Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"IN THE CATECHISM WE ECHO THE ONLY COMFORT GOD HAS TOLD US."
1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
 I Cor. 6:19, 20  Rom. 14:7-9.  I Cor. 3:23; Tit. 2:14.  I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 1:7; 2:2.  John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14, 15; I John 3:8.  John 6:39, 40; 10:27-30; II Thess. 3:3; I Pet. 1:5.  Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18.  Rom. 8:28.  Rom. 8:15, 16; II Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14.  Rom. 8:14.
2. Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this
A. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
 Rom. 3:9, 10; I John 1:10.  John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43.  Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; I Pet. 2:9, 10.
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Once again, for the so-manieth time, we begin again with Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The question that arises is Why. Why have the churches decided –it’s Article 63 of the Church Order- that Sunday by Sunday "the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism" should be proclaimed in the preaching (cf Art 63, CO)?
That question becomes more pressing when we realize that this Catechism was written well over 400 years ago. Those 400 years have seen so very much change that we really wonder what good going through such an ancient document can do for us today. Shouldn’t we replace the Catechism with a modern document, addressing modern problems? Or better: shouldn’t we give away Catechism preaching altogether, and instead focus on the Word of God itself?
As it is, congregation of the Lord, the Word of our God has not changed over the years and centuries. That Word is still the only source of comfort in the midst of the tears and trials of this modern life. And how shall the doctrine of that Word be brought to the hearts and homes of the people of God? The Catechism –and with it the Catechism preaching- still serves as a golden tool to show the people of God what comfort He extends to us in His Word. So we continue to open the Word of God in the preaching – and use the Catechism as our guide as we seek God’s promises for us modern people.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
IN THE CATECHISM WE ECHO THE ONLY COMFORT GOD HAS TOLD US.
What a confession is.
I asked you a moment ago, congregation, why it is that we begin preaching our way through the Catechism again. The answer to that question lies in the nature of what a confession is.
You will be aware that the Free Reformed Churches of Australia have adopted a total of six confessions. These six fall in turn into two groups of three. There are first the three Ecumenical Creeds, ie, the Apostles Creed (which we hear most Sundays in the afternoon service), the Nicene Creed (which we confess from time to time), and the Athanasian Creed (which I use a couple of times per year). Beside these Ecumenical Creeds the churches also have adopted three creeds coming from the time of the Great Reformation, viz, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. Of these six it is specifically the Heidelberg Catechism that is used in the preaching simply because it was written for the specific purpose of being a tool for teaching.
Six confessions we have. But what are these confessions actually? The word ‘confession’ is an English translation of a Greek word that means, "to say the same thing". That’s what a confession is; a confession ‘says the same thing.’ The big question is now, As who? A confession says the same thing as God. The point is that the Lord God has spoken to people; that’s His Word, the Bible. We read that Word, and, by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we respond to that Word in a positive fashion, respond with faith, with accepting as true the promises of God in that Word. So what do we do? We say in human words what God has said to us in His Word. That is, we take those promises of God as explained in His Word, and we echo these same promises as true for ourselves. We say the same thing as God says, we repeat after God. True, we use fewer words; we put God’s promises in very summary form. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we repeat after God what God has said to us. He has told us in His Word this and that about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we’ve read it, we believe it, and so we say in our own words how the resurrection of Christ benefits us – and there you have Lord’s Day 17 of the Catechism. The Lord has told us in His Word this and that about angels, we’ve read it, we believe it, and so we repeat God’s revelation in our own words – and there you have Article 12 of the Belgic Confession. That’s what a confession is; a confession repeats after God what we have heard God say to us in His Word.
If that, brothers and sisters, is what a confession is, some consequences follow in relation to the confessions of the church.
The first is that confessions are not simply human opinion. Yes, the confessions are human work; unlike the Scriptures, they are not inspired. So confessions can have mistakes. (That is why confessions are always open to revision – if it can be shown that a statement in the confessions does not accurately capture what God has told us in His Word. So you will find, for example, at the end of Art 36 of the Belgic Confession, words to the effect that Synod 1905 deleted a section of that article. Yes, the confessions are open to revision.) Meanwhile, we cannot say that these confessions are simply human opinion. After all, the confessions say the same thing as God says – as the numerous proof texts seek to show.
There’s a second consequence. If the confessions say the same thing as God says, then the content of the confessions is the same as the content of the Bible. True, the Bible is much bigger; in the confessions we give only a summary of what God has revealed to us. Still, the confession is an accurate summary. It captures in brief what God has said in a big book. That is why it is fitting for us to treasure the confessions. By treasuring and mastering their content, we treasure and master the Word of God itself.
In the third place, if in the confessions we are repeating after God what God has told us in His Word, the confessions have authority. Theologians speak here of ‘derived authority’. The point is that the Bible has the final authority, simply because it is the actual Word of God. So in disputes appeal is ultimately to be made to the Scriptures. But since the Confessions say the same thing as the Bible, we can appeal to the confessions also and –certainly amongst Reformed believers- an appeal to the confession as good as an appeal to the Scriptures.
So many of us have professed the faith. The Form for Public Profession of Faith asks this question:
"First, do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian Church?"
By saying ‘I do’ to that question, we agree that the confessions indeed do say the same thing as God says in His Word; they are Scripturally faithful, they capture accurately what God has revealed. So we hold ourselves and each other to these confessions, and we understand that by doing so we are holding ourselves and each other to the Word of God itself. Please, then, brothers and sisters, let us not contrast the Bible and the Confessions, as if the one is important and the other is not. In the Confessions we give our personal response –be it through words we’ve adopted from somebody else who lived long ago- to what God has said to us in His Word. In the confessions we say, ‘Yes, Lord, this and this is what you promise me in Your Word, and so this and this is what I believe; I echo in my confession what You have promised me in the Bible.’
That brings us back to the confessions themselves. Particularly the Heidelberg Catechism (though its true of the Belgic Confession too) speaks in very personal terms. Time and again in the course of this confession one finds the word ‘I’, the word ‘me’, or the words ‘we’ and ‘us’. When we professed the faith, we as much as claimed that those personal pronouns referred to ourselves, to me. In these confessions it’s not somebody else who is repeating God’s Words after Him; no, it’s we ourselves who say the same thing as God says. For we understand and accept that God’s promises are not meant simply for other people; we understand and accept that God’s promises are true for ourselves. For God has established His covenant of grace with us and so has told us that He would be our God and adopt us to be His children. He has said that in relation to us, and that is why we repeat after God, we put on our lips, in our own language, with our own words, what God has told us in His Word. So we say, with Lord’s Day 1, that "I am not my own, but belong … to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ," and we dare to say that because that’s what God told us. And we say with Lord’s Day 52 that the Lord wants me to end my prayer with the word ‘Amen’ because "God has much more certainly heard my prayer that I feel in my heart that I desire this of Him." And that’s true of every Lord’s Day in between; in each Lord’s Day I’m responding to God’s promises, I’m echoing what God has said to me and consciously getting personal in the process.
We begin the Catechism preaching again with Lord’s Day 1. What we’re doing in the Catechism preaching, then, is taking the various doctrines of the Word of God, listening to what the Lord says in His Word on this matter and that, and we’re responding by expressing our conviction that it’s true for ourselves. There you have the reason too why Catechism preaching needs to continue – though the Catechism is so old and the times are a’changin’. For the promises of God to His people do not change, any more than God Himself ever changes (cf Ps 102:25ff). Those promises hold true, no matter what changes there may be on this earth. Those promises about the Holy Spirit, about the providence of God, about the birth and death of Jesus Christ, and so very much more, are extended to us so that we might be comforted and taught how to live our lives in this world to God’s praise. Let the preaching draw out those promises we cherish so much, and let us learn anew how to respond to those promises in our modern circumstances.
There you have too the reason why the second service on Sunday –where the Catechism is normally expounded- needs to continue, and why we need to make it our business to attend faithfully. History shows that where the catechism preaching is discontinued, the churches become superficial – for doctrine gets forgotten. Yet getting doctrine right is the first step to getting life right. The challenges of this life remain many, and in those challenges we need to hear again the promises of the God who does not change – and need to hear again from the Word of God why we can may confess what we confess. So we, though modern people, begin again with Lord’s Day 1 of an old, old catechism – and we’re persuaded that this summary produced by children of God 400 years ago captures accurately what the Lord has told even us in His Word.
And what is it that God has told us in His Word? That’s our second point:
What our comfort is.
The Word that God in heaven has spoken to sinners on earth has a theme. The golden thread running through the whole Bible is the concept of comfort. After our fall into sin, the Lord God sought us out, gave up His only Son to pay for sin – comfort. That theme is picked up in the introductory Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism: "what is your only comfort in life and death?"
"Comfort". It’s a word we use regularly, and it’s a concept we all want. But what, brothers and sisters, is comfort actually? The word ‘comfort’ presupposes a situation of pain, of trouble, of misery. In that situation one needs strengthening, encouragement, comfort. Comfort is not that one speaks some nice words or gives someone a hug. There’s place for that, sure, but comfort in the Biblical sense of the word means a lot more.
I draw your attention to Is 40. I read these words:
"Comfort, yes, comfort My people!"
Says your God.
"Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her,
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the Lord’s hand
Double for all her sins."
To appreciate the significance of the word ‘comfort’ here, we need to understand something of the pain, the trouble, the misery in which God’s people existed. As it is, in chaps 40-66 Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in their exile. We know enough about exile to realize that exile was misery. The people used to have their own homes in and around Jerusalem, with their own beds, their own table, their own family. Exile meant that you were dragged away from your home, you no longer had the security of your own bed, your own mother beside you, etc. Exile meant that you were dislodged, had no home, possibly had no family. Exile meant that the soldiers could do with you whatever they wished. Exile meant that you were a thing, something to be used…. And that’s how Israel experienced exile….
Now we also need to recall, congregation, why Israel was in exile, why this tribulation came upon them. It was, we know, because of their sins, their refusal to accept what the Lord had said in His Word. So they provoked the wrath of the Lord, and brought His curse upon themselves – to their enormous hurt.
To a people burdened by such pain, trial, tribulation, the Lord directed the words of Is 40, spoke of comfort. What is comfort? Says God: tell the inhabitants of Jerusalem who now languish in exile that "her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned." Here is the gospel of forgiveness of sins, and with that gospel the good news that the curse of God upon sin is lifted – with as result that there’s an end in sight to the warfare, the unrest the people experience. More, the Lord says in vs 3 that a highway has to be prepared for God, for God is coming to His people; "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed" (vs 5). The thought is repeated in vs 10; "behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand." Yes, God is coming, and what shall He do? Vs 11: "He will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom, And gently lead those who are with young." In a word, here is care, here is protection, here is relief. Better put: here is reconciliation with a God once offended by sins, here is peace with God. No longer is there curse; there instead His blessing!
What is comfort? Comfort is that the Almighty God of heaven and earth strengthens the drooping hands, encourages the downhearted, gives hope to the hopeless. In the depth of its content, comfort according to the Bible is that God Most High reaches out to lost sinners and makes them His beloved children for Jesus’ sake. At the heart, then, of the Biblical notion of ‘comfort’ is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now the Catechism asks what your comfort is. More, the Catechism asks what your only comfort is. The Catechism has learned from God’s word, you see, that God supplies men with one comfort alone. There are not multiple varieties of comfort, nor are there numerous sources of comfort. What, then, is your only comfort?
To that question, now, about our only comfort, you and I in Lord’s Day 1 repeat after God what He has told us in His Word. Gladly we answer the question of what our only comfort is, and we feed back what God has told us in His Word. "I am not my own," we say with awe in our voices, "but belong with body and soul" - that’s with all our being- "both in life and death" –that’s from cradle to the grave and every situation in between- "to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ."
"I belong", we say. That’s a very common word, a concept so vital to the way our culture operates. "Belong": it’s the notion of possession, of ownership. Everything in our houses belongs to somebody, and we don’t appreciate when somebody else doesn’t respect our property. "I belong," we say, and we mean with that that we are the private property of someone, are owned by someone. By whom? No, not ourselves; I don’t own me, I’m not my own boss. The Lord tells me that I’ve got a much better owner than I could ever be for myself, since I’m sinful and so I don’t know how to take care of myself. Who owns me? None less than the Savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ! How come He owns me? The Lord Christ died on the cross in order to set me free from the slavery of the devil! With His own blood He bought me, and so I’m His property.
And no, that’s not true simply of the other person; according to the Scripture, the Lord God has said to me at my baptism that this good news is true for me. That is why I take up the words of Lord’s Day 1, I borrow words used in the church for over 400 years, and I say with so many thousands over the generations and around the world that "I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ."
What my situation is today? True, beloved, we are not in exile as the people of Is 40 were. But each of us has pain in our lives, each of us faces trouble of some sort, distress. Specifically in the midst of that distress, of that pain, we say what God has told us in His word, "I am the property of Jesus Christ," and Christ has paid for all my sins so that I’m reconciled to God, the curse of sin is gone from my life, I live under the blessing of the Lord – come what may.
Yet even that is not the full extent of the comfort God extends to us in His Word. The Lord Jesus Christ not only has full rights to me; He also takes full responsibility for me. How He cares for me? "He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head." You see, beloved, in His care for His property, Jesus Christ entrusts us into the care of His heavenly Father – the almighty Creator of heaven and earth! This is the God of Is 40, the God who pardons iniquity, the God who tenderly carries His own in His bosom, the God who has measured the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance (vs 12). Sovereign God is my loving Father, and He cares for me –I say in Lord’s Day 1- so well that "not a hair can fall from my head" without His will; "indeed, all things must work together for my salvation." Is my situation a mess? Do I see trouble on every side? This is my comfort, my source of encouragement and reassurance, that sovereign God –my Father for Jesus’ sake- is busy working precisely this mess for my salvation. That’s the promise I hear from God’s mouth in holy Scriptures, and so it’s a promise I humbly repeat.
The Christ who owns me does more for me still. I learn from His Word that He also gives me His Holy Spirit so that I might be assured of eternal life, yes, and might be made to live for God daily now already. So speaks the Lord, and that’s why I repeat this promise too after my God.
We’re modern people, living in complex times. But we’ll work our way through the Catechism again, old though it is. We’ll do it, because we’re sure that the Heidelberg Catechism catches accurately the riches God has promised to us in His Word. So we’ll borrow those words first penned centuries ago, and we’ll repeat after God the riches that God has given us in His Word. We know: God doesn’t change, and so His promises are valid still – no matter our circumstances. We’re sure: God has given comfort, the only true comfort in all the world, and that comfort is ours. Always. Amen.