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Our Only Comfort in Life and Death

An Invitation to the Heidelberg Catechism

Hey fellow sinners! How do you know you are SAVED? Why do you believe what you SAY you believe? Tragically many Christians… do not have a clue as to WHY they believe it from the Holy Scriptures…. If you will study this inspiring little volume in one hand with your Bible in the other, you will know why you believe what you say you believe…. I commend this historic volume to you knowing the body of Christ will be stronger and better equipped to build the Kingdom together!

I had been a Christian all of two years. I was disillusioned by my Pentecostal experience. Then I heard the Heidelberg Catechism mentioned on the White Horse Inn, and I had to find a copy. I checked the college bookstore; no luck. I went to Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s bookstore; no way Jose! Then I found a Christian bookstore with a large used section. I wandered around, scanned dozens upon dozens of shelves. Eureka!

I was a 19-year old, disillusioned, Pentecostal college student searching out a 400-year old catechism. I opened it, read the above Foreward, and noticed the words came from Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network! This couldn’t be right. A Word of Faith preacher recommending the catechism I heard on the White Horse Inn? Amazingly, it’s true.

I still have that little paperback on my shelf to remind me “I once was lost, but now am found.” I want to invite you to take up this Heidelberg Catechism so that you’ll discover its joys and treasures for yourself.

Highlights of the Heidelberg: The Who, What, When, Where, & Why

When was the Heidelberg Catechism published? January 19, 1563. That’s only 90 years since the final fall of the Roman Empire at Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks; 46 years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses; 37 years since William Tyndale published his New Testament; 34 years since the Ottomans were seen at the gates of Vienna; 4 years since the final edition of John Calvin’s Institutes, and just 1 month since the Council of Trent came to an end. It had been a turbulent century and even decade.

Where was it written and published? In Heidelberg, the capital city of the Palatinate. This was a German-speaking region within the Holy Roman Empire. Its roots were ancient, being mentioned as far back as the 6th century during the time of the Frankish King, Childebert I.The roots of catechisms come from Old Testament creeds and confessions like the Shema (Deut. 6:4) and the New Testament’s “Christ is Lord!” Click To Tweet

By 1546 Protestantism was the religion of the realm. Yet Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, crushed the Protestants in 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg, and the Augsburg Interim re-introduced Roman practice with minor concessions of communion in both kinds and clerical marriage. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg granted secular princes the right to determine their realms’ religion between Lutheranism and Catholicism. In 1556 Otto Heinrich began to reign as an enthusiastic Lutheran. Yet by adding professors of various theological stripes to Heidelberg University, he caused factions between strict Lutherans, Melanchthonian Lutherans, and Zurich-minded Reformed men. Otto died and his successor, Frederick III, sponsored a Disputation from June 3–7, 1560 on the mode of Christ’s presence at the Lord’s Supper leading to him supporting the Reformed cause.

What is a “catechism?” It’s not a Roman Catholic thing but a small “c” catholic thing, meaning, an ancient Christian thing. The roots of catechisms come from Old Testament creeds and confessions like the Shema (Deut. 6:4) and the New Testament’s “Christ is Lord!” “Catechism” comes from the Greek verb κατηχέω, which is a compound word from κατα, “down,” and ηχέω, “sound;” thus meaning, “I sound down” (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; 21:2, 24; Rom. 2:18; 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6). Catechism is teaching by using questions and expecting an answer. The early Church needed a basic way to guide new converts and members of Christ’s Church into knowledge of what they believed. They had to be “catechized.” The basic outline was the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

Who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism? I’ve already mentioned its “father,” Elector Frederick III. He is said to have read over it several times when in draft form to compare it with the Word. When he was called to defend it before the Imperial Diet of Augsburg against the charge that it was written by Heinrich Bullinger, he said he could show in his own handwriting how he improved it in several places!The Catechism enabled the pastors and schoolteachers of the Palatinate to teach a fixed form and model of Christian doctrine. Click To Tweet

When it was published, Frederick appended a letter which claimed it was written “with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty…and of all Superintendents and distinguished servants (or, ministers) of the Church.” Since the Palatinate had come into the Reformation with several factions and viewpoints within its ministers and faculty, anonymity and collective authorship stressed the unity of the Elector’s reformation between Calvinist, Zwinglian, and Philippist influences.

The theological faculty consisted of Zacharius Ursinus (1534–83), a twenty-eight year old professor of theology, Immanuel Tremmelius, professor of Old Testament, and Petrus Boquinus, professor of New Testament. The superintendents were nine pastors whose tasks included ordaining other pastors, visiting the congregations in their districts twice a year, and leading and preaching in vacant congregations.

One of the most well-known and important to the Catechism was Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), a twenty–six year old preacher at St. Peter’s Church and later Heidelberg’s main Holy Spirit Church. Amongst the distinguished servants (ministers) of the Church was Thomas Erastus (1524–83), professor of medicine at the University, Frederick’s personal physician, and a lay member of the Palatinate’s Kirchenrat or church council.

Why was this Catechism written? Frederick’s appended letter described the problem being that the youth of his principality were “disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine, both in the schools and churches.” Some weren’t instructed at all while others were instructed in an unsystematic way without a clear catechism. The Catechism was the remedy. It was intended to do three things: 1) provide a “fixed form and model” of Christian doctrine for his realm; 2) instruct the youth of the Palatinate in school and church; and 3) enable the pastors and schoolteachers of the Palatinate to preach/teach.

The Theme of the Heidelberg: Living and Dying in Comfort

Let’s focus on the Heidelberg Catechism’s two opening programmatic questions and answers, Q&A 1 introduces the theme of the Catechism: Living and Dying in Comfort. Sometimes preachers come up with more alliterated, memorable outlines such as Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude; or Sin, Salvation, and Service. This “threefold knowledge” as one commentator called it, follows the big picture of Paul’s letter to the Romans. After his introductory greetings in Romans 1:1–17, Paul goes on to speak of worldwide judgment (1:18–3:20), salvation for the world of Jews and Gentiles (3:21–11:36), and how the saved are to live in sacrificial service to one another (chs. 12–16).

Q&A 1, the theme, asks and answers:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has delivered me from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, also assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

What is “Comfort?”

Don’t impute an image of feeling “comfy” or being “comfortable” when you hear comfort (trost, German; consolatio, Latin). Ursinus wrote, “Comfort is that which results from a certain process of reasoning, in which we oppose something good to something evil, that by a proper consideration of this good, we may mitigate our grief, and patiently endure the evil.”Comfort speaks of the assurance that I ultimately will be in the presence of God. Click To Tweet

When I compare and contrast the good of Jesus Christ’s grace with the evil of my sins, I experience trost, consolatio, comfort; I experience certainty. Ursinus explained that comfort is “the assurance and confident expectation” that we will have a “full and perfect enjoyment” of our salvation “in the life to come, with a beginning and foretaste of it already, in this life.” Comfort speaks of the assurance that I ultimately will be in the presence of God.

Having comfort is so urgent and vital. Sudden and tragic deaths remind the world that life under the sun is fallen, fragile, fleeting, and feels futile. We’re all going to die. Karl Barth wrote, “Human life has an eschatological edge, a boundary line.” In the words of King Solomon, whether you’re righteous or wicked, good or evil, clean or unclean, make a sacrifice to God or not: “as the good one is, so is the sinner…the same event happens to all” (Ecc. 9:2, 3).

The Lord God told Adam after sinning: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). David memorably sung the Lord “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone” (Ps. 103:14–16). Job reflected on humanity: “He comes out [of the womb] like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not” (14:2). It’s urgent to have all-encompassing comfort body and soul, in life and in death.

Personal Comfort

What is your only comfort…That I am not my own. This isn’t some frozen or static question. It’s personal; it’s passionate! Whenever you read question 1, you’re confronted with recommitting yourself to the Triune God. If you do not yet trust in Jesus, this question asks you to consider what you’re hoping in. This isn’t merely a head-knowledge kind of question and answer either. B.B. Warfield criticized this personalness saying the Heidelberg is overly subjective in contrast to the objective Westminster Catechisms. But the Heidelberg teaches that our subjective comfort is rooted in and produced by what is objectively good. Comfort is Christological. Heidelberg begins with who we are in Christ, while Westminster begins with what we ought to do.The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that our subjective comfort is rooted in and produced by what is objectively good. Comfort is Christological. Click To Tweet

The Christ of our Comfort

After we say what our only comfort is, we go on to express why Jesus is our only comfort: that I am not my own, but belong…to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7–8); “[Christ] gave himself for us” that we might be “a people for his own possession” (Tit. 2:14). I belong to Jesus Christ; this is the key to comfort. Belonging to Christ is “uniquely Christian comfort.” Why? Because it’s

. . . a comfort consisting in the assurance of the free remission of sin, and of reconciliation with God, by and on account of Christ, and a certain expectation of eternal life, impressed upon the heart by the holy Spirit through the gospel, so that we have no doubt but that we are the property of Christ, and are beloved of God for his sake, and saved forever.

We belong to Christ; what’s he done to make us his own? The answer goes on to list theological descriptions of what Jesus did; but these aren’t merely theological words, they’re our responses to the devil’s accusations.I belong to Jesus Christ; this is the key to comfort. Click To Tweet

First, he has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. To say fully paid (plenissime satisfaciens) is a direct apologetic against Rome’s insistence on continual satisfaction. The debt I owe to God for all my sins (pro omnibus peccatis) has been paid in full by Jesus. How? With his “precious blood” and “not with perishable things such as silver and gold” (1 Peter 1:18, 19 cf. Heb. 1:3; 2:17; 5:9; 9:12, 26).

Second, he has delivered (liberavit) me from the tyranny of the devil. Because of Adam’s original sin and our actual sins, practically, we belonged to the devil. Jesus said, “Truly, truly…everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Because we all “share in [the] flesh and blood [of humanity], he himself likewise partook of the same…that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Since the devil’s temptation and instigation led to Adam’s sin that led to death, Jesus died then rose again to crush the devil’s power! He entered the strong man’s house (Satan) to plunder his goods (us) by binding him! (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27). Contra Star Wars’s mythology, the world is not controlled by co-eternal principles of “the dark side” verses “the light side.”

Third, he also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Jesus not only purchased salvation for us, he preserves us in it. Ursinus said, “Our safety does not lie in our own hands, or strength; for if it did, we should lose it a thousand times every moment.” Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:28–30). Jesus said don’t fear persecution by those who can kill your body; fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). Why not fear? Because you’re more valuable to him than the sparrows that live and die because of his will (Matt. 10:30, 31).

The Application of our Comfort

Now that I’m Christ’s, there are two practical aspects the Catechism brings up.

First, because I’m Christ’s by his Holy Spirit [he] also assures me of eternal life. Paul said that if we have the Spirit we have Christ. For this reason he calls the Spirit “the Spirit of Christ,” and he went on to say that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:9, 16).

Second, because I’m Christ’s by His Holy Spirit he makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. In Titus 2, Paul said Christ “gave himself for us” for two reasons: “to redeem us from all lawlessness” and “to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” He then described those people as those “who are zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14).

Q&A 2 continues the theme of comfort with an outline split into three big parts:

Q: How many things must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A: Three: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

  • Misery (Q&A 3–11/Lord’s Days 2–4)
  • Deliverance (Q&A 12–85/Lord’s Days 5–31)
  • Gratitude (Q&A 86–129/Lord’s Days 32–52)

The question is translated very smoothly. A rougher translation would be, “How many things must you know that you, enjoying this comfort, may live and die happily?” Some say Q&A 1 is “the mountain peak” while Q&A 2 is “the valley.” But Q&A 2 speaks of enjoying (fruens) comfort and living and dying happily!

Confidence in Life and Death

Obviously, we know it’s a joyful and happy thing to live in the confidence of belonging to Jesus. But did you notice both Q&A 1–2 also say it’s a happy thing to die in the confidence of belonging to Jesus? From prison Paul wrote, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). Then we read that famous line, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). That’s the joy of the Christian life!Evangelicals hardly know what Jesus even saves them from. Click To Tweet

When the Catechism speaks of how many things must you know, it’s not merely an impersonal knowledge it’s after, but “seeing and feeling the greatness of [my] sins and misery in [myself] with pain and concern, and having an earnest desire to be delivered from [my] sins and misery.”

The Depth of Misery

I must know how great my sin and misery are. Do you know that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12, 13). Do you know how great your sins against God are and therefore how miserable you’d be apart from his grace?

Note Paul’s oxymoronic statement in Ephesians 2:1–2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” We were like zombies—dead yet alive; alive physically, but inside empty and “dead.” Therefore, we lived our lives “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). He writes as a Jew “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Did you hear that? We all “were by nature children of wrath.” Not only were we “dead” by actually committing “transgressions and sins” but we were also dead by originally committing transgression and sin in our father Adam (Rom. 5:12).

We were born similar to poisonous snakes – with venom even though we don’t use it until developed. Compare this to a recent survey. “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” 52% of evangelicals somewhat or strongly agree! “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” Only 54% of evangelicals somewhat or strongly agree! “An individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.” A staggering 74% of evangelicals somewhat or strongly agree! Evangelicals hardly know what Jesus even saves them from.

The Deliverance from Sin

I must know how I am delivered (liberer) from all my sins and misery. How am I delivered from original and actual sins? “But God!” (v. 4) These are the two simplest yet greatest words the world has ever heard! These two small words magnify the free grace of God toward us as sinners by contrasting what we deserved as “objects of wrath” with what God has given us, his grace.We were in burial linens, he clothed us with pure white robes. Click To Tweet

Even when we were dead in our trespasses of God’s holy Law, “but God!” Even when we were dead in our sins, “but God!” Even when we walked according to the course of this world, “but God!” Even when we walked after the ways of the Devil, “but God!” Even when we fulfilled the desires of the flesh and mind, “but God!”

Even when we were by nature children of wrath, “but God!” And “being rich in mercy” and “because of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses” (v. 4) God “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (v. 5). We were dead; he made us alive! We were hollow zombies; he made us Spirit-filled images of God. We were six feet under the ground, he took us into his heavenly banquet room. We were in burial linens, he clothed us with pure white robes. Note the progression: made alive, then “raised…up,” and finally “seated…in the heavenly places” (v. 6).

The Life of Gratitude

I must know how I am to thank God for such deliverance. This is what Paul said, when he asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1) What was his answer? “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Take up the Heidelberg Catechism and embrace your “comfort” of serving the Savior who gave himself for your sins. Click To Tweet

Look at Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” That word “created” is used elsewhere to speak of the entire created realm (Rom. 1:20) but here Paul has our personal new creation in view. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Now you can “walk” in “good works” in contrast to walking in trespasses and sins, according to the world’s ways, in the devil’s footsteps as before. Just as we were predestined before the foundation of the world to salvation as chapter 1 says, so too the good works that we are to do have been predestined by God. Doesn’t that just blow your mind away? This is the life you are now able to live in the Spirit as God’s resurrected people.

Take up the Heidelberg Catechism and embrace your “comfort” of serving the Savior who gave himself for your sins.

Daniel R. Hyde

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde has been the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA since planting it in 2000 and also serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books including Welcome to a Reformed Church & God in Our Midst (Reformation Trust), From the Pen of Pastor Paul: 1–2 Thessalonians (EP Books), How Does Justification Make Me Joyful? (Reformation Heritage),  and most recent Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (The Davenant Institute). Currently he’s writing his doctoral dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on John Owen’s theo-political theology of worship, a topic he’s contributed chapters to academic volumes by Ashgate and Brill. He’s written for Ad FontesAmerican Theological InquiryCalvin Theological JournalMid-America Journal of TheologyPuritan Reformed Journal, and The Confessional Presbyterian.

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