The Heidelberg Catechism – A Trustworthy Guide

When I got my driver’s license two years ago, I considered buying a GPS. I have never been the best with directions, often relying on “turn left at the gas station” rather than “go north 6 miles.” I worried about getting lost, but looking back, I am glad I did not make the purchase.  A GPS bought two years ago would have lost much of its value by now. Roads and rest stops have changed, and now I could buy a single device that does much more than give directions. But soon that device too will be outdated. New technology is constantly refilling the shelves, leaving yesterday’s marvels in the dust. In contrast to these tools and devices, I have a guide for my spiritual life that remains trustworthy after 450 years: the Heidelberg Catechism. With its simple, orderly style, the Heidelberg Catechism provides a practical and personal guide in our ever-changing, truth-denying world.

According to Lord’s Day 7, faith is first “a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word.” In order to love and serve God, I must know him. To know God, I must read his revelation in scripture. Only the Bible is infallible and inspired, but the Heidelberg Catechism helps me understand scripture by laying out the essential doctrines of faith in a structured manner. It clearly summarizes the ideas taught by multiple verses throughout scripture, and scriptural proof lies behind every Lord’s Day. The truths taught in the Heidelberg Catechism form the foundation of my faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism is structured in order to teach me this crucial knowledge of God. From early childhood to adulthood, humans learn by asking questions. Anyone could attest to the fact that children love to ask, “Why?”  Or take the scientific method for example; step one is, “Ask a question.” With its question and answer style, the Heidelberg Catechism is uniquely fit for instruction.

Each article of the Catechism brings forth a new question that I may face, and each question logically follows the next.  For example, Q 20 asks if all men are saved in Christ. The answer is, “No, only those who are ingrafted into him, and receive all his benefits, by a true faith.” The next obvious question is, “What is true faith?”, and this is precisely the next question and answer given in Q&A 21. From question to question, Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, the catechism follows a logical progression of questions and answers that lead me to a more complete knowledge of God.

In addition to the logical flow of questions, the overall structure of the Heidelberg catechism is orderly. The Catechism is divided into three main parts. The first convicts me as a sinner. The second gives me the comfort of salvation from this sin in Christ. The catechism teaches the blessings of our salvation through the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, explaining the role of each member of the Trinity. The second part also teaches me about the sacraments of baptism and The Lord’s supper as the means by which God confirms the promise of my salvation. The third part tells me how to live a life pleasing to God: the natural response to the salvation described in the second part. The third part also teaches the requirements of God’s law and the necessary parts of proper prayer. By teaching guilt, grace, and gratitude, the Heidelberg Catechism thoroughly sets forth the essentials of faith.

Another outstanding characteristic of the Heidelberg Catechism is its timelessness. The Catechism was first published in 1563 after a commission from Elector Frederick III (The Confessions and the Church Order of the PRC). Four hundred fifty years later, the truths it teaches remain applicable, and the style remains understandable. I think I can safely say that no other guide or tool made 450 years ago remains practical today. Although the Catechism certainly reflects the time period in which it was written (for example, the Roman Catholic practice of mass is dealt with extensively because it was a weighty issue at the time), the truth remains the same, and the priniciples presented can be continually applied to whatever new issues arise. The simple and beautiful instruction of the Heidelberg Catechsim has preserved the truth for 450 years, and Lord willing, it will continue to do so for many generations to come.

With its practical format and style, the Heidelberg Catechism provides an invaluable resource for teaching God’s word through the preaching. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Holy Spirit works faith in my heart “by the preaching of the gospel” ( Q&A 65). The Canons of Dordt also teach that God begins working his saving grace in me by the preaching (Canons 5.14). The Heidelberg Catechism provides an orderly approach to this essential preaching. By preaching one Lord’s Day each week, our churches can systematically go through all the necessary doctrines of scripture over a year or two.  In this way, the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism helps preserve the church in the doctrinal truths of scripture.

Without the Heidelberg Catechism and our other creeds, the church would be lost in the ambiguous atmosphere of the world today. Many churches today have lost their foundation because they have replaced doctrinal sermons with entertainment and “short messages” about Christ’s love. Of even greater concern are the postmodern movements that proudly declare that there is no absolute truth. The idea of a structured set of doctrine is almost unheard of in today’s culture, in which acceptance replaces morality, and tolerance is the greatest virtue.

The truths of scripture as they are clearly set forth by the Catechism are essential. Despite the ideas of the world today, the many questions of life must have only one answer, and they all can be found in scripture. The Heidelberg Catechism aids me in the search for and defense of this truth by setting forth the Biblical answers in an easy to understand and logical manner. I can find immense comfort knowing that I have the Catechism as a guide against the many false teachings of the world.

Clearly the Heidelberg Catechism helps provide the knowledge necessary to know God, but we also must remember that “the knowledge of faith is not simply a collection of facts which one cognizes, categorizes, and debates like armchair theology. The knowledge which is the Reformed faith is known and lived” (Smidstra). According to Q&A 21, true faith is also “an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart.” I can know a lot about God and his works, but I also need to believe and confess these truths from my heart. The Heidelberg Catechism helps make this possible with its personal perspective.

Every question and answer in the Catechism is worded as a personal confession. In Q&A 1, the Catechism does not say, “Christians belong unto their faithful savior Jesus Christ.” It says “I belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” By using first person pronouns, the Heidelberg Catechism makes me apply each doctrine to my life personally so that the words come from my heart, not just my head.

The focus of the catechism is also personal. It is not just a cold list of doctrinal principles to be memorized.  Lord’s Day 1 could have begun with the hard, condemning truth of total depravity. Instead the Heidelberg Catechism begins with a comforting answer to the meaning and goal of my life: I belong to Christ, my Savior, and “without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head” (Q&A 1). From the first Lord’s Day to the last, the Catechism teaches the gospel, the “good news” of my salvation in Christ.

Another aspect of the personal nature of the Heidelberg Catechism is that it applies to me throughout my life. I distinctly remember the sound of tapping pens as I wrote out that week’s memorized Lord’s Days with my Heidelberg Catechism class. I had heard the Heidelberg Catechism preached every Sunday since I could first sit quietly in church, but it was then that the importance of the Catechism began to take shape in my mind. In class they were memorized answers, but as I mature, I grow in my understanding of the meaning and application of each Lord’s Day. Each new sermon and each new  year brings new meaning to the things taught in the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism provides comfort and understanding to every member of the church, from the children to the elderly.

Some could argue that the weekly preaching of the Catechism is repetitive, but each series on the Catechism provides a different perspective, and those listening find new ways to apply it to their ever-changing lives. Herman Hoeksema eloquently states this idea in the preface to his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Triple Knowledge. He says that when the Catechism is faithfully preached, “so that with every new series the preacher enters upon his task with new zeal…neither he nor his congregation ever grow weary of this form of doctrinal preaching, but rather grow in their appreciation of it and, of course, increase in their capacity to receive it”  (Hoeksema). The questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism are simple enough for a child to understand, yet deep enough to delve into for a lifetime.

The Heidelberg Catechism is a better guide and tool than any device or gadget this world can provide. Its order provides clarity. Its teachable instruction aids the preservation of doctrine, and its timeless truth and personal perspective lead me to confess my faith from the heart. Amid the turmoil of this life, the Heidelberg Catechism provides practical and personal instruction essential for faith and a godly life. As I go forward to college, the workplace, and the rest of my life, I am thankful that I have the orderly Heidelberg Catechism as my guide.


Works Cited

Hoeksema, Herman. The Triple Knowledge, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1970. Print.

Smidstra, Justin. “Walking by Faith (2).” 25 June 2013. Young Calvinists. web. 26 June 2013.

The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. Print.