Horton The Christian FaithWe Christians tend to think much of the incarnation of Christ around Christmas, and the Lord’s death and resurrection at Easter, but many of us neglect to give much thought to the importance of our Savior’s ascension to the right hand of God the Father almighty. Of the churches that observe a liturgical calendar of some sort, Ascension day (or Ascension Sunday) is often overlooked.

The ascension of Christ is easily one of the most neglected truths of the Christian faith. (And that is saying something!) In his book, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton writes,

“Given the place of the ascension in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles), it is surprising that it plays a relatively minor role in the faith and practice of the church. Though affirmed, it does not seem to occupy the same status as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.” (p.533)

We as believers should esteem the ascension of our Lord Jesus much more highly than we do – even as highly as His incarnation, death, and resurrection. For Christ’s ascension plays every bit as important a part in the accomplishment of our salvation as His incarnation, death, and resurrection does.

Not only is the historical fact of His ascension recorded for us in the Gospels (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53) and in the book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11), but references to it are found throughout the rest of the New Testament as well.

A simple search of passages in the New Testament that speak of Christ being exalted to ‘the right hand of God’ comes up with nearly two dozen instances. A number of those quote from Psalm 110:1, which says, “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”).

The book of Acts, for example, refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly. You could go so far as to say that Acts cannot be properly understood apart from it. The book of Acts is often referred to as “The Acts of the Apostles,” but it might be even more appropriate to call it “The Acts of the Risen and Ascended Christ.” Luke (the writer of Acts) strongly implies that this is the true subject matter when he writes in the opening verse of the book,

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,” (Acts 1:1, ESV)

The clear implication there is that the Gospel of Luke was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (italics added), and the book of Acts is about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach through His Apostles and His church!

The book of Hebrews also refers to Christ’s ascension numerous times. One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that Christ is even now reigning over all things for His church and will return in glory to judge the living & the dead.

The Apostle Paul also refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly in his letters. For example, in the book of Ephesians, he points us to it no less than three (3) times. Paul both affirms the truth of this essential Christian doctrine and applies it to us as believers. Clearly it is intended to make a difference in our lives.

This is also what Paul is doing in Colossians 3:1-4. In v.1 he says, “If then you have been raised with Christ . . . .” Now it is clear from the rest of the passage that he is not just talking about the resurrection of Christ, but His ascension as well.

Why are we to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (v.1)? Why are we to ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (v.2)? Paul tells us in v.3-4, where he writes,

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

It is our union with Christ and its implications for our lives as Christians that we must learn to keep in mind. We set our minds on Christ because in Him we have died. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20,

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our life – our real life – is not of this world, but is of heaven. Our real life is “hidden with Christ in God” (v.3). And so we must think of and set our minds on the things of heaven, and on Christ Himself, who is our righteousness, our sanctification, and even our glorification.

Not only is our life hidden with Christ for now, but in v.4 Paul says, “When Christ who is your life appears . . . .” It is when Christ comes in glory, that we shall appear with Him in glory!

Just as Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our own future glorious resurrection, even so His exaltation in heaven at God’s right hand is the guarantee of our future hope of heaven and glorification! So we as believers in Christ are to seek to become more and more, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, what we already are in Christ.

This shows the wisdom of the writer of the Heidelberg Catechism in its treatment of the ascension of Christ. It contains no less than six (6) questions dealing with the ascension and session (or reign) of Christ! And one of them says the following:

Q.49. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us? A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.

The catechism lists three (3) ways that Christ’s ascension benefits us as believers. First, having ascended to heaven and being seated at the right hand of God, Christ is now “our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.”

This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 8:33-34, where he writes,

“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (ESV)

Notice how in the above passage in Romans, the Apostle Paul links not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also His ascension, to the unshakable nature of our justification! Not only are we justified because Christ died for us and rose from the dead, but also because He ascended, is now seated at God’s right hand, and is interceding for us!

Who can possibly condemn us when Christ Himself is our advocate, and is interceding for us?

We find the same thing spoken of in Hebrews 7:25, where it says,

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)

If you are a believer, you have all that you need in Christ. In Him you have justification, righteousness, sanctification, and even glorification! You have all of those things as surely as Christ died for your sins, is now risen from the dead, ascended, and seated at the right hand of God!

The second benefit that believers have because of Christ’s ascension is that “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.” Christ is our pledge (or guarantee) of heaven. Because Christ who is our own flesh is there, we can be certain that we too will dwell there with Him as well.

And the third benefit is that Christ “sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.” The Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ by faith, is the “corresponding pledge” or guarantee of all that we possess in Jesus Christ,

The Heidelberg Catechism here reminds us that because of Christ’s ascension we now have a pledge of heaven in  heaven (Christ Himself) and a pledge of heaven with us on earth as well (the indwelling Holy Spirit). God has graciously given us a double-guarantee of all that we have in Christ!

It is because of all of these things that we are not to set our minds on earthly things, but on heaven, where Christ who is our life is, and on the glory that is to be revealed in us when He returns. We are to seek to become what we are (and will be) in Christ until that day!


Marriage and the 7th Commandment

In the previous post in this series going through the ten commandments, we began to look at the 7th commandment, which simply says, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14, ESV)

We saw last time from the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), that Jesus taught that this commandment forbids not only the outward act of adultery, but even the inward disposition of lust in the heart as well. To look at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:28).

But God’s commandment against adultery also shows us something about the importance and sanctity of marriage, something which by any objective standard has fallen on hard times in our day.

Despite what you may have heard, God is not ant-sex. The Bible is not anti-sex. Christianity is not anti-sex. But sex is intended solely for within the confines of marriage, between a husband and a wife alone.

God instituted marriage all the way back in the garden of Eden in Genesis chapter 2. There in paradise, before the Fall of mankind into sin when Adam ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3), God saw that everything that He had made was good . . .except one thing.

Man was alone.

In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (ESV) And so who was this “helper” suitable for Adam that God made? It was Eve, his wife. In Genesis 2:24 we read of God instituting the creation ordinance of marriage, saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (ESV)

That is God’s purpose and design for marriage. And the 7th commandment is given in order to safeguard it.

Why does God take marriage so seriously? Any number of things could be said in answer to that question. One could point to the many societal ills and the damage that is done by sexual immorality and divorce. The breakdown of the family has taken a truly staggering toll on our society.

But there is also another answer to that question that you might not have considered: Marriage is a picture of the gospel of Christ!

In Ephesians 5:21-33 the Apostle Paul has a lot to say about God’s design for marriage. (Space will not permit me to go into detail at this time.) And he bases everything that he has to say about marriage on Genesis chapter 2 (i.e. God’s original instituting of marriage).

But in v.32 he says something remarkable – he sums up everything that he says about husbands and wives by saying, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (ESV, italics added)

In his commentary on the book of Ephesians, James Boice writes,

“When God created marriage it was not simply that God considered marriage to be a good idea, though it certainly is that, or even because God thought it would be a good way to have and rear children. God created marriage to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.” (p.180)

Simply put, marriage between a husband and wife is a picture of the relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and His church (i.e. His redeemed people). No wonder God takes marriage (and the sin of adultery which violates it) so seriously! And no wonder we should do so as well!

Adultery and the Seventh Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn our series of brief studies going through the ten commandments we now come to the seventh commandment, which says,

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14, KJV)

This commandment (like the rest of the ten commandments) is what I like to call an “umbrella category.” What I mean by that term is that this commandment represents a particular category of sins or transgressions, and so there are many different ways that a person can break it.

The seventh commandment, simply put, forbids sexual immorality of all kinds.

In the sermon on the mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) the Lord Jesus put it this way:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28, ESV)

Here Jesus teaches us the proper understanding of the seventh commandment. And in doing so He makes it clear that this commandment forbids not just sinful actions, but also sinful thoughts and desires as well! A person can be outwardly chaste, and yet inwardly still be guilty of adultery. And so it is not just sexually immoral actions that are to be avoided and repented of, but also sexually immoral words and thoughts as well.

This commandment against sexual immorality is worded in terms of the particular form of sexual sin that in some ways is the most heinous and serious version of it – adultery.

What makes adultery so serious a sin before God? Adultery, properly-speaking, is not just sexual immorality (as serious as that is), but is also theft (and so a transgression of the 8th commandment as well). Thomas Watson writes,

“It [adultery] is a thievish sin. It is the highest form of theft. The adulterer steals from his neighbor that which is more than his goods and estate; he steals away his wife from him, who is flesh of his flesh.” (The Ten Commandments, p.155)

It is also a violation of the marriage covenant, and so the breaking of one’s vows, and bearing false witness before God and man (and so also a violation of the 9th commandment). Clearly there is a great deal of overlap between the commandments, and in breaking one of them, we often tend to break others as well.

I’m tempted to say that this commandment is the most-neglected and most commonly broken of all of the ten commandments in our day, even among professing believers in Christ. (In all likelihood that dubious distinction probably belongs to either the 2nd or 4th commandments.)

Whatever the case, the seventh commandment is disregarded, redefined, and transgressed among many professing Christians to such a degree that there no longer seems to be much of a difference or distinction between the church and the unbelieving world around her.

This simply should not be so.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:3 Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” He said that, not because sexual morality is the end-all, be-all of the Christian life, but because in a debauched culture, abstaining from sexual immorality is one of the primary distinguishing marks that set believers apart from the world around us.

That is as true in our day as it has ever been. Abstaining from sexual immorality is still very much the will of God for His redeemed people, and it is still our “sanctification,” something that sets us apart from the world.

May the Lord grant revival and repentance to many, starting with those of us who profess to know Christ, so that we might follow the will of God in these things. And may He grant repentance, faith, and forgiveness to many who have committed sexual immorality, that they might know peace with God, and begin to follow His will in these things.


The Benefits of Christ’s Resurrection (Heidelberg Catechism Q.45)

Every Easter Sunday Christians all around the world turn their attention to what the Scriptures say about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with good reason. Without the resurrection of Christ on the third day, there really is no Christianity.

In 1 Corinthians 15:17 Paul goes so far as to say, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”(ESV)  Faith in a dead Savior is useless because a dead Savior is no savior at all, and saves no one!

At Easter we often spend time thinking about the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ, which is a good thing – Paul says that it is one of the truths of the Christian faith that is “of first importance” (v.3-4). The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ are essential to the gospel itself.

In his book, Christianity & Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen wrote the following:

“What was it that within a few days transformed a band of mourners into the spiritual conquerors of the world? It was not the memory of Jesus’ life; it was not the inspiration which came from past contact with Him. But it was the message, “He is risen.”” (p.42)

It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the resurrection of Christ.

But have you ever wondered how Christ’s resurrection actually benefits you as a believer in Christ? The Scriptures actually have quite a bit to say about that too. One of the best examples of this is found in Romans 4:25 where Paul says that Christ was “raised for our justification.” (ESV)

What does this mean? What does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have to do with the justification of believers? And what else does the resurrection of Christ mean for us as believers? 

The Heidelberg Catechism has a really helpful question and answer on the resurrection of Christ in its section going through the Apostles’ Creed:

“Q.45. How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us? A. First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, so that He might make us partakers of that righteousness which He had purchased for us by His death; secondly, we are also by His power raised up to a new life; and lastly, the resurrection of Christ is a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.”

Partakers of Christ’s Righteousness – Justification

What is the first benefit that we as believers in Christ enjoy by God’s grace because of the resurrection of our Savior? It is because of Christ’s resurrection that we are made “partakers of that righteousness” of Christ that “He purchased for us by His death.”

In other words, in some sense we are justified because of Christ’s resurrection.

And isn’t that what Paul says here in Romans 4:25? For there he tells us that Christ “was raised for our justification.” No less a theologian than Charles Hodge (1797-1878) calls this verse, “a comprehensive statement of the gospel” (Romans [Geneva Series of Commentaries], p.129).

Now Paul is not saying that it was Christ’s resurrection on the third day that atoned for our sins – that is properly said only of His sufferings and death on the cross.

So why (or in what sense) does Paul link Christ’s resurrection from the dead to our being justified in Him, and so having all of our sins forgiven and being accepted by God as righteous in His sight?

Hodge himself offers two (2) reasons: First, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was just as necessary as for our justification as His death was, because it was the “proof that His death had been accepted as an expiation for our sins.”

In other words, Christ’s resurrection was the proof that the penalty for or sins was paid in full, and that Christ’s atonement had been accepted by God as the payment for our sins. Christ was “raised for [or because ofdia] our justification.”

The second reason is that Christ’s resurrection was “in order to secure the continued application of the merits of his sacrifice . . . .” In other words, no resurrection would also mean no ascension, and no ascension of Christ to the right hand of God the Father Almighty would then mean no intercession of Christ for us!

Most of us probably do not fully appreciate the importance of these things. We think of Christ’s death, but don’t give much thought to Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of God. But Hebrews 7:25 says,

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)

Why is the Lord Jesus “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him”? Precisely because “he always lives to make intercession for them.” Christ’s resurrection and ascension are vital to His intercession, which is vital to both the application of the benefits of His redemption to believers, even to our perseverance (or preservation) in the faith!

And so Christ’s resurrection on the third day is just as important to our justification in Him as is His atoning death on the cross. There is no justification for sinners without the resurrection of Christ!

Raised with Christ to New Life– Sanctification

The second way that Christ’s resurrection benefits us as believers is that by it “we are also by His power raised up to a new life” (HC Q/A 45). The Scriptures clearly link Christ’s resurrection from the dead to our new life in Christ.

In other words, in some sense we are sanctified because of Christ’s resurrection.

Is that not precisely what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6:1-4? There he writes,

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (ESV)

Baptism is the sign and seal of union with Christ; being united to Christ by faith into both His death and into His resurrection. And that means that our new life in Christ (both regeneration and the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives in sanctification) is a part of sharing in the resurrection power of Christ!

Paul goes on to spell this out for us in the very next verse. In Romans 6:5 he writes,

“For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (NASB).

This is why Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians 1:19–20 that he prayed that believers might know:

“ . . .what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” (ESV, Italics added)

See how often the Scriptures link Christ’s resurrection to the power of God at work in us as believers! In fact, if you read through the book of Romans (Paul’s magnum opus on the gospel of Christ), you may be surprised to find just how often Paul brings up the resurrection of Jesus Christ – it is practically throughout the letter!

  • In Romans 1:4 he tells us that Christ was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead . . . .” (ESV)
  • In Romans 4:25 he tells us that Christ was “raised for our justification.” (ESV)
  • In Romans 6:4 he tells us that we were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (ESV)
  • And finally, in Romans 8:11 he tells us that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (ESV) In other words, the resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of our own future resurrection in glory!

Clearly the resurrection of Jesus Christ really is one of the things that is “of first importance” to Paul’s preaching and teaching of the gospel.

A Sure Pledge of Our Own Blessed Resurrection– Glorification

And that leads us to the third way that the resurrection of Christ benefits us as believers that the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us of in Q/A 45, that it is “a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.” As the old hymn puts it, “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.”

Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection in glory!

If you are a Christian, does that not bring you great comfort? Does that not give you real hope for the future?

In 1 Corinthians 15:20–23 Paul writes,

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (ESV)

Christ’s resurrection was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection of all His people. The idea of “firstfruits” is a farming term of sorts. To offer the firstfruits of your harvest to God is to trust that the rest is sure to come. As Proverbs 3:9–10 says,

“Honor the LORD with your wealth

and with the firstfruits of all your produce;

then your barns will be filled with plenty,

and your vats will be bursting with wine.” (ESV)

The firstfruits is connected to the rest of the harvest, and is the sign and pledge of it! In the same way, our Lord Jesus’s blessed resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection in glory!

And notice what else Paul says about the sure hope of the resurrection there in that passage at the end of the chapter. In 1 Corinthians 15:51–58 he writes,

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (ESV)

The sure hope of the resurrection is rooted in Christ’s own glorious resurrection, and it is because of that sure hope that we can “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v.58).

The resurrection means our labor is not in vain. If by faith in Christ we labor for the cause of Christ, we will not be disappointed.

So let the resurrection of Christ that we celebrate every Easter (and really every Sunday!) cause you to “abound in the work of the Lord,” for He is risen indeed!

And so our salvation in Christ – past (justification), present (sanctification), and future (glorification) – are all connected not only to the death of Christ Jesus, but also to His blessed resurrection as well!

O how many benefits and blessings we share in because of Christ’s resurrection!

He is risen. He is risen indeed! – Amen

The Heidelberg Catechism – Lord’s Day #2 (Q.3-5)

In the previous question (Q.2) we were told that there are three (3) things that we need to know in order to live and die in the joy of our comfort in Christ. (Those three things essentially form the outline or structure of the Heidelberg Catechism.) The first of these things that we must know is the greatness of our sin and misery.

The catechism’s treatment of the subject of our sin and misery is found in Q.3-11. This is easily the shortest of the three sections in the catechism. In his book, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin Deyoung writes,

“Compared with the amount of time spent on other topics, the Heidelberg Catechism does not spend a lot of time on human depravity. The grace section of the catechism [Q.12-85] covers twenty-seven Lord’s days and seventy-four Questions and Answers. The gratitude section [Q.86-129] is only a little shorter, covering twenty-one Lord’s days and forty-four Questions and Answers. The guilt section [Q.3-11] is by far the shortest with only three Lord’s days and nine Questions and Answers. The authors of the Catechism wanted Heidelberg to be an instrument of comfort, not condemnation.” (p.25)

But don’t let the brevity of this section fool you. Without a right understanding of the greatness of our sin and misery we can never really understand the greatness of God’s grace in the gospel of Christ.

In his 2-volume set of lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, Guilt, Grace and Gratitude, George W. Bethune writes,

“To understand and appreciate the salvation by Christ, it is necessary that we should know our misery, its source, its extent, and our utter dependence upon divine grace through Christ for pardon, favor, a new life, and immortal happiness.” (p.31-32)

If we don’t first understand the bad news of our sin and misery outside of Christ, how will we ever rightly appreciate just how good the good news of Christ really is? That is why the catechism begins where it does, with a brief explanation of our sin and misery.

The questions for Lord’s day #2 (Questions 3-5) of the Heidelberg Catechism begin to unfold for us what the Bible teaches about the greatness of our sin and misery outside of Christ.

The Necessity of the Law of God

The first thing that the catechism teaches us in this section is the necessity of the law of God in revealing our sin and misery to us. It says,

Q.3. How do you come to know your misery? A. The law of God tells me.

The Word of God clearly teaches us that it is the law of God that reveals our sin and misery to us. In Romans 3:19-20 the Apostle Paul writes,

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)

“Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (v.20). We can only truly perceive the depth of our sin and misery in light of the law of God. It is there that we find the true standard of righteousness by which sinners must be judged.

And in making us aware of our sin and misery, the law of God then also reveals our need for the Savior. Theologians often refer to this as the pedagogical use of God’s law – the use wherein the law drives us to Christ for salvation from our sins.

The Requirements of the Law of God – Love for God and Neighbor

The next thing that the Heidelberg Catechism does is sum up what the law of God requires of us:

Q.4. What does God’s law require of us? A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

It is interesting that Ursinus (the author) chose this passage from Matthew’s Gospel rather than the text of the ten commandments (i.e. Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) in order to show us the requirements of God’s law. The catechism actually includes a somewhat lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the very last section (the gratitude section). And so we see that not only does the law of God show us our sins and so drive us to Christ for salvation from our sins, but it also shows us how we are to live and show our gratitude to God after we come to Christ by faith for salvation!

This summary of the law of God found in the great commandment shows us the futility of mere morality, because it shows us the true nature of the kind of obedience that God requires of us, as well as the only right motive of such obedience.

Many people might fool themselves into thinking that they have obeyed God’s commandments simply because they have not outwardly committed the acts of murder or of adultery. But the Lord Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) and in the great commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) that true obedience must extend to the heart, and must also and come from a heart of love to God and our neighbor.

The Depravity and Inability of Man

Not only does the law of God reveal our sin and misery to us, but it also shows us just how far we fall short of obedience to God. Not only do we not love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, but we actually have a marked tendency to do the opposite! In Q.5 we see not just our sin and guilt, but our depravity outside of Christ as well:

Q.5. Can you live up to all this perfectly? A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor

The problem is not with the law (Romans 7:12), but rather with us. We are utterly unable (and unwilling) to keep it. And not only do we fail to keep it, but we actually “have a natural tendency” to do the very opposite of what the law requires – we not only fail to love God and love our neighbor, but we actually tend to hate God and hate our neighbor!

In Ephesians 2:1-3 the Apostle Paul puts it this way:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (ESV)

Here we see the utter helplessness and hopelessness of our condition outside of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And because of this, we also can begin to see a better glimpse of the greatness of the salvation that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ.

In the questions and answers for the following Lord’s day (Q.6-8) the catechism addresses the topic that most naturally follows upon these things – how did mankind come to be in this condition of sin and misery? It doesn’t take long to see the logical progression of thought in the way the Heidelberg lays out its case for the gospel of Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism Q.2 – Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude

The Outline of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is outlined or structured around three (3) headings of doctrine. These essential doctrines of the Christian faith and life are often summarized by the terms Guilt (Q.3-11), Grace (Q.12-85), and Gratitude (Q.86-129).

This outline (although not employing these exact terms) is made explicit in Q.2:

Q.2. 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.

G.I. Williamson goes so far as to state that here in Q/A #2 of the Heidelberg, “we have a comprehensive outline of the whole catechism” (The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide, p.7).

Guilt refers to our “sin and misery” outside of Christ; Grace refers to how we are set free from our sin and misery through faith in Christ; and Gratitude refers to how we are to thank God for our great salvation that we have by His grace in Christ.

This outline simply echoes the same basic outline or structure of the gospel itself, as found in the book of Romans (Paul’s magnum opus on the gospel). The book of Romans can also be broadly outlined by guilt – our sin and misery (Romans chapters 1-3); grace – being set free from our sin and misery through Christ (Romans chapters 4-11); and gratitude – how to thank God for His grace (Romans chapters 12-16).

Guilt – The Greatness of Our Sin and Misery

The first thing that we need to know in order to live and die in our only comfort in Christ is the greatness of our sin and misery. You might wonder why that necessary for us to know. The truth about the greatness of our sin and misery is certainly unpleasant to consider, and has never been a popular message. But without a right understanding of these things, how can anyone even begin to rightly understand the gospel itself?

In truth, we cannot begin to appreciate the greatness of God’s grace in the gospel of Christ, unless we first have a clear understanding of just what it is that the Lord Jesus Christ came to save us from in the first place. And so to try to take a shortcut in our gospel preaching by avoiding the law (with its testimony to our depravity and sin, and the just judgment of a holy God), is really to undermine both the gospel message itself, as well as the only true comfort any sinner can ever have in life and in death.

Questions 3-11 of the Heidelberg Catechism deal with our sin and misery in some detail, teaching us that the law reveals our sin and misery to us (Q.3-5; Romans 3:20); the creation and the Fall of mankind (Q.6-8; Genesis 1-3); and the perfect holiness, justice, and wrath of God against sinners (Q.9-11; Romans 1:17; 6:23).

Grace – The Way to Be Set Free from Our Sin and Misery

Not only must we know the greatness of our sin and misery, but we must also know the way to be set free from our sin and misery, in order that we might live and die in the comfort of our salvation. This section of the catechism (Q.12-85) basically deals with the Christian faith (i.e. what we are to believe).

In other words, we need a thorough understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

In explaining the way of salvation to us the Heidelberg goes into great deal about Christ as our Redeemer and His work of atonement for our sin (Q.12-19), the nature of saving faith in Christ (Q.20-21), and what we are to believe, consisting in a lengthy exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (Q.22-58), and the Sacraments (Q.65-82).

How different this is from the minimalist mindset of many in the church today, who view doctrine as unnecessary, or even as divisive or detrimental. Simply put, doctrine matters. And the choice is not simply between having doctrine or not having doctrine, but rather between having true doctrine (and so having a right understanding of the gospel) or having false doctrine.

No wonder the Heidelberg Catechism spends so much time teaching us about the way of salvation in Christ.

Gratitude – How We Are to Thank God for So Great a Salvation

Lastly, we must also know how to thank God for delivering us from our sin and misery through the gospel of Christ in order to live and die in the comfort of our salvation. This section of the catechism (Q.86-129) basically deals with the Christian life (i.e. how we are to live).

These things basically consist in good works, obedience to God’s commandments, and prayer. It may surprise some to see that the author of the catechism (Ursinus) chose this section of the catechism (the “gratitude” section) rather than the first section section (the section on our guilt) as the place to expound upon the ten commandments in detail (Q.91-115).

This is in keeping with the teachings of John Calvin, who taught that the use of the law as our rule for life (often referred to as the third use of the law) is the “principal use” of the law for the Christian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.12).

It is also in this section where the Lord’s Prayer is taught in detail (Q.116-129) Q.116 goes so far as to call prayer “the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.” No wonder the Scriptures so often associate thankfulness with prayer (e.g. Philippians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

And so Q/A #2 of the Heidelberg provides us with a road map of sorts, showing us where we are in our studies throughout the rest of its many questions and answers, and helping us to better understand the logical structure and flow of thought in this great historic teaching tool and form of unity in the Reformed faith.

Heidelberg Catechism Q.1 – Your Only Comfort in Life and in Death

The Starting Point of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism starts with the most important question that one can ask – literally a question of life and death! In doing so, the catechism wastes no time, and shows us that the Christian faith is no trivial matter. This sets the tone for everything that follows:

Q.1. 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.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism similarly begins by asking “What is the chief end of man?” It answers by saying that man’s chief end “is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Both catechisms have good starting points, for both begin by making us face questions of ultimate and eternal significance.

In his book on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Good News We almost ForgotKevin DeYoung writes,

“In truth, both catechisms start in appropriate places. Heidelberg starts with grace. Westminster starts with glory. We’d be hard-pressed to think of two better words to describe the theme of biblical revelation.” (p.21)

Whether you begin with grace (Heidelberg) or glory (Westminster), either way both catechisms begin by asking questions regarding the state of sinful man in relation to his Creator.

The Source of Our Only Comfort in Life and in Death

The catechism begins by pointing believers to the only true source of comfort in life and in death – that we have been bought with a price, and belong (in life and in death) to our Lord Jesus Christ. The first part of the answer spells this out for us when it has us confess in very personal terms (i.e. “I,” “my,” etc.) that our only comfort is found in this:

“That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

This is a truth that the Scriptures point us to again and again, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul:

  • “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:7–9, ESV, Italics added)
  • “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, ESV, Italics added)

Why is that a source of such great comfort in life and in death? The answer to that question is found in what Q.1 has to say about the redemption of Christ – the price that He paid for our salvation from sin – and what that redemption has accomplished for all who are in Christ.

The Redemption of Christ

Why is it that we no longer belong to ourselves, but rather to our faithful Savior? Because, as the catechism goes on to have us confess (again, in very personal terms),

“He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.”

So the ultimate source of our only comfort in life and in death is that we no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ; and that is only the case because of His redemption for our sins by His cross and resurrection.

And what did Christ’s redemption accomplish? At least two things: 1.) Forgiveness and the Removal of Guilt (“fully paid for all my sins”), and 2.) Freedom to Serve God (“and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil”). You could say that these two things generally are speaking of justification and sanctification.

  • “ . . .waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:13–14, ESV)
  • “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14–15, ESV)

The Providential Care of Christ

Not only is the redemption of Christ a source of great comfort for us in life and in death, but so also is His providential care for us. The catechism goes on to say:

“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.”

Not only are we redeemed by Christ, but we are also unfailingly preserved in the love of God in Christ as well. Not only can nothing separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37-39), but He also watches over us in this life in such a way, that nothing can so much as harm a hair on our heads apart from the will of God.

Here the Heidelberg Catechism is borrowing language directly from at least two passages:

  • “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29–31, ESV)
  • “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30, ESV)

The Assurance of Christ

Lastly, this opening question of the catechism speaks of the great blessing of the assurance of our salvation and the work of the Spirit of Christ within us:

“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.”

This assurance is also part of the only comfort in life and in death that is ours only in Christ! Not only are we assured of eternal life in Christ by the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit enables us to live for our Savior the rest of our days!

Do you belong to Jesus Christ by faith, so that you yourself have the only true comfort in life and in death that is found in no longer belonging to yourself, but rather in belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, in body and soul, and in life and in death?

No other comfort will do. Every other source of comfort will ultimately let you down, both in this life, and certainly in the day of judgment.