This article first appeared at Theology for Life on October 29, 2022, in the Confessions, Catechisms, and Creeds issue.
On September 16th, 2001, churches across the United States were packed. It is estimated there was a 40 percent increase in average attendance at Sunday morning services.[i] Americans were gathering in shock, fear, dismay, and sorrow about what had happened five days prior on 9/11. A question was at the front of everyone’s mind: What does it mean?
No doubt, in many of those churches, Psalm 23 was read or referenced. This was certainly the case during the days and weeks following as funerals are where most people encounter King David’s words about the Divine Shepherd. This Psalm is one of the most widely recognized passages of Scripture and the favorite of millions, from professing believers to rare churchgoers. It’s often to these words of God that people turn when in distress, looking for comfort and encouragement.
In this context, the significance of Psalm 23 following Psalm 22 would be missed by many, but it’s not a coincidence that words of distress, such as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? …I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1–2), precede promises of comfort and mercy. This is a pattern in Scripture and a template for God’s people in life. Many saints have learned that it’s not until we swim in the “Slough of Despond” (Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan) that we savor the sweetness of divine succor.
Frederick III, Zacharias Ursinus, and the Heidelberg Catechism
Dr. Zacharias Ursinus knew this in 1562. That’s when the 28-year-old theology professor at Heidelberg University was asked to draft a new catechism by Frederick III of Simmern, Prince-Elector of the Palatinate, a German-speaking province in the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick had visited churches and schools and discovered congregations had little familiarity with God’s word and even less comprehension of Christian doctrines.[ii]
Frederick’s prescription was for a new catechism to unify the many factions of Protestant churches, provide pastors a tool for outlining their sermons, and serve as an accessible resource to instruct children. A team of professors and ministers joined Dr. Ursinus, crafting a catechism that would meet Frederick’s goals, with the young theology professor as the primary author and Caspar Olevianus, Frederick’s court preacher, the editor of the final composition. The Prince-Elector met with the cohort often. He even contributed to the discussion and signed off on the final draft for Synod approval in 1563 under the title, Catechism, or Christian Instruction, as Conducted in the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate. That same year the Synod approved the use of the catechism for schools and churches, and after a few minor revisions, the Heidelberg Catechism was included in the Palatinate Church Order and restructured into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day of the year. By 1565, it was being widely distributed throughout Germany.[iii]
It’s a Question of Comfort
The tone and purpose of the catechism are established even before one reads the answers. The first question asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” One reason may be the use of personal pronouns in both the psalm and in the catechism, underscoring the intimacy of the covenantal relationship between God and His people. King David pens, “the Lord is my Shepherd”, “he leads me beside the still waters”, “he restores my soul”. “Even though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, you are with me”.
Symptoms of distress and disappointment plague us all, and we yearn for comfort and security. Zacharias Ursinus affirmed the doctrinal foundation of the catechism for church unity and community instruction, yet he also wrote in a commentary on the catechism: “‘Comfort’ is a deliberation of the heart whereby we juxtapose our misery and the grace which Christ earned, so that, in considering that grace, our grief is tempered.”[iv]
Is there an unbridgeable chasm between doctrine and comfort? Or is there a causal relationship resulting in both being strengthened? Dr. Ursinus knew that comfort, a luxury for the congregations that the catechism was written for, was exactly what the people needed to temper their grief. The ravages of wars, plagues, assassinations, religious turbulence, conspiracies, early death, and poverty were felt by all.[v] Survival was paramount; determining whence comfort might come was a frivolous waste of time. Zacharias’s catechism doesn’t affirm a cuddly kind of comfort. The comfort of the Lord is founded upon the unshakableness of His truth, the assurance of His sovereign determination, and the steadfastness of His promises. The more we know about Him, how unworthy we are, what Jesus has done for us, and how that affects us eternally, the more confident we become in Him as our comfort.
The whole catechism draws on the full counsel of God, but it is a particularly masterful exposition of the book of Romans. The flow of questions follow the progression of Paul’s argument from the misery of man in questions 3 through 11 (Romans 1:1-3:20) to God’s plan of deliverance in questions 12 through 85 (Romans 3:21-11:36) to the believer’s response of obedience from a heart of gratitude in questions 86 through 129 (Romans 12:1-16:27).[vi] Questions 1 and 2 are regarded as the introduction to the catechism, providing a preview and an outline for the remaining questions.
Question: What is Your Only Comfort in Life and in Death?
Answer: That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3 He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8 Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10
3 1 Corinthians 3:23; Titus 2:14
4 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9, 2:2
5 John 8:34-36; Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11
6 John 6:39-40, 10:27-30; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:5
7 Matthew 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18
9 Romans 8:15-16; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14
Take a moment to look up those prooftexts. Each answer to each catechism question is accompanied by Scripture proofs, verses which read in context are solid, inspired evidences of the truth of the answer.
The question, besides assessing human malaise and the craving for comfort, also presumes there is only one answer. In search of this elusive golden nugget, society bounces from self-affirmation to new experiences to amenities that assuage our distress. Every year we’re reminded during the week after Christmas that all the comforts in the world still don’t address the ache for that something that will fill the void, ease the edge of anxiety, and eliminate the fear that we’re missing out on perfect satisfaction, perfect security, perfect happiness. Just like church attendance returned to pre-9/11 numbers two months after the attacks, the seasonal glow fades and we cast our gaze elsewhere. Some numb the distress by binge-watching comfort shows. Others seek out new experiences: dinner at the restaurant everyone is talking about, planning the next weekend or the next vacation, shopping for the sake of the thrill of the great deal. An epidemic of unmet expectations fills Pinterest boards, Tinder profiles, and TikTok content. Is idolatry at the root? I know one way to tell. How did I react the last time the power went out, the internet was down, or weather interfered with my vacation plans? What was my comfort in that moment?
Ever since comfort was lost with Eden, man has tried to revive it with fleshly pleasure, accomplishment, and safety. “They served their idols, which became a snare to them,” writes the psalmist (Psalm 106:36). Whatever we secure for ourselves is temporary to this world and will burn away with this world. Moses warned Israel not to get caught in the snare of dependence upon or satisfaction in the promises of the nations or their gods (Exodus 23:33; 34:12). Israel became so enamored with the security and comfort Assyria and Egypt offered that she questioned the goodness and faithfulness of Yahweh (Isaiah 36:14-18; Jeremiah 2:17-19; Ezekiel 23:7; Hosea 7:11, 12:1).
“All too oft the unfortunates, who ought to begin with God,” said 18th-century author, Alexandre Dumas, “do not have any hope in Him till they have exhausted all other means of deliverance.” Zacchaeus the tax collector yearned for recognition and affirmation and was disappointed in the hand he’d been dealt. When visited by Jesus, he didn’t mourn the loss of wealth and power once the Messiah’s comfort washed over him (Luke 19:1-10). Solomon tried it all: learning, beauty, wealth, work, and pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:3–11). These aren’t bad pursuits unless they become the goal of satisfaction in life. Any other attempts to secure comfort are not worth the promises (Hebrews 10:34) and become a mere striving after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
What Dr. Ursinus understands is that distress and disappointment are meant to point us to Christ, who knew disappointment more deeply than we, who took on the consequences when we act sinfully upon our disappointment, and who rises as the One who will never disappoint. Doctrine precedes assurance, but this assurance means nothing if it ends at the grave. Ursinus’s first question to catechumens is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” It is one thing to trust in self or the world or dreams in this life, but what shall be our assurance in death, that unknown realm? That world of war and plague and instability loomed large and real to the people in his community; death was a stench in every home.
What comfort follows us beyond the grave? What do I need to know to live and die? Paul prays for the Ephesians in Ephesians 1:17-20:
“That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…”
The comprehension of which is “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). Now, that’s good news that instills comfort!
From Slavery to Supernatural
“I am not my own” begins the catechism answer, a direct quote from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Contrary to mantras, such as, “you do you”, “be a girl boss”, or “follow your heart”, which we hear from social media, secular trends in therapy, and podcasts, we all know how quickly being our own boss turns into sorrow and anguish. There is no long-lasting security there.
The remaining 128 questions are built upon a foundational—albeit unpopular—truth: we are slaves. All of us are born into bondage to sin (John 8:34; Romans 7:14). That devouring master rules us with tyranny, deception, and false promises (Romans 7:23). Our enslaved natural-self, steeped in original sin, causes us to believe we are free, autonomous, and able to determine our own ends. In truth, we are not our own but driven by sin’s voracious appetite for our destruction (2 Peter 2:19). What we believe will satisfy, comfort, and affirm us will end up contributing to our eternal damnation (Revelation 21:8), unless another Master comes to claim us (Galatians 5:1). That Master has forgiven us our sins (Colossians 2:13), paid the price for the right to own us (1 Peter 1:18-19), and sets us free from that bondage of sin to be bound instead to His own righteousness (Titus 2:11-12; Romans 6:22; Hebrews 2:14-15), the means to eternal life. What a relief not to be “our own”!
Charles Spurgeon writes:
We should follow our Lord as unhesitatingly as sheep follow their shepherd, for He has a right to lead us wherever He pleases. We are not our own, we are bought with a price—let us recognize the rights of the redeeming blood. The soldier follows his captain, the servant obeys his master, and so we must follow our Redeemer, to whom we are a purchased possession. We are not true to our profession of being Christians if we question the summons of our Leader and Commander.[vii]
When we are Christ’s, our days are under His watchful care (John 6:39-40) and we are known by Him as never before by anyone (John 10:27-31). We are kept there by the Spirit, who is the seal that is set upon us by the Father. In Christ, we cannot be removed, demoted, or nudged aside.
We are not meant to be on our own. We crave belonging. The pursuit to ferret out our connections to others fuels the hook-up culture and the DNA industry. But once we are Christ’s, our spiritual DNA is woven into a complex tapestry representing God’s family. Biological DNA may provide genetic linkage to other humans with the same molecular recipe, but we who count Abraham as our spiritual father (to whom the original covenant was given) belong to a tribe more real and eternal than any fleshly bloodline. I am connected by union with Christ, making me “an heir according to the promise” (Galatians 3:9) and drastically changing my perspective about now and beyond.
This is not merely a future reality. Today I belong to Jesus—body and soul. Today I have an inheritance that reflects my spiritual DNA, and although I face daily temptations and suffer momentary affliction, I am also today sustained by this tomorrow-identity, from now until beyond the grave. Sin—the flesh, the world, the enemy—works to make me forget truth. When it succeeds, comfort flees, and I seek pseudo-comforts, and when they disappoint, I react accordingly in anger or dismay, eventually bearing out the consequences of idolatry. However, there is timelessness in God’s grace and forgiveness. My tomorrow-identity depends upon His integrity, not my feelings.[viii] His passage through the veil with me cannot be reversed or undone. His resurrection adheres me to Him, and He cannot become un-resurrected.
“He finds penitence, distress, need, and lack irresistible for his own,” writes Dane Ortlund. “It’s why he came.”[ix] The Father had us in mind from before the foundation of the world; in fact, His care for us had no beginning. We have been His full concern from before we were born, and nothing in the world would displace His sovereign care for us.[x] “The LORD appeared to him from far away. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.’” (Jeremiah 31:3). He is with me now, beyond the grave, and into Heaven (Hebrews 6:13-20) where He presents me to His Father (1 Corinthians 3:23).
He is our comfort because His righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, and of our pitiful attempts. This is not mojo or a mantra. This is the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead and set the Holy Spirit on us as the earnest of the inheritance, the guarantee that all that follows will come (Hebrews 10:35-36).
Weaning away from earthly comforts often requires time spent in detox. The space most often used by the Holy Spirit to break that addiction to the world is often the wilderness. That’s where the Lord works, redirecting our disappointed hearts, instructing our forgetful minds, and drawing us near to Him. We learn to need nothing else, as expressed by Isaiah 25:5-6):
“You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”
This is a supernaturally powerful tool to make us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him. Dr. Ursinus didn’t think his man-drafted catechism would change minds and build unity. He knew it would be the truth of God’s doctrine working upon the hearts of those who belonged to Christ.
Israel dreaded any hint of the life of the wilderness and desert, even though it was there that they learned that hunger and thirst could only be assuaged by the Lord. Yahweh reminds Israel that they were better off wandering hungry in the wilderness, living in tents in the desert, than ensnared by the comforts of Assyria and Egypt (Hosea 12:9).
Do I fear being sent back to the wilderness? It’s a hard path, but there I find myself fully dependent upon Him—body and soul, in life and in death—for comfort, whatever shape He determines that comfort should take. There I am in His plan; because, according to the truth, I know that He is faithful, and I find great comfort in joining the many saints who have savored the sweetness of divine comfort after a sovereignly appointed swim in the Slough of Despond.
[i] “The Religion Bubble: Churches Try to Recapture 9/11 Crowds” by Katy McLaughlin, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1031681981556422835, September 11, 2002.
[ii] ”The History of the Heidelberg Catechsim”, https://www.rca.org/about/theology/creeds-and-confessions/the-heidelberg-catechism/the-history-of-the-heidelberg-catechism/, The Reformed Church in America
[iv] The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1; p 17-18
[v] “Heidelberg Catechism”, Westminster Theological Seminary, https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/heidelberg.html
[vi] Heidelberg Catechism, Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, https://prts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Heidelberg-Catechism-with-Intro.pdf
[vii] Spurgeon, Charles H., Morning and Evening, September 18 evening
[viii] R.C. Sproul said, ”I don’t always feel presence. But God’s promises do not depend upon my feelings; they rest upon His integrity.” Enjoying God: Finding Hope in the Attributes of God, 2017.
[ix] Ortlund, Dane. Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, 2021
[x] Geerhardus Vos said, “The best proof that He will never cease to love us lies in that He never began.” Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 2001.