The Heidelberg Catechism & The Duration Of Christ’s Suffering

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.

Vanilla Reformed vs. Federal Vision On The Role of Good Works In Justification — Pt. 1

Ian wrote,

But I have to tell you Bret, that when I read your words, “The phrase ‘non necessary condition,’ strikes me as oxymoronic since if you don’t have the condition you don’t have justification,” I almost fell off my chair. Really! I thought to myself, McAtee can’t really believe what he’s suggesting. Not the Bret McAtee I know.

Bret responds,

I prefer to think Sanctification as a necessary consequence to being regenerated, not a “non-necessary condition” for Justification.” Really, the whole idea of a “non-necessary condition” is a contradiction. (Go ahead and get up off the floor Ian.) If it is a condition for Justification it is, by definition, necessary. If it is non necessary, by definition, it is not a condition.

Ian wrote,

In your article and some of the attending comments, my real offense was apparently using the words “non-meritorious works” and applying the concept in the manner that I did. However, Bret, I think I have good biblical grounds for using that phrase. I further believe that your ordination vows and your own confessional standards require you to believe and accept the idea of “non-meritorious works.” Here’s why, and it’s something you and I discussed on more than one occasion. The Heidelberg Catechism:

Question 91. But what are good works?

Answer: Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.

Here is that most excellent summary by our 16th century forebears about the Christian life. And what a declaration. Good works, but not according to any old standard we might want to make up. No, only good works “performed according to the law of God.” But even that is not enough. They have to “proceed from a true faith.” So we see here two things linked together, faith and law. Good works are thus those, and only those, that combine a true faith with the law of God.

Bret responds,

Ian, I never said that good works were unnecessary for salvation. I said they were unnecessary for Justification. This is in keeping with Luther’s common refrain from the Reformation. “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Further, I’ve also consistently said that good works are the necessary consequence to Regeneration, and being filled with the Spirit. Ephesians 2:10 teaches,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

This move of yours to insinuate that I’m somehow an antinomian will never do. I believe that the Christian life is attendant and ornamented with good works. I just don’t believe that good works are a non necessary condition for justification. In Justification it is Christ’s good works alone that are the necessary condition. When we imply that Justification is not Justification unless we add (in your words) our non necessary something we have stripped Justification of its purely gracious character.

You will notice that the question you cite from the Heidelberg Catechism falls in the third section of the Catechism which is devoted to man’s response to God’s Free Grace (Gratitude). This section of the Catechism is not dealing with how we are made right with God, but rather how we respond to God’s solo act in graciously acquitting us because of the finished work of the Lord Christ.

Notice how the Belgic Confession of Faith (Article 22) speaks on this matter of Justification,

for any (Ian) to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Saviour. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works which he has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

Clearly, Ian, on the question of Justification I agree with the Three Forms of Unity.

Ian continues

Before that question, however, the Catechism asks:

Question 86: Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

Here quite plainly two ideas are welded together. The first of these is “without any merit of ours.” That makes it very clear that the framers of the Catechism had no intention of allowing meritorious works into the plan of salvation. But they don’t stop there, they tag on the end of this the question they are posing: “why must we still do good works?” And there you have the “oxymoronic condition” that you reject.

Ian, Q. 86 is not teaching that our good works are a non-necessary condition for Justification. Did you read the answer to Q. 86?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

Note carefully Ian that the answer to HC 86 speaks of God’s people of having already been redeemed antecedent to our doing good works. Our redemption is accomplished before our response of gratitude engages. We obey and do good works from the position of one being granted life, and not from the position of one who is trying to keep what has already been freely given via filling the condition of non meritorious good works.

Ian writes,

So “good works” are necessary? Well, necessary for what? How about we try sanctification, which is the part in our theology about godly living. Another question follows, then: is sanctification an addition to the whole concept of salvation, or an integral part of it? I think I know what your answer will be. I’m glad you mentioned the terms “justification,” “sanctification,” and “salvation”. Salvation is the broader term for what God does for us, while justification and sanctification are components of it, the ordo salutis I believe you described these activities.

Bret responds,

If you know what my answer will be why are we having this conversation?

Ian writes,

So I ask, is there any point in our salvation in which the door is opened for meritorious works? I do believe I heard a resounding “no” from you. Even this far away, half way around the world, I heard that “no” as crystal clear as if we were in the same room. I know you hold this view because you made reference to Dabney’s view that even our good works require the imputed righteousness of Christ. So good works are indeed “works” but they are not meritorious. I guess you could use the phrase you called “oxymoronic” and say they are “non-meritorious works.”

And at that point, my friend, you have ascribed to “non-meritorious good works” accepting it as a teaching in the Scriptures.

Do you see how I arrived at this conclusion? I don’t think I made it up. But I conclude there are such events, events that are properly classified “good works according to the law of God” but they are not, nor can they ever be, meritorious.

Bret responds,

But in the original conversation Ian (I went back and looked) you weren’t talking about the broad category of “Salvation” but the narrow category of “Justification.” And therein lies all the difference in the world.

Still, I wouldn’t, even in terms of Salvation as a whole, speak of good works as a “non-meritorious” Condition for Salvation. I think it is far wiser to speak of good works as a necessary consequence to all that God has done for us and in us.

Ian presses on,

Now allow me to take that phrase of yours and make just one change to it: “The phrase ‘non necessary condition,’ strikes me as oxymoronic since if you don’t have the condition you don’t have sanctification.” I’m sure you’ll notice I substituted the word sanctification for the original justification. I made the change only to indicate that I think both Scripture and the confession teach “non-meritorious works”. They certainly teach there are no meritorious acts to be added by the believer in justification; but they are equally adamant that there are no meritorious acts in sanctification either. So I’ll turn your comment back to you and ask, if sanctification is essential and good works are somehow involved in sanctification, in what way does the “condition” of good works apply to sanctification? And the answer has to be such that it excludes any kind of meritorious cooperation of the sinner with God in his salvation, no matter whether we are talking about justification or sanctification.

Bret responds,

Remember … I’ve never used “non-meritorious condition” in any of my language. I’ve consistently said that good works are the necessary consequence. It is precisely because “non-meritorious condition” is so confusing that I stay away from it.

Doing The Hard Work Of Nothing

In “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” Tchividjian writes, “Jesus won for me, I was free to lose” and “Jesus succeeded for me, I was free to fail” (p.24). Throughout the book Tchividjian encourages us to remove our attention from what we do in sanctification. He writes, “I think too much about how I’m doing, if I’m growing, whether I’m doing it right or not” (p.174). He tells us such thinking is wrong and will only make us “neurotic and self-absorbed” (p.174). After all, in Christ, he tells us, “it’s all said and done” (p.174).


Contradiction alert

Here Tchividijan is writing a book telling people the right way to do it (growing in Christ) is by not worrying about whether one is doing it right. How is the prescription to do it right by not worrying about whether one is doing it right any different of a prescription then the one that teaches that doing it right is by worrying about doing it right? Tullian’s advice requires just as much work and is potentially just as promissory of failure. How does one know if one’s lack of worry is not enough lack of worry? Could we not begin to worry that we are not “not worrying” enough? Does Jesus’ not worrying about how His performance did or did not please the Father satisfy when we fail to preform well enough our not worrying work?

I know I regularly worry that I don’t not worry enough.

I fear Tchividijian is teaching me to be neurotic and self absorbed in all of his writing about the importance of my work of not worrying in sanctification.

The point is that Tullian is requiring me to do nothing and I am exhausting myself making sure that I do the good work of nothing in my sanctification.

If it really is all said and done then Tullian shouldn’t be writing books saying that we must not concentrate on the God pleasing work of “not doing.”

Further, if I’m free to fail and free to lose does that mean that if I win and succeed that somehow I have failed and lost because I didn’t fail and lose but if I was free to fail and lose and winning and succeeding is failing and losing then that means winning and succeeding is really something that I am free do to…. right? Or does this mean that God is only pleased with me when I fail and lose? And if God is only pleased with me when I fail and lose shouldn’t I try to please God by failing and losing all the time? But then I might worry that I am not losing and failing enough and God might be displeased with me… right?

The Extent Of The Atonement & The Ongoing Prayer Life Of Our Lord Christ

If one believes that the Lord Christ only intercedes for His people per Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25 then they must, if they desire to be consistent, believe that Christ only died for those same people for whom He intercedes. Both the death of Christ and the Intercession of Christ are subsets of His great work as our Great High Priest. To suggest that Christ died for everybody as the Great High Priest but only intercedes for the elect is to introduce contradiction into the very being of Christ as Mediator.

If Christ only prays for His people then He, by necessity, only died for His people.

Not to worry though … if you don’t agree you can always invent a Mystery Box in which to throw your contradiction.

Egalitarianism & The Atonement

Evangelicals, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics alike all hold to a universal atonement wherein God does not discriminate in His intent concerning the Atonement. The thinking of such denominations is that the death of Christ is the same, potentially, for everybody. We might call this doctrine soteriological egalitarianism.

Of course, in our own culture egalitarianism is the idea both that there should be equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. As such, our cultural egalitarianism is really not about equality but about sameness. In the end everyone must be the same. Discrimination is seen as inherently evil and everybody must be treated the same.

In Evangelical, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic doctrines of hypothetical universalism we find a similar type of egalitarianism. We are told by these folks that Christ died for everybody and therefore everybody has the same equality of opportunity. For these folks it is sin to say that God discriminates in terms of opportunity though it is perfectly acceptable to say that it is man who discriminates in terms of God’s offer. Some men discriminate to accept the equal opportunity and some men don’t. Man can discriminate against God but God is not allowed to discriminate in terms of man. God must provide an atonement that is egalitarian in opportunity or He is not fair.

One wonders if the egalitarianism we see in our culture didn’t first begin with this kind of nonsensical egalitarianism in the Church as the Church turned away from the doctrine of Limited Damnation. If Theology remains the queen of the Sciences one must wonder if soteriological egalitarianism became the gateway through which egalitarianism in economics, politics, gender relations, and sociology came to the fore.

Obviously, in the Atonement God does discriminate. For reasons, known only to Him, God discriminated between the elect and the reprobate. Jacob God loved, but Esau God hated. God did not and does not treat all people the same.

And neither should we. Not all people are equally qualified for different tasks and there is nothing evil in discriminating against people who do not have giftedness or talents in certain areas.

There is nothing unbiblical in insisting that egalitarianism is wrong while discrimination for biblical reasons is right. God discriminated in the intent of the atonement and that discrimination was righteous. When we discriminate based on righteous reasons we are being God like in our actions.

So, insisting that Christ’s death applies equally to everyone may very well be the root of all other egalitarianisms that we are now plagued with. The atonement of Christ is not egalitarian. Everyone is not equal in Christ death. God discriminated for reasons known only to Himself, to have Christ die only for the Elect.

Can it be that Hypothetical Universalism is the mother load from where all other egalitarianism stems? Can it be that it is not a form of theological Marxism to make everyone equal and the same in the intent of the Atonement?

Ideas have consequences and I’m wondering if the teaching of evangelicals in terms of their soteriological egalitarianism wherein God is not allowed to discriminate is the mother spring from which our current egalitarianism water flows. Theology gets into everything. If we are going to be egalitarian in our doctrine of the atonement you can look for that egalitarianism to show in our social order.

Ideas have consequences.