12. Since then by the righteous judgment of God we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how may we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?
God wills that His justice be satisfied;1 therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another.2
1 Exodus 20:5. Exodus 23:7. 2 Romans 8:3,4.
The catechism says “God wills….” Our classic theologians spoke of God’s beneplacitum or his “good pleasure.” Sinners cannot stand before before a righteous and holy God. Not only does his nature make it that only the righteous can stand before God but also the divine will. God wills according to his nature, but the introduction of the reference to the divine will is very important. God is king and his will is sovereign. This a great lesson for our age.
Beginning perhaps with Erasmus, the modern age made the human will the arbiter of all things. In late modernity, following Nietzsche, we have reduced life to a struggle of the will. Modernity has consistently attempted to make God “come to heel” as it were, to domesticate him, to make his will subservient to ours. This is an ancient impulse. It is the program of hell, of course, packaged nicely in the garden and re-packaged for every age. The Scriptural testimony is overwhelming. God willed and spoke creation into being. God knows what he wills and wills what he knows. From the beginning humans have been obligated, by virtue of their mere humanity, their finitude, to submit to the divine will.
The turn to the divine will here is significant because it says something else about our understanding of Scripture. If God’s will is free, it is free. It is unconditioned. This “unconditionedness” or liberty (Luther) is behind grace. He is is not obligated to save any of us. He does so because he freely wills to do so. This idea of the freedom of the divine will is essential to the catechism’s definition of grace. The medieval doctrine was that grace is a substance (either created or uncreated) with which we are infused, with which we must cooperate, unto eventual justification. The Protestants re-defined grace as unmerited, de-merited divine favor. It is not a substance but a divine attitude. This moves justification and salvation away from the problem of being and into the legal and moral sphere.
Before the fall, we were in a state of favor or divine approval. By virtue of sin we could no longer be in God’s favor. In order to be restored to a state of divine approval the divine justice needed to be satisfied.
Again this way of speaking reminds us that for Reformed theology, in contrast for that which often passes for Reformed teaching today, there is no dichotomy between legal relations and personal relations. The latter is premised upon the former. Sin destroyed our legal standing with God. The law must be fulfilled and the penalty paid in order to restore us to favor.
Who must do it? The catechism, following Paul in Rom 2:13, teaches that it is the “doers of the law who will be justified.” The promise of the law is as relentless as the demand of the law. Of course, by virtue of sin we are incapable of performing what the law requires, but that doesn’t disable the promise and demand of the law.
Should there be a human being who was not disabled by sin, he could meet the terms of the law and satisfy it’s demands and receive its promised rewards. There will be more about this under the following questions. An even greater problem is whether what is done by one human can be transferred to another. There have always been skeptics when it comes to imputation and our age is no exception. There have been some pastors who have flatly denied the necessity of imputation (e.g. Rich Lusk).
Of course the Heidelberg Catechism does not share such skepticism. It teaches the doctrine of imputation explicitly. On this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. Neither does the Apostle Paul share this skepticism. If Adam’s sin can be imputed to all humans, then the righteousness of Christ can be imputed to believers (Rom 5:12-21).
Next time: why we can’t do it ourselves.
ps. Kim has good thoughts about God’s good pleasure here.