The Knowledge of Misery

Question 3: From where do you know your misery?

Answer: From the Law of God.

To us, misery has the connotation of a subjective feeling, e.g., “I feel miserable today.”  In the Heidelberg, it refers to a state; therefore, a person may be entirely unaware that he or she is in that state.  The New Testament contains a story of a rich, young man that approached Jesus unaware that he was guilty and miserable (Matt. 19:16-26; Mk. 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).  Just like a person may imagine he is healthy until diagnosed by a doctor or a student may mistakenly think she has “aced” an exam before it is compared to the answer sheet, this young man imagined that his obedience was good enough to merit eternal life.  Jesus responded by quoting from God’s law, which is the standard of goodness and love.  He did it to make him aware that he had failed to perfectly and perpetually obey God.

Jesus’s response to this man is significant, because it shows us how we might avoid being similarly ignorant.  God’s law is where we must turn if we are to learn of our true state.  Surely, God’s law does more than convict (it also curbs sin and teaches the Christian how to live a grateful life toward God), but the conviction of disobedience is the all-important starting place.  The law reveals our Guilt.

Previous posts: What is a catechism?What’s in a question?The comfort of being owned, Guilt, Grace, & Gratitude

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Discussion and Consultation

In the 1970s, the Reformed and Presbyterian Church bodies united together in a council called NAPARC.  They recognized that, though they came from different cultural backgrounds, they were united in the truths they confessed the Bible to teach and believed in “the desirability and need for organic union” between its denominations (Art. 2).

One practical way in which this council has begun to bring greater unity to its member Churches is through regular “discussion and consultation” (NAPARC Constitution, Art. 3.1).  To the uninitiated, this may sound like the same sort of thing that happens at the coffee shop, pub, or Evangelical mega-conference.  What is in view, though, are official church meetings; some of them are regional (“Presbytery” or “Classis”) and some are denominational (“General Assembly” or “Synod”).  When these meetings are held, representatives from the other denominations attend in order to observe the matters being discussed, to address the body on behalf of their denomination, and to foster greater trust, appreciation, and partnership.  This also takes place at a yearly NAPARC meeting, when official delegates convene to address matters of unity directly.  The 38th meeting will be held in a month.

G + G + G –> Comfort

Question 2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Answer: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery.  Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.  Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

If the purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism is to bring gospel-comfort to the believer, its strategy for accomplishing this is by instructing in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  In this, it follows the structure of Romans, the New Testament letter that most clearly unpacks the nuts and bolts of salvation.

  • Rom. 1:18-3:20 – Man’s Guilt  (Heidelberg Q&A 3-11)
  • Rom. 3:21-11:36 – Grace in Christ  (Q&A 12-85)
  • Rom. 12:1-15:13 – The life of Christian Gratitude  (Q&A 86-129)

If these three aspects of the Christian life are misunderstood, great problems arise.  If we fail to understand our sin and guilt, we cannot understand why God would be wrathful toward mankind, and we begin to misrepresent Him as a “God of mere love”.  This makes the cross inconsequential to salvation; if there were no problem of sin and guilt, there would be no need for a sacrifice.  But if we know our guilt yet fail to understand God’s grace in Christ, we end up in a state of despair, crying out, “How could we ever be saved from His judgment?!  How can my works possibly appease God’s justice?!”  And if we successfully grasp our guilt and God’s grace but ignore our response of gratitude, we don’t pursue the purpose for which we have been saved, i.e., to be conformed to the image of Christ and growing in obedience to His law.

Previous posts on the Heidelberg: What is a catechism?, What’s in a question?, The comfort of being owned

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The comfort of being owned

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.  Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.

Are you serious?!  How can being owned by another be remotely comforting?!  Well, it depends on the one to whom you belong.  If you were to belong to an evil tyrant, you would rightfully be terrified.  If a well-intentioned but absent-minded person owned you, you would have reason to be perpetually concerned.  But if one that is loving, all-powerful, good, and righteous took you into his fold, you could find great comfort.

And this is the supreme comfort the Christian has in belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ.  We no longer belong to Adam’s fallen race nor are we under the “the prince of the power of the air”.  A Savior has given all of Himself for us, in order that all of who we are would belong to Him.

Previous posts: What is a catechism?  What’s in a question?

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Head and Heart

In my previous post, I discussed the foundation of Reformed and Presbyterian unity, the “Six Forms”.  But it’s important to avoid potential misunderstanding.  The unity that these churches established with one another was surely a commitment to a set of doctrines, but that doesn’t mean unity was relegated to the realm of abstract ideas.

When the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity set out a summary of Christian doctrine, they also speak to the great callings of the Church, worship and the Christian life.  In [corporate, i.e., “the Body”] worship, we are addressed by the Triune God, who renews His covenant of grace with us in Word and Sacrament, and we respond to Him with thanks and praise.  The Christian life is also characterized by seeking to obey God’s Ten Commandments in our daily lives and liberty from man-made rules and regulations.

The unity that NAPARC Churches have with one another consists in both head and heart.  It is a composed “of churches of like faith and practice [NAPARC Constitution, Art. 2].”

What’s in a question?

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.  Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.

Both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism set forth their purposes in their first question.  The Heidelberg sets out to explain the Christian’s “comfort” (assurance of salvation in Christ) and the Westminster Shorter, how God is to be glorified in mankind.  These goals are intimately related.

The difference in their first question may be partially explained by their differing historic contexts.  The Heidelberg was written in the midst of both persecution and confusion about the true gospel message, as many priests in the Late-Medieval Church had stripped Christians of their assurance of salvation in Christ and replaced it with works and ceremonies.  It was intended to function as a tool of pastoral care for these sick sheep.  The Westminster Shorter was written in the midst of theological debate.  It met their need for doctrinal clarity and consensus.  The two goals are entirely compatible; for, when someone knows gospel comfort, that person will respond by bringing glory to God.

Previous post:  What is a catechism?

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Six Forms of Unity

The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council first convened in 1975 because of a commitment to the biblical teaching that Christ’s Church ought to, ideally, be united.  The multiplicity of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations did not originate in post-Reformation church splits; rather, these denominations were previously distinct from one another due to language barriers.  But after these immigrants arrived in the “New World” and English and became the language of their worship services, it became apparent that they ought to establish ecclesiastical (i.e., churchly) unity with like-minded brothers and sisters.

The basis of this unity was not a common religious experience (those ebb and flow and will vary from person to person).  Instead, the foundation of this new council was a shared understanding of God’s word, which is expressed by the Westminster Standards (i.e., Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism) and the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt).

In other words, what the Presbyterians, who had spoken English and descended from the United Kingdom, and the Reformed, who had spoken languages like Dutch and German and came from Continental Europe, recognized was that there were actually “Six Forms of Unity”.

Read the NAPARC Constitution.

What is a catechism?

The term “catechism” did not originate in Roman Catholicism as some assume. Rather, the term is derived from the Greek word katecheo, which simply means “to teach or instruct” (Rom. 2:18; 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6). Therefore, “to catechize” is simply to instruct in doctrine.

Instruction in doctrine has been the Church’s practice since its earliest days.  In the Old Testament, parents were called to instruct their children in both God’s works and His commands (see Deut. 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; Psalm 78).  The New Testament Epistles also evidence this careful, thorough instruction.  Paul’s Epistles begin by giving instruction in the Gospel (God’s works) and proceed to God’s commands.  Once the New Testament canon was completed, ministers adopted this form of instruction to instruct converts and children in the basics of the Christian faith.  The Apostles’ Creed was created to summarize the faith and used to prepare adult converts for their baptism.

During the Reformation, catechisms were developed to serve a similar function. They contain a question and answer format to facilitate memorization in adults and, especially, children. After memorizing these basics, a Christian would be far more able to have an intelligent conversation about the Scripture and to understand more of what they believed and why they believed it.

Though many catechisms were produced, the two that have held positions of distinct prominence in Reformed churches are the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

Church growth, God’s way

Recently, I was encouraged by a message from 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 on the calling of the pastor.  Here is part of the text:

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God… For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord… [2 Cor. 4:1-2,5]

In the verses that precede this text, Paul had given a wonderful description of the new covenant’s superiority to the old covenant; the former is characterized by the life-giving Spirit whereas the latter brought death.

But here, Paul begins to teach the Corinthian congregation that he and the other ministers that were with him do not lose heart.  Why would they possibly lose heart when the new covenant is so much better?!  As in our day, some, like the “super apostles” (2 Cor. 12:12), were using disgraceful methods to propagate the gospel and achieve greater outward results.  Paul’s method was preaching, though, and he teaches in verses 3-4 that when the gospel is held forth plainly, those that are destined to perish will reject it.  The problem isn’t with Paul’s method, and it doesn’t detract from the new covenant.  Rather, it is the result of human sin and part of God’s sovereign plan.

A commitment to the open, clear proclamation of the Bible’s teaching is the pastor’s calling.  It requires that he be sensitive to the culture; how can he communicate clearly to people he neither understands nor cares for?  He must also be a specialist in the Bible; how can he declare something he does not understand?  Open proclamation also requires that a minister honestly explain the Bible’s teaching, even if it may cause offense.  Though this simple method of administering the new covenant may seem silly and be ridiculed, it is God’s method for growing Christ’s Church.

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Why plant churches?

It is common in our day to associate the Great Commission solely with the witness of the individual Christian.  The reasoning goes something like this: “Instruction occurs during worship services, and evangelism takes place elsewhere.”  While the personal witness of the Christian is undoubtedly important, it’s a mistake to conclude that the worship of the local church is distinct from the Great Commission.

Consider that it was the Twelve Apostles that Jesus commissioned (Matt.
28:18-20).  It is clear that being an Apostle meant that they held a ministerial
office in Christ’s Church.
 Furthermore, they were given an ‘official’ method of making disciples, i.e., teaching and baptizing.  In other words, these officers were called to make disciples of Christ through Word and Sacrament ministry, the performance of which is not the calling of every single Christian.

Though the apostolic office ended with Paul (1 Cor. 15:7-9), the Commission to make disciples continues with Christ’s Church.  It is accomplished in an official capacity through the Word and Sacraments.  The witness of the believer is immensely important yet subservient to the official work.  Given that churches are formed and gathered around the Word and Sacraments, the Great Commission cannot be fulfilled without planting and growing local churches.

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