The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of an “only comfort in life and death.” There are three elements in this question that at once draw our attention and that require explanation. The first is the fact that the Catechism here speaks of “comfort,” and the question arises; what is the implication of this concept? What is true comfort? The second element is expressed in the adjective “only.” By this qualification the Christian comfort is characterized as an exclusive and quite sufficient comfort. One who has this comfort needs no other. And the third element is expressed in the words “in life and death,” by which phrase the comfort of which the Heidelberg speaks is described as an all-embracing comfort. It covers all. It meets all possible exigencies. And, at the same time, it presupposes that “life” requires comfort as well as “death.” We must briefly explain these three closely related conceptions.
The first question, therefore, is: what is the idea of comfort, particularly of Christian comfort?
Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, gave an explanation of our Catechism in the form of lectures to his students. These were collated and edited by David Pareus; and they were translated and published, in 1657, in the Holland language under the title “Schatbooek der Verklaringen over den Heidelbergschen Catechismus.” (Treasure-book of Explanations of the Heidelberg Catechism). The translation is by Festus Hommius. It was edited and published again in 1789, enriched by a rather lengthy preface of approximately one hundred and sixty pages. And more recently it was translated from the edition by Pareus into the Holland language by C. Van Proosdij. Whenever I speak of or quote from the “Sehatboek,” as the work is generally known, the reference is to the last named translation. In this “Sehatboek,” then, Ursinus offers the following definition of comfort: “Troost is een zeker besluit van het verstand, waardoor we tegenover iets ongelukkigs, dat we hebben, eenig goed stellen, en door dit goede te beschouwen de smart verzachten en het ongeluk geduldig dragen,” p. 21. We may translate this definition as follows: “Comfort is a certain determination of the mind, whereby we posit some good thing over against a certain evil which we experience, by the contemplation of which we alleviate the grief and patiently bear the evil.” And Dr. A. Kuyper agrees with the chief notion of this definition. Also according to him comfort is “een overlegging in ons verstand,” a consideration in our mind or intellect, E Voto, I, p. 3.
An important truth is expressed here, upon which we should insist, provided we do not give it all the emphasis. I refer now to the statement, that comfort is a determination, or conclusion, or consideration of the mind.
Of course, if we should say no more than this, the definition would not be correct. It would be untrue because of its one-sidedness. And if we, then, in the subsequent exposition of the truth, should follow the lead of this definition, the result would be intellectualism, dead orthodoxy. Man is more than mere intellect, mind or reason. He is also a volitional being. He has a will, emotions, desires, imagination, feelings. He is a being with ‘’heart and mind and soul and strength.” And comfort concerns the whole man. It is not merely a consideration of the mind, a decision of the intellect, a conclusion of reason. Faith is more than knowledge, it is also confidence. Religion is more than doctrine, it is life and joy. And comfort is more than a mere decision of the mind, it is also a determination of the will, affecting all the desires and emotions. And Christian comfort is a matter of the heart, whence are the issues of life.
Yet, it should be maintained that comfort is also a consideration and conclusion of the mind; in the specific case under discussion, that of the Christian comfort, it is also a determination of the believing mind. This must be emphasized over against all forms of emotionalism and false mysticism, in opposition to all who deny or belittle the value and necessity of Christian knowledge and Christian doctrine and, therefore, also of Christian instruction. There are those, especially since the last part of the eighteenth century, that would separate the emotional life of man from his intellect, that would make of “emotion” a separate power or faculty of the soul, and give it a more or less independent place. And it is amazing how much is relegated to the domain of the emotions or “feeling.” It is through “feeling” that we distinguish ourselves from the outside world, that we become individuals, personal beings. “Feeling expresses the fact that all is not purely objective and universal, but that it also exists in individual and subjective form” (John Dewey). The same author distinguished between Senuous, Formal, and Qualitative Feelings, and to the latter category is relegated the “feeling” of sympathy and antipathy, of pride and humility, of good and evil, of guilt and remorse, of dependency and obligation, of peace and rebellion, of love and hate, of faith and hope! Religion and morality become matters of feeling. One can readily understand that this is the deathblow to Christian doctrine. Feelings certainly are no “decisions of the mind”, the intellect has nothing directly to do with them, you can hardly construe a dogmatics of your feeling or on the basis of your emotions. All that pertains to religion and morality becomes subjective and vague. And the Word of God cannot serve as the source or criterion of this religion of the feelings. It would, in that case, have no sense to ask the question: “what is thy only comfort in life and death?” For an intelligent account of the “feelings” is quite impossible. And in opposition to this it is significant to maintain the truth, that comfort is a consideration of the intellect, that without this intellectual consideration and conclusion no Christian comfort is possible. Faith is more than knowledge, but it is, nevertheless, also knowledge; and without the knowledge of faith the confidence of faith is impossible. You cannot make a Christian by instruction, but the Christian can be indoctrinated, and by growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ may increase in the conscious possession of the true comfort in life and death.
Of course, it should be added that, in the case of Christian comfort, this “consideration of the intellect”, this “conclusion of the mind”, is not a mere rational process or the result of a syllogism. The “only comfort in life and death” is concerned with a good, which “eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard, and has never arisen in the heart of man.” It is, therefore, a good that can be posited over against the evil of life and death only by the mind of faith. And this faith lays hold upon that which the Spirit of God reveals to us, not by inner light, as the mystics would have it, but by the Word of God as we possess it in the Scriptures. It is the believing mind that lays hold upon the promise of God, is certain of that promise, contemplates that promise, so that the believing heart embraces the thing promised and esteems it so great and gracious, that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with it. Thus Abraham by faith, when he was called to sacrifice the child of the promise, posited the good that God was able to raise him from the dead. And Moses esteemed the reproach, of the people of God, the reproach of Christ, greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. Both actually did some accounting, some figuring. In the case of Abraham this is even literally expressed in the original of Hebrews 11:19. Both performed an act of the mind, both reached a conclusion concerning a good which they placed over against an evil. But it was a consideration of faith, that laid hold on the promise of God, yea, on Himself, who calleth the things that are not as if they were, and who raiseth the dead, Rom. 4:17. And thus this “consideration of the mind” which is implied in Christian comfort, is based on the Word of God, and is an activity of faith in the promise.
What, however, is true comfort? It is, indeed, the positing of a good over against an existing evil But must not more be said? Is comfort perfect when we are aware of both, an existing evil and, over against it, an existing good? Evidently not, for the fact remains that the evil also exists. It is true, that in that case the contemplation of the good may alleviate the suffering, relatively lighten the burden we bear, but it cannot possibly reconcile us to the evil we experience. As long, therefore, as our experience is dualistic, and we are conscious of a good and of an evil in juxtaposition, our comfort cannot be perfect. We can conceive of a far happier state, that in which the good alone exists. Nor can comfort be said to be perfect, when the good of which we are aware and which we posit over against the evil we suffer, Is greater, even much greater than the existing evil. For the evil still remains, and the possibility is still there of conceiving of a happier lot for ourselves, that in which the evil has no place. Perhaps we are inclined to say, that comfort is complete and perfect, when, over against the prevailing evil, we know of a good that is not only far greater than the evil, but by which the evil will ultimately be removed. We know of a good that overcomes the evil! We are contemplating a good that is victorious over the evil! Yet, although in that case our comfort is far greater because of the prospect of final deliverance from the evil, the dualism still remains. And the question must needs arise: why should there have been an evil at all? Still we can conceive of a more blessed situation: that in which we enjoyed the good from the beginning, the joy of which was never for a moment marred by the suffering of the evil. We must go a step further in order to arrive at the conception of full and perfect comfort. It is the consciousness and contemplation of a good so great and precious that the evil we suffer cannot be compared with it, and unto the attainment of which the evil we hear for the time being is strictly subservient and necessary! Only when we may contemplate the evil as a means to the end of the great good do we have full and perfect comfort. Only in that case do we have an answer, the final answer, to the question: why should the evil exist at all, even for a time? Only in that light can we see that the evil is only relatively an evil, while absolutely it is a good, I may have to walk a steep and rugged road, to travel which means toil and suffering; but if it is the only way that leads me to my destination, the almost impassible road is, nevertheless, a good, and I become reconciled to my suffering. A surgical operation may cause much pain and suffering, and I may dread to submit myself to it; but if I have the assurance that it is the only and sure way to recovery, I consider it a good. Perfect comfort, therefore, is the knowledge and contemplation of a great good over against an evil which is subservient to the good and necessary to the attainment of the latter.
Such, indeed, is the comfort of the Christian, the only comfort in life and in death!
Ursinus may not have conceived of the Christian comfort in this light, as his definition would give us reason to surmise, but surely, it is the underlying notion of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. How otherwise could it have spoken of an only comfort, and that in life and in death?
Let us consider the deep seriousness of the realities of life and of death? of life-and-death as moving on the same plane and belonging to the same category, as they are viewed and evaluated in this amazing question of the catechism. It draws the lines sharply. It speaks of an only comfort. Consider the implication of this qualification. It is not a “great” comfort, or a “chief” comfort with which our instructor is concerned. That would make it relative. It would leave us many comforts among which there is one that is easily the greatest. But if that should be our view of life-and-death we cannot possibly agree with the first question of the Heidelberger. The comfort of which it speaks is exclusive. It brooks no competition, no comparison. It will have sole sway, or it will have nothing to do with you. It is like a physician that offers you just one particular treatment of your disease, on condition that you refrain from taking any other medicine. It takes all your other comforts away from you! It wants to be all or nothing!
But even so we probably did not make quite clear the seriousness of the situation as presented by this bold question. To do this we must also consider that this comfort of which we now speak presents itself as all-embracing and fully sufficient in all cases. It is not an only, an exclusive comfort in a given case, let us say in the most serious case: death. Perhaps we could more readily agree with the Heidelberger if it had not spoken of life-and-death but simply of death in connection with the only comfort. Indeed, that would make the question quite intelligible. Even the “flesh” can understand the question quite well in this slightly altered form: what is thy only comfort in death? Death! Death in distinction from life, even from our present life! Yes, indeed, that is the great evil, for which there is no remedy, over against which the mind cannot posit any good derived from this life that is sufficient to serve as comfort, even in the slightest degree. Life is rather good to us. True, there are also many evils, but these are more than counterbalanced by the goods. There is much, that is unpleasant, much toil and labor, much, pain and suffering, much sorrow and grief, but there are also many comforts that alleviate the suffering. For there is a good deal of “common grace” in this world that causes us to enjoy life. And so, the mind “considers.” We do some accounting. We divide our experiences into two classes. We put the things of this present life on two piles. And evaluating the one class, we complain of our lot and way and conclude that there is a good deal of evil and suffering; but we turn to the other pile for our comfort, and say: “we have much to be thankful for.” And so we do, indeed, speak of comfort-in-life, meaning that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud, that there is a good deal of sweet mixed with the bitter, that there are many things that make life worth living. But to speak of an only comfort in life sounds rather unintelligible, absurd, too absolutistic. If it were not for death, the death that makes an end to this life, we could get along quite well without any other comfort than those we find in this life itself! In fact, is not this exactly the unique terror of death that it cuts off this present life? Indeed, we admit: over against death we can think of nothing that can comfort us. All our other comforts we can find in life itself, in this world; but for a comfort in death life offers nothing. To obtain this comfort we go to church on Sunday. When we die we call in the minister to pray for us (and, if it seems at all reasonable, to pray that we may recover and stay in this life), or the priest to administer extreme unction. And so all is well. My comfort in life is that it rains and that the sun shines, that I have enough to eat and to drink, that X have a good job, that there is a doctor when X am sick and that I may look forward to recovery, that X have some money in the bank on which to fall back, that I have a pleasant home, a lovely wife, dear children, that there is peace and prosperity in the country or that they will surely return when war rages and depression makes life less pleasant; and if, besides, I may also have comfort in death, an only comfort, I am well off, and have nothing to complain.
Indeed, that would seem a reasonable philosophy, the philosophy of common grace and special grace, of many comforts in life and an only comfort in death! Any normal intelligence can grasp such a world-and-life-and-death view. And who could possibly be offended by it?
But consider, now, the conception of life-and-death that is implied in this first question of the catechism: what is thy only comfort in life and death? What does it mean? Clearly, it can express only one thing: that life and death are both evils when considered apart from this comfort after which our instructor inquires! It speaks of life-and-death in one breath. It puts them in the same class. You need the same comfort in both, over against both: life and death! It means that life is also death, “nothing but a continual death,” as the prayer before baptism in our Form has it, when evaluated by itself, without the light of this only comfort. This life, such as it is, as I live it in this mortal and corruptible body, as it is hemmed in on all sides by death, as it inevitably, inexorably ends in death, is an evil, offers no comfort. Life, the life in which I am born through “the will of the flesh,” on whose pathway I move, and move inevitably and from my very first breath in the direction of death and in the domain of death, the limit of which, is threescore years and ten or fourscore years at the utmost, is an evil unless you can bring into account the only comfort in life and in. death. Life and all it implies, life in which I eat and drink, labor and toil, marry a wife and bring forth children; life and all its activity in labor and industry, business and commerce, science and art; life in all its relationships of natural love and friendship, of parent and child, of brother and sister, of man to man, group to group, nation to nation; life with its sorrows, but also with its joys, with its moaning but also with its singing, with its sickness and pains but also with its health,—life such as it is in this world, is, in this first question of our catechism, mentioned in one breath with death. It is, together with death, in inseparable connection with death, the evil over against which the believing mind posits a good that overcomes the evil of life and of death, nay more: that presses it into its service!
Such, then, is the idea of this only comfort. It is a decision of the believing mind, that clings to and takes into account the promise of God. It is the knowledge and personal assurance of a great good, without which life-and-death are an evil from which there is no escape; of a good that cannot be found within the scope of life-and-death, that comes from without, that transcends it, that is both exclusive and all-embracing, and unto the attainment of which the present evil of life and of death are necessary and subservient as a means to an end.