Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 5 - We Must Make Full Payment
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?
Answer: God demands that his justice be satisfied.
Therefore we must make full payment,
either by ourselves or through another.
Yes — the punishment is deserved, both in time and eternity, in God’s righteous judgment. The demander acknowledges it all. He can no longer think of a new pretext to challenge his culpability. He has exhausted all legal remedies and can only ask how we might escape this punishment.
A Tense Question
A strict father may turn a blind eye to his rebellious son’s past in order to give him another chance. In that case it is enough when his son promises improvement. Why can God not draw a line through our past and treat us in a similar way? The reason is not that he is so relentlessly strict, but that he is just. That is what the Bible calls him. He is righteous because he will always do what he promises in his word. That includes everything he had said to man, already to Adam. To us this implies that he treats us as we may expect him to act on the basis of his own word.1 Even before the Fall he pronounced his abhorrence over a possible rebellion and warned of eternal death as a consequence. He would have denied himself if he had then suddenly cancelled or reduced this punishment. Anything is possible with him, except that he goes back on his own spoken word. Therefore, the punishment that had been foretold in case of sin is inescapable.
So — what is next? Right at this most hopeless moment, the Catechism opens for us the chapter on our salvation. And how! It does not ask for a reduction of the punishment (a plea bargain) but — much more radical — how we can escape it altogether. And then in the same breath: and “be again received into favour”.
The word “again” points to the situation before the Fall, because at that time, too, Adam lived by virtue of God’s grace or favour. All of life in paradise was an undeserved gift from God. And in that sense it was grace that we received, without any merit.2 It was destined for perfect people. True salvation would involve that God would be the same for us again as he was for Adam and Eve in paradise.
Here, in fact, the impossible is being sought. A person has earned eternal punishment and recognizes that this is happening according to God’s “righteous judgment”. And then he asks how he can live again in peace with God, as before, in paradise. For only that can rightly be called salvation.
The tension is building. It is not as if the answer has not yet been decided. The question does not come from someone who is panicking, looking for a way out. The outcome is fixed and known. Lord’s Day 5 does not momentarily close the curtains before the comfort of Lord’s Day 1, just to keep matters in suspense. The questioner is aware of the only comfort: he may belong to Christ.
What makes Lord’s Day 5 (and 6) so full of suspense is not the question of whether we can escape punishment, but how we can avoid it. The word “can” recurs in three of the four questions. The catechism loves to explain how it is possible for us to be accepted in grace again.
Reconciliation Through Satisfaction
The Catechism does not mention the word reconciliation. Nor does it refer to Scripture texts about it. But clearly this is in focus here. “Escaping punishment” and “being received into grace again” are, for all practical purposes, almost the same as “being reconciled to God”.3
Yet the New Testament term for “reconciliation” is instructive for our subject. There are actually two. One indicates reconciliation with God (think: “propitiation”), the other reconciliation of sins (think: “expiation”).
The first word says that things are made right with God again. As a result, we escape the punishment and are again accepted in grace. This is what it is like already now, in spite of all the transgressions, because they are not imputed to us. And the day will come when we will be forever “blameless and beyond reproach” (Col. 1:22). This word therefore, speaks of our harmony with God — in time and eternity.4
The second word puts more emphasis on what Christ had to do to bring about this reconciliation. He came to “atone for the sins of the people” and is therefore called “an atonement for our sins”. This word, as it were, shows the drips of his blood covering our sin before God’s eyes and thus putting an end to his wrath.5
Our reconciliation with God is a reconciliation/atonement for our sins.
Both New Testament words complement each other: there is peace with God. Not because he is constantly passing over his deep abhorrence of sin, but because the account has been settled to the last penny. There is not a day of our lives that passes by that he “demand that his justice would be satisfied”. In other words, it is atonement through satisfaction.6
Many dispute that God really demands satisfaction or payment as a condition for the atonement through the sacrifice of Christ.7 No one can judge this better than he who brought about this reconciliation. Jesus himself said that he had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The payment was the ransom that had to be paid for those who were condemned to die.8 This expression leaves no other explanation than that Jesus fulfilled God’s requirement to redeem our forfeited life9 The idea of the ransom was already anchored in the law of Moses.10
The catechism has traditionally referred to Romans 8:3-4. God sent his Son into our human existence. That is where sin is operative. That is where God’s law lies broken. This is therefore where “the demand of the law needed to be fulfilled”: in our lives. God has sought out sin, as it were, in its own territory: in our human existence. That is why he made his Son to be like us. Thus, through Christ, he “condemned sin” on its own turf and executed the judgment upon it.11 God intends to settle with sin. There is no reconciliation without gratification.
Is God a Cold-Hearted Creditor?
Many have difficulty with God’s demand that he is to be paid fully. It comes across to them as cold and impersonal, as if the atonement were a business transaction. After all, there must be payment, no matter what; if not by ourselves then by another. In this view, God is the unyielding creditor who presents us with a new invoice every day. 12
‘This representation does not do justice to God. He is not a cold-hearted creditor who can only be kind once all the debt has been paid. Instead, he loved us before anything was settled. He let his own Son pay the full price in our place. Any thought that he — without any interest in our person — would only be interested in payment of our debt, is an insult to this love.
On the other hand, he does indeed demand that we “pay the full amount” for our guilt. But while he demands this, he points us to the payment through his own Son. God himself was completely behind this. Out of love for us he gave his Son to pay for our debt. That is how much he loved us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8).
God is not the harsh creditor who must first be pacified by Christ. As if his love for us is only awakened after Christ has paid for us.13
We need to keep the two sides in mind, just as our confession does. On the one hand, Jesus put himself in our place before his Father, “appeasing God’s wrath by his full satisfaction”.14
That is the point at issue in this Lord’s Day. On the other hand we confess of this same punishing Father that he gave us this Mediator between him and us, and that it has pleased God to give us his Son as our Advocate.15Let us not forget this for a moment. For “in this is love” (of God), not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). When he “gave him to us, he knew very well that we were sinners”.16
So great is his love for people who are indebted to him. And from whom he expected no payment — not even a penny.
Question 13: Can we by ourselves make this payment?
Answer: Certainly not.
On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.
Question 14: Can any mere creature pay for us?
In the first place,
God will not punish another creature
for the sin which man has committed.
no mere creature can sustain
the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin
and deliver others from it.
No one succeeds in getting rid of his debt before God. Not even with the help of other creatures. But why make such a fuss over a debt that has long been paid? What is the point of that?
The Purpose of These Questions
We have already noted that the question is not whether we will be able to escape punishment, but how. Christians like to know this, because they have to deal with the frightening reality of new and added guilt every day. Christians deserve God’s wrath just as much as others. Aware of this, they constantly need to find out what is happening to their guilt. How is it possible that they are accepted in grace despite God’s real wrath over their sins? What is this based on?
The catechism does not unnecessarily fuss over the payment of this debt. It does not dwell on it endlessly so as to discourage us. On the contrary, it encourages us with its thorough explanation that all our debts have been paid, even the umpteenth one and that of today. That gives us peace, support, and comfort. There is no nobler effort than to ascertain how our reconciliation with God is absolutely safe. Therein lies the purpose of the questions asked here and in Lord’s Day 6.
No Mere Creature Can Help Us
We must pay: either by ourselves, or by another. That is what the previous Answer told us. Strictly speaking it did not state that another might possibly make the payment. We have to pay, even if this may be done through someone else. It is and remains our debt. God’s demand to pay remains addressed to us. He does not settle this debt outside of us with “another” — whoever that may be. As human beings we are and remain personally liable. The debtor must pay himself. That remains God’s starting position. He knocks at our door for payment to be made.
It is different with monetary debts. A financial debt of one person can be paid by someone else without any problem. No creditor will mind if he is sent to a reliable address, which took over the debts—as long as he gets his money.
Sin-debt is not the same as money-debt. Any sin is evidence of very personal enmity against God. Therefore no father can take over this debt of his son or, vice versa, a son cannot take over that of his father. God imputes to each person his or her own sin.
In the time of Ezekiel, Israel accused God of departing from this basic rule. They blamed him that he was punishing the present innocent generation for the crimes of their ancestors. In a strong rebuttal God emphatically said that he will punish each person for his own misconduct. He does not punish a father for the wickedness of his son. Nor does a son have to pay for the wickedness of his father. ‘The soul who sins shall die”(Eze. 18:4).
The sinner pays. God does not let anyone else pay for the sins of others. He does not think that is just. That is why he does not want this. We have to pay for our sins. It may be “through another,” but it is already clear that in any case that other person must share fully in our human existence. Even more than a father shares his son’s and vice versa.
With that, we are immediately in the clear as to the possibility that God punishes other kinds of creatures. If a son is not punished for his father’s crimes and a father is not punished for his son’s, then he is even much less willing to punish animals or angels for our sins.17
They are too far removed from us. Therefore, “God does not want to punish any other (“mere”) creature for the debt that man has made.”
The only animal that played a role in the Fall is the serpent. Eve said, “the serpent deceived me”. That is why God cursed it, yet Eve’s guilt was not in the slightest shifted toward that animal (Gen. 3:13, 14).
Animals can be of great use to man. They can carry burdens, they can help in drug detection, guide the blind and so much more. In several respects, they are even superior to us. But never are they able to pay for the faults of a human being. No dog can serve a prison term in the place of its master. They cannot take over fines and forced labour assignments. There is no punishment imaginable that an animal could take over from us. No judge will accept that: not out of contempt for the animal, but because it is of a lower rank.
Israel experienced a time when animal sacrifices were indispensable. One was not allowed to approach God without first sacrificing some livestock. Thus Israel’s high priest entered the Most Holy Place once a year, but “not without blood”, which he offered for his own sins and those of the people (Heb. 9:7). Yet no guilt was in fact covered or atoned for by this blood. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb, 10:4). No creature can replace the high position of a human being — not even angels.“18
We may make payment “through another”. That opportunity is present, as we saw earlier. But who can that other be? Not an angel. Not an animal. Not even just any other human being. God does not want that. He does not think that is just. In the first place, everyone’s guilt is too personal for that.
Added to that is this: besides the fact that God does not want to punish our debt to any other creature, such a creature — which is no more than that — cannot take over our punishment. Reference is made to Nahum 1:6 who expresses what happens when God’s burning indignation erupts: mountains tremble, the sea and river evaporate, hills melt, rocks are broken to pieces, tidal waves sweep everything away. Who can stand until his wrath is poured out and all has been accomplished? Creation—including heaven with its multitudes of angels — offers no possibility of salvation.
We cannot find a suitable candidate on our own. Fortunately, God has done so. That makes our redemption into an unshakable reality every day.
Question 15: What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?
Answer: 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.
Suddenly, the word “mediator” appears. Clearly this name was so familiar that it could be introduced without further explanation. We even lack any direct reference to the New Testament.19
However, we welcome the introduction of this biblical title. We therefore wish to give this the attention it deserves because this name sheds such an illuminating light on the atoning work of Christ.
Why a Mediator?
A mediator is an intermediary: in a conflict between parties he stands in-between. He does not choose for one and against the other, but his aim is to bring both parties together.
Paul speaks of “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is his task to give us humans access to the divine majesty “that we might not be barred from but have access to the divine majesty”.20Not because God is too exalted to be approached by us without mediation. In paradise, he came to communicate with man during the cool of the evening.21 The high God dealt with man without any mediation.22 Therefore, quite accurately put, we do not seek a “mediator between God and men”, but between him and sinners. This is how Paul intends it in the text quoted. After all, he adds, this Mediator gave himself as a ransom.23 The problem is not with God, but with us. He did not become unapproachable because he is the supreme majesty. He was that also in paradise. But we have spurned this majesty. That is what mattered. That is why he became inaccessible to us. It is now the superhuman task of a Mediator to unlock access to him.24
What Kind of Mediator Must We Seek?
Normally a mediator negotiates with both parties. He shuttles between one and the other, trying to get them both to reach concessions and compromises. God does not negotiate the severity of our guilt or the punishment. He does this with no one. Therefore we are not seeking such a mediator. After all, it is not fixated on God but it is our problem, exclusively. God’s justice is not lacking in anything. Not even when he demands that it be met. Therefore, we are not helped by a negotiator, but only by a Mediator who pays our debt. In other words, the Mediator we seek must be our “deliverer”. Therefore, the question is what kind of Mediator and Deliverer we should seek.
In fact, a complete do-over is demanded of our lives — and then perfectly well. Does he have the capacity for that?
God’s demand that we must pay remains unshakeable. It is allowed through someone else, but then that other person will have to be a “real” human being, at least like us. Because as things went wrong one time because of a human being, so it can only be made right again by a human being.
The catechism refers to 1 Corinthians 15:21. Death entered our world through a man. It was not by an angel (the devil), nor by an animal (the serpent). Only through the man Adam could death take control of the human race.
The same rule applies to the resurrection from death. Only through man can there be a resurrection of the dead. “For that reason our Mediator needed to be true man”. Moreover, he had to be a ”righteous” man, but that speaks for itself.25
At the same time he must be stronger than all creatures. In this he differs greatly from the first Adam. This is because it is infinitely more difficult to atone for God’s eternal wrath than it is to arouse it. Adam only had to eat from the precious fruit. That was all. It did not take him any serious effort. In contrast, it is superhumanly difficult to overcome this severe wrath. Therefore, the Mediator must be more powerful than all creatures. Thus we arrive at a very special Person. There is only One who is like it. Or as Job said: one out of a thousand.26
Can Such a Mediator Really Represent Our Side?
Every day it is just as necessary that the Mediator takes up our case with God. How sure can we be that he is doing this? Does he never tire of interceding (advocating) for us? Does he continue to take sides over against God on behalf of people who do not let a day go by without sinning?
There is a reason for these kinds of questions. In general, a mediator takes a neutral stance toward both parties. This one does not. According to him, right is completely on God’s side and we are the guilty ones. As a righteous man and Son of God, he hates sin — including ours — as intensely as God does. Those who take this as their only focus are not reassured that this Mediator will stand up for us before God. Would he not rather take sides with God more than with us? This might make us hesitant and unsure of this Mediator. Does Jesus really take a generous stand for us before God? How far does his love extend toward us?
An effective way to combat this kind of doubt is to take the wonderful title of “Mediator” completely seriously. As a true Mediator “between God and man”, he never takes sides with God more than with us. There is no one who loves us more than he who gave his life for us, “even while we were his enemies” (Rom. 5:8, 10).27
Meanwhile, it is also true that he sides with God with all his heart. But that does not make it any less so for us. For God himself has given us this Mediator.28 In fact, the atonement proceeds entirely from him. The Father and the Mediator together seek our salvation. Together they are for us.
Our Mediator, as a real man, is closer to God than to us, namely at God’s right hand in heaven. But he is there to intercede for us, during all the time that we live on earth and are daily adding to our debt. “Moreover, who will be heard more readily than God’s own well-beloved Son?”29