Our Only Comfort
Our Only Comfort Our Only Comfort in Life and in Death
Meditations in The Heidelberg Catechism
Dr. Ralph Blair
The City Church, New York, October 6, 13, 20, 27, 2002
The interruption of everyday life by sudden death and destruction was never as massive here in America as on 9/11 a year ago. And yet, fewer than half of Americans polled by Barna Research reported that religious faith was the key – or even a key – resource in coping with the attacks. George Barna rightly concludes that this finding “says something about the spiritual complacency of the American public.”
Well, if the shock of 9/11 doesn’t jolt us into dealing with life and death in religious terms – and remember that around 77% of Americans call themselves Christians – what will it take for more Americans to take religious faith seriously?
The Barna finding should not surprise us. These days, everyday coping – to say nothing of matters of life and death – is taken to be largely unrelated to the transcendent. Even “spirituality” these days is often – and quite deliberately – unrelated to the transcendent. And though America is the most observantly “Christian” nation anywhere, the Gallup Poll finds that only 45 percent of Americans have confidence in organized religion.
Disputing Larry King’s saying that, following 9/11, “our world has changed forever,” the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University notes: “As for the church, in the time of our great distress, it reached out for comfort and laid hold not of the cross, but the flag.” He says he “cannot think of a single fundamental change in our … self-understanding as a result of September 11.” Then, as a Christian, he goes on to point out that there was “only one day that changed our world forever and that day was a Friday, not a Tuesday. On that day suffering love was revealed to be stronger than death, and God, not nations, the ruler of the world. That news, especially after September 11, continues to be the only news that’s good.” [William H. Willimon]
As we now take up our study of questions of life and death as framed by 16th century Christians, we must recognize that though their Lord and ours “is the same yesterday, today and forever,” there’s a culture gap between their time and ours, their Christian coping and ours. Still, the vital questions and answers on life and death, framed back then, are very much a part of the living faith for some serious Christians today. May we learn from our 16th century brothers and sisters as we work our way through the first two questions of their Heidelberg Catechism.
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?” “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” These are the first two questions of 129 in the Heidelberg Catechism. They’re arranged for study over the course of a year of 52 Lord’s Days. Historically, in churches of the Reformed tradition – specifically the German and Dutch Reformed – one of these 52 sections was explained during each Sunday worship service.
A distinguishing mark of the Heidelberg Catechism is its devotional or pastoral perspective. “What’s your only comfort in life and in death?” “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” This brings it home to you and to me and makes it personal. By contrast, most catechisms teach in abstract terms of theological proposition – an approach that, of course, has its place. Yet there’s nothing quite like the personal touch of the Heidelberg to make learning the faith feel so relevant.
Today and on the next three Sundays, we’ll discuss the basic Christian faith through the prism of the Catechism’s first two questions and answers, together with the biblical footnotes. As we do so, we join with brothers and sisters of six centuries, who’ve learned the faith in terms of these specific questions. But we also join with those who, ever since the earliest church, were comforted by the joyous truth formulated in these terms at old Heidelberg and Dort. After all, the Catechism is supported by Scripture going back two millennia and more. And since it’s been translated into many European, Asian, and African languages, we’re also joining with many contemporary Christians throughout the world.
The Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563, was composed at the request of Frederick III, prince of the prime German province. It’s the work of the Heidelberg university theology faculty, especially two twentysomethings, Zacharius Ursinus (as in Ursinus College) and Caspar Olevianus. It was approved at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?” As we’ve said, this is the question with which the Heidelberg Catechism begins and it’s framed in a meditative mode, inviting a mood of meditation. So let’s ask it just as personally as did Ursinus and Olevianus. Let’s ask it as it’s been asked of catechumens for centuries: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
The first matter on which the Catechism questions us is a matter of life and death. How do you answer the question? On life and death, what is it that comforts you? When you think about your life and your death, what comes to your mind most immediately, most persistently, most comfortingly? How do you answer – not in order to pass a Catechism test but in order to pass life and death? Even apart from this church-sponsored study, how have you been comforting yourself in these matters?
Well what could be a more urgent question than one about our only comfort in life and in death? So no wonder that’s where these men – young as they were – began the Catechism so long ago. At our ages, isn’t it high time we begin there as well?
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
The Catechism begins to answer this question about our only comfort in life and in death in these words: “I am not my own.” Now this is not the notion of a typical twentysomething young man in any period of history. But to today’s young men – and young women, too – it’s as contrary to the Zeitgeist as any statement could possibly be. This has been the case ever since the “moral revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. America is no longer what it was before that – especially among those who came of age then and among those they’ve reared and taught. The newer American core value is the freedom of each one to achieve authenticity by expressing the “self” above all else. Our secular society screams our right to ourselves, to define ourselves as we alone desire.
Think of all the self-centered shibboleths of such self-actualization. Think of all the self-absorbed demands to “do it my way,” “be myself” and “meet my needs.” Think of all that never-ending stock of self-help propaganda. I am not my own? Forget that! That we are not our own is not what we assume and it’s not what we’ll accept. It is most defiantly not what we choose to believe. And it is about as red a flag as one could wave in the face of bull-headed postmodernism. For all the postmodern propaganda for tolerance and diversity, there is no tolerance for the inclusion of the idea that I am not my own. On the contrary: “I am!” is the creed these days.
And yet, as the Catechism sees it, the true Christian’s response to matters of life and death begins with awareness of the comforting relief: “I am not my own.” That acknowledgement is comforting – literally, strengthening. Why? It knows better than to begin on the slippery slope of self-absorbing pride in either inordinate self-assertion or inordinate self-abasement. To grant, simply and for all practical purposes, that I am not my own is realistic.
Twin and sibling research finds that half the variation between psychometrically measurable traits between individuals is genetic. What accounts for the rest is unknown but it’s more complicated than mere “environment.” I did not pick my genes, my native land or the history that circumscribes my circumstances. I did not create me. I did not create the world in which I find me alive. I do not keep me alive. I cannot stay alive by myself. I cannot stave off my death by myself. Therefore, it’s common sense to realize that I am not my own.
The biblical reference for the statement, “I am not my own,” is given as I Corinthians 6:19-20. What does Paul write at this point? He writes: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
It’s not simply that we’re not our own. And it’s not that, instead of our being our own, we’re pawns and property of slave owners, state authorities or other institutions or individuals. No. We’re neither our own nor other people’s property because, says Paul, we are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. In an earlier part of this letter, Paul had explained that the church collectively was God’s temple. [3:16] Now he asserts that each Christian is, himself, herself, a temple or sanctuary in whom God lives. As Christians, we are – together and individually – heavenly habitations. And not in some ethereal sense, but bodily. In the Apostle’s Hebrew mind, that meant the whole person. In contrast to all the ancient world’s pagan shrines and all the modern world’s frenetic attempts to displace the Spirit of God, the place of the Spirit’s Presence is in God’s own people. Paul reinforces what he says by repeating “who is in you … whom you have received.”
Paul further explains that we’re not our own simply because we’ve already been bought with a price. The term “bought” is not otherwise used by Paul and so, as a Pauline scholar suggests, the term may derive from a 1st century chatechesis that long predates our 16th century Catechism. [F. F. Bruce] At any rate, the point-action of the tense of this verb points back to the single act of purchase – Christ’s death on Calvary’s cross. The imagery is the slave market. We were redeemed, purchased, and so no longer belong to ourselves – nor to any other – but to our Redeemer. And so, as Paul argues, it follows that we are to do the will of the One who purchased us at the price of his own life’s blood.
Actually, nobody’s ever been his or her own. We’ve always belonged to our Creator. Sin and death never cancelled that. But now, we in Christ know we belong to our Redeemer Creator. You mean Bob Dylan got it right, “You gotta’ serve somebody?” You gotta’ serve somebody!
But there’s nothing to complain about in the service to which we’re called. For we’re called to serve the Suffering Servant Himself, the One who laid down his life for our life. The One whom we are to serve is the One who has already served us and continues to serve us.
Probably the most powerful motive in humans – and in the higher animals – is the will to belong, to fit in and not be left out or left behind. No wonder those Left Behind novels, bad theology and all, are such blockbusters! A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts two matrons sipping drinks at an outdoor café. One says to the other: “I envy you – I wish I were close enough to my family to be estranged.” Even in estrangement there’s a kind of relationship.
Look at all our overspending. What’s that about? Since the 1980s, luxury spending in the U.S. has increased more than four times as fast as overall spending. And much of that is spent on over-priced logos and labels to witness to our with-itness. And our over-extended credit cards are the keys to this effort to fit in. Of course, the items don’t have to be intrinsically worthy. And they don’t have to be genuine, either. Fake Chanel and Rolex hawked along the curb will do just fine. What’s important is that they appear to be the badges of belonging.
This deep need to belong is not unrelated to the very instinct for survival. To escape lonely isolation and to connect with others not only drives the sex drive but it drives all love and affection and all gregariousness. It’s a life-long desire. And it’s reflected in the dread of being cut off from others in death’s darkness.
So no wonder the Catechism’s answer to your “only comfort in life and in death” is framed in the joyful news that you do belong! And you’re told you belong “body and soul, in life and in death – to [your] faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The actual words are more personal, consistent with “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” With what better belonging could we be blessed?
The Scripture reference supporting our belonging “body and soul, in life and in death,” is again from Paul. This time he’s writing to the Roman Christians, instructing them on how to deal with minor matters, indifferent in and of themselves, but matters that have been blown up out of proportion by some of the weaker members of the church who are trying to lord it over others. The controversy at Rome had to do with diets and Sabbath observance. These days such controversies can be about worship styles, same-sex partnerships, use of alcohol and a long list of other items over which Christians fight with one another.
Paul explains that “no one of us lives for himself and no one dies for himself. For if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For it was for this purpose that Christ died and lived again, in order that he might be lord over both dead and living.” [Romans 14:7-9]
In his commentary on this passage, an eminent New Testament scholar at the University of Durham observes: “The relation of believers to their Lord takes precedence over any difference of opinion between believers; how he disposes of his own is his affair. Life and death are much more important differences than disagreement over diet and days; and not even they disturb the relation between believers and their Lord. … The point is that the Christian is not a law unto himself or herself. But neither is any Christian a law unto someone else. … The convictions of one should not be used as a stick to beat the other or as a yardstick by which to judge [or condemn] the other. Such issues lie wholly with the Lord. … For anyone else to lay claim to the authority to determine conviction and conduct of another would be to usurp the exclusive rights of Christ and to fall again into the primeval sin of trying to do God’s work for him.” [James D. G. Dunn]
So we belong to our “faithful Savior Jesus Christ” rather than to any pretender to the Lord’s place in our life and in our death. That is, indeed, a comfort in everyday life as well as in our looking forward to the judgment of the One who, alone, is our “faithful Savior.”
The Catechism’s first mention of Jesus Christ is footnoted with another of Paul’s statements – what amounts to a virtual doxology: “You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” [I Corinthians 3:23] This is the ultimate belonging.
Paul’s words come as the climax of his lamenting the petty partisan rivalries that were ruining Christian fellowship in Corinth. He reminds them that while they’re distracted by in-fighting over party loyalties and contests for popular prestige, they’re missing the cosmic picture of Christ over all “the world, life, death, the present, and the future.” They’re missing the fact that all these “ultimate tyrannies of human existence, to which people are in lifelong bondage as slaves” [Gordon D. Fee] are all under the sovereignty of Christ. So why are they chasing after the trivia of celebrity when the tyrannies themselves are all defeated under Christ’s lordship. And thus, the tyrannies are all defeated quite apart from their boasting in leaders – including Paul himself. Even “the tyrannies of one’s own narrowness” [Fee] are under Christ. Paul says that since they all belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, everything over which Christ rules is also theirs. So, Paul argues, how foolishly contradictory and beside the point is all their boasting and bickering!
The mention of Christ is also footnoted with a reference to Titus 2:14 where we read that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
That’s the way we belong to Christ – through his having given himself for us. And that’s the purpose for which we belong to Christ – to be his purified people, eager to serve him. How are we to serve him? With all that has been redeemed or in the language of the Catechism: with our “body and soul, in life and in death.” The service is as broad and as deep as the salvation.
Alas, the strength of comfort increases as each of us realizes, too, that not only am I not my own, but in John Calvin’s words, “I am not on my own.”
Belonging “to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” I am obliged to serve him and him alone. That, of course, does not mean that I am not to serve him through serving others. As the Reformer Huldrich Zwingli said: “The noble spirit must first consider the fact that Christ gave himself up to death on our behalf and became ours: therefore we ought to give up ourselves for the good of all people, not thinking that we are our own, but that we belong to others. For we are not born to live to ourselves, but to become all things to all people.” Wholehearted love for God is lived out in love for others just as we love ourselves. But thanks to the One who bought us, we are not to be mastered by any other.
What is your only comfort in Life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Continuing with the answer to the prime question about one’s only comfort in life and in death, the Heidelberg Catechism states that “my faithful Savior Jesus Christ … has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood.”
Says the Catechism: Jesus Christ “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood.” Where do we get this? I Peter 1:18-19. Says the Scripture: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
Clearly, the thought here recalls two biblical passages from the Older Testament. First, there’s the picture in Isaiah 53 of the Suffering Servant whose ordeal unto death saves the people. Second, there’s the Passover Lamb of Exodus 12:5, depicting deliverance from slavery and death. In order to save us from sin and death, Jesus Christ laid down his life as the Lamb of God. However this may be explicated and understood in theological detail, the fundamental fact of Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection remains.
The Catechism adds references to I John: that “the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from every sin” and that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Now obviously, comfort in the Savior is meaningless to anyone who resists admitting that he or she is in need of a Savior. If we deny that we are guilty of sinning, the fact that Jesus Christ “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,” the fact that “the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from every sin,” seems to be nothing but an out-dated artifact, unrelated to life in the postmodern world.
It isn’t that there’s an absence of evidence for sin in the world. That evidence is as up-to-date as the latest breaking news alert on CNN. It isn’t that there’s no evidence of sin in our lives. The least self-aware knows he violates conscience over and over again.
But we’re all so easily seduced into calling it anything but sin. We try to explain it away in terms political, psychological, biochemical, sociological, economic, cultural. We dub it racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. We self-servingly say “mistakes were made” or “we were provoked.” We chalk it up to low self-esteem, bad judgment, drinking, self-defense, poverty, mere opportunity. A busboy now claims his elaborate scheme to steal the identities of Ross Perot, Steven Spielberg, Mayor Bloomberg and others was due to his “compulsion to swindle.”
The Bible calls it sin. And the Bible calls us sinners. Freud didn’t call it sin and he didn’t call us sinners. He had no use for the word sin and he called most people “trash.” Freud claimed an “absolutely negative attitude toward religion, in every form and dilution,” as he put it. Yet he said he “found little that is good about human beings on the whole.” He said: “In my experience most of them are trash no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all.” And though Freudianism is mostly passé these days, the atheistic aftermath of his influence in the field of psychotherapy – shall we say the religion of psychotherapy – is still too much with us.
Well you won’t find the words “sin” and “sinners” in The New York Times or The New York Review of Books – except as supposedly outdated notions to ridicule. Mostly, though, sin is not seen as something to even mention in ridicule. We have effectively purged our vocabulary of “sin,” “iniquity,” and similar categories by which the whole previous history of humanity has understood bad behavior.
And we imitate Freud’s self-righteous denunciation of others. We rationalize our own misbehavior – though not that of those who misbehave against us. About ourselves, we appeal to the old saw that “nobody’s perfect,” as though we’re merely falling short of what’s perfect. In making all these excuses for ourselves, we render a misdiagnosis that misleads us and frustrates an arrival at realistic redemptive remedy.
Last Sunday night, Tullio Lombardo’s 15th-century marble statue of Adam fell to the floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It shattered into many pieces, even to some pulverizing. It had not been pushed or pulled down. It fell on its own. Talk about “the Fall of Adam!” What an illustration of the biblical story of the collapse of humanity’s innocence!
Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan’s director, described the statue’s fall as “about the worst thing that could happen” to a museum. The original fall of Adam was, indeed, the worst thing that could happen to the human race!
Conservators have been called in and they’ve been collecting, collating and numbering the chunks of marble strewn over the floor. But, sadly, the sculpture of Adam will never be restored to its original integrity by all the efforts of all the conservators. The makeover may fool the casual observer but it won’t fool those in the know. By contrast, and happily, the original Adam can be more than restored by the New Adam, the Divine Sculptor Himself, who bestows His own integrity to His fully renewed creation.
John is further quoted in the Catechism, saying: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” [1:9] Forgiveness is meaningless to those who refuse to admit their sins. (And notice that the word is plural: “sins.”) For those who refuse to admit their sins, there is no answer and therefore no comfort. Even though they are uncomfortable in all their rationalizations, they remain uncomforted. But to those who admit their wrongs, there is the comfort of forgiveness. The concept of such forgiveness is rooted in the idea of the cancellation of debts and the dismissal of charges. If we know we owe a great debt or are guilty as charged, it is indeed a great comfort to have that debt forgiven and to have the charges dropped.
How does this work? Says Augustine: “Anyone who confesses and condemns his sins already acts with God. God condemns your sins. If you also condemn them, your assessment is linked with God.” And so, as John tells us, God is faithful and just in forgiving us our sins. That is, God is faithful to Himself, to His promises, and to our being justified by faith in Christ Jesus.
This is why we include the Prayer of Confession in every worship service at City Church. Doing so, we’re bucking the trend of many postmodern pop-psych congregations. But so what? What self-aware Christian would dare to put up with the abandonment of the prayer of confession and go plowing ahead in a so-called “worship” of the God against whom he or she has sinned as though he or she had not?
Denial of sin dishonors our “faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” of whom the Catechism adds, from I John: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” [2:2] As we read in John’s Gospel as well, Jesus is indeed the “Savior of the world.” [4:42; cf. 3:16] A biblical scholar points out that this adjective “whole” – in “the sins of the whole world” – is intensive. He notes that “The sacrificial offering of Christ is effective not just for the sins of the ‘world’ (which could refer to a section of it), and still less for ‘our’ sins (those of John’s immediate circle) alone; [but] it embraces the sins of the whole world.” Thus, he says, “John’s teaching provides an encouragement for the believer who sins, but also a challenge to the heretic who claims to be sinless.” [Stephen S. Smalley]
The next line of the Catechism testifies to “my faithful Savior Jesus [Christ’s … having set] me free from the tyranny of the devil.” John’s Gospel, John’s first epistle, and the Epistle to the Hebrews are all cited to back this up.
We read in John’s account of the Gospel: “Jesus replied [to the Jewish religious racialists], ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.” [8:34-36] Jesus tells them that of course he knows they’re Abraham’s descendants, but because they seek to kill him he says their father is “the devil.” He tells them that they don’t listen to him because they don’t belong to God.
In John’s first letter we read: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears [again], we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in them purify themselves, just as he is pure.
“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Those who do not do what is right are not God’s children; nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
There is something not quite straightforward here. It appears to be almost a self-deception on John’s part. What in the world can he mean? “No one who lives in [Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen [Christ] or known him.” If that is literalistically so, what are we doing confessing sins Sunday after Sunday?
Firstly, we must recognize that John’s use of the present tense in Greek denotes continuous action – a kind of habituation. So the present tense does not rule out repeated instances of sin in the daily life of the Christian. What may be meant – at least grammatically – is simply that the Christian does not squat self-satisfied in sin. Secondly, perhaps John is engaging in some “vehement polemic,” as one scholar suggests. [R. Law] Perhaps he’s merely contesting those who may have been pushing a kind of permissiveness in the Christian community. At any rate, as another commentator points out, John’s “statements about the ‘perfection’ of the Christian are accompanied by exhortations to behave ethically (cf. 3:6-7, 9-10; 5:18, 21).” [Smalley]
Rounding out the Christian’s liberation from the devil, the Catechism references Hebrews to the effect that, by his death, Christ breaks the devil’s hold on the power of death, and frees those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” [2:14-15]
Now a brief aside. I’d like to pre-empt anyone’s asking me if I believe in a personal devil. I don’t. I believe in God. That is, I trust in God. I don’t place my trust in the devil. But I believe that the devil – whatever else he is – is personal. Does he wear red long-johns? Don’t be silly. He’s much too clever for that. Just read C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. But of course the devil’s personal. God is the Creator of everything and God called it all good. There is nothing evil that is intrinsic to the universe. Nothing inanimate or impersonal is evil. But part of God’s good creation was given the gift of choice – as were men and women and some non-human beings. We and they were not created to unthinkingly follow the built-in laws of God’s creation. We and they were not intended to be robots. Obviously, the only parts of creation that can choose to do evil are personal. So the devil is just as personal as any one of us is who chooses to set self up as substitute for God.
The next lines of the Catechism are among the most personally poignant: “my faithful Savior Jesus Christ … also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven.” Again, a fact that is surely comforting.
For this, the Catechism cites the familiar comfort of Jesus’ teaching about the care with which we are loved by God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asked: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” [10:29-31] There must have been a twinkle in his eye when he said that. Luke is also cited. Here, Jesus says: “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish.” [21:16-18] Now obviously, the hair of the martyrs was consumed in the fires of persecution. But what Jesus meant was that they themselves, even as they could be described down to the detail of a single strand of hair, would never perish. The Father would preserve them, as the Catechism cites John’s Gospel where Jesus promises: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and trusts in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” [6:39-40] No matter if we crash. We’re backed up by the One who will never crash.
This section of the Catechism concludes with these comforting words: “In fact, all things must work together for my salvation.” Isn’t that prefacing “In fact” a reminder of the well-grounded promises of God?
The solid rock of reassurance is this, from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” [8:28]
Here Paul emphasizes that “his confidence rests,” in Dunn’s words, “on the outworking of God’s purpose through all the contradiction and frustration of the present to its intended end.” William Barclay sees this not so much as a philosophical or even theological argument but as an “almost lyrical expression of Christian experience.” Says he: “The more a Christian thinks of his experience the more he becomes convinced that he had nothing to do with it and all is of God. Jesus Christ came into this world; he lived; he went to the Cross; he rose again. We did nothing to bring that about; that is God’s work. We heard the story of this wondrous love. We did not make the story; we only received the story. Love woke within our hearts; the conviction of sin came, and with it came the experience of forgiveness and of salvation. We did not achieve that; all is of God.”
So nothing is left up to chance. Nothing is left up to us in the final analysis. God, in love, can work his will with whatever moves we make.
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
“Because I belong to him.” There it is again: the belonging. These days, the deep desire to belong is put in silly superficial terms: “the in crowd” or “the A crowd,” “the insiders.” Yet these are merely the latest efforts in the old, old story of snobbery which Virginia Woolf defined as that “wish to impress other people.” Joseph Epstein, in his new book, Snobbery: The American Version, defines “the essence of snobbery [as] arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.”
In this week’s sparring over the nearly $3 million in legal fees in Abner Louima’s suit against the city, three black lawyers traded Blacker-than-thou put-downs to exclude the other. One of the lesser-known lawyers accused Johnnie Cochran of acting like “an Uncle Tom.” Cochran shot back: “I was black before you were born.” The local lawyers were telling Cochran: You are “them,” you don’t belong. In another instance of this Blacker-than-thou game, Harry Belafonte tried to discredit Colin Powell. In a bid for superiority in black identity, Belafonte compared Powell to a house slave afraid to contend against his master for fear of being “turned back out to pasture.” Belafonte was saying: You are “them,” you don’t belong.
In the current issue of Tikkun, a Jewish journal of progressive politics and culture, editor Michael Lerner interviews Princeton’s University Professor of Religion Cornel West. West mentions that when he accepted an invitation to appear in an NYU forum on the work of Sidney Hook, neoconservative Jews including Bill Kristol and his mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, withdrew, claiming that “West is an anti-Semite, proved by the fact of his association with self-hating Jew Michael Lerner.” And why do they say this? Because West and Lerner co-chair the Tikkun Community, a group of (mainly) Jews who consider the current policies of the Israeli state to be “deeply immoral” with reference to the indigenous Palestinians and counter-productive to state security. Kristol, Himmelfarb and others are playing the More-Jewish-than-thou game with the only alternative to “loyal Jew” being anti-Semite. They’re saying: You are “them,” you don’t belong.
Theologically speaking, all such snobbery is symptomatic of our deep sense of estrangement due to sin – sin against God and sin against each other. And so snobbery – no matter whether silly or sinister, whether of the Woolf or Epstein variety, and all tribal, ethnic and racial rivalries (between groups or intra-group) – is an approach to the problem that is bound to fail.
Trying to make ourselves feel that we “belong” by trying to reinforce the sense in others that they don’t “belong” is a defensiveness that’s not so much at their expense as at ours. It’s self-defeating – reinforcing what we’re trying to deny. If we try to convince ourselves that we’re better than others we’re still stuck in believing they’re superior, for we don’t need to try to convince ourselves of the inferiority of those we really do believe are inferior. And then if others impress themselves with our seeming superiority, they will envy us, get jealous, and hate us. That’s hardly a way to win a place at their table. And since they, too, experience this deep sense of estrangement, they are trying to put us in their debt by impressing us. If we impress ourselves with their seeming superiority, we’ll envy them, become jealous, and hate them. Thus, the estrangement all round is perpetuated. There simply is no successful “sweetening of the pie” through snobbery because the pie still stinks.
But people continue to put themselves into deep debt in order to try to rise above their deep sense of estrangement. Snobbery, of whatever kind, is as pervasive and intractable as sin itself. It’s the vain pride that goes before the proverbial fall because it’s rooted in the pride that went before the Fall in Eden – the self-centered, though self-defeating, desire to displace one’s Creator and Sustainer and everyone else.
And that desire is not merely a desire to belong. It’s a desire to be that to whom all else belongs. It’s the inordinate desire to be the center of everyone’s attention and affirmation. It’s the would-be deification of self. And that is the essence of original sin. How can sin overcome sin?
Everyone senses he or she is somehow excluded and everyone is scrambling for inclusion. But we’d best know who it is from whom we’re excluding ourselves. Who is it? He is our Creator and Sustainer. Unless we realize from Whom we’re excluded and how we’re excluded – and all the answers are biblically based – we’ll have no idea how to gain the inclusion that we most deeply need.
In contrast to self-serving spin and the spinning of wheels of self-righteousness, what a difference we see in the Catechism! And what an overwhelmingly comforting therefore! “Because I belong … .”
We do belong. And we belong, not simply to something, anything – for that could be nothing. We belong, not simply somewhere, anywhere – for that could be nowhere. We belong, not simply to somebody, anybody – for that could be a nobody. We belong to “our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” That’s it! And as the Catechism points out, by his Holy Spirit, Christ himself assures us of this amazing belonging. My only comfort is the Divine assurance of this – from The Comforter Himself, the strengthening Holy Spirit of God, sent into the world after the risen Christ Jesus of Nazareth was called back Home to the Father.
And it’s eternal Life that’s the subject of the Holy Spirit’s assurance. That’s the very Life of the Triune God, given to all in Christ.
People have a “will to live.” It’s the survival instinct. It’s what the search for a so-called fountain of youth is about. It’s what health food stores are about. What jogging is about. People want to stay alive.
People who already are alive think that’s not good enough. And who can blame them for wanting to live longer and better. They want to live on and on and on and up and up and up. But living on and on and on means winding down and down and down – at least in this old world. Gardner Taylor keeps on preaching in his mid-80s. This summer, after speaking in Nashville, he flew into the city on Saturday to speak here on Sunday and then flew out after noon to speak in St. Louis Sunday night. But as he struggled up our steps, he joked: “Dr. Blair, don’t get old.”
So if we can’t stay young and healthy and if we stay alive long enough, it’s inevitable that we get old and feeble. So people come up with all sorts of ways for surviving inevitable death. Some follow Mary Baker Eddy and simply deny that there is anything at all to death itself. Some New Age New Yorkers adopt an ersatz Eastern reincarnationism and try to believe they’ve been here before and will come back again. Some – LSD-d psych gurus and even a baseball hero – have opted to be frozen, that they might one day be revived for the longer haul. After the 78-year-old inventor of the Frisbee died this summer, we learned that he’d arranged to have his ashes molded into “memorial flying disks” so, with the help of his friends’ throwing arms, he could get-up-and-go after death. But no one was able to toss “him” all that high before gravity pulled “him” back down.
What a contrast to the Christian hope expressed by Lisa Beamer in the aftermath of the loss of her husband, Todd. His last known words on United Flight 93 were “Let’s roll!” These heroic words – after he’d prayed the Lord’s Prayer with an Airfone operator – signaled the effort by him and others to prevent an even greater tragedy on 9/11.
Lisa Beamer contrasts her experience at two memorial services held one day apart. The first was the Christ-centered memorial service at their home church. The second was the generic memorial service at the crash site, with “God … factored out.” Hear her in her own words.
“Following Sept. 11, I saw firsthand many dear people who were trying their best to cope with loss, hurt, anger, fear, and a host of other feelings. … They wanted to look on the bright side and do the things the clichés recommend, but they didn’t have the strength. Worse yet, they had no hope. My family and I mourned the loss of Todd deeply that day … and we still do. But because we hope in the Lord, we know beyond a doubt that one day we will see Todd again. … Todd’s memorial service had been so uplifting, so inspiring, because the emphasis had been on hope in the midst of crisis. On Monday, as I listened to the well-intentioned speakers, who were doing their best to comfort but with little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us, I felt I was sliding helplessly down a high mountain into a deep crevasse. As much as I appreciated the kindness of the wonderful people who tried to encourage us, that afternoon was actually one of the lowest points in my grieving. It wasn’t the people, or even the place. Instead, it struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation.”
The Beamers’ faith was this: “Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life.” The Catechism here footnotes three passages from the New Testament letters to Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians – and us.
Paul declares that we Christians are sons, not slaves – that is, we’re immediate family. We belong to our Father’s own family. The Spirit of God testifies with our spirits that we are God’s very own children. That’s what eternal life means. We who, by the Spirit of God’s grace can cry out to God Himself as “Abba, Father” – literally in the Aramaic, “Daddy” – are thereby assured that we’re inheriting the only life there is, the life of God Himself. And that life is in Christ. That’s what Christians have always meant by “life in Christ.” And the life we now live “in Christ” is as everlasting as Christ’s life. That’s how intimately involved Christ is with us. This is immortal intimacy. Our life is Christ’s life in us by his Holy Spirit.
And “life in Christ” expresses itself in “life for Christ.” It means the wholehearted will to live for Christ and for all for whom Christ died.
We’ve agreed that people have a “will to live.” But do people have a “will to live for Christ?” No – not unless they’re given that will and that readiness by the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Catechism concludes from the biblical evidence. And that’s what we may conclude from an honest and well-informed knowledge of ourselves. It is only as the Spirit inspires us that we have any “will to live” for anyone but ourselves.
Do I mean by this that there is no altruism? Of course there is altruism. But is mere altruism the love for God and others we’re called to live? The leading social scientist on the subject of altruism defines it as “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare.” [C. Daniel Batson] After decades of empirical research on altruism, he describes two paths for altruism – both egoistic. One “is based on social learning and reinforcement; the other path is based on arousal reduction.” Social learning and reinforcement involves reward-seeking and punishment-avoiding motives. Arousal reduction involves relieving the distress experienced in seeing others in distress. He finds that a third path of altruism involves an ability to identify with another’s distress. Thus, he acknowledges that all altruistic motives are related to “the prospect of some benefit for ourselves, however subtle.”
This is simply descriptive of what the research finds, it is not disparaging of altruism. It is neither complaint nor cynicism. In fact, the researcher concludes: “Contrary to the beliefs of Hobbes, LaRouchefoucauld, Mandeville and virtually all psychologists, altruistic concern for the welfare of others is within the human repertoire.” And rare as it may be, still, as Dr. Boyd said last Sunday, any achievement of the good is the real mystery.
And as other researchers [e.g., Nelson and Dynes] have discovered, “devotionalism, church attendance and level of religious commitment were positively correlated with levels of helping behavior, both in routine and emergency situations.” [Stephen G. Post] As we’ve heard of the heroically self-sacrificing efforts of rescue workers at the World Trade Center, for example, we see evidence of this. Over and over again we hear that those who ran into the burning buildings, while others were running out of them, were people of faith. God was the Ground of all the love lived out at “Ground Zero.” Apart from the moving of the Spirit of God’s love – whether we realize who moves us or not – there is no love. God is love. And perhaps, knowing that we are loved by God – no matter what – frees us to be there for others in a way that the motivations for altruism do not.
Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians: “It is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” [II Cor 1:21-22] And here’s what we read in Ephesians, where the metaphor is the purchased transfer of a person from slavery to freedom: “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the good news of your liberation. In trusting, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the full redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.” [Eph 1:13-14]
“To the praise of his glory!” The Shorter Westminster Catechism – which is also in the Reformed tradition – asks: “What is the chief end of humanity?” What’s our basic purpose? Why are we here? The Catechism answer is this: “Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That is our main purpose: Glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. That’s one purpose, not two. It is in our joy in God that we glorify God. As one pastor puts it: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” [John Piper] Way back in the 2nd century, Irenaeus put it this way: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” Raised in Christ, our full life may now be directed “to the praise of his glory” who saved us. It is only in such a life of faith and gratitude that we find our joy and enter into the joy of the Lord Himself.
This is, of course, what the life of Christian discipleship is about. But such a life of profound gratitude to God is certainly not to be found in the deadness of rote rituals and rigid rules. After all, it’s Life in Christ we’re talking about. It is Life through the Spirit. Here, the Catechism footnotes Paul’s words from Romans 8, reminding us of the depth of the deadly condition from which we are brought to life in Christ.
All this adds up to radical relief that frees us to glorify God in loving Him with our all and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We glorify God in trusting in Him alone and not in our self-deception and self-defeat.
Paul writes: “Therefore [because “thankfully, God delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” – Rom 7:25] there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law [Torah] was powerless to do because it was weakened by people’s sinful orientation, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
“Those who live according to the sinful disposition have their minds set on what that disposition desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind controlled by the sinful orientation of this world’s perverted values is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful disposition cannot be pleasing to God.
“You, though, are not controlled by the sinful disposition but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, that person does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of Christ’s righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
“Therefore, sisters and brothers, we have a responsibility – but it is not to the sinful orientation, to live according to it. For if you live according to it, you will die. But if, by the Spirit, you put sin to death, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your full adoption as heir so that by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’.” We who were dead in sin now belong to Life Himself! That is the Spirit’s assurance.
A few weeks ago the Sunday New York Times included a Special Advertising Section on luxury resorts called “True Redemption.” It was a 12-page glossy enticement to belong to the elite of the world – as though the readers of the Times were not already among the elite of the world in which 35,000 starve to death every day. And overlooking the fact that you’d already paid for the privilege, you’re promised, as a “Preferred Guest,” – you’ll “make a splash, one pool at a time,” you’ll “make some history, one city at a time” – in over 80 countries! And the tag line is this: “Now that’s True Redemption.” The purloined and service-marked “True Redemption” is capitalized.
But how can that be called “True Redemption” when, “in the most dramatic reversal of all time (quite literally) death is transformed from sin’s ally and final triumph into sin’s own defeat and destruction,” as a Bible scholar reminds us of Paul’s words to the Romans [5:21]? [Dunn] As he puts it: “the death of Christ brought the whole epoch characterized by sin’s domination of the flesh to an end.” Now that’s the True Redemption! But sadly, what do most New Yorkers know of that?
Having considered the Catechism’s first query about our only comfort in life and in death, we turn to the second query. Here it is: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” According to the Catechism, there are three things we must know to live and die in the joy of the comfort that we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
First – and again it’s put personally – what I must know is “how great my sin and misery are.”
Sin! Theo Hobson says “theological concepts don’t come any bigger than sin.” That’s how he begins his Times Literary Supplement review of a new book titled simply, Sin. Its author, Hugh Connolly, is a Roman Catholic who argues that sin is but “the other side of grace” and not merely “an oppressive religious construct.” Well, yes, quite so. But this statement fails to say that grace is fundamentally so much more than the antidote to sin. Our very creation is God’s grace to us. That we even are at all is God’s grace to us. Our Source is His grace. We’re sustained by His grace. We’re saved by His grace. We’re sanctified by His grace. Our salvation from sin and death is, as the Gospel according to John puts it, “grace in addition to the grace already given.” [John 1:16]
Sin is not intrinsic. Sin is an intruder. But God’s grace has been with us from the beginning. Indeed, God’s grace has been there from before the beginning. God’s gracious providence was the first word to us, and we replied with ungracious pride. In creating us, sustaining us, redeeming us, sanctifying us – through it all – God’s grace is prevenient (as Dr. Boyd reminds us repeatedly). That’s to say, God’s grace goes before us. We’ll always find His grace there ahead of us, already awaiting us.
And Hobson misses the fact that grace comes “bigger than sin.” In Paul’s grateful words: “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!” [Rom 5:20] Sin may shout loud and long, but grace has the last word as well as the first.
However, discussion of anything in terms of sin is not much tolerated in these times of so-called non-judgmental tolerance. Christians, though, know better. Everyone should know better. If we’re at all aware of what goes on in this world of ours on a daily basis, it makes no sense to skirt the subject of sin. If we’re at all self-aware, it makes no sense to skirt the subject of sin. We must wake up. That’s not the coffee that smells.
Well we finally may be getting over our naïve nonsense on human nature – what MIT research psychologist Steven Pinker calls “the utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.” Perhaps we’ll at last be able to retire the notion about the nice “Noble Savage” who was corrupted only by contact with Western civilization. According to Pinker, “the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the tragic vision” – what Christians call (though Pinker does not) fallen human nature, enmeshed in sin that is, as Dr. Boyd reminds us, universal, pervasive, and intractable. Pinker’s research indicates that there’s no evidence that we’re made aggressive and violent simply by discrimination or poverty, for example. On the contrary, there’s much evidence that we’re made aggressive and violent by our egoism, our in-group self-centeredness, our ethnocentricity. There is something about us that makes us selfishly aggressive and violent. Today, researchers speak of a “selfish gene” a bit like olden days’ theologians spoke of an inheritance of sin.
And whether genetically or theologically explained, whether seen as an advantage for evolution or as a disadvantage for Christian discipleship, this inherited bent toward selfishness is at the core of our fallen nature. This self-serving aggression accounts for “man’s inhumanity to man.” So the Catechism’s linking of sin and misery is not strained.
Now the framers of the Catechism used the term “misery” as much to refer to the objective state of being in sin as to refer to the subjective state of being in sin. These days, we may more immediately resonate with the subjective, even though we’ve become so accustomed to much that really is objectively sinful that we’re insensitive to it. Indeed, that subjective insensitivity is part of sin’s objective misery.
According to the Pauline passage to which the Catechism immediately refers, the apostle avers that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.” And to prove it, he cites from the breadth of the Jewish Scriptures – the Tanakh – from Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (the Writings). Paul concludes: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Rom 3:9-12]
Why would Paul say such a thing? Clearly, it’s not what any pious Jew or religious Gentile would relish hearing. Is it hyperbole? Why does Paul lay it on so thick? Well is it laid on so thick? A biblical scholar says Paul, in writing to Jews, is “turning … the tables on Jewish overconfidence in their nation’s favored status before God. … [and so the Hebrew texts] can be seen … as a self-description and self-condemnation. … Paul was in effect lumping Jewish presumption with gentile idolatry and sexual perversion (cf. Ps 14:1) as equally an expression of the fool’s denial of God.” [Dunn] This is a case of a plague on all our houses. Since Paul’s Jewish recipients were so accustomed to looking down with disdain upon the “dogs” beyond the pale, Paul argues that his fellow Jews are no better than those they despised. He sees the self-deceiving nature of all self-righteousness – whether Jewish or Gentile. And Paul cannot let either Jews or Gentiles get away with a minimizing of their own sinfulness – especially in all those self-servingly convenient conventions that reinforced the sin itself.
The other New Testament passage the Catechism footnotes is from John. You’ll recognize it as containing the words with which I often introduce our weekly prayer of confession of sin. John writes, in countering heretics who tried to downplay the importance of sin: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. … If we claim we have not sinned we make [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in us.” [I John 1:8, 10]
Our sin and misery are so closely linked. And that’s not simply because sin produces much misery. It’s because, as Luther detected, sin is a bending inwards upon self, what he called incurvatus in se. Bent in upon ourselves, we not only mistake the severity of our sin but we mistake the self as some sort of savior. But counting on a pseudo-savior to rescue us from a misery we misunderstand, we have no hope of escaping the misery of hopelessness. Such is the interacting influence of sin and misery.
And yet, in the elite strata of Western society today, we’re witnessing what’s being described as “a shift from a theology of transcendence to a theology of immanence.” [James R. Edwards] There are people in even church circles who urge that we simply “go within” to find our spirituality and then express that as our Christianity. But as Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas tirelessly reminds us: “Our salvation comes only when we cease trying to interpret Jesus’ story in the light of our history, and instead we interpret ourselves in the light of his.” We must look beyond us for the solution to the problem that’s deep within us.
You see, if we’re looking only within ourselves for what can come only from beyond ourselves, we’ll remain empty and isolated in ourselves – never seeing the big picture because we’re distracted by our own measly self-portrait. If we simply go within, we’ll simply go without.
The Catechism refers us to I John 1:10 where we read: “If we claim to be without sin we make God out to be a liar and His word is not in us.” The lie is the claim that we’re not sinners. So we need God’s word of truth about us, else we deceive ourselves with the lie we tell ourselves.
What else must we know to live and die in the joy of the comfort of which we’ve been speaking? According to the Catechism, we must know this: “How I am set free from all my sins and misery.” Here’s the remedy for the malady. And here, we’re directed to both the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles.
The first text, John 17:3, is presented as from a prayer Jesus addressed to his Father at the end of his ministry: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou hast sent.” From the early days of the church, this phrasing has been taken to be “teaching in the form of prayer” to be overheard, so to speak, by Christians. As Bible scholars note, it “is a parenthesis … it reads remarkably like a confession of faith [and] it may be a gloss of [John] the Evangelist” [George R. Beasley-Murray] It is “at once a prayer, and a proclamation, and a revelation” of Christian faith. [B. F. Westcott]
Turning to the referenced account of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, we read the words of a humble Jewish fisherman to the wealthy and powerful Jews assembled as The Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the elite Temple power structure. Bible scholars note “a turning to account of a Jewish formula” [Ernst Haenchen] in Peter’s bold proclamation: “There is salvation through no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. … All the prophets have borne witness to [Jesus], that all who trust in Him shall receive forgiveness of sins through His name.” [4:12; 10:43] As there is no other god but One [I Cor 8:4], there is no other name, or onoma, under heaven whereby people must be saved. “The whole content of the saving truth revealed in Jesus is comprised in his name,” as F. F. Bruce points out. That’s because, in the ancient world, a person’s name is inseparable from the person. So salvation is inseparable from the one God in Christ. Use of the “name” may also be a “calling upon” or “in fulfillment of the will” of someone or “in the power” or ” presence” of a person. [Hans Bietenhard] A name covers “all that a name implies, of authority, character, rank, majesty, power, excellence, etc., of everything that the name covers [as well as] in acknowledgment or confession of.” [W. E. Vine]
Here, “Peter once more maintained that salvation could be gained not through Judaism but only through Jesus (cf. iii, 19, 23).” [Johannes Munck] It could be said today that such salvation must be gained – not through Judaism or Christianity – but only through Jesus! That’s the point. One salvation for one fallen humanity is from the one God through faith in the one Christ and his singular faithfulness.
Now as we’re saying, in biblical parlance, to speak of “the name” is to speak of the authority. Salvation from sin and death is not a matter of merely muttering the English word J-e-s-u-s. Salvation from sin and death is a matter of the authority of Jesus the Messiah who came to Israel to bless the world. He is the Christ, the Anointed, only begotten Son of the Father. So Peter’s statement is not parochial prejudice or self-serving arrogance. He’s not some anachronistic Nordic anti-Semite. He spoke as a Jew speaking to Jews. According to the understanding and testimony of the very earliest Christians – virtually all of whom were Jews: Whatever salvation is granted, it is granted by the authority of Jesus Messiah, Yeshua Hamashia, Yahweh’s Anointed One, The Christ who died for the sins of the whole world.
The last thing the Catechism says we must know to live and die in the joy of the comfort of which we’re speaking has to do with “how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” Five biblical texts are referenced.
The first is Matthew 5:16. Jesus tells his disciples: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus had told his disciples that they are the singular light of the world. (The Greek is singular.) We, as his disciples, are the light of the world. The assumption here is that the world is in the dark. Disciples of Christ are the light because, as Christ said, he himself is the Light of the world. The light we’re to shine is the derived light of Christ.
At this climax of Jesus’ call to his beloved, “the love commandment provides the foundation for these good works (cf. 22:37-40).” [Donald A. Hagner] But how far short of this call we fall!
Is it gratitude for our heavenly Father that most immediately comes to the minds and hearts of those with whom we deal? Do we, in gratitude for deliverance, let the light of the love of Christ shine through us in all our dealings in our corner of this dark world? Does what we do and say shed any light of Christ within our families, among our friends, at work, at recreation, at worship even? Or do we merely repeat and live out the views and lifestyles of the times, our social class and our political preferences – without submitting any of it to the penetrating light of Christ’s truth and grace? Do we merely ask what’s most convenient for us? Don’t we need to be more savvy, more self-critical, in our thinking and in our decision making? Don’t we need to be more serious and not shrink from asking ourselves these tough questions? Don’t we have to be more accountable to something or someone beside ourselves?
The Catechism next references Romans 6:13, where Paul presents sin personified as the Christian’s former master. By strong contrast, Paul reminds Christians that we are now free to serve Christ. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s no-nonsense rendering of this exhortation: “You must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time – remember, you’ve been raised from the dead! – into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.”
A passage from Ephesians 5 is also brought to bear on thankful enlightenment. Here’s how J. B. Phillips translates the admonition: “Steer clear of the activities of darkness; let your lives show by contrast how dreary and futile these things are. … For light is capable of ‘showing up’ everything for what it really is. It is even possible (after all, it happened with you!) for light to turn the thing it shines upon into light also.”
Footnoted as well is Paul’s enjoining Timothy to “do your best to offer yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no reason to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” [II Tim 2:15] Paul is warning of the false teachers’ traps of needless disputes that drown out the preaching of the true gospel. As expositor Matthew Henry put it: we’re “not to invent a new gospel, but rightly to divide the gospel that is committed to [our] trust. To speak terror to those to whom terror belongs, comfort to whom comfort; to give every one his portion in due season.”
The final biblical text referenced to explicate “how I am to thank God for such deliverance” is from the first Petrine epistle [2:9-10]. Here Christians are called “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a ‘peculiar’ or special people” – all titles from the Hebrew Scriptures and every Jew knew them well. Peter reminds us of a time when we did not belong to that “peculiar” people of the older covenant – when we were outsiders to God’s covenant with Israel. Now, says Peter, we belong to God’s covenant. Once we were nothing, now we’re something. Once we were excluded, now we’re included. Once we did not belong. Now we do belong. We now belong in Christ.
The truth of this text prompts thanksgiving. On what basis? That we are not adrift on our own but really do belong! And to God, for goodness sake! What could make us more thankful than that?
After doing psychotherapy for more than 30 years, I know of nothing more persistently problematic for people than the desire to belong, to fit in. People will tend to do anything to gain acceptance and people will tend to do anything to avoid rejection. They’ll even make fools of themselves to gain acceptance and to avoid rejection. They’ll violate conscience and convention in order to fit in. “People need people.” God said that long before Streisand did. God told Adam: “It’s not good for you to be alone.” But there are ways to meet this need and there are ways to fail to do so. It all depends on how it’s done.
A veteran Harvard psychiatrist has written a new book critical of his profession – especially critical of psychoanalysis, which he calls “the god that failed.” [J. Allan Hobson] He says that, after all these decades, he’s concluded that “probably the most important thing you can do [as a psychotherapist] is to give [a patient] a sense of human place with you.” He says “what psychiatrists and the patients’ families need to do is be straightforward, not abandon the person, not get impatient, not feel like we’re a failure if we don’t cure them.” You see, the patients want to belong. Their families want to belong. Their therapists want to belong. But there’s only so much therapists, families or friends can do.
That’s because the deepest desire to belong is a desire to belong to God. Indeed, to belong back to God. Secularists won’t help you do that. And many so-called Christians won’t help you do that. Sometimes their godlessness sends us packing in the opposite direction. Sadly, even some clergy fail to carry out their call to introduce you to Christ and to support you in your commitment to Christ so that you can really know that you truly do belong to Christ.
Contrary to the nonsense of so much that passes for psychotherapy, all that self-help stuff about the infernal internal child, the going within that’s really a going without, and pop-psyched pseudo-spirituality, the development of a higher self-esteem is not what we need. People feel so bad about themselves because they already have too high an esteem for themselves. They loose sleep over how they’re faring – not over how others are faring – because, to them, they themselves are the big deal. That’s a self-centered esteem and it’s the source of emotional psychopathology as well as sins. And it’s radically overcome only with the radical operation of God’s Holy Spirit who discomfits us with the truth about our sinfully self-deceiving self-centeredness and comforts us with the truth about God’s Self-sacrificing grace and peace.
What a comfort! To belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ – Emmanuel, God with us. You want to belong? You don’t want to be lost? Jesus came to seek and to save all that was lost. And he did so as one of us and one with the Father.
Well there they are, the opening questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, so poignantly put together in the 16th century and so pastorally powerful ever since. But, of course, they were not concocted out of mere wishful thinking. They’re deeply rooted in the Holy Scriptures, the very Word of God that is the very Word of Life. No matter what each of us is facing today, no matter what we’ll ever have to face, we get to do so in Christian faith. And that means that we live and die in the comfort, the strength, of God’s amazing grace in which we are not our own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. And to God be the glory. Amen.