Creeds & Confessions

“The Infallible Fruits of Election” (The Canons of Dort and Assurance)

The overarching concern of the Canons of Dort is not just a doctrinal or theological one, but a decidedly pastoral and experiential one as well. And that is demonstrated in the fact that a common theme throughout the First Head of Doctrine (i.e. unconditional election) is that of assurance.

In many ways the doctrines of Arminianism undermine assurance, and so the Canons here show how a right understanding of the biblical doctrine of election actually serves to establish and strengthen the assurance of believers.

Article 11

“And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

Arminianism teaches a conditional election from start to finish. Not only does it wrongly teach that God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on foreseen faith at the beginning, but it also holds that one can abandon the faith and lose his or her salvation in the end, rendering God’s decree of election in a sense temporary. Article 11 here clearly refutes that error.

Contrary to the errors of Arminianism, the Canons remind us that God is “most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent,” so that the idea that His decree could change or be in need of revision is blasphemous. Nothing can change God’s gracious decree of election from all eternity, and so “neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

In his book, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey writes:

“Election reflects the very character of God. As God is immutable, so His purpose in election is immutable. Nothing can interfere with God’s implementing his decree of election. In particular, the specific number of the elect cannot be reduced. This conviction is foundational to the doctrine of God and to predestination as well as to the teaching on assurance found throughout the canons.” (p.93)

So the biblical doctrine of election, properly understood, is a matter of utmost importance, as it has to do not just with assurance of salvation, but even with our doctrine of God. Because God is immutable, so is His decree and purpose in election. And that should be a rather encouraging truth for believers.

Article 12

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

Here in Article 12 we are taught the right way to understand the relationship between election and assurance. Believers are not to try to attain the assurance of their election by “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” which is impossible for us to do. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.) Rather, we are to seek to observe in ourselves “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

In other words, how do you know if you are one of God’s elect? You look to your true faith in Christ, repentance, desire to grow in holiness, etc. as the “infallible fruits” or evidence of God’s election. In this way we are to ‘make our calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10). How often do sincere believers lack a sense of assurance because we look to the wrong things as evidence of our salvation?

Election is known by its fruits. And the “infallible” or unmistakable fruits of election consist not in some secret, hidden knowledge of God’s decree, nor in some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather in simple and sincere faith in Christ, repentance, etc. And so if you want to know whether or not you are one of God’s elect, the thing to ask is simply, “Am I a believer in Christ? Have I sincerely turned from sin and turned to Christ by faith?”

And notice that Article 12 points out that the elect attain the assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election “in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures.” Assurance is not just automatic and may take some time, and it may come “in varying degrees” rather than in completeness or perfection.

Article 13

“The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”

Some who oppose the doctrine of election seem to confuse assurance with presumption, fearing that assurance would lead to loose living. But here we see the difference between assurance and presumption.

True faith and assurance lead to humility, adoration of God’s mercy and grace, and to seeking to grow in holiness and love for God because of His great love for us in Christ. It is sinful presumption (and not assurance) that rather leads to “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” and a neglect of holiness in the fear of God. And such as are remiss in these things will necessarily be lacking in any genuine assurance of salvation, as long as those “infallible fruits” of election are lacking or absent in their lives.

Election as “The Fountain of Every Saving Good” (Canons of Dort 1.9.)

In Articles 1-7 of the First Head of Doctrine (Unconditional Election), we saw in some detail where Arminians and Calvinists both agree (Articles 1-4) and where their respective views begin to diverge (i.e. the source of saving faith in Christ, God’s eternal decree, and the definition of election – Articles 5-7), we now proceed to a brief examination of Articles 8-10.

In Articles 8-10 we get to the heart of the matter regarding the doctrine of unconditional election. For here we are plainly taught that God’s decree of election unto salvation in Christ is the same in both the Old and New Testaments (Article 8); that it was not based upon “foreseen faith” or anything else in us (Article 9); and that the sole cause of God’s gracious purposes in election is merely “the good pleasure of God” (Article 10).

Article 8

“There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein.”

Here the argument is from the immutability of God as well as the unity of God’s decree. God does not change, and His purpose in election and salvation has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Later in the section of this Head of doctrine detailing the rejection of errors, the Synod notes that they “reject the error of those who teach” that “there are various kinds of election of God unto eternal life . . . .” (Rejection 2)

As to the unity of God’s decree, Ephesians 1:11 tells us, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (ESV) The counsel of God’s will is singular or simple (i.e. one, unified), even as God Himself is One. Paul there does not speak of God’s purposes (i.e. plural), but rather of His “purpose” (i.e. singular).

That God’s decree of election is one and the same in both the Old and New Testament is clearly evident because in teaching and establishing the doctrine of divine election in the New Testament, Paul explicitly points us back to the Old Testament. In fact, he does so throughout Romans chapter 9, using Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as examples of God’s saving purpose in election. For example:

“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10–13, ESV, Italics added)

God chose to save Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Paul explicitly teaches us the Jacob was chosen by God before he was even born or “had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might continue” (or stand – KJV). And so God’s decree of election has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

Article 9

“This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc.; therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceeds faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to that of the apostle: “He hath chosen us [not because we were but] that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (Eph. 1:4).”

Here we see the Canons beginning to explicitly address the heart of the Arminians’ error regarding election. Arminianism views God’s election as being in some ways conditional. That is, it holds that God’s election unto salvation was based on something that He foresaw in those whom He would choose, such as faith, obedience, holiness, etc. This makes something inherent in us the very basis for our election.

Contrary to this unbiblical idea, the Canons here affirm that God’s election of sinners unto salvation was in no way based or conditioned upon something foreseen in them, but rather that we are chosen unto those things. God’s gracious decree of election is rather the cause of such things as faith, holiness, etc. That is why the Canons speak of God’s decree of election as “the fountain of every saving good” in us. In his book, Saving the Reformation, W. Robert Godfrey puts it this way:

“Election does not flow from faith or holiness, but rather, faith and holiness flow from election.” (p.92)

And so we are not chosen by God because we will one day believe, but rather because we are chosen by God unto salvation before the foundation of the world, we will therefore believe, repent, and walk in holiness, etc. All of those gifts and graces flow from God’s gracious decree of election, not vice-versa. And this is clearly taught in Ephesians 1:4, where Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ, not because we already were or would be holy and without blame before Him, but rather so “that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (italics added).

Article 10

“The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election, which doth not consist herein, that out of all possible qualities and actions of men God has chosen some as a condition of salvation; but that He was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself, as it is written, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” etc., it was said (namely to Rebecca): “The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:11-13). “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).”

Article 10 teaches us that the mere “good pleasure of God” is the “sole cause” of God’s decree of election. The sole cause of election is in God Himself, and so all of the glory for our salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to Him alone.

The Arminian view basically teaches that God chose the conditions of salvation (faith, repentance, holiness, etc.) ahead of time, rather than choosing the individual sinners themselves unto salvation. Contrary to that, the Canons here teach and affirm that God “was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself.”

Once again the Canons point us to Romans 9:11-13 (i.e. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Here we are also pointed to Acts 13:48, which tells us, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This verse does not teach us that they were ordained to eternal life because they believed (i.e. the Arminian view), but rather that the very reason that they believed and were saved is precisely because they had been previously “ordained to eternal life.”

The Heidelberg Catechism on the 5th Commandment (Honor Your Father and Your Mother)

DeYoung HeidelbergThe Heidelberg Catechism includes just one question regarding what is involved in obeying the 5th commandment, but it says a lot in just a brief space:

“Q.104. What does God require in the fifth commandment? A. That I show all honor, love, and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction, with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Notice that the basic gist of this commandment is that God requires of us that we show the proper honor, respect, submission, and obedience to the earthly authorities whom He has placed over us in His most wise and good providence.

That obviously starts with our parents, who are the first authority figures we normally encounter in our lives. In many ways it is in the home where we first learn (or fail to learn) respect for and submission to authority.

Clearly the Heidelberg rightly teaches that this honor, respect, and submission extend well beyond our earthly parents to all of the other earthly authority figures in our lives as well (i.e. “all in authority over me”). As Paul says in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (ESV)

The sovereign wisdom and providence of God are to be kept in mind when dealing with those who are in authority over us. We are to remember that “there is no authority except from God,” and that includes those in authority whom we may not particularly agree with or appreciate. As Q/A 104 puts it, we are to submit to them “since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

That is why Paul goes on to say, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2, ESV)

Notice also that the catechism anticipates the most common objection to godly submission in every context, in that it tells us that we must “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” Perfect wisdom and decision making on the part of those who are over us in this life are not the prerequisites for our submission. Otherwise no one would ever be worthy of submission.

Even the very best earthly fathers are just doing the best that they can. (See Hebrews 12:.10.) And their imperfections in no way render our honoring and obeying them to be optional.

We are to bear with the weaknesses and infirmities of the authorities whom God has placed over us in His infinite wisdom. That includes parents, husbands, officers in the church, and civil authorities, among others. And the reason, as always, is that “it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Ask yourself this, how do you think and speak of the earthly authorities whom God has placed over you? Disagreeing with them, even criticizing them (depending on the way that it is done, of course) may even be necessary at times. But do you show them the respect and honor that is due to them for the sake of their God-given office?

As believers in Christ, we must submit to those whom God has been pleased to place over us, and we must do so in such a way that we “also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities,” and even pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

In his book on the Heidelberg Catechism entitled, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung writes,

“I doubt many of us regularly feel convicted by the Fifth Commandment, but we probably should. How are we really doing? Do we joyfully submit to parents, husbands, and the rule of law? Are we patient with pastors and senators and middle managers? Do we give glad respect to denominational executives, committee chairpersons, and department heads? Do we take care of our aging parents without grumbling and complaining? Do we ever consider their feelings and desires above our own when making plans for the holidays? Would we be happy if our young children treated us like we, now grown, treat our parents?” (p.187)

We may not give the 5th commandment much thought, but we should. And if we were to do so, no doubt most of us would find plenty of room for confession, repentance, and improvement. May God work in us what is pleasing in His sight, by His grace and Holy Spirit, to the glory of the name of Jesus Christ.

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.

An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

heidelberg_study guideThe History of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is named after the place in which it was composed –  Heidelberg, a city in the Palatinate, which was a province in Germany. It was composed at the behest of the ruler of the Palatinate, Elector (or Prince-Elector) Frederick III (1516-1576), and first published in 1563.

The primary author of the catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), who was just 28 years-old at the time (!), and was professor of theology at the Heidelberg University. Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), who himself was just 26 years-old at the time, and was the court preacher of Frederick III, is thought by some to be the co-author of the catechism, but many hold that he was mainly responsible for the editing and final composition of the original edition that was approved by the Synod at Heidelberg in 1563.

Its original full title translates to “Catechism, or Christian Instruction, as Conducted in the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate.” (See The Creeds of Christendom, by Philip Schaff, Vol.III, p.307.) This gives us a good idea of the extent of its originally-intended use – not only as a means of promoting doctrinal unity throughout the Palatinate, but also as a teaching tool in both the churches and in schools as well.

The Structure and Outline of the Heidelberg Catechism

Not long after its original composition the questions in the Heidelberg Catechism were numbered, and it was divided up into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday) of the year, so that it could be more easily used as a teaching tool in the churches, both for instruction as well as for catechetical preaching. In this way a church could teach her members the entire summary of the basics of the faith at least once every calendar year!

Not only that, but the entire catechism is outlined or structured around three (3) points or sections, often summarized as the “3 G’s” –  Guilt (Q.3-11), Grace (Q.12-85), and Gratitude (Q.86-129). This very outline (although not employing these exact terms) is made explicit in Q.2, which says:

“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.”

Those “three things” that we must know in order to live and die in the joy of our comfort in Christ Jesus correspond to the “3 G’s” listed above. To know our guilt is to know how great our sin and misery are; to know God’s grace in Christ is to know how we are set free from all our sins and misery; and to know true gratitude is to know how we are to thank God for such deliverance.

The catechism (like many others composed since the start of the Protestant Reformation) includes somewhat lengthy expositions of the The Apostles’ Creed (Q.22-58), The Ten Commandments (Q.92-115), and the Lord’s Prayer (Q.116-129), which are commonly considered to be the ABC’s or building blocks of the Christian faith and life. As Puritan writer Thomas Watson well states it:

“The ten commandments are the rule of our life, the creed is the sum of our faith, and the Lord’s prayer is the pattern of our prayer.”  (The Lord’s Prayer, p.1)

No wonder those three (3) things were so commonly taught in the catechisms of the churches of the Reformation!

The Influence of the Heidelberg Catechism

In the Introduction to his book, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide, G.I. Williamson writes,

“The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest creeds of the Reformation period. A faithful teacher of millions, it has stood the test of time. It is still, today, one of the best tools available for learning what it means to be a Christian.” (p.1)

That is high praise indeed, and well-earned at that. Regarding the widespread reach and influence of the Heidelberg Catechism, Philip Schaff writes:

“It is stated that, next to the Bible, the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ by Thomas a Kempis, and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ no book has been more frequently translated, more widely circulated and used.” (The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.536)

The fact that this catechism has endured the test of time for over 450 years is a testament to its clarity and usefulness. It still remains a vital part of the doctrinal standards (known as the “three forms of unity”) of the Reformed Churches in continental Europe and America.

 

THE BELGIC CONFESSION – ARTICLE 8 (THE Trinity)

Article 8 of the Belgic Confession holds forth the biblical doctrine of the Trinity:

According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.

Hence, then, it is evident that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed; for the Father has not assumed the flesh, nor has the Holy Spirit, but the Son only. The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For They are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.

The Belgic Confession begins with an article about God (Article 1), followed by a series of articles about Scripture, which is the means by which we come to know God rightly (Articles 2-7). Now here in Article 8 the Confession circles back to deal with the doctrine of God, specifically the doctrine of the Trinity (articles 8-11). Article 8 states the doctrine of the Trinity in some detail, while Article 9 gives the reader the scriptural proofs for that doctrine.

And so Article 8 explicitly points back to the Articles that preceded it, saying that it is, “According to this truth and this Word of God” (i.e. the Scriptures as the inspired, authoritative, and sufficient Word of God as detailed in Articles 2-7) that “we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (i.e. the Trinity). All of that is to say that we believe and confess the doctrine of the Trinity primarily because the Scriptures plainly teach it.

Only One God

The Confession states that “we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence . . . .” So we believe in only one God, “who is the single essence” (or substance). This is also what the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) affirms when it says that the Lord Jesus Christ is “of one substance with the Father.”

That there is only one true & living God is taught throughout Scripture. For instance, Deuteronomy 6:4 says,

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (ESV)

Likewise Isaiah 45:5 says,

“I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;” (ESV)

The New Testament teaches this as well. In James 2:19 says,

“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (ESV)

As Christians, we believe and confess that “There is but one only, the living and true God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.5).

One God in Three Distinct Persons

Nevertheless, in this “one only God, who is the one single essence” there are “three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

This too is plainly taught in the Scriptures. For example, the baptismal formula in the Great Commission says,

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)

We are to baptize disciples “in the name [singular = not “names”] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v.19).

Likewise the benediction found in 2 Corinthians 13:14 says,

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (ESV)

That the Persons of the Godhead are “distinct” from each other (while in no way separate) is emphasized by the use of three descriptive terms – “really, truly, and eternally.” In other words, the distinction between the Persons of the Godhead (i.e. the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is real and true, and not merely imagined or apparent, as was taught by the heresy of modalism, which holds that there is one God who appears to take turns (so to speak) revealing Himself as being the Father one moment, and as the Son the next, etc.

Not only that, but the Persons of the Trinity are also “eternally” distinct. The one true and living God has always been one God in three Persons. That being the case, we are not to conceive of God as if the Persons of the Trinity were so distinct as to be separate (which would be tri-theism or polytheism). That is why the first paragraph of Article 8 goes on to say:

“God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums this up quite nicely for us when it says,

“Q.6. how many persons are there in the Godhead? A. There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”

When the second paragraph of Article 8 says that “these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed” it employs similar language to what is found in the Athanasian Creed, which states:

“That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.

Article 8 closes with the following statement:

“The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For They are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.”

So the biblical doctrine is that there has never been a time when there was not a Trinity. God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not created beings, but are eternally-begotten and eternally-proceeding from God the Father. And, lest that be misunderstood, the Confession goes on to say that “There is neither first nor last.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism likewise affirms this very truth when it states that the three Persons of the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Q.6).

Speaking of the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, which the one true holy, Catholic church has always confessed throughout her history, Daniel R. Hyde writes,

“Catholicity is expressed in no better way than in the confession of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. One of the purposes of the Belgic Confession was to express that the Reformed faith was nothing less than the faith of the ancient Christian church.” (With Heart and Mouth, p.112)

 

The Impossibility of Good Works Apart from Justification by Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 24)

It has been rightly said that faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone (i.e. sanctification and good works must necessarily follow). You can even go so far as to speak of the necessity of good works, although certainly not as the grounds or basis for our justification.

But have you ever considered the fact that good works are actually quite impossible apart from justification by faith alone? The first paragraph of Belgic Confession article 24 makes this abundantly clear:

“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

Here the Confession addresses one of the most common objections to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. People sometimes hear of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (i.e. not by works), and conclude that if we are not saved by our works, and if salvation is really a free gift of God’s grace, then it does not matter how we live. Legalists will often go so far as to suggest that the gospel of free grace will invariably lead to licentiousness. (Paul addresses this same objection in Romans 6:1-14.)

In answer to this objection the Confession states,

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

And so not only does justification by faith not lead to people being “remiss” or lacking in pious and holy living, but the Confession goes so far as to say that, “on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

Justification by faith alone is the only real source of truly good (not perfect) works. Salvation by works (which is what every other religion in human history ultimately teaches) is really what results in the utter absence of good works, as truly good works are done of out a living faith and a true love for God, whereas the religion of works or legalism spurs people on to works “only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

In the end all forms of works-based salvation (false gospels all) ironically end up destroying or preventing the very possibility of good works, while only the free grace of the gospel and justification by faith alone can ever truly lead to good works, which must be done out of love to God.

Another way of saying that is to say that good works are utterly impossible for us outside of justification by faith alone.

 

“Even More Present Than Before” – John Calvin on the Ascension of Christ

Institutes CalvinIn his 1541 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin includes an extended exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. (That section alone is worth the price of the book.)

His comments on the the Creed’s statement regarding the ascension of Christ (i.e. “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”) are noteworthy and helpful.

It is sometimes asked how Christ’s promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV) can be compatible with His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. In some sense, then, isn’t He actually not with us, or at least in some way less present with us than He was during His earthly ministry?

To this question Calvin says the following,

“Thus being received into heaven, he removed his bodily presence from our sight, not so as to leave without help believers who still have to live on earth, but to rule the world with a power even more present than before. Certainly his promise to be with us to the end of the age has been fulfilled by his ascension, for as by it his body was lifted above all the heavens, so its power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” (p.253)

What an amazing statement! Even though our Lord Jesus Christ is no longer bodily present for a time until He returns, He now rules over all things “with a power even more present than before” (italics added)!

Not only that, but Calvin goes on to say that Christ’s ascension, far from undoing His promise to be with us always, is actually the very fulfillment of it! It is because Christ has ascended “above all the heavens” that His “power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” And so it is because of Christ’s ascension that He is actually with us always, even to the end of the age!