The Heidelberg Catechism is a covenantal confession. That might not be immediately obvious to all. Those who doubt it might point to the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism nowhere defines the doctrine of the covenant of grace. In fact, the Catechism does not ever discuss the covenant as a separate doctrine. And even more, the Catechism refers to the covenant in only a very few places.
Yet, the intent of this article is to demonstrate that the Heidelberg Catechism is a covenantal confession. For in the Heidelberg Catechism the truth of God’s everlasting covenant of grace is assumed. All the instruction of the Catechism is given under the presupposition that God has determined a covenant of grace. The Catechism proceeds under the assumption that God has determined not only a covenant Mediator but also a covenant people, the elect. God has determined the blessings of the covenant. And God has determined to save His covenant people and to live with them forever. Accordingly, God sent His Son (the Mediator) into the flesh to die for His covenant people. God leads His people through this life and receives them to glory. All the theology of the Heidelberg Catechism is taught with those covenantal assumptions.
The covenantal character of the Heidelberg Catechism arose out of the hearts and souls of its primary authors—Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. Both of these men were covenant theologians. They had circulated in Reformed centers and interacted with such Reformed theologians as Calvin, Beza, Bullinger, and Oecolampadius. Their training and their interest in the doctrine of the covenant are evident from their writings. Caspar Olevianus wrote a treatise on the covenant entitled The Nature of the Covenant of Grace between God and the Elect. Although it was not published until 1585, some fourteen years after the Heidelberg Catechism, it indicates his keen interest in the covenant. His catechism sermons on the Apostles’ Creed were also published originally under the title “AN EXPOSITION of the Symbol of the Apostles, or rather of the Articles of Faith. In which the chief points of the everlasting and free covenant between God and the faithful are briefly and plainly handled.”1 These sermons are replete with references to God’s covenant. A couple examples will indicate this. At one point in these sermons Olevianus discusses the theme “What the Kingdom of Christ is, and that the new covenant is administered therein.”2 Later he expounds the idea that “After that Christ the King and Priest of his Church has engendered in those whom he calls, the study of reconciling themselves unto God, he offers, and gives also unto them that same reconciliation and that in the form of a covenant, the sum whereof is contained in the articles of the faith.”3 And he expands considerably on the topic “That the covenant between God and us is free and undeserved, and stands only in faith: through which after that he has put out the remembrance of sins, he renews the believers in his own image.”4
Even more to the point, Zacharias Ursinus wrote a catechism for use in the classroom in his theology classes in Heidelberg.5 This catechism contains many questions and answers strikingly similar to those found in the Heidelberg Catechism. Although the Heidelberg Catechism has almost no references to the covenant, Ursinus’ Larger Catechism contains some 61 references to “covenant” and another 11 to “Testament.” It begins with a familiar question: “What firm comfort do you have in life and in death?” But the answer is quite different from that of the Heidelberg Catechism:
A. That I was created by God in his image for eternal life; and after I willfully lost this in Adam, God, out of infinite and free mercy, took me into his covenant of grace that he might give me by faith, righteousness and eternal life because of the obedience and death of his Son who was sent in the flesh. And that he sealed his covenant in my heart by his Spirit, who renews me in the image of God and cries out in me, “Abba,” Father, by his Word and the visible signs of this covenant. [Emphasis mine, RJD.]
Q. & A. 2 continues the theme of the covenant: “How do you know that God has established such a covenant with you? A. Because I am a true Christian.”
In this catechism, Ursinus defines the covenant (Q. 31) and describes the content of the gospel in terms of the covenant—“Q. 35 What does the gospel teach? A. It teaches what God promises us in the covenant of his grace, how we are received into it, and how we know we are in it; that is, how we are set free from sin and death and how we are certain of this deliverance.” Similarly, the Larger Catechism explains that the work of the Mediator is “to restore the covenant between God and men who rebelled against him.” And, to quote no more, in the eighty-seventh question it connects the atoning work of Christ with the covenant:
Q. What benefits come to us from the suffering and death of Christ? A. It is the one sacrifice by which he has earned our admission into the covenant of divine grace, that is, the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, righteousness, and eternal life.
Ursinus and Olevianus were Reformed theologians who were developing the doctrine of the covenant in their theology. They wrote the Heidelberg Catechism with the covenant as the theological background.
The question begs to be asked, why does the covenant appear so seldom in the Heidelberg Catechism when both these men wrote so freely of it in other documents? Briefly, the answer is, first, that the doctrine of the covenant was not developed by Luther, but by the Swiss Reformed such as Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, and Calvin over against the Anabaptists. This had significant political implications. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) determined that the ruler of a given province could determine the religion of it. However, the choices were Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Reformed was not an option. If the Heidelberg Catechism had come out explicitly as a Reformed catechism, all the other German princes—both Lutheran and Roman Catholic—could very well have joined military forces in order to compel Frederick III and the Palatinate to conform.
Second, the doctrine of the covenant was developing. Ursinus and Olevianus understood that while they were free to lecture and even preach on this doctrine, at the time the Catechism was written it was not wise to give this doctrine a prominent place in a catechism intended to instruct the youth in the basics of the Christian religion.
Third, the Heidelberg Catechism was destined to become a Reformed confession. Confessions are the fruit of the Spirit of Christ (the Spirit of truth) guiding the church into the truth. At that point, the church was not clear on the doctrine of the covenant. The Spirit therefore led the church to formulate the Heidelberg Catechism with a minimum of discussion of the covenant and in this way kept out of the creed incomplete teaching, and even serious error on this doctrine.
Thus we have seen that the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were covenantal theologians, and they clearly wrote the Catechism assuming the reality of the covenant. Further evidence for the assertion that the Catechism is a covenantal confession is in the catechism itself.
God’s covenant of grace is a relationship of love and friendship that God establishes with His elect people in Jesus Christ. That covenant is with believers and their seed in the line of continued generations. That Olevianus maintained that the covenant is with the elect is evident from the title of his treatise on the covenant. That Ursinus maintained the same is evident from Question 33 in his Larger Catechism:
Q. What is the difference between the Old and the New Testament? A. It is the same testament or covenant of God with all the elect from the first promise given in Paradise, concerning the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent, to the end of the world….
Personal and Experiential
First, then, the covenant is living with God in love and friendship. The Catechism captures that with teaching that is experiential. It is intensely personal, as is evident from the personal pronouns used throughout. “What is thy only comfort…?” (1) “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” (3)
Closely connected with that, the Catechism does not merely teach the doctrines. It presents the truth in terms of how the believer experiences those truths. Consider Q. 28. “What advantage is it to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things?” Or, Q. 43—“What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?” Again, Q. 45, “What doth the resurrection of Christ profit us?”
The covenant is a relationship between God and His covenant people. The Bible often presents the relationship with these words: “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (; , et al.]. Or, again, God is our Father, and we are His children ( ; Lord’s Prayer). And again, that God is our husband, and the church is the bride ( ; ff.). The Heidelberg Catechism indicates its covenantal foundation as it sets forth the relationships between God and His people. Jehovah is our God (4—the Lord thy God), who is also our Creator (6, 24, 26). He is our Father for Christ’s sake (26 and 120), and that Father preserves His own so that apart from His will, not a hair can fall from their heads (1). We are His children, not naturally, but by adoption (33).
The Catechism also sets forth our relationship to Jesus. He is our Mediator (36), who is also our Savior (29), and our Head (49, 50, 51, and 57). By implication, He is Lord over His brethren as the firstborn in the family of God (34).
He is also our chief Prophet and Teacher, our only High Priest, and our eternal King (31).
The Spirit is the agent of the covenant, who makes it to be a reality as He regenerates (8) and sanctifies (24), who creates faith in us, thus grafting us into Christ by the spiritual bond of faith (20, 21). He is the earnest of our salvation (49), who renews us in the image of Jesus Christ (86), and preserves and strengthens us so that we cannot be destroyed by the Devil himself (128).
The covenant is a relationship. The Heidelberg Catechism sets forth the triune (covenant) God’s relationship to His covenant people.
Two Parts of the Covenant
The covenant of God, according to the Baptism Form, has two parts, namely, what God does for us, and what God requires of us. The Heidelberg Catechism sets forth both parts of the covenant.
Already in the first Q. & A. the Catechism testifies to God’s saving work: redemption from sin, deliverance from the power of the devil, preservation, and eternal life—all ours. God provides the Mediator and Savior. God accomplishes the whole salvation. God grafts us into Christ with the living bond of faith. God promises “that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (21). Every part of salvation God accomplishes in His covenant.
And of His people He expects obedience. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (4). He commands us to trust Him and rely on Him entirely (26); to be patient in adversity and thankful in prosperity (28). As anointed, I am expected to confess His name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him: and to fight against sin and Satan in this life (32). Indeed, the whole of the law is our calling before God.
Because the Heidelberg Catechism does not treat the covenant explicitly, it does not specifically identify God’s covenant as conditional or unconditional; as being with the elect only, as being eternal. And yet, it can be demonstrated that the Heidelberg Catechism is in harmony with the covenant concept that is unconditional, eternal, one-sided, and with the elect. That the covenant foundation of the Catechism is unconditional is evident from three things especially. First, that faith is a work of God engrafting us into Christ (20). That is a work that no man can do, and thus faith cannot be a condition. Second, infants are included in the covenant (74), and they can in no way fulfill a condition in order to enter the covenant. And, third, among the existing confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism has the clearest and strongest statement on justification by faith alone, without works (59-64). Justification by faith and works is the by-product of a conditional covenant. The Catechism will have none of it.
That the covenant is an eternal relationship is perfectly in harmony with the Catechism’s emphasis on eternal life and living with God. Christ has not only redeemed us from sin, but obtained “for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life” (37). Our death is “a passage into eternal life” (42). And consider Q. & A. 58.
58 Q. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”? A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that, to praise God therein for ever.
That the covenant is with the elect alone is not stated, obviously. However, there is the usual Reformed emphasis on Christ as Mediator (of the covenant) who died to save His people, and Christ as Head who died for His own. The implication is that the covenant is made with the elect alone. In addition, church and covenant are virtually identified in 74, and the church is described as “chosen” (54).
The Catechism plainly teaches that the covenant is with believers and their seed (74). That this seed can only be the elect seed of believers, and not all children, is plain from the fact that to each of them is promised “redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith.” If this is promised to the children by the God who cannot lie, it is a promise God can and will make only to His people chosen in Christ.
Much more evidence exists in the catechism itself of its covenantal underpinnings, from the beautiful description of the covenant relation Adam and Eve had with God before the fall into sin, to the sacraments—signs and seals of God’s covenant, to the blessed covenant fellowship with our heavenly Father in and through prayer. But our allotted space is more than filled.
What a blessing is the Heidelberg Catechism to the Reformed church that embraces the doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant of grace!
1 Recently retranslated by Lyle D. Bierma and published by Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.
2 From the 1581 edition, Early English Books Online, p. 45.
3 p. 52.
4 p. 54.
5 Called the “Larger Catechism” in distinction from the “Smaller Catechism” intended for instruction of the children.