Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 23 - As if I had never had nor committed any sin
Question 59: But what does it help you
now that you believe all this?
Answer 59: In Christ I am righteous before God
and heir to life everlasting.
An extremely practical question: what do you get out of your faith? It is apparently something of great relevance to the Catechism. When discussing each article separately it already repeatedly asked what benefit it had for us.1
The difference this time is that it wants to hear what I get out of believing all this. This refers to all that has been confessed in the Twelve Articles. But then you might as well say that what is meant here is faith in the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, because the Twelve Articles are a summary of Scripture.2
The final balance is being drawn up. Much can be said about the meaning of faith. Therefore, it is all the more useful and necessary to keep the main point in mind. The Catechism serves us well in this regard. It succeeds in formulating extremely effectively in twelve words what I gain from believing all this. Namely: that in Christ I am righteous before God and an heir to eternal life.
Righteous Before God and An Heir to Life Everlasting
When can I consider myself to be a happy person?
That does not depend on my health or income but only on this: how God judges me. If it is negative then I am lost, even if I have a successful career and am praised by everyone. But if I am righteous according to his judgment then my happiness in life is unshakeable, even when everyone may reject me. Through faith in Christ I am indeed righteous before God. This implies that he acts as if I were perfect, and will remain as such. His judgment upon me is so final, in fact, that he immediately establishes my future by appointing me as heir to eternal life. At my baptism as a baby, I was already told this.
But how is it that he could change his judgment on me so drastically? On what basis does he do this? How can he turn such a serious transgressor as I still am, into an heir to eternal life? How can a throne be reserved for someone who deserved death? It is the upside-down world! Where does the Catechism get this from?
Habakkuk On Faith
The prophet Habakkuk had quite a shock.
God announced to him that the fearsome Chaldean cavalry would flood Jerusalem like a mighty, devastating tidal wave. That was her deserved reward: punishment from God. However — and this was Habakkuk’s problem — what would happen to those who sincerely believed? Would they too be crushed? What good is your faith if your life is about to end in ruin anyway? Habakkuk received an answer to that question. He had to write it with big, bold letters on a couple of tablets (think: bulletin boards) that he had to display in the street. Everyone who passed it had to be able to read it: BUT THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL LIVE BY HIS FAITH.3
The city was allowed to be destroyed and the people deported or killed, but one category would come through safely in the end. Which one? The righteous people. But how? By what means? By their righteousness? No, but by their faith!
No wonder the Catechism thought of Habakkuk first of all and refers to him here. The NT also appeals three times to this word from the “minor” prophet.4 No prophet had said so clearly that we will not perish in the face of God’s greatest disasters and judgments, but that we will live, through faith. This confronts us with the question of what we may expect from our faith.
Question 60: How are you righteous before God?
Answer 60: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
Although my conscience accuses me
hat I have grievously sinned
against all God’s commandments,
have never kept any of them,
and am still inclined to all evil,
yet God, without any merit of my own,
out of mere grace,
imputes to me
the perfect satisfaction,
righteousness, and holiness of Christ.
He grants these to me
as if I had never had nor committed
and as if I myself had accomplished
all the obedience
which Christ has rendered for me,
if only I accept this gift
with a believing heart.
We are not indifferent to how people think about us. “A good name is better than precious ointment.”5 It is also not unimportant how people view us. To become an elder, one even needs to be well thought of by outsiders.6
The decisive factor, however, is how God judges us. If he is for us, who can be against us?7 But how can God be on my side when my own conscience brings the most serious charges against me?
The charges against us are devastating:
- having sinned grievously against all God’s commandments;
- having kept not a single one of them; and
- still being inclined to all sorts of evil.
Especially the last one leaves no prospect of escape. It shuts out any hope of a turn for the better. According to the form for the Lord’s Supper we should be prepared to serve the Lord henceforth and to live in true love and unity with our neighbour. But according to this indictment not much can come of it because I am still out to commit every kind of evil.
The charge is ironclad and watertight. It is not just some imagination. My own conscience comes up with it and that is an authority in me that I cannot ignore. No, it is not an independent judge. The conscience of each human being has been and is influenced by one’s upbringing and environment.8
A Christian’s conscience, too, has been shaped by his education. It has learned to focus on the word of God. It received a sensitive antenna for what is good and evil. The power of its accusation is therefore the law of God. We might as well say that the law accuses us. The fact that this accusation reaches us through our conscience means that it penetrates very deeply into us. It does not help us to deny it, because our conscience is fully aware of our doings. It has an excellent memory, penetrating eyes and a fine nose for what is wrong. It probes our deepest motives and does not allow itself to be deceived. It knows everything and registers our many faults razor-sharp.
It is also impartial.
When neighbours or colleagues speak ill of us, it often sounds quite right. But our conscience acts purely on the facts. That is why we have to agree with it completely.
But now the surprise!
Never Had or Committed Any Sin
The accusation is irrefutable and incriminatory.
But it is as if God is closing his ears to it. He acts as if I had never had or committed sin. As if! In Latin and in English we might use the word “quasi”. Usually the word indicates a state of semblance. Those who are quasi-angry are not really. Now God treats us as quasi-perfect people. As if we had not done any sin.
It sounds reassuring, but in the meantime a voice inside of us does not stop to accuse us that we have indeed sinned and that we are still out to do evil. Because of this we violate our relationship with God time and again. Surely he cannot ignore this evil reality? Yet that is exactly what he does.
Or rather, he hides that reality under a completely different reality. He places the obedience of Christ on top of our disobedience. “And this obedience is ours when we believe in him. It is sufficient to cover all our iniquities and to give us confidence in drawing near to God, freeing our conscience of fear, terror, and dread…”9
Indeed, he reckons as if I had never committed sin, but as he reckons, so it is henceforth. That is the new reality that cancels the old.
Therefore, we may know for certain each new day: the accusations of our conscience have been superseded by the latest news that God acts as if I have had no sin.
And Yet, There Is a Condition
It all seems so easy. God imputes to me what Christ earned for me. He grants it to me without any merit on my part and only out of grace. But there is also another side to it.
It is emphasized immediately that this gift becomes my property only through true faith in Jesus Christ. And the conclusion of the answer underlines once more that I will share in this benefit only when I accept it with a believing heart. Does the Catechism now introduce some factor of restraint? By grace alone — but also: by faith alone. Without any accomplishment on my part, but also: not without a truly believing heart.
For many, this seems to be the dark shadow cast on the otherwise liberating Answer 60. Admission seemed to be free, but without faith you cannot enter. Is there then a threshold after all?
However, the Catechism has already anticipated this question and is about to address it.
Question 61: Why do you say
that you are righteous
only by faith?
Answer 61: Not that I am acceptable to God
on account of the worthiness
of my faith,
for only the satisfaction, righteousness,
and holiness of Christ
is my righteousness before God.
I can receive this righteousness
and make it my own
by faith only.
It is clear as daylight that the Bible considers faith indispensable for being saved. A few statements of Jesus are already sufficient:
Without faith there is no salvation.
At this point the Catechism considers it is time to issue a warning: do not put too much value on your faith in itself. Do not expect that through it you would therefore make yourself acceptable to God. This may come across as rather unexpected: on the one hand, faith is indispensable for salvation and on the other hand, we must not attach a wrong value to it. We want to learn more about this…
An Overestimation of Faith
A well-known song rightly says: “The hope of faith shall not deceive us.” Faith will never fail to anticipate that our Saviour’s words are true and sure. But faith can expect too much of a person. That happens when we harbour the illusion that it enables us to do the law so well that the LORD would accept us for that reason. Then it becomes a means to hustle and strive to the point that God would accept us. As if that were possible!
Imperceptibly, faith then becomes another word for piety. To be more specific: for meritorious piety. But what have we accomplished by it? In this scenario we have confused the basics, the a-b-c of faith, with the x-y-z. That last part is important. It is even indispensable, because faith needs to be accompanied by good works. Our faith definitely needs to roll up its sleeves. But then we are talking about the effect of faith on our actions. The next Lord’s Day will deal with this in further detail. But first of all we need to hold up our empty hands and embrace Christ. Let us not confuse faith with our ever-failing piety. Then we have no defense against the conscience that stubbornly maintains that in spite of our piety we are still inclined to pursue every evil.
But true faith never expects too little of itself and never too much of the sure words of the Saviour. It may be compared to the worthless jar that contains precious jewels. Therefore it possesses no value of its own.14 Faith draws the words of the Saviour not to faith-as-such, but to the content of it: to Christ himself, and to his righteousness.15 Faith is only the means or the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.16 Nothing less and also nothing more.
In itself it is imperfect. With all its actions it gets failing grades. As the form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper states, “We do not have perfect faith”. But it draws to itself all the perfect scores with which God has rewarded the work of his Son. Therein lies our salvation!
The Law No Longer a Frightening Prospect
The strong argument of my conscience is its appeal to the law of God. I have sinned against all the commandments, and I am still doing it. The penalty for this is death. Therefore, it seems utterly impossible that I should not be condemned, but treated as if I had fulfilled all the commandments. How is that possible? First and foremost, God is not acquitting me through some unlawful means. He never acts illegally or illegitimately. There is therefore no escape: I have to offer him, no matter what, the required righteousness. That is one sure thing. But on the other hand, it is out of the question that I would be able to earn this righteousness through the law. It condemns me. But then how can God acquit me — apart from the law?
Because that is what he is doing!
Paul put it this way: “The righteousness of God has now been manifested apart from the law”, namely through faith.17 It is in that way that righteousness has thus become available to me. God will accept it because it satisfies his law. How do I get this? It is earned by Another but by faith it becomes mine. Because what does my faith do? It forces me to the cross of Christ. There I stand as it were on the scales of God’s wrath. That cross teaches me the heavy weight of my transgressions, and how God’s judgment upon it is devastating. Yet at that same cross I may embrace Christ with my unclean hands as my righteousness. In this way it really becomes mine: by grace.
Now we have a better understanding as to why Paul can state that God imputes faith as righteousness to us.18He does not do it because he considers our faith itself as being so worthy, but because it takes on the righteousness of Christ. That is why it has this high value before God. Just like a dilapidated piggy bank has the value of the money that is inside.
So believing is not: doing your best and then being left in suspense as to whether God will accept you. Instead it is: embracing Christ and thereby knowing for sure that God does accept you. Because Christ is our righteousness! Take hold of that righteousness! It is given to us apart from the law. Aside from all works of the law. Nor is it given to us on the basis of our works of faith. Someone who has been a Christian for multiple years is acquitted on exactly the same grounds as the newly converted murderer on the cross. God does not acquit anyone on the basis of his or her piety. He justifies, i.e., he acquits the ungodly.19
However, it is an ungodly person whose faith expects Christ to be his righteousness before God.