The Heidelberg Catechism – To Teach Covenant Children in the Fear of the Lord

Six thousand years ago, God commanded Adam and Eve to bear children. All throughout the Old Testament, God commanded his people to tell their children of his wonderful works. In the New Testament, Christ commands that fathers teach their children the Scriptures and raise them in the instruction and discipline of God. Those commands come to all of God’s church through all of time. Four hundred fifty years ago, the need for something to help parents, teachers, and ministers carry out this command was recognized. Elector Prince Frederick III of the Palatinate in Germany commissioned Reformed men to put together a “clear, concise, and popular statement of the doctrines of salvation in catechetical form” (“Introduction”). Zacharias Ursinus, one of the theologians in charge of the writing, also recognized the need for a simple yet comprehensive collection of the fundamental truths of Scripture to teach the people. The Christian’s indisputable calling to rear covenant children in the fear of the Lord, and the need for a means to help fulfill this calling prompted certain men of the church of the sixteenth century to write a summary of the gospel and its doctrines in the form of a catechism, which itself has proved to be an invaluable tool for the instruction of Christian youth, not only then, but even until today. This Catechism is truly “one of the finest fruits of the Reformation, tried and proven in the furnace of affliction” (“Introduction”).

To instruct children from the very first days of understanding in the truths of God and of his word, and to teach them that they must live in them every day is so important. This is not something that can be started a few years after understanding begins. These truths are not only the most important knowledge they will ever gain, but it is undoubtedly the essence of their lives, “for in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28, KJV). God’s people have their identity in him because he created them and bought them; everything they are comes from God, so they strive to do all for his glory because he saved his people from their sins. Parents have been entrusted with the children of God for a little while as the covenant children of Jehovah. In the vow taken at baptism, parents must promise to see that their children are taught the truths of the gospel as soon as they are able to comprehend simple teachings, complicating the doctrines as they grow and mature. This shows how important it is, as parents of the church cannot receive the sign of the covenant towards their children without vowing before God to raise them in the knowledge of the Lord and the gospel of salvation.

God promises to save in generations, so the children of the believers are in the covenant of God. To believe, they must know who they are believing in. One simply cannot believe in something or someone he does not know about. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10.14). They need to be taught about God and what he has done. “Our faith must be grounded in knowledge, not mere emotion, feeling, and experience” (denHartog). Faith may not be seeing, but it is not only feelings either. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11.1), and a person only hopes for something he knows a little something about; otherwise there would be no reason to hope for it.

This next generation is the future church, and one that must be preserved. God has preserved his saints through many difficult years, and will continue to do so until Christ returns, but parents of the church must teach their children, for they are the means through which God chooses to carry out the keeping of his church.

The men who instigated and composed the Heidelberg Catechism acknowledged and addressed a very important issue of instruction for the children. With the grace of God they put together this Catechism, which was used not only in church, but also in the seminaries and universities, as well as in the teaching of the home and lower schools. In November of 1563, preaching on the Catechism was made mandatory in the Reformed Church of the Palatinate when it was adopted into the Church Order. Even the state government required that the Heidelberg Catechism be taught in all schools and churches of the Palatinate.

Using the Heidelberg Catechism, the church of that day fulfilled the calling to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22.6a), because these children are the next generation of the church. Parents must teach them in this way so that, “when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22.6b). The need to preserve the church was obvious back in the days of Noah, Moses, Ezra, Paul, Calvin, and Ursinus, and will always be. The devil is always in the world trying to destroy the church.

As the church in sixteenth century Germany used the Heidelberg Catechism to instruct the children, so also does the church today. The Protestant Reformed Churches, along with many others, still hold the Catechism as a binding creed. Younger children are taught the truths of Scripture more simply. As they get older and become more able to understand more complex doctrines, they are explained in greater detail. Much of this instruction is based on the Heidelberg Catechism, and students will eventually memorize the Catechism itself. This will equip them with knowledge and lead them to a greater love of their heavenly Father because the Heidelberg Catechism shows them their sin and misery, how they have been delivered, and how to show thanks to God for that deliverance.                                                                                               Not only do the youth learn from the creed in catechism classes outside of Sunday worship, but they also hear the preaching from the Catechism nearly every Sunday. The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism organized the creed into fifty-two Lord’s Days, meant for one Lord’s Day to be taught each Sunday so that a church could potentially get through the Catechism in a year. Since all the essential doctrines of scripture and salvation are summarized in the Catechism, none will be missed when sermons are consistently preaching based on the questions and answers through all of the Catechism (Kamps).

The Heidelberg Catechism is also embedded into the Christian school system. Teachers are required to connect what they teach to the word of God, and they often use the Heidelberg Catechism to do that. Students are taught and often reminded that all that happens in history is part of God’s providence as stated in Lord’s Day 10. Through faith they can see in the science classes how God “of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 26, p. 7). With the Bible, the Catechism, and other creeds as the bases of the education system, Scriptural truths pervade all that is taught. As long as this is being done, steps are being taken to prevent the falling away from the truth of the next generation and to preserve the church (Engelsma, “Scripture”).

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4.4–6). The church is one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Together, all believers of all time make up the body and bride of Christ. One faith binds us together, and the Heidelberg Catechism sets before us as Christians the faith that has been believed by all of God’s church—latent, militant, and triumphant (Kamps). As the children are members of the covenant and part of the body of Christ, they must be taught and shown this. To teach the children of God his wondrous works and ways is to obey the calling of the Lord. Based on Psalm 78 the calling is given: “Let children learn God’s righteous ways and on him stay their heart, that they may not forget his works nor from His ways depart” (Psalter 215, v. 6). Set before us in Scripture is the necessity of instructing the children of the church in His ways. Among many reasons, the Catechism was written to assist parents, teachers, and ministers in this calling. And assisted it has, and will continue to do, so long as it is taught and applied. At the Synod of Dordt (1618–19), where the Catechism was approved, many agreed that there had never been a better Catechism written. It was stated, “Our Reformed brethren on the continent have a little book whose single leaves are not to be bought with tons of gold” (quoted in “Introduction”).

Thanks be to God for providing for us and for preserving by his providence such a means to instruct the children of believers in the fear of his name for four hundred fifty years and, Lord willing, unto the end of time.

“We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78, vv. 4, 6–7).



Works Cited

denHartog, Rev. Arie. “Excerpts from: “Catechism Instruction” by Rev. denHartog.” The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 June 2013. ”

Engelsma, Rev. David J. “The Necessity of Good Christian Schools.” The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. N.p., 26 Apr. 1998. Web. 6 June 2013.

Engelsma, Rev. David J. “Scripture in the Schools.” The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. N.p., 26 Apr. 1998. Web. 6 June 2013.

“Form for the Administration of Baptism” in The Psalter. p. 86-88. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

“The Heidelberg Catechism” in The Psalter. p. 3-27. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism.” RCUS: Reformed Churches in the U.S.. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 June 2013.

Kamps, Marvin. “Heidelberg Catechism Preaching: Our Reformed Heritage.” The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. N.p., 16 July 2000. Web. 6 June 2013.

King James Version., n.d. N. pag. Web. 25 June 2013

“Religious Training” (No. 215) in The Psalter. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Ursinas, Zacharias. “Excerpts from: “What is Catechism?” by Zacharias Ursinas.” The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 June 2013.