Confession and God's Promising Word Lord's Day 7 on “All that is Promised Us in the Gospel”
The words quoted here occur in Q. & A. 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism. They are the answer to the question, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” What strikes us in the first place is the use of the word “must.” The church speaks here, in line with the Athanasian Creed, about a must, a necessity. A literal translation of the Latin text shows this too: “What are those things which are necessary that a Christian believes?”1 The church has the calling to say: this is what a Christian must believe. For the church does not proclaim her own truth. It proclaims God's truth: “Thus says the Lord.” God wants us to believe all this because He has revealed it to us.
What strikes us in the second place is the word “gospel.” We confess that we must believe “all that God has promised us in the gospel.” How are we to understand this word? Does the Catechism make a distinction here with regard to the contents of God's Word? Are we to believe just the promises in the gospel and not the rest of the Bible? Is the meaning of these words: the Bible contains the gospel full of promises but also other material, such as threats of judgments, historical and geographical data? And do we only have to believe the gospel, not the other things? This cannot be meant. Q. & A. 21 said that a true faith is to “accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word.”
A comparison between the Articles 3-7 of the Belgic Confession and the Catechism here in L.D. 7 makes this clear too. The Articles 3-7 point to the books of the Old and New Testament as “holy and divine” and as “canonical” so that we “believe without any doubt all things contained in them.” We are not to make a contrast between L.D. 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Articles 3-7 of the Belgic Confession. All that is revealed to us is all that is contained in the Scripture. We should not make a contrast either between Q. & A. 21 and Q. & A. 22 in L.D. 7. Our conclusion is that “all that God has revealed to us in His Word” (Q. & A. 21) is the same as “all that is promised us in the gospel.”
Therefore, we have to understand the words: “all that is promised us in the gospel” not as restricting but as characterizing. The gospel as contents of our faith must not be restricted to a specific part of the Scripture but it characterizes the whole of Scripture. It is all gospel, good tidings, from God. What God has revealed is revealed as gospel, first and foremost. This is even true when God's Word announces God's judgments against those who live in unbelief and sin. In Hosea 6:5 we have a very remarkable word of the LORD. First He says, “I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth.” Then He goes on, “And My judgment goes forth as light.” (A different reading is: “And your judgment is a light that goes forth” which means the same.) In other words, even when God threatens or comes with His judgments, they are still a call for repentance, for God has no delight in the death of the sinner but in his conversion from sin and return to His God and in that way unto life.
When L.D. 5-6 has spoken about the need of a Mediator who is both true God and true and righteous man, the question comes: Who is this Mediator? The answer is, “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The next question is: “From where do you know this?” We confess: “From the holy gospel,” And of this gospel we confess further that “God Himself first revealed (it) in Paradise,” that later “He had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law,” while this gospel was “fulfilled through His only Son” (Q. & A. 19). Also here God's Word from Genesis to Revelation is characterized as gospel. It is gospel in Christ. It is to Him that the (Old Testament) Scripture bear witness (John. 5:39). The conclusion is evident: with the “gospel” the whole of God's Word is meant in its character of being the good tidings from God. God speaks His Word to us first and foremost as gospel.
We Must Believe What is Promised
The third word that strikes us here is the word “promised.” It does not say that we must believe all that God has revealed to us in His Word. It says, all that God has “promised” us in His Word. What is the reason? Just as “gospel” does not mean part of the Scriptures but the Scripture as a whole in its character of gospel, so “all that God promised” does not just mean a number of individual promises within God's Word, but it rather indicates God's Word as a whole in its character of being His promise. God's speaking to His people is a promising speaking. The word “promise” fits in the framework of the covenant.
This does not mean that we cannot speak of specific promises. There are, and they are many. I mention a few. In Romans 4 the apostle Paul speaks about the faith of Abraham. Through faith Abraham is declared righteous, and not on the basis of certain works. Paul speaks about Abraham believing the promise that he and his descendants “should inherit the world” (Romans 4:13). In Hebrews 11, the chapter about the men and women of faith, we read about the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “not having received what was promised” (11:13); and of Sarah it says that “she considered Him faithful who had promised” (11:11). The promise is here specifically the promise of the land of Canaan and of children that were to become a great nation.
Often the word “promise” is linked to what God will give in the future, such as eternal life. But this is too restrictive. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 can help us here. In this text Paul emphasizes the need for the congregation to maintain the antithesis with the world or the old enmity which God put in paradise after the fall into sin. The apostle says,
Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? … What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God has said, 'I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.'
The conclusion of the apostle is:
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.
When the apostle speaks of God's promises here, he does not speak about a gift in the future but in the present. God's dwelling among His people, and His living in them or in their midst speaks of the promise of a present reality. This is confirmed by the parallel to these words, “I will be their God and they shall be My people.” These words, too, do not speak of the promise of a future but of a present reality.
It is this promise that God will be the God of His people that concerns us in particular. For this is the basic and all-encompassing promise. In this promise all the others are included. With God, the only true God, the God of heaven and earth, the God of all history as our God, we have everything for live and death, for body and soul, for the past, the present and the future. And in God's Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, this all-encompassing promise including all God's specific promises are true (2 Corinthians 1:20).
That our Catechism, in fact, takes “all that is promised us in the gospel” in this all-encompassing way becomes clear from what is said in Q. & A. 22-24 (L.D. 7b – 8a). After Answer 22 has confessed that we must believe “all that is promised us in the gospel,” it continues, “which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” This formulation is very important. It means that the Apostles' Creed contains the summary of “all that is promised us in the gospel.” Of course, what counts for the Apostles' Creed also counts for the other creeds and confessions. They all are nothing but an elaboration of the whole or of specific element parts included in the Apostles' Creed. They are all summary of what God promises us in the gospel.
When we thus look at the Apostles' Creed as summary of all that God has promised, what do we see as the contents of this summary? The contents is God Himself! For the Twelve Articles show three parts, as Lord's Day 8 says. The summary of God's promising word to us speaks of God the Father and our creation, God the Son and our redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. In other words, we confess in L.D. 7 and 8 with so many words this truth of Scripture that our triune God in fact is Himself the summary of all that is promised us in the gospel. In the gospel the triune God promises Himself to His people in His three-fold work towards us. “I will be your God.”
In all of Scripture God promises Himself to us as our God, as Father, Son, and Spirit. This holds all God's undeserved mercy in every respect for this life and for the next: all God's grace and love and help, now and forever. Reading the Scripture as God's Self-revelation in which He promises Himself to us makes this reading so incredibly rich.
The Confessions are the Church's Response of Faith to God's Promises
Three things are now clear. First, that in His Word He speaks to us, God reveals and gives Himself; and second that this Word, that God speaks has the character of God's promise. It is God's promising speaking. God promises Himself to us. If, however, God's speaking to us is a promising speaking, then it is also clear why the Catechism connects this promising speaking of God with God's demand of faith. We must believe all that God has promised us in the Gospel. 2 God's promise requires acceptance in faith. God does not want us to consider this giving of Himself to us as an automatic thing. He realizes and fulfills His promise(s) in the way of a true faith. Without faith no one can come to God. It is through faith, worked in our heart through the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the gospel, that we are to appropriate (make our own 'property') what God gives us, in promise, in His Word.
What is in this connection the place and function of the confession? When we maintain that the confession is a summary of all that God has promised us, the confession is the response of faith of God's believing people. In God's Word God reveals Himself. He addresses His people and says As this triune God with this work towards you, just as I reveal it here in My Word, I give Myself to you. And I want you to believe that this is true; yes, that this is true for you. And our proper response is to believe and confess: this is now how our triune God gives Himself to us, just as He tells us in His Word. The church, so to speak, formulates in a summary the contents of God's promising Word as the contents of her faith. People, listen, the church says, this is how rich we are with this triune God of ours.
Paul writes (Romans 10:10) that “man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” How rich is now not only God's Word, the gospel of Christ, in which God gives Himself. How rich is also the confession as the church's response to God. Our God, we confess as a song of joy, this is how Thou art giving Thyself to us according to Thy Word.
Seen in the light of L.D. 7-8, who can love God and God's Word, and not, at the same time, love and adhere to the church's, that is, also his own confession of the true biblical faith? LORD, in great gratitude, this is how we confess Thee as our God. Indeed, the confession of the truth of God about Himself as our God becomes a great treasure, because God's promising Word about Himself is our treasure. Yes, our God Himself is our treasure. Let us go on to listen and know Him from His Word and confess Him accordingly, and adhere to is as our true and highest good.