As we have been going through the Heidelberg Catechism, these last few weeks have focused on the sinful nature of man. We looked at Question 5 which taught us that man is inclined to hate God and his neighbors. In question 7 we learned that this sinful nature also called a depraved nature comes from the fall and disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve. The truth that this fall was so complete that our natures are incapable of doing good and inclined to all evil is the subject of question 8. Questions 9 and 10 have a similar theme. Question 9 asks if God is unjust for requiring men to do what they do not have the ability to do, and question 10 deals with the truth that God will not allow this disobedience of his law to go unpunished. All of this together can leave us in a pretty low state where we are lost in despair. If you have ever read John Bunyan’s excellent book ”The Pilgrim's Progress” you will recognize that this is the state that Christian is in at the beginning of the book. He is so overwhelmed by the weight of his sin and his inability to take it off. To use a less fictional example, perhaps you have heard of William Wilberforce, the man used by God to abolish the slave trade and slavery in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. When he first started to know the truth of scripture he was overwhelmed by the guilt of his sin. He understood his sin and was crushed by it. It was not until he went to meet with another very famous man that everything changed. That man was John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace.
God The Merciful
John Newton came from a similar place as Wilberforce. He had been in a place where he was overwhelmed by the realization that he was a sinner, incapable of saving himself. That his very nature was to seek sinful things. But God's grace changed him. He shared the truth of God's mercy and grace with Wilberforce, and Wilberforce was used by God to change history. When we look at the Catechism there is a similar thing that happens. It does not leave us in a place of sin and misery. It asks "But is God not also Merciful?" (Q. 11). and answeres that "God is indeed merciful, but He is also just. His Justice requrires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that's, with everlasting punishment of body and soul." God, whose name is the LORD is abounding in mercy and steadfast love, showing mercy to thousands but that does not mean that sin goes away. It is knowledge of our sin that shows us our need for mercy in the first place. When we look in scripture it is those who have been in the most sin that are most often depicted as coming to Jesus. For example, you have Zachius and Matthew who were tax collectors, men hated by their brothers and countrymen for how they extorted the people. But God shows them mercy.
The Whole Message
The point here is that the message is not complete, the gospel is not truly preached unless it includes both our sinful nature and God's merciful grace. The one points to the other. The reformers who wrote the Catechism understood this. They wanted us to understand our need for a savior. This is something that we desperately need to remember in our world today. It is far too common for people to have the wrong idea that people are basically good. That most people given the option will make the right choice. But this is not what we see in scripture or in history. Only when people are confronted with the truth of the depth of their sin do they come truly to understand the depth of God's grace. This is the message of the gospel. That we are born in sin, that every part of us, mind, body, emotions, and will, are dead in sin. We cannot save ourselves. But God, in his grace and mercy sent his Son to fulfill the demands of justice for those who would believe. His sacrifice was an actual sacrifice that accomplished all that it intended to do. He did not potentially atone for sin but paid the price for all those who would be called by his name.
What to do Now
Have you seen the depth of your sin? Have you as Jesus preaches to us in the Sermon on the Mount, seen your poorness of spirit and mourned over your sin? Then repent and turn to God who is merciful. But do not think that his mercy and justice are at odds. God is not at war with himself. His justice is merciful and his mercy is just. When we understand this and live in light of it we are more willing to show mercy to others because we understand the depth of the mercy that has been shown to us. But we also understand that mercy does not mean ignoring justice. Mercy does not mean that we ignore wrongs done. Mercy means that we care for those who do not deserve it because we understand that none of us deserve it. The mark of someone who has truly been forgiven by God is how they show forgiveness for others. Do you understand what you have been forgiven? Do you show that same forgiveness to others? My Prayer is that each one of us would be like Newton and Wilberforce, so changed by God's grace that they are willing to stake everything on that truth and to live lives changed by it.
Soli Deo Gloria
Ex. 20:6; 34:6, 7; Ps. 103:8, 9. Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Deut. 7:9-11; Ps. 5:4-6; Heb. 10:30, 31. Matt. 25:45,46.