The sweet comfort of the Gospel
The first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism has resonated with generations of people familiar with it.
Q. 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.
The beauty of this statement is not merely that it summarises the essence of the gospel both fully and succinctly; but that it expresses the gospel in terms of ‘comfort’. It brings deliverance from the struggles, failures and despair of our fallenness.
It carries echoes of God’s own call to his wayward people in the time of Isaiah. After 39 chapters of warning them of impending judgment for their sins, God announces through the prophet, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed…’ (Isa 40.1-2). He then articulates in advance the words John the Baptist would use to herald the arrival of God’s promised Messiah.
This proclamation of ‘comfort’ – repeated for emphasis – spoke volumes to those who first heard it. Having been laid low by relentless declarations of their guilt before God and what they deserved from him for their sin, this word of pardon and restoration brought unimaginable relief to them. Against their very real awareness of God’s being the Judge to whom they must answer, this manifestation of God’s grace was truly sweet.
We only taste the sweetness of the gospel when we have appreciated the bitterness of our own sin, guilt, shame and what we deserve from God by nature. This same God, to whom we must answer, is also the One who also provides deliverance and renewal and this throws the beauty of his grace into sharp relief.
The promise of divine comfort is taken to another level altogether in the unfolding mystery of the gospel in redemptive history when we see how it is fulfilled. It comes, not through something God gives (as though comfort were a mere commodity); but in the someone that he sent to provide eternal comfort in salvation. That ‘someone’ was none other than his Son, and the manner of his coming was not through mere manifestation, but by means of incarnation. He identified himself to the full with our humanity – being made like us in all our frailty, tempted as we are and yet without sin (He 4.15). He quite literally entered into our struggle and he is therefore qualified to understand and empathise with the struggles we face. Indeed, more than this, he is able to help us in the midst of our need with mercy for our sinful failure and grace to obey and persevere.
From a very human perspective, it is one thing for a well-meaning friend to see us in difficulty and respond by sending a note of encouragement, or even a generous gift to see us through; but it is a different thing altogether for them to turn up in person to be with us until we are safely through.
The sheer wonder of how this is fulfilled in Christ can be seen (or, more accurately, heard) in the way he himself expresses the ‘comfort’ promised in the gospel. In what is perhaps the sweetest of all the ways the gospel has been communicated, he says,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt 11.28-30)
He does not say, ‘Let me tell you about…’ or, ‘Let me point you to someone.’ No, he says, ‘Come to me!’ At one level he is simply speaking into the weakness and weariness of our condition; but in reality, he is doing far more. He uses language that harks back to God’s curse on Adam and his posterity because of the fall (Ge 3.16-19). But he also speaks of the relief he alone is qualified to provide: ‘Come to me and I will give you rest.’ So too the fact he explains how we experience this by saying, ‘Take my yoke upon you’ points to our being joined to him in saving union. We are never left to ‘go it alone,’ or are only given his help when it all becomes too much for us. He himself is our life and our salvation and in him we are remade.
There is indeed ‘sweet comfort’ in the gospel. It is found in the one who is himself the gospel. As the great creeds remind us, he was incarnate for us, lived for us, died for us, rose for us, has been exalted for us and is coming again for us. He leaves no detail of our fallenness and failure unredeemed and on the day of his return we will be fully restored.