The root of evil

Question 7: From where, then, does this depraved nature of man come?

Answer: From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby, our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.

Western individualism hates the notion that one person’s decision could have consequences for someone else.  But were God to conform His ways to each culture’s preferences, contradiction and chaos would ensue.  Whether we like it or not, the all-wise and infinitely good God of the universe made Adam the representative Head of mankind; reality can’t be sugar-coated.  His obedience to God would procure eternal life for him and his descendants, but disobedience would bring spiritual death (“one trespass brought condemnation for all men” Rom. 5:18a).

Though God gave him every chance of success by equipping him with moral uprightness, he submitted himself to the word of the serpent instead.  As a result of his guilt, he and his descendants were cast out of His Kingdom.  Spiritual death ensued, making us, by nature, morally twisted and destined for judgment (“by the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners” Rom. 5:19a).  In other words, at the root of all the evil in the world is the failure of our forefather, not some “mistake” in God’s design of us.

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The baseball bat did it!

Question 6: Did God create man thus, wicked and perverse?

Answer: No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.

Blame-shifting is a part of life.  A father asks his son whether he broke the window with the baseball and the son replies, “No, the baseball bat did it.”  Our first line of defense after God’s Law teaches us of our sinful natures and actions is to, similarly, shift the blame to God, saying, “This is really your fault, God!  You made me in such a way that I’m unable to keep your law.  If you would have done a better job, I would be just as loving and good as your Law commands me to be.”

This would be an instance of refusing to recognize that the problem is within us, though.  By nature, God gave us everything we needed to keep the Law.  Our minds did not distort the knowledge of God and our hearts were not prone to hate Him.  We were even created in God’s very image, which includes positive righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  Our nature was fully equipped and disposed to obey and attain eternal life.  The problem is not with God’s success in creating us.

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Why the Law is “bad news”

Question 5: Can you keep all this [i.e., love God and neighbor] perfectly?

Answer: No, for I am prone to hate God and my neighbor

In and of itself God’s moral law (“love God and your neighbor”) is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, God’s law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12).  The reason that the law is often called “the bad news” is because we are unable to keep it.  The problem is not in the law but in us; our obedience has never been complete and perfect.  When God’s law tells us of God’s demands and reveals our sin and misery (e.g., Rom. 3:9-20), it tells us in crystal clear terms what our conscience has already uttered (Rom. 1:32; 2:13-15) – we have violated the law of love.

Tragically, our condition is even worse than that we have failed to obey God’s moral law.  This disobedience is not a mere slip-up by people that are inherently good.  No, we have an inclination toward hate (Eph. 2:1-3).  Our nature is now twisted and corrupted and we worship created things (including ourselves) instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:18-23).  We are also prone to love ourselves to the detriment of our neighbors.  In the first sin events of Adam and Eve, we submitted ourselves to the instruction and command of the serpent.  Having been cast out of the Garden and still wandering “East of Eden”, we generally do his bidding, rejecting our Creator and our neighbor.

(To avoid misunderstanding: God’s “common grace” has prevented us from living as rebelliously as we could.  There is still a remnant of good in mankind, but the good we see never meets the standard that God originally set.  Societal “good” is never done with perfect love for the Creator and neighbor.)

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The Law is not the Gospel

Question 4: What does the law of God require of us?

Answer: Christ teaches us in sum, Matthew 22, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Great confusion and spiritual distress will arise in a Christian’s life if the law and the gospel are not distinguished from one another.  The law teaches men and women of God’s demands for moral uprightness (Right now, I am speaking of “law” as God’s unchanging moral standard, not as the covenant that came down at Sinai.).  In short, the law commands perfect love – love for God and neighbor.  This love is written upon our hearts (Rom. 2:13-15) and must be fulfilled personally, perpetually, and perfectly.  To obtain a fuller sense of the law’s demands, one may turn to the Ten Commandments, which the catechism explains later on, or to the various commands in the Old and New Testament that call people to live an upright life.

Just think about the implications of this distinction. If the law relates to God just requirements, it does not speak of His grace.  Therefore, it does not inform us of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ and His gracious gifts of forgiveness and free righteousness.  Instead, the law enjoins that we personally achieve righteousness.  Some old sayings go like this: “What the law demands, the gospel gives.  The law says ‘do’ and the gospel says ‘done’.”  In short, if we make “love” or even “following Christ’s example” into the gospel, we have confused justice with mercy and misunderstood God’s glorious grace.

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The Knowledge of Misery

Question 3: From where do you know your misery?

Answer: From the Law of God.

To us, misery has the connotation of a subjective feeling, e.g., “I feel miserable today.”  In the Heidelberg, it refers to a state; therefore, a person may be entirely unaware that he or she is in that state.  The New Testament contains a story of a rich, young man that approached Jesus unaware that he was guilty and miserable (Matt. 19:16-26; Mk. 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).  Just like a person may imagine he is healthy until diagnosed by a doctor or a student may mistakenly think she has “aced” an exam before it is compared to the answer sheet, this young man imagined that his obedience was good enough to merit eternal life.  Jesus responded by quoting from God’s law, which is the standard of goodness and love.  He did it to make him aware that he had failed to perfectly and perpetually obey God.

Jesus’s response to this man is significant, because it shows us how we might avoid being similarly ignorant.  God’s law is where we must turn if we are to learn of our true state.  Surely, God’s law does more than convict (it also curbs sin and teaches the Christian how to live a grateful life toward God), but the conviction of disobedience is the all-important starting place.  The law reveals our Guilt.

Previous posts: What is a catechism?What’s in a question?The comfort of being owned, Guilt, Grace, & Gratitude

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G + G + G –> Comfort

Question 2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Answer: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery.  Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.  Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

If the purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism is to bring gospel-comfort to the believer, its strategy for accomplishing this is by instructing in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  In this, it follows the structure of Romans, the New Testament letter that most clearly unpacks the nuts and bolts of salvation.

  • Rom. 1:18-3:20 – Man’s Guilt  (Heidelberg Q&A 3-11)
  • Rom. 3:21-11:36 – Grace in Christ  (Q&A 12-85)
  • Rom. 12:1-15:13 – The life of Christian Gratitude  (Q&A 86-129)

If these three aspects of the Christian life are misunderstood, great problems arise.  If we fail to understand our sin and guilt, we cannot understand why God would be wrathful toward mankind, and we begin to misrepresent Him as a “God of mere love”.  This makes the cross inconsequential to salvation; if there were no problem of sin and guilt, there would be no need for a sacrifice.  But if we know our guilt yet fail to understand God’s grace in Christ, we end up in a state of despair, crying out, “How could we ever be saved from His judgment?!  How can my works possibly appease God’s justice?!”  And if we successfully grasp our guilt and God’s grace but ignore our response of gratitude, we don’t pursue the purpose for which we have been saved, i.e., to be conformed to the image of Christ and growing in obedience to His law.

Previous posts on the Heidelberg: What is a catechism?, What’s in a question?, The comfort of being owned

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The comfort of being owned

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.  Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.

Are you serious?!  How can being owned by another be remotely comforting?!  Well, it depends on the one to whom you belong.  If you were to belong to an evil tyrant, you would rightfully be terrified.  If a well-intentioned but absent-minded person owned you, you would have reason to be perpetually concerned.  But if one that is loving, all-powerful, good, and righteous took you into his fold, you could find great comfort.

And this is the supreme comfort the Christian has in belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ.  We no longer belong to Adam’s fallen race nor are we under the “the prince of the power of the air”.  A Savior has given all of Himself for us, in order that all of who we are would belong to Him.

Previous posts: What is a catechism?  What’s in a question?

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