“No man can redeem his life for another or give God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” (Psalm 49:7, 8)
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are thrown into prison for performing a miracle in the name of Jesus Christ. While they were there, they prayed and sang hymns of praise to God. Suddenly a violent earthquake took place, unloosed their chains, and opened the doors of the jail. As the Philippian jailer prepared to kill himself, assuming that his prisoners had all escaped, Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here.” The jailer, who no doubt had heard Paul and Silas singing and praying, realized that these were no ordinary prisoners. They had to be men sent from God. The jailer then asked them, “What must I do to be saved?”
This is the question that should be on the hearts and lips of everyone who has become aware of his own sin and misery. The Heidelberg Catechism, after telling us about our natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor, begins a new section. Happily, the section dealing with our sin and misery has come to an end. Now begins a new section—a section on Deliverance. It begins with the question: “How then can we escape this punishment (of God’s wrath) and return to God’s favor?”
This is a very serious question. To ask this question requires some humble admissions on our part. We must admit that we deserve punishment from God because of our sin. We must admit that we are no better than any other people in this world. We must admit that we are guilty and can offer no excuse for our sin. Also, we have to admit that the judgment of God is just and that we deserve His punishment.
In this question there is a sincere desire to escape God’s punishment. Such a desire is very understandable. It is a desire expressed several times in Scripture with people asking: “What must I do to be saved?”, “How shall we escape?”, “Who shall deliver me?”.
Notice that in the question asked by the Catechism there is not only a desire to escape, but also a desire to return to God’s favor. In asking this question, the Holy Spirit has already led us to the point where we long for that communion with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden. And so we ask not only to escape punishment, but to be restored to God.
The Catechism does not give to us an easy answer. The first sentence tells us “God requires that His justice be satisfied.” Many people today want to make light of God’s justice. Strange as it may seem, if any of our rights are infringed upon, we are moved to wrath and demand satisfaction. How dare anyone tell us where we can or cannot go or what we can or cannot do. But when it comes to the right that the Most Holy, Almighty, and Supreme Being has to punish those who sin against Him we do not take it seriously. We tell jokes about Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates and buy greeting cards that humorously depict hell and Satan. We maintain a bumper-sticker theology that God loves everybody and punishes nobody.
But the Word of God makes very clear that the justice of God shall be satisfied. The Law must be obeyed! Every part of it! One infraction against the Law of God places us under the wrath of God. It makes us deserving of eternal punishment. How shall we escape?
We can escape in two ways. First, by paying for our own sin. Second, by having another party pay for our sin. Since we are responsible for our own sin, certainly it should be our duty to pay for it. If I were to break a window of your home, it would not be enough for me to say “I’m sorry” and be on my way; you would expect me to pay for that window. Likewise, when we sin against God, it is not enough to say “I’m sorry”, we must pay our debt in full.
Can we somehow satisfy God’s justice and pay for our own sin? Absolutely not. First of all, we cannot bear the full punishment of God required to redeem ourselves. God is terribly angry at us because of our sin and if He were to punish us as we deserve it would destroy us. If God were to punish us in doses small enough for us to handle, it would take all eternity - and still, not one sin would be paid for. Add to that the fact that we increase our guilt every day and we begin to understand that there is no possible way for us to satisfy the justice of God.
Another false delusion is to think that some other creature might save us from God’s wrath and restore us into His favor. Certainly saints would not be able to do that. By nature, they were sinners themselves. If they could not pay their own debt, how can we expect them to pay ours? Animals cannot save us, either. Even if we were to sacrifice animals for the rest of our lives, they would not be a proper sacrifice. The Lord demands a broken spirit and a contrite heart, not a bunch of dead animals. Angels cannot save us, either. They can do a lot of things but they cannot take our place in hell. The Catechism makes clear that “God will not punish another creature for man’s guilt” (q/a 14). It is a matter of justice. Man has sinned and man shall be punished.
So, we cannot put our hope in ourselves, or in saints, offerings, animals, or angels. Is everything, then, hopeless? Rightly, the Catechism asks, “What kind of Mediator and Deliverer should we look for then?” And we are told He must have three qualifications. He must be truly human; truly righteous; and truly divine. Lord’s Day 6 explains why these qualifications are necessary and we will look at them in the upcoming issues of The Outlook.
Just looking at those qualifications may make us all the more discouraged. After all, who is there that can fulfill all three of them? We, like the Philippian jailer, are compelled to cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” The Word of God responds the same way Paul did: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” He alone fulfills the criteria demanded by God’s justice.
As the second person of the Trinity, Christ, the anointed One of God, is truly divine. As One conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was born without original sin. His obedient life made Him the perfect sin offering. Being born of Mary made Him human. Surely, Jesus Christ is the One we need in our lives in order to be delivered from our sin and brought into fellowship with God.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan and editor of The Outlook.