Celebrating the Anniversary of a Catechism
Comfort for living. Comfort for dying. Comfort—this is the grand theme of the Heidelberg Catechism, whose 450th birthday we celebrate this year.
We celebrate! We celebrate the catechism known as the Heidelberg Catechism, which catechism is this year four-hundred-fifty years young.
We celebrate thankfully! Our thankfulness is to God, who as the Giver of every good and perfect gift is the Giver of the Heidelberg Catechism to His church. The truths set forth in this confession are the truths that He has revealed in His Holy Word. These truths He led the Reformers of the sixteenth century to uncover and recover from the darkness and bondage of the Romish church. They are the truths that by means of the Heidelberg Catechism’s instruction have served ever since the time of its composition for the blessing of Reformed churches the world over. They are the truths that have been handed down from one generation to the next since the time that the Heidelberg Catechism was first published. Dear as these truths were to the Reformers and the church of the Reformation, dear as they were to our forefathers for whom the Heidelberg Catechism served as an instrument for our instruction, so dear may this catechism be to our children and grandchildren—such is our fervent prayer.
Its truths are priceless—beyond compare. They are the truths by which we Reformed people live. And they are truths for which we Reformed people are willing to die. We confess these truths—from the heart. We stand by these truths at all cost. For the sake of the truths articulated in this catechism we are willing to let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Indeed, the body they may kill, but God’s truth, God’s truth as set forth in this catechism, abides still.
There are two things notable about this Reformed confession, a sparkling jewel in the treasure trove of our Reformed confessional heritage. The first notable feature is its format and structure. It is in the form of a catechism. Its format is question and answer, query and response. That format undoubtedly is related to one of the main purposes of the new catechism, according to the directive of the ruler of the Palatinate, Frederick III, the Pious. That purpose is that the catechism would serve as a tool for the instruction of the youth. The young people of Frederick’s realm, by his directive, must be instructed in the fundamental doctrines of the Reformed faith. They must be instructed from a distinctively Reformed perspective, in distinction from the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism, as well as Lutheranism. It is true that the Reformed regarded the Lutherans as fellow believers and extended to them the right hand of fellowship, at least those Reformed who were not of a radical bent. Nevertheless, the Reformed had serious differences with the Lutherans, particularly with regard to the sacraments and the proper government of the church. Frederick was determined to indoctrinate his subjects, young and old alike, in the distinctive Reformed faith. With a view to achieving this purpose, the new confession was crafted as a catechism, in question and answer form.
Comfort for Living and Dying
A second notable feature of this catechism is its theme. It is a catechism with a theme. It is not only a catechism, one among the many produced by the church in the Reformation age. But it is a catechism with a theme, an underlying theme. With that theme in mind, the questions of the Heidelberg Catechism were framed. From the viewpoint of that theme, the answers were formulated. And what is that theme? Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the Heidelberg Catechism knows what that theme is. That theme is comfort. Comfort for living. Comfort for dying. Comfort amidst all the struggles, sorrows, disappointments, and persecutions of earthly life. An only comfort. A sure comfort. A comfort in Christ. A comfort for time and for eternity. A comfort that the Christian can never lose and that can never be taken away.
Comfort—that is the grand theme of the Heidelberg Catechism. That makes this catechism unique. Like so many other of the Reformation creeds and catechisms it includes the four standard elements: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. But it treats these four elements from the viewpoint of comfort, the Christian’s comfort. The term “comfort” is found in several of the other questions and answers, beside the first question and answer: Q 2, Q 52, Q 57, and Q 58, as well as the 44th and 53rd Answers. And even when the word “comfort” is not used, the questions and answers are written with “comfort” implied.
“Comfort” is our English word. It is the translation of the German trost, the original language in which the Heidelberg Catechism was written. “Was ist dein einiger Trost im Leben und im Sterben?” The Dutch equivalent is troost. In Dutch, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is: “Wat is uw eenige troost, beide in het leven en sterven?” Our English word “comfort” comes from the Latin. It means “to strengthen” (fortis) “together with” (con or cum). To comfort is to strengthen, to reassure, to provide relief, to give consolation and support. Comfort is strength, courage, an ability to face the future no matter what the future may hold. One who is comforted is free from anxiety, worry, and fear. He is at peace, peace within himself, peace with regard to his earthly circumstances, and peace with God—perfect peace.
This is the idea, too, of the Greek New Testament word for comfort. It is a Greek word from which we derive the word “paraclete.” This is the name Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit in John 14-16. The Spirit whom Jesus would send from the Father, who would abide with the church, and lead the church into all truth is the “Comforter,” the “Paraclete.” A paraclete is literally one who is “called alongside of” in order to comfort, to encourage, and to strengthen. The idea is that the paraclete is called alongside of someone in order to be a support and a friend.
Comfort is what a friend gives to his or her friend. Comfort is a covenantal concept. As our covenant friend, God comforts us. As covenant friends mutually, we comfort one another. In the bonds of covenant relationships, like parents and children, husbands and wives, we are a comfort one to another.
We need this comfort both for living and for dying. For people living in the mid-sixteenth century, it might have been necessary to have comfort for living, we suppose. After all, death and destruction were everywhere and around every corner. The Black Death (Bubonic plague) had several times in the previous century visited many of the cities of Europe. It is estimated by some that up to 200 million people had been killed by this deadly infectious disease by the mid-sixteenth century. Other diseases could be attributed to poor sanitation, impure drinking water, poor diet. There were no antibiotics, and many people died of illnesses that today a simple regimen of antibiotics would easily cure. The infant mortality rate was very high. Many women died from complications to childbirth. War brought horrific death to millions. And many more died exceedingly painful deaths on account of persecution, particularly the persecutions of the Roman Catholic Church and its bloody Inquisition. Most people died before they reached forty; very few survived to the age of fifty.
But it is not any earthly disease or suffering that is the deepest reason on account of which we humans need comfort. The reason is in God and the wrath of God that we deserve on account of our sins. This is the teaching of Scripture. God commands His prophet in Isaiah 40:1 and 2: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”—why? Because “her iniquity is pardoned.” That implies that the great misery of God’s people is their sin unpardoned by God. Not war, not sickness, not disease, not economic woe, but our sin—this is the cause of the misery of man. For this reason, man’s comfort is the forgiveness of his sins by God. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people with the message of the forgiveness of their sins in the cross and for the sake of Jesus Christ.”
The Only Comfort in the Only Savior
This is comfort, real comfort. In the language of the first answer of Lord’s Day 1, our comfort is that our “faithful Savior Jesus Christ…with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins….” This is the gospel, the glorious good news and comfort of the gospel.
The idea of comfort is prominent in II Corinthians 1. It would have been better that the translators of the King James had consistently translated the word “comfort” throughout the first chapter of II Corinthians, rather than sometimes “comfort” and other times “consolation.” According to the Apostle Paul, God is “the God of all comfort” (v. 3). In Him alone is to be found all true and lasting comfort. He alone is “able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (v. 4). “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation (comfort) also aboundeth by Christ” (v. 5). God is the God of all comfort, but God is the God of all comfort in Jesus Christ and for the sake of Jesus Christ. For what we deserve as guilty sinners is not comfort, but misery, misery now and misery hereafter. The greatest possible misery, which is the eternal judgment and wrath of God. For Jesus’ sake, on account of His doing and dying, we are delivered from that awful misery.
This is the only comfort. Comfort cannot be found apart from Jesus Christ, the Savior. It cannot be found in any earthly thing: career, business, success, recognition, a name for oneself, money, or pleasure. It certainly cannot be found in a bottle, in pills, in giving oneself over to debauchery. Neither can it be found in anyone else. Not in self, not in one or another of the would-be saviors of the world, the leaders of the cults or of the false religions. Comfort is alone to be experienced in Jesus, through faith in Him. He alone has fully satisfied the justice and wrath of God. As He is the only Savior, so is comfort alone to be found in Him. This is the exclusiveness of the Christian gospel. This is the offense of the Christian gospel in every age.
At the same time, this is comfort, not for all people, but for some people only. It is comfort only for those who “belong unto [the] faithful Savior Jesus Christ….” Only for those who belong to Him has Jesus Christ shed “His precious blood” and “fully satisfied for all [their] sins.” That they belong to Him is due to the fact that the Father has given them to Jesus Christ. He has given them to Jesus Christ in His eternal decree of election. This is our comfort for living and for dying, that we have been chosen by God and according to electing grace have been given to Jesus Christ so that we are His and He is ours.
Thus, our comfort is that in life nothing can be against us, absolutely nothing. That does not mean that in life we are going to be spared any and all suffering. That is not our comfort, as that was not the comfort of Reformed believers in the mid-sixteenth century. They suffered; many of them suffered grievously. And so may we. But the comfort of the Christian is that “not a hair can fall from my head” apart from “the will of my heavenly Father.” That is my comfort, first of all. It is the comfort that the circumstances of my life personally, as well as everything in the universe around me, is subject to the sovereign power of God. Not “the power of the devil” but the almighty power of God reigns supreme over all things. It is the comfort that comes from knowing that even the devil, the demons of hell, and all the hosts of the ungodly are subservient to Him, so that they do His will, and fulfill His sovereign purposes.
And then, in the second place, it belongs to my comfort that the almighty God who holds in His hands the reins of the universe, is my “heavenly Father.” He loves me, for Jesus’ sake. He desires my good and never my hurt. He works in and through all things that He has ordained, so that “all things must be subservient to my [and His church’s] salvation.”
A Blessed Assurance
This is the believer’s assurance. That is implied in this first Lord’s Day, as it is implied throughout the Heidelberg Catechism. Comfort implies assurance. Comfort demands assurance. If I cannot be assured, then neither can I be comforted. And if I am comforted, that comfort rests on assurance, and cannot exist apart from assurance.
And that is a distinctive, if not the distinctive, of the Reformed faith and of the Christian religion. It is a religion of assurance. That was, at the time of the Reformation, as it is still today, a great difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed faith.
Rome denies to its people the assurance of salvation. Of necessity Rome denies the very possibility of assurance. For Rome is a religion of works and merit. And anywhere works and merit are the basis for salvation, or even a contributing part of salvation, there cannot be assurance of salvation. The man who looks to his own works and merit for a part of his salvation can never be sure that he has done enough, can never be sure that his works are sufficiently holy, and thus can never be assured of his salvation.
Rome kept her people in terror. Because Rome was and Rome is a works-based religion, assurance is necessarily an impossibility. This was Luther’s experience. And this was Rome’s official doctrine. Rome went so far as to anathematize anyone who taught the possibility of assurance of salvation.
Now it stands to reason that only one who lives in the assurance of salvation can truly be comforted, only one who lives in the assurance that God is his or her God and that he or she is God’s dear son or daughter. The first question and
answer gives expression to the believer’s assurance. “What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ….” I know that I am not my own, and I know that I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. The answer continues by affirming that Jesus Christ “with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins….” That is the Christian’s comfort. It is not merely that Jesus Christ’s death is the complete satisfaction for sin, or even for the sins of the elect. But with His precious blood He has fully satisfied for all my sins. My sins, even mine. My sins are paid for. Perfect satisfaction has been made to God for me. My heavenly Father so preserves me that not a hair can fall from my head apart from His sovereign will. At the same time, He causes all that befalls me to be subservient to my salvation. My salvation. Assurance of eternal salvation. Assurance of salvation now, and assurance of salvation hereafter. Blessed assurance!
That assurance also comes out in the 2nd question, which immediately follows. “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?” The child of God enjoys this comfort; he enjoys this comfort to such an extent that he lives and dies happily! The literal German underscores this assurance even more than our English translation. For literally the German is: “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort, mayest live and die happily?” It’s not merely a matter of “enjoying” this comfort, but it is a matter of being “in” this comfort.
Over and over again, the Heidelberg Catechism gives expression to the assurance of salvation that the believer enjoys. Think of the 32nd answer: “Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of His anointing.” Or think of the 44th answer: “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my [my] Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” Or think of the 54th answer: “that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member” of the church of Jesus Christ. That is assurance.
Comfort—my only comfort. Assurance—assurance for me, even for me. This is the gospel. This is the gospel of grace. This is the gospel recovered by the Reformation. This is the gospel whose contents are set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism.
Dr. Fred Klooster, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Our Only Comfort, suggests that the Catechism’s sense of comfort and assurance are captured if one sings Luther’s Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” replacing “fortress” in the opening stanza with comfort: “A mighty comfort is our God, a bulwark never failing.”1
A mighty comfort—this is the grand theme of the Heidelberg Catechism.
1 Fred H. Klooster, Our Only Comfort: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism