Question 60: How are you right with God?
Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined towards all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned, nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.
As was expected in the church of the 1940’s, I memorized the answers to the Catechism questions, but the power of question and answer 60 did not dawn on me until October, 1955. It was my first pastoral call as a twenty-five year old minister in a Chicago church. She was an elderly widow spending the final chapter of her life in a retirement home, a godly mother whose legacy of piety lived on in her children and grandchildren. But she was troubled. “Pastor,” she asked, “How can I be sure that I will go to heaven when I die? How can I be sure that my sins are forgiven? How can I know that I am right with God?”
I don’t remember the exact words of my answer to her, but the answer that the Heidelberg Catechism gives to that question has found lodging deep within my soul. I, like that saintly widow, have a conscience that accuses me of sinning against God. I am not a righteous person. There is nothing that I have done, and nothing that I can do, that will make me right with God. This self-awareness is not false modesty. It is not a vain hope that if I give loud enough voice to my guilt someone will assure me, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” My conscience accuses me. I stand in the shadows of the temple with the publican in Jesus’ parable and whisper, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I cry out with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?”
And God says, “I will. I will make you right with me. I will declare that, in spite of yourself, you are OK with me. I will accept you as my child. I will cancel the guilt of your sin. I will give you new life. I will provide you with an eternal inheritance.”
How can that be? I suspect my answer to that troubled widow may have been a bit more theological then than it would be today. Over the years I have tried to picture what is too marvelous to explain. I picture myself, with my accusing conscience, standing in the presence of God in his holiness. I visualize him seeing me in all my unworthiness. I imagine him frowning in his justice. I know that it is not right between him and me.
But then in my mind’s eye I see the risen Christ emerging from the shadows of his crucifixion, and with the ear of faith I hear him say, “Come to me.” There I discover the magnificent truth of the gospel. When I come to Christ, we become like vine and branches: I in him and he in me. Paul said that I am then “in Christ.” In Christ I am a new creation. In Christ I am clothed with the benefits of his sacrifice and the perfection of his obedience. In Christ, I am “as if I had never sinned, nor been a sinner.”
It’s a brand new picture. I no longer visualize the frown of God. Now, through Christ, I see only the face of God who loved me so much that he gave his one and only Son to do for me what I could not do for myself. And I picture God looking at me through the perfections of Christ, and I hear him say, “I no longer see the guilty sinner. I only see Christ. And for his sake I welcome you into my family. I declare that you are OK. Accepted. Justified. Right with me, not because of you, but because you are hid in Christ, covered with his righteousness.” In Christ, because of Christ, through Christ, God declares that I am now right with him. Jesus who is the Christ is the one word answer to the question, “How am I made right with God?”
I think I tried to say some of those things to that widow in a Chicago retirement home. I hope it gave her some comfort. I do remember telling her that her assurance lay in receiving by faith the promises of God. I also remember telling her that faith is not something that she had to work at until it became good enough to impress God. I remember telling her that faith receives. Faith accepts. I told her that faith is like the open mouth of her soul to eat and drink the promises of God. “Don’t struggle,” I said. “Just receive the glorious truth of the gospel.”
That seemed to help her. It has also helped me in the years since that first pastoral call. When my conscience accuses me, I re-create in my mind the picture of Christ covering me with the benefits of his death and resurrection, the picture of God declaring me right with him for Jesus’ sake, the picture of my soul wide open to receive what God has done. And I ask the question as I have so often, “How is it possible that am I right with God?” I know the answer, “I don’t deserve it. Christ has done it. I believe it. God says, ‘Welcome home.'”