Care about what?
A catechism is a teaching tool using the ancient scheme of questions and answers. Over the coming year, this article series will unpack the Heidelberg Catehcism (HC), a particular catechism written in Heidelberg, Germany in 1563—less than 50 years and 400 miles from the start of the Protestant Reformation. The reforming Christians in Heidelberg went public with their faith in Christ by drafting and adopting this catechism.
It’s okay if you aren’t excited yet.
Here’s what matters: You need what the catechism teaches. Using the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer (plus some lessons on baptism and the Lord’s Supper) the HC teaches how you can live and die in the joy of eternal comfort. The Bible isn’t simply an ancient religious text. It’s a divine autobiography. It’s the story of how “the God of all comfort” fixes the horror of sin (2 Cor. 1:3). According to the catechism, you fight bad news with good news, and good news becomes more comforting the better you know it.
The HC is a systematic, theological study of the Christian faith. “Systematic” might sound negative. But knowledge of the system of biblical faith helps us better know the Bible—even the sections we haven’t yet studied verse by verse—by showing how different parts of Scripture impact particular biblical doctrines. The catechism’s author, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1586) was convinced that “A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed by every wind of doctrine.”[i] More positively, he believed that “Those who have properly studied and learned the catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate … sermons” since the catechism provides a guide to God’s word. How can a catechism do that? Here are five ways:
1. The Heidelberg uses a great educational method.
The word catechism describes what happens when a person speaks in a cave: The sound echoes back like an answer to a question. John Milton Gregory explained that one of the most important rules of teaching is to “prepare beforehand thought-provoking questions.”[ii] Not surprisingly, the Bible frequently uses the question-and-answer method. “What does the Lord require of you?” (Micah 6:8). “Who do you say that Jesus is?” (Mark 8:29). “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). In the right way, catechisms can help question what we believe and why we believe it—so that we can gain faithful answers.
2. The Heidelberg emphasizes the Bible.
The catechism is not equal with the Bible. It’s like a Bible map, a theological synopsis. But it pays unswerving homage to God’s word. Every assertion made in the catechism is built upon rigorous Scriptural exegesis to which the “proof-texts” give testimony.The catechism’s hundreds of references are like arrows pointing to places in Scripture where readers can explore the great truths of the faith.[iii] For example, question and answer 19 lists more than 25 texts to help us better understand the gospel and how it teaches about Christ our mediator.
Big-picture, the Catechism echoes the story of Scripture. When explaining the Apostles’ Creed, it begins with God and creation. Immediately after the fall, the Bible begins to unfold God’s plan of redemption in Christ. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son to rescue his people and, by his Spirit, empower the church. The church continues to march forward under the banner of Christ looking forward to the coming of the great day of restoration and eternal life.
Even the outline of the Catechism—guilt, grace, gratitude—follows the blueprint of the book of Romans. Radically depraved people need recreating grace to live as new creatures.
3. The Heidelberg teaches the doctrines of Scripture.
If we’re apprehensive about doctrine, we should remember that it’s Paul’s first stated use of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). At some point, everyone has to say something about the Bible using sentences not identical to any Bible verse. What do you believe about God, Christ, sin, the church, the sacraments, and eternal life? Thoughtful answers to those questions are doctrinal. And by its sensitivity to the wisdom of the church of all ages, the catechism helps us resist doctrinal innovation. Charles Spurgeon once said—with a bit of exaggeration—“Rest assured that there is nothing new in theology except that which is false.”[iv] Christians should applaud creativity, but not in doctrine. Doctrine is a trust—a deposit (Jude 3). By teaching essential, historic Christian theology, the catechism unites contemporary Christians with fellow-confessors around the globe and throughout the ages.
4. The Heidelberg emphasizes application.
The HC is not simply lessons to be learned but truth to be lived. Truth transforms. But sometimes we need help understanding how. The catechism answers the question, “How is this information useful?” The word “benefit” is used eight times. “How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?” (Q. 45). “How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?” (Q. 49). It’s fair to confront doctrine with the question, “So what?” The HC is prepared to answer.
5. The Heidelberg urges a personal relationship with God.
Christianity is not just a set of true beliefs; it’s even more than truths practiced well. It’s a way of life that God breathes into our body and soul. As true devotional material, the catechism aims at warming the heart as well as informing the head. Several of the answers become prayers with only minor adjustments. At once we notice the abundant use of personal pronouns answering life’s most important questions. When the party is over and you’re alone with your thoughts, what can comfort you? My only comfort in life and in death is that “I am not my own but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” (A. 1).
I love the Heidelberg Catechism. I think you will too as you get to know it. But don’t lose sight of the real goal. You don’t have to master the catechism so long as you follow its lead into a deeper relationship with Christ. When blessed by the Holy Spirit, catechism teaching kindles in our hearts a love for the God who has saved us by his boundless grace.
Join us for this year-long study so that you can more and more distrust yourself and more fully trust our Savior, Jesus. See how Jesus is not just in every page of the Bible but also is the key to the system of the Bible. Be comforted by Christ in your afflictions so you can better comfort others in theirs (2 Cor. 1:4).
[i] The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R, 1852 reprint), 16.
[ii] John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 49.
[iv] Steve Miller, C.H. Spurgeon on Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody, 2003), 105–106.
This is the first post in our new weekly series,
“Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.”