to Him. He, above everyone else, is capable of helping. And He has promised to. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that God invites us to pray and that through our prayers God makes things happen.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipresence
The second of God’s greatest attributes in relation to the world is that He is Omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at the same time. This doesn’t mean that God is everything – God is not a tree, a mountain, a bug, a tidal wave – it means that God is everywhere. God is present everywhere in His creation at the same time, but is not part of His creation. God is at work in everything and in all places at the same time and there is nothing that can happen in this world that He is not present for. God is not like the ancient gods, restricted to temples or buildings or nations or peoples. There is nothing He does not see.
This also means that God cannot be circumscribed, or gone around. No one can draw a circle around God, or go behind His back. He also cannot be bound or tied down. His power and presence have no limit. He says in Jeremiah 23:23-24,
“Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
We see this most eloquently in Psalm 139:7–12. Turn with me there. Where the writer knows this and says,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
In the past I’ve called this the Rorschach psalm because how you read it will depend on your relationship with God. The fact that God is everywhere at once, seeing everything, will either fill you with fear and dread and guilt, or comfort and peace.
Omnipresence is a little strange to talk about when it comes to the life of Jesus. He was and is eternal God, containing all the attributes of God, but added to Himself the attribute of human flesh. Jesus, without losing any of His godhood, added humanity to Himself. These are the dual natures of Christ, both human and divine at the same time. So that means that Jesus didn’t lose his Omnipresence. We’ll get into that more when we hit Question 47. But we see Jesus claim this in His promise to believers in Matthew 28:18-20 when he says to his disciples,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus has the authority of God and says that He will be with His disciples forever. That’s Jesus claiming Omnipotence and Omnipresence. But as I said, we’ll cover this more later.
So the admonition here, the warning, is to remember that we have no secrets before God. Our deeds, our sins are known to Him. We can hide from our friends, our spouse, our boss, we can even hide from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God. We may want to be like Adam and Eve and try to cover ourselves and hide, but it doesn’t work. God was there the whole time and saw everything. The warning is that we ought to live in that knowledge and it should temper our decisions.
But the comfort is that no matter where we are, God is always near. Over and over in the Old Testament and the New, God says to His people, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10, Jeremiah 1:8, Acts 18:10) God cannot be far off, ignoring you, turning His back on you, not understanding what you’re going through because it is contrary to His nature. He is Omnipresent and the knowledge of the presence of God, the nearness of God, the closeness of God is a comfort to the people who trust Him.
God in Relation to the World: Omniscience
The third of God’s attributes in relation to the world is that God is Omniscient. God is Omnipotent. God is Omnipresent. And God is Omniscient. OMNI, meaning “all” and SCIENTIA meaning “knowledge”. That’s where we get the word “Science”. When we do science, we are seeking to know something, to understand something, to come to conclusions about what it is, what it does, where it came from. God is OMNI SCIENTIA, Omniscient, All-Knowing. God knows everything that is past, present and future, in all places, that which is seen and which is unseen, even the most hidden thoughts in our heart before we even think them.
Look back to verse 1 in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it…. [Skip to verse 13]
For you formed my inward parts you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
Again, this is a little complicated in the life of Jesus, because there were times when it says He didn’t know things (Matthew 24:36), but we also see that He had supernatural knowledge. Multiple times He demonstrates that He knows the thoughts and motivations of the people around him (Matthew 9:4, John 6:64, John 1:48.) John 2:24-25 says summarizes it like this, “… he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In Revelation 2:23 Jesus gives a warning to one of the churches saying, “…all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The admonition here is that we should be mindful at all times that God not only sees our deeds, but knows our thoughts and motivations. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Psalm 14:2 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
There is no point on putting on a show for God or anyone else. There’s no reason to pretend to be better or worse than you are. There’s no point in convincing everyone that you’ve got it all together. There’s no point in going through a bunch of religious rituals if you’re secretly in unrepentant sin. God knows your heart and has rejected your worship. There’s no point in doing a bunch of good deeds and saying prayers and giving to charity if it’s done to impress others, no matter how great people think you are. God knows you’re just an arrogant show-off and you get no reward from Him for it (Matthew 6).
God knows where your heart is at when you walk into this building for worship. He knows the conversation you had in the car, the thoughts in your mind while you sit here and all the ways that you are comparing yourself to and judging others. He knows, so there is no point in pretending to worship, pretending to pray, pretending to listen, pretending to believe, pretending to be happy, pretending to be a Christian because it gains you nothing. It is the truth that sets you free.
In Hebrews, it says that we should be persevering in our faith because God knows what we’re all about and we see that every time we open up the word of God. Turn to Hebrews 4. It says in Hebrews 4:11–13,
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So stop pretending.
But the comfort of this knowledge is this: God knows everything we need and want, everything we feel, knows exactly what to do about it, and is willing to help. There’s no need to pretend with God, so that means we can be honest with Him about what we want, what we need, what we’re afraid of and what we hope for. He cares about all of that and is willing to do everything possible to help us to become who we were created to be. Jesus says that God already knows everything we need (Matthew 6:32), and the Bible says that Jesus knows how we feel.
Continuing to read in Hebrews 4:14 we see that not only does God know everything about us and therefore can judge us perfectly, but that His knowledge motivates Him to help us! Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
What allows us to pray, to come close to God when we are in need? The fact that Jesus not only perfectly knows everything we are going through, but has experienced it for Himself, and stands before God as our high priest, advocating on our behalf. This means that whatever is happening in our life, no matter how difficult or perplexing, is something God is doing to draw us closer to Him and teach us something – that along the way and in the end, God is not wasting anything and nothing is out of control. Or as Philippians 1:6 says it,
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
I know that’s hard to understand sometimes. Especially when things are very difficult and there seems to be no reason. But at that moment when we are feeling hopeless, it helps for us to remind ourselves about who God is, what He is like, and what that means for us. We say to ourselves and to God – bow your head with me… maybe this can be your prayer too…:
“Lord, things feel bad right now. Darkness and confusion about. But God, you are Omnipotent. You are all-powerful, meaning that nothing is beyond Your ability and nothing can happen to me without Your permission. God, you are Omnipresent, meaning that you are with me no matter what and you see everything that is happening to me. And You are Omniscient, meaning You knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen as a result. I’m limited in my understanding, limited in my knowledge, but God, You are not. I recognize that because of your perfection You have no reason to harm me because You gain nothing from it. So instead, at this moment I will look to Jesus, my High Priest, the one who knows me, loves me, and has been where I am – the God who prays for me and advocates for me. Jesus, it doesn’t feel very good right now. I’m scared, alone, afraid, anxious, worried, lost – I feel guilty, shameful, and dirty – I am at my wit’s end and don’t know what to do. But I trust you. You are bigger than my fear and my need and my sin. I trust your power, your knowledge, your wisdom and your love to do what is best for me. Please help me not only know you are here but to trust you through this.”
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.
I heard an ad on the radio for the Canadian Legion that started with something like, “Think of all the things you enjoy in life, like summer fun, going out with your family, kissing your kids goodnight. We can take these things for granted because a veteran didn’t. They fought so we could have the freedoms we enjoy without thinking every day. So thank a veteran and join the Legion.”
I think any right-thinking individual wouldn’t argue too much with that statement. We know that there are countries in the world that are still torn by war and oppression and that those powers have tried to export their ways onto free countries. And we know that many Canadian soldiers have gone to war with these evils to protect our freedoms and those of others around the world. I think that anyone with even a passing knowledge of just twentieth-century history would agree with that. The only ones that argue against it are the ones who simply don’t know their history books.
Along that same vein, I’ve found that the more a person studies the Bible, theology, and church history, the more they should be thanking God for the heritage of theological veterans that have come before us. We should be thanking God every day that we live where we do and when we do. We take so much for granted about what we know about God these days, especially in conservative churches like ours. But the truth is that the most fundamental things we believe about God, things which we talk about every day, even things that the average non-church going Canadian knows and speak as though they were patently obvious were once hard-fought battlegrounds.
But those hard-fought battlegrounds are slipping away more and more. There’s an old phrase; I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it from many different people, and it says, “There are no new heresies, just old heresies dressed up in new clothes.” I read a similar thing from Albert Mohler who said, “False teachings emerge anew in every generation it seems, but inventing a new heresy is quite a challenge. After all, once every doctrine vital to Christianity has been denied, all that remains is a change in packaging.”
As one learns more about church history it becomes blatantly obvious all the so-called “new ideas” people have about God, Jesus, or the church, are not “new ideas” at all, just old heresies in new packaging.
Whenever I attend or watch a pastors conference someone always asks the keynote speaker the inevitable question, “What are the biggest problems with the church today?” and the answer never changes: People don’t know their Bibles.
Perhaps the best answer I heard was John Macarthur:
He said, in essence, that the weakness of the church is not a singular issue, it’s a holistic issue. Just as the AIDS virus doesn’t kill you, but weakens your immune system so that other diseases can kill you more easily, so the bland, vanilla, imprecise preaching of the Word weakens Christians and leaves them open to a thousand “heretical diseases” which can kill their soul. And therefore, the cure isn’t to treat the symptoms with a bunch of topical studies or fancy ministry packaging, but to get to the cause, to kill the virus by preaching and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity at all levels.
That means not only preachers that are extremely concerned for the accurate preaching of the Word, but elders who labour in their own realms of teaching. It means small group leaders choosing good, biblical material for their groups rather than merely interesting material. It means Sunday School teachers doing the work to make sure they know their Bibles well and are more interested in their children falling in love with the Bible than just being babysat and getting their craft done. It means parents doing the work to study the answers to their kids’ difficult questions so they can give good answers and ask “Did you read your Bible?” as much as they ask “Did you do your homework?”.
But that takes time, effort and energy – and reading, studying, learning, prayer, humility – which are things our society generally doesn’t do well. Which is why we are spiritually unhealthy, infected, and in danger.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1:6-12. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul was writing to the Galatians to combat the false, heretical teaching that had cropped up, that was corrupting people’s faith in Jesus, and was honestly shocked at how fast it had happened. He had preached to them the one, true, and pure gospel – the truth about Jesus – and he had just barely left town before they started believing dangerous lies – especially the like that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to save them, but that they also needed to follow all the Jewish laws too or God wouldn’t accept them. It was a dangerous, false teaching that struck at the heart of the gospel.
Paul’s argument there is threefold, right? First, there is only one gospel and many counterfeit ones, so don’t be fooled. Second, the gospel isn’t something that man came up with but was given to man by revelation from God. And third, anyone who preaches something different from the truth is an accursed heretic who is hurting the church.
When Christians use the word “heresy” or “heretics” need to be very careful. Heresy simply means to believe something that is wrong about the established doctrines, so technically, every time someone says something that departs from Biblical truth even a little bit its heresy, but that’s not how it’s used. When we say “heretic” or “heresy” we’re not talking about people who are still learning, who use bad analogies, or who are simply making mistakes because they’re still trying to figure it all out. We wouldn’t call a new Christian or the kids in the Sunday School heretics because they aren’t 100% accurate. Instead, the word “heresy” is reserved for teachers who purposefully distort biblical truth in such a serious way that they attack the very essence of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther was excommunicated by Rome as a heretic because he taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. Luther replied that the Catholic Church and the Pope were heretics because they had departed from a biblical view of salvation. But that wasn’t the case for all of the disagreements. The Reformers, and many churches today, still disagreed on lots of things, even important ones like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and how the church is to be structured, but they didn’t label each other heretics, just as we don’t label most other protestant churches heretics – it’s just differences in interpretation.
That’s not to say there haven’t been dozens of important debates over the centuries which remain today. In fact, the more we learn about the Bible, Theology, and Christian history, the more we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. The wrong theology that people have today are the same errors that people argued over, fought against, declared counsels to settle, and even shed blood over, hundreds of years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants – and must of us don’t even know it. But sadly, a lot of those old theological victories are being forgotten.
I don’t want to go over the data again, but I want to remind you about a couple of important surveys conducted over the past couple years about the beliefs that Christians hold today which I’ve talked about before. The first is from Lifeway and the other is from Ligonier. I’ll link them on my blog if you want to read them, but the results are dismal. Lots of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in sin or hell and believe everyone is basically good and will go to heaven to see all their relatives. And the beliefs about Jesus are all over the place!
And people’s beliefs about Jesus are just as bad. Half believed God makes mistakes. A little over half believe Jesus isn’t God but was created by God. Less than half strongly agreed that Jesus rose from the dead. Only two-thirds of Christians say that Jesus death on the cross is the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and less than half believe that He’s coming back.
Where’s the good news in that message? If people are basically good, God doesn’t care about sin and accepts worship from other religions, and everyone goes to heaven anyway, then why even talk about Jesus? But also, if God makes mistakes and Jesus death wasn’t enough, then how can anyone be sure of their salvation? If the word of God isn’t true, then what should we believe? What about all the Bible verses where Jesus makes exclusive claims or talks about sin? What do we do with those? How can God be good and just if ignores sin? How can God be perfect and holy if He allows evil people into Heaven? Doesn’t God care what we say about Him? Is the Bible just a pile of human contradictions? Where’s the good news? Where’s our hope then?
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19,
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I saw a great example of this on Instagram this week where I saw this comic: On one side there’s a man at a booth with a sign that says John 3:16 and a huge line of people in front of him. Next to him sits another booth that says, John 3:16-21. The joke is that a lot of people really like the message of John 3:16, but not so much when they read it in context.
Turn there with me. It starts with the famous verses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone loves that verse, right? But let’s keep reading,
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Hey, that’s pretty good, we can get onboard with that. Keep reading: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” Still good…
“…but whoever does not believe is condemned already…”
“because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
That’s not very inclusive, is it? What do we do with verses like with verses like these, or like John 14:6 where Jesus says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
or Acts 4:12 which says,
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Or the one that we talked about last week in 1 Timothy 2:5,
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…”
Those statements are either the gospel truth and the most important decision ever – or a lie. The only choice is to either believe them as the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved, or to deny them, ignore them, or rewrite them so they say something that we prefer.
This is why we’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism. Not because it’s a divine document, but because it’s one of the greatest teaching tools to summarize the Biblical teaching about salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that people can learn. It’s a way for us to do what John MacArthur said: to learn and preach and teach the Bible with precision and clarity so we can combat that “spiritual AIDS” he was talking about. HIV may not have a cure today, but there is a cure for “spiritual AIDS”, right? There is a way to combat heresy, right? It is to commit to learning and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity. Especially about the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” We must get that right because so much rides on that answer. Because with precise and clear teaching on Jesus comes hope, confidence, understanding, as Jesus called it, “Light”. If we are vague or wrong about Jesus, we’re in the dark, we lose hope, we are to be pitied – but if we get it right, then our faith, hope, strength, and confidence in the love of God will grow.
Heidelberg LD6: The Nature of Jesus
Take a look at the questions in today’s lesson from the Catechism. Recall a couple weeks ago when I gave that courtroom illustration talking about how Jesus was the perfect mediator between God and Man because he was both a perfect human and yet also God? Well, I got a bit ahead of myself because the structure of the catechism doesn’t really mention who that perfect mediator is until Question 18.
Remember, this document is meant to be an apologetic, a logical argument, teaching people the basics of theology, right? It’s designed to set up a problem and then show us why Jesus is the answer. First, it explains the misery of sin, why sin must be punished, and how we can’t save ourselves or wriggle away from God’s wrath. Then, when we understand our desperate position, it gives us a glimmer of hope: that there is one way we can be saved – if someone else takes our punishment. But (and this is where we were a couple weeks ago), that person would need to be very special and have very unique qualifications:
As question 15 said,
“He would need to be One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
That narrows the field, doesn’t it? And that reasoning is clarified in today’s questions, as Ursinus makes the case in Question 16 for why Jesus is the only one who fits the qualifications:
“Why must he be a true and righteous man?”
The emphasis here is on the “man”. Why does our perfect mediator need to be a human being?
“He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.”
We covered this a little bit last time, but the answer here is simply that the only way to pay for God’s wrath against human sin is for a human to die, right? Equal payment is just. If someone owes you a toonie, you don’t accept a button. If someone is condemned to jail, he can’t send a picture of himself or his pet poodle.
But this mediator must not only be human but a perfect human. They cannot have any sin of their own to pay for, or they wouldn’t be able to die in someone else’s place, right? Again, we talked about this in the previous sermon.
Look at question 17:
“Why must he at the same time be true God?”
So we know why our perfect mediator, the one who can take our place, must be a human, but why must that person be God too?
“He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Essentially, because no mere human is strong enough to handle the full wrath of God for all the sins of those who believe for thousands of years multiplied by millions or billions of people. Only one who had the power of God could do that.
Just saying that reminds us of how much Jesus loves us, doesn’t it? What a Saviour, to face that kind of agony for us when we have done nothing to deserve it.
Now to question 18:
“But who is that Mediator who at the same time is true God and a true and righteous man?”
Here we see that apologetic, logical progression of the questions: Ok, so if we agree to all that has come before, about the qualifications for the perfect mediator, then who fits those qualifications? Who has the power to save us from the wrath of God and cleanse us from sin?
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)”
We sure quoted that passage a lot during our study of 1st Corinthians, didn’t we?
And question 19 comes quickly on the heels:
“From where do you know this?”
And the answer:
“From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise. Later, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son.”
The only One who fits the bill, the only One who meets the qualifications is Jesus. The only one who fulfills the promise to Eve, to Moses, to Isaiah and Mary… the only One who fulfills all of the Laws and who was foreshadowed in all of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament is Jesus!
But do you see how this all falls apart once we degrade our belief in the authority of the Word of God, ignore the clear teaching of scripture, and incorporate heresies and false teachings about the person and work of Jesus?
Let’s go back to question 1. Do you remember it? When you face trials and troubles and pains beyond your ability to cope with or comprehend, when you face death and guilt and shame and eternity, when you come to the end of yourself, when you are, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… and struck down…”,
“What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Your answer cannot be, “Me, my own strength.” Because it is spent. I can’t be “My medicines or my religion or another person” because they are not enough. Or worse, if you have been listening to false teachers or being lazy in your study, believing lies about Jesus, then when you come to the end of yourself and look for strength in the god you invented for yourself you will find it lacking and say, “He isn’t enough. I don’t know where my hope is. I’m not sure anymore. I have no hope.”
But the answer of a faithful believer, one who has done the work to be diligent and precise and humble in their learning says,
“My only and greatest comfort in life and death is ‘That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit e also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’”
Therein lies our hope – in the one and only Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we must know only from the true and infallible Word of God.
So, are you reading it? Are you studying it? Are you meeting with other believers to work out your faith with fear and trembling? If you are not, then you are going to be in trouble when trials come. But if you are strong in your faith, strong in your study, in your theology and understanding of the Word, strong in your knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will be able to echo the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”
Because you will know the One, True Jesus.
The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
I’ve said a few times over the past years that one of the driving thoughts behind my life and ministry is that there is great comfort in good theology. I believe that with every fibre of my being and it informs every part of how I conduct myself as not only a pastor and teacher but a counsellor, father, husband, and friend. I honestly don’t believe that I myself am smart enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, wise enough, or experienced enough to be of much help to anyone on my own and therefore I do my best to point people to One who is greater than me. But to do that requires that I know Him, right?
What occurred to me this week was that the inverse of my little statement is also true. While there is great comfort in good theology, there is great discomfort in bad theology or theological chaos.
In Matthew 5-7 we read what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus covers a lot of ground. He teaches the Beatitudes where we encounter the upside down kingdom where the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are in fact, blessed. He speaks of His mission to fulfill the Law of Moses and how His followers will conduct themselves in regards to it by teaching on God’s view of anger, lust, divorce, promises, revenge, money, prayer, worry, relationships, love, fruitful living, and salvation. And then at the end, in Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus gives this illustration:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That’s a powerful claim. Not only that the words of Jesus are sufficient to be the foundation of one’s entire life, but that anyone built on any other words are fools who will fall apart – and the next verses say as much. It says in verse 28,
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes hemmed and hawed about what they were teaching, quoting various rabbis, footnoting everything they said, distancing themselves from the Word of God. Jesus spoke with divine, declarative authority. The message from Jesus was simple, as He declared more succinctly to his closest followers during His final hours in the upper room: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In fact, Jesus says those kinds of declarative statements all throughout the Gospel of John. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life”, without whom, you’ll starve. In John 8 He says, “I am the light of the world”, without whom you will walk in darkness. In John 10 He says, “I am the door”, and if you don’t enter by me, you can’t be saved. In John 11 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, the only one with the power to raise the dead, and without whom you will be in everlasting death.
These are the declarative statements of a person who knows that He is the only way anyone can be saved. Who knows His way is the only one in which people can find real, lasting, eternal comfort. Who knows His message is the most important message that has ever or will ever be given, and that believing or disbelieving Him is the most important decision anyone will ever make. He wasn’t wishy-washy, He didn’t beat around the bush, He didn’t leave it open to interpretation, He was absolutely crystal clear: If you build your life on the foundation of me and my teachings, then when the floods and destruction of life comes, when chaos comes, when tragedy comes, when death comes, you will still live – if you don’t you’ll be destroyed.
That’s the message of Jesus, of the Apostles, and of the church for thousands of years. We preach Jesus, teach Jesus, proclaim Jesus, worship Jesus, pray to Jesus, and listen to Jesus. No one else.
A Constant Battle for Right Theology
But, in each generation there are always people who want to argue about it. There are always those who dispute and teach false doctrines about God. It has been this way for all time. When Satan challenged Eve, He didn’t just point at the fruit and say, “Wow, doesn’t that look good.” He challenged the Word of God. How did Satan begin the dialogue with Eve?
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1)
That’s a theological argument about the word of God, a twisting of it, and it required a defence. Then it says,
“And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’” (Gen 3:2-3)”
What does Satan do then? He calls God’s character into question.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4-5)”
These are all theological arguments. What did God say? What is God like? What will God do? How will God respond? Can God be trusted? What does God really mean when He says…
And that’s how it’s been for all time. God makes a declarative statement, Satan or one of his agents twists the statement, calls God’s Word or character into question, and then tempts the believer to go another way. Then God raises up a prophet, a priest, a teacher, a missionary, a preacher, to declare the truth again and give the king, the people, the nation, the church a choice. Who will you believe?
We see this in Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. The king, due in large part to his pagan wife Jezebel, had lead him and most of the nation to turn away from God and worship demons named Baal and Asherah. Elijah proposed a contest where he and the false prophets would each create separate altars, pray for fire to come from heaven, and see who answers.
The false prophets prayed and danced and cut themselves all day long, but got nothing. And then it says this in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah called all the people together, soaked the altar with buckets and buckets of water, and then prayed,
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The issue was theological. Who is the real God? What had God said? Who is God’s true servant who declares truth? What would God do? Why were the king and the people wrong and Elijah right?
And so it continues throughout history. Prophet after prophet calling the people back to the One, True God. Then Jesus comes and is constantly confronted with theological arguments by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes – experts in the Bible, the Prophets, the Traditions, and the Law. Their truth claims versus His. Then Jesus establishes His church, and it takes all of 15 minutes for false teachers start to corrupt the apostle’s teachings. Paul would preach how Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), how Jesus saves people by grace, and what Jesus expects of us – and then he’d leave to go plant another church and someone would come in and start teaching something else. They’d teach that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that Jesus was just a good man, that the people needed to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised, or that because Jesus saved them from all their sin it didn’t matter how they lived and they sin however they want.
Acts 17:10–13 gives a great summary of how this worked. It says,
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
So here you have a great summary of Paul’s life. He would go somewhere to preach or plant a church, in this case, Berea. He would teach Jesus from the Old Testament in a local synagogue and see how they responded. Most of the time he was kicked out, but in Berea, they actually listened and then examined the Bibles to see if Paul’s theology and doctrine were right or not. As they studied the Bible their hearts were moved and a lot of people got saved. But as soon as that happened, as soon as good theology was declared, a group would rise up against it. This group would pull out all the stops to keep Paul from preaching. They would argue, mock, threaten, and lie to the local authorities to stop Paul from preaching about Jesus. Then Paul would either get beaten and locked up, or beaten and run out of town, and would then have to either write a letter, send another teacher, or wait until the heat died down to return.
Why was it so important that Paul come back though? Why not just cut his losses and try somewhere else? Because he knew that the only real source of comfort and joy and hope was Jesus. He knew that those who had decided to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord were believing lies about Him. That meant their worship was corrupted, their leaders were corrupt, their church practices were becoming corrupt, and the message they were declaring to their neighbours wasn’t one that would save, but would ensnare. There is great comfort in good theology and there is great discomfort in theological chaos. And they were in chaos.
So Paul would come back and untwist all the bad theology, false doctrine, and harmful practices that had gotten into that church. In other words, He would call them back to their foundation in Jesus, call them back to the truth, back to good theology and doctrine.
We Must Teach
How would he do this? Through teaching. In Deuteronomy 11:18–28, as God is giving His Law, He says to the people of Israel,
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
You see how seriously God takes the teaching, understanding, and application of His Word, right? Teach your kids, remind yourselves, talk about this, because it is only when you are standing on the foundation of my word that you will see victory and blessing – and it is when you forget to teach it, lose my Words, and fall away that you will feel the curse. And so, the command is to teach and keep teaching.
In the New Testament there are two main words used for teaching: DIDASKO and KATECHEO. DIDASKO is the word for the authoritative teaching of doctrine, the declaring of divine truths, the Word of God. Jesus DIDASKO the people. Then Peter and the Apostles DIDASKO the church under the authority of Jesus.
But then, later in the New Testament a different word is used. It’s the word KATECHEO, from where we get our word Catechism. This word is different. It’s still teaching, but it’s not declarative – it’s the passing along of information. It’s repeating what’s already written down. It’s used when someone is reciting prepared lines on a stage or when an apprentice is being taught how to do something.
We don’t DIDASKO our children or congregations. We don’t declare divine truths with the authority of Jesus. We KATECHEO, we pass along what Jesus has already declared. We teach it in ways that the listener can understand. We explain the words one by one, we use examples and illustrations and personal stories to convey the doctrine in a way that all ages can understand. We teach the 4 year old, the 40 year old, and the 90 year old, about Jesus and the cross, but we do it using different words so they will understand.
Catechism For Comfort
This is something many modern churches have gotten away from – we no longer teach people the doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a theologically illiterate age – people don’t know God or the Bible. According to one study in 2013 half of Canadian Christians believe the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. Only 1 23% of Christian Canadians believe the bible is relevant to modern life. 64% of Canadian Christians believe that all the major world religions teach the same thing. Only 14% of Canadian Christians read their bibles at least once per week, and only 11% of Canadian Christians talk about the Bible outside of Sunday services.
And if I’m right that there is great comfort in good theology, and great discomfort in theological chaos, then that would explain why so many people, so many Christians, are in such a bad way – they neither know God, nor His goodness, nor His plan. They don’t know if they are saved, what God thinks of them, how to pray, why to pray, or if God is even listening. They don’t know how to conduct themselves when they are wronged, how to hold together a marriage, how to face suffering, what their life purpose is, or how to find it. Even among people who have called themselves believers for decades, there is very little true comfort and Christian hope, because there is very little knowledge of God. And it shows in generations of people who are increasingly spiritual lost, deeply anxious, more and more addicted and drowning in hopelessness. People are abandoning the faith because they do not know or understand the foundations of what they are supposed to believe.
This is why we must teach. And I’m not talking about Bible Trivia. I’m talking about the foundations of Christian hope. When your friends let you down, your spouse is hurting, your children leave, where will you turn? When you face suffering, loss, and death, how will you find meaning? When you are surrounded by bad news, spin, lies, and corruption, how do you know that things are going to work out? If you are stuck in habitual sin, continuously breaking God’s law, constantly feel guilty and ashamed, afraid of judgment, do you know whether or not God will forgive you? When are in need of guidance, purpose, resources, do you know what kinds of prayers God answers? If God isn’t answering your prayers, do you know why? What about your reason for living? Do you know why you are here? If you know these things, you may have comfort, if you do not, you will be in chaos.
When your child, your friend, your brother or sister, turns to you and says “why?” – “Why is this happening? Why should I trust God? Why shouldn’t I believe God hates me? Why should I get up in the morning? Why does the world feel so out of control? Why should I keep living? Why should I bother praying, reading the Bible, or going to church? Why don’t I feel any comfort from God?” What will you say?
Most don’t have an answer because they themselves have never been taught. Children turning to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and asking huge questions about life, faith, suffering, eternity, relationships, morality – and they get trite, simplistic, and wrong answers. They come and ask for advice and the best that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa can do is say, “Maybe you should go to the doctor. Maybe you should see a psychiatrist. Maybe you should just quit or try harder.” Or worse, “Do whatever your heart feels is right. I just want you to be happy.” That is an invitation to disaster.
This is why we must teach, this is why we must teach, why we must catechize.
Heidelberg Next Week
So, next week we will be starting a one year series on the Heidelberg Catechism. I want everyone here to have the tools to be able to not only answer big questions for others but to be able to grasp how high and wide and deep is the love of God, and be firmly established in the Word of God. I want you to know what you believe, why you believe it, and why it should bring you comfort.
When I’m in my darkest places, at my most desperate moments, feeling like the waves are rising, the waters crashing, the darkness looming – I turn to Jesus. And then Satan attacks, asking me if I really believe all this nonsense, if Jesus is really real, if God really cares… and the only defence I have is the Word of God, the Doctrines of God, the Theology of God. And they bring me comfort because they re-establish me on the foundation of Christ.
I want that for you as your pastor. As Colossians 2:7-8 says, I want you to be “rooted and built up in [Jesus] and established in the faith…” not “[taken] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
That’s what I want for each of you, and so that’s why we’re starting that series next week. My hope is that you will follow along, do some homework and heart work, and that it will glorify God and build up His church.
The full audio version of our CT:LIVE Season 3 Finale Q&A! It’s a long one, but there’s lots of fun and answers to some awesome questions. Check Facebook for the contest winners.
New CT CarnivoreBob TheologyPants Ringtone!
How to use:
Unzip this folder somewhere on your computer (Download Drive, Desktop, etc.)
Apple iTunes: Just drag and drop the .m4r file into the “Ringtones” or “Tones” section on iTunes and then sync your phone. iTunes will do the rest!
Android: Copy the .mp3 file to your phone. Go to “Settings > Sound > Device Ringtone” and tap “Add”. Click on the “CarnivoreBob TheologyPants ANDROID Ringtone” file.
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Historically, Christians have been rightly concerned about the protection of human beings. They also support religious liberty. So what is the problem ith Motion 103? Is it merely Orwellian inspired PC “newspeak”? What does this motion actually target? Should Christians be worried about it?
Referenced Article: Actually, one needn’t be a hysterical bigot to have concerns with M-103
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