The Structure of the Heidelberg Catechism Could Change Your Life

The aim of this podcast is to help you, the listener, find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel should produce comfort and joy in our hearts every day as we strive by the Holy Spirit to live for the glory of our God. In order for you and me to find the comfort and joy our souls crave, we need to understand several important things. We need to understand God’s law, the law’s goodness, and how God uses the law to love us. We need to understand the gospel and how Christ Jesus our Lord has rescued us from our sins and misery. We need to understand what comfort and joy are, but more importantly, their source and how we obtain them. We need to understand how the gospel excites us to godliness and good works as the fruit of true faith.

So, each episode of this show is devoted to unpacking some profound and helpful Biblical truth from the ecumenical creeds or Heidelberg Catechism (HC), resources that faithfully present the foremost doctrines of the Christian faith. To excel at any sport, an athlete must master the fundamentals. This show returns again and again to the fundamentals to promote greater understanding, but furthermore, to promote application to receive practical benefit. I like playing basketball, and I coach as well, and players who are struggling with their jump shot will restore their form by repeatedly practicing form shooting two feet from the hoop. A return to the fundamentals sharpens their game. In order to live the Christian life more faithfully, the fundamentals of the Christian life must inform our daily rhythm. I don’t mean our faith and theology should be shallow. Quite the opposite. Study the heresies of the ages. They all deviate in some way from the fundamentals of historical orthodox Christian doctrine. I mean rehearse the fundamentals to restore our focus.

The state of theology in the church in the United States is not good. Studies have been done on it, and the results are alarming. The Church in North America desperately needs reformation, and I don’t think reformation will happen until we return to the fundamentals and allow them to shape us, to shape our marriages, parenting, careers, friendships, church life, and everything else. This show will focus on the fundamentals so that, hopefully, you experience personal reformation and maybe even church reformation.

We’re going to begin in the HC. I know of no better doctrinal framework than the HC, no better expression of the fundamentals, no better articulation of the essentials of the Christian faith. There are certainly other excellent confessions and catechisms like the Belgic, Canons of Dort, and Westminster Standards, perhaps equals, but none exceed the HC. The HC is warm, pastoral, and filled with wisdom to help you apply the law and gospel to your life so that you will have the comfort and joy you so desire.

I’m not really huge on poetry unless you count listening to hip hop, and then I’m down, but when it comes to poetry, structure is extremely important. The beauty is in the words and the structure which move us to think and feel.  

In order to get the most out of the HC, you need to understand its structure. Its structure is part of its beauty, brilliance, and benefit. In fact, its structure can become the rhythm of your Christian life, the way you think every day. The structure might change your life.  

The HC beings with an introduction which outlines the entire catechism. HC 1 presents our only comfort in life and death, and then HC 2 gives us the structure in outline form. HC 2 asks, “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” That’s an important question. If we are to have true and lasting comfort and joy, we should know how to have it. It answers, “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.” Right there is the Catechism’s structure. Right there is what you and I need to know, the fundamentals, to live and die with the joy and comfort of Christ. The structure is easy to remember: guilt, grace, gratitude. Memorize that. Guilt, grace, gratitude. That ought to be the unceasing rhythm of your life. Some might prefer the words law, gospel, law or law, gospel, sanctification, but the alliteration of guilt, grace, gratitude works well.

Following the two-question introduction is the first section – guilt. Questions 3-11 address how God’s law or the Ten Commandments expose our sin and misery. Christ is irrelevant to us until we understand our condemnation under God’s holy law. Then comes grace in questions 12-85. This section unpacks the gospel and devotes many words to the Apostles’ Creed and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The grace section gives us the good news of Jesus Christ and how our Savior and Lord serves and strengthens us in the wilderness of this life. The HC concludes with gratitude or our sanctification, how the Holy Spirit enlivens us to obey the Ten Commandments out of thankfulness for receiving God’s unmerited grace. Questions 86-129 explain the treasures of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, two essential resources that God intends to shape our lives and churches.

A good drummer will be fanatical about keeping accurate time, keeping the rhythm of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and thirty-second notes. Those are the fundamentals that give him and his band the freedom to rock hard. Guilt, grace, gratitude are the simple beats that help us keep law and gospel rhythm, repentance and faith rhythm, the put-off-put-on rhythm of life.

There’s another feature of the Heidelberg’s structure that makes it so helpful. The 129 questions are broken down into 52 Lord’s Days, 52 subsections to align with the 52 weeks of the year. This means you can study one section each week or each Lord’s Day throughout the year. I think reformation would come if more parents taught their children one Lord’s Day per week and churches had Lord’s Day evening services focused on unpacking the riches of each Lord’s Day.

So, in the coming weeks and months, hopefully, years, as the Lord wills, we’re going to unpack the comforting truths of the HC and ecumenical creeds with a keen eye toward application, applying what we learn to our marriage, parenting, work, pleasure, friendships, and church life, really all of life.

The best way you can track with the show is to study the HC Lord’s Day that corresponds to that week of the year and tune in for help in digesting it. For example, this Sunday will be the 38th Sunday, and next week the 39th, so next week we’ll be in Lord’s Day 39, question 104. We’ll focus in on a basic truth from question 104 on the Fifth Commandment and how it relates to the guilt, grace, gratitude rhythm of our lives. I hope you’ll tune in. May the Lord grant us His grace and Spirit to live for His glory alone.

About the author

Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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