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 Forgot, Kevin 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.