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.

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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

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

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?

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

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?

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

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