Question: "What is the Heidelberg Catechism?"
Answer: A catechism (kat'-ə-kism) is a method of teaching that uses a question-and-answer format. The teacher, or catechist, recites the question, and the pupils, or catechumens, respond with the prescribed answer. For centuries, the church has used catechisms as a tool to instruct students in the basic truths of the Bible. One such catechism is the Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563 in Heidelberg, Germany, as part of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther. The Heidelberg Catechism was compiled by Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), at the request of the Elector Frederick III (1515–76) of the Palatinate. The Synod of Dort approved the Heidelberg Catechism in 1619, and the catechism has become one of four “standards of unity” that define the beliefs of the Reformed tradition.
The Heidelberg Catechism has 129 questions and answers and is divided into four basic parts: Introduction, Misery, Deliverance, and Gratitude. Within each category are subcategories dealing with more specific elements covering the basic doctrines of Christianity. The questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism are arranged into 52 “Lord’s Days” so that the whole catechism can be easily taught in one year. Each answer in written form also contains the Scripture references that support the answer.
The following are sample questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
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.
[1 Corinthians 6:19–20; Romans 14:7–9; 1 Corinthians 3:23; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19; 1 John 1:7–9; 2:2; John 8:34–36; Hebrews 2:14–15; 1 John 3:1–11; John 6:39–40; 10:27–30; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:5; Matthew 10:29–31; Luke 21:16–18; Romans 8:28; Romans 8:15–16; 2 Corinthians 1:21–22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13–14; Romans 8:1–17].
Q. Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.
[Romans 3:20; 7:7–25]
Q. According to God’s righteous judgment we deserve punishment both now and in eternity: how then can we escape this punishment and return to God’s favor?
A. God requires that his justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of this justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or by another.
[Exodus 23:7; Romans 2:1–11; Isaiah 53:11; Romans 8:3–4]
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.
[1 John 17:3, 17; Hebrews 11:1–3; James 2:19; Romans 4:18–21; 5:1; 10:10; Hebrews 4:14–16; Matthew 16:15–17; John 3:5; Acts 16:14; Romans 1:16; 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 2:20; Romans 1:17; Hebrews 10:10; Romans 3:21–26; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–10]
Q. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.
[Romans 6:13; 12:1–2; 1 Peter 2:5–10; Matthew 5:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; Matthew 7:17–18; Galatians 5:22–24; 2 Peter 1:10–11; Matthew 5:14–16; Romans 14:17–19; 1 Peter 2:12; 3:1–2]
Decidedly Calvinistic, the Heidelberg Catechism is used primarily in Reformed churches due to its emphasis on God’s sovereign election of those who will be saved. The Heidelberg Catechism remains the most-used catechism from the Reformation period and is valued worldwide for its succinctness, clarity, and power.