This article originally appeared in the April, 1995 issue of The Outlook.
On a Tuesday at 4 p.m., I came to the home of Larry, Pattie, Lare John, and Bailey. They were expecting me. They had been attending our church for some time. Pattie’s oldest brother and his family, her youngest brother and his family and her father had all made profession of faith in our church. Now she and her family wanted to get ready to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord in our church. They all came from the Roman Catholic Church. She said to me, “We’re going to study the Heidelberg Catechism, aren’t we?” “We surely are,” I assured her. So I came with Psalter Hymnals for each of them. Her husband looked at it and asked, “Are we going to sing?” I answered, “We can, but look in the back of the book. That’s where the Heidelberg Catechism is.”
The Heidelberg Catechism is the living legacy of Heidelberg. It is one of the greatest treasures we as Reformed Christians have. In this issue of The Outlook we will look at the uniqueness of this treasure, its history, and its pastoral use in preaching, evangelism, teaching, and counseling.
Dr. Fred H. Klooster, Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI, has given us a very fine new book entitled, A Mighty Comfort, the Christian Faith According to the Heidelberg Catechism, published by CRC Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI. As I deal with the Heidelberg Catechism thematically, I also want to give a review of Dr. Klooster’s book.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM
Its Personal Emphasis
The Heidelberg Catechism is unique among all the creeds and confessions of the Christian religion, first of all because of its intensely personal emphasis. It addresses the individual believer in its 129 questions and answers, using personal pronouns 350 times. We see this in the theme of comfort that runs throughout. Every one of the teachings of Scripture is looked at from the point of view of its benefit to the believer. For example, “How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?” (Q. 28); “How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?” (Q. 36); “What further advantage do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?” (Q. 43); “How does the resurrection of Christ benefit us?” (Q. 45). In its treatment of the Ten Commandments, the question is asked, “What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment?” We have the same for the fifth and sixth commandments. This personal emphasis makes the Heidelberg Catechism very practical and relevant to any age. This is one of the reasons it has remained the most used and beloved of the Reformed confessions. The catechism teaches “a mighty comfort.” In Dr. Klooster’s book we have an exhaustive description of comfort. Comfort means to stand in one’s place, to die one’s cursed death. This is how the death of Christ is taught in Q. 1: “He has paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.” In Q. 39, “He shouldered the curse which lay on me.” In Q. 52, I “confidently await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in my place before God and so has removed the whole curse from me.” Comfort means to stand at one’s side, even to dwell within one, to live one’s life. This is how the Heidelberg Catechism describes the work of the Holy Spirit in Q. 1: “Because I belong to him, Christ by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Q. 86 says, “ . . . we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us.” Q. 53 says, “The Holy Spirit has been given to me personally, so that, by true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his blessings, comforts me, and remains with me forever.”
Its Biblical Content
Second, the Heidelberg Catechism is unique because of its biblical content. Although its questions and answers are not generally quotations from Scripture, the answers breathe the content of the very Word of God. We see this in the word comfort described in the first question and answer. This is one of the most beautiful and complete testimonies of what it means to be a Christian found anywhere. It is full of biblical content. “I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” comes right out of 1 Corinthians 6:19–20. Every answer of the catechism is footnoted with many Bible passages that are either quoted in the answer, or the message of the text is found in the answer. The second part of the catechism is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, which covers God the Father and our creation, God the Son and our redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. These great themes are powerfully buttressed with the Word of God. The third part of the catechism includes an explanation of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
Its Unique Structure
Third, the catechism is unique because of its structure. Catechisms generally (like the Genevan Catechism and Luther’s Catechism) include the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and a section on the sacraments. The Heidelberg Catechism weaves these things into the structure of the believer’s experience of the knowledge of sin and its consequent misery, the knowledge of deliverance through the blood of Jesus Christ, and the knowledge of gratitude for such a great deliverance. (Not only is this the pattern of the believer’s experience but it is also the basic structure of the most complete doctrinal book of the New Testament, the book of Romans.) It does so in the form of questions and answers originally designed for the instruction of the youth. The three parts of the catechism can never be separated. They are, as Rev. Herman Veltkamp says in his book, Zondag’s Kinderen [Sunday’s Children], the ABCs of the Christian life. The alphabet is used in all of speech and writing; so also these three parts of the catechism are part of the whole of the Christian experience. The answers are not simply information, but as Dr. Klooster says, the answer is itself a confession of faith (p. 29).
Its Unique Christological Approach
The fourth unique aspect of the Heidelberg Catechism is its Christological approach to doctrine. We see this in the very first question and answer, where the work of the triune God is taught from Christ’s point of view. I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who has fully paid for all my sins (the work of the Son); he also watches over me so that not a hair can fall from my head (the work of the Father); he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready to serve him (the work of the Holy Spirit). The catechism stresses the fact that we cannot make a confession of God the Father and our creation without faith in Jesus Christ. Our Creator God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This guards against a general fatherhood of God and a general brotherhood of man. This also guards against the idea that what a person believes about God the Father and our creation has nothing to do with our salvation. Dr. Klooster has a very helpful appendix on the Christology of the Heidelberg Catechism. He shows how the treatment of the natures and the states of Christ in the catechism reflect the differences between the Lutheran and Roman view of the ubiquity of the body of Christ and the Calvinist view of the ascension of the body of Christ, which does not partake in the omnipresence of the divine nature of our Lord. This has particular application to the presence of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper, whether the presence is spiritual (Calvinist) or physical (Roman Catholic), or in, under, and among the elements (Lutheran). The catechism is so helpful for the people I am catechizing who are coming out of Roman Catholicism because it presents Jesus Christ as the complete Savior, who once for all paid for our sins on the cross. Q. and A. 80 of the catechism is especially helpful, as it deals with the Roman Catholic Mass, showing that it teaches that Christ is sacrificed all over again in the Mass. My friends commented to me that the re-sacrifice of Christ in the Mass is exactly what they had been taught, and now they see that it is so contrary to the clear teaching of the Word of God and robs them of comfort and eternal security. They rejoice in the discovery of the gospel of free sovereign grace.
Its Unique Emphasis on the Holy Spirit
Another unique quality of the Heidelberg Catechism is its emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Even though its treatment of the Holy Spirit is only one question and answer, the catechism can be called, as Dr. Klooster says, the “Catechism of the Holy Spirit.” The person and work of the Holy Spirit appear throughout. The articles of the Apostles’ Creed, which follow the article on the Holy Spirit, actually deal with the work of the Holy Spirit: the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. It is very interesting and helpful for the congregation and students in catechism class to see that the resurrection of the body is really the work of the Holy Spirit, similar to His work of creation (Gen. 1:2). Dr. Klooster has two very useful appendices on the Holy Spirit in the catechism, one arranged chronologically and the other arranged systematically. In the development of the biblical teaching of the church and sacraments, the work of the Holy Spirit is seen very clearly. The emphasis of the catechism is on the visible church gathered by the Son of God through the Holy Spirit and Word from the whole human race. Dr. Klooster points out a very helpful and interesting distinction in the catechism between the church (Kirche) and the community or congregation (Gemeinde). This distinction comes out clearly in the sacrament of infant baptism. Children of believers are to be baptized because they and their parents are in God’s covenant and are His people (Gemeinde) or community, congregation. But the sacrament is administered by the church (Kirche) and children are received by baptism into the Christian church (Kirche). Dr. Klooster has a very helpful appendix showing the interrelationship between the covenant, church, and kingdom in the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 127). The catechism, says Dr. Klooster, should have given more emphasis to preaching in the light of Romans 10:14–17. The sacraments receive much more attention, and this is understandable, given the day in which the catechism was written.
Its Unique Treatment of the Law
Another unique contribution of the catechism is its treatment of the law. The place of the law in the life of the believer has been a subject of controversy for many years. On the one hand there are those who look at obeying the law as the way to become right with God. On the other hand there are Antinomians who claim to be free from the law. How are we to look at the law? The Heidelberg Catechism gives us a beautifully balanced, biblical view of the law. The law is the teacher of sin (Q. and A. 3, 4, 5). Here the catechism does not give the Ten Commandments, because it would be too easy to say with the rich young ruler: “All these things have I kept from my youth.” But instead we find the summary of the law Jesus taught in Matthew 22:37–40 as the teacher of sin. Here Jesus goes to the heart of all the commandments and places us face to face with the command to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. No one can avoid the penetration of this command into the marrow of the soul and the consequent confession, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The Ten Commandments are explained and applied in the third part of the catechism as the pattern of good works that we owe to the Lord in gratitude for such a great deliverance. In Lord’s Day 32, Q. and A. 86, we have the transition between the deliverance from sin and the gratitude for such a great deliverance. The transition shows that justification by faith must be followed by sanctification. Good works are the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s heart.
Dr. Klooster makes this important point: “Christians who do not learn to distinguish good works of gratitude from good works of merit will be trapped in legalism. The line between the two is razor-thin but all-important. Understanding that there is absolutely nothing a believer can do for salvation because Christ has done it all, makes one truly free to live the life of thanks” (p. 95).
The Ten Commandments are seen as covenant righteousness that must characterize every citizen of the kingdom. Every aspect of human life is covered in the Ten Commandments. This gives the pastor a very important opportunity to address the pressing moral issues of the day. Obedience to God’s commandments is not presented as a legalistic, formal, outward conformity to a set of rules, but as the living expression of covenant faithfulness according to the standards God set already in creation. To see the commandments as the expression of gratitude reflects the teaching of the Bible where we read: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” The Reformed believer can sing: “Free from the law, O happy condition,” and mean that we are saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, not of works, because it is a gift of God. But the Reformed believer can also sing: “Oh, how love I thy law,” because it is the pattern God has given us for our happiness.
Its Unique Emphasis on Prayer
Finally, the catechism is unique in the importance it puts on prayer. Prayer is called the most important part of gratitude. It is this because by means of prayer we worship God to whom all glory belongs. By means of prayer we confess our sins and our depravity before God. By means of prayer we receive grace and the Holy Spirit unto salvation and renewal. By means of prayer we express our profound gratitude for such a great deliverance.
The Heidelberg Catechism is a priceless document. The preaching of the Word of God following the catechism according to its sequence must never be dull. In my experience of preaching “catechism sermons” for more than thirty years, I have found that the riches of Scripture are covered in a very practical way. Generally, I take the text of the catechism as the text for my sermon. I have found this to be profoundly biblical and very enriching to both me and the congregation. I have found that in evangelism, the catechism is a tool that draws people to Christ and shows what it means to be Christian.
Dr. Klooster’s book will prove to be a very valuable tool for the preacher and catechism teacher. We are living in a day in which the Heidelberg Catechism is not as familiar to the people of our churches as it ought to be or as it once was. We are indebted to Dr. Klooster for his pioneer work on the catechism. He has devoted many years to its research and exposition. He is working on a much larger treatment of the catechism that will be published later.
Other books that I have found to be helpful in dealing with the catechism from Sunday to Sunday are: Professor B. Holwerda, De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn, (Oosterbaan and LeContre: Goes, Netherlands); Rev. Herman Veltkamp, Zondag’s Kinderen (T. Weyer, Franeker, Netherlands); Rev. Herman Hoeksema, Triple Knowledge, (Reformed Free Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI); Dr. Louis Praamsma, Before the Face of God (Paideia Press, Jordan Station, Ontario).
Rev. Thomas Vanden Heuvel
served as a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, and as interim pastor in several United Reformed Churches. He also served for several years as the editor of The Outlook.