One of the more frustrating things about getting older is that I seem to spend more time looking for things. It’s such a waste of time. It would be great if someone would just tell me where my keys are. Because we are so deeply corrupted by sin, when we go looking for salvation we look in the wrong places. This is partly because we misunderstand the nature salvation. The Israelites thought it was deliverance from Roman oppression. Americans tend to think it is deliverance from their mortgage. We look for it in the lottery, in sporting events, or in one case at least, in the stars.
One of the many wonders about the good news is that someone has told us where to find it. We don’t need to go rooting about in all the wrong places, looking for the wrong thing. What we need is salvation from the wrath of God, we need acceptance with God. We need true righteousness.
Thus, we ask in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 19:
19. From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.
The first thing to notice here is how the Reformed churches specify the place where we learn about salvation. “From the holy gospel…” This part of the answer is intentionally parallel to Q/A 3:
3. From where do you know your misery?
From the Law of God.
When the churches confess “law” in question 3 and “gospel” in question 19, they were making a distinction that had existed, in the historical sense as a contrast between the old and new covenants, since the second century. Martin Luther, however, helped us recover an additional, hermeneutical, theological distinction between law and gospel. This is the sense in which these two words are used here. Law refers in Q/A 3 refers to that killing aspect of God’s Word that demands perfect obedience and righteousness. Gospel refers in Q/A 19 to that life-giving aspect of God’s Word wherein he promises righteousness salvation freely to all who trust in Christ alone for their righteousness before God.
This distinction was established and received by Protestants as fundamental to their understanding of God’s Word by 1521. By the time the catechism was published it was universally accepted by the all the Protestants, Reformed and Lutheran. In his explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus explained,
Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles’ creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.
He was aware that people had analyzed the catechism in different ways, but each of them, he wrote, could all be resolved to the fundamental, hermeneutical, theological distinction between law and gospel. The catechism, he wrote,
consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads.
When the catechism, in Q/A 3 says law, he explained, it refers to the decalogue, the moral law in its first use. The third part of the catechism also refers to the law, in its third use, as the norm for the new life. Prayer fits in the third part as the most suitable expression of gratitude. The second part of the catechism is the gospel as summarized by the Apostles’ Creed, and exhibited in the sacraments.
As we understand it, then, in the hermeneutical, theological sense, the gospel has always been present. The gospel was first revealed to Adam and Eve (our first parents), in the garden and progressively unfolded through the history of salvation (historia salutis) in the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the prophets (beginning with Moses, symbolically represented in the entire sacrificial system, and finally fulfilled by our Lord himself in his incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection.
Biblical theology isn’t new. The church has always read the Scriptures with a consciousness that the story was unfolding in types and shadows and finally fulfilled in Christ. The Reformers were taught a version of this way of reading Scripture and continued to read Scripture this way. Indeed, it was their sense of the progressive revelation of Scripture that caused them to reject the Romanist move of re-instituting the Levitical system in the Romanist doctrines of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice. The medieval church (and the Romanist communion following them) took the church back to types and shadows. The Reformation was a return to fulfillment and to the freedom of the new covenant.
When the gospel came in fulfillment it wasn’t new. The gospel had been revealed in types and shadows from the very beginning. What is new in the new covenant is the reality, the end of types and shadows, but the substance of the gospel has been present since the garden, where the Lord promised the Seed of the Woman would do battle and conquer the lying serpent.
When we look for salvation it is essential that we look in the right place, in the gospel about Jesus the Savior. There are ways in which, like my lost keys, we tend to look for salvation in all the wrong places. There are ways, however, in which salvation is not like my keys. One of those ways is that we tend not to look for salvation, it looks for us and more than that, it finds us.