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The Heidelberg Catechism – Background


My Only Comfort in Life and Death

Introduction to the Historical Catechetical Method of Teaching the Faith.

Before you begin. Read Luke 1:1-4, 2 Tim 2.

1. Why do we need a catechism?
As a youth I listened to a popular (or should I say ‘populist’) preacher announce during a sermon, that his upbringing in the Christian Faith was of no real value to him. He claimed, pejoratively, that he had been ‘baptised, catechised and hypnotised.’ It was a good throwaway line, sure to get an audience reaction. He was making the point that until one becomes a believer, learning the basic elements of the Christian Faith won’t save. In that he was right, but it is irrelevant. Nothing can save but Christ, and Him Crucified. That doesn’t mean that we should reject every other aspect of Christian teaching and instruction. A grounding in the faith is vital for the new believer, and for young children to learn in early years what being a Christian is really all about is never a bad thing.

Yet some churches still agree with him! The idea of teaching a catechism class to children or to adults is rejected completely in some quarters, often because of a blatant antipathy to Christian doctrine, for some churches actually think that Christian belief is divisive, and therefore should not be taught, or because some believe that a catechism is unnecessary because we can ‘just read the Bible, can’t we?’ YET:-

Catechesis is a BIBLICAL method of instruction. The word ‘catechism’ derives from a method of instruction known as CATECHESIS. It literally just means INSTRUCTION, and is direct, face to face teaching and learning, and it was one of the teaching methods used by the early church. Because the word sounds strange to modern evangelicals, we think it has something in common with the Roman Catholic Church, or something that’s only for liturgical churches, like Anglicans and Lutherans. We couldn’t be more wrong. In each of the bible reference below, where instruction has been given, the word translated into English as ‘taught’ is a translation of the (root) Greek word katachesis:-

* Theophilus had been catechised! Luke 1:4. that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. Greek: κατηχήθης

* Apollos had been catechised! Acts 18:24-25, 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus… Gk: κατηχημένος

* We are to catechise others! Galatians 6:6 Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Greek: κατηχοῦντι

Catechesis is a PROVEN method of instruction. It was the method of instruction used by the post-apostolic early church. It was the favoured method of the Reformers and the Puritans. A case-study to consider would be the ministry of Richard Baxter of Kidderminster. (1619-1651, Author of ‘The Reformed Pastor). Baxter came to a parish that was full of rowdy drunkenness and ungodliness, and where the parish mister was of little use in the gospel. Baxter was called by the church to give lectures. He did so, but also began a programme of personal catechesis, which was so successful that Kidderminster became one of the most Godly, sober towns in England.
Baxter on the need for catechesis:

I will give you the instance of my own case. We are together two ministers, and a third at a chapel, willing to spend every hour of our time in Christ’s work. Before we undertook this work, our hands were full, and now we are engaged to set apart two days every week, from morning to night, for private catechizing and instruction; so that any man may see that we must leave undone all that other work that we were wont to do at that time: and we are necessitated to run upon the public work of preaching with small preparation, and so must deliver the message of God so rawly and confusedly, and unanswerably to its dignity and the need of men’s souls, that it is a great trouble to our minds to consider it, and a greater trouble to us when we are doing it. And yet it must be so; there is no remedy: unless we will omit this personal instruction, we must needs run thus unpreparedly into the pulpit. And to omit this we dare not – it is so great and necessary a work. (The Reformed Pastor)

Catechesis is a PRACTICAL method of instruction. Anyone can read and profit from the Heidelberg catechism. One can read it alone, every day, making notes and following up the Bible references that are included. It can be taught as a study curriculum for a smaller group of Christians, meeting together for that purpose, and that can be discussed after the lesson, – the study leader correcting any misapprehensions that the students may have. It can be taught as part of our public worship in church, either as a form of guidance (like a lectionary) for the pastor’s sermon framework, or as separate part of the service. It can be taught on the internet!
So catechesis is biblical, historically proven and practical. It is another tool in the pastor’s toolbox for the faithful fulfilment of the work given to them by Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13  And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:  Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ


2. How does the Heidelberg Catechism in particular meet that need?
Why Heidelberg? There are many good catechisms in print, including the excellent ‘Shorter Catechism’ of the Westminster Divines. There are a number of very useful children’s catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism is helpful for instructing adults because of it origins, its structure, its devotional character and its faithful placarding of the plain teaching of God’s word.

1. Its origins. It was in the 16th Century, that the Elector Frederick III of Palatinate decided that it would he good to have a book of basic instructions for the laity in his dukedom. The proposed catechism was put together at the university of Heidelberg, and credits the faculty there for its composition, but it was largely the work of Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. The catechism would combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed theology and would counter the teachings of the a Roman Catholic Church, by its constant references to scripture.

2. Its purpose. The basic underlying premise of the Catechism is that everyone needs COMFORT in life and in death.

3. Its structure.
The Heidelberg Catechism is structured in three parts. There is an introduction, in which the purpose of the Catechism is explained, and the three part structure laid out. It follows the systematic structure of the book of Romans, showing the means by which a sinner may know Comfort and peace at the end of his life; by realising and confessing the depth of his sins, his own utter depravity and unworthiness before God, by looking to Christ, and seeing him as the only Saviour for sinners, in his perfect, sinless life, and atoning death on the Cross, and resurrection from the dead, and then finally, to be thankful for what Christ has done in saving us from sin, death and hell. The Catechism closes with a question and response on the word ‘amen’.
Included for our learning are the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments. Because the Catechism was intended for weekly instruction it is laid out in 52 ‘Lord’s Days’.

* Its doctrine. The doctrine of the Heidelberg Catechism is the historic belief of the church, from apostolic days until now. It is the doctrine of the Reformers, and the Puritans. It is REFORMED in theology.

3. Ask Yourself.

We can read the Bible. Why do we need a catechism?
What does the word ‘catechesis’ mean?
List some examples of people who were catechised, or who used catechetical instruction in the New Testament.
How does the Heidelberg Catechism address one of the most basic human needs?
Describe the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism.

4. Think about it.
In 2 Timothy 2, how was Timothy to pass on the Christian faith to other faithful men? What would have been his method of instruction?

5. Pray. Father, as I read your word and learn from it, and as I am taught the doctrines of the faith that have been the basis of Christian belief and practice throughout the ages, may I seek the comfort of the knowledge of sins forgiven, that only comes through knowing Christ, who died upon the cross for sinners. May I return to you my thanks and my praise, now and throughout eternity. Amen.

Any questions?
For help or to discuss any issue related to the Catechism, email

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