In the first part of the catechism, we learned that we are in trouble. Because of our sin and guilt, we deserve nothing less than hell.
What do you do, when you realize you are in big trouble? You look for help. Is there any way out of this mess? Is there any way out of God’s just condemnation of our sins, out of the punishment we deserve? In the words of q&a 12, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour? This is precisely the right question to ask. Because the gospel is the answer to that question. Yes, there is help. There is a Saviour. There is a Redeemer: Jesus Christ, our Lord. The Heidelberg Catechism will get to that answer. But first, in Lord’s Day 5, it explores the question of a Saviour more generally. Because we might be tempted to look for salvation elsewhere; and we have to learn that that will get us nowhere.
The search for a Saviour.
1. The need for atonement
2. The idea of a redeemer
3. The identity of the Redeemer
The need for atonement
Lord’s Day 4 pointed out that we are guilty because of our sin. Justice requires that something must happen to make up for our crime. God demands that his justice be satisfied, says the Catechism in q&a 12. The fair judge of heaven and earth will only be content if the sin is taken away and made up for.
The natural way for God’s justice to be satisfied is by punishment. When sinners are removed from the earth and thrown into hell, and when all the consequences of their sins are purged away, justice is done.
The question is now if there is an alternative. Can we satisfy God’s justice without dying and going to hell? Can we pay off our guilt and death in any other way? Can his anger be turned away from us? Can we be cleansed of our guilt without the flames of hell?
An important word in the Bible is atonement. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kipper used. Literally, it means “cover”. In the Bible, this word kipper or “atonement” describes a combination of ideas: forgiveness, cleansing, turning away God’s anger. When atonement is successfully made, God is once again at peace with us. The guilt is gone; his anger has abated; and all is well.
In order for us to live, free of the guilt of our sin, atonement must be made. Because our sins are so serious, this is not an easy thing. Our debt is enormously high. The punishment we deserve is the worst imaginable. If there is a way of atonement, we may never take it for granted.
One thing should be especially clear: We cannot make atonement for our own sin. If you are optimistic—too optimistic—about yourself, you may wonder: Can we by ourselves make this payment? But the answer is a resounding no. “Certainly not,” says the Catechism (q&a 13). “On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.” There are many reasons why we cannot pay our own debt, but the most obvious one is that, as long as we are still sinners, we are making things worse, not better. It is like trying to pay off a loan while you keep borrowing more. It is like mopping the floor while the sink keeps overflowing.
The idea of a redeemer
We cannot atone for our own sins. But the wonderful news is that atonement might be made by someone else. The Catechism says in q&a 12: We must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.
This idea of someone else paying for you is found throughout the Bible. The Bible uses words like “redeem” and “ransom”. For example, in Ex. 21:29ff we read about the situation in which an aggressive farm animal kills a person. If the owner of the animal knew that it was aggressive, he carries guilt for the killing; in principle, he deserves the death penalty. But the Bible allows the owner to pay a ransom, so that he won’t have to die.
In the Old Testament, God’s people brought animal sacrifices. Many of them were sacrifices of atonement. The animals died on behalf of the people, to turn away the wrath of God. Every year there was a special “Day of Atonement” or Yom Kippur, where this was clearly illustrated. The priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat, which was then sent into the desert to die. This scapegoat carried, as it were, the guilt of the people away. This ritual was necessary for the Israelites; as far as they knew, this is how their sin was forgiven. They were redeemed through these sacrifices.
Another example of “redeeming” in the Old Testament is the so-called kinsman-redeemer. You see this in the story of Ruth. When Noomi and Ruth came back to the Promised Land, they were too poor to buy back their family property. But Noomi’s relative, Boaz, bought it back for them and took care of them. He was their redeemer, sacrificing something of himself to take care of his relatives.
In this way the Lord showed the possibility of being redeemed. That he was willing to accept something else as payment, to satisfy his justice, as a way of atonement. The Lord is just, and his justice must be satisfied; but he is also merciful, and is not eager to send sinners to hell. Throughout the Bible he points us to a way of atonement, and the idea of a redeemer.
The identity of the Redeemer
But who can be our redeemer? How can atonement be made for our sin?
Can we do what the ancient Israelites did, and bring animal sacrifices? No. The death of an animal cannot atone for our sin. The Bible says clearly: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4) The animals were not true redeemers. Ultimately they were only a picture of a greater Redeemer. The New Testament teaches us that the Old Testament pointed forward to the real atonement.
Animals cannot be the ransom for the sin of human beings. If human beings have rebelled against God, justice requires the death of a human being. No animal can stand in our place. Not even an angel can take our place. God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. (q&a 14)
What about another person? Can someone else be my redeemer, and pay for my sin and guilt?
In some sense, this idea has become popular in the Roman Catholic church. There are “saints”, people who have lived much holier lives than most of us. Can their good works make up for our failures? Can their love for God make up for us hating him? Can their righteousness pay for our sin?
The answer is: no, absolutely not. The Bible says:
“Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.” (Ps. 49:7-9)
One obvious reason why human beings cannot redeem each other is that they all have sinned. Even the saints, the holiest people in the world, have sinned and need atonement. There is no way they can pay for the sin of others.
On top of that, the price for sin is too high for anyone to pay. Paying for our sin and rebellion against God means eternal punishment in body and soul. It means hell. Not even the holiest of saints could bear hell, even if he or she was willing to undergo it. The Catechism in q&a 14 says: No mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
So if we are going to find a redeemer, he must be very special. Based on what we discussed above, he must be a true and righteous man and yet more powerful than all creatures.
- He must be a true human being, because God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed.
- He must be a righteous person, without sin, because a sinner will daily increase his own debt.
- He must be more powerful than all creatures, because no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
Does such a special redeemer exist? Amazingly, by God’s grace, there is such a Redeemer. He is Jesus Christ, our Lord and faithful Saviour. The Bible says about him:
He had to be made like his brothers in every respect,
so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God,
to make propitiation [atonement] for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness,
but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are,
yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
Jesus Christ became a real man, “like his brothers in every respect”, so that he could stand in our place. Even though he lived a life like ours, he never sinned, so he did not have to atone for himself. And, as we will discuss later, he is also really God himself. That makes him the perfect Redeemer.
Some translations of the Catechism call Jesus the “deliverer”, but that means the same as “redeemer”. He is also the mediator: he stands, as it were, between God and us, to take away our sin and to turn away God’s anger.
Lord’s Day 5 took us on a search for a Saviour, for a way of redemption, so that we don’t have to suffer the unbearable punishment for our sins. Thankfully, the Lord himself presents us with a perfect Redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ. He can do, and has done, what we could not do for ourselves or for others. He did in reality what the animal sacrifices only showed in a picture. He satisfied God’s justice and made peace between him and us. He did so by paying the full price for our sins. He underwent the anger of God, so that we will never have to face it.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquity;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:5-6)
If you understand the lessons of the Catechism so far, you should have some idea of how special this Redeemer is! How unbelievably gracious it is, that God provided this way of atonement for us!
Theologians summarize this work of Jesus Christ by the words substitutionary atonement. As we discussed above, atonement is the removal of our sin and the turning away of God’s anger. And substitution means: replacing one thing with another. The expression “substitutionary atonement” brings out the fact that Jesus Christ atoned for our sin by taking our place. The punishment we deserved was his; and the reward of glory he deserves is ours. Praise God for such a Redeemer!
- Describe in your own words what atonement means.
- Why can we not make atonement for ourselves?
- What is a redeemer?
- Why can other people not make atonement for us? Give at least two reasons.
- What are three qualities of Jesus Christ that make him the perfect Redeemer for us?
- Some people have said that the language of “payment” and “debt” make God sound like a greedy person, instead of a fair and loving Father. What do you think?
- Did the Old Testament people really think that animal sacrifices atoned for their sins?
- Can you think of Bible stories that bring out the idea of substitutionary atonement?