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“What is Catechism?”

Greg Strand – January 20, 2017 3 Comments

Catechisms have been used as a means/method of imparting truth and passing on the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). One of the early ones written in the wake of the Reformation was The Heidelberg Catechism

One of the main authors of this catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583). At the beginning of his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus included a section, “Special prolegomena with reference to the catechism.”

Ursinus’ prolegomena addresses five key issues:

  1. What is catechizing, or the system of catechization?
  2. Has it always been practiced in the church, or what is its origin?
  3. What are the principal parts thereof?
  4. Why is it necessary?
  5. What is its design?

Ursinus lists nine reasons for the necessity of teaching the catechism in the church, with a summarizing warning.

  1. Because it is the command of God . . .
  2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children . . .
  3. On account of our comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God.
  4. For the preservation of society and the church.
  5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject . . .
  6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time, inasmuch as they can easily refer and reduce those things which they hear out of the word of God, to the different heads of the catechism to which they appropriately belong, whilst, on the other hand, those who have not enjoyed this preparatory training, hear sermons for the most part, with but little profit to themselves.
  7. The importance of catechisation may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner, as we have it in the catechism, and would not, on account of their youth and weakness of capacity, be able to understand it, if presented in a lengthy and more difficult form.
  8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating the youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.
  9. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day be able to instruct others, as on account of the many facilities which they have for obtaining a knowledge of this doctrine, which it becomes them diligently to improve, that they may, like Timothy, become well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures . . .

The summary: “A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-Christ.”

A few questions of application:

  • What would you identify as weaknesses in the church today?
  • How do you address this personally in your own life and in the life of your family?
  • What content, plans and structure are in place to address it in the church?

On January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was first published by Reformed scholars in Germany. This Catechism was written by Peter Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, and espouses a Reformed view of theology. Shortly after its publication, it was accepted by most of the Reformed churches in Europe. It was originally written “to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers.”

As a catechism, its structure is that of a question followed by an answer. It also includes Scripture references supporting the responses. It consists of 129 questions and answers, and soon after it was published, it was structured to be read in a year, and thus divided into 52 sections to reflect the 52 weeks of the year. In the sixteenth century, the National Synods of the Reformed Church adopted the Three Forms of Unity, which consisted of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619).

Here is a brief introduction to the Catechism:

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province, the Palatinate, from 1559 to 1576. This pious Christian prince commissioned Zacharius Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Frederick obtained the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty in the preparation of the Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by a Synod in Heidelberg and published in German with a preface by Frederick III, dated January 19, 1563. A second and third German edition, each with some small additions, as well as a Latin translation were published in Heidelberg in the same year.

The Catechism was soon divided into fifty-two sections, so that a section of the Catechism could be explained to the churches each Sunday of the year. In The Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became generally and favorably known almost as soon as it came from the press, mainly through the efforts of Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into the Dutch language and added this translation to his Dutch rendering of the Genevan Psalter, which was published in 1566. In the same year, Peter Gabriel set the example of explaining this catechism to his congregation at Amsterdam in his Sunday afternoon sermons.

The National Synods of the sixteenth century adopted it as one of the Three Forms of Unity, requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it and ministers to explain it to the churches. These requirements were strongly emphasized by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is the most influential and the most generally accepted of the several catechisms of Reformation times.  

The first two questions frame the whole Heidelberg Catechism, and are foundational for the whole of the Christian life. These two questions and answers are worthwhile to memorize.

1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own,[1] but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death,[2] to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.[3] He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.[5] He also preserves me in such a way[6] that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head;[7] indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.[8] Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life[9] and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.[10]

[1] I Cor. 6:19, 20 [2] Rom. 14:7-9. [3] I Cor. 3:23; Tit. 2:14. [4] I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 1:7; 2:2. [5] John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14, 15; I John 3:8. [6] John 6:39, 40; 10:27-30; II Thess. 3:3; I Pet. 1:5. [7] Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18. [8] Rom. 8:28. [9] Rom. 8:15, 16; II Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14. [10] Rom. 8:14. 

2.Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A. First, how great my sins and misery are;[1] second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery;[2] third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.[3]

[1] Rom. 3:9, 10; I John 1:10. [2] John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43. [3] Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; I Pet. 2:9, 10.

I have used the Heidelberg Catechism as a supplement to my Bible reading. I have also used it with my family as part of our family worship/devotions. I commend it to you as well.

In our Free Church history, creeds have been formative, but also considered a concern. This relationship is summarized by one as follows:

Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith.

The same could be said for the relationship with the Free Church and confessions. Although they are foundational, the concerns of their abuses have often resulted in their lack of use. At their best, they have been foundational and formative to Christians and the propagation of the Christian faith for centuries. If one does not use a catechism for spiritual formation, what is being used? It is not that young people and adults are not being formed and shaped. The concern is that what they are being formed and shaped by and to is not substantive biblical and theological truth.

At our upcoming Theology Conference, “Reformation, 500: Theology and Legacy,” one of our lectures will address The Reformation, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms You can read more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, and you can register here.

One of my commitments is to read and study the biblical and theological truths associated with the celebrations of the Christian year. Having just celebrated and worshiped as we focused on the arrival of Jesus Christ, the birth of the God-man, the incarnation, I read a few excellent books about this wonderful truth. One of them, as I noted, was Tim Keller’s, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ.

I share a couple of pertinent and challenging quotes.

The God of Christmas

In an interview about this book, Keller was asked the following question: “Neither the god of moralism nor the god of relativism would have bothered with Christmas, you observe. Why not?” He replied,

Moralism is essentially the idea that you can save yourself through your good works. And this makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God need to become human in order to live and die in our place if we can fulfill the requirements of righteousness ourselves? Relativism is essentially the idea that no one is really “lost,” that everyone should live by their own lights and determine right and wrong for themselves. The “all-accepting god of love” many modern people believe in would never have bothered with the incarnation. Such a god would have found it completely unnecessary.

Neither moralism nor relativism are the answer, and both leave us completely helpless and hopeless.

Keller addresses this further in the book. If “God who was only holy,” he would not have done anything for us and expected us to do it ourselves. We would have died in our sins, and justly so. If he was a “deity that was an “all-accepting God of love,” he would not have had to do anything either, since he would have simply overlooked sin. God, the God of the Scriptures, the one and only true God, is both “infinitely holy” and “infinitely loving,” so he did for us what we could not do, sending his Son to address our sin and to secure our salvation. Keller writes (46-47),

The claim that Jesus is God also gives us the greatest possible hope. This means that our world is not all there is, that there is life and love after death, and that evil and suffering will one day end. And it means not just hope for the world, despite all its unending problems, but hope for you and me, despite all our ending failings. A God who was only holy would not have come down to us in Jesus Christ. He would have simply demanded that we pull ourselves together, that we be moral and holy enough to merit a relationship with him. A deity that was an ‘all‐accepting God of love’ would not have needed to come to Earth either. This God of the modern imagination would have just overlooked sin and evil and embraced us. Neither the God of moralism nor the God of relativism would have bothered with Christmas. The biblical God, however, is infinitely holy, so our sin could not be shrugged off. It had to be dealt with. He is also infinitely loving. He knows we could never climb up to him, so he has come down to us. God had to come himself and do what we couldn’t do. He doesn’t send someone; he doesn’t send a committee report or a preacher to tell you how to save yourself. He comes to fetch us. Christmas means, then, that for you and me there is all the hope in the world.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation

Often we get caught up in the sentimentalism of Christmas. We like the feelings, emotions and memories it elicits and creates. We do not want to be weighed down with the doctrine or dogma of Christmas. For those who conclude feelings are more important than beliefs, experience trumps truth, Jesus unites and doctrine divides, that doctrine just does not matter, they often do not realize all of those statements reveal a great deal about a person’s beliefs, their doctrine. For most of them, it is doctrine without substance. More specifically, it is a doctrine of salvation by works. In contrast, Christmas is about the doctrine of salvation by grace. According to Keller (131),

When you say, ‘Doctrine doesn’t matter; what matters is that you live a good life,’ that is a doctrine. It is called the doctrine of salvation by your works rather than by grace. It assumes that you are not so bad that you need a Savior, that you are not so weak that you can’t pull yourself together and live as you should. You are actually espousing a whole set of doctrines about the nature of God, humanity, and sin. And the message of Christmas is that they are all wrong.

We give thanks to the God of Christmas for the God-man sent at Christmas! We are also thankful that the doctrine of salvation by grace, the message of Christmas, has been experienced, which is reflected in worship and a life lived joyfully hoping and trusting in God.

On this date in 1538, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johannes Agricola (1494-1566) met, in a second disputation, to discuss/debate antinomianism (against the law). Agricola, and the other antinomians, “taught that the best inducement to repentance is not the law but preaching the gospel of God’s immeasurable grace in Christ. The ‘apostolic admonitions,’ following from the gospel and not the law, establish Christian ethics.” While Luther affirms the law is not necessary for justification, it does play an important role for the Christian in revealing sin, maintaining discipline and discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. Luther “insisted on the importance of the law as both a guide for the ethical life and the means by which God drives sinners to repent (that is, ‘convicts’ them of their sin).”

Part of the problem was that Agricola picked up some of Luther’s teaching, but he did not seriously or sufficiently consider the whole of Luther’s teaching. What was missing was the realism of the Christian life lived simul justus et peccator, i.e., in our justification we are simultaneous, one and the same time, righteous or just and sinners. As one writes, “In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.”

Since we are celebrating Reformation 500 at our upcoming Theology Conference, this is one of topics addressed. However, we are addressing it in a broader manner, focusing on justification and sanctification. But the heart of this discussion and debate rests in the disputation between Luther and Agricola during the Reformation.

Dr. Al Mohler will address the topic, Faith Alone Justifies, Yet the Faith Which Justifies Is Not Alone: Justification and Sanctification. I have explained this lecture in the following way:

Justification by grace alone, by faith alone through Christ alone was the clarion call of the Reformation. It remains the foundation of the Evangelical church today. And yet, this teaching of justification by faith alone concerned the Roman Catholic dissenters because they feared it would foster licentiousness. It would remove all moral motivations to do good works. One of the greatest threats to the Christian faith was the doctrine of assurance, according to some Roman Catholic theologians. Not only did this debate mark the divide between the Reformers and the RCC, there were differences among those promoting Reformation theology. For example, Martin Luther first used the expression Antinomian against Johannes Agricola. Calvin wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Another historical example of this debate occurred in the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century, referred to as the Marrow Controversy. A continuing and contemporary reflection of this debate is that between those who espouse free grace and those who espouse Lordship. On this side of the fall, this challenge and debate are perpetual and universal. How do the doctrines of justification and sanctification relate? How are they different? Can one have one without the other? To what degree? When does one become antinomian? When does one become legalist? In this lecture we will trace the history of this discussion/debate and address the contemporary manifestation of this age-old dispute, with a focus on the practical application to our pastoral ministry with people, recognizing these doctrines are at the heart of most of our pastoral care and counseling with God’s people.

As I worked on a brief annotated bibliography, I included two works that focused on this issue. The first work focuses on the debate between Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Agricola in the 1520s, while Luther refereed. The second one highlights the debate between Luther and Agricola in the 1530s, when Luther addresses antinomianism personally and directly.

Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997). The debate between the law and the gospel occurred in the midst of the Reformation, the mid 1520s. The key characters were Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola. The key question was over the meaning and significance of poenitentia, defined alternatively as penance, penitence and repentance: what is the relation between the law and repentance? It was through this debate Melanchthon developed the notion of the third use of the law for the believer. All of this is foundational for understanding much of Protestantism, and how to understand the law and the gospel in the Christian life.

Holger Sonntag, trans. and ed., Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008). In the earlier debate between Melanchthon and Agricola, Luther played an editorial role. However, in the 1530s he got intimately involved through the first antinomian controversy. Luther heard through others Agricola preached a sermon in which he taught God’s wrath against sin is revealed through the crucified Christ, the gospel, not the law. The heart of Agricola’s view is that “the law’s demands belong to the past; a believer is converted, justified, and instructed through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The continuing divine demand of the law – or even of ecclesiastical regulations – was no longer of interest in this context.” To this Luther responded with theses and disputations against the view of antinomianism.

How do justification and sanctification relate to one another theologically, and what are the implications in the Christian life? The way we answer this question has profound consequences for how we live our personal Christian lives, how we live the Christian life with others and with what expectations, and how we provide pastoral counsel to others. This is one of those doctrines in which it is vital we understand and live out both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, all undergirded by the work of God among the people of God.

Personally, the church in which I grew up and the college I attended both espoused Agricola’s view, not Luther’s. This is why Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace,” espoused in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), rang so true in my ears: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (pp. 44-45).

Evangelicals still struggle with this issue. In many ways, on this issue we live with a consistent disputation!

Plan to register for our Theology Conference to learn further about this and other important issues pertaining to life and doctrine.

As we begin a new year, we read and pray the words of Moses, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, ESV). The key to what Moses writes is that we ask God to “teach us to number our days.” This addresses not only the brevity of life, that we are but a breath (cf. Ps. 39:5), but also the importance of using our days wisely (cf. Eph. 5:16). This requires that we “consider our ways,” to examine and reflect on our ways and days, so that we ensure we live life faithfully coram Deo, before the face of and in the presence of God.

The purpose we are to live with an awareness of our ways and days, is “that we may get a heart of wisdom” (ESV). Other translations state the same thing in the first half of the sentence, but they differ in the second half, seeking to capture the essence of God’s intent through Moses. Here, for example, are a few of the other translations, which shed further light on the purpose of this request, this prayer (emphasis mine): “that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (NASB); “that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (NIV); “so that we may grow in wisdom” (NLT).

Thus we pray we may “get,” “present,” “gain,” and “grow” in wisdom. What is this wisdom? It is reflective of God (Job 12:13), is given by God (Prov. 2:6), and consists of a right understanding of God, which results in a life lived accordingly under God. It is wisdom that only comes from above (Jms. 3:17). Ultimately, wisdom is identified with Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and who is the source of all the Christian’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). Wisdom is Christological.

Asking God to give insight, wisdom and discernment about life godliness and vocation is not dependent on the turn of the calendar to a new year, or the celebration of a birthday or anniversary, or some specific or particular day. That posture before God can and should happen on a regular basis, and God’s commands and leading ought to be begun when the Lord prompts. As has been stated, delayed obedience is disobedience. As believers who “live by the Spirit” and thus enabled to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25), we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7b-8).

Paul David Tripp takes issue with making resolutions during the new year, but he does recommend making commitments, “rooted in the gospel” and which believers “have been empowered, and should be excited, to make”: Don’t Make Resolutions. Make Commitments

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. While I understand the desire for fresh starts and new beginnings, none of us has the power to reinvent ourselves simply because the calendar has flipped over to a new year. But since the gospel of Jesus Christ carries with it a message of fresh starts and new beginnings – because of the forgiving and transforming power of God’s grace – looking forward at the year to come does give us an opportunity to give ourselves anew to practical, daily-life commitments that are rooted in the gospel. Let me suggest seven commitments that all of us have been empowered, and should be excited, to make. . . . So, as the new year unfolds, don’t fool yourself with grandiose resolutions that none of us has the power to keep. Rather, celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ and it’s huge catalog of graces. Re-commit yourself to living every day in light of what you have been given in and through your Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, in spite of these concerns, with which I concur, and grounded in and empowered by the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a time/opportunity to ponder these sorts of spiritual matters in our lives. And as we do so, it is not something done on a whim, and neither is it something done in one’s own strength or power. That is why so many resolutions fail: they are not God-directed and not God-empowered.

Donald Whitney is one who has been very helpful in the areas of spiritual disciplines and the basics of the Christian faith. Here is one of his lists in which he asks some questions for us to ponder, which I have previously referenced: Consider Your Ways: 10 Questions to Ask in the New Year In another essay, Why You Probably Don’t Need a Quiet Time, Whitney addresses reasons (read excuses) why one does not have time to spend in the Word and in prayer. In response, he writes, “before you completely forsake your daily devotional time, you might consider a few things.” He then lists a number reasons for engaging in the spiritual disciplines, In conclusion, Whitney acknowledges some of the challenges we face as we engage in the spiritual disciplines, and that “significant changes in your life may indeed be needed. But think: How can less time with God be the answer?”

Karen, my wife, and I spent time discussing the questions listed by Whitney earlier this week. It was a fruitful time together. I pray it will bear fruit the rest of the year. I share them with you with a prayer you will press on faithfully in and with the Lord this year.

Here are a few questions as you seek before the face of God to number your days: More generally, what are the spiritual disciplines in which you need to continue? What are those in which you need to grow? What are those you need to begin? Regarding some of the basic spiritual disciplines, what is your Bible reading plan? What is your plan to commune with God in prayer, individually and corporately? What sin of the flesh needs to be put to death, and what fruit of the Spirit needs to be nourished?

We will all experience joys and sorrows in the year to come. We know some of them, but most we do not. However, we do know God who is immutable (unchangeable) in his “being, perfections, purposes and promises” and we can and will trust him.

Whitney concludes, “So let’s evaluate our lives, make plans and goals, and live this new year with biblical diligence, remembering that, ‘The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage’ (Proverbs 21:5). But in all things let’s also remember our dependence on our King who said, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).”