Suffering Shepherd: H.C. Lord's Day 15

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 15

Q 37. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
A 37. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.

This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.


Q 38. Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
A 38. So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
Q 39. Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?
A 39. Yes. By this I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.

Did Christ die to save everyone?  Or did He die to make everyone saveable?  This is an interesting question of what is, perhaps, an important play on words.  What exactly did Christ’s suffering, both in life and in His death, accomplish and how does that impact us?

Before we answer that question, however, it is important to note that the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t do a lot to cover the ministry of Jesus.  This is primarily due to the fact that the most significant part of Jesus’ life is His death.  Nearly 1/3 of the Gospels spend their time looking specifically at the final week of Jesus’ life.  Given Jesus’ 33 years on earth, that is a disproportionate amount of time spent on just one week of His life.  However, the authors of the catechism, as well as many of the great theologians throughout Christian history, knew that the ministry of Jesus’ life finds its true meaning and fulfillment in and through His death.

So what exactly does that death accomplish?  Well, often we call what happened in Jesus’ self-sacrifice the “atonement.”  There is a tenant of the Reformed faith, particularly put forth by John Calvin, that the atonement itself is limited.  His purpose and understanding of this was not an attempt to limit the power and love of God that is exhibited and accomplished in Jesus Christ, but rather to make a distinct understanding that the forgiveness of sins is made possible for all people in Jesus death but does not actually take place in our lives until we put our faith in Jesus Christ.

While this may seem like semantics, it is a vitally important part of what Scripture reveals to us about Jesus’ death on the cross.  Nowhere in the Bible do we find the notion of “universal salvation” in that everyone, no matter whether they have faith or not, is saved by Jesus.  It is important, then, to understand what exactly is accomplished by Jesus’ death.

A helpful term here might be “particular redemption.”  Scripture says that the “Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.”  John 6:37 points out that Jesus came to save those that the Father had given to Him.  So, does that mean that Jesus’ work on the cross is only accessible for a particular group of people?  No… John 3:16, the most well know Scripture in the world, makes it clear that God’s love that is poured out in Jesus Christ extends to the whole world; every human man, woman, and child that has ever and will ever live.  In the same way that sin is present in every human, the offer of grace is extended to every human in Jesus Christ.

What we are not saying, however, is that every person is saved because Christ died on the cross.  Scripture is very clear that those who are saved become so because they place their faith in Jesus Christ.  The Bible is also very clear that, while this offer is available to all, sadly there are those who will not accept it.

This brings us back to our original question: Did Christ come to save us or to make us saveable?  Well, without Christ there is no hope for our salvation, no hope for a restored relationship with God.  So, in one sense, we need the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for that restored relationship and our salvation to be possible.  We receive this gift of salvation through faith, but it is not faith that saves us from our sins, it is Jesus’ death that does that too.

So, the answer to our original question is “yes.”  Jesus says, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Indeed, the way to the Father is opened because of Him and in His death He conquered both sin and death for us.  Now, Jesus offers that salvation to us, and calls us to receive it by faith.

Day 327: Romans 4-7; By Faith

We continue in Paul’s explanation of the Gospel as he lays out for the church in Rome the good news of Jesus Christ.  Remember yesterday how he walked through the a sort of “creation narrative” as he explained general revelation and how all humanity is without excuse for knowing God.  He also makes it very clear to us that all of humanity is sinful in its very nature and that there is nothing that we can do to get out of this sin.  Calvinists would call this “total depravity” but it might be better to say that this is a “pervasive depravity” combined with “total inability.”  While this doesn’t necessarily fit in with the TULIP acronym, it most certainly is more correct (and besides, TULIP is a poor representation of Calvinism anyway).  Sin affects every part of our being and there is nothing we can do to make it right or to make ourselves right.  No amount of good works, social status, or even ethic status as the Jews thought can save anyone from their sins.  Quite simply, Paul says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Yet it isn’t all hopeless here!  Paul also goes on to say that “and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”  The good news is that God has done something about our condition!  God knew that we could not do it on our own and so He did it for us by sending His Son to live and die for us.  I added the word “all” into this because it is implied from the first half of the sentence.  It is true that ALL have sinned.  It is also true that ALL are justified.  Now this is something that people might push back on because is smells of universalism.  Our “TULIP” acronym comes back into play here with both “Limited Atonement” and “Unconditional Election.”  Again, I must point out that TULIP is really a horrible acronym for calvinism or the reformed faith because both of these statements can be confusing.  It might be better to put it this way: Christ’s death on the cross was Sufficient for all, but effective for elect.  Who are the elect?  Well… that gets into an entirely other topic…

 Election is something of a difficult doctrine to unwrap.  People often hear it as God has chosen some and not others.  Essentially, this is true… but when said like this, it makes it sound like no one gets to choose anything about anything.  You are either elect and go to heaven or you are the opposite (reprobate) and don’t.  If you throw a word like “predestination” in there, it makes it even worse for some because we think that these choices are already made.  The fact of the matter is, at least on some level, God has revealed Himself to some people in a special way (we call this special revelation).  For those in whom the Spirit is working and gives faith, which is also a gift from God mind you, when they come to faith they become one of the elect, chosen by God and forgiven of their sins by His grace alone.  The ramifications of this doctrine are that there are those who will never choose God and never turn towards Christ.  Paul says that these people are without excuse.  For them, the death of Christ is as sufficient as it is for anyone else to save them from their sins, yet because they have not turned to God in faith and accepted this gift, it is not effective for them.

I understand that these are difficult teachings, but they are clearly laid out in the Bible.  We will return to them in the future, but for now I would like to focus in on the key word here: “faith.”

As we return from this to the readings for today, check out how Paul lays out the stories of Abraham and faith.  Abraham isn’t saved, says Paul, by virtue of being the father of the nation of Israel.  He is saved because “he believed God,” because he had faith.  This didn’t have anything to do with his works or his ethnicity, it had to do with faith and Paul lays this out pretty clearly.  It all depends on faith.

He continues on in chapters 5-7 to talk about the effects of having faith in God do for our life.  It is not simply that when we come to faith our sins are forgiven and that’s that.  Paul shows us that in many ways what happens is that we “put on” Christ in many ways.  When we come to faith in God through Christ Jesus by the working of the Holy Spirit we “die” to our old self.  We are no longer who we were, but we are raised to life in Christ!  This is one of the main promises in the sacrament of baptism and one of its primary meanings as well (more on that to come later as well).  By faith we are united to Christ… in God’s eyes He no longer sees us as a sinful human, but sees us as He sees His Son: RIGHTEOUS.  For those looking for another theological term, we call this “imputed righteousness.”  Calvin, in his institutes says it like this:

“Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body–in short–, because he deigns to make us one with him.” (3.11.10)

Wow, this is a heavy post today.  My head hurts thinking about the theological ground that we covered.  Yet these things are important.  Perhaps not all the fancy theological words, but the premise is at the very core of the Christian faith.  In some ways, these are the things that we need to be able to talk about as Christians.  Granted, I think that people tend to be more open to hearing about the testimonies of people as they experience God in their lives.  However, at some point in time it comes down to faith in Christ Jesus and what has taken place in our lives.  We NEED to know these things… perhaps not the technical jargon so much… but what has happened to us… we need to know this so that we can share this Good News with everyone we meet.  One of the things about election that is so vitally important to the whole of the doctrine is the fact that, in just about every place that it is talked about, the writers and theologians say that we can never know who is elect and who isn’t.  The doctrine of election gives us no excuse to not preach, but actually encourages us to testify even more because WE ARE NOT the judges of who is elect and who isn’t… that is something that has happened in the counsel of God alone and will not be known until the end of time.  So speak boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”