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The Good News We Almost Forgot
Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism
By Kevin L. DeYoung, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2010 Kevin L. DeYoung
All rights reserved.
Comfort, Comfort My People, Says Your God
The first question is easily the most famous in the Catechism. It may be the only part of the Catechism most Christians (even Reformed ones) ever hear. But I suppose, if you get to hear just one, this is a pretty good one to get.
The only catechism question as well known as this one is the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever." I've heard the Heidelberg criticized for beginning with man (what is my only comfort) instead of beginning with the glory of God like Westminster. But if we want to be picky, Westminster can be criticized for starting with what we ought to do rather than with what Christ has done for us, like the Heidelberg.
In truth, both catechisms start in appropriate places. Heidelberg starts with grace. Westminster starts with glory. We'd be hard-pressed to think of two better words to describe the theme of biblical revelation.
Heidelberg's first question is so striking because of the word "only." If it asked "what comforts" you, that would be a polite but underwhelming question. I'm comforted by sleep, chocolate chip cookies, a good book, and the soundtrack from The Mission. But when the Catechism asks what is your only comfort, it is getting at something deeper. "Comfort" translates the German word trost, which was, in turn, rendered consolatio in the first official Latin version. Trost is related to the English word "trust" and has the root meaning of "certainty" or "protection." Heidelberg is asking, "What is your solace in life? What is your only real security?"
Heidelberg's first question not only sets the theme for the whole Catechism (see Q/A 2, 52, 53, 57, 58), it also poses the most important question we will ever face. What enables you to endure life and face death unafraid? Is it that you read your Bible every day? That you attend church every Sunday? That you give to the poor? That you have a cushy retirement account saved up? That you haven't committed any of the big sins in life?
We live in a world where we expect to find comfort in possessions, pride, power, and position. But the Catechism teaches us that our only true comfort comes from the fact that we don't even belong to ourselves. How countercultural and counterintuitive! We can endure suffering and disappointment in life and face death and the life to come without fear of judgment, not because of what we've done or what we own or who we are, but because of what we do not possess, namely, our own selves.
Heidelberg's emphasis on belonging to Christ probably comes from John Calvin. Some people have the impression that John Calvin was a rigid, arid dogmatician, but actually his was a profoundly God-entranced heart. Listen to the passionate beat of Calvin's heart in this passage, which finds an echo in the Heidelberg Catechism: "We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God's: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God's: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God's: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal."
Question 1 of the Catechism shapes our whole existence. The first thing we need to know as a Christian is that we belong to Jesus and not ourselves.
But it doesn't help much to know all about comfort and joy if we don't know what is required to live and die in this comfort and joy. Belonging to Jesus and not ourselves means knowing three things: guilt, grace, and gratitude. The rest of the Catechism will follow this threefold outline. First, we understand our sin. Then we understand salvation. And finally we understand how we are sanctified to serve.
All three things are necessary. If we don't know about our sin-which brings a true sense of guilt-we will be too confident in our abilities to do right and make the world a better place. We will ignore our most fundamental problem, which is not lack of education, or lack of opportunity, or lack of resources but sin and its attendant misery. But if we don't know how we are set free from this sin and misery-which comes through God's grace-we will try to fix ourselves in futility or give up altogether in despair. And if we don't know how to thank God, showing gratitude for such deliverance, we will live in a self-centered, self-referential bubble, which is not why God saved us from our sin and misery in the first place. If Christians would hold to all "three things" and not just one or two, we would be saved from a lot of poor theology and bad ideas.
And don't miss the underlying assumption in these first two questions: we are meant to live and die in the joy of this comfort. That so few Christians do is a testimony to both how hard life can be and how little we meditate on what it means to belong to Christ. Comfort does not mean Christ makes all the bad things in life go away. Comfort, as Ursinus put it, "results from a certain process of reasoning, in which we oppose something good to something evil, that by a proper consideration of this good, we may mitigate our grief, and patiently endure the evil." In other words, comfort puts before us a greater joy to outweigh present and anticipated sufferings.
When we think of living and dying in comfort, we imagine La-Z-Boy recliners, back rubs, and all the food you can eat (with none of the pounds, of course). But the Catechism has in mind a different kind of comfort, one that is deeper, higher, richer, and sweeter. We find this comfort by admitting our sin, instead of excusing it; by trusting in Another instead of ourselves; and by living to give thanks instead of being thanked.CHAPTER 2
Misery Loves Company
Compared with the amount of time spent on other topics, the Heidelberg Catechism does not spend a lot of time on human depravity. The grace section of the Catechism covers twenty-seven Lord's Days and seventy-four Questions and Answers. The gratitude section is only a little shorter, covering twenty-one Lord's Days and forty-four Questions and Answers. The guilt section is by far the shortest with only three Lord's Days and nine Questions and Answers. The authors of the Catechism wanted Heidelberg to be an instrument of comfort, not condemnation.
But they also realized that true, lasting consolation can only come to those who know of their need to be consoled. The first thing we need in order to experience the comfort of the gospel is to be made uncomfortable with our sin. The comfort of the gospel doesn't skirt around the issue of sin, or ignore it like positive thinking preachers and self-help gurus. It looks at sin square in the eye, acknowledges it, and deals with it. While many people will tell us to stop focusing on sin and to lighten up because we aren't "bad" people, the Catechism tells us just the opposite. In order to have comfort, we must first see our sin-induced misery.
And the way we see our misery is through the law. The law is good (1 Tim. 1:8), so the problem is not with the law per se. The problem is that we cannot keep the law. Any careful, protracted meditation on the Ten Commandments, let alone the 613 commandments of the Torah, will leave the honest person feeling rather like Eeyore–gloomy gray, and depressed. The Bible is full of many wonderful ethical commands, which would be very inspiring except for the fact that we are not wonderful, ethical people.
We often hear that all religions are basically the same in that they all encourage us to love our neighbors, help the poor, forgive others, and generally be kind, compassionate people. Even if this were true (which it isn't when you get down to specifics), it would miss the point, because Christianity is not a religion mainly about a moral code to keep. Christianity is about a God who saves people who don't keep the moral code.
The law doesn't inspire me to be a better me or find the god within me. The law beats me down and shows me how miserable I am. In all the fussing over the Ten Commandments in courthouses and school buildings in this country, have we forgotten that the law is more than a great set of principles? Yes, the law has a lot of great principles, and all of them are intended to show us how great we are not.
But let's be clear: Jesus believed in the law. He did not come to abolish it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus wants us to love God and love our neighbor as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament rules and regulations. That's why Jesus taught this simple and beautiful summary of the law as recorded in Matthew 22.
But Jesus' standard is unattainable. I often hear the gospel (mis)explained nowadays as merely an invitation into a kingdom way of life. It's said, for example, that Jesus' statement in John 14:6 about being the way, the truth, and the life simply means, to some, that Jesus is the best way to live. It is certainly true that Jesus is the best way to live, but no one lives like Jesus! We never have and we never will.
We don't live like Jesus because without the Spirit's work in our lives, we can't. Most of us can't keep our houses clean like we want, or stick to a budget like we desire, or manage our time like we mean to. So what makes us think we can live like Jesus and do everything a holy God requires of us? The Catechism puts the matter rather bluntly: "I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor." That sentence sums up a gigabyte of biblical teaching. No one is righteous (Rom. 3:10). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9). The natural man is dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). By nature, we pass our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3). The passages just keep coming, pounding us into submission until we cry "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.... Woe is me! For I am lost ..." (Isa. 6:3, 5).
We can't keep 613 commandments perfectly. Neither can we keep ten. We can't even keep two. Isn't it ironic that the Catechism shows us our misery through one of the most treasured, devotional passages in all the Scriptures? Everyone loves Matthew 22. "Just teach the two great commandments," people say. "Avoid theological wrangling. Avoid doctrine and propositions. Love God; love neighbor-this is what it means to follow Jesus." True enough, but where do we turn for comfort when we despised God and ignored our neighbor for the tenth time today? Do you really love God with every fiber of your being, never putting any person or dream or possession before Him? And do you really love your neighbor as yourself, always aiming for the advancement of others, always putting the needs of others ahead of your own, and always treating others just as you wish to be treated?
Many people, well-meaning church leaders included, are eager to boil down Christianity to the great commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes, or Micah 6:8, or some other powerful summary of God's ethical intentions. But if all I have are God's ethical intentions for my life, I'm in a worse fix than simply losing my tail like Eeyore. My own efforts to be a good person are, in comparison to what God requires of me, positively miserable. I'll be damned, discouraged, and dismayed if being a follower of Jesus means nothing but a new set of things I'm supposed to do for Him. Instead, my following Jesus should be, first of all, a declaration of all that He has done for me.CHAPTER 3
It's Really That Bad
Why are we the way we are? Why are we so self-centered and self-absorbed? Is this how God made us-petty, proud, and perverse?
The answer to the final question, of course, is no. God made us to be just like Him. Sometimes we hear people say, "Well, isn't she the spitting image of her mother." I'm not sure what spitting has to do with it, but most of us have heard the saying before. It means "She looks and act just like her mother. Anyone can tell that one came from and belongs to the other." In the same way, we were created to be the spitting image of God.
This doesn't mean God has a body and is about six foot three with blue eyes. It means that Adam and Eve were created to have the character of God and live on earth as God's representatives. We are more than a mass of molecules. We are more than the sum of blood, bones, tissues, organs, and skin. Of all His creatures, we are unique in that we can know God, hear from God, communicate with God, and have union with God. This is not true of a giraffe or a beetle or a mourning dove. We are more important, more intelligent, and more magnificent than plants, animals, mountains, and microbes, because we are unique among God's creation, made just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5). We have souls. We were made to know God and look like God. That's how things were in the beginning.
But all of this has changed. Let's go back to the garden of Eden. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a probationary tree. It was there to test Adam. "Do this and live," God said. "Disobey and die." Adam disobeyed, so he died ... and so Paradise died and so we die.
As a result of the fall, shame enters the world-Adam and Eve realize they are naked (3:7). Fear enters the world-Adam and Eve hide from God (3:10). Blame enters the world-the man blames God for giving him the woman, and the woman blames the serpent for deceiving her (3:11–13). Pain enters the world (3:16). Relationships break down (3:16). Just making it in life will be a chore (3:17).
Because of Adam's sin, God curses the serpent, curses the woman, curses the man, and curses the ground. So serpents slither, women have pain in childbirth, men are frustrated by work, and the earth produces thorns and thistles. All of creation, in other words, is subjected to futility, so that creation itself now eagerly awaits freedom from its decay (Rom. 8:20–25).
Moreover, because of Adam's sin, human nature has been tarnished. J. C. Ryle, the Anglican bishop from the nineteenth century, said we are like smashed-up temples. There is still a trace of original splendor as creatures made in the image of God, but the temple that was once glorious now has windows broken and columns crumbling and doorways smashed in. We are not what we once were.
The Catechism makes clear that we are not just imitators of our first parents, sinning like Adam and Eve. We are born with a warped nature, tainted with an inherent and inherited corruption from conception on. We absolutely must get this right if we are to make sense of the Catechism and Christianity. Our fundamental problem is not bad parents, bad schools, bad friends, or bad circumstances. Our fundamental problem is a bad heart. And every single one of us is born into the world with it.
"All right, all right," you may be saying, "I am a bad person. I make mistakes. I'm not perfect. I agree. But I'm not that bad." Not so fast, says the Catechism. We are not just flawed. We are, to use the theological terminology, totally depraved. This doesn't mean we are bad all the time or as bad as we possibly could be. And this doesn't mean unregenerate people are incapable of morally outstanding acts. Total depravity means two things: (1) We are bad through and through (in head and heart and will), and (2) we are unable to do anything truly righteous because our "good" acts do not come from faith and do not aim at the glory of God.
Excerpted from The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin L. DeYoung, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2010 Kevin L. DeYoung. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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