Recently a ministerial colleague expressed his disagreement with the Heidelberg catechism at a particular point at Lord’s Day 15. Lord’s Day 15, Q, 37 states,
Q. 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?
A. That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: (a)
that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, (b)
he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, (c)
and obtain for us the favour of God, righteousness and eternal life. (d)
The point of disagreement of my colleague was that he did not believe that Christ, during the time he lived on earth, sustained the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind. My minister friend quite agreed that Christ sustained God’s wrath while on the cross but he did not agree that Christ sustained God’s wrath while living.
The text that the catechism cites for this is Isaiah 53:4
Surely, he hath born our infirmities, and carried [f]our sorrows, yet we did judge him as [g]plagued and smitten of God, and humbled.
Obviously Urisunus and Olevanius interpreted this Isaiah passage to mean that he (Christ) bore our infirmities and carried our sorrow while living as well as dying. (They present other texts [I Peter 2:24, 3:18, I Timothy 2:6] to support Christ sustaining the wrath of the Father on the cross.) However the Isaiah text doesn’t explicitly say that and so I can understand why my friend might interpret the Isaiah passage as a prophecy of Christ’s burden bearing on the Cross.
However, I am of the persuasion that Isaiah is rightly interpreted as pointing to the wrath bearing of Christ during his sojourn on earth.
We must keep in mind the Christ was a public person. All orthodox Reformed people agree that in and of Himself the Lord Christ was perfect and without sin so that in and of Himself the Father could only be pleased with Him. We must keep in mind though our Reformed Federal Theology, and its attendant legal-judicial categories. Christ was a public person who was standing in as a representative for Adam and his descendants. As a public person, and the Representative of God’s elect, the Father’s disposition towards the public person and representative was the same as his disposition towards those who the Representative public person was representing. Christ represented the elect of Adam’s fallen race and as God’s wrath was upon Adam’s fallen race, the Father’s wrath was upon the Son during his whole time on earth, just as the Catechism teaches. The Lord Christ suffered during His whole time on earth and bore God’s wrath even when not on the cross because He was, before God, judicially speaking, the sinners for which He was a public person. This is basic Federal Theology.
Another issue that should be dealt with here is the phrase, (that Christ) “sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.”
First off we should note that this can not be teaching either a Hypothetical Universalism nor a blanket Universalism. We know this because of what the Catechism explicitly says elsewhere earlier in the document where we find Limited atonement as implicit in the Heidelberg text. Keep in view that the pronouns are always pointing to a particular people.
Q.) 20. Are all men then saved by Christ as they perished in Adam?
A.) No, only those who by true faith are ingrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.1
1 John 1:12,13. I Corinthians 15:22. Psalm 2:12. Romans 11:20. Hebrews 4:2,3. Hebrews 10:39
And in 29 and 30 and 31:
Q.) 29. Why is the Son of God called JESUS, that is, Savior?1
A.) Because He saves us from our sins,1 and because salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.2
1Matthew 1:21. Hebrews 7:25 / 2 Acts 4:12. * Luke 2:10,11.
Q.) 30. Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus,1 for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.2
1 I Corinthians 1:13. I Corinthians 1:30,31. Galatians 5:4
2 Isaiah 9:7. Colossians 1:20. Colossians 2:10. John 1:16. * Matthew 23.28.
Q.) 31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?
A.) Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit 1 to be our chief Prophet and Teacher,2 who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption;3 and our only High Priest,4 who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father;5 and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.6
1 Hebrews 1:9 / 2 Deuteronomy 18:15. Acts 3:22. /3 John 1:18. John 15:15 / 4 Psalm 110:4 Hebrews 7:21 /
5 Romans 5:9,10 / 6 Psalm 2:6. Luke 1:33. Matthew 28:18. * Isaiah 61:1,2. * I Peter 2:24. * Revelation 19:16.
The Catechism should be read in such a way so that what precedes earlier in the Catechism informs what comes later in the Catechism. Given the presence of all this implicit limited atonement type language earlier in the Catechism it would not make sense that suddenly in question 37 Ursinus and Olevanius suddenly start speaking as if they are Arminians on the doctrine of the atonement.
Secondly, on this score, one can reference Ursinus’ commentary on question & answer 37 and read,
“Obj. 4. If Christ made satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore, he did not make a perfect satisfaction.
Ans. Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof . . .”
The Commentary of Dr. Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism,– p. 215
Here it is clear that the Heidelberg is not holding to a Arminian Hypothetical Universalism where in Christ’s death makes salvation only possible for each and every individual. Ursinus is articulating the idea that Christ’s death was sufficient for mankind but efficient for only the elect since only the elect would have the benefits of Christ applied to them.