It was a snowy night, and the roads were slick. A driver lost control and ran into our fence. Car versus fence. Our fence lost. The driver drove away apparently unconcerned about paying for our fence. The hit and run left us with the bill.
A year or two later, would you believe that another section of our fence, a much bigger portion, was destroyed in an accident involving a head-on collision between a teenager driving an SUV and a tractor-trailer truck. I think only the teenager had minor injuries. I’m very grateful none of our children were playing amongst the trees that day.
In the first accident, the driver didn’t pay. I get the impression he didn’t want to pay. We had to pay. Or so we thought. I talked to Josh, a brother in Christ, about fixing our fence, and after Josh fixed it, he didn’t charge us. Josh paid for the fence and labor that the negligent driver should’ve paid for. Josh is that kind of guy.
Heidelberg Catechism questions 3-11 address our sin and misery under God’s holy law. God loathes both original sin and all actual sins, and because He is righteous and good, God must punish all sin. As Heidelberg 11 says, “God is indeed merciful, but He is also just.” Just and good judges do not turn a blind eye to lawbreaking, and even merciful judges still sentence criminals. So Heidelberg 11 adds, “His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.” That’s how the guilt section of the Heidelberg ends – God’s necessary judgment against sin. The Catechism then transitions into grace, and aren’t we glad it does.
Now, before you ever believe and cherish the gospel of Jesus Christ, you must first understand that you deserve everlasting punishment of body and soul because of your original sin and actual sins. To break the law is to deserve the penalty of the law. You deserve God’s righteous wrath and condemnation because you are a sinner. If you think you deserve better from God, you have yet to understand the holiness of God and your sin and misery, and you are not ready to believe and cherish Christ and the grace he extends you in the gospel. In that case, I suggest you go back to Heidelberg 3-11 and study it closely looking up all the proof texts given. The Bible clearly teaches that you and I are wicked sinners in desperate need of God’s grace in Christ. We need the surgical cut of the law to lay open our souls for the cancer of sin to be exposed. Only after the law cuts does the surgery of the gospel heal and restore the soul.
So then, seeing that we all deserve God’s righteous wrath and judgment, the grace portion of the Heidelberg Catechism begins like this, question 12: “Since according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?” That’s an important question. If we are ever to be truly happy, we must escape this punishment and receive the favor of God. Those who feel the crushing weight of their sin and misery and fear the righteous judgment of God want to find the way of escape from His wrath and the way into His divine favor. If there was a way, it would be to penitent sinners the best of news. And there is a way to escape God’s divine judgment and receive God’s divine favor. That’s what the grace section explores.
Heidelberg 12 gives the following answer: “God demands that His justice be satisfied. Therefore, full payment must be made either by ourselves or by another.” Think about that first statement. It’s exactly right. The law says that someone can’t just break into your house and steal all your valuables. If someone did, you would expect justice. You would expect the judge to punish the thief and full restitution to be made. If the judge acquitted the guilty thief, you’d be rightfully outraged and out a TV. Who’s going to pay for all your stolen valuables? How much more does God’s justice demand restitution? God’s justice must be satisfied. If God turns a blind eye to sin, He would be neither righteous nor good. Because God is righteous and good, He demands full restitution for our original sin and actual sins. Either we must make restitution or another must make restitution for us.
Now, at this point, many people assume they can make restitution by doing more good works than bad works. But this is thoroughly naïve because God’s law demands moral perfection, which no one has, and our human nature is thoroughly corrupted by sin. Just like you cannot pay off the national debt of the United States, which happens to be almost $30 trillion (uh oh), sinners cannot pay off their sin debt to God. They couldn’t in 40 quintillion lifetimes because sin continues in them. Sinners are still accumulating debt.
Sometime head to usdebtclock.org to see how quickly the national debt of the United States is climbing. Has Washington simply given up? Since its climbing and interest is accruing, you, even if you had Elon Musk-type wealth, could never pay it over any length of time. Eternity wouldn’t be enough because your debt is always climbing.
Heidelberg 13 asks, “Can we ourselves make this payment?” It answers: “Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.” Like usdebtclock.org shows, our sin debt is always climbing because we continue to sin. Paying off our sin debt to God is not an option; this is why hell exists. The only other option is that someone else pays it off for us.
This is where the Biblical truth of the lyrics “Jesus paid it all” comforts us. Jesus has the moral wealth to pay our entire debt. Jesus is the God-man; he is true and righteous man and also true God. His two natures uniquely position him to pay our debt because his perfectly righteous human nature qualifies him to make the payment for guilty human beings, and his divine nature enables him to bear the fierce wrath and judgment of God. Without his divine nature, his human nature could not bear the crushing weight of God’s righteous indignation.
Our comfort in the face of our horrible and ongoing sin is that Jesus Christ, the God-man, made restitution with the sacrifice of his body and soul. Jesus paid it all. Brothers, sisters, be comforted today; Jesus paid your debt. He paid my debt. His moral wealth surpasses our debt. Our comfort in life and death is that Jesus paid our debt to God, the debt we couldn’t pay.
When you sin, maybe sin big, you may feel like you need to make restitution. In some cases, you should make restitution like the guy who obliterated my fence. You may feel the weight of your sin and the weight of the responsibility to make it up to God and everyone else. You can’t. Jesus paid it all. Jesus paid your sin debt. Jesus made restitution with his body and soul. Therefore, you are debt-free now in order to live in gratitude to God. Love God. Love others. Make it right with those you’ve wronged. Be generous, kind, and joyful. Do it because you are free in Christ. Do it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Do it because you are confident you belong to Christ.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).