What is your only comfort in life and in death? This is the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism, a document originating in Heidelberg, Germany in 1563 to teach the Christian faith. The answer follows,
“That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, 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.” Heidelberg Catechism 1
It might seem strange at the outset that such a question would be the starting point of a work that is meant to teach what a Christian is to believe. After all, don’t you need to understand who God is and what danger we are in by our sin to understand that Jesus is our only comfort in life and in death? For these same reasons, it might also seem strange for the Westminster Shorter Catechism to open with the question, “What is man’s chief end?” and answer, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” This has the same problem! Who is God and why should we glorify him? How does this make sense?
The reason these two catechisms have this emphasis at the outset is because the writers recognized that the aim of the Christian faith is the glory of God in salvation and comfort of the Christian. Nothing of what they are about to write will be as well understood if we don’t have that answer in our minds from the very beginning. Why are we doing this? Why are we taking time to learn about who God is and what he requires of us? What does it even matter? It matters because I am not my own. It matters because I was bought with a price so that I might glorify and enjoy God forever. We find this same emphasis in II Corinthians when Paul begins his letter speaking about comfort in Christ.
God of All Comfort
The apostle Paul writes that God is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. When he says “all”, he really means it.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (II Corinthians 1:3-7, ESV)
God is pleased to comfort us in every situation we find ourselves, whether we are in a good or a bad time in our lives we receive comfort through Christ. This isn’t just a patronizing, shallow comfort whereby Christ pats us on the head and tells us “There there, everything will be all right.” No, this is deep, abiding, life-altering comfort. Whether we live, or whether we die, we can be sure that we belong to Christ, that he has fully satisfied for all our sins, that he has set us free from all the power of the devil, and that he so watches over us that not even a hair can fall from our heads without the will of our Father in heaven. This is because “our hope for you is unshaken”, that “even as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” (v. 7).
Comfort in Affliction
Affliction is the default state for a Christian. In many ways it might not seem like it. In our day and age, we live with a great many liberties to live and worship according to our faith and conscience. Yet Jesus promised that we will suffer affliction for his sake (John 15:20). All through the Bible we are given examples of godly men and women who are afflicted for the sake of God’s Word. Job is a prime example of a man who was blessed beyond measure, yet was still afflicted for the sake of his obedience to God.
In II Corinthians 1, Paul goes on to recount his experience of affliction. His burden was so great, so beyond his ability to endure, that he “despaired of life itself”. Yet, as Paul says, “[T]hat was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” If God has the power to raise us from the dead, can he not also deliver us from the afflictions that feel undeliverable?
Peter ties in this same idea in I Peter 1:6-7 when he asserts that trials and tribulations are tests from God to refine our faith, as the refiner purifies gold or silver. Our faith is of greater value than gold or silver. It is that which is most precious and most to be desired. And not only does God purify our faith, but he purifies our very souls we that we may be presented blameless on that last day (I Corinthians 1:8; I Thessalonians 5:23).
Afflictions beat us down; they batter and bruise us. However, we are not those without hope (I Peter 1:3). Although it is counterintuitive, and it seems as if we will break, God is faithful to keep his promises—he will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the burning wick (Isaiah 42:3). Rather than destroying us, affliction is for our good. God comforts us in our afflictions, and he is faithful to keep his promises.
Means of Comfort
God is pleased to use many means to bring about comfort in our affliction, which Paul brings out in II Corinthians 1. First and foremost is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works faith in our hearts and causes us to be born again to a living hope in Christ Jesus (I Peter 1:3). It is his work that regenerates and produces faith in our hearts. We would not be Christians if it were not for the Spirit, and we would not take comfort in the finished work of Christ if it were not the Spirit applying it to our hearts and to our lives.
The second means is the fellowship of the saints. God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ who share in our sufferings (vv. 4-5). Perhaps this is because they are actually suffering with us through shared circumstances. Or, perhaps it is because that brother has come alongside us and helped us bear our burden. We can do this for one another by “weeping with those who weep” and bearing with one another (Romans 12:15).
This is meant to be a reciprocal relationship. “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (II Corinthians 1:6). We are called to bear with one another—it literally2 cannot be any other way!
The third means of comfort is prayer (v. 11). God has given us a great privilege to carry our cares and our burdens to him in prayer. Prayer is a direct, personal line to the ears of God. There is no waiting, there is no automated menu to navigate, there is no language barrier. God is ready, willing, and able to hear and respond to all of our prayers. The Psalmist writes, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” (Psalm 40:1-2) He hears our cries for mercy. What a comfort it is to know that God is listening to us!
Moreover, we are meant to pray one for another as Paul commands the Corinthians in verse 11:
“You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
Praying for one another leads us to give thanks when that prayer is answered. Not only does the one for whom the prayer was offered give thanks, but all those who petitioned on their behalf give thanks as well. Prayer brings us together as a family of God.
Dear Christian, though you are broken and weary; though the cares of life cast you upon the seas of uncertainty and the rocks that would destroy you; though you are subject to various trials and tribulations; though you are tested by fire; though you are burdened to the point of despairing of life itself—take heart. Your Father is a God of mercies; your savior Jesus is a God of all comfort. He has promised to comfort you in every affliction. You may be certain that your only comfort, in life and in death, is this: you are not your own, but belong to your faithful savior Jesus Christ, and nothing can take you out of His hand.
This edition is taken from R. Scott Clark’s site, which contains the following note: “This edition of the catechism is based on the 1978 translation published by the Reformed Church in the United States and modified by the removal of archaic language and with minor revision of the translation according to the German and Latin texts.” ↩
Here, I mean the traditional definition of the term “literally”. ↩