Question 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?
Answer: That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who has before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God and removed from me all curse, to come again as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me, with all His chosen ones, to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.
We’re getting a lot of good “Kingdom” and “Reign of God” talk these days. My sense is that this way of thinking about our Christian future has been on the increase, particularly among evangelicals. Folks who have read, for example, N.T. Wright’s excellent Surprised by Hope, are emphasizing the fact that our ultimate destiny as believers is not some privatized “my soul with Jesus” heavenly state, but an active communal involvement in a new creation. Someday the “not yet” will be absorbed into the “already.” Christ will make all things new. Peace and justice will win out over all forms of oppression. Swords will be re-fashioned into plowshares. And much more.
Again, all of that is wonderful stuff. It is a vision that inspires us to work actively for a Kingdom that will someday come in its fullness.
But there is something that I miss in all of this: the expectation that is expressed in Andrae Crouch’s fine chorus, sung so movingly by Vanessa Williams at the recent funeral of Sargent Shriver: “Soon and very soon, I am going to see the King.” The Kingdom is coming, to be sure. But so is the King. And we will see him face to face.
Heidelberg 52 highlights this expectation, treating it as a conviction from which we can draw great comfort in the difficult times of life. We can endure the worst kinds of “sorrows and persecutions” with the full assurance that when the divine Judge appears he will be “the selfsame One” who has already borne the punishment that we so deserve by taking that punishment upon himself. The Judge is also our Savior. Because of this we can look “with uplifted head” for his return.
It is especially significant that this emphasis on “the selfsame One” shows up in a Reformed catechism. Scholars of Calvinism, particularly those engaged in Puritan studies, have been challenging as a myth the notion that past Calvinists have typically depicted God as a harsh and distant deity whose ways are totally inscrutable to the likes of us. Their arguments are convincing, but there can be no doubt that such a view of God did indeed often hold ordinary Calvinist believers in its grip. I have heard many stories of elderly folks in the Dutch Reformed community, for example, who, having lived exemplary lives as faithful church members, have faced their own deaths with the fear that they would discover in hereafter that they were not numbered among the elect.
Needless to say, Reformed theology has strategies for countering this kind of fear. We have long emphasized God’s “covenantal faithfulness.” God, we have argued, is not an arbitrary despot. The Bible points us to a God who is faithful to those loving divine promises which are “signed and sealed” to us in our baptism.
That is a wonderful theme that needs to be preached constantly. But it is also important to preach that God’s covenantal faithfulness has been put on display in a very personal way in the the Savior who announced that if we have seen him we have also seen the Father.
Harry Kuitert told the story, in his I Have My Doubts, about a time when a terrible tragedy struck the lives of several families in a congregation that he served in the Netherlands. As he was attempting to bring some pastoral comfort to these folks, one of them interrupted him with this comment: “Minister, no stranger did that to us.” The “face” that they were seeing in this tragedy, said Kuitert, was “not the real face; behind it [was] hidden the friendly face of God.”
That is the friendly, even compassionate, face that we will see when we approach the eternal Judge and encounter, “no stranger,” but “the selfsame One” who went to Calvary on our behalf. A comfort indeed!