21 Apr 2017
Congregations in every age must see themselves as learning communities in which gospel truth has to be taught, defended, and vindicated against corruptions of it and alternatives to it. Being alert to all aspects of the difference between true and false teaching, and of behaviour that expresses the truth as distinct from obscuring it, is vital to the church’s health. (J.I. Packer)
If that is true - and I am certain it is - it is vital that we give some thought as to how this can be best achieved. It should be obvious that the most important way to achieve this is the regular teaching and preaching of the Bible. That is why that expositional preaching is at the heart of what we do. It is important that God’s word is preached book by book so that we (over time) cover the whole counsel of God and don’t just gravitate to our favourite passages or the hobby horses of the pastor.
Throughout the history of the Christian church there has been another tool that churches have used to teach truth and guard against error. This is a tool which has sadly been ignored in recent years - and like a gift that we own that we have put in the shed and is now gathering dust, it is well worth getting it back out and putting it to good use.
That tool (or tools) I am talking about are the great reformed confessions and catechisms of the church. Listen again to what J.I. Packer has written as he comes towards the end of his life as a theologian -
As the years go by, I am increasingly burdened by the sense that the more conservative church people in the West…are, if not starving, at least grievously undernourished for lack of a particular pastoral ministry that was a staple item in the church life of the first Christian centuries and also of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era in Western Europe, but has largely fallen out of use in recent days.
That ministry is called catechesis. It consists of intentional, orderly instruction in the truths that Christians are called to live by, linked with equally intentional and orderly instruction on how they are to do this.
The writing of confessions of faith, and catechisms (questions and answers designed to educate ordinary Christians in the faith) came as a natural fruit of the rediscovery of the gospel in the reformation. These catechisms were seen as important so that every generation of Christians held on to and passed on the gospel in all it’s fulness and did not take it for granted, and so do not lose it over time as the Roman Catholic church had done.
Of course, the confessions and catechisms are not God’s word in themselves but are careful summaries of the most important doctrines in God’s word. They make every believer familiar with the basic contours of the gospel so that we do not misuse or misunderstand the Scriptures. Most false teachers begin by claiming that they are “only teaching the Bible”. Confessions of faith and catechisms equip Christians to spot error early on. They are also a wonderful tool for worship as we learn, memorise and meditate on all that God has done for us in Christ.
At the beginning of our prayer meetings we are beginning to get familiar with the Heidelburg Catechism, one of the great Reformed confessions of faith. I have picked this one, not because it is superior to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (for example), but because it is beautifully written. Just read the first question and answer slowly and you wont fail to be moved. It is obvious that it was mainly the work of one man (Zacharias Ursinus in the 1500’s), rather than a committee!
The Catechism is mainly a commentary on three things every Christian should be deeply familiar with - the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. The catechism is structured around the shape of the gospel - guilt (our sinful condition outside of Christ), grace (what Christ has done), and gratitude (how to live in response). We have just finished the first section, and I have printed the first 11 questions and answers below for us to spend time reading. Perhaps take a question and answer a day and read it during your quiet time. Better still - read it with your family!
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 Saviour 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: ion 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 makers me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
2. Q. WHAT MUST YOU KNOW TO LIVE AND DIE IN THE JOY OF THIS COMFORT?
A. Three things : first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
3. Q. HOW DO YOU COME TO KNOW YOUR MISERY?
A. The law of God tells me.
4. Q. WHAT DOES GOD’S LAW REQUIRE OF US?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22 - “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it : Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
5. Q. CAN YOU LIVE UP TO ALL THIS PERFECTLY?
A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbour.
6. Q. DID GOD CREATE PEOPLE SO WICKED AND PERVERSE?
A. No. God created them good and in His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love Him with all their heart, and live with Him in eternal happiness for His praise and glory.
7. Q. THEN WHERE DOES THIS CORRUPT HUMAN NATURE COME FROM?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are born sinners - corrupt from conception on.
8. Q. BUT ARE WE SO CORRUPT THAT WE ARE TOTALLY UNABLE TO DO ANY GOOD AND INCLINED TOWARD ALL EVIL?
A. Yes, unless we are born again, by the Spirit of God.
9. Q. BUT DOESN’T GOD DO US AN INJUSTICE BY REQUIRING IN HIS LAW WHAT WE ARE UNABLE TO DO?
A. No, God created humans with the ability to keep the law. They, however, tempted by the devil, in reckless disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.
10. Q. WILL GOD PERMIT SUCH DISOBEDIENCE AND REBELLION TO GO UNPUNISHED?
A. Certainly not. He is terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge He punishes them now and in eternity. He has declared: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
11. Q. BUT ISN’T GOD ALSO MERCIFUL?
A. God is certainly merciful, but He is also just. His justice demands that sin, committed against His supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty - eternal punishment of body and soul.