Article 17 - The Rescue of Fallen Man
THE RESCUE OF FALLEN MAN
We believe that, when He saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him. He comforted him with the promise that He would give him His Son, born of woman (Galatians 4:4), to bruise the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15) and to make man blessed.
MAN’S NEED FOR REDEMPTION
Article 17 concerns itself with God’s actions towards man after he had fallen into sin. To set the context for God’s work of redemption, deBres first describes man’s sin and misery, and how desperately man needed to be rescued. DeBres describes this sin and misery with these words, “man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable.” The word ‘thus’, of course, serves as the link to deBres’ confession in Articles 14 and 15 about the fall into sin and its effects. Man was spiritually dead, alienated from God; he was also as good as physically dead in that the grave was his inevitable destiny. Death was in his bones, and characterized his being. The proverb has it that “‘can’t’ is a dead man’s word,” and ‘can’t’ indeed typified what fallen man could do: absolutely nothing; he could not reach out to God for help, or even cry for help – for the dead can do nothing.
DeBres depicts the context of redemption in sharper colors still. It was not just that man found himself in a state of physical and spiritual death; no, says deBres, “man plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable.” The blame is fully our own. We made ourselves repulsive to God, bankrupt, with nothing at all to offer God. Worse still, when God approached fallen man, we (in Adam) “trembling fled from (God).” Man did not want God; we did not want God’s mercy. DeBres’ description of man is far from attractive. Yet this realistic portrait of man is so essential to our understanding and appreciation of redemption. Nothing makes white so white as a background of black; nothing makes the glory of God’s redemption so praiseworthy as the background of man’s self-inflicted wretchedness. That is why deBres begins this article on redemption with a statement repeating man’s sin and misery.
Here is now the marvel: God knew well that we had sinned and fallen so terribly to our spiritual deaths. He knew well that His holiness tolerated no evil, that His justice permitted no respite. Yet God –of all things!– sought us out in order to save us! Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:8,9). How absolutely amazing: though Adam and Eve had joined Satan’s side and now were hiding from God, God yet sought them out! How thrilling the gospel!
GOD’S MOTIVATION FOR REDEEMING MANKIND
What motivated this God – my God! – to seek out such wretches? Why did God call out to us in the face of our fleeing? Says Article 17, “... our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him.” Scripture speaks graphically of God’s graciousness. In Luke 1:78, for example, the Scriptures describe God as moved to the pit of His stomach on account of the plight of the human race. Zechariah speaks of “the remission of their sins through the tender mercy of our God.” In Greek, the words translated as ‘tender mercy’ literally mean “bowels of mercy”. The Lord is presented as having no appetite on account of the misery into which we had plunged ourselves, pained to His stomach on account of our wretchedness. This is what drove the offended Creator to seek us out after the fall into sin; He was so moved by compassion for the creature He had made that He set out to bring about his redemption.
Article 17 speaks also of God’s wisdom and goodness with regard to God setting out to seek man. See the discussion in Article 1 for the meaning of these terms.
PROTEVANGEL: GENESIS 3:15
After the Lord caught hold of fleeing man and confronted him with his transgression, the Lord addressed the serpent that instigated the fall and had won the human race over to his side. Said God to the serpent in the hearing of Adam and Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” Here was a delightful word of gospel! God would put a strain on the bond the fallen human race had forged with Satan. More, God would place friction and strife between the devil and the seed of the woman. Though Satan would be successful in bruising Christ’s heel (the woman’s seed, Christ, would die on the cross), God would ensure that in the process Satan’s head would be bruised. In these words is the whole gospel in a nutshell. (Genesis 3:15 is often referred to as ‘the Mother Promise.’ This is a literal translation of the Dutch term ‘Moeder Belofte’ for which ‘protevangel’ is the common English term; ‘prot’ means first, and ‘evangel’ means ‘Gospel’). In this First Gospel God told fallen man what He was going to do to deliver him from his misery.
The rich revelation captured in Article 17 points up again who my God is. This God does not change, ever. When Adam so long ago ran to hide from God, God yet sought him out. Likewise, God, moved to the pit of His stomach at my plight, seeks me out. To me He said, “You are My child; I have given Christ to make payment for your sins.” In the midst of the struggles of my daily life, I am much comforted by the awareness that God loved me so much that He Himself sought me out in order to save me. God Himself has declared me precious in His divine eyes. Such a thought is humbling and at the same time so exceedingly rich. This awareness of God’s grace gives each of us the encouragement we need in the face of life’s struggles.
God’s act of seeking sinners out was and is done in the context of the covenant. The Covenant is a relation of love from God to man whereby God binds man to Himself (in Christ).
1) The covenant is one-sided in its origin.
That a covenant arises between God and man is not due to man’s initiative, nor is it because man gave his permission. The depravity into which we plunged ourselves through the fall into sin makes any initiative or action from man’s side impossible. A bond of love between God and man can come only from action on God’s side. So we hear God declare to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). There is no discussion with Abraham as to whether Abraham wants this bond of love; God instead simply imposed this bond of love on him.
2) The content of the covenant.
In the same verse God explains the content of this bond of love He imposes: “to be God to you and your descendants after you.” God states ‘I am going to be your God.’ With these words God returns to the situation of Genesis 1. When God made man in the image of God, and therein gave the mandate to reflect what God was like, God placed a bond of love between Himself and Adam (and Eve); He was their Father, and they His children. The child was to reflect to all creation what qualities the Father had, so that in turn creation might glorify God the more. That father/child relation of Genesis 1 involved the notion of tender care, as was also demonstrated by the abundance of the Garden of Eden into which God placed man in the beginning. Adam and Eve in Paradise were fully safe in the hands of their almighty, loving covenant Father.
That God sought out sinful man after his terrible fall, and established with him again His covenant of love, makes fallen man so exceedingly rich: God will again be our God! When God re-established His covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, He reaffirmed that same bond of love He re-established after the fall. This same bond He imposed (again) upon Israel after their exodus from Egypt; at Mt Sinai God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). No matter how much Israel resisted, God bound Himself to Israel, bound Israel to Himself; God imposed a relation of love between this people and Himself; ‘I am your God, you are My people; I care for you.’ Israel’s unworthiness to be included in the covenant was pointed up by their identity as a nation of slaves. Yet God was sovereignly, mercifully pleased to be God for this sinful people, to restore with them the relation of the beginning. Truly, this speaks volumes about God’s identity!
After the fall, God’s declaration to “be God to you” is rooted in His gift of His only Son. In Paradise the Lord had told Adam that if he should disobey God’s command, if he would break God’s covenant, “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). God determined that the full depth of this covenant penalty should fall on His Son Jesus Christ, who would bear God’s righteous punishment in place of sinners. Because the Son of God would certainly succeed in satisfying the justice of God, God continued His covenant even with sinners, even sought out sinners to be His covenant children. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33).
3) The covenant is two-sided in its existence.
Once the covenant is there, imposed and established by God, then God and the people with whom He made the covenant are to keep it going. The continuation of the covenant is dependent upon both parties in the covenant honoring their respective commitments to the promises and obligations upon which the covenant was founded. God was obligated to continue to be Israel’s God because He had promised at Mt Sinai to be their God, and Israel was permitted to appeal to God to remember and fulfill this promise to them. Likewise, Israel was obligated to act as God’s people, which they would demonstrate by obedience to God’s Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20: 3-17). God could therefore appeal to Israel to remember and fulfill their promise to Him. Said Moses in his farewell sermon to Israel, “This day the LORD your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have proclaimed the LORD to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments, and His judgments, and that you will obey His voice. Also today the LORD has proclaimed you to be His special people, just as He has promised you, that you should keep all His commandments” (Deuteronomy 26:16-18). Here we read of two parties each making a proclamation to the other. In response to God’s proclamation that Israel was His special people, Israel made a profession of faith, professing that the Lord who proclaimed them to be His special people was their God, and that this obligated them to do His will. Both God and Israel were to be faithful to their covenant promises. Here we see two sides in the covenant, and hence promises and obligations to be honored from two sides.
4) God’s Covenant began in Paradise
The word ‘covenant’ does not appear in Genesis 1 & 2. Nevertheless, given what the Scriptures later reveal about God’s covenant, we understand that the covenant was already in existence in Paradise. That is: when God made man in the beginning, God treated man differently than He treated the monkeys and the mountains. For He placed a bond between Himself and man – as is pointed up in the notion of ‘image of God’ (see Article 14). This bond is God’s covenant with us. It is because the covenant existed in Paradise already that the fall into sin was so very tragic, for the fall was man’s act of breaking the covenant. Man’s covenant breaking, which landed him on Satan’s side, was deserving of God’s wrath. Yet what did God do? Though man broke his covenant with God, God did not break His covenant with man! Rather, God remained faithful to His obligations in the covenant, and so maintained what He had promised, namely, that ‘you are My people.’ Hence God sought us out, and came to us with Christ who would take upon Himself the curse we had brought upon ourselves (Genesis 3:15: protevangel). God re-established the covenant with us, promised to be our God still, promised to give a Savior who would carry the burden of God’s covenant wrath, and so reconcile us to God. On the last day the full wealth of the covenant will be apparent for us to see, for we read in Revelation 21:3 these words: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.’” Here Jesus Christ uses covenant language, terms found in passages as Genesis 17:7, Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 26:16,17.
5) Only One Covenant
After man’s fall into sin God re-established His covenant with mankind. This covenant was not a new covenant, but a continuation of the very same covenant of Genesis 1 & 2, with the added dimension of Christ. Though we read in Scripture of God establishing covenants with Noah (Gen 9:9), Abraham (Gen 17:7), and Israel (Ex 20:2), these were not new, different or separate covenants, but re-establishments or affirmations of God’s original covenant with Adam in Paradise. Each time God renewed His covenant the bud of the covenant opened a little more – until, finally, in the New Covenant established in Jesus Christ the full flower of God’s mercy and love became apparent (see Hebrew 8). Always His one covenant stood, as God moved history along till the time of Christ’s arrival.
Though we can speak of different stages or time periods in the history of the covenant, it was, and is, always one and the same covenant. Therefore we cannot say that Christ un-did the covenant, or negated the obligations of the covenant; rather, Christ fulfilled and perpetuated the covenant. God’s covenant can be seen as a continuum, where God has this relation of love with people through the ages. Granted, in the days of Adam and Noah God made His covenant with all those who lived at the time, while His covenant with Abraham was limited to Abraham and his seed. Nevertheless, despite differences in the various administrations of the covenant, God’s covenant is essentially one. Hence we cannot contrast our days (in the New Testament era) on the time line of covenant history with, for example, the days of the Old Testament – characterized though they were by the ceremonial laws. Though we live in a different era, we, together with God’s people of the Old Testament, are members of the one covenant. Always the one condition applies in the covenant, namely, God imposes His relation of love on His people, and we in turn are to express faith in God through obedience to Him. This was true for the people in Abraham’s days and it is true for us today.
Points for Discussion:
- What word in this article would you consider most central? Explain your answer.
- What moved God to “seek” fallen man?
- What does it mean that “the covenant is one-sided in origin”?
- What does it mean that “the covenant is two-sided in its existence”?
- What is the content of God’s covenant with you? Consider the Form for Holy Baptism, as quoted on page 1 of this book.
- Consider what your response has been and continues to be to this covenant.