The Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism

When the Heidelberg Catechism first appeared in 1563, few would have guessed it was destined for greatness. Its primary author was an unknown theology teacher still in his 20s. It was designed for the congregations of just one small state in the German Empire. And it was only one of dozens of Reformed catechisms produced during the Protestant Reformation. Why, then, would this document become so widely loved and used?

The answer is not immediately obvious. After all, like most catechisms before and after it, the Heidelberg Catechism is essentially a set of questions and answers that explain the basic elements of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments.

What’s distinctive about the Heidelberg, however, is that it connects these explanations to a central theme, the theme of comfort, introduced in the catechism’s famous first question and answer:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong . . . to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

To live and die in the joy of this comfort, Q&A 2 goes on to say, I must know three things: how great my sin and misery are, how I am delivered from such sin and misery, and how I can live in gratitude to God for such deliverance.

Those subthemes form the three divisions of the Heidelberg, and the explanations of the basic elements of Christianity weave through them: I come to know my misery through the (summary of the) Ten Commandments (Q&A 3-4). I come to know my deliverance through the gospel as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (Q&A 19-58), and I am assured of that deliverance through the sacraments (Q&A 65-85). Finally, it is through the Ten Commandments (Q&A 92-115) and the Lord’s Prayer (Q&A 116-129) that I come to know ways of expressing my gratitude to God.

In short, the Heidelberg directs all the fundamentals of the Christian faith toward the comfort of the believer.

In choosing comfort as the central motif of the catechism, the authors addressed the great spiritual question of the age: Can I be sure that I am saved? The church at the time of the Reformation provided no such assurance. People were encouraged to live obedient lives, participate in the sacraments, and do works of penance, but they were told that even then they could never really be sure of their salvation.

That’s why Q&A 1 lays the groundwork for the entire catechism by asking about our ultimate comfort, or assurance, in life and death. I can be certain of my salvation because, as a believer, I belong to Jesus Christ, who “has fully paid for all my sins” and “assures me of eternal life.”

The genius of the Heidelberg, then, is that it doesn’t simply explain the basics of the faith but also applies them to people’s lives. It is pastoral as well as doctrinal.

The catechism doesn’t just ask, “What does this article of the creed mean?” but also, “How does this benefit you?” (Q&A 36, 45, 49) or “How does this comfort you?” (Q&A 52, 57, 58). It relates the commandments to real-life situations. And it doesn’t just interpret the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; it places them in paraphrase on the lips of believers.

The staying power and worldwide popularity of the Heidelberg Catechism can best be explained by this marvelous blend of doctrine and piety. Little wonder, then, that the Christian Reformed Church has always recognized it not only as a confession but as a significant tool in the teaching and preaching ministries of the church.

Web Q's
  1. Read Q&A 1. What effect have these words had on your life?
  2. The Heidelberg Catechism addressed the great spiritual question of its age (“Can I be sure that I’m saved?”). What is the great spiritual question of our age?  Does the Heidelberg address this question? How?
  3. Many people today worry about being saved. What causes this lack of assurance?
  4. How should the church use the catechism today? Why?

About the Author

Dr. Lyle D. Bierma is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich. He is a member of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids.

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