Most of you know that my family has been going through a tough time lately, but I know we’re not alone. Many people here today are going through difficult, confusing, painful times. It’s been heartening for us, as a church family, to spend time talking to one another about the struggles we’ve been having, and quite interesting that many people seem to be running towards the same place in scripture when they need comfort. A few people have told me how much Psalm 23 has been comforting them lately, and really, throughout their lives.
Please open up to Psalm 23 and let’s read it together:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
You can see why this is such a powerful and meaningful psalm. It’s because it takes the situation out of our hands and places it in God’s. It’s an admission that we’re not in control, we’re not strong, we’re not smart, we’re not wolves or bears or tigers – we’re sheep and we need to be taken care of.
When we read Psalm 23, we admit all that, and then give it over to God. God lays us down, God restores us, God leads us. God protects us, God comforts us, God conquers, God anoints and heals and serves us.
When do realize our need for the shepherd most though? In the green pastures by the still waters? No. That’s when we end up wandering off, thinking the world is easy.
It is in the Valley of Shadow of Death and the Presence of our Enemies that we really lean into God, when we clutch Him harder, when we realize that we are only sheep – and as our view of God grows, as our nearness to the shepherd grows, the darkness and the enemies no longer seem as big or as dangerous, because the Shepherd is there with us.
Difficult times cause us to think about where we find our comfort and hope, don’t they? I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort and hope lately. Where do I find comfort? What brings me hope? And the truths of my answers have been tested. I might say that I trust the Shepherd, that I believe in prayer, that His Word is my light and guide, that Jesus is my hope – but it’s not until I’m walking in the shadows, surrounded by enemies, that the truth of my heart is revealed.
Where we Turn
When the shadows fall, the enemies surround, the world turns against us, nothing works out, and everything goes out of whack – our relationships, our health, our work – it is natural for us to look for comfort. We want something that will make us feel better. We want something that will calm us down when we are frenzied and anxious, or energize us when we are down and depressed. We want something to repair our soul when it feels bruised and beaten, to take away the pain that we feel in our minds and bodies.
But, more often than not, it is not to our Shepherd that we turn first, is it? Instead, there are many other places we go for comfort. We turn to money, possessions, riches, luxury, financial security. We figure that if we have enough money or stuff, then we’ll feel better. If we get the nicer phone, nicer car, nicer tv, nicer food, nicer vacation, nicer tools, nicer house, that we will feel better. And that’s what ads sell us – buy this and feel better about yourself, your relationships, your future, your past, your present. We think that if we get enough piles of money then nothing can hurt us. Banks try to sell us that. Financial security equals comfort.
Or we turn to exercise and medicine. We work on our bodies, eat right, exercise, drink lots of water, take vitamins, go to the doctor to get pills to balance our hormones and body chemicals, thinking that if we can be super healthy and perfectly juiced, then we will no longer have fears or pain. We will be strong enough to fight off sickness and enemies, we will be beautiful and therefore popular, we will be able to run away from danger or save people we love, and most of all, we will live forever. Pursuing bodily health isn’t bad, but the motives behind it aren’t always good – sometimes it’s driven by fear and the desire for more comfort than it can provide.
Some people turn to stubbornness and control. Psalm 2:1-3 says,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
They think that controlling all aspects of their life, and everyone else’s, will bring them comfort. All they need is the perfect plan, the perfect calendar, the perfect to do list, and for everyone to simply do everything they are told, and then everyone will be happy. If we write enough laws and rules everyone will be content. If we buckle down hard enough, dig in our heels hard enough, grit our teeth hard enough, then we can take control of our world and bend it to our wills, and then we will all find peace. It’s a lie we tell ourselves all the time.
Some turn to other people as their source of comfort. They believe that politicians, scientists, religious gurus, celebrities, their spouse, their kids, their friends, or their community group is going to save them. Those people are all they talk about, and their entire hope is in them and their plans. And when they inevitably fall, it’s utterly devastating – but instead of learning from their mistake, they simply find another flawed human being to put their hopes in. These people, no matter how bright they are, aren’t solid foundations, but are as Jude 12-13 says,
“These are hidden reefs… shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Others turn to worldly pleasure, distractions, entertainment, food, pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Life is hard, everything is out of control, our emotions are a mess, our thinking isn’t helping, and there is no way to fix any of it – so why bother? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Our culture is built on this concept and it’s destroying the foundations of our society. We are literally entertaining and distracting ourselves to death. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills that have nothing to do with health, but simply treat bad feelings. Stores have more entertainment food than actual food. While teens die of fentanyl overdoses and the media declares an opioid crisis, the Canadian government legalizes marijuana so that more people can get high. Our culture is obsessed with non-marital, no-commitment, purely animalistic sex – even though sexually transmitted diseases are growing in record numbers. And they’ve created phone apps to assist their hook-up culture to be more efficient. And the government has made sure that there are no laws against abortion so that no one accidentally has a baby and a family as a consequence.
Our modern, Canadian, culture is built on the concept of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and it’s destroying our bodies and our souls.
Our Only Comfort
The first two questions of The Heidelberg Catechism address this very issue – the issue of comfort. They are a summary of the rest of the catechism and start with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Christian, what do you turn to when you face the valley of the shadow of death, when you surrounded by enemies? Christian, what do you hold as the source of your greatest hope, knowing everything else is going to let you down, your celebrities, your chemicals, your doctor, your exercise, your body, your friends, your riches, your security, is all going to fall apart – so what is the one comfort, the one thing that won’t fall apart in this world or the next? What comfort will give you an anchor through all the storms of this life and never leave you, even after you die? What thought, what truth, can you build the entire foundation of your life on that will never shift, shake or move?
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Though this is not a quote from the Bible, each line is very biblical, and you can see some of the verses in the footnotes I provided on your handout. It breaks down into four great comforts.
I Am Not My Own
Perhaps the worst feeling we can have is loneliness. We can go through a lot of difficult things if we know that someone has our back. We can face injustice and fear, insurmountable odds, and terrible dangers, if we know someone is on our side. But when we feel alone, our strength fades quickly. A Christian’s first comfort is that we are not our own, but belong to someone – to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-10 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
Titus 2:13-14 says, “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession…”
The word “redeemed” means “to be bought back”. We were slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, captured and enslaved by death, and Jesus loved us so much that He bought us from our slave owners at a great price. He traded Himself for us so that we could be His.
A Christians’ comfort comes from the knowledge that we are not our own, we are not alone, Jesus bought us because He wants us to be with Him. God is not against us, God is for us, because we belong to Him. So He does for us what we would do if we bought something precious. We would clean it up, protect it, cherish it, display it so others can see it, and use it as a way to show off.
That’s what Jesus does with us. He takes our spiritually dead body out of the muck of sin, restores us to life, cleans us up, gives us new clothes, new armour, and then helps us to become something that He uses to show His glory off. When people look at us they think, “Wow, that person is so different! They know Jesus and look at them! Jesus must really be someone special!”
Payment for Sin
Our second comfort comes in that our sins are perfectly and totally forgiven. Not some, not most, not just the past ones – all of our sins forever were placed on Jesus as He hung on the cross and took the wrath of God against them. 1 John 2:1-2 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Propitiation means “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift”. To do wrong, to break the law, means to incur judgement and wrath. The only thing that appeases the wrath of God our Judge against for the wrong we’ve done is punishment and death. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death”. Jesus offered Himself to pay that wage so we wouldn’t have to. He substituted Himself for us. He assumed our obligations and all the wrath God had against sin was poured out on Him instead of us. And therefore all our sins are dealt with. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange”.
Therefore, when we think that God is punishing us is wrong. To believe we need more punishment is to take away from what Jesus did on the cross. To try to punish others for their wrong is to say that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. To think that God is holding our sins against us is to say that God didn’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice. To try to impress God with good works or religion is to say that what Jesus did in His life and on the cross wasn’t good enough.
One of our greatest comforts, especially when Satan is telling us that God hates us, that He’ll never restore us, that He has had enough of us, is to remember that our sins are fully paid for by Jesus – all of them – and we have been set free. There is no longer anything separating us from God, and nothing we must do in order to make ourselves worthy of it, and anyone who says differently is a liar. All that must be done is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. He has done everything necessary for our salvation and there is nothing standing between you and God’s forgiveness except yourself, your pride, and your false notions.
Our third comfort comes in that we are protected, or preserved.
2 Thessalonians 3:3 says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
And Romans 8:28, when talking about the trials of life says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we are not our own, we were bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, and therefore He is the one who preserves and protects us. He is God and that means that everything that happens, whether we think it’s good or bad or otherwise, happens because He allows it to happen – and there is nothing that anyone can do that is beyond His control.
We read stories like Joseph being sold into slavery and put in prison, or Daniel being set up by his enemies and thrown into a lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to an idol and then thrown into a fiery furnace, all the difficulty and pain Paul faced on his missionary journeys, and of course all the sorrow and rejection Jesus faced – and we are reminded that even though things get very difficult, everything happened for a reason and brought fruit for God’s people to bring God more glory.
God has the power to preserve us from any danger that will come – the power to get us through any trial that we are currently facing – and the power to turn even the worst parts of our lives into victories for Him. There are so many stories of people who go through hard times or have been in really bad places, but realize after they turn to God and start to trust Him, that He used it all for so much good. There is great comfort knowing that everything that happens to us will be used by God to help us grow stronger, more faithful, to grow His Kingdom, and to bring Him glory. No valley, no matter how dark – no enemy, no matter how strong – will not be overcome, turned into light, and used by God if we trust Him with it.
And the fourth comfort we see in question one is our assurance.
2 Corinthians 1:20-22 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [that is Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Since our salvation is not something we can buy or get by good deeds, it is therefore not something we can lose. Since Jesus establishes it, it is firmly established and unable to move. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30) on the cross and is called the “Amen” in Rev 3:14. Here we see that our salvation is an “Amen” too, an “it is so”, a total completion. We are anointed, sealed, and guaranteed, not by our own actions or our own strength – but by the Spirit of God. There is no way we can lose our salvation, no way God will turn His back on us, no one that can ever take it from us, and nothing we can do to remove ourselves from His hand. I recommend you read Romans 8 for more about this.
This is where our eternal comfort lies – in that Jesus loves us, died for us, protects and preserves us, uses everything to help us, and will never, ever, ever leave us, even unto death.
Nothing we try, and no one else, can or will give us that kind of comfort. There is no amount of money that gives us that kind of hope, no chemical that gives that kind of joy, no human being that gives us that kind of promise, which is why Christians turn to Jesus. He is the only and best comfort in life and in death.
Guilt, Grace and Gratitude
And now look at question 2: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do I get access to this type of assurance, this hope, this comfort? The answer is a summary of the rest of the catechism. Some have broken it up into 3 simple words that you need to know: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What must I know?
“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.”
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. First, we must understand our guilt. The Bible says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) If we think we are going the right way, we’ll never ask for directions. If we think we’re healthy, we’ll never ask for a doctor. We will not ask for forgiveness unless we know we are guilty. We need to realize how deep our sin problem really is.
Once we confess ourselves a miserable sinner, we then need to know how to be delivered from those sins. The simple answer, as I’ve been saying, is to confess your sins to Jesus and to believe that He died for your sins and rose again to prove He has conquered them. There’s a lot to know about that – and we’ll cover it in the coming months – but that simple truth is where everything starts. Will you admit that you are a sinner and trust that Jesus did everything to pay for your sins so that the wrath of God against you could be appeased?
And third, once we have realized our guilt and accepted forgiveness, the natural thing to do is to give thanks. Such an awesome truth should change our lives. Every kindness we receive deserves gratitude, right? Someone does something nice, we feel like we want to say thank you and do something nice back. If we go to the doctor, we pay for his services. So, even though we’ll never be able to pay Jesus back, how much more should our lives be changed by the knowledge of our salvation. We were headed to an eternity in Hell, now we are invited to an eternity with God. Our response should be a godly life of thanksgiving that honours Him, right?
This is what we’ll be talking about over the next while – the problem of sin, the solution to the problem in Jesus, and how our lives should change as a result.
Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
I’ve said a few times over the past years that one of the driving thoughts behind my life and ministry is that there is great comfort in good theology. I believe that with every fibre of my being and it informs every part of how I conduct myself as not only a pastor and teacher but a counsellor, father, husband, and friend. I honestly don’t believe that I myself am smart enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, wise enough, or experienced enough to be of much help to anyone on my own and therefore I do my best to point people to One who is greater than me. But to do that requires that I know Him, right?
What occurred to me this week was that the inverse of my little statement is also true. While there is great comfort in good theology, there is great discomfort in bad theology or theological chaos.
In Matthew 5-7 we read what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus covers a lot of ground. He teaches the Beatitudes where we encounter the upside down kingdom where the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are in fact, blessed. He speaks of His mission to fulfill the Law of Moses and how His followers will conduct themselves in regards to it by teaching on God’s view of anger, lust, divorce, promises, revenge, money, prayer, worry, relationships, love, fruitful living, and salvation. And then at the end, in Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus gives this illustration:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That’s a powerful claim. Not only that the words of Jesus are sufficient to be the foundation of one’s entire life, but that anyone built on any other words are fools who will fall apart – and the next verses say as much. It says in verse 28,
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes hemmed and hawed about what they were teaching, quoting various rabbis, footnoting everything they said, distancing themselves from the Word of God. Jesus spoke with divine, declarative authority. The message from Jesus was simple, as He declared more succinctly to his closest followers during His final hours in the upper room: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In fact, Jesus says those kinds of declarative statements all throughout the Gospel of John. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life”, without whom, you’ll starve. In John 8 He says, “I am the light of the world”, without whom you will walk in darkness. In John 10 He says, “I am the door”, and if you don’t enter by me, you can’t be saved. In John 11 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, the only one with the power to raise the dead, and without whom you will be in everlasting death.
These are the declarative statements of a person who knows that He is the only way anyone can be saved. Who knows His way is the only one in which people can find real, lasting, eternal comfort. Who knows His message is the most important message that has ever or will ever be given, and that believing or disbelieving Him is the most important decision anyone will ever make. He wasn’t wishy-washy, He didn’t beat around the bush, He didn’t leave it open to interpretation, He was absolutely crystal clear: If you build your life on the foundation of me and my teachings, then when the floods and destruction of life comes, when chaos comes, when tragedy comes, when death comes, you will still live – if you don’t you’ll be destroyed.
That’s the message of Jesus, of the Apostles, and of the church for thousands of years. We preach Jesus, teach Jesus, proclaim Jesus, worship Jesus, pray to Jesus, and listen to Jesus. No one else.
A Constant Battle for Right Theology
But, in each generation there are always people who want to argue about it. There are always those who dispute and teach false doctrines about God. It has been this way for all time. When Satan challenged Eve, He didn’t just point at the fruit and say, “Wow, doesn’t that look good.” He challenged the Word of God. How did Satan begin the dialogue with Eve?
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1)
That’s a theological argument about the word of God, a twisting of it, and it required a defence. Then it says,
“And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’” (Gen 3:2-3)”
What does Satan do then? He calls God’s character into question.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4-5)”
These are all theological arguments. What did God say? What is God like? What will God do? How will God respond? Can God be trusted? What does God really mean when He says…
And that’s how it’s been for all time. God makes a declarative statement, Satan or one of his agents twists the statement, calls God’s Word or character into question, and then tempts the believer to go another way. Then God raises up a prophet, a priest, a teacher, a missionary, a preacher, to declare the truth again and give the king, the people, the nation, the church a choice. Who will you believe?
We see this in Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. The king, due in large part to his pagan wife Jezebel, had lead him and most of the nation to turn away from God and worship demons named Baal and Asherah. Elijah proposed a contest where he and the false prophets would each create separate altars, pray for fire to come from heaven, and see who answers.
The false prophets prayed and danced and cut themselves all day long, but got nothing. And then it says this in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah called all the people together, soaked the altar with buckets and buckets of water, and then prayed,
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The issue was theological. Who is the real God? What had God said? Who is God’s true servant who declares truth? What would God do? Why were the king and the people wrong and Elijah right?
And so it continues throughout history. Prophet after prophet calling the people back to the One, True God. Then Jesus comes and is constantly confronted with theological arguments by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes – experts in the Bible, the Prophets, the Traditions, and the Law. Their truth claims versus His. Then Jesus establishes His church, and it takes all of 15 minutes for false teachers start to corrupt the apostle’s teachings. Paul would preach how Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), how Jesus saves people by grace, and what Jesus expects of us – and then he’d leave to go plant another church and someone would come in and start teaching something else. They’d teach that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that Jesus was just a good man, that the people needed to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised, or that because Jesus saved them from all their sin it didn’t matter how they lived and they sin however they want.
Acts 17:10–13 gives a great summary of how this worked. It says,
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
So here you have a great summary of Paul’s life. He would go somewhere to preach or plant a church, in this case, Berea. He would teach Jesus from the Old Testament in a local synagogue and see how they responded. Most of the time he was kicked out, but in Berea, they actually listened and then examined the Bibles to see if Paul’s theology and doctrine were right or not. As they studied the Bible their hearts were moved and a lot of people got saved. But as soon as that happened, as soon as good theology was declared, a group would rise up against it. This group would pull out all the stops to keep Paul from preaching. They would argue, mock, threaten, and lie to the local authorities to stop Paul from preaching about Jesus. Then Paul would either get beaten and locked up, or beaten and run out of town, and would then have to either write a letter, send another teacher, or wait until the heat died down to return.
Why was it so important that Paul come back though? Why not just cut his losses and try somewhere else? Because he knew that the only real source of comfort and joy and hope was Jesus. He knew that those who had decided to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord were believing lies about Him. That meant their worship was corrupted, their leaders were corrupt, their church practices were becoming corrupt, and the message they were declaring to their neighbours wasn’t one that would save, but would ensnare. There is great comfort in good theology and there is great discomfort in theological chaos. And they were in chaos.
So Paul would come back and untwist all the bad theology, false doctrine, and harmful practices that had gotten into that church. In other words, He would call them back to their foundation in Jesus, call them back to the truth, back to good theology and doctrine.
We Must Teach
How would he do this? Through teaching. In Deuteronomy 11:18–28, as God is giving His Law, He says to the people of Israel,
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
You see how seriously God takes the teaching, understanding, and application of His Word, right? Teach your kids, remind yourselves, talk about this, because it is only when you are standing on the foundation of my word that you will see victory and blessing – and it is when you forget to teach it, lose my Words, and fall away that you will feel the curse. And so, the command is to teach and keep teaching.
In the New Testament there are two main words used for teaching: DIDASKO and KATECHEO. DIDASKO is the word for the authoritative teaching of doctrine, the declaring of divine truths, the Word of God. Jesus DIDASKO the people. Then Peter and the Apostles DIDASKO the church under the authority of Jesus.
But then, later in the New Testament a different word is used. It’s the word KATECHEO, from where we get our word Catechism. This word is different. It’s still teaching, but it’s not declarative – it’s the passing along of information. It’s repeating what’s already written down. It’s used when someone is reciting prepared lines on a stage or when an apprentice is being taught how to do something.
We don’t DIDASKO our children or congregations. We don’t declare divine truths with the authority of Jesus. We KATECHEO, we pass along what Jesus has already declared. We teach it in ways that the listener can understand. We explain the words one by one, we use examples and illustrations and personal stories to convey the doctrine in a way that all ages can understand. We teach the 4 year old, the 40 year old, and the 90 year old, about Jesus and the cross, but we do it using different words so they will understand.
Catechism For Comfort
This is something many modern churches have gotten away from – we no longer teach people the doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a theologically illiterate age – people don’t know God or the Bible. According to one study in 2013 half of Canadian Christians believe the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. Only 1 23% of Christian Canadians believe the bible is relevant to modern life. 64% of Canadian Christians believe that all the major world religions teach the same thing. Only 14% of Canadian Christians read their bibles at least once per week, and only 11% of Canadian Christians talk about the Bible outside of Sunday services.
And if I’m right that there is great comfort in good theology, and great discomfort in theological chaos, then that would explain why so many people, so many Christians, are in such a bad way – they neither know God, nor His goodness, nor His plan. They don’t know if they are saved, what God thinks of them, how to pray, why to pray, or if God is even listening. They don’t know how to conduct themselves when they are wronged, how to hold together a marriage, how to face suffering, what their life purpose is, or how to find it. Even among people who have called themselves believers for decades, there is very little true comfort and Christian hope, because there is very little knowledge of God. And it shows in generations of people who are increasingly spiritual lost, deeply anxious, more and more addicted and drowning in hopelessness. People are abandoning the faith because they do not know or understand the foundations of what they are supposed to believe.
This is why we must teach. And I’m not talking about Bible Trivia. I’m talking about the foundations of Christian hope. When your friends let you down, your spouse is hurting, your children leave, where will you turn? When you face suffering, loss, and death, how will you find meaning? When you are surrounded by bad news, spin, lies, and corruption, how do you know that things are going to work out? If you are stuck in habitual sin, continuously breaking God’s law, constantly feel guilty and ashamed, afraid of judgment, do you know whether or not God will forgive you? When are in need of guidance, purpose, resources, do you know what kinds of prayers God answers? If God isn’t answering your prayers, do you know why? What about your reason for living? Do you know why you are here? If you know these things, you may have comfort, if you do not, you will be in chaos.
When your child, your friend, your brother or sister, turns to you and says “why?” – “Why is this happening? Why should I trust God? Why shouldn’t I believe God hates me? Why should I get up in the morning? Why does the world feel so out of control? Why should I keep living? Why should I bother praying, reading the Bible, or going to church? Why don’t I feel any comfort from God?” What will you say?
Most don’t have an answer because they themselves have never been taught. Children turning to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and asking huge questions about life, faith, suffering, eternity, relationships, morality – and they get trite, simplistic, and wrong answers. They come and ask for advice and the best that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa can do is say, “Maybe you should go to the doctor. Maybe you should see a psychiatrist. Maybe you should just quit or try harder.” Or worse, “Do whatever your heart feels is right. I just want you to be happy.” That is an invitation to disaster.
This is why we must teach, this is why we must teach, why we must catechize.
Heidelberg Next Week
So, next week we will be starting a one year series on the Heidelberg Catechism. I want everyone here to have the tools to be able to not only answer big questions for others but to be able to grasp how high and wide and deep is the love of God, and be firmly established in the Word of God. I want you to know what you believe, why you believe it, and why it should bring you comfort.
When I’m in my darkest places, at my most desperate moments, feeling like the waves are rising, the waters crashing, the darkness looming – I turn to Jesus. And then Satan attacks, asking me if I really believe all this nonsense, if Jesus is really real, if God really cares… and the only defence I have is the Word of God, the Doctrines of God, the Theology of God. And they bring me comfort because they re-establish me on the foundation of Christ.
I want that for you as your pastor. As Colossians 2:7-8 says, I want you to be “rooted and built up in [Jesus] and established in the faith…” not “[taken] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
That’s what I want for each of you, and so that’s why we’re starting that series next week. My hope is that you will follow along, do some homework and heart work, and that it will glorify God and build up His church.