Heidelberg Catechism Sermon
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 set me free 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, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Q. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
So begins the Heidelberg Catechism, with this beautiful summary of the experience of Christian faith. Perhaps you are asking the question which begins the Catechism. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? What is my only comfort in life and in death?” It is a very contemporary and relevant question. It is one I ask myself when I turn on the news and see the latest images of political turmoil, the destruction of war in the Middle East, and the violence here at home. “What is my only comfort?” When our marriages are strained, when our children break our hearts, when a career comes to an untimely end, when the health of a loved one or our own fails, what is our only comfort?
It was an important question for the authors of our catechism. They did not write these words during an idyllic time gone by in an ivory tower. They wrote in a time of political, social, and civil unrest. They wrote in a time of persecution. The Catechism was written by a group of Christians in Germany, familiar with persecution, who were merely asking, “Let us worship in peace.” In danger of being killed for the doctrine you believed, the way you read the Scriptures, and the Church you belonged to, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
The simple answer to the Catechism draws from a vast body of Scripture for its answer. I would like to focus on one of these passages from St. John’s first epistle 3:1-10: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
Why is it a comfort “that I am not my own?” Perhaps you noticed it in the words of St. John, in v. 4, 6, 8, and 10: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness…. no one who sins has either seen him or known him…. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning…. all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” It is only a comfort to not be our own if what we are is not a comfort. The Catechism’s second question tells us one of the three things we must know to experience the comfort of the Gospel is our sin and misery. We must know who we are, but that is not a comfort on its own. Left to ourselves, we do not know our Creator or Savior from whom all good things stem. We are guilty under the Law. The Catechism will go on to tell us we have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor, that we are poisoned in nature, born in sin, and that God, the just judge, is angry with our sin. St Paul, quoting the Psalms, tells us in Romans 3:10, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
It is important to recognize that the Scriptures and the Catechism do not speak of our sin out of pure anger. They speak of a God who hates sin because it destroys those whom He created in His image. They do not sugarcoat the matter. Our situation is desperate. They are honest with us so that they might prescribe the cure. For those of us who profess Christ, they do not encourage us to beat ourselves up all over again, but so that we might know our comfort. One student and teacher of the Catechism, Fred Klooster, says, “Teaching us what sin is, the law also points us to Christ, the Savior. And it is the comforted believer who makes this confession.” Now that we know what we are saved from, we must know how we are saved.
Our Catechism answer says, “I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Our passage from St. John continually reminds us that we are “children of God.” How do we belong to Him? How have we been made His children? “He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free 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.” St. John says, “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” How Jesus’ death dealt with our sin is a matter called “the atonement.” St. Paul will spend many pages in Scripture working out the language of the atonement. The Catechism devotes 17 Q&A’s to teaching what St. Paul taught. And they only emphasize one particular aspect of his atonement language. Countless sermons could be and have been preached on this subject alone. For our bird’s eye view today, it does not so much matter how He did it, but that He did it. In Christ’s death, the sin we are guilty of, the sin that keeps us from being all we were created to be, was paid for by Christ. It has been dealt with in such a way that Christ from the cross can say, “It is finished.”
Not only has He paid for the sin we have done, but He has set us free from sin itself. It does not define who we are any longer. It does not rule over us. St. Paul works out this language beautifully in Romans 6:6-7: “We know that our old-self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” St. John’s words for us are more emphatic: “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure…. No one who abides in him sins…. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous…. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God…. all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
We should stay in these words for a moment as they seem to suggest a tension between St. John and St. Paul. In verse 9, St. John says, “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” St. Paul, on the other hand, says in Romans 7, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” If these were actually in competition, the Catechism would certainly take St. Paul’s side in Q&A 114: “But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly? No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.” So what do we do with the words of St. John?
While completely solving this dilemma is beyond the scope of this solitary sermon, perhaps the comments of John Calvin will suffice: “The hearts of the godly are so effectually governed by the Spirit of God, that through an inflexible disposition they follow His guidance….John…not only shows that we cannot sin, but also that the power of the Spirit is so effectual, that it necessarily retains us in continual obedience to righteousness.” Perhaps St. John’s words are best seen as indicating the finished work of the Spirit. While the experience of St. Paul indicates this is not an instantaneous work, but is an ongoing process and struggle, it is the final and guaranteed work of the Spirit to remove the very ability to sin from us.
Because of this removal of sin accomplished in Christ, we are “children of God” and may call Him our Father. This loving Father shows such care to us that not a hair from our heads may fall without His will. Christ tells us in Matthew 6 that with a Father like this, we need not worry about anything. He shall surely give us our daily bread.
What should we then do? How should we live in light of this deliverance? The Catechism tells us, “I am to thank God for such deliverance.” We live lives of gratitude before our loving Father. St. John has told us we live like our Father. We obey Him, purify ourselves, and live righteous lives, not to make Him love us, but because He loves us. We do not obey begrudgingly, but He “makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Another student and teacher of the Catechism, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. says, “The Reformed Christian is faced not with some pinched and meager existence as a misfit in the world. Rather, in obedience to God, he takes a wholehearted joy and a hearty delight in doing good works. There is to be an openness, a healthiness, a heartiness about the activist life to which our gratitude stimulates us. We are to see before us the whole range of modern life as a field in which we are called to make visible God’s sovereignty and to make viable His justice. Of this godliness we are to be agents, witnesses, and models.”
In a world of chaos, suffering, and death, what is our comfort? It is that we do not have to rely on things that do not comfort, but rather destroy. We may turn from sin to life. Rather than trusting in the weakness of ourselves, we trust in Jesus Christ, who has freed us from sin and given us new life. He has made us children of God who cares for all our needs. When the world around us seems out of control, we know Christ has paved the way to our loving Father who holds our lives in His hands and will not let us fall. Because of our adoption, we can delight in what is good and act like our loving Father. Our very faces shine with the love of Jesus to a world which desperately wishes to know His comfort.