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.