Friday, November 28, 2008

The Heidelberg Catechism's Approach to Christian Piety

I am currently reading R. Scott Clark's book Recovering the Reformed Confession. I wanted to quote portions of a section from his book dealing with the piety or kind of Christian life the Heidelberg Catechism aims at producing. This part of Clark's book fits quite nicely with the aim of The Heidel-Bible Blog.

"With its emphasis on the ordinary [means of grace], the confessional Reformed theology did produce a vital personal and profound piety grounded in the objective saving work of God in Christ and empowered by the Christian's union with the ascended Christ wrought by the Holy Spirit. The very structure of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), as indicated in the second question, is indicative of the confessional Reformed approach to piety. From God's holy law we learn first the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for a Savior. From the gospel, we learn how believers are redeemed from sin and misery. Following from our redemption is the Christian life, that is, how we ought to be thankful for such redemption.

"Even before the third part of the catechism, there are indications of the sort of piety the classic Reformed theology envisioned. According to HC Q. 32, we are partakers of Christ's anointing, with the result that the Christian life is a 'sacrifice of thankfulness,' in which we fight against sin and the devil. The same theme recurs in Q. 43. There are two great benefits of Christ's death on the cross. The second of them is that 'thereby our old man is crucified, slain and buried with him, that so the evil lusts of the flesh may no more reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves unto him as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.' Because of our union with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, we are 'raised up to a new life' (Q. 45). God the Spirit has given to us as 'an earnest, by whose power we seek those things which are above' (Q. 49). God the Spirit has not only effected our union with Christ, but he himself has been given to me, 'comforts me,' and through him Christ shall abide with me ever (Q. 53). Through Christ's presence with me, I 'feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy' (Q. 58). This same Spirit necessarily works in us the 'fruits of thankfulness' (Q. 64).

"All this occurs before the catechism actually turns its attention formally to the doctrine of sanctification. The Christian life is the process of being renewed by the Holy Spirit in the image of Christ. Consequently, we must 'show ourselves thankful to God' (Q. 86). The theme of the Christian life as a death returns in questions 88-90. The Christian life is the 'dying of the old man,' that is, mortification of sin, and the 'making alive of the new' (Q. 88). Mortification entails hatred for and turning from sin (Q. 89). Spiritual renewal is 'heartfelt joy' in God and delighting in his revealed moral will. One of the most interesting things, however, about the catechism's view of piety is its definition and use of prayer. Having accounted for sin and death, the gospel, the means of grace, and God's moral will for believers, the catechism turns to prayer in its exposition of the Lord's Prayer.

'Why is prayer necessary? Because it is the 'chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us.' He has ordered his relations with his people so that 'he will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to such as heartily and without ceasing beg for them from him and render thanks unto him for them.'

"The catechism defines prayer more closely in the subsequent question (Q. 117). Christian prayer comes from the heart, according to God's Word, to the only true God, as he 'has revealed himself to us.' In order to pray properly, we must be aware of God's majestic presence, we must know our 'need and misery and we must pray believing that the Father hears our prayers for Christ's sake.' Given the tripartite structure of the catechism, it is significant that prayer appears at the very end. Prayer is the chief way for believers, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, to express their faith and to work out their salvation 'with fear and trembling' (Phil. 2:12). It is the evidence and expression of the Spirit's work of gratitude in the heart of the Christian. While, considered narrowly, private prayer is not a 'means of grace,' it is a wonderfully joyous duty to commune with the Father, through the Son, by virtue of the Holy Spirit's help. It is a great privilege to exercise our personal relationship with Christ by asking of God 'all things necessary for soul and body (Q. 118) according to the pattern revealed in the Lord's Prayer."

A bit later, Clark writes, "We are not on a quest to experience God apart from the divinely ordained means. . . . No tradition has written more deeply or more carefully about the intimate personal relations between the Savior and his saved (Clark is speaking of the Reformed tradition); but, unlike Meister Eckhart or Catherine of Siena, we have located our rather modest mysticism in Word and sacrament. The Spirit works a mystical union through the preaching of the gospel by which he creates faith. He strengthens that union through Word and sacrament."

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