This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(1) Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has delivered me from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, also assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
(2) Q. How many things must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?” That’s a question everyone asks, even if they use different words. We all believe in something we think will make the world okay, something about which we say, “Take away everything from me, but not this.” That thing is what the catechism calls “comfort.”
The Only Comfort
The Heidelberg has been called, “The Book of Comfort.” “Comfort” appears in the lead question to establish “the design and substance of the catechism.”[i] The way the catechism uses “comfort” is not to be confused with synonyms like “coziness” or “convenience.” The word assumes pain, trouble, doubt, fear, weakness, sadness, and a host of other dark words. True comfort results from opposing evil with a good truth that “mitigates our grief” and equips us to “patiently endure the evil.”[ii]
Sin brought physical and spiritual death—complete misery—to God’s good world. Sinners are enslaved to the devil (2 Tim. 2:26), and dreadfully alone, suffering without reason to believe their pain fits into any grand, positive scheme. But from the very beginning God “comforted [Adam and his wife Eve], promising to give him his Son, ‘born of a woman,’ to crush the head of the serpent, and to make him blessed.”[iii] At the end, in Revelation; evil is trapped outside the holy city in which God’s children will “see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).
The comfort we need is found only in union with Christ. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:5). Believers belong to Christ—body and soul, in life and in death. We are his beloved bride bought with his precious blood (Eph. 5:25) who become with him one flesh (31–32).
Jesus’ shed blood buys us a new life. Our sins are fully paid for (Rom. 8:2). Satan and hell have lost their claim on us. God becomes the Father who loves us in ways most everyone else would never think to (Matt. 10:30). The believer’s new life with God is a transformation. Because we no longer fear judgment and love the God who has set us free, we want to do what pleases him. And Jesus’ Spirit works in us so that we can do what we now want to do.
Jesus’ life also transforms our death. True comfort must go with us as we cross that river that separates us from the only life we have ever known. As much as we don’t want to, the living do well to think about death (Eccl. 7:2). For those not trusting in Jesus, death is the burning of the bridge between us and the hope of a restored life. For Christians, death is the open door to meeting God in a whole new way.
Our Quest for Comfort
On the other side of the catechism’s first question and answer is a study of the Bible’s main themes: our misery, God’s deliverance, and our gratitude, a format that follows the book of Romans.
You Need to Know Your Guilt
If God did not intervene, you would live and die “in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). By nature no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10) and everyone is under God’s curse (Gal. 3:10). This doesn’t seem like a joyful discovery. But only knowledge of our sin puts us on the quest for comfort the way a deadly disease puts us on the hunt for a cure. And only by knowing our sin can we be grateful for our great salvation.
This truth gets perverted in some traditions where the emphasis on guilt overpowers grace and gratitude—a sure recipe for misery. As in Romans, the catechism’s first section is, appropriately, the shortest. But it is essential. Through the eyes of faith, even our spiritual sickness can lead us to joyfully trust that Christ Jesus came to save sinners like us!
You Need to Know God’s Grace
Grace tells the story of how we’re delivered from all our sins and miseries.
But this truth too can be perverted. Sometimes grace is taught without reference to guilt or gratitude so that Christianity becomes a free pass to live however you like, because grace. But you don’t truly know grace if it isn’t part of that process of purification from the guilt of sin and the freeing of its penalty. The true teaching on grace doesn’t make us lazy. It energizes us!
The second section of the catechism emphasizes the gospel as summarized by the Apostle’s Creed and symbolized by the sacraments. The spiritual life-blood of the believer is that old but beloved story of how Jesus came into God’s broken creation to be perfectly obedient and to suffer unearned grief as a substitute for sinners, and how the Spirit is applying Jesus’ healing power to those who are trusting in him.
You Need to Know How to Practice Gratitude
“Those who have believed in God” must “be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). True believers want to please the Lord. But we also have to know what works are good and how we can properly do them.
Even teaching on gratitude can be perverted. When our responsibility to obey God becomes the sum of the Christian life, love for God can give way to a resentful spirit of servility. If we forget that we are like Mark Twain’s Tom Canty—rescued from poverty and a dysfunctional family and brought into the king’s palace—we will never live like God’s adopted children. Pleasing the Lord requires ever-deepening knowledge of God’s law and prayer, which form the third part of the catechism’s study.
Fatalists focus only on human misery. Theology wonks focus only on theories of salvation. Moralists focus only on upright living. Each approach is terribly flawed. Guilt, grace, gratitude: this is balanced Christianity. Take the quest to know each part of the Christian story and find your only comfort in Christ!
[i] Ursinus, Commentary, 17.
[ii] Ursinus, Commentary, 17–18.
[iii] Belgic Confession, 17.