Reformed and Reforming (02): Heidelberg Catechism and Ursinus

Date: 10/31/2010
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Reformed and Reforming (2): Zacharius Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
October 31, 2010

Countless saints have summoned grace in time of need with the precious words of the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. “What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that, without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation: and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.”

Would we not also benefit from knowing about the grace and providence of God in the life of the man who scribed these words?  Counted as a second generation Reformer, Zacharius Ursinus was born only 17 years after the Wittenburg church door (Ninety-Five Theses) event of 1517. Born on July 18, 1534, only 25 years after Calvin’s birth, Ursinus was a gift to the church and “though dead, yet continues to speak” through that most published, translated, and sermonized, Catechism. He lived in the areas known to us as southwestern Poland (such as the Wroclaw) and parts of the north central Czech Republic.

Ursinus was afforded the opportunity to complete his studies by traveling to sit at the feet of many Reformed doctors. The city Senate of Bresslau funded this study tour. He learned from Melanchthon, Bullinger and Peter Martyr and visited ministers in Heidelberg, Strasburg, Basel, Lausanne, Geneva, Lyons, Orleans, Paris, and Zurich.  In 1558, he took the position of principle teacher of the Gymnasium in Wittenberg. While services rendered were esteemed highly, he was caught in a theological battle over the Lord’s Supper (the High Lutheran versus Calvinist views of Christ’s presence). This prepared him for the work to which he was called in German “Palatinate” area in the city of Heidelberg.

The church of this area had undergone the same strife of High Lutheran versus Calvinist views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism was composed at the request of Elector Frederick III (1516-1576), who was a ruler of the Palatinate. His purposes were to encourage the propagation of unity in the Reformation. Ursinus worked with Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), Frederick's court preacher, to produce the catechism. Its purpose was for “instructing youth and guiding pastors and teachers in the developing a full system of doctrine, according to Reformed principles.”

The basic three parts of the Catechism are “guilt, grace and gratitude.” This is illustrated in the famous, triple knowledge question two: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free of all my sins and misery; three, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”

Gregg Strawbridge Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D., is the pastor of All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. He became a committed follower of Jesus Christ at age 20, discipled in the context of a University Navigator Ministry. As a result of personal discipleship he went on to study at Columbia Biblical Seminary (M.A., Columbia, SC, 1990), as well as receive a Ph.D. in education and philosophy... read more