The Heidelberg Catechism

An online copy of the Heidelberg Catechism can be found here.

The Heidelberg Catechism is arguably the finest catechism produced in the 16th century. Its warm piety and clear, biblical theology have made it a favorite summary of reformed Christianity for many through the centuries.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province, the Palatinate, from 1559 to 1576. This pious Christian prince commissioned Zacharius Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick's court preacher, to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Frederick obtained the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty in the preparation of the Catechism. The catechism was completed in 1563 It was intended to aid the movement of the Palatinate from Lutheranism to Calvinism. Its doctrine is expressed largely in positive terms, and has a less "theological" flavor than a "pastoral" flavor, speaking more directly to the believer.

From the beginning the catechism was intended for preaching as well as teaching.The Reformers of Heidelberg were convinced that not only children needed catechizing, but all God's people needed careful, regular instruction in the basics of the faith. The catechism was divided into 52 Lord's Days with the purpose of facilitating weekly preaching from the catechism. Especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition that intention has been preserved to our day.

The personal and Christ-centered character of the catechism is clear right from the beginning.

Question 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
Answer. That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. ... Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

But Heidelberg takes the catechumen to the heart of the gospel right at the beginning. Christ stands at the head of the catechism and the whole catechism is an explication of what it means to belong to him. The second question of the catechism presents the basic structure of the whole work.

Question 2. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
Answer. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such redemption.

The catechism from this point is divided into three sections. Questions 3-11 deal with man's sin and misery. Questions 12-85 cover man's deliverance from sin. Questions 86-129 discuss the life of gratitude to be lived for such a deliverance. These three sections have been called sin, salvation, and service, or guilt, grace, and gratitude, or death, deliverance, discipleship. This three-fold division is often said to parallel the structure of the book of Romans, where Paul moves from his reflections on the sinful human condition to redemption in Christ, and then on to the Christian life.

The first section, on the sin of mankind, of the Heidelberg Catechism is quite brief, only nine questions. This brevity may surprise some who might expect Calvinists to dwell on the problem of sin at greater length. But these few questions impress the gravity of the human problem clearly. The law of God--summarized by Jesus in two commandments about loving God and the neighbor--reveals sin and shows that "I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor"

Question 5. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
Answer. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.

This nature is inherited from Adam and Eve

Question 7. What is the source of this corruption of human nature?
Answer. The fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are all conceived and born in a sinful condition.

and unless we are born again

Question 8. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?
Answer. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

will surely lead to judgment:

Question 11. But isn't God merciful?
Answer. God is indeed merciful but also just. Divine justice demands that sin, committed against God's supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty eternal punishment of body and soul.

The theme of judgment is question 11 is the transition to the second section, the one on deliverance. Questions 12-17, speak of how justice must be satisfied and redemption accomplished by one who is a perfectly righteous man and yet is also infinite God. Only Jesus meets these qualifications and is the savior of his people

Question 18. Who is this mediator true God and at the same time truly human and perfectly righteous?
Answer. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given to redeem us completely and to make us right with God.

But the saving work of Jesus does not redeem everyone:

Question 20. Will all people then be saved through Christ just as they were lost through Adam?
Answer. No. Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings.

Question 21 is another of the remarkable points in the catechism. If man is saved only by faith in Christ, then we must ask what faith is, and that is just what question 21 does. Its definition of faith is superb.

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer. It is not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in the Word, but also a wholehearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel, that, not only to others, but to me also God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace, solely for the sake of Christ's saving work.

Faith is not only knowledge that accepts the teaching of the Bible, but it is trust and confidence that Christ is my savior. A confident assurance that Christ has saved me must be at the heart of my faith. The catechism develops the content of faith in a long section that explains the Apostles' Creed. Medieval catechisms had been basically structured around expositions of the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. The Heidelberg Catechism follows this tradition of catechismal instruction and discusses the Apostles' Creed in questions 22-58. This use of reiteration is an important dimension of good teaching.

The section on the Apostles' Creed contains many notable statements. Only a taste of it can be presented here. In the description of God the Father, Question 28 is striking:

Question 28. How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us?
Answer. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from God's love. All creatures are so completely in God's hand that without the divine will they can neither move nor be moved.

There are similar illuminating questions of the Son and the Holy Spirit, such as:

Question 53. What do you believe concerning "the Holy Spirit"?
Answer. First, the Spirit, with the Father and the Son, is eternal God. Second, the Spirit has been given to me personally and, by true faith, makes me share in Christ and all his blessings, comforts me, and remains with me forever.

No Reformation catechism would be complete without a section on justification.Heidelberg has six questions on justification, of which question 60 is the center:

Question 60. How are you right with God?
Answer. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God's commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still ever inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

The catechism also speaks of the source of faith. Interestingly, the source of faith is not discussed in terms of the electing purpose of God as a Calvinist might suppose (although election is taught in question 54).

Question 54. What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?
Answer. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. Moreover, I believe that I am and forever will remain a living member of it.

Rather, in a teaching that is perhaps even more controversial today than predestination, question 65 says of true faith,

Question 65. Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his blessings, where does that faith come from?
Answer. The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

A large section of the catechism is devoted to the sacraments (Questions 66-82). Such length is in part attributable to the controversial nature of the sacraments in the 16th century. No question was more heatedly debated than the meaning of the Lord's Supper. But such length is a help to us today because the sacraments are so important and so neglected. The catechism follows Calvin in seeing the sacraments as support that God has given us in our weakness as Christians. The theme of strengthening our assurance pervades this section. Listen to question 73:

Question 73. Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the washing of rebirth and the washing away of sins?
Answer. God has good reason for these words, intending to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away our sins just as water washes away dirt from our bodies. But more important, God intends to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that the washing away of our sins spiritually is as real as physical washing with water.

In some modern versions, question 80 has been deleted:

Question 80.What difference is there between the Lord's Supper and the papal Mass?

Answer. The Lord's Supper testifies to us that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ which he himself has acoomplished on the cross once for all. ... But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ unless Christ is again offered for them daily by the priest. Therfore the Mass is fundamentally a complete denial of the once for all sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ .

The catechism's second major division concludes with a discussion of preaching and church discipline as the keys of the kingdom. Church discipline is necessary so that some who deny Christ in doctrine or life do not delude themselves or others by claiming to be Christians (Question 85).

Question 85. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?
Answer. According to the command of Christ: Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition such persons the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God excludes them from the king

Discipline contributes to deliverance by calling sinners to repentance and purifying the church.

The third major part of the catechism (Questions 86-129) is on the life of gratitude that Christians will lead for the redemption that Christ has brought to them. Christian living is not a voluntary, optional addition to faith, but an inevitable and necessary consequence of true faith:

Question 86. Since then we are redeemed from our sin and misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why must we do good works?
Answer. Because just as Christ has redeemed us with his blood he also renews us through his Holy Spirit according to his own image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves grateful to God for his goodness and that he may be glorified through us; and further, so that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits and by our godly living may win our neighbors to Christ.

The topic of Christian living is divided into two parts in the catechism--repentance and prayer. In the language of reformed theologians of the 16th century repentance is really a synonym for sanctification. Repentance is the putting to death of the old man and the bringing to life of the new man:

Question 88. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
Answer. Two things: the dying of the old self, and the coming to life of the new.

We are guided in that lifelong process by the Ten Commandments, which are discussed in questions 94-113. The fine and helpful reflection on the Commandments is concluded with this observation:

Question 113. Can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?
Answer. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments.

Prayer, especially the significance of the Lord's Prayer, is the subject of the last questions of the catechism (Questions 116-129). The Christ-centered character of the catechism continues in this section and teaches us the essence of true prayer:

Question 120. Why has Christ commanded us to address God: "Our Father"?
Answer. That at the very beginning of our prayer he may awaken in us the childlike reverence and trust toward God which should be basic to our prayer, which is that God has become our Father through Christ and will much less deny us what we ask in faith than our human fathers and mothers will refuse us earthly things.