“How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
“Three, the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.”
Lord’s Day I, Question 2
“Happiness is . . . .”
You are often expected to fill in the rest according to the fancies and dictates of your heart at the moment. Happiness may be gaining a friend, or striking a fortune, or gaining some token of esteem. Happiness may fluctuate, change, be, snatched from us, or disappear like a morning mist. Something may seem to bring happiness today, the very opposite tomorrow. What seemed to be a goose with a golden egg may prove to be a mere chimera, a shattered dream. Happiness in this world is something that everybody strives after, yet never attains.
Scripture alone knows of true happiness: happiness which is already attained by the believer, which suffers no disillusionment, which abides and endures as a “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Have you ever searched the Scriptures with a concordance at your side to discover how often the Word of God speaks of joy, happiness, peace, blessedness as the peculiar possession of the child of God? The prophets in joyful anticipation declared: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation.” Zech. 9:9. The Psalmist arouses us to join him in holy adoration, “Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye people. New be your song, as new honors ye pay.” Jesus assures us that there is happiness even in days of sore persecution: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely; for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Matthew 5:11, 12. Peter reminds us that true believers sing songs in the night, smiling through their tears in the blessed expectation of the glorious deliverance in Jesus Christ, “wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations.” I Peter 1:6. The apostle Paul urges us: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” In order to impress us with the fact that this is the only real, abiding happiness, he adds, “Again I say, rejoice!” Phil. 4:4.
True happiness in a world of sin and death is a joy that quells every sorrow, turns our night into day, our weeping into rejoicing, our misery into blessedness. It is, indeed, a joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Our Heidelberg Catechism is subjective and experiential in the sense that it is a confession of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer as drawn from the Scriptures. It speaks the truth according to the heart of Jerusalem. Our fathers who wrote this book of instruction were well founded in the Scriptures. They had studied, the Word, digested it, so that the truth was part and parcel of their souls. We marvel as we read this Catechism, how they draw treasures, new and old, out of the gold mine of God’s Word. We hear the Spirit testifying with our spirit for our own spiritual edification. We are ready to confess along with the saints of all ages, that our only comfort, in life and death, in body and soul is exactly this, that “I am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Therefore we lend a ready ear when the Catechism goes on to teach us that there is no happiness apart from that only comfort. There is no true happiness in marriage, no true happiness in our labors, no happiness in periods of rest and relaxation, no happiness at any time without Christ. Happiness is the blessed assurance that my sins are forgiven, that by the grace of God I can hate and fight sin that still wars within me, that I never face my daily cares and needs alone, but that in all my trials and temptations I have an Advocate in the heavens, Who blesses me by His Spirit in my heart. He is my Savior, my Helper in the strife, My Lord, to Whom I belong now and forever.
Three things to know . . . .
We are confronted with the question, “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?”
Happiness is often thought to be nothing more than a feeling, an uncontrollable emotion. Either we are happy or we are despondent, and actually there is very little that we can do about it. One will try to find happiness in pouring out his soul to some willing listener. Another will try to drown his sorrow in indulging in tranquilizers, liquor, drugs, or some wild revelry. Happiness is trying to forget, or trying to convince one’s self that “every day in every way we are getting better and better,” or, as the philosophy of recent date expresses it, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
We can appreciate the sober language of our book of instruction. Happiness, it tells us, is rooted in knowledge. Happiness is the strong conviction, “I know.” We must hasten to add that this knowledge is not a matter of mental gymnastics or of cold reasoning. The knowledge that is meant here is the Christian knowledge, drawn objectively from the Scriptures, subjectively from the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts. It is the knowledge of faith. We are not hiding our heads in the sand, we are not superstitiously deceiving ourselves with vain delusions, we are in no sense trying to deny reality. We boldly face each new problem of each new day with the conviction that all is well, all is well between us and God. We see life as it really is, we see ourselves in our relation to God in every situation of life, and we are content in whatsoever state we find ourselves. In that conviction of heart and mind Job could say: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Paul says: “I know Whom I have believed.” Each of them spoke from the knowledge of faith.
Three things. . . .
These three things are often briefly summed up as: Misery, deliverance, and gratitude.
Did our fathers snatch these three concepts out of the air? Are they their own inventions? If so, you or I, or someone else might invent three other things necessary for true happiness. We might decide that misery is not a pleasant thing to think about, much less to be reminded of from time to time. We might decide that those three things were relevant four hundred years ago, but no longer fit in this enlightened, scientific age. These three things which our fathers mention are drawn from the Scriptures. I turn to Psalm 116 with its keynote, “I love the Lord.” There David speaks of deep misery, of hellish pangs that gave him trouble and sorrow. He tells how he cried to the Lord, “O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.” And he concludes with the joyful acclaim, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits He has bestowed on me?” Soon I find myself engrossed inPsalm 130, where the Psalmist cried to God out of the depths of his sin and misery; the Lord heard and delivered Him; his soul learned to wait on the Lord, even as watchers watch for the morning. Many other Psalms speak in the same strain. Paul’s epistle to the Romans can readily be divided into those three sections, knowledge of our great misery, knowledge of our deliverance, and knowledge of our thankfulness to God for that deliverance.
A glance at our minor confessions shows us that these three necessary things are found there. Our Baptism Form begins with a confession that we are all conceived and born in sin, points out the riches of grace in being sanctified in Christ as members of God’s church and covenant, and our “part” in that covenant to walk in a new and holy life. Our Communion Form speaks of this triple knowledge in the section pertaining to our self-examination. Each of us must humble himself before God, must seek his salvation in Christ alone, confident that He has atoned for our sins so completely as if we ourselves had atoned; and we must show true thankfulness in our relationship to God and to one another.
Small wonder that this first Lord’s Day has always found a ready echo in the hearts of God’s saints throughout the centuries.
We are actually a bit careless when we speak merely of “misery, deliverance, and thankfulness.” As a result these three terms have at times been replaced by three others, which are supposed to express the same idea: Sin, Salvation, and Service. Taking a closer look at our Catechism we find that the emphasis does not fall upon “these three things,” but on the triple knowledge, that I know these three things. Again, even that is not entirely correct. The idea is that I know how great my sins and miseries are, that I know how I may be delivered from my sins and miseries, and that I know how I shall express my thankfulness to God for that deliverance. The emphasis does not fall upon me and my deliverance. As important as that deliverance is to me, that is not the most important thing in life. Though God were to punish me in His sore displeasure, He would still be just and good. The emphasis falls upon God. Come, hear what God has done unto my soul, how God shows mercy upon me, delivers. me, and makes it possible for me to show true thankfulness to Him for all His benefits to me. Then I do not end up with what I do in Christian service for God, as a sort of remuneration for what He has done for me, but I end up in thanking Him for the privilege of being able to show true thankfulness in deeds of gratitude before His face.
Thus we are taught to confess: “That I know how great my sins and miseries are.” The believer does not take a certain delight in probing into sin as such, no, not even into his own sinfulness. But he does know that behind all his problems lies that one great sin problem. He knows, “I am evil, born in sin; Thou desirest truth within.” He recognizes his sins in his evil desires, thoughts, words, actions, deeds. The burden of guilt weighs heavily upon him every day anew. Even his prayers and worship are still so imperfect. Yet he has a strong desire to be holy as God is holy, perfect as a son of his heavenly Father. Therefore he is compelled daily to confess his sins before the face of God in true sorrow and a hearty repentance.
No, the result is not that he becomes depressed, morose. Confessing his sins and forsaking them, he experiences the riches of God’s forgiving mercies. As he stares into the mirror of God’s Word, deeply impressed by his own vile image, he sees behind him the Christ, Whose righteousness overshadows him. He knows that God sees him in Christ, adorned from head to foot, not in his own righteousness, but in the righteousness that Christ merited for him on the cross. He experiences the blessedness of the man whose sins are forgiven, whose transgressions are covered.
The Lord puts a new song in his heart. He recognizes sin as sin, hates it and flees from it. He fears the onslaughts of Satan, is alert to fight him off whenever he approaches. He seeks his fellowship with God in prayer, and finds his companions among those who fear the Lord.
This knowledge is not like a stairway, upon which we take one step at a time, from misery, to deliverance, to gratitude. But in the measure that we know our misery, we also experience our deliverance, and thus can confess:
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, I bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits; who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases.” Psalm 103:1-3.