Article 26 opens by summarizing everything the Confession has already said about the glorious work of our Lord, saying,
We believe that we have no access unto God but alone through the only Mediator and Advocate Jesus Christ the righteous; who therefore became man, having united in one person the divine and human natures, that we men might have access to the divine Majesty, which access would otherwise be barred against us.
The One Mediator
The Confession begins with the basic, fundamental truths of Scripture concerning our Lord and salvation in Him. In these opening words, the Lord is first called our Mediator. A mediator is someone who goes between two parties, seeking to bring them together. As we have already seen throughout the Confession, we have offended God by our sin. We are therefore estranged from each other.
In Scripture, in order for sinners to come before the Lord, some sort of mediation had to take place. In the Old Testament we have the example of Moses (Exodus 32) and the priests (Leviticus 1-9). The difference between our culture and Scripture, of course, lies in the fact that this mediation is not a negotiation, but an intervention on our behalf.
In the fullness of time, God the Father sent His very own Son to be the true mediator. As Jesus said, the only way to the Father is through Him (John 14:6), for He is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). This truth is intimately related to the covenant of grace, that situation in which God has promised to take a people for Himself through Christ. Because Christ was the final sacrifice, Scripture speaks of Him as “the mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15, 12:24).
Our Lord is also our Advocate “with the Father” (1 John 2:1). This was used as a legal term in the ancient world for one who would plead the cause of another. This advocacy of Jesus before His Father on our behalf takes the form of intercessory prayer. Jesus’ advocacy benefits us practically when the world condemns us as narrow-minded bigots, when our flesh rises up within us and causes us to despair, and when the devil’s lies reach us and say, “How can God love a sinner like you?” It is then that our hearts can say, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus …indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34), in fact, “He always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25).
These two truths about our Lord are intimately linked to His Incarnation (the Son of God becoming man) and His two natures (divine and human): He is our divine-human mediator and our divine-human intercessor for the purpose of granting the sinner “access to the divine Majesty.” The infinite gulf between God and man was bridged in our Lord, who is both God and man. To paraphrase the ancient fathers Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus, God became man that man might be led to God.
An Approachable Mediator
Every Christian confesses that Jesus Christ is the mediator. But He is only mediator for those who are holy. He is the mediator for the leaders of the church. He is the great mediator for lesser mediators, whom we can approach. This was the popular and official teaching of Rome when our Confession was written. It still is today.
On the one hand Rome gives lip service to Christ as the mediator, yet inserts the saints as those to whom we can go immediately. It is only after making our requests known to the saints that our prayers and needs are brought before Christ, the majestic Lord and soon Judge of the living and the dead. “But,” as the Confession continues, “this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between Him and us, ought in no wise to affright us by His majesty, or cause us to seek another according to our fancy.”
Yes, Jesus is the resurrected “Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). Nonetheless, He is still our mediator through whom we not only must approach the Father, but He is the only on one through whom we can approach the Father. This is one of the great blessings of the New Covenant. All God’s people are “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4) before the open and accessible throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).
And why must we not be afraid of our sinless, holy, all-powerful, and exalted Lord and Savior?
For there is no creature, either in heaven or on earth, who loves us more than Jesus Christ; who, though existing in the form of God, yet emptied himself, being made in the likeness of man and of a servant for us, and in all things was made like unto his brethren. If, then, we should seek for another mediator who would be favorably inclined towards us, whom could we find who loved us more than He who laid down His life for us, even while we were His enemies? And if we seek for one who has power and majesty, who is there that has so much of both as He who sits at the right hand of God and to whom hath been given all authority in heaven and on earth? And who will sooner be heard than the own well beloved Son of God?
Here we find, in my opinion, the most tender and comforting section in all of the Reformed catechisms and confessions of the 16th and 17th century. Who loves us more than He who said, “Come to me…and I will give you rest?” (Matthew 11:28) Who loves us more than the one who calls us friends, and said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends?” (John 15:13, cf. vv. 12, 14-15) Who loves us more than the one whose love “surpasses knowledge?” (Ephesians 3:19) And what in all creation, whether friend or foe, angel or demon, pastor or pope “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” (Romans 8:39)
After all, He left eternity for time; fellowship with the Father for the rejection of His own; kingship for service. And He did this for us, His enemies! Even if we desire to shun Christ for a more majestic mediator, who is there besides Him who has all authority in heaven and earth? (Matthew 28:18) And thus, which saint or intercessor would be more heard than the Father’s very own, eternally begotten Son, whom He has loved from eternity past?
What About the Saints?
Our Protestant forefathers proclaimed the clear teaching of Scripture that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the mediator of His people. This seemed utterly radical to 16th century Roman Catholics. Remember, the Protestants overthrew a thousand years of tradition and popular piety by upholding Jesus Christ alone as the foundation of our salvation as well as our piety in prayer.
As Martin Luther described his life, he wrote that he was “drowned” in the worship of the saints. Why did people turn to saints instead of their loving Savior? Article 24 of the French Confession of Faith, which corresponds to the present article of the Belgic Confession, gives a theological answer to this question by saying it was “a device of Satan to lead men from the right way of worship.”
The Belgic Confession, which was based on the French Confession, gives some more practical insights into the creation of this practice. First, it was “only through distrust that this practice of dishonoring, instead of honoring, the saints was introduced.” Distrust of what? Of Jesus’ gospel promises about approaching the Father in prayer through Him alone. Candles, beads, confessionals, priests, indulgences all blocked the laity’s view of Jesus. Thus, distrust set in and the iconography and images of Jesus in Europe at this time were of Him sitting on a throne of judgment, not calling out to His sheep.
The second reason praying to saints came about was instead of honoring Christ, the medieval church built up a false piety of “honoring” and venerating great men and women of old. Yet, this actually was a dishonoring of their names by turning to them in prayer. Why was this dishonoring? Because Rome led people to do “that which they [i.e., the saints] never have done nor required, but have on the contrary steadfastly rejected according to their bounden duty, as appears by their writings.”
Surely the apostles would have had grounds to accept the prayers and “honor” of their hearers, especially while alive. After all, why wait until they are dead when people could have approached them while alive! For example, Peter, the supposed first pope, did not accept Cornelius’ bowing down to him, kissing his feet and ring as the pope accepts today. Rather, he said, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:26). Paul and Barnabas were absolutely appalled that the Lystrans would think of them as “gods” by rushing out of the temple of Zeus, tearing their clothes and screaming, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you…” (Acts 14:15) Augustine says in The City of God, “We do not build temples, and ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God” (8.27).
The third factor that led to praying to saints and not the Father through Christ was by teaching the people of God that their sins disqualified them from confidence in prayer. After all, how can one pray directly to God if he or she is “unworthy.” Yet this is not true humility, which, while acknowledging that one is not worthy to approach God, accepts His invitation to come in reverence through the blood and merits of Christ. After all, “we should not offer our prayers to God on the ground of our own worthiness, but only on the ground of the excellency and worthiness of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is become ours by faith.”
Instead of appealing to the human psyche and contriving a doctrine of honoring the saints and approaching them, rather than Christ, because of our unworthiness, the Confession strings together a long list of biblical texts that offer the promise of the gospel of Christ’s intercession on our behalf.
Hebrews 2:17-18 teaches that Jesus Christ in all things was made like unto His brethren, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted. The purpose of the Son of God becoming like us in every point, without sin, was to both remove our sins (propitiation) as well as to be a comforting high priest to us when we are tempted. Because he became as we are and was tempted like we are, he can care for us.
Hebrews 4:14-15 (cf. 10:19ff) exhorts us to draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need. The basis of this appeal is that we have a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, that is, a majestic mediator; but we also have a loving mediator who is a high priest and was touched with the feeling of our infirmities and hath been in all points tempted.
Hebrews 7:25 proclaims that because Christ’s priesthood is unchangeable, He is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them. In one sense, according to this text, the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection was that He would plead His merit before the Father on our behalf, and so bring us into His everlasting kingdom. As John Calvin says, in his comments on 1 John 2:1, “The intercession of Christ is a continual application of His death for our salvation. That God then does not impute to us our sins, this comes to us, because He has regard to Christ as intercessor.”
With these biblical words on his mind, the author of our Confession applies these promises to the hearts of us, the readers, saying, “Let us not forsake Him to take another, or rather to seek after another, without ever being able to find him; for God well knew, when He gave Him to us, that we were sinners.”
Since Christ has become our high priest, intercessor, and mediator, we are enabled and freed to “call upon the heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our only Mediator, as we are taught in the Lord’s Prayer; being assured that whatever we ask of the Father in His Name will be granted us.” Because our Lord, the mediator of the New Covenant, pleads for us, we can plead with Him. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism roots the necessity of prayer in gratitude, saying, “…it is the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us” (Q&A 116). Christ has won salvation for me! Christ now pleads that salvation on my behalf! I am to render to Him thankfulness for His past and continuing ministry for me.
Our Lord Jesus did not leave us in the dark as to what to pray or how to pray. He gave us the very words to use in invoking the Father in the “Our Father.” The Lord’s Prayer is both a pattern of prayer (“Pray then like this,” Matthew 6:9) as well as a prayer we are to pray (“When you pray, say,” Luke 11:1). As a pattern of prayer our Lord’s prayer teaches us to pray for God’s glory first (petitions 1-3) and then the good of our neighbor (petitions 4-6). It also teaches us to call upon Him as a Father for we have become His sons. We end our prayer in praise and in a doxology for His power and ability to hear and answer our feeble prayers. As an actual prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is one that we ought to memorize and teach our children from their earliest days.
Since God the Son become man, descending to us, we are enabled to go to God, ascending to Him. In prayer, then, we are lifted up into the Father’s very throne room, the true Holy of Holies in heaven (Hebrews 8). This is one of the most amazing blessings of the New Covenant. Every sinner in the camp of Israel may enter the courtyard of the tabernacle, walk up to its veil, enter the Holy Place, and then enter the Holy of Holies!
There is no longer a veil. Our Lord’s once for all sacrifice tore it in two (Matthew 27:51), from top to bottom. The mercy seat now sits in full view of the people. May we live the wonder of the New Covenant in our corporate, family, and personal prayers, approaching our gracious Father through Christ, our only mediator and advocate.
Study/Application Questions for Article 26
1. How would you answer a Roman Catholic who says they do not “worship” Mary and the saints but only “honor” them? Or, that they do not ask the saints to answer their prayers but ask the saints to pray for them?
2. What does it mean to pray “in the name of Jesus?”
3. How do Jesus’ high priestly prayers for us preserve us in our salvation? (Heb. 7:25)Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.