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Comfort, Not Coaching

On the night our Lord was betrayed, he fortified his disciples for the afflictions they would experience between his first and second coming. Indeed, in this life they would have trouble. But Jesus exhorted his disciples to be encouraged for he had overcome the world (John 16:33).

Like the disciples we, too, experience in this life “many dangers, toils, and snares.” And Jesus’ message to us is the same: take heart; I have overcome the world.

As pastors, we shepherd Christ’s Church through the troubles of this world. I recently hugged a father concerned for the mental health of his child. One spouse struggles to forgive the unrepentant spouse. Patients pump poison into their veins hoping chemicals can kill cancerous cells faster than the healthy ones. A hopeful mother cries herself to sleep longing for the joy of raising children. Trouble indeed.

Pastors have the unique privilege and obligation to bend the comfort of heaven into the hearts of their congregations. Yet, there seems to be a disparity between ought and is. In far too many cases, it seems, comfort becomes mere coaching.

Coaches work towards the win. A coach helps an athlete or competitor unlock his or her inner potential. That athlete or competitor will be put through drills or clinics to program instinctual responses to changes in the game. Pastoral ministry looks like coaching when a pastor encourages steps or work rather than pointing to the work already accomplished by Christ.

The pastors and professors gathered to write the Heidelberg Catechism knew something of trouble. The early reformers in the sixteenth century were immersed in debates between Lutherans and Calvinists on the nature of communion. More unsettling for them, the Reformation was still in its infancy, and violence threatened Protestants across Europe. Many of these Protestants made their way to the Palatinate.1Many histories still refer back to Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. This is indeed a helpful source. See, Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 1 (1877), accessed October 12, 2018, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iv.ii.html. For a helpful, modern account of the history behind the Heidleburg, see C. Strohm, “On the Historical Origins of Heidelberg Catechism,” Acta Theologica 2014 Suppl 20:16-34, accessed October 12, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/actat.v20i1.2S. Thus, the synod saw fit to introduce their catechism with the comfort of God. Here is the first question and answer:

Question & Answer 1

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 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.

The difference between comfort and coaching is a pastor’s choice to apply the gospel of God, work done on behalf of sinners, rather than prescriptions designed to unlock potential. Afflicted people are looking for true comfort. The Heidelberg Catechism is a helpful tool for pastors to articulate gospel comfort.

COMFORT COMES FROM A SECURE UNION WITH CHRIST

False comfort comes from self-realization. Pastors may fall into the false understanding that comfort comes through finding oneself. I’d venture to say that most pastors would not see themselves as believing this, and yet, they have functionally organized their “gospel” around the fulfillment of the possibilities of character.

At the beginning of 2018, there was a pattern among some evangelicals to claim a “word” for themselves. This word would be something like “chosen,” “loved,” or “forgiven.” Pastors would lead this exercise for the people at the beginning of the year. These, to be sure, are all words which describe the one whom Christ has purchased with his blood. That said, the operative function of this exercise was to believe in one’s self until one realized the wholeness he or she imagined would come from claiming such a word.

The truth is that no amount of self-realization will fix the fact that the fall fundamentally breaks the self. There was never a whole; so, aiming to return to it is futile. Instead, pastors bear the full responsibility to tell that truth that we, as the Heidelberg reminds us, were obtained at an infinitely high price, and our comfort in life comes from the security of being wholly owned by a faithful Savior.

COMFORT COMES FROM JUSTIFICATION

False comfort comes from self-forgiveness. I have heard many sermons wherein pastors encourage their hearers to put the past in its place. Again, while we are to forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead (Philippians 3:13), no exercise of self-forgiveness can erase the debt of sin which weighs on our hearts.

Praise God that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ accomplishes two significant comforts for the troubled heart. First, the debt owed for sin is fully paid. Second, enslavement to temptation is abolished.

Pastors bear the responsibility to preach the gospel of justification by faith alone to their congregations. This means that they have to preach the law and sin. These things do indeed kill. As a result, some pastors have moved away from preaching “discouraging” sermons to avoid bruising congregants. The mercy of God is this: a bruised reed he will not crush (cf., Matthew 12:20). Yet, unless the law kills the sinner, there can be no healing of grace—no comfort for guilt.

COMFORT COMES FROM PRESERVATION

False comfort comes from self-help. Most pastors find it quite easy to mock self-help sections within their local bookstore. Praise God that a return to expository preaching has put away, in vast swaths of evangelicalism, “be like” and “how to” sermons. Pastors, however, who chide these do not realize that they can be guilty of functional self-help themselves.

An example that comes to mind is the frenzy of activity affecting our congregations. In a recent counseling situation, I discovered a congregant was seeking help from two professional counselors, three weekly bible studies, and half-a-dozen “accountability partners.” This was done on the well-intended advice of other Christians.

I asked him what he was doing to reorder the affections of his heart. Brother pastor, you’ll understand the motivation of the question. Sin results from disordered affections. Affections for the things of the earth results in sin; affections for the things of God results in holiness. As the Catechism reminds us, the Christian is preserved in the faith so entirely by God the Spirit that not even a hair can fall from our heads apart from a divine act of God.

Pastors bear the responsibility to show their congregations the comfort of gospel preservation. Our Lord himself said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

COMFORT COMES FROM OBEDIENCE

False comfort comes from self-fulfillment. The temptation to be deluded by self-fulfillment is intoxicating. The very first temptation was one of self-fulfillment. Adam and Eve’s sin lays in the fact that they felt something was lacking. They assumed their fulfillment would be met if they took the fruit to become like God. Instead, their quest for self-fulfillment fractured the fabric of their soul as they fell from communion with God.

Paradoxically, the way we find the fullness of life is to abandon the quest for self-fulfillment. Abandoning self for Christ, the Christian is granted the Holy Spirit who assures us of eternal life. Moreover, the Holy Spirit enables us to live obedient lives which honor God.

Pastors bear the responsibility to teach our people that comfort in life does not come from self-fulfillment. Yielding to Satan’s lies will never bring comfort. Our congregations crave the assurance which can only come from the Spirit.

The theology of comfort offered in the Heidelberg Catechism is a profound help in pastoral ministry. It reminds us that pastors don’t coach for the win. Rather, we play from the win:  we bend all of heaven’s comfort onto our congregations—pointing our people to the one to whom they belong.

References   [ + ]

1. Many histories still refer back to Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. This is indeed a helpful source. See, Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 1 (1877), accessed October 12, 2018, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iv.ii.html. For a helpful, modern account of the history behind the Heidleburg, see C. Strohm, “On the Historical Origins of Heidelberg Catechism,” Acta Theologica 2014 Suppl 20:16-34, accessed October 12, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/actat.v20i1.2S.
Filed under: Columns, Features, Pastorate, Theology
Zachariah Carter

Zachariah is a pastor at Cedar Creek Baptist Church and pursuing his PhD at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also manages The Commonweal Project. Additionally, he serves as adjunct professor at Boyce College. Zachariah is deputy director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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