Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 46 - Our Father
Question 120: Why has Christ commanded us
to address God as Our Father?
Answer 120: To awaken in us
at the very beginning of our prayer
that childlike reverence and trust
which should be basic to our prayer:
God has become our Father
and will much less deny us
what we ask of him in faith
than our fathers would
refuse us earthly things.
Prayer is knocking on the door of the high God. Will he open it? Does he listen to those who are standing at his door, as it were? Will he give what they ask of him? No one can give a better resolution than his own Son. He commanded his followers to address God as “our Father”. This name is of inestimable value. Whoever calls on him in this way will find an even more favourable response than children do with their own father.
Children will sometimes address close friends of their parents as “uncle” or “aunt”. That lowers the threshold. It eases the conversation. An “uncle” is closer than a “mister”. The only person with whom they typically deal even more confidentially is their own father. That is a name that young children do not even use for their parents’ best friend. They can freely call someone outside their family as “uncle”, but never as “father” or “Dad”. That would be going too far. However, God goes that far. He wants to be their Father. All followers of Jesus may address him by this intimate name. They do not need to be afraid to knock on his door as if looking up against a mountain. This form of address immediately helps them to get over the threshold.
Unfortunately not everyone thinks of his or her father in the same positive light. That may make it difficult to regard God as a Father. Fortunately, it is decisive here what kind of father Jesus himself was thinking of. This is also important for each and everyone, because there are no perfect fathers.
Was Jesus thinking of a rigid and detached father? Because, as some have pointed out, the father was an authority figure in Jewish society. He was not primarily someone to love but someone to obey. When you think of a father of that time period, you should not immediately associate this with his loving care, but with his authority. He was the boss who determined everything. He was in charge. A son had no choice but to carry out his will.1
Jesus also had an earthly father. He was named Joseph and had authority over him. Jesus was submissive to this father.2 Yet no one will especially be thinking of Joseph the carpenter when Jesus explains what kind of father God is. We get to know this Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). He has authority over his two sons, but nevertheless he loves them deeply. He is different from all authoritarian fathers of the time. He did not write threatening letters to his recalcitrant son or summon him to come home immediately. When this boy returned half-starved, he was not summoned for disciplinary action. He did not even have to knock on the door. His father was already waiting for him and embraced him spontaneously and full of emotion. And he would not hear of his son’s idea of becoming a day labourer. He refused to change the father-son relationship into that of an authoritarian boss and his servant. Jesus is thinking of such a father.
In earlier Lord’s Days the Catechism has mentioned wonderful things about God as Father. In Lord’s Day 9 QA 26, he is called “my God and my Father”. As in Answer 118 mention is made of a Father who will “provide me with all things necessary for body and soul”. There too he is Father “for the sake of Christ his Son”. Lord’s Day 46 ties in with this and adds something new. The believers may address him as their Father. They should not wait in a resigned manner for his help, but they may call upon him at all times. He is as accessible to them as a father is to his children. They may boldly knock on his door. It always opens up for them.
A child in need does not wait passively to see if his father will help him. He seeks contact with him spontaneously. He does not have to go through multiple processes to get hold of him. There is no need to request an audience. When the child knows that father is near, he simply shouts, “Father!” And he may count confidently on father’s attention and help. God is such a Father. That is how he wants to be addressed.
Our Father Through Christ
Failing people call on God as their Father. How dare they! They are not worthy of it, and they realize this. Their only argument is that Christ taught them so. He did not leave it up to them how they would address God. As their highest prophet he knew how God wanted to be called by millions of people from now on. So they know it from the most reliable source. On top of that, Christ himself saw to it that God became their Father. That was the great purpose of his mission on earth. Their confidential claim — “our Father” — is the crowning glory of his own work of atonement. Prodigal sons and daughters knock on their Father’s door. The breach with God has been healed.3 In this intimate form of address we discern the music of reconciliation.
This is an appropriate time to point out an apparent lack in the perfect prayer. We do not encounter the name Jesus or Christ anywhere in it. It does not end with the usual “in Jesus’ name” or “for Christ’s sake” or similar words. This is not an indication of being incomplete, but on the contrary it serves as proof of the power and perfection of this prayer. In no other prayer does God so literally hear the very words of his Son who is currently seated at his right hand. For this reason, right from the beginning, and word-for-word, every Lord’s Prayer is a prayer in the name of Jesus. This is so obvious that it does not need to be mentioned separately. Therefore, without further explanation, we may call upon God as our Father.
How New is This Form of Address?
According to the Catechism, God has become our Father through Christ. Does that mean that before this time he could not be addressed in this way? Was the threshold for this still too high?4
According to some authors, God might have been addressed as “Father” before, but the believers were too hesitant to do so. We encounter the term “Father” for God relatively sparingly in the Old Testament.5 And nowhere is God addressed as a father.6 Therefore, this title of address — our Father — would have been “something surprising and shocking” to Jesus’ contemporaries.7
On the other hand, one rightly draws attention to the fact that also the Old Testament portrays God as a father to his people.8 He is called that not only because he created it,9 but also because he cares for it as a devoted father.10 Even in a chapter full of future music, God says that he is already a father to Israel at that time.11 And are we really so sure that in the Old Testament no one addressed God as Father?12
The bottom line is that Christ is the same to his people in the Old Testament as he is in the New Testament.13 His sacrifice was in effect right from the Fall. For that reason God was as much the Father of Adam and Abraham as he was of Paul. That having been said, Christ’s unequivocal bid to call upon God in this way is good news for all Christians. They may call upon God as their Father, without any hesitation. This is even more true now that his mission has been accomplished and God has in fact been reconciled.
Christ did not mean with this that all other forms of address were thereby eliminated. He did not mean to just put the right formula or some sort of password on their lips. They may address God in other ways as well. It is not fixed on one particular name. This is evident in the way the congregation later calls on God.14
The purpose of Christ is that they regard God as a true father. Even before they have asked for forgiveness, they may call him by this name, already right at the beginning of their prayer. This raises great expectations. With a mixture of awe and confidence, they may ask him for what they need.
Childlike Reverence and Trust
A child looks up to his dear father. This has nothing to do with fear. Precisely because he is in such awe of his father, he trusts him even more.
The Catechism compares God to such a father, without any reservation. He even wins gloriously over any father because he will “much less deny us what we ask of him in true faith, than our fathers would refuse us earthly things”. He is absolutely the very best!15
Is this view of God naive? An earthly father will do anything to get his sick child to be healed. If there is no improvement, it is not because of his good care. He does his utmost. But from what can we conclude that the heavenly Father takes even better care of a child that is getting worse?
The Catechism points to Matthew 7:9-11. The Jewish fathers whom Christ addresses here take good care of their children. In turn, they are sons of the heavenly Father. What can they expect from him? Even more good than they give their own children? Or is it not that simple? Because not everyone who prays for healing will actually improve. Not every hungry child that prays for bread gets it. The comparison with an ordinary father sometimes raises problems.
Jesus’ ruling is amazingly simple: “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him”. The helpfulness of these Jewish fathers is small compared to God’s. How are we to explain this?
According to Jesus, what should a hungry child actually expect from his own father? No bare stone, and therefore bread? No wriggling snake, and therefore a fish? We do not hear Jesus say what they receive in concrete terms. He leaves that open. Possibly such a Jewish father has a good reason for not giving them that bread or fish as yet. All the emphasis is on the fact that such a child will definitely not receive a stone or a poisonous snake, and in any case it receives something that is good according to such a father. Their heavenly Father knows even much better what his children need. He does not always give bread and fish, healing and prosperity, but certainly “good gifts”. Even sickness and adversity can be turned to our benefit (see QA 26). That is why they do not only call God their Father after he has fulfilled their wish, but already “at the very beginning of our prayer”.
Jesus wants his people to trust this Father absolutely. It must be clear to them right up front that he will take even much better care of them than their own father. Their prayer must be founded on this basis, even if sickness and adversity should come from his Fatherly hand. No child can have such unconditional trust in his own father. A father who is involved in making his child sick can even be removed from parental authority. Therefore, the question arises as to how people can continue to trust their God unconditionally when adversity may come from his hand. This is only possible if people do not think about him in earthly terms, as they do about an ordinary father. What does that entail?
Question 121: Why is there added, in heaven?
Answer 121: These words teach us
not to think of God’s heavenly majesty
in an earthly manner,
and to expect from his almighty power
all things we need
for body and soul.
God is in heaven (or, per older versions, in the heavens). This is not a negative for those who call upon him on earth. That he is in heaven does not mean that he keeps his distance. He is a true Father and—in addition — he is infinitely more powerful than an earthly father. They may expect from him literally everything they need for body and soul. He cares more than a father. In expressing this strong expectation they may start their prayer.
Expecting All Things From His Almighty Power
In emergency situations, Christians make an urgent appeal to their almighty Father. It becomes an amazing experience when he provides the requested outcome. Books and articles like to report on miraculous prayer experiences. They serve as irrefutable proof that we can never expect too much from God’s omnipotence.
Next to them are the stories of those who do not experience times of improvement. What can they tell about God’s strong fatherly hand? Does his almighty power remain inactive in their situation? What can they expect from it in their distress? Or should they put their hope in the future?
We would like to know what is going on with God’s almighty power, as long as misery continues. Christians who are sorely tried may feel that he does little or nothing about their need. They continue to trust in God, but his omnipotence in particular seems to be “out of service” for the time being, as per their perception. Is this true? According to the Bible, God’s almighty power does not come into play only when their situation improves. Their heavenly Father is equally active while they are in the midst of misery. In their experience, he is waiting to intervene, but in reality he is constantly working on it.
In Psalm 31 we meet someone who realizes this. The water reaches up to his lips. His enemies make plots against his life; he feels abandoned by everyone (vv. 10-13). He begs God for deliverance from the hand of his enemies (v. 15b). That is the one line. At the same time, he knows himself to be secure in the hand of his God. For all the times of his life — and that includes this time of crisis — are in God’s hand (v. 15a). The poet confesses, “My times are in your hand.” That is the other line. These two lines are intertwined in his awareness. Sometimes it gets to him. In moments of fear he believes that God has abandoned him (v. 22). Yet he feels safe in God’s shelter (v. 20). He experiences God’s protection right in the midst of the violent storm. That line wins out. Full of confidence, he later exclaims: “Blessed be to the LORD for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me” (v. 22).
The omnipotence of God never fails temporarily. It knows no off-peak hours or rush hours. He protects his children from one moment to the next. Even in their most severe distress they may expect from him all things they need for body and soul.
The actual prayer still has to start. The people have not yet asked for anything. They merely knocked and called out “Father”. But the door has already opened. He is listening. He has heard the call: “our Father in heaven”! These are the exact words that his own Son taught them and for whom he paid with his blood. Therefore, God is pleased with this address, and he will surely hear and answer their prayer.