July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Heidelberg Catechism
Q.4 What does the law of God require of us?
A. Christ teaches that in a summary, Matt. 22:37-40, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.
It is so easy for us to become lost in what we know and accomplish as Christ-followers, but the scriptures always point us in the direction of love, which is exactly what Jesus did when church leaders attempted to trap Him with a question as to the greatest command. Rather than argue details, Jesus cut to the chase and took them to the heart of the commandments. He would spend the evening of His betrayal teaching His disciples to love one another. Paul would later write in beautiful prose that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13), and in 1 Timothy 1:5 he says that the goal of all sound doctrine ‘is love.’ John adds that a church can be ecclesiastically bullet proof, and yet miss the whole point – by forgetting its ‘first love’ (Revelation 2:4).
So what is our take away? It is that love was not only the motivating force behind our redemption, but the goal as well. And I have to take this as a challenge to revisit every motivation and action in my life. Is the goal love, or is it perfection, love or reputation, love or an appearance of righteousness, love or a spotless record? And what exactly am I passing on to those around me?
Q3. Whence do you know your misery?
A. Out of the law of God.
I remember a particular time in my life when the law of God did what it was always designed to do. Until then, I didn’t understand the gospel, and so I thought God’s law was given to help me know how to live a perfect sin-free life. Naturally I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but at the end of the day this is what I was thinking. Some how I had found a way to internally rationalize my ‘lesser’ sins (IE a way to manage my guilt). Then I sinned past my ability to recover (that is, I crossed my own artificial line of righteousness, and none of my contrived means of resetting my ‘perfect’ record any longer worked), and the Law that I thought I had kept until that moment, began to crush me in guilt and sadness.
It was then, when at the end of the rope and having finally acknowledged that I never really had, and never could perfectly keep the law, that I met Jesus, the one true Law-Keeper. And this changed everything.
Q2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that you in this comfort may live and die happily?
A. Three; the first, how great my sins and misery are; the second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
The fact is that the ‘good news’ makes no sense until we come to grips with the bad news, that being the reality that we are sinners. Years ago I received a long letter from a woman who was upset because she felt that all I preached about was sin. I sat on the letter, and then unfortunately forgot to respond, until a year later when I saw her at our church. After apologizing for taking so long, I thanked her for her letter and offered to talk with her about it, but she said it wasn’t necessary. She said, ‘I understand now.’
What happened in the time between? She grasped the gospel. Initially all she heard was bad news because she couldn’t get past her own shame and guilt. Then she met Jesus, and He changed everything by showing her that the truth of her past was not as great as the power of His sacrifice for her. The good news made sense of the bad, and the bad led her to find comfort in a deliverance that comes from Jesus alone.
Q1. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. 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 precious blood has fully satisfied for all me 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, wherefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three sections: ‘Sin & Misery,’ ‘Deliverance’ & ‘Gratitude.’ Interestingly, within the body of the Catechism is a study of the Apostles’ Creed as well.
Unfortunately many pulpits are marked by condemning spirits that make the good news (the Greek translation for the same word we get ‘gospel’ from) seem tawdry compared to the bad. But Heidelberg gets it right, because before launching into the misery of the fall, it takes us to the end of the story, all the way to the comfort of the gospel.
This is how all of us best respond, isn’t it? We take even the hardest doses of truth best when we know that the story ends hopefully. And immediately we see this here, because our status is entirely saturated in God’s grace. And our comfort is not determined by what we have done, but by what Jesus has done on our behalf. It was His blood and sacrifice and it is His Spirit’s testimony that preserves us in the assurance of the gospel. We are recipients of God’s grace, demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice, and continuously rehearsed by the internal assurances of the Spirit who lives within us. In a sense, the first Q&A of the Catechism is a retelling of the entire Christian experience all rolled up into Jesus and His deliverance. Now, rather constantly looking over our shoulders in fear we have been told the truth, beginning with a comfort we could never acquire apart from a God who has entered into our despair with redemption. Truly a stunning first statement.
The Heidelberg Catechism is gracious, yet solid, written chiefly by two men, one, Ursinus, a theologian, and the other, Olevianus, a lawyer-turned-pastor. Frederick III of the Palatinate, in Heidelberg, Germany, commissioned them in the latter 16th Century.
It is divided into 129 Questions and Answers. It begins with redemption, namely with our comfort in Jesus Christ, and then takes us through the Faith. Through the years I have found Westminster to be a great tool for teaching (and we’ll consider this in the future), but Heidelberg a better resource for public confession.
While Ursinus did the lion’s share of writing, it is believed that Olevianus’ experiences with the sorrows and brokenness of the people in his pastorate brought the redemptive beauty and warmth this catechism is characterized by. In doing so it marries doctrine and humanness, and makes the Faith something we can both grasp and relate to. Tomorrow, Q&A 1.