Post last updated on January 21, 2024
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The following selection is taken from Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession (Glenside, Pennsylvania: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 242-45. The selection appears here by courtesy of the publisher, posted to provide the English text to a Nepalese translation that appears here.
Bavinck begins this section by answering a question he has posed in the preceding chapter. That question is, “And who can stand in that judgement?” by which he means, God’s judgment—and this is the question upon which Bavinck reflects in the selection below.
To that question all mankind has at all times and in all places given the answer that men, such as they are, may not appear before the face of God nor dwell in His presence. There is no one who can say or dares to say: I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin (Prov. 20:9). Everybody feels himself to be guilty and defiled, and everybody acknowledges, if not to others, at least internally to himself, that he is not what he should be. The hardened sinner has moments in which restlessness and turmoil master him; and the self-righteous in the last instance always continue hoping that God will blink at what is lacking and accept the intent for the deed.
True, there are many who try to banish these serious thoughts from their minds and plunge into life as though there were no God and no commandment. They deceive themselves with the hope that there is no God (Psalms 14:1), that He does not bother about the sins of men, so that whoever does evil is good in His sight (Malachi 2:17), that He does not remember evil nor see it (Psalms 10:11 and 94:7), or else that, as perfect Love, He may not seek out and punish the wrong (Psalms 10:14). And whoever holds to the demand of the moral law and lets the ethical ideal stand in its loftiness, can only agree that God must punish the wrong. God is love, indeed, but this glorious confession comes into its own only when love in the Divine being is understood as being a holy love in perfect harmony with justice. There is room for the grace of God only if the justice of God is first fully established.
After all, the whole history of the world gives an irrefutable testimony to this justice of God. We cannot speculate out of the world the special revelation in Christ which tells us of the love of God; if we were to do that the general revelation with its benefits and blessings would be lost to us. But if we were, but for a moment, in our thoughts to leave the revelation in Christ to one side, there would remain very little ground for belief in a God of love. For if the history of the world clearly teaches us anything, it is this: that God has a quarrel with His creature. There is disagreement, separation, conflict between God and His world. God does not agree with man, and man does not agree with God. Each goes his own way, and each has his own idea and will about things. The thoughts of God are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8).
Therefore the history of the world is also a judgment of the world. No, it is not as one poet has said, the judgment of the world, for that will come at the end of days, and it is not judgment alone for the earth is still full of the riches of God (Psalms 104:24). All the same, the history of the world is a judgment, a history full of judgments, full of struggle and war, of blood and tears, calamities and afflictions. Above it are written the words which Moses once spoke when he saw the race of the Israelites dying away before his eyes: We are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled (Psalms 90:7).
This testimony of history to the justice of God is confirmed by the fact that mankind has always looked for, and still looks for, a lost Paradise, for a lasting bliss, and for a redemption from all evil that oppresses it. There is in all men a need for, and a seeking after, redemption. It is just this which specifically comes to expression in religion. True, one can take the word redemption in so large a sense that it includes all the labor which men do on the earth. For when man by the work of his hands tries to supply the needs of his life, when he tries to defend himself against all kinds of antagonistic forces in nature and among men, and when in science and art he strives to subdue the whole earth, all that has also the purpose of being liberated from evil and ushered into the good.
Nevertheless the concept of redemption is never applied to this kind of human labor. No matter how much such effort makes the life of man a pleasanter and richer thing, there lives in mankind a sense that all such progress and civilization does not satisfy for the deepest human needs nor rescue them from their worst distress. Redemption is a religious concept and is at home only in the sphere of religion. Religion preceded all culture and civilization, and right up to the present day religion continues to occupy its own position alongside of science, art, and technology. It cannot be supplanted or compensated for even by the magnificent results of human effort. Religion supplies a unique need in man, and its tendency after the fall is always to rescue him from a particular distress.
Hence the idea of redemption comes up in all religions.
It is true that sometimes religions are classified as natural, ethical, and redemptive religions. When that is done the redemptive kind is distinguished from the other two as a special kind. But such a classification is rightly disputed. In a general sense, the notion of redemption is proper to all religions. All the religions of the peoples want to be redemptive religions. There is a difference about the nature of the evil from which redemption is wanted, about the way in which it can be obtained, and about the highest good that men should strive for. But all religions aim at the redemption from evil and at obtaining of the highest good. In religion the big question is always: What shall I do to be saved? Precisely that which cannot be obtained by culture or civilization, by a subduing and having dominion over the earth, precisely that is the thing sought for in religion: lasting happiness, eternal peace, perfect blessedness. In religion man is always concerned with God. True, in his sinful condition, man represents God to himself mistakenly, different from what He is, seeks Him with a wrong motivation and in the wrong way and the wrong place, but he does seek God, if haply he may feel after Him, and find Him (Acts 17:27).
This need for redemption, which is common to all humanity, and which seeks satisfaction in the many self-willed religions of the peoples, is in itself, and is for Christianity, of very great importance. For this need is continually aroused in the hearts of people and kept alive there by God Himself. It illustrates that God has not yet entirely left the human race to its own ways. It is an ineradicable hope, and it enables men on their long and fearful journey through the world to keep on living and working. And it serves as a guarantee and a prophecy of the fact that there is such a redemption, and that, whereas men seek it in vain, it is out of sheer mercy freely given of God.
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In order to understand aright and to appreciate the better this great redemption which God’s grace has prepared in Christ, it will be useful to pause a moment or two before the efforts which have been put forth by men, outside the pale of special revelation, to be delivered of evil and to come into possession of the highest good. The moment we do that we are struck by the great difference, and at the same time by the great uniformity, which characterizes all of these efforts.
The great difference comes out already in the large number of religions which have existed through the centuries, and which still exist, among men. Indeed, the number is greater than that of the nations and languages. Just as thorns and thistles come up out of the earth, the false religions grow up out of human nature. They grow up rank. They are so numerous and so different, that they can hardly be surveyed and are not susceptible to any satisfying classification. Inasmuch as religion occupies a central position, it takes on a different character according to how it views the relationship of God and the world, of nature and spirit, of freedom and necessity, destiny and guilt, history and culture. According to whether evil is regarded as positive or negative, as a permanent identity or a passing moment in the development of civilization, as being natural or moral, sensuous or spiritual in character, the idea of redemption changes, as does the way in which men seek to obtain it.
Still, when we try to peer into the essence of all these religions, they all seem to have all kinds of traits of similarity and relationship. In the first place every religion tries to comprehend a whole of ideas about God and the world, about spirits and men, about soul and body, and about the origin, essence, and purpose of things. Every religion brings with it a doctrine, a world and life view, a dogma. In the second place, no single religion is satisfied with a merely rational apprehension of these ideas, but urges men by means of those ideas and with their assistance to penetrate through to the supernatural world of God and spirits and to become united with them. Religion is never dogma and doctrine alone. It involves also the affection of the feelings, the attitude of the heart, and the enjoyment of the Divine favor. But men at all times and in all places know that this favor of the Godhead is not naturally theirs. On the one hand, men have a sense of the fact that they must have that favor if they are to obtain eternal happiness and the salvation of their souls; and, on the other hand, they feel just as profoundly that they lack this favor, and that because of their sins they do not have the fellowship with God. Hence, in every religion, a third constituent enters in, namely the effort in some way or other to obtain this favor and fellowship and to assure its continuance in the future. Every religion comes with a cluster of related ideas, tries to foster particular affections and feelings, and prescribes a series of practices.
These religious practices, in turn, are divided into two kinds. To the first class belong all those practices which can be subsumed under the term worship and which consist principally of religious assemblies, sacrifices, prayers, and songs. But religion never remains limited to these directly religious practices. Because religion occupies a central place in life, it saturates the whole of that life, and tries to bring it into line with itself. Every religion raises some ethical ideal aloft and proclaims a moral law according to which a person, in his personal, domestic, civic, and social life, too, must conduct himself. There are in every religion, ideas, feelings, and actions which are in part relevant to worship and in part to the moral life, and which may therefore be called both cultic and ethical.
There is not a single religion in which any of these constituent elements are missing. But there is a great deal of difference about the content that is contained in each of these elements, about the relationship in which they stand to each other, and about the worth which each of them has. Paul says that the essence of the heathendom of the Gentiles consists of this, that men have changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. According to the extent that the Godhead is identified with the universe, with nature, with men or animals, the religious concepts change, and thence also the religious emotions and actions.
Three chief types can be distinguished. When the Divine is identified with the mysterious forces of nature, religion becomes denatured into gross superstition and fearful magic. Then soothsayers and magicians serve to provide men with power over the arbitrariness of invisible Divine beings. If the Divine is thought of as being like the human, the religion takes on a more humane character but all the same it falls easily into a ritualistic worship of forms or else into sheer moralism. And when the Divine is conceived of as the idea, the soul, or the substance of the world, the religion retreats from the appearance of things into the mysticism of the heart, and seeks fellowship with God by way of asceticism (withdrawal, abstinence) and ecstasy (spiritual transport). In the various religions, one or another of these chief forms comes to expression, but never to the point of mutually excluding the other. Redemption is always sought in the way of understanding and knowledge, of will and action, and of heart and emotions.
Philosophy enters into support of this. Philosophy, too, occupies itself with the idea of redemption and seeks for a world view which satisfies both the mind and the feelings. Philosophy came up out of religion, periodically takes elements from religion into its own system, and for many serves as a kind of religion. Despite all of its speculation and reflection, however, it does not come out at a point beyond the basic ideas of religion. The moment philosophy deduces a principle for the conduct of life from its world view, it tries to open up a way to redemption in the knowledge of the mind, the moral deeds of the will, and the experiences of the heart. Without special revelation the religion of men and the philosophy of thinkers do not have a right knowledge of God, and hence no right knowledge of man and the world, and of sin and redemption. Both do indeed seek after God, if, haply, they might seek and find Him, but find Him they do not.