What is Your Only Comfort? (2)

HeiligGeist200The Heidelberg Catechism, building on the breakthrough of the first stage of the Reformation, is organized in three parts. Remarkably, as basic an insight as this is, it continues to elude nearly all evangelicals and many ostensibly Reformed folk.

This should not surprise us because even when the catechism first appeared there was some confusion about how to interpret it. Zacharias Ursinus, whom Frederick III authorized to explain and defend the catechism, mentions some of the alternatives and then proceeds to explain that the catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification. He said:

The chief and most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church, as appears from the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles’ creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles’ creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.

There are others who divide the catechism into these three parts; considering, in the first place, the doctrine respecting God, then the doctrine respecting his will, and lastly that respecting his works, which they distinguish as the works of creation, preservation, and redemption. But all these different parts are treated of either in the law or the gospel, or in both, so that this division may easily be reduced to the former.

There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, whilst the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.

The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

If you’ve been around churches that use the catechism you might have head these parts expressed as “guilt, grace, and gratitude,” or “sin, salvation, service.” Those are all right, because they all say the same thing, though law, gospel, and sanctification gets to a basic Reformation truth that is widely misunderstood, denied, or confused: the distinction between law and gospel and the relations between those two categories and sanctification.

By this distinction, the confessional Protestants (e.g., Luther, Bucer, Calvin and the authors of the catechism) meant to reject the old patristic, medieval, and Roman doctrine that the Bible contains two kinds of law, old and new, and that under the new law (wherein Jesus is the “New Moses”) there is more grace to keep the law. They meant to say instead that the Bible contains two kinds of speaking, “law” (do this and live) and “gospel” (Christ has done or shall do for you). These two
ways of speaking are found throughout the history of redemption, throughout God’s Word.

This distinction was essential to the Reformation. It was the foundation for the doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide. The Reformation read the apostle Paul to be teaching just this distinction in the book of Romans. Indeed, the catechism itself is patterned on the book of Romans which is in three parts: law, gospel, and sanctification (the Christian life).

The pattern of the catechism is revealed quite clearly in the second question of the catechism:

Q2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

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.

The question asks for a number in order to answer the question. The answer is: three (not two – no this isn’t a Monty Python sketch! Some folks have tried to re-organize the Reformed as “grace and obligation.” Such a move is incompatible with the Heidelberg Catechism). There are three things that the Christian must know, 1) the greatness of his sin and misery; 2) how he is redeemed from the same; 3) how he is to be thankful to God for his redemption.

The third question makes this “law/gospel” reading of the catechism perfectly plain: “From where do you know your misery? A: Out of the law of God.” It is not the gospel that teaches us our sins, it is the law. This is exactly what the confessional Protestants before and after the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught. This is what we have come to know as the “first” use or the pedagogical use of the law. In this use the law (“do this and live”) acts like a school teacher (as they used to act in the ancient world) and beats us and demands perfection. There is nothing wrong with the law. As we shall see, the problem lies with us. This relentless and holy and righteous demand for perfection is an instrument in the hands, as it were, of the Holy Spirit who uses it to drive his elect to see themselves as they really are, outside of Christ: under condemnation and unable to fulfill the law’s demand.

The catechism doesn’t turn formally to the gospel per se until Q.19, but the gospel section of the catechism begins in Q. 12 and continues through Q. 85. This is important, because some of the revisionists (covenantal nomists/moralists) write and speak as if Q. 86 was a summary of the gospel. It isn’t. The gospel section ends with Q. 85. This distinction is important so that we do not slip back into the medieval/Roman/Socinian/Arminian confusion of law and gospel and of justification and sanctification.

According to the catechism (Q. 19) the gospel has been revealed throughout the history of salvation. The gospel is that Christ, as the righteous and holy One, has merited righteousness for his people, he has paid the penalty incurred by their sin, has suffered actively all his life in the place of all his people, died a horrible death for all his people, and has been raised for all his people. The good news is that all that the law requires for perfect righteousness has been accomplished and we benefit from it only be trusting, resting, and receiving Christ and his finished work for us as our own.

The catechism, however, does not stop there. From Q. 86 through 129, the catechism deals with the Christian life, with our new life in Christ, with dying to sin and living to Christ, the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. The catechism is explicit, as we shall see, that we do not live this new life apart from grace, but in grace, and through faith. We do not live the new life in order to earn God’s approval or in a state of probation or under the law’s judgment. Rather, we live the new life in Christ, in grace, out of gratitude to Christ for his grace to sinners and his obedience for them, even unto the cross. We live the Christian life according to God’s revealed, moral will. Reformed folk call this the “third use” of the law, whereby the law serves as the norm of the Christian life. We cannot present ourselves to God either in part or in whole as law-keepers. To attempt that is legalism of the first order. The law doesn’t sanctify or justify or save us, but that doesn’t mean that we may dispense with it. Those who would do that are rightly called “antinomian.”

The catechism follows the pattern of Romans very closely. Having been redeemed, we belong to Christ and we want to do his will, not to be just but because we are just in Christ and we are his grateful people.

Just as we are theologically confused in our time so we are morally confused. The catechism offers a brilliant exposition of God’s law as the norm for our new life. As we meditate on the catechism may God renew our moral vision as the redeemed of the Lord.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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