Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Catechism

A Theology Worth Embracing

In advance of the release of Something Worth Living For Matthew Barrett and Credo blog asked me to write a series of blog posts touching upon the value of a catechism. With their permission I am reposting these here for those who did not see them there.

Recently a member of my church’s staff poked his head into my study to ask me a “quick” question. He had been given money by a family member to replace his ancient and ailing PC with a new computer. “Why do you use a Mac?” he asked me.

It was not quite a “What must I do to be saved?” moment, but the way some of us are religiously devoted to our computers, it was close.

I framed my answer to his question guided by the way he asked it. He was genuinely curious. He was open to understanding my position and to thinking in a new way. He was not seeking an argument. He wanted to learn. I answered him, therefore, sensitive to where he was coming from. Sure, I hoped to nudge him a bit in the direction of my convictions. But if I pushed too hard, or was too negative about the admittedly much less expensive PC, he might shut me down and not hear me.

Our presentations of theology should bear the same spirit. There are legions of those curious about Christianity who have been put off by the polemic nature often attending its presentation. Those who are curious are seeking understanding, not an argument. The tone and content of our presentations should be shaped by those to whom we speak or write. The Westminster Shorter Catechism can provide a wonderful doorway into a theology worth embracing, but only if we handle it with care and present it in a way that can be heard. What might that look like?

I have already noted in these posts that our presentation of the Christian faith needs to be comprehensive. When we overly simplify the gospel, we risk not presenting the gospel at all, but some caricature of it. A tool like the Catechism disciplines us to convey the breadth of the gospel, even the hard things, without simplification and without losing our way with secondary matters.

As well, our teaching needs to be accessible. Most of those who are curious do not have the patience to read the newspaper much less John Owen. The Catechism answers the question “What is God” with twenty-seven words. That compares with Stephen Charnock’s 400,000 (in The Existence and Attributes of God). If we can help people catch the gist of those twenty-seven words we have opened a door for them to see and appreciate deeper wonders. They may choose to go further or not. It is our job to point the way in a manner that they are able to hear.

Further, we need to be positive. It’s a bitter and polemic age in which we live. We tire of polarized parties lobbing grenades across “enemy” lines. And yet some of our theological presentations feel that way. If we spend our time tearing down the opposition, we run the risk of losing the attention of our audience. My friend wants to know what’s good about a Mac not what is awful about his PC. Similarly, I want people to know what is beautiful about the Christian gospel. There will be a time to introduce them to Arius and Pelagius, perhaps even to Arminius. But first, let’s help them appreciate the gospel’s positive beauty.

Which means our presentation needs to be pastoral. One need not be a pastor to assume a pastoral mantle here. Many people struggle. They have genuine questions and hurts. They feel guilt for their doubts and anger for their pain. They struggle to know a God that they hate or do not trust. We need to listen to them, and our presentation needs to show that we have listened and that we have understood their questions. Our words must reflect an understanding and a sensitivity to the realities of the lives of our readers and listeners.

And finally, any presentation of Christianity needs to be deeply passionate. We need to show that these truths matter to us. Dry and dispassionate theology is clinical and sterile and unattractive. A guidebook to the Rocky Mountains may either bore or inspire. Give me bare statistics or esoteric data about the Grand Tetons, and I’ll yawn. Help me see them with the breathlessness you feel, and I’ll want to drop everything to come see what you see. The same must be true about theology.

This is the spirit which has driven my writing of Something Worth Living For. Whether I hit the target or not, others will judge. My friend may show up in a week or two with a brand new shiny Dell computer. But hopefully I’ve done nothing to poison his view of the advantages of the Mac so that someday, if his PC disappoints, he will consider what I have said. If we present Christianity well, the words we speak will not be forgotten. They may in time be used to awaken others to find in Jesus something worth living for.

A Gospel Worth Sharing

In advance of the release of Something Worth Living For Matthew Barrett and Credo blog asked me to write a series of blog posts touching upon the value of a catechism. With their permission I am reposting these here for those who did not see them there.

Imagine an evangelistic conversation that goes something like this:

“Man, I just don’t know why I get out of bed any more.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, the world is such a mess and I feel such stress at work and at home.”
“Wow, I get it! It’s the same with me. Life is so confusing. But God has given me a way to see a path through it all, at least.”
“Yes. I suppose. But that religious stuff never made sense to me.”
“I know. But I’d love to talk about that. Have you heard of the 107 spiritual laws?”

Clearly there was a good reason that Bill Bright chose just four spiritual truths to make his evangelistic appeal. And yet, every time Christians encourage non-Christians to consider Christianity, they are inviting them to embrace something larger than can be expressed in four, or eight or ten statements. In a day when the very word “God” is understood, if at all, with rambling diversity, the way we communicate the gospel requires breadth and clarity. And though I’m not suggesting we see the Westminster Shorter Catechism and its 107 questions and answers as a gospel tract, the theology it unfolds is, in its heart and essence, the gospel. It is not simply a tool by which others come to know religious stuff. It is a doorway inviting them, and ourselves, to come to know, and to love, God.

As any good presentation of the gospel will do, the Catechism begins with the questions people themselves are asking. People wonder why they exist. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What’s it all about? That is, the Catechism begins, “What is the chief end of man?” People have tried money and sex and everything else Solomon bemoans as meaningless. The question, “What is there worth living for?” is an urgent question for all, Christian and non-Christian.

Of course, the answer the Catechism gives, that we are to live “. . . to glorify God and enjoy him forever” challenges our treasured human self-centeredness, among other things. The Catechism grounds this claim in the fact that there is a God who has spoken. This God has given us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments a call and reason to glorify and enjoy him, and a rule by which we are guided in our response.

Many, of course, struggle to believe the Bible, even those sitting in our pews. And yet Christianity is a complete package. To believe in God is to believe that he is and that he has spoken. We believe the Bible because it is the word of God, and we know God by the word he has given. These things are to be taken as a whole.

And so the Catechism invites us to understand the two primary things the Bible teaches: what we are to know about God set side by side with the response God expects of us. To put it another way, the Catechism outlines how we are loved by God and how we love him in return.

Questions 4-38 introduce us to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are shown our sin in all its misery and God’s wonderful provision of a redeemer. The redeemer’s person and work is shown and the fruit of his work outlined. That is, we are shown why people need salvation and how God provides it. This is how God loves us.

Then beginning with question 39 we are shown how one responds to this provision. We learn of the law God has given, of the nature of faith and repentance, and of the value of the church and her sacraments and of prayer. Here we are shown, in response to who God is and what he has done, how we live for his glory and enjoy him forever. This is how we love God.

The Catechism, in other words, paints the full gospel picture by which we can tell the whole truth to a world aimlessly trying to find its way. It reveals the beauty of the gospel, something we all need to hear.

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that in persuading others of religion we must “. . . make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is” (Penses, 12). The Catechism makes all of us once again wish that Christianity were true, especially those of us who have lost sight of the beauty of salvation and the hope of our “full enjoying of God to all eternity.” (Q/A 38)

It gives us a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. It reminds us that we have something worth living for. It is a gospel worth knowing, and sharing.

A Faith Worth Learning

In advance of the release of Something Worth Living For Matthew Barrett and Credo blog asked me to write a series of blog posts touching upon the value of a catechism. With their permission I am reposting these here for those who did not see them there.

Charlie Mora was one of the finest and most solid men with whom I’ve ever served in the church. He was an elder in the congregation to which I was called out of seminary and he taught me how to be a pastor. But as a commercial fisherman with no more than a high school education, Charlie was an unlikely mentor.

As a young man, during a downturn in the fishing industry, Charlie moved from Cortez, Florida to New Jersey to find work. There he met Marge. He was so taken by this young woman that he was willing to attend her small Orthodox Presbyterian Church in order to date her. There Charlie heard the gospel. As he fell in love with Marge, he came to love Jesus as well.

Charlie was hungry to learn about this new faith, but the church had no adult classes for men like him. And so Charlie, revealing a deep humility that would stay with him his entire life, asked if he could attend the youth class. There, huddled in a room with teenagers, Charlie learned the theology of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He emerged with a broad, deep, and profound love for God which would later have such a profound impact on me.

Charlie’s story reveals the beauty and mystery of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. It also reminds us of the power of a well ordered, systematic teaching of the Christian faith. That is, it points to the value of a catechism.

A what?

A catechism is an ancient pedagogical tool that systematically presents a broad body of knowledge in small interrelated units. Using a question and answer format, catechisms have been written to serve well-seasoned theological meat in bite sized pieces for those hungry to know God and his ways. Particularly, the theology of the Protestant Reformation rode across Europe and sailed into North America in vessels of beautifully crafted and carefully framed catechisms by which one generation instructed the next. One of these, the last and most concise of these, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, was used to pass this faith worth learning on to my friend Charlie.

Published in 1647, the Westminster Shorter Catechism has had a wide influence. It was the product of 120 seventeenth-century theologians and pastors from England, Ireland, and Scotland meeting in assembly in Westminster Abbey in London (hence the name) over a period of four years. The products of committees and assemblies are usually bland. Not this one. The Westminster Assembly found a way to distill essential theological truth into memorably precise and matchlessly profound language. Its words have become widely known even to those unable to name their source. That our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” and that “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” are ideas that have lodged in the hearts of many even outside those Reformed and Presbyterian Churches which claim the Catechism as one of their confessional documents.

Of course, the very idea of theology is daunting to many Christians. The word conjures images of big books and fine and incomprehensible distinctions. Theology is imagined to be something boringly peripheral to the living of a full life. But a moment’s reflection suggests that we all embrace a theology of some sort. It may be poorly developed and it may be absolutely wrong, but we have a theology. And too often the theology we are give is couched in negative terms.

The acquisition of theological knowledge in our day is often erratic, spotty, and cloaked in controversy. We learn a bit about eschatology to counter the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at our door. We ponder how to understand God’s law only because we want to find a way to better argue our case against big government on Facebook. Rarely do Christians enjoy, and I choose that word purposely, the opportunity to consider a positive presentation of the beauty and breadth and practical relevance of our historic Christian faith. The Catechism offers that opportunity.

There are many Charlies in our churches, people curious about Christianity and hungry for some guidance. The Catechism is a good place to begin to satisfy that curiosity. To support this process is why I’ve written Something Worth Living For.

As pastors and churches we may not be able to help our Charlies fall in love with our Marges, but we certainly can use the rich tools of our heritage to help them fall in love with Jesus

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