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The Good News We Almost Forgot

Kevin DeYoung's commentary on the Heidelberg catechism, The Good News We Almost Forgot, is one of the most devotionally satisfying books I've read in years. No doubt this has something to do with the setting in which I read it - over a wonderfully sunny two days in Heidelberg, dipping in and out of the Universität (where it originated), the Schloss (where Luther's famous disputation happened forty five years earlier), and the Heiliggeistkirche (where the first question is draped over the lectern) - but mostly, it's because it's a really, really good book. Like the catechism itself, it is warm, readable, pastoral and rich, and it illuminates the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer like few other texts do. I highly recommend it.

The main strength of the book is that, like a gilded frame around a master’s painting, it allows its subject to shine, repeatedly drawing attention to the thoughtfulness of the catechism’s questions and the clarity of its answers. By summarising the structure clearly - guilt, grace (Creed, sacraments) and gratitude (Law, prayer) - and giving an average of three pages of commentary for every two questions, DeYoung forces us to think slowly and deeply about the apparently simple rat-a-tat-tat of query and response. I had read the catechism before, but had just not noticed the pithy brilliance of much of it:

Q5. Can you live up to all of this perfectly?
A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbour.

Q13. Can we pay this debt ourselves?
A. Certainly not. Actually, we increase our guilt every day.

Q33. Why is he called God’s “only Son” when we are also God’s children?
A. Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are adopted children of God - adopted by grace through Christ.

Q118. What did God command us to pray for?
A. Everything we need, spiritually and physically, as embraced in the prayer Christ our Lord himself taught us.

And, like good biblical exposition, DeYoung’s comments illuminate the original text without drowning it in flannel:

The catechism explains that faith is only an instrumental cause in our salvation ... It is the object of our faith that matters. If you venture out onto a frozen pond, it isn’t your faith that keeps you from crashing into the water.

The Great Commission in Matthew 28, as I’ve told my congregation many times, has one imperative verb and three supporting participles. The main verb is not ‘go’, though it looks like it in our English translation. The main verb is the command ‘make disciples.’

For my part, in fact, each section of the book was better than the previous one. Mostly, this reflects the fact that I understand the creeds pretty well, but think rather less about how to apply the Ten Commandments to everyday life - both the Catechism and DeYoung’s exposition of it are hugely helpful here, especially on oaths and the Sabbath - and, much of the time, I struggle to pray. Even for those whose credal and Reformation theology is clear, The Good News We Almost Forgot would be of benefit simply for its teaching on prayer:

What does God want you to pray for? In a word: everything. Tell him about your hurts. Tell him about your joys. Ask him where the car keys are. Ask him for the conversion of your children. Ask him for health. Ask him for holiness. He is a loving Father. Ask him.

My kids (as far as I can tell) never wonder if I’m lacing their oatmeal with arsenic. They don’t fear that when I walk them to the park I’m secretly selling them off to Ishmaelite traders. My kids, at least at their young ages, don’t doubt that I love them. They grab my hand when crossing the road because it makes them feel safe. There is implicit trust that I will protect them, defend them and take care of them. This should be our posture in prayer.

The great danger we have, living in such an affluent society, is the evil of self-reliance. How tempted we are to think that we are in control, that we are gifted enough, hardworking enough, and rich enough to tackle any problem. But the reality is that God can frustrate the best laid plans of mice and Americans. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.

The star of the show, however, is the text of the catechism itself: probably the most beautiful and ecumenical summary of Reformation theology that exists anywhere. So even though I’ve quoted them here before, it’s probably fitting to sign off with the famous first and last questions, if only just to devotionally brighten your day:

Q1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong - body and soul, 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 the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Q129. What does that little word “Amen” express?
A. “Amen” means: This shall truly and surely be! It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.


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