This article first appeared in the May, 1999, issue of The Outlook.
When it pleased the Lord in the latter days of Hezekiah, King of Judah, to prepare good news through Isaiah the prophet for the exiles who, a century and a half later, would dwell by the rivers of Babylon, He gave this command (Isa. 40:1–2): “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
It is clear from the classic translation that it was not to one prophet alone to whom God spoke these words, but to a company of faithful men who were to echo the Word to the generations to come. It is also clear that the gospel that, in its Old Testament form, is so clearly proclaimed in Isaiah 40–66 is essentially a message of comfort for weary exiles in this evil world, and as such is relevant to us who live today, just as much as it was to its original recipients. Surely it was the gracious guidance of the Holy Spirit, therefore, that led the writers of that beloved book of instruction, which we now call the Heidelberg Catechism, to select comfort as the theme of their undertaking. It was greatly needed in their own time (1563), and it is needed by us today as well.
The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism were both young men when they were set to the work. Zacharias Ursinus was only twenty-nine years old at the time and already a professor at the University of Heidelberg. Caspar Olevianus was two years younger and a pastor in the city, but both of them had known hardships for the gospel’s sake and would experience trials and tribulations all their lives. Ursinus, whose German name was Baehr, came from Breslau in the area known as Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland). The Protestants of that area were a minority to begin with and almost wholly under the influence of intolerant, high Lutheran leadership. Ursinus had imbibed Calvinistic and Melanchthonian teaching during his university years and soon found himself in trouble with his narrow-minded colleagues. He might well have gone to prison or worse, had not the Palatine Elector Frederick invited him to teach at his university in Heidelberg.
Olevianus’s Latinized name suggests that he or his family came from the “old wick” or ancient native village which in Roman times the Trevii inhabited just outside the walls of the Roman camp called Augusta Treviorum, later Treves or Trier. Olevianus had tried to gather a Reformed church in the city, but he had soon been arrested and imprisoned by the archbishop who still ruled the place. Elector Frederick knew of the young man from one of his own sons who had been a fellow student of his at Strasburg, and he persuaded the archbishop to release him in order to take a pastoral charge in Heidelberg. As the elector’s small county1 was caught up in controversy, he appointed just these two youthful theologians to formulate a church order, or constitution, for his country, including a catechism for the people’s instruction.
It is not hard to see, therefore, why Ursinus and Olevianus turned to the same instructions given to Isaiah the prophet when they undertook their task. Their own experiences showed them how uncertain life is in this sinful world, and there were abundant signs in the political situation of the age to indicate that trouble would abound.
The initial period of the Reformation was over and most of its leaders were dead. The powerful Counter-Reformation, spearheaded by Ignatius Loyola and his “Jesuits,” and given form by the Council of Trent, was now in full swing and was threatening to undo the work of the Reformation in northern Europe, as it was already doing in southern and eastern Europe. A strong reminder of this threat existed only a few miles from Heidelberg within the elector’s own land. In the city of Frankenthal, on the left bank of the Rhine, there were living a company of refugees from the Netherlands under the leadership of Pastor Peter Dathenus, and this good man and members of his flock were known to the inhabitants of the capital. Dathenus was an able and talented man who had prepared a Dutch version of the Genevan Psalter, which was to be used in the Netherlands and in its overseas colonies until 1773; it is still used there by a few ultra-conservative congregations. In the providence of God he would also translate the Heidelberg Catechism from German into Dutch—a rather simple task in those days—and he would publish the same shortly after the appearance of the original. But Dathenus and his people were in the Palatinate because they had been driven from their homes by the armies of Philip II, King of Spain, in his attempt to recover the rebellious Protestant provinces and to force them to return to the Roman Catholic Church.
Add to the threat of such persecution, which was not confined to the Netherlands, the bitter theological battles that had broken out among the Protestants (rabies theologorum) and the general uncertainty of an age when warfare, plagues, and many untreatable illnesses claimed many victims at an early age, and it will be clear why comfort was a most necessary message for the people of God’s congregation in Heidelberg and elsewhere and why our catechism was begun with the question, “What is thine only comfort in life and in death?” We need that “only comfort” still. We are subjected to discrimination and persecution in increased measure in our day. We are still threatened by all sorts of evils. It would be foolish indeed to think that we are too strong today for the message of divine comfort that the gospel still brings.
Three Points of Comfort
But what is that comfort? It is spelled out in the passage from the prophet Isaiah and it is echoed in almost every line of our catechism’s beloved beginning.
“Cry unto her,” God says, and it is the church that is to hear that cry, “that her warfare is accomplished,” and this refers to the condition of the church in this and every age, as it has been called: the church militant here on earth. In many ways now as in the past, the church is constantly opposed by false friends within and bitter enemies without. We ought not expect it to be otherwise. After all, the Devil does not wage war against his friends but against “the woman and the remnant of her seed” (Rev. 12:17). The outcome of this battle may seem to us impossible to foresee—a bitter thought. But from God we hear this comforting word, that “her warfare is accomplished,” that is, successfully completed, not in our sight but in His with whom the future is quite as dear as the past.
We live today in a time of great uncertainty. For many centuries it seemed as if the world had become largely obedient to the gospel. The enemies of the truth and godliness were far away, in heathen lands, and even many of them were beginning to see the light. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, the tables have been turned. The darkness has re-entered historic Christendom like a flood tide. Hundreds and thousands of our neighbors no longer even call themselves Christians. Many hundreds of thousands have left off going to church altogether.
The churches themselves are in confusion. Ignorance of simple Bible truths prevails on every hand. Moral standards have reached new lows among us, as the devil rides high where once he was under strong restraints. Are we already in the midst of the final conflict, or is this only one more crucial battle in the long warfare? We do not know, but we know that all power is in the hands of our Lamb and that He must win the battle. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism also reflected this confidence. Our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, “preserves me,” they wrote, “that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation.” We may expect a certain victory, even though we do not yet experience its coming.
Essential to that victory to come, however, is peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. God spoke of this clearly to His servant Isaiah and to all His servants when He said, “Cry unto her . . . that her iniquity is pardoned,” and when He explained this further in the familiar and beloved words concerning the Suffering Servant everywhere foreseen in this whole portion of prophecy: “Surely He hath borne out griefs and carried our sorrows . . . and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” It was sin that brought the exile upon the Jewish church, and it is our continued sin that lies at the root of all our grief and misery now. Our low condition in this world today is not due to the strength of our enemies, nor to their clever devices, but to our own ingratitude and unfaithfulness. We have left our first love. The gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is no longer our chief delight. We love the world and the things that are in the world. We despise the truth and the preachers of the truth. Our religion is often form and sham without true godliness. Accordingly, God has left us to our enemies now as He left the Jews to their Babylonian foe. Yet, as in the past, in the midst of judgment He remembers mercy. He has given us the Savior “who with His precious blood hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil.” How great a comfort this is and will be to everyone who, by grace, repents and comes to Him in faith believing.
The third part of God’s comforting word to His unhappy people is ambiguous on first reading. “For she hath received at the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Is this a reason for the church’s deliverance, or is it a further elucidation of it? I believe that it is the latter rather than the former. Mere affliction is never the ground of our deliverance. Nor is it likely that God should punish His people with a double punishment. After all, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). It is not God’s wrath that is doubled, therefore, but His mercy and His grace. The perfect tense here is common enough in biblical prophecy where the things promised by God are regarded as accomplished because they are His sovereign decree. Augustus Toplady, in his beloved hymn, got it right when he wrote: “Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure. Cleanse me from its guilt and power.” And our catechism writers further spelled it out in their words, “And, therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.” Eternal life is only possible for those whose guilt has been removed through the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without spot or blemish. Sanctification, or that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), is the further experience of the child of God, even deliverance from the power of sin as well as from its guilt.
Modern men and women are looking for comfort today in something they call “closure,” a new term that is to be regarded with great suspicion. It seems to mean a certain peace of mind about difficult experiences, but it is a peace that is built on the sand of mere human inventions. We are said to have “closure” about the death of loved ones when their bodies are duly buried or memorialized, and people journey at times to out-of-the-way places to visit the sites of tragic accidents in order to find “closure.” We have “closure” for crimes committed when we can vent our spleen at a perpetrator, or learn of his or her dire end, and so forth. Many of these things are no more than primitive superstitions revived, and some of them are encouragements to anger and bitterness. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ gives far more than humanistic “closure.” It is our comfort, in fact, our only comfort in life and in death. It reveals a faithful Savior into whose loving arms we may come by grace and find a real deliverance from the misery that afflicts us all in this present world. God commanded this comfort to be proclaimed long, long ago. He revealed it in all of its fulness in the Person and Work of His dear Son. Our catechism has taught us about it in every generation since its appearance. It is still, and will always be, our resting place.
Note: I have used the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures throughout, which I prefer, and the historic translation of the Heidelberg Catechism first used in the English congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands and, slightly revised, adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church in North America upon the introduction of English language worship in 1764.
1. Frederick’s territory was a land at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers of which Heidelberg was the “residence” or capital. He himself, however, was a member of the great noble family of Wittelsbach, and his descendants were destined to rule as kings of Bavaria until 1918. Accordingly, he was a hereditary “elector” of the Holy Roman Empire whose privilege it was to choose the Empire’s Caesar or “Kaiser.” In the Kaiser’s official “family” he was also the honorary master of palaces, or those royal residences which were called after the Palatine Hill in Rome where Augustus had built his official residence in ancient times. Hence he was called “Count Palatine” (Pfalzgraf in German) and his own territory was known as the county of Palatine or more simply, the Palatinate.
The late Rev. Charles Krahe served for several years as pastor of Seventh Reformed Church (formerly RCA, now independent) in Grand Rapids, MI. He also served for many years on the board of Reformed Fellowship.