Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 11 - Why He is Called Jesus
Question 29: Why is the Son of God called Jesus that is Saviour?
Answer 27: Because he saves us from all our sins,
and because there is no other preservation to seek and find
in anyone else.
When God the Son became man he was given the name Jesus.
This happened by God’s command. Independently of each other both Joseph and Mary heard — via an angel — that he had to be called by this name.1 This is very important, because with this name, none other than God himself indicated forever that he sent his Son to save us. After all, that is what this name proclaims. Jesus in the NT is the same as Joshua in the OT. In full, this name means: the LORD is salvation.2
Joshua sounds fairly ordinary to us, but with Jesus we think of the One. Yet it was not a name that surprised people at the time. There were others with that name.3
The Son of God was therefore not given a new name, but also in this respect he became like his peers or brothers.4
But the unique thing was that this Jesus did not point away from himself to the LORD for salvation. He himself was the LORD who would redeem Israel.5 Therefore, today no human being should be called by that name. But how did the world respond to the great news of the coming of the only true Jesus or Saviour?
Jesus Was Never Widely Accepted
The world has more than enough problems. Alarms and warnings are frequent. A change of direction is needed, in all kinds of areas. Cries of distress are heard from all parts of the world. Fortunately, much help is being offered and improvements are being sought. We do not want to underestimate this, but no one is engaged in a comprehensive activity that will make the world perfectly safe and happy. No one has a plan or an idea to permanently eliminate wars, pain, death, environmental pollution, loneliness, or any other forms of misery. Yet there is One! Jesus! For those who accept him must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation. Everything! Yet the world population has never accepted Jesus en masse. We do not know of any period in which an entire nation, even if it was called Christian, chose to follow him. Apparently, it was never possible to convince everyone that this Jesus is our salvation. What is the reason for this? Where does that leave all these people with their myriad of problems? Why can we not get them to cross the line by the thousands through our evangelistic activities?
They will give a reason for this. They consider that the salvation that Jesus works is not effective. He might save them from sins but that does not tell them anything. They hardly know what sins are and in any case, according to them, the world is weighed down by very different burdens: the arms race, poverty, unemployment, disease, environmental pollution, loneliness, crime… And this Jesus, according to them, does nothing about those issues. It does not make the slightest sense to petition him.
They do not see that the roots of all such problems are fundamentally based in one main root, namely sin. They consider that a foolish thought. And especially that one man would already have made that root harmless, some 2000 years ago. And he did this all by himself, without any help! With the result that the world of today has to depend on him for all its problems.
Just prove it, they say. How can we know that Jesus has taken away the cause of all misery? The number of wars, natural disasters and accidents has not diminished. Diseases, poverty, and a thousand other needs increased rather than decreased. And even Christians take out insurance against fire and accident. They are just as vulnerable as anyone else and can just as easily become incurably ill. Where then is the evidence that in Jesus they have everything necessary for their salvation?
Their reasoning appears to be sober and level-headed. Does not every calamity have its own specific cause? Sometimes the one problem is a consequence of the other, but often they have little or nothing to do with each other. Unsafe traffic problems need to be fought in a different way than serious diseases or harsh crime. An earthquake has a very different cause than an accident at a nuclear power plant. Each of these problems requires its own approach and solution. Therefore, according to them, there is no other way than to try to find the roots of all these evils one by one and to make them harmless. The idea that sin is the source of all calamities is in contrast with reality. This is how they reason.
And what does Jesus say about this?
Is sin really the main culprit of every evil? The cause of all misery?
Jesus, that is Saviour. The verb to save comes from the OT and always means to be taken out of an acute emergency situation by someone else and to be rescued to a safe place.6
That is what Jesus does. He saves from all distress, from every need. That sounds generous and the Catechism joins in by adding the word “well-being”. Then we can think of all the wonderful things at once. Jesus takes care of that. Wonderful. Yet when the Catechism then goes on to explain the name Jesus, it suddenly acts as if there is only one need: one’s sins. That is what Jesus saves us from. Does this not suggest his work as being far too narrowly defined? We are now looking at the Catechism, but it has carefully listened to the Bible. God himself made known to Joseph, through an angel, why the Child should be called Jesus: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”7Other needs — and there were plenty in those dark times! — were not even mentioned by the angel. Did he forget those? Were they not important enough? Would the deplorable condition in which God’s people were living simply continue? The angel could not have meant that. For he declared to Mary that Jesus would bring the kingdom of David to unprecedented glory. He would reign for all eternity. 8
That promised a new time for the whole world. But in order to achieve this goal, did he not have to do more than just save people from sin? How did he himself see his task? Did he consciously agree with the explanation given by the angel in regard to his name?
About thirty years after his birth, Jesus accepted his ministry. Shortly before that, again, someone had described what Jesus came for. We mean John the Baptist who presented him to the Jewish people as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.9 That would be his task. In agreement with this, John baptized for the forgiveness of sins and said that Jesus would seal this forgiveness of sins with the baptism of the Spirit.10
This shows that this last herald of Jesus also regarded and proclaimed him as Saviour from the power of sin. But again, how does this show up in Jesus’ own way of working this out?
Jesus Redeemed From All Kinds Of Need
How did Jesus live up to his name? It is remarkable that, as far as we know, there never was a distinct moment that he elaborated on the meaning of his name. He did speak about sin in all kinds of contexts and said that he had come to call sinners to repentance.11Yet he did not address people exclusively about their sins, with the message that he had come especially to redeem them from these sins. He placed his redemptive work in a broader framework. What place did he actually give to sin?
In the Gospel according to the Apostle John we soon find him changing water into wine at a wedding.12 This saved the bride and groom from the shame of having to break off their wedding feast for lack of wine. But what does such a miracle have to do with the redemption of sins? Is this act of Jesus not proof that he did not think of sin in such a one-sided way at all? At least we do not hear that he made such a point of it at that wedding. The other three evangelists also portray him as the man who helped people in all sorts of ways. He healed the blind, the deaf, and the paralyzed. He raised the dead. He stilled high waves. He provided food for a crowd with the help of a few sandwiches. Was he really all about dealing specifically with sin?
Jesus did indeed deliver people from all kinds of need.
But he never for a moment lost sight of the greater purpose. He healed the sick and raised the dead, but he did not transform Palestine into a paradise of happy people. His miracles in themselves brought only temporary solutions for a limited number of individuals. For us, this is all past history. For that matter, it was the same for those people as well. But they were primarily celebratory signs of what will happen once sin is removed: salvation in the broadest and deepest sense of the word. One might say: well-being. Then even a wedding feast can no longer fail. And as signs of that complete redemption, they are also of the greatest significance for us.
On one occasion, incidentally, Jesus showed unequivocally in a full living room how the redemption of sins was indeed his highest priority. Friends had lowered a paralytic to his feet after making an opening in the roof. Their intention was obvious: whether Jesus would heal him. But the first thing he said was: “Son, your sins are forgiven”.13
With this he made it clear that God had drawn a line through all the red numbers. That was it! That was all. For although the man was also healed afterwards, Jesus did that mainly to prove that what he said also happened. So also when he forgave sins.
The question remains as to why Jesus did not speak more often in as many words about the need of forgiveness of sins. Should we not take into account that people practically never asked for it? Who actually understood that he had come to suffer for their sins? Even his own disciples still thought so highly of themselves. Jesus’ teaching still needed to fully convince them of the seriousness of their sins. We know only one story of a woman who asked Jesus for forgiveness for her sins and received it.14That is not much. The people were following Jesus for the signs he performed.15
People looked for healing, and no more. His disciples, too, thought about very different things than atonement of their guilt, until after the third announcement of his suffering.16
It must have been very difficult for Jesus that people did not seek him out as the Saviour from sin. To get people to that point, they first had to learn about their sins. How did Jesus seek to achieve that goal in his teaching?
Sin As the Source Of All Misery
What is sin? Jesus depicted this in several parables. For example, the sin of the prodigal son consisted in that he wanted to enjoy himself to the fullest, yet far from God. 17 It is very possible that the prodigal son gave gifts for a good cause. He did not become a robber or thief. Instead, he appears as a sympathetic boy. And when hunger came and his money ran out, he wanted to make an honest living as a swineherd. Sin implies not always pure wickedness, in the moral sense of the word. Sinners can be honest as gold, and helpful. But his sin was that he lived apart from his father. In the parable of the tenant farmers, the sin is that they refused to pay the rent and acted as if they were lords and masters of the vineyard. Again, it is quite possible that the vineyard was in prime condition. Those who did not know any better saw in them only diligent people who cultivated their grapes with dedication. So they were completely different characters than the prodigal son who squandered all that he had! Possibly they were exemplary in helping each other. Fine people. That may all be true, but they were rebels and all their efforts ended in disaster. The owner of the vineyard would destroy them. Again, the sin of the world is not that it is one big, dark underworld. Sinners are not necessarily perfidious villains. The essence of sin is that the connection with God has been severed.
But that means that the prodigal son is not really helped by food parcels donated by the Red Cross and the tenant farmers are not helped by an agricultural support fund. Their preservation and well-being are only secured when things are right again between them and God. This is not to say that the Red Cross may as well cease its operations and that the search for remedies against disease is worthless. Jesus did not say that the tenants of the vineyard could just as well quit their work. Even then they would be under the judgment of the owner. The command given in paradise to have dominion over the earth remains in place. That is why Christians do their work in many professions. They cooperate positively to deal with all kinds of problems. But with only that kind of effort man cannot lift the world over the dead end. In this way we do not address the main root of misery. Anyone who expects anything from such toil is like someone who wants to soak up a flooded basement without turning off the tap. And then we are not even talking about countless solutions that go against God’s law and cause things to move from the frying pan...into the fire. In the first place, our sins will need to be removed. Suppose we could overcome all the problems of the world: war, terrorism, environmental pollution, disease, unemployment… We could start with a clean slate in a world resembling Paradise. But if sin was not radically removed with such a new start, the world would derail again at high speed. That is why we trust in Jesus as our perfect Saviour, because he redeems us from sin. And in that way he opens the way to our well-being in the broadest and deepest sense of the word.
Question 30: Do those who seek
their salvation or well-being
in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else,
also believe in the only Saviour Jesus?
Answer 30: No.
Though they boast of him in words,
they in fact deny the only Saviour Jesus.
For one of two things must be true:
either Jesus is not a complete Saviour,
or those who by true faith accept this Saviour
must find in him all that is necessary
for their salvation.
People can be disappointing. Often we expect too much from them. That is our mistake. Can it be the same with regard to Jesus? Can we expect too much of him? Answer: the hope of faith does not deceive us — ever. For a Christian there is only one danger: that he expects too little of Jesus, and that he therefore seeks his salvation elsewhere. Such an attitude is life-threatening. Anyone who does so denies the only Saviour Jesus.
Praising Him With Our Mouths
People may boast of Jesus — with their words.
Yet they deny him — in their deeds. That is possible. They do not do it with ill intentions. They are not vulgar hypocrites. They really think they are honouring him. They speak very highly of him. The Catechism was thinking especially of Roman Catholics.18 But we can also think of modern theologians who praise Jesus as the man who took on the capitalists by turning over their money tables. After all, he kicked against the establishment with all its prejudices and discrimination! He ate with tax collectors and preached non-violence. For them, Jesus is the social Reformer. The radical revolutionary. The Ally of the poor and oppressed. Nothing more. In fact, they place him on a par with someone like Marx, one of the founders of communism. After all, both of them sought to improve structures. Jesus took the lead and it is now up to us — being deeply impressed and motivated by his exemplary attitude — to continue his deliverance in our own situation.19 Behind this is “the delusion that man is fundamentally good and willing and also able to do good”.20 Jesus is “honoured” as the outstanding example. There is no need for him to be more than this, for we are quite capable of continuing his work.
In this way people praise Jesus with their mouth. But the Catechism teaches us to see straight through such boastful words about Jesus: they deny with their actions the only Saviour Jesus.
Salvation and Well-Being
Salvation and well-being are mentioned side-by-side in the question. These are two words to describe one thing. Yet we are pleased with that word “well-being” because it so emphatically refers to our entire welfare. It indicates very clearly how broadly our salvation may be understood. By redeeming (saving) us from sin, Jesus opened for us the way to well-being in the fullest sense of the word.
We belong to him, with body and soul. He gives both what they need to feel and be happy. Ultimately, that is the life on the new earth: there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain. God will dwell with us there and he — i.e., God himself! — will wipe away every tear.21
Faith anticipates eternal well-being.