John Calvin once wrote: “Believe me…the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism, for it is like the seed to keep the good grain from dying out, and using it to multiply from age to age. Wherefore, if you desire to build a work of continuance to endure long, and which should not shortly fall into decay, cause that the children in their young age be instructed in a good catechism.” Yet an honest look at today’s evangelical church doesn’t exactly reveal a work that will “endure long” and not “fall into decay”. Instead, statistics show that the majority of youth raised in Christian homes will have nothing to do with Christ by the end of their university years.
Most mainline denominations that once stood firm have now departed from the truth. What is clearly in greatest demand in churches, Christian bookstores, and on Christian radio and TV, is predominately a man-centred, prosperity gospel that is ravaging the church. The awful sentence once pronounced upon Israel is coming true again today: “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). How can we halt this decline? As Calvin urges, a biblical catechism can be a powerful tool in preserving the faith in future generations. But what happened to catechisms? Why don’t we use them anymore?
Ignorant of our ignorance
One reason for the neglect of catechisms is that we live in an age that celebrates ignorance and calls uncertainty a virtue. The ‘proud’ man is the one who claims to know. In contrast, our spiritual ancestors were humble enough to be bothered by the problem of spiritual ignorance. They realised the extent of human depravity, including how sin has infected and damaged our minds. Scripture repeatedly exposes the profound and deep-rooted ignorance, folly, darkness, and futility of the fallen mind (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 14:1-3; 92:6; all of Proverbs, e.g. 1:22; 8:5; 9:4-6; Jer. 10:8,14; 51:17; Matt. 15:19; Mk. 12:24; Eph. 4:17-19; Rom. 1:21-22; 3:11; 1 Cor. 1:18-28; 2:14, etc.). Our tendency is to think that once a person gets saved they just need to grow in their relationship with Christ through emotional experiences. We think that all we need are some daily devotions, a Sunday sermon and small group relationships. We don’t realise the extent to which our relationship with Christ feeds on biblical knowledge.
Scripture shows that the problem of ignorance does not disappear at conversion or through a few crisis experiences or weekend events. Believers are forgiven but still war against their own ignorance and spend a lifetime climbing the steep mountain of wisdom and knowledge. Though we are now illumined by God’s Spirit, the battle rages on as we seek daily to overcome the darkness in our own minds and renew our thinking with the light of God’s truth (Job 42:3; Ps. 73:22; Prov. 30:2; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23-24; 1 Pet. 1:14,18; 2 Pet. 1:5-6; 3:18, etc.). But in our age of self-esteem and evolutionary ‘progress’, we easily underestimate the lingering powers of ignorance and the educational challenge that we’re actually up against. Meanwhile we don’t realise that, compared to ordinary Christians in previous generations, we’re still infants in biblical literacy and spiritual knowledge. There are no shortcuts in the competition against our own ignorance and that of our children and others we disciple. The only weapon for defeating darkness is biblical knowledge, the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
The way that God has ordained for biblical knowledge to reach us and progressively to dispel our ignorance is through teaching. Teaching was the passion and purpose of Christ’s earthly ministry (Mark 1:38; 6:34; 10:1). Teaching was Christ’s final mandate to us in His Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Teaching was what Christ sent His Spirit to do for us (Jn. 14:26; 16:13-15). Teaching is the way that King Jesus advances His cause and builds His Church, as the Book of Acts demonstrates (Acts 2:42, etc.). Teaching is the primary function of pastors and elders, and of Christian parents (1 Tim. 3:2; Eph. 4:11; 6:4). And there are some methods of biblical teaching that have stood the test of time, compared to other trends that have come and gone. One such tool for biblical teaching that has proven its worth to God’s people for centuries is the catechism.
In 1647 in London there was a gathering of pastor-teachers from England and Scotland whom Richard Baxter described as the finest group of theologians the Christian world had ever seen “since the days of the Apostles”. After many months of deliberation over how best to preserve and explain the Christian faith to the masses, one of the main documents this group of Puritan ministers produced was the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This catechism is still in print over 360 years later and has been translated and adapted into hundreds of languages. Says one writer about this catechism, it is “unrivalled as a concise and faithful summary of the central teachings of Scripture”. It is this catechism which we have used and adapted in the booklet you hold in your hand.
What does “catechise” mean? To modern ears, it sounds painfully similar to “circumcise”, or like some kind of torture or a rare disease you hope you never contract. But in fact, the word “catechise” comes from the NT Greek word, katekeo, which means “to instruct, teach” (Lk. 1:4; Acts 18:25; Gal. 6:6, etc.). Catechism came to mean the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the essentials of the faith, a systematic way of ensuring that no Christian is left unarmed and ungrounded. How many Christians do you know that have heard thousands of sermons, attended a small group for decades, and read dozens of Christian books, yet they still cannot give a clear, concise biblical definition for such essential doctrines as the Trinity or justification or sanctification? They need to be catechised!
– Tim Cantrell, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa