Four hundred fifty years ago the first addition of the Heidelberg Catechism was written by Zacharias Ursinus and his faithful helper, Caspar Olevianus. The two men had been commissioned by Elector Friedrich III who aimed to influence both the temporal and the eternal life of his subjects. He wanted to teach them what it meant to live in the fear of the Lord, as well as promote a peaceful and civil life. Friedrich’s goal was met and the Heidelberg Catechism has been republished by the millions since then. In fact, there are few other books that have gone through more editions than the Catechism. Throughout the years it has been translated into almost every spoken language.
The question arises, How did this catechism become so well loved and so admired? There are many other catechisms; why are they not as well-received as the Heidelberg Catechism? There are several reasons for this. One reason that could account for the popularity of the Catechism is that as Christians were persecuted, they traveled and brought it with them, spreading it farther. Another contributing factor could have been that the Catechism was almost always published in the context of church use, and in many churches it was stipulated to be preached every Sunday. These factors are reasonable explanations; they definitely helped in the spread and popularity of the Catechism. But I believe there is an even better explanation. The Catechism not only has a very logical and well thought out order, making it easily accessible to everyone, but is also a confession that is practical for believers everywhere, and is based solely on scripture, making it a reliable confession.
The logical order of the Catechism has contributed greatly to its popularity over the years. The memorable alliterations that have been often stated sum up the entirety of a Christian’s life: “Sin, Salvation, Service” or “Guilt, Grace, Gratitude”. The Catechism follows these three sections in order. The first Lord’s Day summarizes these three sections, stating that though we have sins and have been in times past under the power of the devil, Christ has made us his own through his saving work on the cross and has delivered us from the power of the devil. Christ also has made us sincerely willing and ready to live unto him, which speaks of the thankfulness we ought to show in response to such a gracious deliverance. Lord’s Days 2–4 speak of our debt—the debt of our original guilt and sin, of our old man within us, and of our actual sins. It speaks of our misery, where we got it, and how we come to know this misery. Lord’s Days 5–31 speak of the salvation that Christ provides for his elect. Lord’s Days 32–52 speak of the thankfulness we owe to God for such a deliverance and elaborate on the different ways God’s people can show this thankfulness—through keeping his commandments and through prayer. Since any piece of scripture relates to one or more of these three headings, it is fitting that the catechism has these three sections.
The logical order the catechism follows makes it easy for its readers to follow along and get a better grasp of what the Christian life is all about. Just as a good sermon has different points that flow into one another in a logical fashion, such that the audience is able to listen without getting lost, so the Catechism has these three sections that logically flow into one another and complete the picture. When one’s thoughts and ideas are written down in a jumble on paper, no matter how intellectual or erudite the thoughts are, the reader will be unable to follow the author’s points and easily handle the subjects placed before him. The catechism’s logical flow and the three divisions have aided readers and thus led to the catechism’s being so well-loved and popular.
This is not the only factor that led to the catechism being so admirable, however. The confession that Ursinus and Olevianus wrote is also practical. It is practical not only because it teaches us the doctrines of the Reformed faith, but also because it tells us how to apply these doctrines to our lives; the concern of the catechism is not the doctrines themselves, but the doing and use of these doctrines. For example, Lord’s Day 10 speaks of the doctrine of providence. It could simply state the definition of providence and stop with that; instead it tells us how this truth affects us as Christians: knowing the doctrine of providence allows us to be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and able to trust in God as we look to the future.
Another example of the practicality of the catechism can be found in Lord’s Day 12, which speaks of the offices of Christ. The catechism does not finish by merely stating that Christ serves in the office of prophet, priest, and king. It goes farther. We read that as our prophet, Christ speaks the word of God through the preaching, the word, and through his Holy Spirit. This applies to us today. One of the most obvious applications of this doctrine is how we approach going to church on Sunday, and how attentive we are through the sermons. We listen differently knowing that Christ as our prophet is speaking through the minister. The catechism expands on Christ’s being our priest, speaking of the sacrifice he made for us, his people. It tells us how he consecrates us so we can serve him, and how today Christ prays and intercedes for us. What a comfort! Christ’s office of king is also practical for us today, and the catechism expands on this as well, teaching how Christ as our king rules us by his word and Spirit, and how Christ defends and cares for us in the battle against sin and Satan.
All these things are practical and are comforting to believers, yet the catechism gives even more practical teaching on the offices of Christ. It teaches us that we too are called to serve in these offices just as Christ did. Christ was our example. We must be prophets by confessing his name and speaking to and encouraging others. As priests, our calling is to present our bodies living sacrifices of thankfulness. We present our bodies as living sacrifices every day of our lives. How could this not be practical? The thoughts we think, the actions we do, the lives we live—in all we do, we are to give glory to God. As kings, we are called to fight against sin, Satan, and the old man that is within us. This is a constant battle, one that we go through every single day. As kings, we also will reign with Christ in eternity. This gives us something to look forward to here on earth as we go through many challenges and trials. These doctrines apply to us every day of our lives!
The catechism’s instruction on the ten commandments application also provides substantial application for believers today. With each commandment, we are instructed how that commandment affects how we act in certain circumstances: what we think, and even the positive applications of them. For example, in Lord’s Day 36 we are taught that keeping the third commandment not only means that we must not use God’s name rashly, but we are also taught that we must not commit perjury, curse, or even be part of this sin through silence or connivance. Positively, the catechism states we are to fear and reverence God and his name, rightly confess and worship him, and glorify him through all our words and works. The catechism again gives practical instruction. We could go through Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day and see the practical applications that are brought forward over and over.
In addition to being practical in its teachings, it is also practical in its choice of words and syntax. The Heidelberg Catechism is easily understandable to readers of every age. Younger readers—and even older ones at times—may need some things explained; but for the most part, the catechism is written in a way that it is beneficial to all believers. That the catechism is easily understandable does not in any way mean that it is a watered down summary of the Bible, taking away key truths of the Reformed faith for the sake of aiding the young or uneducated. Rather, it is a confession that preserves all the important truths that scripture teaches and at the same time remains a confession that is easily understood.
Though the Catechism is simple, it is also exceptionally beautiful and rich. It is beautiful and rich because it is a personal confession. This is one of the reasons why this catechism has flourished among so many. The beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism is striking and attractive because it is personal. Our only comfort in life in death is:
“That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
What a personal confession!
We could look at other catechisms that approach humanity abstractly from the perspective of its status as God’s creation. In contrast, the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on how the individual believers belong to Christ—have a living bond to him—rather than addressing the them as mere creatures. The way that the Heidelberg Catechism starts off is an indication of its practical character as a whole. Over and over again we are told what the use of different spiritual events in salvation history are, and what use the knowledge they provide is for us and how it relates to us as Christians.
The Catechism is also beautiful because it is based solely on scripture. Unlike most literary works, we don’t see a list of people who contributed their own ideas, at the end of the Heidelberg Catechism. Instead, along with each question and answer, numerous scripture references are provided. For example, when we read in the Catechism that true conversion consists of two parts, namely the mortification of the old and the quickening of the new, we can look at Ephesians 4:22–23 and read the very same thing, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation of the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” scripture is the basis of the Catechism; it is not based on ideas that man came up with, formulated to make enjoyable reading—what Ursinus and Olevianus wrote is a beautiful summary of God’s Word.
This beautiful summary has stood the test of time, first and foremost, because it is based on God’s word. The Heidelberg Catechism is so well loved because it is a faithful and reliable confession. It is also so well loved because of how well put together it is, how organized, and yet how personal it is to the readers. As we continue to hear sermons from the Heidelberg Catechism with scripture as its foundation, when we read the Heidelberg Catechism in our devotions, or as we discuss it in catechism class or in Bible studies, stop to think about what a wonderful gift God has given us—what a wonderful summary of his word he has given us. Most importantly, thank God for the greatest gift of all—his Son—who has with his precious blood fully satisfied for all our sins and delivered us from all the power of the devil, who so preserves us that without the will of our heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from our head, and who makes all things subservient to our salvation. Thank him for the assurance of eternal life he has given us and his work within us!
Selderhuis, H. “The Heidelberg Catechism: The Secret of Its Success – See More At: Http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/resources/speeches.html#sthash.phcCpfBY.dpuf.” Heidelberg Catechism. 28 June 2013. Lecture.
Strong, James, and John McClintock. “Historic Church Documents at Reformed.org.” Cyclopedia Of Biblical, Theological And Ecclesiastical Literature. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Historic Church Documents at Reformed.org. CRTA. Web. 28 June 2013.
Van Vliet, J. “Interview: Catechism Preaching.” Interview. Heidelberg Catechism. Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, n.d. Web. 28 June 2013. <http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/resources/speeches.html#>.
Heidelberg Catechism in Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville, MI: PRCA, 2005.