Heidelberg 40: Why Did Jesus Have To Die? (2)

In the first part we considered the death of Christ in light of his three offices, prophet, priest, and king. We saw that those who view Jesus’ merely as a teacher (a reduced sort of prophet) cannot account for his death except as a tragedy. Christians, however, confess that it was much more than a tragedy. We say that it was a satisfaction for sin owed to the justice of God. The very notion of justice is something with our age has some difficulty. We talk (and sometimes shout) about justice but one has the sense that people think that justice is an arbitrary thing. To be sure there is a much injustice in the world and it may be that much injustice shall never be made right in this life. Nevertheless, we do all have some notion of justice or righteousness. In the sentence above I used the phrase “made right” with the expectation that you, the reader, would understand that. Lawyers talk often use the striking expression “to make whole” as a justification for a lawsuit seeking to recover (financial) “damages.” We do sometimes see genuine acts of justice, even when that justice is delayed. Law enforcement pursue “cold cases” for years, even decades until they find a murderer. It took more than a decade to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden but civil-military justice was served. So, we do see approximations of justice so that we know what it is.

Of course the Scriptures clearly teach that justice is. Our Lord made a covenant of works, a covenant of nature, a covenant of life conditioned upon obedience to his law. He said that we might eat from any of the trees in the garden but one. They day we ate from that tree “You shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). We ate and true to his Word the Lord exacted the promised punishment. That is the nature of justice. We see it too under Noah:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image (Gen 9:5–6; ESV)

Justice is built into the nature of creation before the fall and after. It is reflected in the 613 laws of Moses:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him (Lev 24:17–20; ESV).

To be sure the exact application of the justice may vary through the history of redemption. The same principle has different applications. Under Moses the Israelites were commanded to reflect justice by animal sacrifices and by prosecuting a holy war against the Canaanites. Those requirements have been abrogated and have expired. The creational law, however, given under Noah (before Moses, before the “old covenant” strictly defined) is permanent. Thus, this is one reason why the death penalty is not temporary like the animal sacrifices and holy war. It is a part of natural justice. Justice is not arbitrary because it is grounded not only in the nature of creation but more fundamentally and importantly it is grounded in the nature of God. He is justice.

Louis Berkhof wrote:

The fundamental idea of righteousness is that of strict adherence to the law. Among men it presupposes that there is a law to which they must conform. It is sometimes said that we cannot speak of righteousness in God, because there is no law to which He is subject. But though there is no law above God, there is certainly a law in the very nature of God, and this is the highest possible standard, by which all other laws are judged. A distinction is generally made between the absolute and the relative justice of God. The former is that rectitude of the divine nature, in virtue of which God is infinitely righteous in Himself, while the latter is that perfection of God by which He maintains Himself over against every violation of His holiness, and shows in every respect that He is the Holy One. It is to this righteousness that the term “justice” more particularly applies. Justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his deserts. The inherent righteousness of God is naturally basic to the righteousness which He reveals in dealing with His creatures, but it is especially the latter, also called the justice of God, that calls for special consideration here. The Hebrew terms for “righteous” and “righteousness” are tsaddik, tsedhek, and tsedhakah, and the corresponding Greek terms, dikaios and dikaiosune, all of which contain the idea of conformity to a standard. This perfection is repeatedly ascribed to God in Scripture, Ezra 9:15; Neh. 9:8; Ps. 119:137; 145:17; Jer. 12:1; Lam. 1:18; Dan. 9:14; John 17:25; 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 John 2:29; 3:7; Rev. 16:51

Justice is righteousness. God is right. All that he does is right. Whatever he does is right, even if it is difficult for us to understand. Of course, in the nature of things, God being what he is (Almighty God), transcendent, holy (morally pure, good, without stain) is, in himself, beyond our understanding. We being not only finite (thus, inherently limited as creatures) but sinful (guilty lawbreakers) are corrupted in our understanding, in our affections (what we love), and in our wills. When we sinned, we broke God’s holy law. God could not merely overlook it any more than a human court could overlook a murder. We would not want a human court to overlook a heinous crime. What we did, in violating God’s law, was a heinous crime punishable by death. We knew the terms of the covenant before we broke it. We acted voluntarily, without compulsion, and, in that sense, freely. There was nothing in us (e.g., concupiscence) that made us liable to sin. We were not made with any propensity to sin. We were created good, holy, and righteous. Our sin is indeed a great mystery!

It’s with something like this idea of justice that, in Heidelberg Catechism 40 we confess:

40. Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer “death”?

Because the justice and truth of God required, that satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.

We all know intuitively, naturally that there is justice (even if sin keeps us from seeing it clearly) that justice must be satisfied. Sometimes in the debate over the death penalty people will criticize the principle of Lex Talonis (the law of punishment) as something beyond which we have evolved right up to the point where their loved one is killed. I don’t recall hearing or reading even the most ardent pacifist complaint about the death of of Bin Laden. Why not? It was so obviously just that it silenced dissent. We know that justice must be satisfied and the greatest crime, ours, required the greatest satisfaction. Jesus’ death was not arbitrary. It was necessary.

Nor should we think that justice was something merely found before Christ, as if there was vengeful Old Testament (in the broad sense) God and a friendly NT God. That was (and is) the great Gnostic heresy. It is a lie and Jesus will have none of it. No figure in redemptive history had a more acute sense of divine justice than Jesus of Nazareth:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Matt 23:23; ESV).

He explicitly promised that there will be a final justice:

And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily (Luke 18:7–8).

He promised explicitly that there will be a final, perfectly just judgment (e.g., Luke 10:14). Remember, this is the same Jesus who turned over tables in the temple as a manifestation of divine justice. There are not two gods, a vengeful OT God and a nice NT God. Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut 6:4; Mark 12:29). The same justice that was brought to bear upon Adam and us in the garden, upon the “world that then was” under Noah, among the Israelites and the surrounding nations under Moses, David, and the prophets, will be exacted manifold at the judgment and John says that the clock is ticking. Judgment has come into the world (John 3:19).

The bad news is that every human being owes satisfaction to God’s justice for all our sins both original and actual. Those who choose to stand before God without Christ shall have to make satisfaction of themselves. Believers, however, have much for which to give thanks. We have a substitute, Jesus the sinless one, the Holy One of Israel, our Mediator, who satisfied God’s righteousness for us. We stand before God as if we had done all that Jesus did for us. If you’ve not yet trusted Jesus as your substitute, why do you delay?

Next time: What is truth?

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 74–75.

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  1. Right now I am looking very carefully at what Brannon Ellis has written on the Aseity of Christ and how Calvin contributed to the Reformation and Post-Reformation debate. Scott Oliphint has gushed about Ellis’s book but I think he focuses too much (wrongly) on the Thomist account which he deems as flawed; not only flawed but having had a negative influence on evangelicalism. I don’t see this, rather I see the flaws coming from the Jesuits (like Bellarmine and others) via Arminius. Sorry I did not mean to hijack. But the Person and Being of the Son is pertinent to the work of Christ as Mediator and Creator.

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