What do you need to know to live a truly happy life? The Catechism said: First, you need to know how great your sins and misery are—so that then you can all the better appreciate your Saviour. So in Lord’s Day 2 we talked about the purpose for which God made us—to love him and to love others—and how we fall short of that goal. In Lord’s Day 3 we were reminded that this sin is deeply ingrained in human nature. Clearly, we need a Saviour!
But before we go there, Lord’s Day 4 wants us to take one more look at the reality of our sin. How bad is it really? What are the consequences of our sin? People are often willing to admit that they are not perfect, that there is room for improvement—but at the same time, they think that is not a very big problem. The Catechism cuts off this way of thinking. We must know that sin deserves punishment. Because of our sin, we are truly miserable; we are really in trouble.
We focus on this dark truth, not because we are dour Calvinists who like to take the joy out of everything. On the contrary, we highlight God’s justice so that his love and mercy shine all the brighter. The realization of just how great our sin and misery are should make us all the more eager to come to our faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.
1. A just verdict
2. A serious offense
3. A terrible sentence
A just verdict
Suppose a room that has a large sign over the door: “Do Not Enter,” and my two-year old son walks in anyway. If I get upset at him for ignoring the sign, is that fair? If I ask my wife to clean the entire house and yell at her twenty minutes later because she is not yet done, am I justified in doing so? Of course not. It is not fair to punish people for things that they cannot do. A two-year old can’t read; and even the best housewife cannot clean a big house in just 20 minutes.
But what about God and our sinning? Because of original sin, we are so corrupt that we cannot even do what is truly good. We are inclined by nature to hate God and our neighbour; but God requires in his law perfect love for himself and for others. That is not great, of course; but can God really blame us? Does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?
In q&a 9, the Catechism repeats what it said before. No, it is not unfair because God so created man that he was able to do it, to obey the law of perfect love. People were made good and in God’s image, in true righteousness and holiness. God never changed that—and so he has a right to expect perfection.
The reason why we cannot help sinning comes from inside of the human race. As the Catechism says: man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience, robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts. The word “man” here means: “human being.” While the first sin was committed by Adam and Eve, they represented all of mankind; and we must say: we are to blame. It may be true that the devil took the initiative. The story of the fall in Genesis 3 started with a sneaky snake. But mankind is to blame. When Eve listened to the snake, she deliberately disobeyed the Lord; when Adam took the fruit from Eve, he deliberately disobeyed the Lord. That is how innocence was lost; that is why people are no longer perfectly righteous and holy.
Perhaps you want to point a finger at Adam and Eve, and say: it’s their fault, not mine… But we are closely connected to them. We are part of mankind, the descendants of Adam and Eve. When they sinned, we sinned. And it would be naïve and arrogant to think that we would have done any better.
Therefore we cannot shrug off our responsibility. It is true that we are conceived and born in sin, with a sinful nature that makes us unable to keep God’s law perfectly. But that is not God’s fault; it is ours. We cannot and may not use our corruption as an excuse to make our sin seem any less serious.
No, God does not do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we cannot do. Because, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience, we robbed ourselves of these gifts of perfection.
A serious offence
So when God declares us guilty of sin, he is perfectly just. But, people object, that does not necessarily mean that we are in trouble, does it? Can God not simply put up with our sin, ignore it, overlook it? There is no need for him to be really angry, is there? Granted, we are guilty of disobedience and apostasy, rebellion against God, but can’t that simply go unpunished?
But if you say that, you underestimate how just and holy the Lord is, and how much sin offends him. Before Adam and Eve sinned, God had told them: If you do this, you will surely die (Gen. 2:17). He declared to Moses that he “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children” (Ex. 34:7). God’s prophets repeatedly announced judgment over the wicked. For instance, in Malachi 4:1: “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all evildoers will be stubble…”
Some people think that it is only the God of the Old Testament who punishes sins. In the New Testament, they argue, God is loving and forgiving. But make no mistake: the New Testament also proclaims that “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The apostle Paul paints the picture in Romans 1:18, when he writes: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Because God is so holy and sin is so ugly, God’s does not overlook sin. He is terribly angry at it, says the Catechism in q&a 10. The Bible calls it God’s wrath. When his good work is messed up and corrupted, it is right and natural for him to be indignant and angry: It is not right, and something has to be done about it!
The Catechism mentions that God is terribly angry with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Our sinful nature is a bad thing and it angers God that the beautiful people he created are now so corrupt. That is our original sin. But that sinful nature also causes us to commit actual sins. When we make wrong choices, when we act out of hatred of God, when we hurt another person, when we violate God’s good world—then we also anger him. And he cares a lot. He will not overlook this offense; rather, he is rightly angry.We should never downplay how bad sin is. It is, says q&a 11, sin committed against the most high majesty of God. It is rebellion, treason, a great personal offense against the holiest, most majestic being there is. Precisely because God is so intimately involved in the world he made and especially with the human beings he created, he takes our sin most personally.
A terrible sentence
And that means that there must be punishment. It is only right that offenders are punished. The Catechism says that God will punish our sins by a just judgment. That judgment was spelled out in Paradise: “If you eat from that tree, you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:17) It was announced in the Law of Moses:
Cursed be everyone
who does not abide by all things
written in the Book of the Law, and do them. (Deut. 27:26; see also Gal. 3:10.)
As human beings, we have no excuse when we face the Judge. We are guilty. Our nature is sinful, our actions are sinful. We have offended the most high majesty of God. So we have nothing to say back when the judge sentences us. “Cursed! Because you failed to live the life of love for which you were made!”
Part of the punishment happens now, in this earthly life. In Genesis 3, God kicked Adam and Eve out of the beautiful garden. Their lives would become much harder than they used to be. Even the development of sinful behaviour itself is, in a way, punishment. We chose sin; now we must live with the consequences of sin. For instance, in Romans 1 Paul suggests that sexually perverse behaviour happens because God gives people over to their sinful inclinations.
But the rebellion of mankind against God deserves more punishment. Sin committed against the most high majesty of God must be punished with the most severe punishment. The Catechism points out that this punishment is everlasting, and affects both body and soul.
Simply said, because of our sin we deserve to be completely cursed forever, to be definitively removed from God and all his goodness. Our sin deserves the most terrible sentence imaginable.
To say it even shorter: we deserve hell. The core meaning of that word is: the worst, everlasting punishment. The Bible often talks about hell as a place: “the outer darkness”, “the abyss”, “the lake of fire and sulfur”. It is described as a place of “torment”, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”. Terrible pictures—and people often reject these descriptions as too Old Testament or as medieval scaremongering; they see no room for “fire and brimstone” preaching in our modern time. But let’s be clear: these descriptions of hell are taken from the New Testament, from the very sermons of Jesus himself.
Terrible sinners, without excuse, deserving hell. That is what we see in the mirror of the Catechism.
But there is hope. From the very beginning, the Bible also proclaims that God is merciful. That he is gracious and forgiving. That he shows kindness even to deeply guilty rebels. But we never use that fact as an excuse to make our sin look less serious. By asking: “But is God not also merciful?” as if that would mean that we are off the hook. It is true, and God is indeed merciful; but that doesn’t mean that he simply ignores our sin. After all, he is also just. The guilty criminal must be sentenced; the evil of sin must be removed from the world.
It is very important that we understand this. If we think of God’s mercy as compromising his justice, then we longer understand how serious the situation is. Then we are no longer impressed by the wickedness of our sin, the reality of our guilt, and the fact that we deserve nothing less than condemnation and hell itself. Sadly, there are many Christians who tend to downplay this; because it is not a nice thing to believe about yourself, and it is not a popular message to preach to people who like to feel good about their lives.
The reason why we are not on our way to hell is not that our punishment has been cancelled. Rather, it was given to our Lord Jesus Christ. He underwent God’s wrath, so that we wouldn’t have to. He went to hell so that we can live a heavenly life. Anytime we try to downplay our sin and misery, we downplay how much our Saviour Jesus Christ has done for us, and how badly we need him.
Lord’s Day 4 concludes the first part of the Catechism, which shows us how great our sins and misery are. In this lesson we considered three attempts to excuse ourselves.
- Is it unfair of God to expect perfection from us while we are born sinners? No, because he made us perfect; our sinfulness is our own fault.
- Couldn’t God simply overlook sin? No, because he is just and holy and our sin is a serious offense that rightly angers him.
- But isn’t God so merciful that he will let us off the hook? No, because he is still a just judge, and because of our sin we deserve no less than hell.
This means that we are in real trouble. We have no leg to stand on. We cannot argue, sweet-talk, or bribe ourselves out of the sentence that we deserve. On our own we have no way to leave the highway to hell on which all of mankind is walking.
Unless— unless God himself creates a way to deal with our sin, a way that is both just and merciful. Unless he gives us a way to redemption. Unless he provides us with a Saviour.
That is where the Catechism wants to have us, at the end of this first part. So that we are glad that we are not our own. So that we are desperate for someone who can save us. So that we become excited and grateful about Jesus Christ, who is that Saviour, who is that way of redemption, and who does deal with our sin.
What do we need to know to live and die in true comfort? First, how great our sins and misery are—so that we can all the more appreciate our faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ, who paid for our sins and walked the way to hell, so that we can live in peace with God.
- It is fair of God to expect perfection from us?
- What do we mean by God’s wrath? What is the reason for it?
- What punishment had God promised to Adam (Gen. 2:17)? What punishment had he promised in the Law of Moses (Deut. 27:26)?
- What is the basic idea of hell?
- How does Lord’s Day 4 show how wonderful our Saviour Jesus Christ is?
- Is it fair that we are punished for our sinfulness, even though we did not commit Adam’s sin?
- If God is perfect, how can he be angry?
- If we belong to Jesus and he has paid for our sins, is God still angry with us? Is he angry about out sins?
- Does God punish Christians today, for instance by giving them illness or other suffering?
- Will people really go to hell if they do not believe in God?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Judges 13. What is the reason for Manoah’s fear in v. 22?|
|Tuesday||Isaiah 6:1-6. How does Isaiah respond to God’s holiness? How does the Lord comfort him?|
|Wednesday||Luke 5:1-11. Explain Peter’s impulsive response in v. 8.|
|Thursday||Matthew 3:1-11. What pictures does John use to depict God’s judgment over sin? Why did the Pharisees and Sadducees think they were safe?|
|Friday||Hebrews 12:18-29. Why is the warning for New Testament Christians even fiercer than for those in the Old Testament?|
|Saturday||Revelation 20. What does this chapter teach about God’s wrath and the punishment of sin?|