Imagine that you live in a world where you only have two options. In the first option, you will be slave to a master who is cruel and hard. He will whip you daily. He will emotionally abuse you and use you for his own advantage. When you are sick he won’t care. When you are old, he will kill you and laugh. His entire world is centered on himself and the desire to take as much from the world as he can. In fact, he wants to cause as much suffering as possible. History is full of people like this: Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, slave owners, sex traffickers and as unbelievable as it sounds, people like you and me who have an inborn default in our souls to self-preservation. Though we might not literally whip, kill and laugh at other’s suffering. We are no different than these cruel taskmasters, if we are willing to look deep in our soul. We want to use people; we just prefer they don’t realize that they are being used. There is a darkness in all of us that is very prideful and self-exalting.
But I said there is second option. You are still a slave, but your master is loving and kind. He watches over you and provides for you. He invites you to learn about his business and to participate in it. He will tend your sick body and encourage you with his love. When you fall, he will pick you up and when you are suffering he will be at your side suffering with you.
Given the choice. Which master would you prefer to have? Whose slave will you be? How passionate would you be to serve the first master? How about the second? While you may think this is a silly example, the Scriptures declare that there are only two forms of slavery in our world. “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:17-18). There is slavery to sin and slavery to Christ, who is our righteousness. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1Cor. 1:30).
Have you ever considered that reality? That slavery is a given for humanity. We are all controlled by something; either ourselves and our own selfish desires (This we call sin and it is responsible for all the evil in the world – thievery, poverty, murder, war…) or we are controlled by Christ. When Paul speaks about being set free because you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted (Rom. 6:17) he was talking about the gospel message. He is speaking about completely surrendering to Christ, confessing one’s evil actions, thoughts and desires and agreeing with God that such things are wrong and to be cast away. The only problem is we have no way of casting them away.
No matter how much we try to be good, we constantly find ourselves being bad. Have you ever had a piece of lint that is stuck to you? You keep shaking it off and though it gets free for a moment, the static electricity in it causes it to snap back to you. It just won’t leave you alone. Now this may be a little bit of a disgusting illustration, but if you have ever watched a child stick their finger in the nose and then try to get rid of the little object stuck on the end, it just wont go away. It can’t be shaken off; it won’t be thrown; if they try flicking it, it just moves from one finger to the next and ultimately it gets wiped off on their clothes. That is what sin and selfishness are like. It is stuck to us and won’t leave, but Christ comes along and dies in our place and the scripture declares, as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psa. 103:12).
Specifically today, on Gems Sunday, I would like to focus on how we come to believe the message and continue to believe it wholeheartedly and Gems there is one way that has been tried and tested throughout the history of the church. The method that has been used to proclaim the teaching and hold onto it for two thousand years is called catechesis. This may sound like a fancy word, but really it is just a way of learning what the Scriptures teach by using questions and answers – much like a teacher uses question to find out what a pupil knows about a subject.
In 1548 John Calvin wrote an amazing statement. “Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” John Calvin and others like him believed that the best way to teach people the truth of the gospel that our sin can be removed from us was in asking them a series of simple questions and teaching them how the Bible answers those questions.
And lest the adults in our congregation think that they no longer need to be catechized or taught, did you know that Martin Luther wrote his Larger Catechism in 1529 for adults, specifically for fathers. Here are his own words, “it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it [the teaching of the Bible], or are learning and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”
Faithful instructions in the teachings of the Scripture ensure that we wholeheartedly know and obey our Lord’s desires. Just as professionals are required to undergo continual learning in their fields of practice to learn and hone their skills, so also all Christians needs to continually be exposed to the core elements of the faith in order to stay fresh and sharp and continue to have the fire of Christ burning in their soul. That is why Christians have daily devotions, study the bible with others and gather to hear sermons preached from the word.
To this end we will be taking the summer time, beginning today to cover some of the questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. Some of you know that I have been writing some devotional material on the catechism and it will also be made available to you for use in your own homes as well.
The Heidelberg begins by asking where the fountainhead of comfort is found for the Christian. This is a great place to begin especially in light of our opening illustration about being enslaved and the passage fro Romans talking about the teaching that is entrusted to believers. Where does it all start? The comfort of the Christian originates in the scriptural teaching that we belong to, or are owned by, Jesus Christ.
Q.1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
As westerners in a freedom loving democracy, it is hard for us to accept this kind of language. We own cars, houses, books, and furniture, maybe even land. But to own a person, or to be owned by another is slavery and most of the civilized world has rejected this idea. That’s why the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery 7 September 1956 has been signed and ratified by most of the world. But the truth of scripture remains, we are owned, either by Christ who can set us free from sin, or we are owned by sin itself. But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:17-18).
The idea of belonging and ownership are comforting when one’s master is benevolent and full of grace, and thank God, he is– Ex. 34:6 the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Our God and his Son, Jesus Christ, love us and care for us. God ensures all our needs are met, for we are more precious than the sparrows to him. ((Matt. 10:31) So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.) He secures our freedom and protects our life. In fact, it is Jesus’ amazing care and leadership that allowed the Scripture to be fulfilled John 18:9 “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
As the good shepherd, Jesus calls us his own. He leads us by green pastures and gentle waters; he restores our souls if we are to apply the words of Psalm 23 to our Lord and Savior. So the catechism doesn’t start with loft words and doctrines that are heady and complex. Instead it starts by reminding us that the Creator loves us, his created people and that he cares for and provides for our need to be free from sin.
The Heidelberg declares, He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
That is comforting is it not? Our evil ways can be washed away in the blood of Christ. But it gets even better, because we belong to Jesus. It also declares, 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. When the difficulties of life get moving and the stress level climbs in the office, schoolyard or at home, the word of God reminds us that our Lord is in control. He made us, and he watches over us. He is seated in heaven and is ruling. Eph. 1:20-21 tells us “Christ…[is] raised…from the dead and seated at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
It is this idea of God’s constant watching eye and concern for his people that should spur us on to great acts of faith and trust. It should cause us to live a life of abandon. If we truly believe he owns us, if we truly understand that he wants to save us and seek our best; if we trust that he really rules the earth and nothing is slipping by him unnoticed, then the logical conclusion is that whatever happens to us must be for the furtherance of his kingdom and our faith. At least that is how Joseph understood his life.
Let me remind you of Joseph’s story: his brothers sold him into slavery; he was wrongfully accused while serving in Potiphar’s house and subsequently thrown in prison. But ultimately, Joseph was able to say, Gen. 45:5, 7-8 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.
Had the catechism been in existence during Joseph’s life, I believe he could have declared That I am not my own but belong body and soul, 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 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
Don’t Joseph’s words illustrate the Catechism’s proclamation that belonging to God ensures our safety and security even when life appears to be against us? Even when evil befalls us, but nevertheless, Joseph lived as a slave of righteousness in the midst of evil. Because Joseph belonged to God and he knew it, he was able to survive the hardships and give praise to his God and savior.
Our second story is the story of Ruth. She was a Moabitess who happened to marry a wayward Jew, who had left the Promised Land. Have you ever thought about that? Naomi and her husband, Ruth’s in-laws, really weren’t very good Jews, they left the land God gave them and moved to the land of Moab, that should have been destroyed according to God. They allowed their sons to marry outside of the promised people and ultimately all the males in the family die. But even in the midst of all this wrongdoing around her, Ruth believes that she belongs to God and vows to return to Israel with her mother in law and after living through all this loss and hardship and dire circumstance. She stumbles into the fields of Boaz and eventually marries the man and becomes the grandmother of King David. If this isn’t a story of God watching over her life in such a way that her salvation and the salvation of the world is superintended. I do not know what is.
People of God, Give thanks to the Lord that though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:17-18). Follow our Lord, live passionately for him. Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God (Micah 6:8) and allow his spirit in you to bear the fruit of
Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Coming full circle Gems and congregation, if you remember,
Q.1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own but belong body and soul, 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 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
If you remember this, you will be on a path to lighting the fire in your soul that will never burn out.
 Grounded in the Gospel: Building believers the Old-Fashioned Way by JI Packer and Gary Parrett ©2010, p.23.