My Only Comfort: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #1
A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Paul Fowler, told us that he thought the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism was the finest expression of the Gospel anywhere outside of Scripture itself. One of the things that has always made the Heidelberg so beloved is its very warm, personal and pastoral tone, and the first question is a great example.
The whole of the Gospel is the subject of this first question. Our only real comfort in all the circumstances in life are found in that Gospel, in the truth that by the redemption we have in the blood of Christ, we now belong to Him, are part of His family and His nation, and can live our lives in complete confidence in that truth.
Without that truth, we have a number of problems with no good solutions.
First, we live under the constant shadow of guilt. Whatever people claim, their own consciences testify to them that they are in a state of condemnation and alienation from their Creator. This simple fact explains a great deal about the destructive behavior of the human race; guilt and the fear of God’s wrath that comes from guilt drives our politics, our addictions, our tribalism, our envy and hatred of others, and a great many other problems.
Second, we live in a seemingly random, chaotic world. There is no way of knowing what the future will bring; people who work hard and make all the seemingly right choices nonetheless have terrible things happen to them; disease, war, natural disasters, terrible religious or political leaders and a hundred other things can ruin a man’s life at the drop of a hat, with no recourse.
Third, our own real inability to overcome our human nature condemns us to repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again. We are slaves to our lusts, to our ignorance, and to our weakness. Good intentions repeatedly give way to the desires of the moment. How do you protect yourself from yourself? How can you guard yourself against the desires of your own heart? All the self-help in the world won’t do you any good when at the moment of crisis, you don’t want to avoid the destructive behavior—you want to do it, so you do. Thus the misery of man is great.
Coming into the redemption of Christ solves all these problems, and the first question of the Catechism explains how it does so. First, it frees us from guilt, not by trying to hand-wave the problem away, not by minimizing it or giving me some token work to do to assuage the problem myself, but by accepting its severity and dealing with it. Such a huge problem can only be adequately satisfied by the death of the Son of God Himself on our behalf, propitiating the wrath of God against sin and offering me the benefits of that sacrifice as a free gift, so that both the wrath of God and the mercy and love of God are given their full weight.
Secondly, it then brings me under the protective umbrella of God’s providence. The world is no longer random and pointless; now a sovereign God is directing all that happens to ensure that my salvation comes to its completion. If God would give me such a tremendous gift of the sacrificial death of His own Son on my behalf, what would He withhold from me? Having invested so much in my salvation, how will He ever permit anything to rob Him of His goal? I need therefore fear nothing that happens in this life. Though there will certainly be suffering and deprivation, I can live in confidence that all of those things are part of God’s perfect plan for me.
Finally, I now have the gift of the Spirit of God. He supernaturally works on my very nature, applying the work of salvation to me, so that I am assured of its reality. He works faith in me, teaching me to trust in Christ, and that trust works every manner of benefit in me. When I trust God then I can begin turning away from all the foolish self-destructive behaviors that are borne out of fear, pride, envy and lust. I can have confidence that God will bring every good thing to me in His time. That trust also works love toward God, arising out of thankfulness for all He has done, a love that gives me a desire to please Him with my life.
The faith that connects me to Christ in this way is not simply wishful thinking, a sort of vague optimism, or even the most intensely emotional “hope-so”— it is a faith that has content, and the second question tells me what the content of saving faith is- a knowledge of sin and misery, an understanding of the way we are saved from that sin and misery, and the response of thankfulness that results. This provides the outline for the rest of the Catechism.