Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 1 - Comfort
Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I am not my own,
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death,
to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood,
and has set me free
from all the power of the devil.
He also preserves me in such a way
that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation.
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit
he also assures me
of eternal life
and makes me heartily willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
What is your only comfort? It is not as if the catechism starts off with a painful pre-analysis of our misery. It knows what is the matter with us. Its chief concern is this: to know our comfort in this situation. Comfort has a soothing and healing effect and works like balm on a painful wound.
This first question shows insight into our situation, and empathy. This is how we are greeted. But it does not stop there. The catechism finds an opportunity to place the whole of the Christian doctrine in the framework of the only true comfort.
Generally speaking, people like to find comfort in the positive aspects of their existence. These form a happy counterbalance to the negative experiences in our lives. A child who is sad finds comfort in the arms of his or her mother. Someone who goes through a serious loss finds support in the warm empathy (and/or, sympathy) of those around him. Larger or smaller positive points alleviate the loss and make it bearable or less unbearable.
Those who comfort themselves or others are actively looking for a bright spot, or for redeeming features.1 It helps.
All the consolation that this temporary life offers will come to an end one day. For many, the only thing left is a deceptive consolation of death as the final endpoint. In contrast, the Catechism does not speak of the comfort of death and dying, but of the comfort in death. It inquires about a consolation on the basis of which we are not only able to live happily, but — once the need is there — to also die happily. This indestructible comfort is, “that I belong, with body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ”. That will be the subject here.
Man At the Centre?
This confessional writing has raised critical questions regarding its approach to “your only comfort”. Why should the first question not be along the lines of how God receives his glory? Instead, man and his need for support are being addressed. And everything that follows after it is under the heading of that same comfort. Does that not compromise God’s honour? By way of comparison, one could point to the Belgic Confession of Faith, which, after all, speaks primarily about God in its first article.2
Does the catechism in fact respond so single-mindedly to the needs of man that no justice is done to the honour of God? This is certainly not the case when we recognize that it devotes a great deal of space to the explanation of the Twelve Articles, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. In all three of these, God comes first.3 For that reason alone, it can never be the intention of this confession to place man — rather than God — at the centre. Upon closer reading, that is certainly not the case. Yes — comfort is the focal point of our attention, but the central idea is clearly that it shows what God has done for us, through Christ.
From the depths of our hearts we can say that, “for the sake of my very salvation” (HC QA 94) we love, fear and honour him. There is nothing wrong with that. There needs to be no competition or contrast between our enjoyment of the only comfort and the honouring of God. On the contrary, God’s name is never more glorified in Scripture than when overjoyed people praise him for his acts of salvation.
The answer to the question about “your only comfort” is therefore at the same time one grand song of praise for the work of respectively Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. All the glory goes to God alone.
What is the Foundation of This Comfort?
You belong to Christ. That, in short, is our only comfort.
We immediately ask the question how certain it is that this comfort is, in fact, intended for us. In this context, a statement that Paul made to some less-than-perfect Christians in Corinth is noteworthy. The catechism refers to this. These Christians were far too unaware that they belonged to Christ. One used to say, “I belong to Paul”. Another would say, “But I belong to Apollos”. Paul told them, “You belong to Christ!” That remained the reality. Despite their lack of awareness that they belonged to Christ, Paul addresses them on their rightful position.4
The fact that they are Christ’s is apparently not based on their deficient faith, but on the promise of the gospel. This is what the apostle is appealing to. The catechism follows him in this. Even if — for whatever reason — we experience little of this comfort, I still belong “to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ”. This is how he regards us. He has bought us with his blood. He has paid for all our sins. That is rock solid. That is what stands firm; it is what we can always rely on. The starting point of this comfort is therefore not our lack of faith, but the ever-sure promise of the Gospel. Therefore the first question is not about whether we feel and experience this comfort, but on what it is based.
This idea fits well with the original meaning of the word “comfort”. It does not so much mean a sense of certainty in us, but a certainty outside of us that secures our trust. That is also how the authors intended to express it.5 Comfort consists first of all in a reliable anchor outside of ourselves.
Naturally, this comfort must then also be experienced internally. Ultimately, this is what makes us live and die happily. After all, comfort is also a feeling of happiness, although it is always founded on the gospel.
Therefore, we may — thankfully — always seek our starting point outside of ourselves, in the promise of Christ: you are Mine.
Christ Gives Fivefold Comfort
We are Christ’s. This is the central thought based on which the Catechism then proceeds to outline this comfort in five related aspects. Each time a different interpretation is given of what Christ has done and continues to do for us. In addition to him, the Father and the Holy Spirit are mentioned as well. And yet, in this richly varied response, Christ is the acting Person. It is he who grants this fivefold comfort. Both the Spirit and the Father fully join in what he seeks to pass on to us.
The things they do, Christ does through them. This makes it all the more clear how he does not surrender his love and care even for a moment. Not even when the Father cares for our hair and the Spirit gives joy and security in our hearts. We are always dealing with the love of our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we understand from this how the Father and the Spirit are also in complete agreement with this fivefold dispensation of comfort. Each cooperates in it personally. This gives us the peace of mind that the Father and the Spirit grant us this comfort just as heartily as “my faithful Saviour”.
We discover the following five forms of comfort:
- with his blood Christ has paid for all my sins;
- he has set me free from all the power of the devil;
- he preserves me in accordance with the will of my heavenly Father;
- he gives me the assurance of eternal life through His Holy Spirit; and
- he prepares me wholeheartedly from now on to live for him.
We will look at these five aspects in more detail.
He paid For All My Sins
The world struggles with many problems. By far the greatest calamity is our indebtedness to God. Our guilt is literally the cause of all our misery. As long as this debt exists and continues to grow, all further attempts to put an end to this distress will fail. Before anything else, this debt needs to be dealt with. There is therefore no greater comfort than that Christ has paid completely for all my sins with his precious blood. He could not have committed himself to us in any greater personal and complete manner. This is how he put an end to our rebellion against God — and to all its terrifying consequences.
This consolation is not based on our feelings but rather on the promise of the gospel. The catechism offers here a more direct interpretation of this promise. Comfort is first and foremost the assurance that we are reconciled to God.
This opens the way to even greater comfort.
Set Free From All the Power of the Devil
Without Christ, every human being is in the power of the devil. The irrational thing is that no one realizes this on their own. People believe they are in control. They decide for themselves what is good or bad and they feel as free as birds in the sky. In their opinion they are much more independent than Christians, who seek to obey God.
Meanwhile these free birds are entirely in the power of the devil, right to the depths of their minds. He apparently knows how to “captivate” people so completely that they boast of their “freedom”. The catechism refers to a conversation between Jesus and the Jews. The latter claimed that they had never been anyone’s slaves. They did not mean this in a political sense; after all, they had often been subject to foreign rule. At that time they were under the yoke of the Romans. Yet they felt free, at least from the devil, but that was a mistake. Jesus reproved them that they too were slaves to sin and followed the desires of the devil.6
According to our disposition, we too are in the power of the devil. By nature we want the same as he does. This binds us to him — a chilling reality.
He still goes around like a roaring lion, eager to devour us. Jesus himself taught us to pray every day: deliver us from the evil one.7 He can easily influence us because we are by nature as evil as he is. It is therefore a unique comfort that Christ has delivered us from all his power. We do not infer this from our few triumphs against him, but from the gospel.8 He no longer has any claim on us. All we have to do is to oppose him and to distance ourselves from him, and he will flee from us.9 We are not to underestimate his power, but neither should we overestimate it. If we do, we fall short of this second aspect of our comfort.
How Christ Preserves Me: Not Without the Will of My Heavenly Father
It is here that the Father enters into the picture, but not instead of Christ. It is Christ who keeps me, although “not without the will of my heavenly Father”. Apparently what Christ is doing is exactly the same as what the Father wants. That is how closely the two cooperate. All the love of “my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” is expressed in the will of “my heavenly Father”.
Yes, Christ preserves me but the Father does no less. We know this from Jesus himself. For what does the Father want from him? It is this: that he will not allow any man to perish from those whom the Father has given him.10 The Father and the Son are not inferior to each other in their loving care for us. Their love for us is entirely one and the same.
No one cares for us down to the smallest details as much as our heavenly Father. Without his will not a hair will fall from our heads onto the floor of a hair salon and not a single one stays behind in a used comb.
That sounds reassuring. Meanwhile, practice teaches us that children of this Father can and do lose their hair: for example, through grief or through medical treatments. Especially in such difficult situations we may be comforted by the close cooperation between “my heavenly Father” and “my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ”. Both have our preservation in mind. Together they ensure that everything that happens to us serves for our salvation.
Two possibilities remain. The Father will “either keep all evil away from us or he will turn it to our benefit” (Baptismal Form). It either passes by our door or it hits us hard. But what it comes down to in both cases is this: evil can no longer hurt us. For even in the unfavourable case that it does come near us, it has to work out for our good.11
Christ Gives Me Assurance Through His Spirit
How do we receive assurance of eternal life? This does not just mean an assurance on paper. Nor does it refer to the paper of the gospel. That is indeed the starting point, but after that we must need also to feel this assurance in our hearts.
Question and answer 58 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of such a “feeling”. There it says about the life everlasting: “I now already feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy.” Here the comfort results in a profound feeling of blessed assurance. A feeling such as this does not come automatically. Nor do we get it spontaneously after it has been promised to us in and through the gospel. The best sermons and the most solid biblical arguments are not in themselves able to give us this assurance.
That is the reason why we welcome this fourth aspect of the only comfort. Christ engages “his Holy Spirit”. Through him he penetrates our inner being and gives us this assurance of eternal life. How the Spirit accomplishes this is a mystery. Paul says that he bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). The main thing is that he convinces us in our hearts that we are children of God.12
Christ Makes Me Heartily Willing to Live For Him
Finally, this comfort touches and fills our deepest feelings. Christ makes us willing from now on to live our lives fully dedicated to him. That is the picture of a deeply satisfied and happy person. This is how the overview of our comfort is concluded. We return just for a moment to the initial criticism as if man with his comfort were in the centre. This last part shows that we are prepared — no, not to live four ourselves but — to live heartily unto him.
Any tension between human self-interest and the honour of God is gone. The only comfort finds its final fulfillment, not in the fact that all tears are wiped from our eyes, but that from now on we live for him!
This sets out the broad outline. What follows is no more than further elaboration and explanation. Why that is necessary will be discussed in the next question.
Question 2: What do you need to know
in order to live and die
in the joy of this comfort?
how great my sins and misery are;
how I am delivered
from all my sins and misery;
how I am to be thankful to God
for such deliverance.
What is your only comfort? The beautiful answer required less than half a page. But then it takes dozens of pages to explain what we need to know in order to enjoy this comfort. Is it then so complicated to find this comfort?
Why All These Questions?
Does the Catechism, with its many questions, put up all sorts of barricades to prevent access to this only comfort? Because according to the answer we need to know a lot so that we may “live and die in the joy of this comfort”. Do we have to crawl through the catechism before we receive this comfort?
This has in fact been claimed. The questions would then serve to pave a way toward the only consolation. The catechism then becomes some kind of application form. Only after all the questions have been answered satisfactorily can we receive true comfort. That is a misconception. The question is not what we need to know in order to obtain the comfort — as if we did not already have it — but what we must know in order to live and die happily in that comfort.
Someone who owns a warm coat when it is freezing cold is happy, but then he does need to put it on. Only when this coat is snug around him is he protected from the cold and can enjoy its warmth. It is no help if that coat hangs in the closet or on a coat rack. This is how comfort is offered to us in the gospel. It does imply, however, that on our part we need to take hold of this comfort and wrap ourselves in it, by way of speaking. Joyful living and dying can only be had in this comfort.
The many questions and answers serve to make us enjoy this comfort more and more.13 The consolation given may not remain or become ineffectual.
What We Need To Know
In order to live and die joyfully through the only comfort, we need to know three things:
- Those who consider themselves too healthy and well to go to the doctor will not be helped. Jesus compares the Pharisees to such people. Jesus is ready for them. But they believe that they do not need him, because they refuse to see what is ultimately wrong with them. The catechism refers to this.14
Comfort is available. Jesus can and wants to heal us. But then we need to know our real need. Otherwise we do not need him.
So that we become aware right away of our deepest need, the answer mentions twice in the same breath “my sins and misery”. Sins are mentioned first: my sins. I am not the victim of others. My own sins are the root of all my misery.
Only those who realize this are joyful in Christ with the comfort of being under the care of this doctor.
The deeper our realization of our true need, the richer the comfort that we belong to him.
- To experience this comfort we need to know in the second place “how I am delivered from all my sins and misery”. Nothing gives such comfort as examining what all Christ has done for us. While we are still in the midst of our misery and distress, we come to know how he delivers us from all our sins and misery. The only doctor who can help us is also the physician who knows no hopeless cases.
The deeper our understanding of how Christ delivers and redeems us, the richer the comfort that we are his.
- Finally, we need to know how to be thankful to God. We need to know this because this is the culmination of our deliverance. This gratitude consists in a life filled with joy and to the glory of God. Only then has the culmination of our salvation been reached.
The better we know what this thankfulness entails, the more we long for it and the more joyful we are with Christ who will accomplish his work in us.
A Very Promising Outline
The three topics — our misery, deliverance, and gratitude — are being addressed separately in three chapters that follow. However, these three chapters are closely connected to each other. We might compare them to a group of three ponds that are inner-connected. When the level of the water is lowered or raised in one of them, it will also affect the other two. It is the same case with these chapters.
Someone who realizes the profoundness of his misery feels joyful with his salvation and longs to show his gratitude to God. Insight into any one of these helps to understand and appreciate the other areas. This is because all three chapters focus on the crucified Christ. His sacrifice teaches me how great my misery is15 and at the same time how I am delivered and how to show my thanks to God.
We need to watch out that we do not over-emphasize the one at the expense of the other. Doing so we would end up with improper contrasts. Some people are afraid to be joyful about their salvation, out of fear that this might show a lack of awareness of their sin. Another — making a quick appeal to the redemption — does not attach all that much weight to his guilt. A third person may emphasize gratitude and focus only on a Christianity of action. These three practical examples show how important it is to understand the proper relationship between misery, redemption, and thankfulness.
The Catechism does not opt for a balanced construction with an equilibrium between these three topics. It puts Christ’s sacrifice right at the centre. This determines the coherence between the three chapters. In the light of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we learn to know our misery, but no less what kind of Redeemer we have, and how we are to thank God for such a great deliverance.
There are three things we need to know — all three to be joyful in life and in dying. The goal of every chapter and Lord’s Day is that we are joyful “in” the comfort of belonging to Christ. That holds out a rich promise…