Putting a Staff in the Shepherd’s Hand Using the Heidelberg Catechism in Pastoring, Training, and Evangelism

When the editors asked me to write on the pastoral uses of the Heidelberg Catechism, I was grateful for the opportunity for two reasons. First, I love the old catechism so very much. It is a tender yet strong articulation of the biblically Reformed faith, and my use of it and appreciation for it have both grown immeasurably over the years of my ministry. Secondly, I was eager to put on paper some specific thoughts about the value of the catechism in certain target areas of the life of the Lord’s church such as pastoral work, education/training, and evangelism. First, I offer a couple of true stories to introduce my discussion of the catechism.

When the editors asked me to write on the pastoral uses of the Heidelberg Catechism, I was grateful for the opportunity for two reasons. First, I love the old catechism so very much. It is a tender yet strong articulation of the biblically Reformed faith, and my use of it and appreciation for it have both grown immeasurably over the years of my ministry. Secondly, I was eager to put on paper some specific thoughts about the value of the catechism in certain target areas of the life of the Lord’s church such as pastoral work, education/training, and evangelism. First, I offer a couple of true stories to introduce my discussion of the catechism.

“George” is a psychologist with a PhD from a state university in Texas. He is seminary trained, but his training was in a thoroughly Arminian theological school that was dispensational to boot. I met him when I was researching Christian counselors in the area. During the course of our visits together, he inquired about our church, never having heard the name Christian Reformed before. One thing led to another, and we began to talk about creeds. He was critical at first, of course, because he had been trained to be. Then I brought him a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism. A week later he called. Not only was he reading it and learning more about biblical teaching than he ever had in seminary, but he was also using it as an outline for family devotions with his wife and teenage children. It’s been many months now, and the family is still learning and growing. He still says it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

“Bob” and “Billie” came to our congregation not too long ago. Both had been very involved in discipleship ministries in a previous congregation, having been instrumental in teaching and nurturing inquirers to the faith and training new believers unto mature faith. But only recently had they themselves become Reformed. And, with a bit of theological disorientation, they were trying to grasp the depth and breadth of Reformed theology and covenant living. Every new insight brought smiles of joy, as they began to lay hold of the marvelous heritage so many Reformed believers take for granted. But when they saw the Heidelberg Catechism, first in worship, then in a booklet we gave them, they marveled. They were already devoted students of Scripture. But never had they grasped as clearly the unifying principle of all sound doctrine as when they laid hold of the Heidelberg Catechism and came face to face with Lord’s Day 1. Bob said it well: “If I’d studied this years ago when I first was saved, I would have been able to avoid so many problems. It would have saved me and some of my subsequent disciples so much confusion, sloppy thinking, and resultant sloppy living.”

I could tell you enough stories like these to provide encouraging and inspirational reading for months. I tell these two because we live in an age in which it is very easy for the people of God to take for granted their creedal heritage, an age in which Reformed believers will even say aloud that such creeds as the Heidelberg Catechism are outdated and irrelevant, and they ought to be kept in the unused back pages of the hymnal. The stories dispute that attitude. In fact, it is my contention in what follows that the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful tool Reformed people can and should use for a wide range of pastoral care and nurture within the body of Christ. By it, we can open the door for our people to know the depth and breadth and height of the scriptural truths we hold dear.

The Catechism and
Pastoral Care:

Some Specific Suggestions

Lord’s Day 1 is so rich, isn’t it? I marvel at its wisdom and depth every time I confess it anew. I find it provides such a great overview of the daily worldview of the believer that I encourage all Reformed people to commit it to memory. And it is, accordingly, very beneficial for elders and ministers in pastoral uses. First of all, consider how it serves as an unshakable foundation for pastoral care. By suggesting that the touchstone for understanding biblical doctrine rightly is comfort, Reformed churches have avoided the extremes of a faith that exhibits cold intellectualism on the one hand and pure emotionalism on the other, aiming scriptural truth directly at the heart. In the real world of sin and misery, of brokenness and failure, of hurt and pain, we confess that we are comforted by our relationship to Christ. What an encouraging truth in an increasingly secular and hostile world and a great starting point for an elder visit to an individual or family that has recently struggled with the pains of life.

Further, think of the content of the comfort we confess: that I belong totally to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Several immediate pastoral crises our churches face today are addressed in these biblically shaped words. Think first of the reductionism of religion to a corner of life that this secular world foists upon us. Here is full-blown, all-of-life faith, a totalitarian surrender of the person to the sovereign majesty of our God! Then, note that wonderful word belong. In a world infatuated with self-image and self-esteem, we confess that our very existence and purpose arise apart from ourselves in Christ. That’s a great corrective for people wrestling with such issues. Finally, notice the verb tenses: “He has fully paid for all my sins . . . has set me free.” That is wonderful stuff for the ongoing struggle of the Christian life: the desperate quest for assurance of salvation. Lord’s Day 1 opens the curtain to a wonderful biblical perspective on that issue.

Before leaving Lord’s Day 1, take a quick look at question and answer 2. Don’t miss the threefold structure established there. Now, without overemphasizing the neat alliteration we sometimes use (sin–salvation–service, guilt–grace–gratitude), please note how honest to life such a breakdown really is. This is truly the experience of everyone who believes in Christ! It’s not artificial, merely academic, or intellectual. All of us who are in Christ have come to know our sin and the resultant misery; all of us who are in Christ have found in Him all things necessary for our salvation; all of us who are in Christ understand that living the Christian life is ever and always only a response of gratitude, never a means to obtain anything. And simply by keeping the proper order, the sensitive elder will help God’s people avoid a whole host of chronic pastoral problems surrounding the issues of works-righteousness, legalism, spiritual laziness, and the like.

Lord’s Days 2 and 34

While I want to comment only very briefly on these Lord’s Days, I do want to call your attention, as elders, to the importance of being accurate on the use, or role of the law, in the life of the community of believers. I believe, with all my heart, that the error of the Pharisees is alive and well among us: we still deal with many people who are convinced that salvation is a fruit of obedience rather than the other way around. Being able to use the Catechism as a tool for the maintaining of pastoral balance—both for yourselves and for your people—is an inestimable blessing that enables us to avoid both legalism and its ugly stepsister, antinomianism.

Lord’s Day 7

The definition of faith contained in these words is most helpful to people wrestling with the vitality of their own. Additionally, it is most helpful for elders who must deal with stubborn and rebellious individuals who are under discipline, yet claim faith, and thus thrust and parry with them. Herein we’re reminded of that crucial biblical connection between faith and the Word. In other words, one cannot claim they are acting in faith if that faith makes any break with “everything God reveals in His Word.”

Lord’s Day 9–10

Can you think of a more beautiful way to assist God’s people in expressing their deep-seated trust in God’s providential care? These words are a precious confession with which you can join voices with the suffering; they are a rock-solid foundation to set beneath the fearful and timid as you seek to be an encouragement; and they are a strong corrective to those who dabble in games—and attitudes—of chance or gambling. Possible uses could include reminding or reciting these words with believers who are struggling with bitterness because of financial reverses. I love one pastor’s idea: he has questions 27–28, complete with textual support, drawn up in calligraphy (or perhaps on a computer and a laser printer), then framed and presented to every couple he unites in marriage. Hang it on the walls of your house.

Lord’s Day 12

These days, the word Christian is cheap. I watched a documentary on used car sales procedures the other night. A crook in Atlanta was pawning off lemons onto the buying public, and he knew it. But he was so sincere and convincing, in part because he told his potential pigeons that he was a “born-again Christian.” In a world like this, what a great tool Lord’s Day 12 is to shape our use of the word! A comprehensive and thoroughly biblical view of life as office, life lived under the commission and mandate of the one who is our Lord and Master. And that truth is absolutely essential to set before your high school students and college-aged young people, wrestling as they are with the overwhelming issues of vocation and career choices at the ripe old age of eighteen or so.

Of course, I could go on and on with Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, developing the pastoral/eldership uses of this wonderfully pastoral confession. Perhaps someone will commission just such a work. But for now, allow these few references to stimulate you to do your own further study and exploration. Let me reiterate my basic point: We who are Reformed believers live within a confessing community of believers to whom God has entrusted a rich faith heritage. The Heidelberg Catechism is central to it. It would be foolish for those of us who are elders not to use this tool

• as a means to help our people give articulation and daily shape to their biblically founded faith in Jesus Christ
• as a corrective to the chronic struggles of the faith long ago addressed by our spiritual ancestors
• as a pastoral tool with which to encourage faith, confidence, and comfort for people who live in a world hostile to the kingdom of God

The Catechism and Education of God’s People

In his excellent high school (and adult) catechism textbook titled Before the Face of God: A Study of the Heidelberg Catechism, Louis Praamsma summarizes well the reasons for the church to have and use creeds: (1) as a brief, concise summary of what the church believes; (2) as a refutation of all heresy; (3) as a teaching handbook for children and young people.

But is the Bible not sufficient? Certainly! The Bible has everything we need to know. The need for confessional writings can perhaps be best explained through an analogy. The Bible is much like a huge country through which we travel. It is so large, in fact, that it is useful to have a map that shows direction to the most important places.

Many faulty maps have also been made of the Bible. Each false teaching has its preaching. Confessional writings warn of these dangerous teachings. The Catechism, then, has no other purpose than to mirror the main points of Holy Scripture. These words provide a good understanding of how creeds have historically been viewed among many confessionally Reformed churches. Consequently, I don’t expect that I need to convince you that the Catechism is useful for education and training, both for children and adults. Nor do I expect that readers of The Outlook will need much of a reminder of the value of thorough indoctrination in the Catechism as a crucial means of developing faith within our youth.

However, I want to make a couple of practical points in this section. First, I want to make the observation (based on rather subjective criteria, I’ll acknowledge) that the most spiritually mature young people I’ve met are young people who know well and can formulate their faith according to the concepts and themes of the Heidelberg Catechism. Several college professors I know who teach at Christian colleges tell me the same. The freshmen who enter their Bible (or philosophy) courses who have been thoroughly trained in the Heidelberg Catechism are head-and-shoulders above the majority in both comprehension and integration of faith and life. (And contrary to popular belief, the professors and I agree that students who are well-versed in the Catechism are the rare exception, not the general rule.) These students already know the fundamental life principles of Scripture, because the Catechism is based upon them. They already know the underlying fundamentals of a Christian worldview, because the Catechism builds upon such in Lord’s Day 12. These students grasp the spiritual principle that all of life is religion, in contradistinction to modern dualism, because the Heidelberg Catechism articulates a biblical faith that is as broad as life itself. In short, the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful and hearty confession of a Calvinistic worldview.

Second, a thorough knowledge of the Heidelberg Catechism provides students with a working apologetic. That is to say, it equips the students to articulate, explain, and defend the Reformed faith over against challenges, opposition, and questions. Where I live, the Reformed faith is always on the defensive against the aggressive challenges of anti-Calvinistic Arminian dispensationalism; and biblical Christianity of any confessional formulation (and especially Calvinism) is always on the defensive against the unbelieving challenges of modern post-Christian secularism. In all my years of ministry, the only Christians I’ve known who have been genuinely effective apologists for the Reformed faith are men and women who have been thoroughly shaped by the Heidelberg Catechism or a similar Reformed creed. And by that, I mean that they have been, on the one hand, articulate and persuasive in convincing non-Reformed Christians of the biblical basis of Calvinism, and, on the other, they have been effective in explaining in a clear, concise, and unified way the biblical Christian faith to those outside of it.

Why is that? I suspect it is so because of the inner strength of the Catechism, namely, a simple reproduction of biblical basics. As you know, the Heidelberg Catechism is an extraordinarily simple document, linking explanations of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. These explain the content of saving faith, the shape of covenant living, and the focus of biblical piety, respectively. But the educational genius of the Catechism also lies in the introductory questions to these main sections. Lord’s Days 1–6 are indispensable to lay open a person’s heart prior to any discussion of real faith and what it believes. Lord’s Days 32–33 are a penetrating articulation of the whole matter of the relation between faith and works and of the nature of true conversion, both essential prerequisites to any instruction in obedience to God’s well as new converts) and as a checkpoint for elders, who must ascertain the presence of genuine faith as they open the table of the Lord to true believers. And, not to be missed is the Catechism’s insistence that genuine religion is of the heart, Calvin’s marvelous biblical emphasis that will not allow for the mere construction of a religious formalism, but lays claim to all that a man or woman is, does, thinks, feels, and says. Indeed, keeping that point central in the Catechism forces elders to keep it central as they pastor people from the heart, to the heart, for the heart.

Second, the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful tool for training new disciples. As I suggested in the previous section, I believe its comprehensive doctrinal scope, as well as its apologetic usefulness, equips new disciples to know and defend their newly confessed faith. New disciples of Christ often face inordinate challenges from their former unbelieving life—including friends, relatives, and sometimes even immediate family members. Careful training in the Catechism equips them to answer these doctrinal challenges and, at the same time, bear careful witness to these beloved people to the faith in Christ that now lives within them. I have used it to train people one-on-one. A class in the Heidelberg Catechism for adults is a high priority of our local church ministry, which has an aggressive evangelistic setting and focus. It is simply a marvelous tool!

Furthermore, the Catechism confronts head-on the main idol enthroned in the heart of every human: the self (see LD 2, Q. 5; 3, Q. 8; 5, Q. 12–14). By so doing, it serves as an effective tool to penetrate and transform people who have been locked in the loop of their own unbelieving way of thinking (note the importance of this in Romans 12:1–2).

Finally, the Catechism provides thorough grounding in the biblical basis for the doctrines confessed. And, make no mistake about this, the citations of Scripture printed as footnotes to the Catechism are crucial for those being discipled. It establishes the fact that the clear basis of doctrine is Scripture rather than the church—this particular church, this particular minister, or anything else.

Third, the Catechism provides a careful articulation of the proper place and role of the law in the life of the Christian. So many people first hear the good news of Christ with ears accustomed to hearing the legalism of counterfeit Christianity. They’ve lived their entire lives hearing how they must become better in order to get right with God. They’ve agonized, as did Luther, over the curse of God upon their sins, and even come to hate the God they view as so horribly unfair. How remarkably fresh and liberating the true gospel must sound! And to be able to point them to a carefully worked out confession that is nearly a half-millenium old is of great comfort, because it assures them that they are not, in fact, wandering from the faith (even if they’ve been in a church), but are, in fact, just now tasting the joys of life in Christ, which true believers throughout all the centuries have celebrated!

Fourth, I must say a word about teaching and learning language and hermeneutics. Those of us who grew up in Christ learned the language of Zion in our homes. That is, we learned to speak of faith, of unbelief, of sin, salvation, the gospel, conversion, justification, sanctification, the law, the means of grace, Christian piety, and prayer. For those who did not grow up in such an environment, such language must be learned somewhere else. It is, frankly, difficult to learn a coordinated and unified theology from the straight reading of Scripture. It is also difficult to read Scripture without a theological vocabulary. Learning the language of God’s Word from such a tool as the Catechism aids greatly in learning how to read the Bible. Again, learning how to approach the Bible as the Catechism approaches it and uses it aids greatly in teaching a method of reading and approaching the Bible, thus teaching a Reformed hermeneutic right from the start.

Finally, we must understand the critical role the Heidelberg Catechism plays in forming a consciousness of the church within the heart and mind of each disciple. Remember, the “church consciousness” of most North American people is thoroughly unbiblical. They view the church as optional, a human invention, a voluntary association. How spiritually invigorating it is to shape a new disciple’s faith with an understanding of the church as the living body of Jesus Christ, which He is gathering according to His Word and Spirit and equipping with His gifts to accomplish His mission on earth! The confessional material set forth in Lords Days 21 and 48, for example, develops a deep commitment to Christ in and with the local body of believers, and, at the same time, an abiding love for the church universal of which every true believer is a living member. And that’s a fresh component of the transformed mind of all who are new in Christ.

Dr. John R. Sittema
is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church (PCA) of Jacksonville, Florida.