Have you ever posted lines of comfort and encouragement in key places of your home or workplace? Perhaps on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator, the wall behind your desk, or even on your steering wheel? If so, from what sources did those lines come? Odds are they were Scripture verses, lines from a book, a famous quote, or a pithy saying from a sermon or article.
Have you ever posted a line from a catechism?
We often think of Reformed catechisms—such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism—as dense summaries of Christian truth wrapped in time-tested language. But they’re more than that. When fixed before the eyes and settled in the heart, these little questions and answers have the power to counsel us with big-picture perspective, soul-stabilizing assurance, and fear-dispelling hope.
In this piece, I want to highlight five of the most comforting lines in various Reformed catechisms (four are centuries-old, one is very recent). These are lines you can ponder in times of distress, savor in times of sorrow, and hang on to for dear life in the whirlwind.
So, let’s begin with number five as we journey toward number one.
5. Theodore Beza, A Little Book of Christian Questions and Responses, Q. 114
“When people get to know me, they really like me.” “I can accept criticism without taking it personally.” “My past is one big learning experience.” These are three of the “75 Affirmations for Self Improvement” on the website called The Emotion Machine.1 Something in us craves affirmations such as these, because something in us aches with the awareness that our lives don’t measure up.
The gospel offers something better than affirmation, and it’s called imputation, a word taken from the Latin imputare that means “to reckon, to enter into the account.” Specifically, the shortfall of our lives according to the standard that really matters—the standard of God’s law—is made up for in the surpassing perfection of the life Jesus lived, which God then gives (or “imputes”) to us. Here is how Theodore Beza, Calvin’s remarkable successor in Geneva, put it in his Little Book of Christian Questions and Responses:
Q. What is imputation?
A. The benefit of God the Father whereby he deigns to reckon that obedience of Christ as ours, as if we ourselves had fulfilled the law, and made satisfaction for our sins.
Put that one on your bathroom mirror and remember that though your life may not measure up, Christ’s life did. When God looks on you, He sees the perfection of His Son imputed to you. Because of Christ and in Christ, you can say, “I have something better than affirmation; I have imputation!”
4. William Twisse, A Brief Catechetical Exposition of Christian Doctrine, 1645. Section 4, Q. 67
For many believers, it’s hard when your experience of the church doesn’t measure up. You may feel disappointed by the way the leadership handled one or several weighty matters. You may feel misunderstood by fellow members, or even by your pastor. You may feel crushed by a church that has asked more of you than you can give. Or, most painful of all, perhaps you’ve been a member for years and still feel invisible. All of these things can make one begin to “lose faith in the church.”
William Twisse, one of the leading pastors and theologians in the Westminster Assembly that gave us the Westminster Confession of Faith, wrote a catechism that came to final form in 1645. In the part of his catechism working through the Apostles’ Creed, Twisse asks why that creed, which teaches us to believe “in” the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaches us to believe “the” church but not “in the” church:
Q. Why do you say I believe “the” church, and not “in the” Church?
A. We do believe there is a Church, but we do not believe in the Church, but in God. The Church at best is just a company of men who are sinners.
Yes, even the pastors and leaders and the most esteemed members of the church are sinners. It can be good to remember that they need the imputation of Christ’s righteousness just as much as you or the thief on the cross. And it can be comforting to remember that the church, as essential and instrumental as it may be, is not the object of our faith. That place belongs to the triune God alone, and He will never fail us.
3. John Calvin, Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Q. 22
In my years as a pastor, I had more than one member express difficulty calling on God as “Father.” The memories of an abusive or absent father had seemingly spoiled the name. For others, the thought that the infinite God of heaven could have such particular, “fatherly” care for them was beyond comprehension. Perhaps you can relate.
Calvin shows us a better way to approach the fatherhood of God. Its primary reference point is not our experience of our earthly fathers, nor own feeble imaginations, but the reality of the Father’s relationship to His only begotten Son. Accordingly, in his catechism, used for almost two hundred and fifty years in Geneva, Calvin writes:
Q. 22: Why do you call him Father?
A. Primarily because He is the Father of Jesus Christ, who is the eternal Word, begotten of Him from eternity, then being manifested in the world, was demonstrated and declared to be the Son of God. And since God is the Father of Jesus Christ, it follows that He is also our Father.2
Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Think long and deeply on the Father-Son relationship we see revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. See the glory and honor the Father lavishes on the Son (Matt. 3:17, John 8:54; 17:1, 5; Phil. 2:9–11). See the delight the Son takes in making the Father known and doing His will (John 4:34, 5:36; 17:4, 6). Hear the Son declare how He is both truly known by His Father and truly loved by Him (John 10:15; 15:10). And in all this, you might ask yourself, “Could I have a father like that too?”
Yes, through the Son you can. To know God as your Father is the whole reason that Jesus became “the way, and the truth, and the life,” which sets up Jesus’ main point: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, emphasis added). Or, as Calvin puts it: “And since God is the Father of Jesus Christ, it follows that He is also our Father.”
#2 – The New City Catechism, Q. 52
Many of us grew up hearing about heaven as a place where we receive our angel’s wings, strum harps on clouds, or join the heavenly choir for endless ages. The images of everlasting life included little to nothing of “earthly things” such as trees, rivers, and the glory and honor of the nations. Instead, the story of salvation we were taught ended with God’s people evacuated from the earth as God’s creation is abandoned for a more “spiritual” existence.
I was quite surprised, and frankly overjoyed, when I later learned that the Bible does not end like that. The salvation story, as recorded in Revelation 21–22, does not end with God’s people abiding in heaven above, but with heaven and its holy city coming down (Rev. 21:2, 10) to overlay the earth below—our daily prayer that “it may be on earth as it is in heaven” entirely fulfilled. The New City Catechism, adapted from Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and published just a few years ago (2012), teaches us about this glorious ending:
Q. 52. What hope does everlasting life hold for us?
A. It reminds us that this present fallen world is not all there is; soon we will live with and enjoy God forever in the new city, in the new heaven and new earth, where we will be fully and forever freed from all sin and will inhabit renewed, resurrected bodies in a renewed, restored creation.3
The biblical story does not end with God’s abandoning the creation but with His fully renewing and restoring it. As Peter writes, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). That is, indeed, something worth waiting for.
1. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1
I’ll be honest, the entire idea of searching catechisms for their most comforting lines came from the Heidelberg Catechism. You may be surprised to learn that, as of 1999, the Heidelberg Catechism had been “circulated more widely than any other book except the Bible, Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.”4 Written by a twenty-six-year-old (Caspar Olevianus) and twenty-eight-year-old (Zacharias Ursinus) and named for the city where it was published in 1563, this catechism majors on comfort from beginning to end. Many Christians around the world claim this opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism among their favorite lines outside of Scripture:
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.5
If you’ve ever read or recited these words and thought, “I should memorize that,” that’s a thought you should take seriously. Perhaps the key word is in the word “only”—what is your only comfort? It reminds me of the hymn: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Our only comfort, in life and in death, is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, so beautifully summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism. Stick that on your bathroom mirror, fix it to your refrigerator for the whole family to see—by whatever means, lay it up in your heart. It will give you the perspective, assurance, and hope your soul craves.
I titled this “Five of the Most Comforting Catechism Questions,” not “The Five Most Comforting Catechism Questions.” You may have other lines from catechisms you’d put in your top five. If so, let me encourage you to make sure you put them in places you see them often, with the goal of laying them up well in your heart. In a world of cotton-candy affirmations, we’ll find more wholesome comfort in these biblically grounded, gospel-centered, soul-nourishing words.
*Honorable Mentions: Luther’s Larger Catechism, 65–66; John Willison’s Young Communicants Catechism, Q. 31; the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 86; the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 26.
- Steven Handel, “75 Affirmations for Self Improvement,” The Emotion Machine, May 4, 2011, accessed May 15, 2020, https://www.theemotionmachine.com/75-affirmations-for-personal-development. ↩︎
- Le Catechism de Geneve (Genève: Jean Girard, 1549), my translation. See also Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. and trans. J.K.S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 93. The fatherhood of God is so important to Calvin that he includes it in his definition of true faith: “Minister: The foundation on which we have found faith to rest ought readily to yield a definition of true faith. Child: It does so. It may be defined thus: as a sure and steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodness of God towards us, as through the gospel he declares that he will be, for the sake of Christ, our Father and Savior” (Calvin: Theological Treatises, 105). ↩︎
- As with new hymns, so with new catechisms like the New City Catechism—only time will tell whether it has “staying power” or rather, like most of catechisms composed in different places and times, serves only a portion of the church in its own generation. My use of Q. 52 from The New City Catechism does not constitute an endorsement of this catechism as a whole. But in this question and answer, I believe The New City Catechism captures the massively significant work of Reformed biblical theologians – beginning with the late Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) and Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007), and carried on presently by Richard Gaffin, Jr. and G. K. Beale – who have identified the importance of cosmic renewal in biblical eschatology, which is a source of profound hope and comfort for believers. ↩︎
- Joel R. Beeke and Sinclair B. Ferguson, eds., Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999), x. ↩︎
- The Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Allen O. Miller and M. Eugene Osterhaven (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1962), 9. ↩︎