This article first appeared in the April, 1995 issue of The Outlook.
In his recent commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven calls the catechism “the best confessional and teachable summary of the will of God for the life of the church.”1 That’s quite a compliment for a document over four centuries old. What a beacon the Heidelberg Catechism remains in our anti-theological age, with its disdain for creeds and confessions. Indeed we live in times that consider theological precision old fashioned. But confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism among them, serve an immensely useful purpose. Not only do confessions clarify what the church believes, they identify who we are. They remind us what we hold dear. As a matter of fact, they serve a doctrinally pastoral purpose. This is especially true of the Heidelberg Catechism, and specifically the public proclamation of this catechism in the life of the church.
I believe a steady diet of catechism preaching is more necessary now for the health and vitality of the church than perhaps in any past generation. I know that is a bold statement. But look at the times! We live in a doctrinally poisoned age. Consider the following:
1. We live in an age of doctrinal ignorance. Not only are many Christians without a rudimentary knowledge of the faith; a high number of them show little interest in attaining such knowledge. “What is relevant?” has displaced the question “What is true?” And of course “what is relevant” isn’t scripturally defined but derives its meaning from our secularized context. Pragmatism reigns supreme in such a question. It pushes the theology of the Bible aside.
How ought the church to respond when its own members lose their appetite for doctrinal knowledge? Must it acquiesce and serve up the spiritual blather people crave? Or ought pastors and elders help the Lord’s people acquire (anew) a taste for the deeper things of the faith? Certainly the antidote to doctrinal superficiality and the psycho-babble that passes itself off as biblical preaching isn’t more superficiality. Biblically driven preaching, especially catechism preaching, has proven an effective antidote for ignorance. The Heidelberg Catechism asks biblical questions and provides biblical answers. It shows us our three most important needs (cf. Q/A 2). And it shows us how each of those needs is met in the gospel. Rather than falter in duty, the church should give its members what some think they don’t need and others are sure they don’t want—like good medicine. The catechism is just the medication for an anemic church. After all, if a malnourished teen has an appetite for cotton candy and little else, the responsible parent doesn’t stop insisting on healthy meals. A proper diet is in order, along with some vitamin pills, perhaps. Similarly, the church must hold firm by teaching the threefold truth that alone enables its members to live and die in the joy of belonging to Christ. The catechism sermon is a pastoral necessity and should not be consigned to a bygone era. The church should reaffirm it with renewed vigor.
2. We live in an age of psychological theology or therapeutic religion. In many evangelical and Reformed churches today, one finds a shift in accent from God to the self. Where this happens, the questions shift away from a person’s relationship to God to a person’s relationship with himself. In other words, although the question may remain the same: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” the answer has changed. The believer belonging to Christ is flipped-flopped—now the focus is on Christ belonging to the believer. In such a scheme, how quickly God becomes our “gopher” whose task it is to make us religiously satisfied and materially blessed.
Psychological theology is a therapeutic religion, deliberately (and hopelessly) human-centered, looking for God to meet needs and satisfy personal goals, whether those be psychological, social, sexual or economic. Therapeutic religion is long on good feelings and short on doctrinal content. It welcomes inner experience and testimonies about “what works” but fidgets impatiently in the pew as the law of God is read. Psychological theology, since it is man-centered, grows bored with the story of redemption that centers on God and His works. Indeed, feelings about God become more important than the truth of God. The self is the hinge around which religion turns. Preaching the Heidelberg Catechism is pastorally beneficial for modern believers because the greatest needs in a person’s life remain the knowledge of sin, the deliverance from it, and the life of love lived out in gratitude to God for that deliverance. The catechism beautifully unveils the God-centered gospel with its comforting assurance for believers in the saving work of Christ. No superficial theology of self-esteem or positive thinking is pawned off on the church here! The catechism nurtures God’s people in the truth of sin’s corruption and pollution, with its treachery and misery. The Lord’s terrible anger and justice are not snubbed as topics too distasteful for the pure in the pew (cf. Q/As 3–11, 87). The Catechism depicts God in both His justice and mercy, His love and anger, His grace and judgment (Q/As 9–15). Here we find a true vision of God and a true vision of ourselves.
Moreover, the Heidelberg Catechism addresses the heart of the gospel message as it explains Christ’s person and work (cf. Q/As 16–18; 29–52). It clearly exhibits for us the way of salvation. That message is not muffled or sidetracked, nor is it lost in a maze of therapeutic mumbo-jumbo. The gospel, far from being obscured, as it is so often in the user-friendly religious market today, is beautifully exhibited and personally applied.
This confession of the church also lays out effectively the struggle of the Christian life and the grace of God that prevails for us—a grace that prods us forward in service of the kingdom of God (e.g., Q/As 86–91). The catechism takes the Christian life seriously, a healthy counter to the milk-toast messages of today. We are children and servants. Our commission is rooted in Christ’s (Q/A 32). The believer’s task is comprehensive in being directed to God and neighbor. We meet the God of Scripture in this document—a God who cares enough about humans to call them to life in His Son. He is a God who teaches His children how to love and to pray (cf. LDs 32–52). Indeed this God is not a “god” of therapy but the sovereign Lord of salvation.
3. We live in an age of theological plurality and error. Pluralism places all religious ideas on a level (equally irrelevant) playing field. Biblical truth becomes a casualty, since pluralism, wedded to secularism, accepts no truth claim as absolute. In other words, no claim of certainty is permitted except the claim that we cannot be certain. Thus in our age of theological plurality, ecumenical interests are superseding previous denominational distinctives. It is now considered a breach of etiquette to let one’s theological slip show. It is unkind and unfriendly, maybe even unchristian, to point out the differences that exist among churches. The new evangelical ecumenicity serves up a “Christianity” that promises wholeness and happiness while staying mute about godliness and righteousness. The piety practiced is rice-paper thin: superficial stories displacing the history of redemption, pep-talks masquerading as sermons, entertainment posing as worship. User-friendly religion is the new motto. Everything is upbeat and simple. Hard issues are ignored. Deep questions like original sin, God’s providence, justification by faith alone, or the nature of sacraments are all carefully and conspicuously avoided.
Meanwhile, error grows. Traditionalism and mysticism flourish. Legalism and licentiousness thrive. As God summed it up through His prophet long ago: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
Proclamation of the Heidelberg Catechism cuts against the grain of our secular times—which is exactly what’s needed. Catechism preaching brings seriousness to an age of frivolity, restores historic Christianity in an era of theological fads and fetishes, and shows biblical/Calvinistic orthodoxy (where God is sovereign and at the center of things) to a generation infatuated with itself. Catechism preaching keeps the church on course by teaching the whole counsel of God.
Admittedly, the Heidelberg Catechism is not the only means to achieve this end. Careful, painstaking, expository preaching through Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, might serve as an effective remedy too. But the catechism provides a united witness for Christians lost in individualism. It gives the answers for a church failing to ask the right questions. The Heidelberg Catechism, with its theme of the believer’s comfort, steers the church through the hazards of doctrinal ignorance, therapeutic religion, and theological plurality and error. The catechism is a pastoral necessity. The church needs this treasure more than ever.
1. Andrew Kuyvenhoven, Comfort and Joy: A Study of the Heidelberg Catechism, (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988), 11.
Dr. J. Mark Beach is Professor of Ministerial and Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.