On every page of the Bible are words of comfort for our souls, but how those words comfort us is not always immediately clear. The more we understand the meaning of a passage and how it connects to the grand redemptive story of Scripture, the more comfort we can draw from that passage.
The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) is structured around the theme of comfort and provides a theological framework and simple hermeneutic which greatly help us mine the words of Scripture for deep and lasting comfort. As is the case with other catechisms, the HC is not equal to Scripture or meant to replace Scripture. It does, however, help us better understand Scripture.
From its first words, the HC begins to connect the comfort of the gospel to our lives. It begins by asking: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”1 The HC answers:
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior 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.
Behind this famous statement are countless Scriptures which establish our comfort in Christ. And yet, if we’re honest, sometimes we do not sense or experience this deep comfort from the Christian gospel which the HC so beautifully describes. Our careers become all-consuming, our marriages strained, our sanctification sluggish, our children wayward, our churches declining, our friendships distant, our anxiety debilitating. We want comfort. We need comfort. And though we know the gospel should comfort us, we often turn to other things for the comfort that Christ alone gives us in his Word.
How do we take hold of the comfort made available to us in the gospel? How do we see more vividly in Scripture the comfort God intends us to have? The HC deals immediately with this question, asking, “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” And it answers with three essential points which, taken together, provide an invaluable hermeneutic:
- How great my sins and misery are
- How I am delivered from all my sins and misery
- How I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance
We could outline the hermeneutical principle of this answer with three simple words: guilt, grace, and gratitude. These three words can greatly raise our awareness of what a particular text means, how it relates to Christ, how it applies to our salvation and sanctification, and how it provides us with deep and lasting comfort.
Let’s think about Isaiah 53, for example, in terms of guilt, grace, and gratitude.
The book of Isaiah doesn’t begin with words of gospel grace and comfort; it begins with words of divine reproach and guilt:
Children I have reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me. …
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged. (Isa 1:2, 4–5)2
Yahweh rebuked his covenant people who scandalously rebelled against him. They were estranged from Yahweh because they had forsaken and despised him. God gave the prophet a word of guilt to deliver to Israel.
By the time that prophet gets to (what we now call) chapter 53 of his prophecy, we are unquestionably inundated with gospel. But the gospel of the coming Christ was such a bright light precisely because it shone amid the darkness of Israel’s lawlessness and guilt.
Scan Isaiah 53. Notice words like “griefs,” “sorrows,” “transgressions,” “iniquities,” “gone astray,” “turned to his own way”—and, of course, “guilt” and “sin.” Yahweh strictly but graciously laid bare the sin and guilt of his covenant people and called them to repentance (see 1:16–17). He wanted his covenant people to believe the messianic gospel unto their righteousness, well-being, and comfort. God graciously gave Israel the gospel of Christ because of their desperate need for it.
Is the gospel true comfort for self-righteous people who refuse to acknowledge their guilt? No, it’s irrelevant and offensive (Isa 8:14–15; Matt 13:53–58; John 6:22ff). The suffering and cross of Christ mean nothing to self-righteous people who do not recognize their tremendous sin, misery, and need of redemption. Sadly, like Israel in Isaiah’s day, many self-righteous churchgoers don’t love Christ because of their self-esteem and self-inflation. For the church to adore, worship, trust, and be comforted by Christ, it must have its sin and guilt laid bare, just as Israel’s was long ago.
Though Yahweh spoke stinging words of rebuke to Israel, he also gave gospel comfort in messianic grace. Isaiah proclaimed this grace from the onset:
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isa 1:18)
But how would this salvific purification happen?
There is much gospel to unpack in Isaiah 53. Notice phrases like the following:
- “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
- “He was pierced for our transgressions.”
- “The Lord … laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
- “[He was] stricken for the transgression of my people.”
- “His soul makes an offering for guilt.”
- “He shall bear their iniquities.”
- “He bore the sin of many.”
- “[He] makes intercession for the transgressors.”
Note that the grace of the Messiah is mentioned in association with the sin and misery of God’s covenant people. Guilt is the context of grace; there is no possibility of grace without the reality of guilt.
In 53:10, Isaiah says of Christ, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” To crush means to smash into pieces, to smite. It was Yahweh’s will or “pleasure” to violently crush the Christ. But why? In concert with the many other elucidating phrases—such as “he was pierced for our transgressions”—Isaiah gives the purpose in 53:5: “He was crushed for our iniquities.” Yahweh crushed the Christ because of the iniquities of his covenant people. This crushing is central to how we are delivered from our sin and misery, and this comforting but sobering truth is expounded in the New Testament (John 3:16; Acts 2:22–23; 4:27–28; Rom 3:25; 8:32).
Our comfort in life’s difficulties is not found in boosted self-esteem, belief in ourselves, or a change in our circumstances. True comfort is found in realizing that God was pleased to crush his Son instead of us. Comfort comes in trusting that Christ paid for all our sins, has set us free from all the power of the devil, and has truly made us his own (HC 1; 1 Cor 6:19–20). Extraordinary comfort in life and death comes in believing the gospel of Isaiah 53—in believing that our griefs have been borne by Christ (v. 4), that our sorrows have been carried by Christ (v. 4), that our peace is found in the chastisement of Christ (v. 5), that our healing comes through the wounds of Christ (v. 5), that our righteousness is the merit of Christ (v. 11), and that our right standing before God is given through the intercession of Christ (v. 12). A cross that ultimately reveals our inestimable value is not a cross of truth, redemption, and comfort. The cross of Christ is our comfort because “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” on account of “our iniquities.” John Calvin was right to say:
In Christ there was no fault; why, then, was the Lord pleased that he should suffer? Because he stood in our room, and in no other way than by his death could the justice of God be satisfied.3
Our comfort in life’s discomfort is knowing that though we deserve the crushing blow of God’s justice, God loved us by crushing his Son instead of us. Our comfort is belonging to the Christ who stood in our place, who was crushed for our iniquities, and who satisfied God’s justice for us. The gospel of Isaiah 53 is echoed in 1 Peter 3:18,
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
Jesus Christ carried our sorrows and bore our iniquities in order to carry us with him to God. This grace is the church’s only true and steadfast comfort in life’s discomfort.
Through his prophet Isaiah, the Lord addressed Israel’s guilt and proclaimed his judgment against them. The Lord also provided grace in the promise of the Messiah. And then the Lord called Israel to gratitude. Grace was supposed to lead Israel to earnest and glad-hearted obedience to Yahweh’s law. Yahweh commanded:
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (1:16–17)
Israel was to flee evil and pursue righteousness because Yahweh was their God. Isaiah beckoned, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (2:5). God’s messianic grace was meant to lead Israel to repentance and righteousness (cf. Rom 2:4). Though Yahweh would bring his covenant people adversity and affliction, he would also reveal himself to them as their Teacher (30:20). Though they would stray, they would hear God’s gracious voice calling to them, “This is the way, walk in it” (30:21).
God does expose our guilt, but he does so graciously; he spells out what dangers to flee and what good things to pursue. His law lights our path (Ps 119:105; Prov 6:23). Through his moral imperatives, our God graciously instructs us, “This is the way, walk in it.” God’s grace in Christ is our power, strength, hope, and comfort as we willingly and joyfully walk by faith in the paths of righteousness (Ps 23:1–3).
Our comfort in life’s discomfort is not ultimately that our circumstances would change, we would feel better about ourselves, or that our lives would become more materially comfortable. Our comfort is that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” so that our souls would rest in Christ. Our comfort is knowing that Christ was pierced and crushed for our iniquities in order for us to belong to him and for him to teach us the way of righteousness and empower us by his Spirit to walk in grateful obedience to his marvelous commands.
Though life is uncomfortable, when we feel an ache for comfort and long for comfort, we must remember and believe that God’s grace in Christ is extraordinary comfort for our discomfort (2 Cor 12:9). Our comfort in life and death is knowing and trusting that Christ was crushed for our comfort in order for us to say with confidence and joy, “I am not my own, but belong, with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
- 4 Reasons the “Servant” Predicted in Isaiah 49 Has to Be Jesus
- How to Develop a Culture of Bible Study in Your Church
- Zacharias Ursinus and Jonathan L. Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Kindle Direct Publishing, 2021), 23. Q & A 1.
- All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version.
- John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 123.