Article of the Month
by Rev. G.H. Kersten
The Word of the Lord contains the richest comforts for His struggling church here on earth, which is subject to all kinds of oppression, strife and troubles. On this side of the grave there is one thing to the righteous and to the wicked. The Lord Jesus Himself told His people, “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” but at the same time He encouraged them by adding, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” And, to name no other places, the faithful Jehovah called to His afflicted people oppressed by the enemies, by the mouth of Isaiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God.” The little flock of the Lord is not left to itself, but, having been purchased by the blood of Christ, they are prepared for the eternal salvation, laid away for them by the eternal good pleasure of the Father. When the critical moment for God's elect came, and Christ was preparing Himself as a Lamb to be slaughtered, when the greatest agitation came that moved heaven and earth, He comforted His disciples, and in them His entire church, saying, “Let not your heart be troubled. In My Father's house are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
The world is unable to offer such a strong comfort, but the Lord gives it to His people, so that the oppression and adversities of this world become light, and even death is robbed of its terror and destruction.
The Heidelberg Catechism which we now wish to consider from week to week deals with this only comfort, both in life and in death. I now request your attention for the first Lord's Day.
LORD'S DAY 1
Q. 1: What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Q. 2: How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
This Lord's Day speaks of the Christian's only comfort in life and death.
Speaking of this comfort, the catechism indicates:
The first question already deserves all our attention. The instructor inquires after the only comfort in life and in death. Important question! All people, because of sin, are subject in this life to all manner of sorrows, and of all people it is said, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” The earth is cursed because of our sins; it brings forth thorns and thistles. The whole creation groans and travails in pain. Poverty, sickness and unjust treatment often cause us to grieve. Moreover, the wages of sin is death. What can comfort us and raise up our head out of our troubles? Who shall deliver his soul from the grave? All people are miserable comforters. But still there is a comfort both in life and in death, and it is the great significance of the catechism that it unfolds that only comfort upon the foundation of God's infallible testimony.
The catechism was written in 1563 in the city of Heidelberg, the capital city of the Palatinate. This German state had for some time been troubled by the conflicts between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. However when the God-fearing Frederick III came to the throne, who not only sought the political welfare of his country, but especially sought to maintain the pure religion as the foundation for the true welfare of his people, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus were instructed to draw up a catechism which could be used for instruction in schools and in churches. The elector himself wrote the preface for this book. It was like a thunderclap from heaven when the Heidelberg catechism appeared in January, 1563. Translated into all European languages, it was distributed in all countries. Rome trembled upon its foundations, the Lutherans were furious. All those who reviled the pure doctrine worked together to make the hated catechism disappear. The elector himself was summoned before the Diet of Augsburg in 1566, and he went, although loss of his estate and even death threatened him. He defended with much liberty the true doctrine confessed in the catechism, and the Lord gave him so much influence that his enemies were silenced, and he was permitted to use this instruction in the Christian doctrine throughout his domain. Thus the truth triumphed.
From Heidelberg the catechism was introduced into the Netherlands through the services of the faithful, zealous chaplain of Frederick III, Peter Datheen. The provincial Synod in 1574 decided to use this catechism, and in 1578 the General Synod did likewise, and the churches of the Netherlands have never been sorry. This book has been reprinted innumerable times. Many explanations of the catechism have been published, and up to this present day those who love the truth of God, love to hear catechism preaching
This is not strange, for not only does the catechism explain the pure doctrine, but the doctrine is also applied, so that there is spirit and life in this booklet for the comfort of God's dear people. Let us then again give our attention to that which the instructor says in accordance with God's Word, which alone can be our comfort, both in life and in death.
That comfort is an only comfort,; it cannot be replaced by any other. The world with its empty pleasures cannot comfort us in the day of our sorrow. Its riches are despised when our soul is grieving. Its friendship can only utter its stoical advice, “Don't let it bother you; just fight your way through it.” Even our religious practice and our Reformed doctrine, although they have more power than the pleasures of sin, are unable to give us the true comfort that can make us glory in tribulations. And when we die, all things upon which we built our hope leave us, except our communion with Christ. In that communion lies the only comfort.
That comfort is also personal. The instructor asks, “What is thy only comfort?” Christ was not sent into the world to merit only a possibility for all men to be saved, as if fallen man with his own powers could accept Christ at his pleasure. God's promises of salvation were not given to all men. The Holy Ghost applies Christ and His benefits to His people personally. By grace it becomes my comfort, both in life and in death, to belong unto my faithful Savior. David encouraged himself in the Lord his God when Ziklag was burned, and his wives and children and those of his men had been carried away. Through that comfort God's children can sing, not only by day, but also in the nights when it is dark. Paul and Silas sang praises unto God in prison while their feet were bound in the stocks. That comfort was the strength of Daniel in the lions' den and of his three friends in the fiery furnace. God's people have comfort not only in the hope that at their death all tears shall be wiped away from their eyes, but the psalmist also said, “I had fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
At their death this comfort does not leave God's children. On his deathbed Jacob cried, “I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord,” and Simeon rejoices, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Stephen saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God to receive him into eternal glory. Paul desired to depart and to be with Christ which was far better. Death is swallowed up in victory. In the enjoyment of this comfort, the church of God cries out, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” But upon what firm foundation does this comfort stand that it makes one rest secure in the Lord, even in the greatest afflictions?
The catechism tells us what this firm foundation is, first negatively, then affirmatively. Negatively the instructor states, “That I am not my own.” To be my own constitutes the depth of our fall. Satan tempted Eve by promising her, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” that is, “You shall no longer be under God, you need no more obey Him, to do as He bids or forbear what He forbids. You yourself shall determine what is good and what is evil. You shall be your own, independent of God. You shall be your own Lord and master.” That is the depth of our fall, independent of God, to be our own, a slave of Satan and sin, subject to the just sentence of eternal death. Save yourself then, O man, in your sorrow, save yourself from the gnawing of your conscience, save yourself in the hour of death, when you shall fall into the hands of the living God. Flatter yourself in your state of deep misery until the scales fall from your eyes and you sink away into everlasting desperation, when it shall be too late to be delivered from your misery and to obtain that only comfort that holds both in life and in death. Does this negation of the instructor not have a deep significance? We must be delivered from ourselves to partake of that comfort. We must be deposed, and deprived of our self-rule. Those who would obtain that comfort must be cut off by the Holy Spirit from the root upon which they are growing. Many would take hold of Jesus as a drowning person takes hold of the rope held out for him, but he is deceiving himself as long as he has not become a lost sinner in himself. All the Pelagian grounds of man's free will are dashed in pieces. We are neither able nor willing to be saved by free grace through Christ alone unless we are “not our own,” unless we despair, as God teaches His people, of our own powers, and surrender to God as lost sinners, casting the weapons of our enmity at His feet. Then they shall feel the strength of those words of the Catechism that form the firm foundation of our only comfort: “that I am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
And how did God's elect become the possession of Christ?
That only comfort, resting upon such a firm foundation, has great power. I would now ask your attention for my second point.
The enduring power which this comfort possesses.
Of this the catechism speaks in the second part of the answer, saying that the Lord so preserves His people that without the will of their heavenly Father not a hair can fall from their head; yea, that all things must be subservient to their salvation, and therefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures them of eternal life, and makes them willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
That preservation is one of God's great promises given to His people. In their own strength God's children cannot stand a moment nor walk in the way of life. In them is no might against the great company of enemies who attack them not only outwardly, but also inwardly day and night. But they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Yea, the hairs of their heads are all numbered, and without the will of their heavenly Father not one of them shall fall to the ground. What then have they to fear? Do no hairs fall from their heads? Does not their path go in the midst of many tribulations? Oh yes, indeed, but also the adversities of this life, the oppressions in the flesh, and the distresses of both soul and body shall serve for their salvation. They shall be exercised by them; they shall die to the world; and the world shall be crucified unto them, as Paul says, “The world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.” Being hated, despised, and cursed by the world, God's people learn to despise the world itself. In deep ways of oppression God's people are exercised, and they learn to feel themselves strangers on earth, and they seek another country. No, their soul does not always agree with the oppression the Lord sends them. They often experience Asaph's frame, when he envied the wicked, whose eyes stand out with fatness. But when faith is in exercise, they cry out: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.” They would not want to miss the afflictions that came upon them, because they work a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, and serve to their salvation. This causes them to lift up their heads in the afflictions and to sing even through tears, of God's love and faithfulness. For nothing shall separate them from the love of Christ; tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword. For in all these things they are more than conquerors through Him that loved them. Oh how enduring that only comfort is, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The worldling has not that comfort and the un regenerate man knows nothing of it. It is the portion of God's people, who have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ.
To this is added the Holy Spirit's assurance of eternal life. Alas, many of God's children lack that assurance. Can they deny God's work in their hearts? No. Are they strangers of Christ? No. Was the way of salvation never revealed to them? Yes, but too often they lack the assurance of their salvation in Christ, although every exercise of faith is an assurance that drives away all doubt and often causes concerned souls to call out, “Now I shall never doubt again.” But when that lively moment has passed, the assurance fades away and they wrestle to be set again as a seal upon the Lord's arm and heart. And now the Holy Spirit assures His troubled people of eternal life by an assurance that never leaves, even in the greatest darkness. Job, when he stood in the gate of death, while God was hiding His face, Satan was tempting him, and his friends were suspecting him of hypocrisy, cried out in faith, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.” Assured of eternal life, he cried out in his great need and darkness that the Lord would one day reveal that he was not a hypocrite. “In my flesh shall I see God; Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not a stranger.” Beloved, salvation does not depend upon assurance, but God's people ought to seek it so that God-dishonoring unbelief shall be destroyed, and the only comfort in life and death shall fill our souls more and more. “Wherefore the rather, brethren,” says Peter, “give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things, ye shall never fall.” This assurance bears fruit unto true sanctification as the instructor also says that the Lord “makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.”
The grace of God makes one die to sin. From the moment the Lord glorifies His grace in the soul, sin becomes death. Scripture knows nothing of a dormant regeneration of which the soul itself is unconscious, and no one notices anything. When Zacchaeus was called out of the sycamore tree by Christ, he immediately broke with his sinful life; and everyone who has been quickened wishes to live perfectly before God. He becomes willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him, and he not only breaks with sin outwardly, but would want to remove it, root and all from his heart. But these exercises of faith are necessary to practice true sanctification; denying our own powers and embracing Christ by faith and so employing Christ that He is given to us for righteousness, sanctification and redemption. And what is the fruit of the assurance of eternal life? This: that we die unto sin and become ready and willing to live unto God that the Lord's strength might be made perfect in weakness. God's children do themselves much harm by resting upon grace received, whether upon frames or upon experienced justification. The Holy Spirit teaches us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Having assurance of eternal life does not make great Christians, but rather makes us walk humbly before God, yet knowing that death is swallowed up in victory. The Lord takes away the fear of death in the assurance of salvation which we shall one day inherit, when we have served God's counsel and are taken up in glory.
But how do we obtain this comfort? To that question the instructor gives an answer when he in the third place speaks of...
The sure way by which this comfort is obtained.
“How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.”
Only in this way can this only comfort in life and death be obtained. The three things mentioned are discussed thus: till the 5th Lord's Day the misery of man is discussed, from Lord's Day 5 - 32 our deliverance is discussed, and from Lord's Day 32 - 52 the part of gratitude. Since we then expect a more particular explanation of these three things, we shall here speak only about the necessity of the knowledge of these matters. That knowledge is more than mere head knowledge and an assent of our conscience that we are by nature in a state of misery, can be delivered only by Christ and therefore owe all thanksgiving and adoration to a Triune God. That knowledge is also indispensible and we cannot overestimate our privilege of living with our children under the true doctrine. However, although we agree perfectly with these matters, although we believe that God's word teaches them, although in our conscience we are convinced that this alone is the way to eternal life, yet an historical knowledge is not sufficient. The common working of the Holy Spirit can enlighten us, and even make us taste the good Word of God and the powers of the world to come; nevertheless we remain with all those gifts, strangers of Christ, and we miss the only comfort in life and death. Especially in these times it is so necessary to notice these things. A superficial Christendom shouts and cheers and assures itself of salvation. They think we make too much of our sins and misery. We are baptized, we have the promises. You need only believe and express that faith in your walk and conversation. What more do you want? What more? Oil in our vessels! The saving work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, so that our lamps do not go out at the moment the cry is made, “The bridegroom cometh,” so that we shall not, with the foolish virgins, cry in despair as we knock at the closed door, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” and then hear, “Verily I say unto you: I know you not.” If we are to obtain the only unfailing comfort, we must have an experimental knowledge of our misery, deliverance, and gratitude. In spite of all the mockery and jeering of the nominal Christians of our day, I emphasize that the sure way by which the only comfort may be obtained is by an experimental knowledge of the three parts mentioned. This does not mean that the foundation of our salvation lies in our experience, but that fallen man can only understand these things by experience. For the wise and prudent the way in which God saves sinners is hid. Heaven cannot be bought with money. God convinces His people efficaciously and irresistibly of their state of misery and opens unto them the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, so that He shall receive all the honor.
Now it is not so that those who are converted to God spend a few years in misery, then glory in their deliverance, and spend the rest of their life in gratitude. The Lord does not work thus. When He gives the one, He also grants the other. As the acorn incloses the whole oak tree, so also in regeneration an entire new creature in Christ is formed. The leading of the Spirit is necessary, however, for the consciousness of the soul itself, so that by the exercise of faith these matters shall be known to the comfort of the soul. When we are convicted of our sins we are much distressed, although there are intermittent moments when there is some hope, since we are still in the land of the living and therefore the door of grace has not been shut. Then there are moments in which we can pour out our hearts before God, and the dear Word of God is sometimes opened to us so that we cry out, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them, and they were sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Then we sing with liberty, “I love the Lord,” and the burden of our guilt and sin falls from our shoulders. But although this all lies in the root of the new life, Christ, and hence also the propitiation of our sins by Him is so hidden, that our soul is troubled because of the justice of God which we have violated. Then the Holy Spirit teaches His people experimentally that Christ has purchased and redeemed His people with His precious blood. In Him is salvation for those that are totally lost. Would they then not testify about His precious blood? Their heart goes out to Him. They seek to win Him, for what else do they need but to be grafted in Him? They cannot meet God without Christ. With all their “knowledge” of misery, deliverance and gratitude they would still be lost. Their guilt is still uncovered, and how can they rest except in the assurance of the Holy Spirit that they are purchased and redeemed by Christ; reconciled with God and delivered from the power of Satan, and prepared according to the good pleasure of the Father for that salvation which was laid away for them in heaven? What can harm them? When enjoying this comfort all affliction is light, “a light affliction which is but for a moment.” Soon they shall eternally and perfectly praise their God and King, and they shall be priests and kings to serve Him and to reign with Him forever and ever. Already in this life they have the beginning of that true thankfulness by which God is glorified in them through His own work, since they have nothing to bring before the Lord. Thus they learn through their walking by faith how, yes, how they .shall express their gratitude to God, and they rejoice in the light that is sown for the righteous, of which we shall now sing: Psalter No. 260 St. 5 and 6.
I would ask your attention for another moment so that we may apply what we have heard. Let us remind ourselves that by nature we lack that comfort, yea we seek our comfort elsewhere. We are enemies of free grace. My unconverted hearer, do ask the Holy Spirit to show you the state of your misery. You are commonly told to plead upon God's promises, but is pleading not an act of faith? And that faith we lack by nature.
Beloved, we are dead in trespasses and sins, and we are in the power of Satan. Be honest with yourself. Who seeks for God? Who will seek his salvation in Christ when he is not acquainted with his state of misery? The Lord Himself says, “They that are whole need not a physician.” In our own opinion we are whole, even though we confess that we are lost. Why then do we need Christ
May the Lord convince you. Attend faithfully the pure ministry of the word. Consider the earnest admonitions. Take the invitations of the gospel to heart. May it please the Lord to apply them effectually, so that you may learn to know yourself as entirely wretched and lost. Only then will you flee to Him Who has purchased His people with His precious blood, and delivered them from all the power of the devil. Oh, do not be indifferent as you hear the preaching of God's word. Do not shake it off as you leave the church. Consider what is necessary for your salvation. Look with envy upon God's people, who already in this life enjoy that only comfort which enables them to take courage in tribulation and constantly renews their hope of eternal bliss. May the Lord draw you out of the power of darkness to His marvelous light, so that Christ might dwell in your hearts by faith. I pray you, do not trust to emotions or to any disturbance of conscience which many experience for a short time, but which never leads us to Christ. Do see the great all decisive difference between the common and the saving ministrations of the Holy Spirit, so that you will not one day find that you have been mistaken. When our soul is lost, all is lost.
The only comfort, both in life and death, has a firm foundation. It is not as a spider's web which shall perish. Oh, afflicted and sad souls, tossed with tempest and not comforted, the Lord shall lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. Has the Lord convicted you of your sin and misery, may He; also grant that more and more you may lose your trust in all your pleasant frames and exercises to find peace for your soul. Pray much for the continual discovering of your state of misery so that you may find a Mediator for your guilt. We must give up all things outside of Christ to win Him and to obtain by faith the only comfort that will hold both in life and in death. May Christ be formed in you, that your faith might be directed to Him and you might seek to be found in Him. Look away from yourself more and more. All life is only in Him Who was dead and is alive forevermore. He will not forsake His people and His inheritance, but may He grant us to rest in Him alone. How many of God's people lack the assurance of the Holy Ghost! Therefore they are often tossed about with doubts whether they truly are partakers of Him Who by faith has become precious to them. Would the cause for this lie in the fact that too much we seek our lives outside of Him? Oh, that we might lose our life to find it in Him. The Lord comfort you according to the riches of His grace, but cease not to strive with you until Hid righteousness be glorified in you. May God's promises granted you cause you to plead constantly at the throne of grace. Is He not the faithful one Whose word is ever true? Persevere then that you may ravish His heart with one of your eyes, with one chain of your neck. May He assure you by His Holy Spirit of eternal life of which you are in Him a partaker. May the blood of Christ become more and more precious to you. When Satan attacks you, remember he is a conquered enemy. When the world distresses you, when sin stirs within you, may you by faith in Christ attain the victory.
How richly blessed is that people that have obtained the assurance of the Holy Ghost by faith, and can testify with Paul, “I know in Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day, and that neither death nor life shall separate us from the love of God in Christ.” Oh people of God, glory in the salvation that you have received in your Surety and Mediator, and move many to jealousy. May it be your constant comfort that you are not your own, but belong to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
Do not allow the afflictions of the flesh to discourage you. They are necessary and shall serve to your salvation. Oh, that we might always bear our cross willingly after Christ. The strife and oppression shall not always continue and the Lord Himself determines their measure and duration. May He sanctify us and grant us to walk in humility, as an evidence of the gratitude we owe Him. Christ is your sin and thank offering. May we by faith with self-denial give honor to God in Christ as a people that was formed to show forth His praise. Soon we shall be with the Lord eternally. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. Amen.
Gerrit Hendrik Kersten, (born 6 August 1882 - died, 6 September 1948) was a Dutch theologian and pastor of the Reformed Churches (in the Netherlands and North America) and politician for the Reformed Political Party (SGP). This political party came about mainly through his efforts.
Rev. Kersten wrote numerous books and brochures of theological, canonical nature, and political issues. His most famous book is The Reformed Dogmatics for Municipalities Explained (1947). This handbook is the classic Reformed doctrine explained and defended. He used for this work especially the dogmatic works of Bavinck , Honig and A. Marck, The Guidance and Discipline in the Church Christi (1908). He also took care of several reissues of important theological works he found to be under the spotlight, such as the work of Alexander Comrie, Consideration of the Covenant of Grace.
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