For the past 450 years the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) has served to instruct, encourage, and profoundly comfort the faith of Christian believers the world over. It is a precious jewel in the crown of Protestantism.
This sixteenth century confession has been affectionately referred to as the church’s ‘Book of Comfort’. Some have simply called it the ‘Heidelberger’.
Its opening question and answer with its Christ-centred words of grace and comfort illustrate why this confession has been so deeply cherished over the centuries.
‘Q1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
‘A. That I am not my own, but belong, both body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.
‘He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’
These words, along with the questions and answers constituting the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), were written in a dynamic historical and theological context. When Frederick III ascended the throne in Heidelberg in 1559, he became one of seven prince-electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor. More than a powerful political figure, however, Frederick was a man of deep piety and biblical conviction.
Heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s successor, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), and the Genevan Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564), the prince-elector sought to bring reformation and Christian unity to his realm.
Radical Anabaptists, stringent Lutherans, and superstitious mystics of a late-medieval Roman Catholic kind were influencing several of the parish churches. Therefore, according to Frederick, the religious landscape in the Palatinate was riddled with doctrinal error and unbiblical practice, especially concerning the Lord’s Supper.
A major part of the elector’s strategy for reformation was to commission the production of a new catechism. In the preface to the first edition of the HC, dated 19 January 1563, Frederick wrote:
‘We have had prepared and compiled in both German and Latin a concise booklet of instruction or catechism of our Christian religion, extracted from the Word of God. This was done so that in the future not only will our young people be instructed in the Christian doctrine in a godly manner and admonished in unanimity, but also so that pastors and schoolteachers themselves will have a reliable model and a solid standard as to how to approach the instruction of our young people, and so that they will not change one thing or another on a daily basis or introduce a contrary doctrine’ (ed. Willem Van T. Spijker, The church’s book of comfort; Reformation Heritage Books, 2009; p.64).
Notice the threefold purpose of the new catechism, namely, to instruct children in doctrine and piety, to guide pastors and teachers in their preaching and teaching, and to cultivate Christian unity.
Doesn’t an honest assessment of modern day evangelical churches (on both sides of the Atlantic) prove that these are the very things needed in our own time as well? Could a return to serious discipleship through catechesis benefit evangelical churches today? J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett certainly think so:
‘Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living … are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today … We think that as long as catechesis, which was the strength of Christian nurture in the past, continues to be out of fashion, these shortcomings are not likely to disappear …
‘A far reaching change of mindset is called for, without which such well-worn dictums as “American Christianity is three thousand miles wide and an inch deep” will continue, sadly, to be verified. Recovery of the educational-devotional discipline [of catechesis] cannot, to our mind, come a moment too soon’ (Grounded in the gospel: building believers the old fashioned way; Baker Books, 2010; pp.16-17).
Frederick III was deeply concerned for the spiritual condition of his kingdom. His belief was that sound biblical instruction and serious lifelong discipleship (from baptism to burial) was essential to fostering biblical reform and godliness.
The prince-elector knew that there are no short cuts to cultivating mature believers and healthy churches. In order to carry out his plan for reform, Frederick recruited two gifted young pastor theologians. Their names were Zacharius Ursinus (1534-1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587).
Having recently written two catechisms — a larger catechism for theology students and a shorter catechism for children — Ursinus was poised to serve as the primary author of the HC.
Many scholars believe that Olevianus, principal of the College of Wisdom (a Reformed seminary of sorts), served as the HC’s chief editor. Little did either of them know how popular and influential the HC would become in successive generations.
The HC is divided into three main sections, commonly summarised as ‘Guilt, grace, and gratitude’. These divisions are delineated in the HC’s Q&A 2, and display a clear gospel logic.
‘Q2. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
‘A. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.’
Like most sixteenth-century catechisms, the HC expounds upon the Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer. Within the framework of these three foundational articles of faith, the HC carefully explains mankind’s sinful condition, God’s saving grace through the person and finished work of Jesus Christ, and the life of grateful obedience to God’s commands.
The 128 questions and answers in the HC (divided into 52 Lord’s Days, for discipleship and homiletical purposes) are a feast of biblical instruction and blessed comfort to the soul.
The catechism strikes a glorious balance in being both theologically sound and pastorally sensitive. One example of this balance is found in Q&A 27 on the doctrine of divine providence.
‘Q27. What do you understand by the providence of God?
‘A. God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come not by chance but by his fatherly hand.’
Another example of its uniting doctrinal depth with pastoral care is found in the section on the Apostles’ Creed that deals with the clause, ‘He descended into hell’.
‘Q44. Why is there added, “He descended into hell?”
‘A. So that in my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell [emphasis mine].’
Personal pronouns are employed throughout the HC. They serve to build up the personal faith and assurance of God’s people. Christ not only delivers sinners (through faith) in general, he has delivered me from my sin with his precious blood.
Christianity is more than just an outward show of piety; it is a living, active and personal relationship with the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ, through faith. The HC underscores this spiritual reality on almost every page.
During my seminary days, one beloved professor used to heartily recommend certain books by saying, ‘Read this book. But if you don’t feel like reading it, read it anyway … for your family’s sake and for your congregation’s sake … for it will have a powerful impact on your ministry to them in the future!’
On this 450th anniversary of the HC, let me encourage you to read and study this marvellous, God-centred, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, gospel-saturated, faith-nourishing summary of the Christian faith.
And let us all be reminded of the importance of doctrinal instruction for our children (and congregations) through the discipline of catechetical training. All Christians need to be regularly reminded of the basics of the faith.
Evangelicalism, in general, is over-programmed and under-taught. Therefore, our churches desperately need to recall our Lord’s command to ‘make disciples’ through the faithful teaching and preaching of all that he has commanded (Matthew 28:20; Acts 20:27). The HC can serve as a wonderful tool toward this end. For most people, it is a treasure waiting to be discovered.
Jon D. Payne
The author is pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the recently published A Faith worth teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism’s enduring heritage (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).