The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism closes with the affirmation that because Christ has done all this for me, this reality “makes me genuinely willing and ready to live for Him from this time onward.” And indeed, this principle guides the rest of the catechism. It is the guiding principle for the catechism so much so, that if you do not or cannot affirm this very principle, the rest of the catechism is little more than moralistic instruction.
The bottom line is that the most basic desire of a genuine Christian is to please God (2 Corinthians 5:9). True, there are times when we stumble into sin and disobedience, but at the very heart of repentance is the recognition that our actions have displeased our God and Savior and a desire to correct said behavior as we live from that point forward. This seeking to please God does nothing in the way of earning salvation — that has been bought for us entirely and fully by Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9) — but indeed, it is the expression of our gratitude for what Christ has done (Colossians 2:6-7) and out of a desire to live by faith (Galatians 2:20) so that we might please our God (Hebrews 11:6).
And that sounds all fine and great. But, how many confessing Christians seek to do this? Certainly, the last half of the catechism is designed to guide us in how we do it, but what is our intent? You see, living a life to please God is not something that just happens once you become a believer…it is something you must work at and it is something that you must do in an intentional way. So, let alone the nuts and bolts of how — are you genuinely willing and ready to live for Christ from this point forward? Are you willing to live for Christ no matter the cost? Are you willing to live for Christ no matter where God will take you? It can be certain that if you genuinely live like you are not your own but belong body and soul to your Lord Jesus Christ that he will stretch you and take you places you would never have dreamed of going otherwise.
My concern is for those who say that they are willing and ready to live for Jesus but make no effort to do so. They are indeed, much like that rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do?” but was sent home unhappy because the thing that Christ demanded was the one thing he was unwilling to do. It is that way with many in the church, the real question at the moment is whether it will be that way with you? Are you ready and willing to live for Him? And if so, what does that look like in your life?
Perhaps my experience is different than everyone else’s. Perhaps the thing that my heart longs for more deeply than anything else is utterly unique to me. Perhaps my need for a sense of belonging that transcends my ability to “stay in the club,” is an utterly singular desire. But, perhaps I’m not alone. And perhaps, while we express it in different ways and we seek it in different places, that sense of belonging is something that, deep down, we all desperately need.
Some people find that sense of belonging within their families, and my own family is no exception…the Groseclose’s are warm and loving and welcoming to all sorts of characters. Growing up, my parents’ home was always one of the places that friends congregated and whoever happened to be around at 6:00 was always welcome to stay for supper. My extended family is also a warm and happy bunch of folks who will go out of their way to make you feel like family…even if you are not nor ever will be. It’s a good place to find belonging, but I am the consummate loner in that sense and have spent much of my life looking for belonging outside of this body.
Some people find belonging amongst their friends. And, as far as friends go, I have had some of the best. The group of guys that I grew up with used to define friendship as someone with whom you could trust your car, your credit card, and your girlfriend. And with them, I could and did. And, during my awkward and downright strange years, they just rolled with the punches and pursued me even when I wasn’t pursuing them. But, in most of those cases, the heart of our relationship centered around things we did together and over time, most of us have drifted in different directions.
Others perhaps find their sense of belonging in a job or amongst co-workers. I have been blessed to taste a little of that, but I have also bounced between jobs so much over the years that I have never really been in one place long enough to grow roots that deep — though it certainly appeals to me. A story is told of the relationship that Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, and Doc Severinsen had not only while working together on the “Tonight Show” but off-stage and after they retired and moved on. They had worked together so long that their lives and families had become intertwined. A love had been built that transcended their common working relationship. I do think that sense of belonging would be wonderful, but so far, I have not stayed put long enough for that to develop (though perhaps, in God’s providence, I would like to see that change).
In the end, though, all of these connections that bring people a sense of belonging pass away with time. We live and we die and many of these connections do not and cannot transcend death. Perhaps that sense of belonging that I sought for so long can never be found in these temporal relationships. Perhaps that sense of belonging can only be found in one place: God himself.
In Biblical terms, that idea of belonging is typically referred to as an “Assurance of Salvation.” In other words, it is the assurance — the absolute conviction — that I find my belonging in Christ himself and, as it relies on Christ’s work and call, and not on me, that it can never be lost either on this side of eternity or on the other. It is truly a permanent and assured belonging in the courts of God that cannot be lost, stolen, or even given away.
The Heidelberg Catechism words this idea this way: “For that reason, he assures me of eternal life by His Holy Spirit.” The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:
“The Spirit himself confirms in our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, then also heirs — even heirs of God and sharing an inheritance with Christ, if it is true that we suffer together in order that we may be glorified together.”
The promise to believers is two-fold. First, if we are Christians we find our assurance coming from the Holy Spirit. This does not come from our works, our church membership, our genealogy, etc… it comes directly from God himself. Second, if we have this assurance, then we are not simply children of God, but as children we are heirs of the Kingdom. Yes, we will suffer together (think the way the church should engage alongside of one another) and we will face challenges, but there is a promise that we will be glorified together, in this case, at the second-coming of our Lord. And, as God is Truth and as God is unchanging, this testimony from God the Holy Spirit is one that cannot be lost or forfeited. To suggest otherwise would make God a liar and that is a dangerous accusation.
And so, we can be assured. That need for belonging can be found not merely in temporal things, but eternal things. And for me, perhaps much of my struggle with finding that sense of belonging in family, friends, and work was brought about by my desire to flee from God — something I did for many years, that is until God, like a master-fisherman, permanently set his hook in my lip, regenerated my sinful soul, and brought me to my knees in faith and repentance. And so, though my connection to earthly belonging has grown weaker over the years, the assurance that I have of my belonging in eternal things has grown deeper and more profound. And, this is the promise that God gives to every born-again believer in Jesus Christ.
Not only is the Christian not to worry, we are also called to be confident. Confident in what? Confident in our God. Confident in the promises of our God. Confident in the assurance that God will bring about, for us, that which he promised to bring about for us. And confident that no matter what woes and trials may assail me in this sad, fallen world, God’s plans are never foiled or frustrated. But His will is done for His glory. Thus, the Apostle Paul can confidently say:
“ For we know that for those who love God, all things collaborate for good — for those who are called for this purpose; because the ones whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son so that he might be firstborn amongst many brothers. And the ones he predestined, he also called; and the ones he called, he also justified; and the ones he justified, he also glorified. What then shall we say of this? If God is for us, who can be against us? Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us, how will he not also freely give us all things when associated with him? Who shall accuse God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who can pronounce a sentence? Christ Jesus, the one who died — but more, was lifted up — is at the right hand of God and also intercedes for us! Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or dire straits or nakedness or sword? Just as it has been written: “for the sake of you, we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep of the slaughter.” Rather, in all these things we are victorious through the one who has loved us. For I have been persuaded that neither death nor life, angels nor powers, neither that which has been nor that which will be, neither powers nor heights, neither depths nor any other creature is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What justifies this level of confidence? This confidence comes from nothing within us. This confidence comes from the fact that our salvation has nothing to do with us — not our works, not our will, not our decisions. It totally and utterly is a work of God in our lives for his glory. If we could lay any claim on our salvation, two great disasters would befall us. First, we would grow proud and boast in our works or in our decisions. Second, we would fall from salvation. For if some of our salvation fell into our hands and was our responsibility, none of us would be saved for what a wretched lot we are when it comes to resisting temptation and sin.
So, be confident that he who has called you will never allow you to slip from between his fingers. And live a life of gratitude toward God in that confidence. Will that make everything go smoothly and eliminate trials and temptations from your life? Certainly not! Did not our Lord go to heaven through the pathway of the cross? Did he not also call us to take up our crosses daily to follow him? Shall we expect that God would treat us any differently than was suitable for his only-begotten Son? No, Christian, suffering and trial is the means by which God chooses to refine and discipline those he loves. If we are to be conformed into the image of Christ, then such is the path we must confidently walk.
I’m a kid of the MAD Magazine era, where their mascot, Alfred E. Newman, was famous for saying this line… “What, me worry?” Of course, in many cases, it was the punchline of the joke and it conveyed the he ought to have been worrying about the state of affairs around him. That, of course, was the sarcastic humor of the magazine that appealed to me during my pre-teen and early teenage years.
Sarcastic humor aside, the statement about not worrying has stuck with me over the years and is frankly quite Biblical for the Christian. Jesus says that we are not to be anxious because our Father in Heaven knows our needs and will provide them…instead of expending energy worrying about this, that, or the other thing, we should pursue building Christ’s kingdom with all our strength. God will make provision for us (Luke 12:22-24).
The implication here is that the only ones who really have a license to worry are unbelievers. These pagans bow down to gods that cannot answer prayers and cannot provide for their needs…they are deaf and dumb and motionless, the creation of the hands of men (Psalm 115:4-8).
The question that the Christian really needs to ask is, just how extensive God’s design is for his people. Is God in control of the big things that happen but leaves the small things in our own hands or does God sovereignly ordain all things that come to pass, both great and small. To this, Jesus takes one of the most insignificant things that can be mentioned and instructs his disciples that God cares for us so greatly that he even has numbered the hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7) and he goes as far as to assure the disciples that during times of persecution, not a hair on their head will perish apart from God’s design (Luke 21:18) — a promise that the Apostle Paul even extends to those on the ship with him prior to their shipwreck on Malta (Acts 27:34).
One of my professors in seminary used to say that not one hair fell from his head “without the parachute of providence,” and indeed, this is the idea that the Bible communicates to us. The Heidelberg Catechism words it this way: “He also preserves me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven…” In other words, if we take our Bible’s seriously, recognizing that we are in our Father’s divine hand, then ought we not say, with Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” Our God not only ordains the end, but the means by which he brings about the end…and in that wonderful truth there is great hope because I, in my fallenness, will not confound the plans that God has for me…instead, God ordains and uses even my own sin and foibles to bring about his will and to conform me into the image of his Son. In a world where assurances are often fleeting, this is one iron-clad promise in which we can truly rest and hope.
“Be self-controlled. Be Alert. Your enemy the devil goes about roaring, seeking one to devour. Oppose him firm in the faith, knowing that these things are being endured throughout the world by your brothers.”
(1 Peter 5:8-9)
“And the dragon became angry about the woman and departed to make war with her remaining offspring — those who keep the commands of God and who have the witness of Jesus.”
As a Christian in this fallen world, life can be hard. We know the promise that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33) and thus, in Him, we also have overcome the world by faith (1 John 5:4). We know that the world will hate us (1 John 3:13) and that we are engaged in a war with the powers and principalities of evil in the world around us (Ephesians 6:12). Yet, that does not lessen the reality that life can be really hard — choices of doing the right or the wrong thing, times of grieving in the presence of death, persecution and mocking for the faith that we have, life is not easy.
Perhaps that is why we most need to be reminded that, as Christians, not only has Jesus’ blood paid the penalty to satisfy the Law of God, but his blood has also broken us from the power of the Devil. Yes, the Devil is still a tyrant. And yes, the Devil is still an accuser. And yes, too, the Devil still seeks to prowl and destroy and can make our lives miserable. Yet, the Devil has no eternal power over us and can do nothing to us apart from the permission of God, which means the Devil is often God’s tool to refine the Christian in faith.
But why does the Heidelberg Catechism speak of Jesus’ blood as that which breaks the power and tyranny of the Devil? The author of Hebrews puts it this way:
“Therefore, because the children share in the blood and flesh, he also similarly partook of it in order that through death he should exhaust him who holds the power of death, that is the devil.”
Peter similarly writes:
“And if you call upon him as Father, who is an impartial judge over the deeds of all, live in fear during your time as an alien, knowing that not with the perishable silver or gold you were ransomed from your vain lifestyle inherited from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ — like a lamb without blemish and without defect.”
(1 Peter 1:17-19)
Do you see what these texts are saying? The power that the Accuser had over us was that we stood guilty before the Law of God. Yet, with the death of Christ on the cross, he removes our guilt, taking it upon himself — Jesus being the substitute to fully satisfy the Law of God for all of God’s elect. And if Jesus has done this, then the power the devil has over us is exhausted — completely and thoroughly. There is no nuance of the Law that Jesus did not satisfy and thus the Devil is without power.
And, for those who go through trials in this life where it seems as if the Devil is perpetually pouncing, this is good and encouraging news. Sadly, there are many who would rob the Christian of this assurance. They would argue that the death of Christ only creates a potentiality not an actuality. In other words, they say that Jesus’ death makes it possible for a person to be released from the Devil’s grasp, but there remains in the hands of the individual believer an action that must be taken to turn this potential into something that is realized. In most cases, that action is a choice that the person must make to ask for this release.
You might say, but what inmate in prison would not ask for release from their bondage? The reality is that many prisoners do not. They have become accustomed to their cells, they are afraid of what release might entail for them, the comfort of their wicked ways shines brighter to them than the moral obedience required in society. Further, in the kind of prison that unbelievers are in, from the point they enter the world, is such a kind as those in prison do not realize that they are in prison. They are bound and they know no different. And so, if they do not know they are enslaved, how is it possible to ask for release? Further, if they believe they are free agents, how will they believe those who will tell them otherwise? No, they must be given ears to hear that will register and understand their predicament and new ears, just like new life, must come from God, not man.
In addition, the presumption that man must ask for release implies that there is some small nuance of the Law that Jesus’ blood did not satisfy. And if one suggests that Jesus’ blood does not satisfy even the smallest bit of the Law, does that not contradict what Jesus said when he claimed to come to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17)? I do not think that even those who claim you must ask for Jesus’ fulfilled work would be so bold as to suggest that Jesus’ death is lacking, but that is the implication of their view.
Think of it in this way. If someone commits a crime and is sent to prison for a five-year sentence. At the end of his (or her) designated time, that person is set free. Not only does that person not have to ask to be set free, but were that person to ask to remain in prison for another 3-5 years, his request would be flatly denied — the demands of the law have been satisfied, it would be unjust to keep you in prison for a crime that is no longer held against you. And, if such is the case with earthly prisons, how much more so when it comes to eternity?
No, if one suggests that a small portion of the Law has not been satisfied (namely the request to make it your own), then the Devil still has leverage in your life. Perhaps you did not ask in the right way. Perhaps you need to ask more frequently than you have done so. Perhaps the asking did not “take,” could it be that since you still struggle with sins that you were mistaken in your asking? Do you see how easily the Devil can exploit this gap? If a weed gets its roots set in even the smallest crack in your concrete walkway, it will grow and expand that crack — it will even break the concrete to pieces if left unchecked long enough. And this idea of “decision theology” leaves open no mere crack, but a chasm large enough to bring doubt through.
No, loved ones, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus’ work is sufficient to save and there is nothing we can add to it and nothing we can take from it. That means the Law has been fully and absolutely fulfilled by Jesus for God’s elect. God then applies that salvation in His time by giving people spiritual rebirth and faith so that they might have ears to hear the call of the Gospel and that they might have lips to repent of their sins and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, the believer makes a confession, but the confession is not that which applies salvation to their soul, no, the confession is the response to God’s saving work in their lives.
And thus, believer, take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world and in faith, we too are overcomers.
As human beings, it is normal to crave that sense of belonging. We feel comfort in the knowledge that there are people with whom we identify that will claim us as their own and who will not leave us utterly alone. Of course, on the most basic level, this ought to be found in one’s family, though with so many dysfunctional and broken families in our world, people often have to look elsewhere. In principle, too, this ought to be found in the church, but again, churches are made up of fallen and sinful people who sometimes fall into a group of cliques. For much of my adolescence and into my adult years, belonging was found in a small group of friends. Yet, for many youth in America, this need for belonging finds its expression in destructive and violent forms like gangs, secret societies, and the like. This drive to belong to a group is so profound and cross-cultural that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, referred to mankind as “the political animal” (people deriving their identity from life in the city).
The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1, presents another response to the matter of belonging. It asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” — in other words, if we draw comfort from our sense of belonging…to whom do we belong? The first part of the answer is, “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In other words, while your friends will fail you and your church will fail you, while even your friends will fail you, there is one who will never fail you. And the one who will never fail or abandon you is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are believers, we belong to him body and soul, in life and in death.
With this, though, comes an important reality. You see, belonging to Christ is not quite the same as belonging to a group of friends or to a civic organization. With a civic organization, one picks and chooses in what they will participate; with a group of friends, sometimes the bond of friendship is conditional or just for a season. When it comes to belonging to Christ, it is permanent and Christ has the right and power to make demands on your life. It is not a voluntary association, but it is a bondage akin to slavery. In fact, that is what the Apostle Paul calls his relationship with Christ (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 7:22-23; Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6).
Many people struggle with the idea that the Christian is a slave to Christ, but as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians (above), we were bought at a price. But think about it this way, we never were truly free in an autonomous sort of way. We were born as slaves to sin (John 8:34). Paul goes further than that and says that you are slaves to the one whom you obey (Romans 6:16) and the author of Hebrews makes it very clear that Jesus delivered us from our lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:15). So, we can think of it this way…we were born into this world as slaves to sin but Christ bought his elect, making us slaves to himself. Absolute and autonomous freedom is a myth. The real question is not whether you are a slave, but “to whom do you submit your obedience?”
The irony of it all is that if you submit your obedience to Christ, you will find true freedom — not autonomous freedom, but freedom to a God who will lead you down a path that will offer true and eternal satisfaction and joy. In the Old Testament, slaves who had served a truly benevolent master could choose to remain his slave rather than to be set free (see Exodus 21:1-6). This is the kind of relationship we have with Christ as our benevolent master. Yes, that means he can make demands on our lives. Yes, that means he will command us to do things and go places that will stretch us out of our comfort zones. Yes, that means sometimes he will call us to sacrifice our earthly lives for the building of His kingdom. And yes, that also means there will be times when the cost of being Christ’s disciple will be greater than you can dream. Nevertheless, across the scope of eternity, despite the costs that might be experienced on earth, in Christ there is eternal joy…and in that, Heidelberg reminds us, we will find our true comfort.
And by the way, in light of this and what Paul is discussing in Romans 6, if you are not sacrificing to live for Christ, if you are living for yourself, or just playing lip-service to Jesus and then no being intentionally obedient to his Word…then you are still a slave and you are a slave to sin…repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ.
“Comfort, Comfort, my people, says your God.”
So, what is comfort and why is it important? The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses is נחם (nacham), which means “to ease one’s regrets or griefs.” When the Hebrew scribes translated this passage into Greek, they translated נחם (nacham) as παρακαλέω (parakaleo), which means “to encourage, to treat with care and hospitality, or simply to call out to someone — to exhort (which is an aspect of preaching). When Jerome translated this into Latin, he used the term consolor, which means “to console or to lighten someone’s spirit.” By the time Wycliffe was translating this text, he chose to use the word, “comfort,” which comes from the Latin root, comfortis, which means “to forcefully strengthen.”
The Heidelberg Catechism begins by speaking of the only “comfort” for the Christian in life and in death — the word which Ursinus and Olevianus (Heidelberg’s principle authors) chose here in the original German was trost, again, a word that means to comfort or console and the word that Luther used to translate this passage in Isaiah. Yet, this first question to the catechism assumes that comfort is something that Christians both want and need, which brings us back to the question, why is it important?
While the question needs to be asked, lest we be unclear as to the “why,” it ought to be rather obvious to the Christian as to why we need comfort in this world. It is a world that is fallen, a world that is marked by sin, and it is a world that is filled with death and decay. And, as we grow older and mature every day, our bodies weaken and grow more frail; disease wreaks havoc on young and old and the wicked in this world seek to use the weak to gain power for themselves. While we have little stabs of joy in this life, how much more often do we need to face trial and discouragement. Hence, we need comfort — we need to be forcefully strengthened, we need to be consoled in our times of sorrow, and we need to have the weight of our grief lessened. That is why we need comfort and question 1 in the catechism will explore wherein we find that comfort as Christians. For now, though, it is important to be reminded that not only is comfort something that we need as God’s own, it is something that God desires and designs to give to us in his Son, Jesus Christ — hence the language of the prophet Isaiah who looks forward toward the coming of the suffering servant.
Seek your comfort in Christ, dear friends, and not in the decaying things of this world. Further, recognize that this world is not our home, so why would we ever think we can be contented here?