Thursday, January 20, 2011

Introduction to the Daily Devotions from the Heidelberg Catechism

Christ and His Benefits:
Daily Devotions from the
Heidelberg Catechism and Scripture

Written by William Weber

Introduction

I grew up in a Christian home. I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church when I was 15. I had a conversion experience when I was 16 years old, and started attending a Baptist church with one of my friends. I attended church regularly for the first 19 years of my life, and listened intently to the ministers’ sermons, both Lutheran and Baptist. And yet, I remember undergoing a time of depression my freshman year of college, wishing I knew the purpose of life!

About 15 years later, I ran across the Heidelberg Catechism for the first time, and one of my first thoughts was, where had this marvelous book of instruction been my whole life!? How I wish I would’ve had this book of comfort in my hands as a discouraged young Christian in college, who knew so little that he didn’t even know his purpose in life. How much help I might have derived from these enlightening words:

“God created them good and in his own image . . . so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory.” (Q & A 6)
You might respond by saying, How could you not know the purpose of life sitting in church those first 19 years? Surely, your ministers had to say something about our purpose for living in all of those words. And, what about Luther’s Catechism, weren’t you exposed to it? What about your own Bible reading, couldn’t you have gleaned the purpose for living from reading the Bible?

The answer to these questions is yes, yes, and yes! But somehow the most basic question of our existence was still baffling to this young, professing Christian. The ministers never seemed to tell me. My Lutheran Church ignored the confessions and catechisms. And, the Bible is a big book. A trustworthy guide to its contents would’ve been a great help.

The fault was mine. Sin blinds us to God’s truth and makes us deaf to God’s Word. But it was an amazing experience fifteen years later to find the answer that troubled me so much my Freshman year in college, written in very plain words in this catechism.

Maybe it was partly because I came to the Heidelberg Catechism so late in life that now I love its teaching so much. In my opinion it is the greatest catechism ever written. In that judgment, the great reformer from Switzerland, Heinrich Bullinger agreed. He wrote:

“The structure of this book is clear, its content pure truth; everything is very easy to follow, devout and effective. In succinct conciseness it contains the fullness of the most important doctrines. I consider it to be the best catechism that has ever been published. Thanks be to God! May He crown it with His blessing!”
Willem van’t Spijker writes, “In the wider Reformed context, in which numerous confessional documents have found a home, the Heidelberg Catechism continues to be the best-known statement. Its status is undisputed. “ I think this is true, but why is it true? Why has the Lord blessed this catechism, and those who have learned from it, for the last 450 years?

The answer, I believe, is that the Heidelberg Catechism gives us a wonderful summary of the Bible’s message in a wonderful form. The triune God, in his mercy, has blessed this book of instruction because it so beautifully summarizes the biblical message, faithfully echoing Scripture’s message, tone, and form.

The Bible is first of all a message about God himself, and particularly, about his glory. The Lord alone has the right to define his glory, and he defines it for us in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation."
The Lord is glorified in the fallen human race either by his mercy and grace toward sinners or by his justice and judgment of sinners. Even God’s gracious salvation comes through his judgment, as his beloved Son bore the judgment our sin deserved, so that we might receive mercy and be freed from judgment forever. God will be glorified in every human life either through mercy or justice! Those who believe the gospel message about His Son receive his mercy. Those who refuse to believe His Son receive his justice. God will receive glory in every human life one way or another, either through his mercy or justice.

The Heidelberg Catechism has been criticized by a few people as being too man-centered, and not concerned enough with the glory of God. Instead of beginning like the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is man's chief end? Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever," the Heidelberg starts like this: "What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ." See, the critics say, how man-centered the Heidelberg Catechism is in comparison to the God-centered glory of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

But what the critics miss is that the Heidelberg Catechism is infused with the glory of God because it gives us a true comfort that tells us about both God’s judgment and mercy, the very works of God that define his glory! The Heidelberg Catechism refuses to separate the law (justice) and the gospel (mercy), sin and grace, guilt and deliverance, and because of that it is filled with the glory of God from beginning to end! In 65 of the 129 questions of the Heidelberg, sin and its consequences, i.e., God’s justice, is explicitly mentioned while it explains to us the glorious comfort that comes from the gospel. The gospel in the Heidelberg Catechism is not separated from the law as is done in many Evangelical and Reformed churches today. For that reason, the glory of God endues the Heidelberg Catechism, for God is glorified in both his mercy and his justice in humanity.

Yet, at the same time, the Heidelberg Catechism captures the tone of God’s Word, as well as its message. For while the catechism never ignores the judgment and justice of God, the catechism, like Scripture, glories in the mercy and grace of God earned for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. God is desirous of our salvation. He longs to be merciful and gracious to us. The cross is his proof of his great love for sinners. Whoever is willing to come to Jesus Christ will be saved. If this is true for sinners outside the church, how much more is it true for the baptized children of the church to whom the catechism is specifically concerned to reach!

God is glorified in his mercy, and the dark backdrop of his judgment is just that: a backdrop. The emphasis of the Heidelberg, and Scripture, is on the glorious gospel of grace set against the dark background of our sin and all of its fatal consequences in our lives. Sin’s misery is never ignored, but its opposite, Christ and his benefits, gets top billing. Sin and its consequences are the dark screen against which Christ and his blessings shine in even brighter glory!

Then when we further consider that God saved us through judgment, the emphasis on God’s amazing grace is again seen. How amazing that God himself in the person of his Son would save us by bearing his own judgment that we deserve because of our sin! How great a love is this: the Son and Heir of heaven bearing the judgment of hell for the heirs of the hell!

The Heidelberg faithfully echoes the content and the tone of Scripture, but it even faithfully echoes Scripture’s form. I like the Westminster Shorter Catechism and appreciate its preciseness, but at times it reads like a mini-systematic theology book. There’s nothing wrong with systematic theology books, and we need them!

But the structure or form of the Bible is not given to us in a listing of topics, but rather it’s given to us in the form of a story. That story is about law and gospel, sin and grace, guilt and deliverance, judgment and salvation. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism, as we will see, never departs from its law and gospel format. Even when it is describing our sin and guilt, it does not forget Christ’s deliverance from sin and our comfort from guilt. Even when it is treating the good news of the gospel, it refuses to let us forget the bad news of the law, and what we have been saved from!

The Book of Romans, in some ways the very heart of the Bible’s theology, moves from sin and judgment to God’s mercy in Christ to living in response to this mercy in Jesus. Like the Book of Romans, the Heidelberg Catechism also begins with our sin and misery, moves to our deliverance from sin and misery through Christ Jesus, and then to the gratitude that should be ours in union with Jesus Christ. If Romans is a microcosm of Scripture, then so is the Heidelberg Catechism as it follows the guilt, grace, gratitude pattern of the Bible.

In content, tone, and structure, then, the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful and accurate reflection of Scripture’s teaching. If you will read and ponder it carefully in the course of these daily devotions, it will transform your mind and heart. It will do this, not because it replaces God’s Word, but because it communicates God’s Word.

A Few Thoughts on How to Use these Devotions

First, start at the beginning. In some ways these devotions build on one another. Some basics, especially law and gospel, are taught early on in the first few Lord’s Days. These ABC’s of the law and the gospel need to be learned, and so if the contrast between law and gospel is unfamiliar to you, then it is important to start at the beginning.

Second, remember that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are learners. That’s what the word disciple means: learner. Learning requires a bit of work. That means that you might not be able to speed read these devotions. It will take time to read the catechism and Scripture readings each day. The goal isn’t to get done as quickly as possible, but to get God’s truth down into our hearts and that takes time and meditation. Like Mary we need to ponder God’s works and words. There might be things you find hard, but keep at it and always ask for God’s illumination as you read and study, loving the triune God with your mind.

Third, there are some things you can skip if you choose. If you don’t want to consider the discussion questions, that’s understandable. If you find them helpful for your personal or family devotions, then use one or some or all of them. The one thing I wouldn’t skip, however, is the daily singing of the hymn or hymns for the week. Christians should be a singing people, and singing is a way to get the truth into our hearts:

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the LORD. (Ps. 104:33-34)

My tongue will sing of your word,
for all your commandments are right. (Ps. 119:172)
You can find the tune of the songs by using the internet addresses or by finding a hymnal and playing the tune.

Fourth, the prayer starters are just that, something to help you to pray. You may or may not find them helpful. Use them as you see fit.

Finally, remember that being a disciple of Jesus has three aspects. First, there is the truth. Doctrine is important. We have to learn about God and his ways. We need to know important truths about creation, providence, the fall, Jesus Christ, salvation, Scripture, the church, God’s will, the end times, etc. Second, there is the life. In our hearts we need to be devoted to Jesus Christ as we seek to love his glory. Our hearts need to be filled with faith and love for the Father and the Son through the working of the Spirit. Third, there is the way. We are to live in a new way in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way, and we are to walk in him, imitating his love and truth as we seek the Father’s glory and our neighbor’s good.

This kind of book can help you with the truth, as it explains the truth through the use of the catechism and Scripture. This kind of book can urge you to the new life in Jesus---a heart devotion toward him. But this kind of book cannot do much with the way of life in Jesus. How that life will work itself out in good works in your life is something that you will have to determine in the strength and wisdom of God’s Word and Spirit. All three aspects (truth, life, and way) are needed to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. May He be pleased to use this book of daily devotions in your life and mine as we seek to follow the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Bill Weber
January 2011



Here is the beginning of my post. And here is the rest of it.

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