Heidelberg Catechism 120–21: Christians Have A Father In Heaven (Updated)

OurFatherRecently I watched a film about the extension of the telegraph from Omaha to California. It was the original Twitter. Telegrams were short, stylized forms of communication but they were immensely powerful. Like the extension of the railroads, the telegraph helped to connect a people spread across a great continent. News that might have taken weeks to travel from the East Coast to the West could do so, so long as the wires were all up, in a few seconds. Since that time communication technology has only improved and it has done so at a remarkable rate of speed. Ours could easily be called the age of communication technology (not a very marketable brand name). After the telephone came radio, then television, and then satellites brought live video and audio from around the globe. Then there were personal computers, public access to the internet and about the same time mobile phones began to become more widely accessible. Never has it been easier to “reach out and touch someone.” Never has a culture spent more time doing just that via text, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and who knows what. I submit, however, that never has a culture been more alienated from itself. It seems as if the more we have been able to talk to each other in the USA, the less we like what we are hearing or saying to one another. Just as we have developed remarkably powerful ways to send messages, our ability to communicate personally, directly seems to have diminished sharply.

This is decline is important because prayer is a form of (mostly) verbal, personal communication between the Christian and our Triune God. Our word communication is a Latin word (drop the terminal n) that means “sharing,” “imparting,” or “making common.”  The very notion of prayer, of addressing God directly in the name of Christ, assumes that we understand the importance of interpersonal communication. In short, we cannot text God. We cannot leave him voicemail. Prayer is a form of direct personal address to the tri-personal God. It is not a dialogue in the usual sense of that word. We do not pray and wait for a verbal response. That leads to an unbiblical, sometimes paralyzing quest for direct, extra-canonical special revelation. It is a dialogue insofar as God has revealed himself, his gospel, and his moral will to us in his Word. We listen to his Word. We read his Word. We see and receive the gospel made visible (Calvin) in the holy sacraments. These are all true, reliable, canonical messages from God to us, his people. In prayer we are responding to his Word by praising him, confessing our sins, and by making our petitions known.

Despite the appearance of intimacy, much of our electronic communication is not truly personal. Sending a text message is not the same thing as having a conversation with another person. Electronic transmission of information (“we will meet you at 7:00 PM at the restaurant”) is impersonal. We know instinctively that it is morally wrong to end a relationship by text message. Even Donald Trump looked people in the eye when he said, “You’re fired.” To send a breakup message by text or voicemail, however tempting, is cowardly. It avoids the other person. It avoids absorbing the response from the other person.

Prayer is a quintessentially personal communication because, in it, we come to realize (again) and make known our most profound, our most basic needs to another. The one to whom we are taught principally to pray is our heavenly Father. As we have already seen, the Lord’s Prayer is our divinely authorized model:

120. Why did Christ command us to address God thus: “Our Father?”

To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer that childlike reverence for and trust in God, which are to be the ground of our prayer, namely, that God has become our Father through Christ, and will much less deny us what we ask of Him in faith than our parents refuse us earthly things (Heidelberg Catechism).

In our personal communication with the Triune God we are instructed to address the Father. As adults, particularly, we need that “childlike reverence and trust” in God to be awakened. Genuine communication is grounded in trust. Where such confidence in the other party is lacking, genuine communication is absent. If you have been on the internet for long I suppose that you have learned to be more circumspect about what you say. If you have not learned that lesson, you will. However much the internet, in its early days, might have been like a garden in which people could speak freely and experiment it is rather more like a jungle today. In a garden one does not need to keep one’s head on a swivel. In a jungle awareness of danger is essential.

121. Why is it added: “in heaven”?

That we may have no earthly thought of the heavenly Majesty of God, and from His almighty power expect all things necessary for body and soul.

When our communication and communion with the Father breaks down it is always our fault. The Father has not moved or changed. He still loves us. He still hears our prayers. He still sustains us. He is still gracious toward his Christian for Christ’s sake. It is we who are mutable (changeable). It is we who are unfaithful, whose faith waivers. Sometimes it is because we strangely forget that our Father is in heaven. There is a reason our Lord taught us to say and to address “Our Father in heaven.”

There has always been a temptation to confuse God with the creation. It is called pantheism (everything is God) or sometimes panentheism (everything is in God). In contrast, Scripture distinguishes sharply between the Creator and the creature. It does so at the very beginning of the story: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). There was when God was and we (and all creatures) were not. God spoke creation into being. He is God and we are not. He is immutable, infinite, one and we are not. One of the earliest heresies faced by the church, which re-emerged in the late 16th century in Socinianism and again in recent decades as Open Theism, was called the anthropomorphite heresy. The Anthropomorphites refused to see figurative speech in Scripture is just that. God does not actually, literally repent (Gen 6:6). He does not literally, actually have fingers (Ex 31:18; Ps 8:3) nor a hand (Isa 48:13) nor eyes (Gen 6:8) etc. These are all figures of speech but the Anthropomorphites, the Mormons, and the Open Theists—In Most Moved Mover Clark Pinnock suggested that the Mormons have a point about God being bodily.

The Lord’s Prayer is also a good reminder that heaven is not some far away, imaginary place about which Platonists fantasize. Heaven is a reality. It is, as it were (please do not forget this important qualifier), God’s dwelling place. Our Lord Jesus is still incarnate there. Whatever it is, it is not clouds and angels with harps. It is pre-eminently the place where things are as they ought to be, where they are conformed to God’s holiness and to his Holy Spirit. Materialism tells us that we can only find help in this life but the Christian faith teaches us to reject their closed universe. It is not even as if God must “break in.” He is already here, operating constantly, immutably by his power and by his Spirit. Yet, he is pictured for us as being in heaven so that we will remember his transcendence and his glory. One goes to a king in his palace and so we go, as it were, to our Father in his heaven with the knowledge that our humanity is represented there by Jesus, our Mediator and that our Father, our Great King, hears us for his sake.

Our heavenly Father has earned our trust, not only by creating and mercifully sustaining us but by freely saving his people, by giving to us new life, faith, and through faith  alone, all of his benefits. God has become “our Father” sola gratia, sola fide. Our Father has earned our trust by sending his only begotten Son (John 3:16). He has adopted us (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) and sealed (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30) sealed our adoption with his Holy Spirit. As we saw in an earlier post, our Lord urges us to “ask,” to “seek,” and to “knock” (Matt 7:7). Our Father is ready to hear us and ready to answer according to his purposes, our benefit, and his glory. If we do not ask, if we do not pray, if we do not unburden our hearts to our heavenly Father it is because we do not believe. We should confess that too and he will renew our hearts and even as we ask it because his Spirit is renewing our hearts and gradually, graciously renewing us and replacing our unbelief with heartfelt, childlike trust.

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  • 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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