Question 60 is one of the unsung heroes of the Heidelberg Catechism (you know — that’s the summary of biblical Christianity from a Reformed perspective that I’ve been blogging on since it’s 450th anniversary in 2013).
Maybe it’s better to say it’s one of the hinge points. You might argue it’s the culmination of the 1st half of the catechism.
The Catechism spent a long time on faith. Now, it tells us, the point of faith is that by faith we are made righteous.
All this creates a problem though. It sounds too simple. Is faith simple?
Here it is in full:
60 Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them,
and of still being inclined toward all evil,
without any merit of my own,
out of sheer grace,
God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
and as if I had been
as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
If you were to read the first half of the catechism in order you would find this answer pointing back to key assertions to make its point about how righteousness comes from faith.
All of that is hidden in the “even though,” and “nevertheless.”
It starts by saying our conscience accuses us and our nature keeps us aimed toward evil — that’s a summary of the first big section of the catechism about our misery and brokenness due to sin (questions 3-11).
Then it goes on to summarize God’s reconciling mission in Christ as described both in the section on Christ’s person (questions 12-18) and in the exposition of the Creed about the events of Christ’s work (questions 29-52).
So since this question largely points back to things dealt with long before, I want to draw out two other points:
- one that illustrates the Catechism’s pattern of Christian and biblical thinking in a useful way,
- and one that might be troubling — at least until he think about some of the points earlier in the catechism that are assumed.
The Catechism’s pattern of thinking is hinted at in the little phrases “as if”
as if I had never sinned…
as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ.
There is an imaginative quality to this. It is more than a simple rational argument.
You see a hypothetical quality to the Catechism pondering how God considers us to be righteous. It requires us to be flexible in our thinking.
We imagine God imagining us and our situation. Is God being imaginative, not to say playful, in the very serious matter of solving our greatest problem?
No: Better to say that when God imagines something, that becomes the way it really is.
This “as if” is a pattern of thinking that will come up again when we see how the catechism explains the sacraments.
All I Need to Do
Every time I read this question though, I am troubled. The closing sentence seems to trivialize faith in the closing sentence:
all I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
I get the same troubling feeling as when Christians present salvation on simplistic tracts:
- Just say “the sinner’s prayer”.
- Just ask Jesus into your heart.
- Just say you are sorry for your sins.
- It’s all you need to do.
Is the Catechism being so simplistic? All I need to do is be a little more believing. All I need to do is take what is held out in God’s hand.
Being a Christian really is about faith — but if you read the rest of the Catechism, you know that real faith is a major undertaking.
True faith, questions 19-25 tell us, is about an utterly bedrock life change, where we cease to be at enmity with God and begin to trust God’s goodness and love in Christ.
That kind of trust permeates every aspect of our being. True faith changes everything. And it takes a lifetime to live it.
Lent is coming! What a great time to focus on your prayer life.
Click the button to get info on my online prayer class for Lent…