Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1
People often ask me, “Why do you talk so often about death?” My response often takes them by surprise. “One day I may have to bury you or someone you know and love. I am doing my grief counseling before the hour of death comes.” Although many people expect their pastor to be a comedian, motivator, dynamic leader, or even a skilled teacher, Scripture assigns to the pastor the role of a shepherd of souls. The pastor’s primary job is to prepare people for death. This entails making sure that those whom God has entrusted to our care are clear about the promises of the gospel, so that they live joyfully and confidently in light of eternity to come.
Americans hate the thought of death. We spend billions of dollars on healthcare, vitamins, diets, and exercise equipment. We no longer bury our dead next to the church, but in a serene pastoral setting called a cemetery, often hidden behind high walls and shrubbery. This ensures that the awful reality contained under grave stones and in mausoleums is not seen by passersby.
In the days of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, life was hard. Europe knew the horrors of disease and war. The average life expectancy was short. People could not escape the reality of death. People did not die in the sterile environment of a hospital or nursing care. People died at home, or on the streets. There were no paramedics or emergency medical care. People knew the smell of death. They saw firsthand the reality of the fall of the human race into sin. They couldn’t hide from death like we do. Death was common and visible.
It was in the face of the stark reality of death that the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus) composed its first question and answer. These are words to live by — and to die by.
In the face of death, what is it that a Christian needs to know so that we don’t live in despair or without hope? We need to know that we are not our own, that we belong to Christ, who has purchased us with His own blood. Knowing this enables us to live in light of the fact that when we die, that one who conquered death and the grave, did so for us.
Christ has paid for my sins (not some of them, but all of them), so that on the day of judgment, I need not fear the wrath of God. Christ was faithful, so that when I am not, God will look upon Christ’s obedience, not my disobedience. Christ has redeemed us from the Devil, so that I don’t fear those things that supposedly come about through the wiles of Satan, when instead, whatever happens comes about through the power of Christ in the providence of God. Because of Christ’s work as redeemer, I know that whatever happens to me — whether I live or die — comes about as God’s means of saving me from my sins, finally bringing me into His presence.
Christ gives to me His blessed Holy Spirit who assures me that I am Christ’s and that His saving benefits have been applied to me. He gives me hope and confidence in the face of death, so that I can live a life of gratitude before God for all that Christ has done for me. Someone who knows what Christ has done for him will live confidently in the present, because he knows his eternal destiny is tied to Christ’s victory over death and the grave.
While Americans hate death, and many do all they can to hide from it, death is as much a threat to us as it was for people living in the sixteenth century. Barring the return of Christ, everyone reading this will die no matter what the quality of your healthcare, and despite the advances in medicine. The question remains, “Until death comes, will you live in the comfort of Christ’s death and resurrection, or will you live in fear, not knowing what will happen when you face God on the day of judgment?”
In the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, the authors direct us away from our fears to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer to whom we now belong. Once we realize that we are not our own, the fear of death will give way to the comfort of the gospel. These are words to live by. These are words to die by.