What is thy only comfort in life and death?
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his own precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil, and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day I, Question 1.
Credo! This is the first word of our Apostolic Creed. I believe!
Faith is the truth of the Holy Scriptures as it is divinely revealed throughout the ages to the saints in Christ Jesus. It is the light that shines into our present darkness to reveal to God’s church the One Who is the Truth and the Light, in Whose light we see the Light.
Faith is that truth of Scripture as it lives in the heart of the believer, who is drawn by the power of that Word, even by Christ Himself through that Word, to the Fountain of living waters. That Fountain quickens them and refreshes their thirsty souls with life, with eternal life in the midst of death.
Faith finds its certainty in the objective Word of God, the inspired Scriptures. The faith of the believers is founded on that Word, appeals to the Word as a final authority on all matters, is strong, even powerful to resist every foe through the power of that two-edged Sword. Enlightened by the Spirit of Christ, with the life of Christ in my heart I can say with conviction that defies all opposition, conviction worth dying for: “I believe.”
That is our confession.
The Holy Spirit, Who dwells in the church, guides the church into all truth. Especially in times of strife, when the devil is doing his utmost to undermine the foundation of our faith, the church is led to formulate the truth of the Scriptures in Confessions. The believers need that formulation to retain their own unity of faith. Those of like persuasion have their common ground in the Confessions. The church needs that to witness to the world round about, testifying, “This I believe.” The saints in Christ need that as their banner, their distinctive uniform, as they tight the battle of faith against all the onslaughts of the devil with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Body of Christ needs that witness to draw others to the truth of Scripture, to unite in their common cause, especially in these last days as we prepare ourselves for the tribulation still to come. Today, these Confessions are being challenged as outmoded, outdated, irrelevant to our advanced, scientific age. Therefore, we hear the voice of Jesus powerfully exhorting us: “Hold that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”
We, as believers in Jesus, have the more sure Word of prophecy, whereunto we do well that we take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in our hearts. (II Peter 1:19). We have the strong consolation of the Spirit that unites our hearts and minds in the faith of the fathers still living; the faith that has survived fire, dungeon, and sword. Our fathers died for that faith. We, their children, cherish it as we equip ourselves to be ready at all times to give account of the hope that is within us, applying God’s Word to every walk of life. We cling to that faith as the heritage delivered to us from the past to be preserved and passed on to the generations to come, unto the day when our Lord returns.
Our Heidelberg Catechism is one of those Confessions, known to us as a part of the Three Forms of Unity of the Reformed faith. The first question of the first Lord’s Day quoted above strikes the keynote of the entire Book of Instruction.
“What is thy only comfort in life and death?”
An annoying question.
I can imagine myself taking this first Lord’s Day in hand, with my finger on this first question, and starting down the avenue of some shopping mall. Suppose I would stop the first man I met and confront him with this question, “What is your only comfort?” If he did not tell me to mind my own business, he would likely ask: “Comfort. What is that? My theory is that I can brush away any thought of misery by telling myself that ‘I’m OK, even as everyone else is OK.’ Or if that does not do the trick, I have my liquor, my golf, my vacations; yes, many things by which to run away from the realities of life.” After that I might venture out to a hospital where someone lies in mortal agony. Hesitantly I might ask her about her comfort in life and death, only to hear her say that her friends have overwhelmed her with all sorts of comforts, none of which take away the sting of pain and death. “An only comfort? I am reminded that there should be many comforts, such as, my troubles could be worse; as long as there is life there is hope; I have the best doctors in the city.” Yes, and many similar sage remarks. So I wander off to a funeral home where the air is saturated with mourning. I ask about comfort, and am told that there is actually no spot in all this great wide world where mortals weep no more.
No, I am not getting very far with my Heidelberger today, but it was not intended for that anyway. The question is a very unique question that finds response only in the heart of the believer. I notice that it is addressed to me. What is my comfort, my only comfort, my all sufficient comfort, that changes my darkness into light, that sustains me in every affliction, that changes my mournful dirge into a song of praise in the night, and when death comes to release my soul from this prison house of death, this comfort is still my strength and song, even into eternity.
Even so it is an annoying question. In the first instance I might try to deny that this applies to me. I must admit that it does not always live clearly before my consciousness. It requires some prayerful soul searching before the face of God.
The word “comfort” in the active sense means “to strengthen.” It is taken from the Latin, “to be brave by some outward support.” In the passive sense, as it is used here, it means “to be strengthened,” to have someone at my side who takes up my cause, who pleads my cause for me as my advocate, and who delivers me from all my miseries. Thus the word implies that I experience a certain great misery. This misery fills my day with bitterness and my nights with anxious restlessness. The fear of death and the beyond floods my soul with bitter pain. All human comforters are vain; they only make my troubles worse. But there is One Who comes to my aid, Who understands my deepest woe, Who has the solution for every problem. He pleads my cause for me, so that I begin to sing with the inspired Psalmist, “This my comfort in affliction, that Thy Word hath quickened me.”
We think of the prodigal son in the parable, who had found that the pleasures and treasures of sin end up in the mire, where he had to outwit the swine to share their slop with them. He “comes to himself” and says, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy servants’.” Maybe the prodigal did not realize it, but already a ray of comfort was penetrating into his weary soul; it was the thought of father, the one person in the whole world who cares, who, though sorely offended, would yet show mercy to his son. He is Father’s son, for whom Father’s love never changes. To that love he must appeal, even as the woman who spoke of the crumbs that fell from the table for the dogs. When he is yet a great way off, Father sees him, runs to meet him, throws his arms about him and listens as he stammers the confession of his sin, nothing more. The prepared speech goes unspoken, for Father must have his say: “This my son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again!” The angels in heaven join in the chorus.
An only comfort! In the ears of the unbeliever this sounds so ridiculous, so entirely impossible. In our unbelief we are guilty of what Paul calls in II Corinthians 5:15 “living unto ourselves.” We clamor for our independence. We want to make our own mark in the world, take care of ourselves. We want to be somebody. We are willing to take the consequences of our independence. Yet when the Spirit of Christ enters our hearts to convict us of sin against the Most High Majesty of God, we realize that we have wasted Father’s goods, the gifts, the talents, the possessions which God had entrusted unto us to be used to His glory. We realize that we have grossly transgressed all God’s commandments and kept none of them. A two-fold burden rests upon us. There is the guilty conscience that-beats me with just accusations. How could I be such a fool, such a sinner? There is the deep awareness that my “independence” is nothing more than slavish service of the devil, the power of sin driving me headlong into hell under God’s just wrath. As long as I am “my own” I stand responsible for enormous debt of sin, which I can never wipe out, but only increase. I am, as long as I am “my own,” sitting in the prison cell of sin with the sentence of everlasting death upon me.
Only when I realize that as the cause, the root of all my misery, can I experience the only comfort. It is’ the assurance that “I am not my own.” My former boast is now my shame. Alone I perish! Now triumphantly I can say, “I am not my own. I belong.” I belong to none other than my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. As the peace of that glorious salvation floods my soul, I realize that I belong, not by personal choice, but because my name is eternally written by the loving hand of Father in the Book of Life. What a comfort that doctrine of election and predestination! I belong because Christ laid the seal of His blood, which was shed upon Calvary, upon that name in the Book. I know that I belong to Jesus, for the Spirit of Christ assures me that I am adopted to be God’s son, heir of salvation, to bear the likeness of Father before His throne forever. Once I was bound, now I am free. Once I was blind, now I can see, Once I was dead, now I live, for Christ lives in me.
My comfort is an all sufficient comfort. I can sum up at least five benefits which apply to my physical life as well as my spiritual life, which sustain me in all the trials and sufferings of my daily existence, which strengthen me in the hour of death, and accompany me, as it were, into Father’s House with its many mansions. The first of these is that my Savior has purchased me unto God by paying the price far exceeding all the gold and silver of this world, the price of His own precious blood. Second, He delivers me, not once, but every day from every new attack of Satan who is determined to drive my soul to hell. Third, He is faithful, He carries out God’s eternal purpose in our lives, since we are God’s workmanship, each a masterpiece of divine wisdom and power, to accomplish those good works which God has eternally prepared for each of us to carry out in this life. We never live for one second in vain; Even when all things seem to be against us, God is still for us, Christ intercedes for us that our faith fail not, so that not one of those insignificant hairs of our heads can fall unless God carries out His purpose with it. That far exceeds my understanding, yet it is true. Fourth, He assures us day by day that tribulations work patience, patience makes us well-experienced, fully equipped saints, in order that our hope may continually grow brighter. For hope never makes us ashamed, since the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts. (Rom. 5:1-5). The God of consolation, Who blesses us through the Son of Consolation, sends His Comforter, the Holy Spirit of Christ, to make us sincerely willing and ready to live, no more unto ourselves, but unto the God of our salvation in true thankfulness.
“What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:12, 13).