Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 6 - The Mediator
Question 16: Why must he be a true and righteous man?
Answer: He must be a true man
because the justice of God requires
that the same human nature which has sinned
should pay for sin.
He must be a righteous man
because one who himself is a sinner
cannot pay for others.
Question 17: Why must he at the same time be true God?
Answer: He must be true God
so that by the power of his divine nature
he might bear in his human nature
the burden of God’s wrath,
and might obtain for us
and restore to us
righteousness and life.
The question is asked why the Mediator must be a “true man,” but Answer 14 of the catechism already said that God does not want to punish another kind of creature for the sin that man has made.
It is also asked why he must be a “righteous man,” but Answer 13 of the catechism already said that we cannot pay, because we actually increase the debt every day.
Next it is asked why he must be “true God,” but Answer 14 of the catechism already said, that no creature can bear the burden of God’s wrath and deliver us from it.
Are the questions posed here perhaps superfluous?
The Purpose of Questions 16 and 17
The question is explicitly asked why the Mediator must be human and God at the same time. From our introduction it appears that the answers could have been copied from Lord’s Day 5. That is not happening. Lord’s Day 6 comes with new, refined formulations. This already provides a hint that the catechism is dealing with something else here.
While the previous Lord’s Day proved why we could not pay, Lord’s Day 6, while continuing in this vein, proves why our Mediator could pay. The catechism makes a separate point of this and explains why our Mediator is able to pay, something we cannot possibly do. He is exactly what a Mediator needs to be: a true and righteous man and at the same time true God.
In both questions it is about none other than Christ, although we do not yet hear his name being mentioned. Twice the question is what the Mediator must be and only then who he is. This sequence has been criticized. The catechism, while reasoning, would first like to figure out for itself what kind of Mediator we need and only then fill in Who it is. In fact, it is as if the Catechism is working here on a profile of the Mediator. Therefore Jesus would stay out of the picture for a while. This is how it goes when people make a profile, for example for a new mayor. First there is a determination of the requirements that the candidate should meet. Only then does one look for the right man or woman on the basis of the established profile.
To some extent, what is happening in this Lord’s Day does indeed resemble such an approach. First it is explained what the criteria are for our Mediator. What kind of person should he be? Only then follows the question as to “who” it is and his name is mentioned: our Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this cannot mean that we are not allowed to know this until then. Lord’s Day 1 did already mention the name of the One who “fully paid for all my sins” was made known. The catechism does not present a self-made profile of the Mediator in order to find the right Man on the basis of this sketch. In reality, the opposite procedure is taking place here. Christians know very well who their Mediator is, but precisely because of this they want to understand even better what kind of person he is. For them it generates great comfort to immerse themselves in this. They like to examine why he must be a true and righteous man and why, at the same time, he must be true God. The answer to these questions shows that he meets all the requirements. This gives them a firm footing and the sure comfort that they can also expect all their salvation, today and tonight, from this Mediator.
A True and Righteous Man
Our Mediator has to be “a true man”. Not just any real person. Moses was like that when the people had committed a serious sin. Then Moses said, “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin”. He wanted God to give him up to death in their place.1 The LORD rejected that. Why? Was it because Moses himself did not have clean hands either? In itself, that would be a decisive argument. What did Moses think; that he would be able to bear the punishment of others, while he himself was a sinner! But remarkably we do not hear the LORD make that objection. His motive is different: whoever has sinned against me I will punish. In other words: the sinner himself must pay. God does not approve of just “any” person taking on someone else’s guilt — not even Moses, who felt so strongly connected to this people.
Christ is more than just any man. He is also more than just any man without sin. He has to be, because as in the case of Moses, God demands that not just “any man”, but “the human nature that has sinned shall also pay for sin”. Human nature is humanity. Mankind has sinned. That includes all people from all nations and all times.2 That means us.
How can this Mediator bear our guilt? He is truly human and, according to Answer 17, he has his own human nature, his own identity. He does not simply have some characteristic aspect of all people at once, but he is as unique as any human being.3
By his voice and facial expression he was and is recognizable out of millions. He is not an Englishman of the twentieth century. He is not a fellow citizen of our town or village. In many ways he is much further removed from us than Moses was from his own people at the time.
What is the secret that he can pay for the sin of any human being from any time, any culture, any nation and any people group? That secret is revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:21, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead”. Jesus is called “a man” there; he is put on the same level as Adam. This indicates his special position as a human being. He is a second Adam. Therefore, with his human nature he can bear the punishment of the human nature, i.e., of every descendant of Adam.
History is replete with people who are famous or infamous because of their influence on the destiny of mankind, for better or for worse. Two stand out infinitely above them: Adam and Christ. Like no one else these two determine the future of all people. For “by a man” came death and “by a man” came deliverance from death, see also Romans 5:12-19.
Jesus received from God, as the only human being in the world, the same position as Adam. Just as the first man dragged all people with him in his rebellion against God, Jesus works reconciliation for everyone who accepts him. Therefore he could bear “our” diseases, sorrows, transgressions and punishment (Is. 53:3-5). That is why he commissioned his disciples to make all the nations followers. This is to continue until the end of the world.4 He never stops being our Mediator. He is this for us now, just as when he sat at the table with “sinners” in Jerusalem or Capernaum. He is the only fellow human who can take care of our guilt day and night, because he is not just any other human being, but he is the second Adam.
Separately, it is noted that apart from being a true man, he must also be a righteous man. Otherwise he could not pay for others. The New Testament does not by any means hide the fact that he was a very controversial person in his time. No one met with such misunderstanding, slander and hatred. How easily can the critical question be raised whether his actions were always perfectly good. But the same New Testament portrays Christ as a perfectly righteous man. Even the pagan judge Pilate, who pronounced the final judgment on him, repeatedly declared that he found no fault in him. Thus we find our support and comfort in the certainty that this fiercely disputed Mediator had everything to pay for us.
At the Same Time: True God
Many “honour” Jesus as some kind of super-man, but dispute that he is at the same time true God.5 Does Paul give rise to this view? After all, he speaks of “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Man — therefore not God? In no way does Paul mean the latter. He calls the mediator “man” to indicate that he is completely on our side. Moreover, the general word “man” also underlines that he is equally close to both Jews and non-Jews.6 Meanwhile, Paul does not simply deny that the Mediator is also God.7 How important is that fact for us in our actual personal faith?
There is an anecdote about a pope who visited a nunnery. He heard nuns singing: “born, not made”. It was a refrain about Christ. It did not refer to his birth as a human being, and was not a Christmas or Advent song. They meant that Christ was born from eternity and not made or created as it also says in the Nicene Creed: begotten, not made. But for the pope all this took too long and impatiently he exclaimed: whether born or made, peace be with you. He was indifferent to whether or not Jesus was truly God. A German theologian of the last century heartily agreed with this pope. He felt that whether Jesus is God or whether he is not, makes no difference to our salvation.8
The catechism thinks very differently. It asks why our Mediator has to be true God. For the answer it refers to a touching conversation of Paul with the elders of the church at Ephesus. On his way to Jerusalem the apostle urges them to be watchful. They are to take care of the church, which God has “obtained with his own blood,” namely of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).I9
The word “own” emphasizes how God founded the church by giving himself. It cost him the blood of his own Son. Thus Paul impresses upon the elders the high price God paid very personally for his church.
Jesus is called “Mighty God” and “Son of God in power”.10 The “power of his deity” increased his human capacity. How this was possible remains a mystery to us, but in this way he became superhumanly strong. Not in order to make his human suffering bearable, but precisely in order to be able to make it unspeakably heavy. The full burden of God’s wrath had to press down on his “human nature” without it giving way prematurely. If he had died a minute too soon, his work would not have been accomplished.
Those who claim that it does not matter whether our Mediator is “true God” underestimate the gravity of God’s wrath. Such people belittle the work of Christ and seriously short-change the love of God, who bought his church with the blood of his own Son.
In conclusion the catechism gives still another reason why our Mediator must be God. Almost 2000 years after he obtained the new life for us, he must be able to “give it back” to us. That is a separate chapter. He must be able to reach and convince us with his gospel. No human being could do that. If he were only God, he could not suffer our death because God cannot die. If he were only human, he could undergo eternal death, but would not be able overcome it for us.11 Christ could do both: he underwent and conquered death, also for people of this century. Therefore he has done everything to realize our reconciliation with God every day.
Question 18: But who is that Mediator
who at the same time is true God
and a true and righteous man?
Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who became to us wisdom from God,
righteousness and sanctification
and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).
The real new element of this Answer is not found in the revelation of the name of the Mediator, but in the apt characterization of his mediatorial work. It is especially valuable that this is done with an almost literal quotation from 1 Corinthians 1:30.
What the Mediator “Became” In Order To Redeem Us
The catechism quotes 1 Corinthians 1:30. In some earlier translations of this text we read how God “‘made Christ” into wisdom, etc. In this way it is clearly shown that our Mediator is a gift from God. It is not we, but he, who began the reconciliation. Out of his divine initiative. No one urged him to do so. Adam and Eve did not seek any reconciliation after their break with God. And we would never have returned to him. But God gives his Son. He is “given” to us by God, who in Christ “became” our Saviour. The catechism rightly calls attention to this.
Yet, when all is said and done, the text itself says something more, particularly about the cooperation of the Mediator. The accent is not only one-sidedly on what God has presented or given us, but very delicately it also says what Christ “became” for us. The plan of salvation is from God, and it is Christ who carries it out. We could put it this way: it comes from God that Christ “became” so much for us.12
What Christ has become is further indicated by four keywords: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.
He became to us wisdom. This began when he came to earth as a human being. What is meant is a wisdom that comes from God, which no man can find out by himself. It is the wisdom to reconcile mankind to God. No one knew how to do that. People have no idea as to what the cause is of all misery. They completely lack the wisdom to find that cause, let alone to get rid of it.
We were given that wisdom in the person of Christ. Not just because he came to tell us what was wrong with the world. Not because as a teacher he imparted the wisdom of God to us. That too, follows on from it. He teaches us what true wisdom is. But here it says it even more radically.
He became wisdom — for us. He became this especially when he died the death of the cross. That was wisdom — at its maximum. To all human wisdom it was unpalatable. Human “intelligence” considers it “foolishness” to expect salvation from a crucified Jew. No human being would come up with such a plan of salvation. But Paul characterizes a crucified Christ “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23, 24). God was in complete agreement that Jesus died in this way. The plan came from him. Thus his wrath was satisfied and the atonement became a fact.
Christ remains our wisdom because not only did he again open up access to God for us but he keeps it open to us, day and night. He is still in active service as our Mediator. Therefore, he is and remains our highest wisdom.
In doing so he has become our righteousness. Not by teaching us how to become righteous. That too, follows on from it. But it begins with something else. First and foremost, he himself became righteousness. He fulfilled completely what God asked of him. He took our guilt upon himself, on his account, and ended up with a grand total balance of righteousness. This is how he gives himself to us. In him we find so much righteousness that God regards it as if we had never sinned once. Thus he maintains our reconciliation with God. Furthermore, he has became sanctification for us. Not by motivating us to live the way God wants us to. That too, but that follows later. First and foremost, he himself dedicated his life to God, for us. He is our sanctification. That is how he gives himself to us. With all his power to change people. Whoever allows him into his life in this way receives everything that is necessary for his sanctification. As a result, Christ initiates a profound change for the better in him. Because of our failures, this transformation does not yet amount to much. But we can fall back on the promise that Christ himself is and remains the driving force behind our sanctification, until one day we will have reached perfection.
This brings us to the fourth keyword: perfect redemption, for us. That is the grand final goal of our Mediator. This implies a perfect redemption. In Paul’s words we note the expectation of our full and complete redemption on the last day.13 Then peace with God will be restored forever. That is the crowning glory of the Mediator’s atoning work.
Question 19: From where do you know this?
Answer: From the holy gospel,
which God himself first revealed in Paradise.
Later, he had it proclaimed
by the patriarchs and prophets,
by the sacrifices and other ceremonies
of the law.
Finally, he had it fulfilled
through his only Son.
What is your source for all of this? The catechism, as a confessional scripture, is in fact always answering that question. That it is asked so emphatically has a special reason. The way God saves us defies all human wisdom. Hence the urgent question from where we know “this”, namely that God gives us “perfect salvation” through his Son. The catechism does not come with a series of biblical texts. Instead, it points with a broad hand gesture to “the holy gospel”. This is not a matter of complacency. After all, below this Answer we find a generous list of carefully selected texts, which has been greatly expanded in newer editions. Moreover, all previously given Answers were also amply provided with proof texts, while the previous Answer was an almost-literal quotation from the gospel.
Answer 19 apparently has a special purpose.
An Appeal To the Gospel
The gospel is a completely unique message. That is why it is called “holy”. Its truth cannot be confirmed by other sources. For our knowledge of the atonement or reconciliation, we depend entirely on that gospel itself. Therefore we are curious to know what attention our reconciliation with God receives in it. The answer may surprise us. The gospel covers many centuries, but everything focuses on the coming of the Mediator. That is where it begins, that is where it is aimed at, and that is also where it ends up. That is the golden thread that the catechism points out in its revealing overview of the gospel. What is revealed well in this overview is God’s personal involvement in the gospel. He has revealed it, had it proclaimed and foreshadowed, and finally fulfilled it. We will review these stages briefly.
God first revealed this gospel in Paradise. The location — Paradise — is significant. On that particular day, man had given up his trust in God. Moreover, neither Adam nor Eve had shown any sign of wanting to reconcile with God at or after their initial conversation. It was at that time that God revealed the gospel. He was ready for it, completely. For he did not come to Adam with preliminary proposals, but announced definitively the coming of the Redeemer. He would fight the serpent — the devil — and “bruise its head.”14 It was God, and not us, who conceived the gospel.
Then he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs. Again, this was not their initiative. The start of Abraham’s account is: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go out of your country...’” His goal is the blessing — the reconciliation — of “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:1-3).
After the patriarchs it was again he who sent the prophets. On their own, not one came forth. They had a great deal to say and by no means mimicked each other. Each of them came with an original message. There is much variation in style, choice of words and themes. But according to an important statement by Peter, with “all the prophets” the core of their message is this: “everyone who believes in him (Christ) receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
In addition, he had the gospel portrayed through shadows. Through the temple service with its bloody sacrifices and the smell of fire, he imprinted upon the people what type of Mediator was needed. He himself prescribed the sacrifices meticulously in his law. Even the tabernacle and the later temple were made by his design.15 It is striking how God devised all the shadow images of the Mediator himself. This shows once again his great involvement in our reconciliation with him.
Finally, he fulfilled the gospel “through his only Son”.
It does not say that the Son did this. Not even that he let the Son fulfill it. Consistently the truth of God’s personal care for the gospel is continued: God himself fulfilled it.
With “fulfilled” it cannot be meant that literally all promises have been fulfilled. There is still a “promise of his (second) coming” and we expect according to his promise “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:4, 13). All that is yet to come. Yet it rightly says here that God has fulfilled the gospel, for the Mediator has come, and with his sacrifice the atonement is a fact. Nothing stands in the way of our “complete redemption”.
Everything that we know about our Mediator comes firsthand from God himself, through the gospel in which he himself reveals who our Mediator is, from Genesis to Revelation. That makes this gospel into an equally rich and reliable source. In it we find our sure footing.