Putting a Staff in the Shepherd’s Hand

Using the Heidelberg Catechism in Pastoring, Training and Evangelism

When the editors asked me to write on the uses of the Heidelberg Catechism, I was grateful for the opportunity for two reasons. First, I love the old Catechism so very much. It is a tender yet strong articulation of the Biblically Reformed faith, and my use of it and appreciation for it have both grown immeasurably over the years of my ministry. Secondly, I was eager to try to put on paper some specific thoughts about the value of the Catechism in certain target areas of the life of the Lord’s church such as pastoral work by the elders, education/training for the people of God, and in the work of evangelism.

Originally, I had planned to write a separate article about each of these topics, but the overlap was so great that I’d inevitably say some of the same things in each of the articles. To avoid redundancy, I offer some words of testimony and encouragement in a single article, but with several sub-sections. I would only add encouragement to the reader to read carefully J. Mark Beach’s article on the Catechism and preaching, which appears in this issue. You will find that it fits alongside this article in calling for a thoroughly pastoral use, never merely theological veneration, of this tool known as the Heidelberg Catechism.



But first, a couple true stories:

George (not his real name) is a psychologist with a PhD. from a State University in Texas. He is seminary trained, but his training was in a thoroughly Arminian theological school, and was dispensational to boot. I met him when researching Christian counselors in the area (it’s important to find one that actually deals with sin as sin, and not merely as disease!). During the course of our visits together, he inquired about our church, never having heard the name “Christian Reformed” before. One thing led fo another, and we began to talk about creeds. He was critical at first, of course, because he had been trained to be. Then I brought him a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism. A week later he called. Not only was he reading it and learning more about Biblical teaching than he ever had in seminary, but he was also using it as an outline for family devotions with his wife and young teen-aged children. It’s been many months now, and the family is still learning and growing. He still says it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Bob and Billie (names changed to protect from the nosy) came to our congregation not too long ago. Both had been very involved in discipleship ministries in a previous congregation, having been instrumental in teaching and nurturing inquirers to the faith, and training new believers unto mature faith. But only recently had they themselves become Reformed. And, with the disorientation of someone who has recently “had their theological pins knocked out from under them,” they were trying to grasp the depth and breadth of Reformed theology and covenant living. Every new insight brought smiles of joy, as they began to lay hold of the marvelous heritage so many Reformed believers take for granted. But when they saw the Heidelberg Catechism, first in worship, then in a booklet we gave them, they marveled. They were already devoted students of Scripture. (In fact, when they had been converted, as mature adults, the disciplier who took them under his tutelage had required them to outline each book in the Bible without helps, identifying its major theme and teachings. They spent 3 years in this effort, learning much and profiting greatly from the experience.) But never had they grasped as dearly the unifying principle of all sound doctrine as when they laid hold of the Heidelberg Catechism and came face to face with LD 1. Bob said it well: “lf I’d studied this years ago when I first was saved, I would have been able to avoid so many problems. It would have saved me and some of my subsequent disciples, so much confusion, sloppy thinking and resultant sloppy living!”

I could tell you enough stories like these to provide encouraging and inspirational reading for months. I tell these two because we live in an age in which it is very easy for the people of God to take for granted their creedal heritage, an age in which Reformed believers will even be heard to say aloud that such creeds as the Heidelberg Catechism are outdated, irrelevant and ought to be kept in the unused back pages of the hymnbook. The stories dispute that attitude. In fact, it is my contention in what follows that the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful tool Reformed people can and should use for a wide range of pastoral care and nurture within the body of Christ. By it, we can open the door for our people to know the depth and breadth and height of the Scriptural truths we hold dear.


LD 1: This Lord’s Day is so rich isn’t it? I marvel at its wisdom and depth every time I confess it anew. I find it provides such a great overview of the daily worldview of the believer, that I encourage all Reformed people to commit it to memory. And it is, accordingly, very beneficial for elders and ministers in pastoral uses. First of all, consider how it serves as an unshakable foundation for pastoral care. By suggesting that the touchstone for understanding Biblical doctrine rightly is comfort, the Reformed churches have avoided the extremes of a faith that exhibits cold intellectualism on the one hand and pure emotionalism on the other, and aimed Scriptural truth directly at the heart. In the real world of sin and misery, of brokenness and failure, of hurt and pain, we confess that we are comforted by our relationship to Christ. What an encouraging truth in an increasingly secular and hostile world, a great starting point for an elder visit to an individual or family that has recently struggled with the pains of life.

Further, think of the content of the comfort we confess: that I belong totally to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Several immediate pastoral crises our churches face today are addressed in these Biblically-shaped words. Think first of the reductionism of religion to a comer of life that this secular world foists upon us. Here is full-blown, all-of-life faith, a totalitarian surrender of the person to the sovereign majesty of our God! Then, note that wonderful word belong. In a world infatuated with self-image and self-esteem, we confess that our very existence and purpose arises apart from ourselves in Christ. That’s a great corrective for people wrestling with such issues. Finally, notice the verb tenses: “He has fully paid for all my sins…has set me free….” That is wonderful stuff for the ongoing struggle of the Christian life: the desperate quest for assurance of salvation. LD 1 opens the curtain to a wonderful Biblical perspective on that issue.

Before leaving LD 1, take a quick look at Q. and A. 2. Don’t miss the threefold structure established there. Now, without overemphasizing the neat alliteration we sometimes use (sin-salvation-service, guilt-grace-gratitude), please note how honest to life such a breakdown really is. This is truly the experience of everyone who believes in Christ! It’s not artificial, merely academic or intellectual. All of us who are in Christ have come to know our sin and the resultant misery; all of us who are in Christ have found in Him all things necessary for our salvation; all of us who are in Christ understand that living the Christian life is ever and always only a response of gratitude, never a means to obtain anything. And simply by keeping the proper order, the sensitive elder will help God’s people to avoid a whole host of chronic pastoral problems surrounding the issues of works-righteousness, legalism, spiritual laziness, and the like.

LD 2 and 34: While I want to comment only very briefly on these Lord’s Days, I do want to call your attention, as elders, to the importance of being accurate on the use or role of the law in the life of the community of believers. I believe, with all my heart, that the error of the Pharisees is alive and well among us: we still deal with many people who are convinced that salvation is a fruit of obedience, rather than the other way around. Being able to use the Catechism as a tool for the maintaining of pastoral balance—both for yourselves and for your people—is an inestimable blessing that enables us to avoid both legalism and its ugly stepsister, antinomianism.

LD 7: The definition of faith contained in these words is most helpful to people wrestling with the vitality of their own. Additionally, it is most helpful for elders who must deal with stubborn and rebellious individuals who are under discipline, but who claim faith, and thus thrust and parry with you. Herein we’re reminded of that crucial Biblical connection between faith and the Word. In other words, one cannot claim faith if that faith makes any break with “everything God reveals in His Word….”

LD 9–10: Can you think of a more beautiful way to assist God’s people to express their deep-seated trust in God’s providential care? These words are a precious confession with which you can join voices with the suffering; they are a rock-solid foundation to set beneath the fearful and timid as you seek to be an encouragement; and they are a strong corrective to those who dabble in games-and-attitudes-of chance or gambling. Possible uses could include reminding or reciting these words with believers who are struggling with bitterness because of financial reverses. I love the idea of one pastor, who has Q. and A. 27–28 complete with textual support, drawn up in calligraphy (or perhaps on a computer and a laser printer), then framed and presented to every couple he unites in marriage. Hang it on the walls of your house….

LD 12: These days, the word Christian is cheap. I watched a documentary on used car sales procedures the other night. A crook in Atlanta was pawning off lemons onto the buying public, and he knew it. But he was so sincere and convincing, in part because he told his potential pigeons that he “was a born-again Christian.” In a world like this, what a great tool LD 12 is to shape our use of the word. A comprehensive and thoroughly Biblical view of life as office, life lived under the commission and the mandate of the One who is our Lord and Master. And that truth is absolutely essential to set before your high school and college-aged young people, wrestling as they are with the overwhelming issues of vocation and career choices at the ripe old age of 18 or so.

Of course, I could go on and on with Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, developing the pastoral/eldership uses of this wonderfully pastoral confession. Perhaps someone will commission just such a work. But for now, allow these few references to stimulate you to do your own further study and exploration. Let me reiterate my basic point: we who are Reformed believers live within a confessing community of believers to whom God has entrusted a rich faith heritage. The Heidelberg Catechism is central to it. It would be foolish for those of us who are elders not to use this tool:

• as a means to help our people give articulation and daily shape to their Biblically founded faith in Jesus Christ

• as a corrective to the chronic struggles of the faith long ago addressed by our spiritual ancestors, and

• as a pastoral tool with which to encourage faith, confidence and comfort for people who live in a world hostile to the Kingdom of God.


In his excellent high school (and adult!) catechism textbook entitled Before the Face of God: A Study of the Heidelberg Catechism (2 volumes. Available from Paideia Press, PO Box 1000, Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada), Louis Praamsma summarizes well the reasons for the church to have and use creeds:

(a) a brief. concise summary of what the church believes; (b) a refutation of all heresy; (c) a teaching handbook for children and young people.

But is the Bible not sufficient? Certainly! The Bible has everything we need to know. The need for confessional writings can perhaps be best explained through an analogy. The Bible is much like a huge country through which we travel. It is so large, in fact, that it is useful to have a map that shows direction to the most important places.

Many faulty maps have also been made of the Bible. Each false teaching has its preaching. Confessional writings warn of these dangerous teachings. The Catechism, then, has no other purpose than to mirror the main points of Holy Scripture (p 9). These words provide a good understanding of how creeds have historically been viewed among many confessionally Reformed churches. Consequently, I don’t expect that I need to convince you that the Catechism is useful for education and training, both for children and adults. Nor do I expect that readers of The Outlook will need much of a reminder of the value of thorough indoctrination in the Catechism as a crucial means of developing faith within our youth. (A careful look at the advertising in the magazine reveals that you already know that!)

However, I want to make a couple of practical points in this section. First, I want to make the obsetvation (based on rather subjective criteria, I’ll acknowledge) that the most spiritually mature young people I’ve met are young people who know well and can formulate their faith according to the concepts and themes of the Heidelberg Catechism. Several college professors I know who teach at Christian colleges tell me the same. The freshmen who enter their Bible (or philosophy) courses who have been thoroughly trained in the Heidelberg Catechism are head and shoulders above the majority in both comprehension and integration of faith and We. (And contrary to popular belief, the professors and I agree that students who are well-versed in the Catechism are the rare exception, not the general rule.) These students already know the fundamental life-principles of Scripture, because the Catechism is based upon them. They already know the underlying fundamentals of a Christian worldview, because the Catechism builds upon such in LD 12. These students grasp spiritual principle that all of life is religion, in contradistinction to modern dualism, because the Heidelberg Catechism articulates a Biblical faith that is as broad as life itself. In short, the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful and hearty confession of a Calvinistic worldview.



Second, a thorough knowledge of the Heidelberg Catechism provides students with a working apologetic. That is to say, it equips the students to articulate, explain and defend the Reformed faith over against challenges, opposition and questions. Where I live (in Dallas), the Reformed faith is always on the defensive against the aggressive challenges of anti-Calvinistic Arminian Dispensationalism; and Biblical Christianity of any confessional formulation (and especially Calvinism) is always on the defensive against the unbelieving challenges of modem post-Christian secularism. In my 20 years of ministry, the only Christians I’ve known who have been genuinely effective apologists for the Reformed faith are men and women who have been thoroughly shaped by the Heidelberg Catechism or a similar Reformed creed. And by that, I mean that they have been, on the one hand, articulate and persuasive in convincing non-Reformed Christians of the Biblical basis of Calvinism, and, on the other, they have been effective in explaining in a dear, concise, and unified way the Biblical Christian faith to those outside the faith.

Why is that? I suspect it is so because of the inner strength of the Catechism, namely, a simple reproduction of Biblical basics. As you know, the Heidelberg Catechism is an extraordinarily simple document, linking explanations of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. These explain the content of saving faith, the shape of covenant living, and the focus of Biblical piety, respectively. But the educational genius of the Catechism also lies in the introductory questions to these main sections. LDs 1–6 are indispensable to lay open a person’s heart prior to any discussion of real faith and what it believes. LDs 32–33 are a penetrating articulation of the whole matter of the relation between faith and works, and of the nature of true conversion, both essential prerequisites to any instruction in obedience to God’s law. And LD 45, though pithy, is nonetheless pregnant with meaning as it explains piety from a distinctively covenantal perspective, opening the door to the Lord’s Prayer as a living model and method for our praying, and not just as a memorization exercise. Any student who truly knows and deeply believes the foundations of the Christian faith contained in these three formulas will be unalterably shaped by them, and will have sufficient ammunition with which to respond to the challenges and accusations of naysayers.

In this regard, allow me to tell you of a Mid-America Reformed Seminary student I know and admire named Randy Jackson who teaches Heidelberg Catechism in a NW Iowa church as part of his apprenticeship. He, with a military background himself, has challenged his young students to become “Christian Commandos,” prepared at a moment’s notice to defend the faith, articulate the Reformed Faith, and thus bear witness to their Lord and His Truth. The military-type discipline he weaves into his coursework not only establishes a disciplined learning environment, but it makes learning fun for the students! I commend him for his creativity; I hope he’s willing to write it up so others can learn from him.

So, allow me to appeal to you to do two things: 1) Renew your commitment to teach the Heidelberg Catechism in your church. Recent trends in many denominations are much more generic, with topical or ethical studies called “church school.” Some even argue that teaching Catechism isn’t a legitimate component in a Bible-based curriculum. I have already explained (in a recent issue) how I believe, in fact, that it is an essential component of such a curriculum. Nothing can surpass the use of the Heidelberg Catechism as the principal teaching tool to shape the doctrinal knowledge and depth of mature and effective Reformed believers. Make sure your church uses it! 2) Challenge the Heidelberg Catechism teacher in your church (your pastor? one of the elders?) to teach it with an intentional focus upon apologetics, upon equipping students to articulate and defend the faith. That focus, in and of itself, will help keep the teacher fresh, will keep the presentation dynamic and interesting, and will enliven student interest to the living relevance of the material.


The final component of this article is the use of the Heidelberg Catechism in evangelism. Immediately, I hasten to reiterate that the Heidelberg Catechism is not the Bible, nor does it directly share in Scripture’s character as the living Word of God, God-breathed in its very words. Only God’s Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is said to create faith (Rom. 10:14–17); only God’s Word, proclaimed faithfully, is called the “seed of regeneration” (I Pe. 1:23–25). Only God’s Word is called the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), and is even said to be “sharper than any double-edged sword” as a living and active power to lay bare the secrets of the heart (Heb. 4:12–14). Only God’s life and faith-giving Word can be the foundation upon which evangelism (literally, the work of the gospel, or “gospelizing”) is built; only it is the source and possesses the power to convert sinners.

And yet, the Heidelberg Catechism is not in any way inimical to this “gospelizing” work. In fact, it has been my own pastoral experience, and it is the theme of these paragraphs, that the Heidelberg Catechism is a most effective tool for evangelism. This is so for several reasons.

First, the Heidelberg Catechism serves as a checkpoint for the church in her evangelism efforts to reach the unsaved. That is, its threefold experiential structure (sin, salvation, service) stands as a constant reminder of the essential components of any genuine conversion, and therefore holds the church focused on Biblical priorities in an age of evangelistic ginunickry. Evangelism methods abound (think of Evangelism Explosion, Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws, etc.), and churches spend fortunes learning variations of each. Many of these are helpful, indeed. But the core teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism—that to enjoy truly the comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ, one must truly know his sin and its misery, that his salvation is only by grace through faith in Jesus, and that his life is to be lived in self-conscious response as covenant service to this great Lord and God—provides us with a consistent and Biblical standard. Conversion experiences vary greatly: some are radically converted out of paganism, others experience the grace of the Holy Spirit as they grow up in a Christian home, still others are converted from non-Christian cults. Yet all who are genuinely in Christ share the “triple knowledge” of which the Catechism speaks. And that serves as both a teaching tool for inquirers (as well as new converts) and as a checkpoint for elders, who must ascertain the presence of genuine faith as they open the table of the Lord to true believers. And, not to be missed is the Catechism’s insistence that genuine religion is at the heart, that marvelous Biblical emphasis of Calvin which will not allow for the mere construction of a religious formalism, but lays claim to all that a man or woman is, does, thinks, feels, and says. Indeed, keeping that point central in the Catechism forces elders to keep it central as they pastor people from the heart, to the heart, for the heart.

Second, I find the Heidelberg Catechism to be a wonderful tool for training new disciples. As I suggested in the previous section, I believe its comprehensive doctrinal scope, as well as its apologetic usefulness, equips new disciples to know and to defend their newly confessed faith. (As you no doubt know, new disciples of Christ face inordinate challenges from their former unbelieving life—including friends, relatives, and sometimes even immediate family members. Careful training in the Catechism equips them to answer these doctrinal challenges, and, at the same time, bear careful witness to these beloved people to the faith in Christ that now lives within them.) I have used it to train people one-on-one. A class in the Heidelberg Catechism for adults is a high-priority of our local church ministry, which has an aggressive evangelistic setting and focus. It is simply a marvelous tool!

Furthermore, the Catechism confronts head-on the main idol enthroned in the heart of every human: the sell (see LD 2:5; 3:8; 5:12–14). By so doing, it serves as an effective tool to penetrate and transform people who have been locked in the loop of their own unbelieving way of thinking (d. the importance of this in Rom. 12:1–2).

Finally, the Catechism provides thorough grounding in the Biblical basis for the doctrines confessed. And, make no mistake about this, the citations of Scripture printed as footnotes to the Catechism are crucial for those being discipled. It establishes the fact that the clear basis of doctrine is Scripture rather than the Church, this particular church, this particular minister, or anything else.

Third, the Catechism provides a careful articulation of the proper place and role of the law in the life of the Christian. So many people first hear the “good news” of Christ with ears accustomed to hearing the “legalism” of counterfeit Christianity. They’ve lived their entire lives hearing how they must “become better” in order to get right with God. They’ve agonized, as did Luther, over the curse of God upon their sins, and even come to hate the God they view as so horribly unfair. How remarkably fresh and liberating the true gospel must sound! And to be able to point them to a carefully worked out confession that is nearly hall a millennium old is of great comfort, because it assures them that they are not, in fact, wandering from the faith (even if they’ve been in a church), but are, in fact, just now tasting the joys of life in Christ which true believers throughout all the centuries have celebrated!

Fourth, I must say a word about teaching and learning language and hermeneutics. Those of us who grew up in Christ learned the “language of Zion” in our homes. That is, we learned to speak of faith, of unbelief, of sin, salvation, the gospel, conversion, justification, sanctification, the Law, the means of grace, Christian piety, prayer, etc. For those who did not grow up in such an environment, such language must be learned somewhere else. It is, frankly, difficult to learn a coordinated and unified theology from the straight reading of Scripture. It is also difficult to read Scripture without a theological vocabulary. Learning the language of God’s Word from such a tool as the Catechism aids greatly in learning how to read the Bible. Again, learning how to approach the Bible as the Catechism approaches it and uses it aids greatly in teaching a method of reading and approaching the Bible, thus teaching a Reformed hermeneutic right from the start.

Finally, we must understand the critical role the Heidelberg Catechism plays in forming a consciousness of the church within the heart and mind of each disciple. Remember, the “church consciousness” of most North American people is thoroughly unBiblical. They view the church as optional, a human invention, a voluntary association. How spiritually invigorating it is to shape a new disciple’s faith with an understanding of the church as the living body of Jesus Christ which He is gathering according to His Word and Spirit and equipping with His gifts to accomplish His mission on earth! The confessional material set forth in LDs 21 and 48, for example, develops a deep commitment to Christ in and with the local body of believers, and, at the same time, an abiding love for the Church universal of which every true believer is a living member. And that’s a fresh component of the transformed mind of all who are new in Christ.

Dr. Sittema is a contributing editor for The Outlook and pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.