Heidelberg 40: Why Did Jesus Have To Die? (3)

In part 2 we looked at what it means to speak about God being just and about justice. In this last installment we need to consider what it means to speak of truth and the truth of God. During his interrogation of our Lord, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; John 18:38). In Pilate’s mouth it was an essentially cynical question but it is an important question nonetheless. In the context of the interrogation of Christ it is also an ironic question since Jesus had already said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through me” (John 14:6). Pilate was reacting to Jesus’ declaration: “For this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus the Messiah, the eternally and only begotten Son, the Logos (λόγος; John 1:1), God the Son incarnate is the truth and he speaks the truth. We do not have to choose between truth as a person and truth as a proposition because Jesus did not.

The question remains: what is truth? The safest answer is this: truth is God God says it is. After all, Jesus the truth said, “Your word is truth” (ὁ λόγος ὁ σὸς ἀλήθειά ἐστιν. John 17:17). The shortest definition of truth is this: the truth is what is. Now, there are different ways of being. God is. He alone may say, “I am.” God just is. He isn’t if something else is. He just is. We creatures, however, belong to a different class of beings. In that sense though it is true that we (you and I) are we are not in the same way God is. We might not be. Our existence is contingent on God’s will. We exist because it please God to create us. Scripture says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). When God spoke into nothing and made all that is by the power of his word we were not. He made us out of the earth and breathed life into us. Creatures are contingent. Thus, we do not know the truth the way God knows it. We call this the Creator/creature distinction. Our theologians, when applying this distinction to theology and truth have distinguished between theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) and theology as we know it (theologia ectypa). In Recovering the Reformed Confession I called it the “categorical distinction.” You can see a wonderful and brief explanation of this distinction in Franciscus Junius’ Treatise on Truth Theology. We speak of truth as we are capable of apprehending it— the finite is not capable of the infinite— as an analogue of truth as it is in God.

So, there is a middle way, a true way, between defining truth as knowing what God knows the way he knows it (a form of rationalism) and saying that we cannot know truth (cynicism). We can know what is. We can say what is. Our  Heidelberg Catechism does not define or explain what it means by truth in question and answer 40. It assumes that we know what is meant:

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.

The very notion of truth is in jeopardy in our age. Perhaps it has been so in every age but we live in a time when apparently reasonable people write books arguing that what the author intends by a text is not determinative of its meaning, that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a text. Think of that. The author who writes a book arguing that we should disregard authorial intent assumes that we will follow his intent but not that of others. That is a deeply cynical thing to do. It’s a self-defeating proposition. We live in an age when public figures in government, some at the very highest levels of government, look right into the camera and tell us things they know to be untrue repeatedly. “I did not have sex with that woman….” “If you like your health insurance you can keep your health insurance.” “I don’t know Jonathan Gruber.” It’s too easy to multiply examples.

In our new media age truth does seem more slippery than before. Never before has it been easier to craft a public persona via avatars, Facebook posts, tweets, and the like. We can create an impression of ourselves that it is not really true. It’s not really who and what we are but who and what we want people to think we are.

Again, truth is what is. It is what God says. It’s what God wants us to understand about him, the nature of things, and who and what we are. The truth is that we were made in God’s image, that we were made in righteousness and true (real) holiness, in order that we might love God rightly and live with him in eternal blessedness (Heidelberg Catechism answer 6). We forfeited all that when we believed a lie, that which is not. What the Evil One said to us in the garden was not. He raised questions about the reality of what God had said: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” The Evil One was the first skeptic. He did not say, “Well, that’s not true” but he raised doubts. At that instance Adam should have lopped off his head. Instead, as Caspar Olevianus wrote, we made an false covenant with Satan instead of submitting to and honoring God and his truth. The rest, as you know, is the history of the human race after the fall.

We are not true but God is and he must be true to himself. He is just. He must be true to that justice. In an age when  liars are lionized the notion that there is fixed, unchanging truth seems implausible but you had better believe it. Jesus did. He died for the truth. He was raised on the third day. He is the truth. You can choose to by a cynic,  you can seek to know what God knows the way he knows it, or you can receive God’s truth as he has revealed it to us in nature (the law), in Scripture (the law and gospel) and in Christ the Word.

Jesus the Truth came to satisfy God’s justice and truth. That happened and the Truth is returning at which time all the cynicism and games will come to an end. The truth can be difficult to receive by God’s grace it happens.  I’m grateful that the Truth is and that, in Christ, the Spirit is witnessing to the it and conforming his  people to it day by day.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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