What is a Catechism?

February 19, 2009

catechism-paul-teaching1

You’ve probably heard the word before but almost certainly it was said with a sneer: ‘Catechism.’ In our day and age, the word usually conjures up a dreary scene where innocent little children are taught to mindlessly recite church dogma, without really understanding what that dogma means. The teacher force feeds the children knowledge that is outdated, outmoded thus stifling the child’s natural ability to discover answers to life’s questions on his or her own. According to this view, those who promote the catechetical teaching love to follow tradition more than they do free enquiry. The only problem is, this view of the catechetical teaching is a distortion of the truth.

So, what is catechism?

The word means ‘to instruct’ and is put forward in the New Testament as a proper means of teaching others the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 14.19, Paul says he ‘would rather speak five words with my mind so that I may even teach others than ten thousand words in a tongue.’ In the original Greek in which Paul wrote, the word which is here translated ‘teach’ has the same root word as ‘catechism.’ Simon Kistemaker, a scholar of the Greek New Testament, explains:

The Greek verb katecheo (I teach) actually means that a teacher utters words that are directed to listeners who are seated at his feet. In the early church, the verb connoted a question-and-answer method that we associate with the term catechism (1 Corinthians, New Testament Commentary, Baker Academic, pp. 496-97)

The point is, Paul would rather speak a few meaningful words that people who are listening may understand, than speak ten thousand meaningless words that no one who is listening may comprehend. A few sensible words are better than ocean of senseless words because the sensible, meaningful words may teach people the truth. And how is the teaching accomplished? Through the simple method of the teacher asking questions and the pupil providing answers.

The first question of one of the great Protestant catechisms asks, ‘What is man’s primary purpose?’ (I’m using a modern version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in this instance). The answer is, ‘Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Who was taught by the catechitical method? Lots of people, including the first two or three generations of Protestants and Reformers. In fact, many of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation wrote catechisms so that their people would have a firm grasp on the content of their faith. But catechisms were used in the church long before the Reformation of the 16th century.

The early church used catechisms to instruct the people. The writer of the gospel of Luke says that Theophilus, for whom the gospel of Luke was written, had been instructed according to the catechetical method. Luke writes, ‘it seemed good to me…to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things that you have been taught.’ The last word of that quote is familiar to us, it is katecheo (I teach). Theophilus, says Luke, has been catechized. Other places in the New Testament that speak of instruction are Acts 18.25; 21.21, 24; Romans 2.18; 1 Corinthians 14.19; and Galatians 6.6. All these instances may not refer to catechism. But in Galatians 6.6, Paul does seem to speak of teaching in the sense of catechetical instruction, that is, imparting the content of faith through the simple method of questions and answers.

William Hendriksen observed, ‘The church that neglects catechetical instruction has itself to blame for its waning strength.’


A Book for Couple of Family Devotions

February 18, 2009

book-training-hearts-teaching-minds1At bedtime, Terri and I observe a time of devotion. We’ve been doing this for some time and it has added something very important to our marriage. I can’t imagine our life without it. A good devotion helps a couple reflect on the day gone by and plan for the one to come. A good devotion points us towards God, reminds us of his goodness, clarifies his Law, underscores his grace, and leads us into fuller praise and prayer. And, hopefully, does so in a clear, simple way that is devotional, not academic.

With this criteria for assessing the value of a devotional in view, I recommend Training Hearts, Teaching Minds by Starr Meade. It is simply superb. Terri and I have received many blessing  for this plain little book. The format is straightforward: there is a short devotional for each day of the week (except Sunday) and each week has a theme. The weekly themes are based on the Westminister Shorter Catechism (a method of teaching Christians knowledge about God through questions and answers).

From start to finish the book takes about two years to go through, but as I say, the reading for each day is more than manageable. It takes us about ten minutes per night to complete that night’s devotion.

Starr Meade, the author, is easy to read and only rarely uses jargon. When she does, she clearly explains the jargon so that you understand what it means and why it is important to understand the idea the word conveys. It is very, very user-friendly. Again, it is not a text book, it is a devotional.

For Terri and I, devotions have become a time to take stock of our day, the words we said (or didn’t say), the actions we took (or didn’t take), the thoughts and feelings that went on. Since no one is ever perfectly perfect even for an hour (‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves…’, 1 John 1.8), the devotion becomes the moment when we confess our sins to our gracious heavenly Father and seek his forgiveness. It also is the moment when we renew our pledge to follow his Son and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Training Hearts, Teaching Minds usually cites one or two verses of the Bible per day. The Bible reading are the centre of each devotion.

Click here for more details about the book.


Five Common Mistakes Christians Make in Judging their State of Grace

February 17, 2009

flavel-john-flavelJohn Flavel, an English puritan pastor who worked in the port city of Dartmouth, often encountered Christians who severely doubted their salvation. He saw that there were Christians who, despite the genuineness of their conversion, were still plagued by soul-destroying doubts. As a good and kindly shepherd of his flock, Flavel responded with clarity of thought, compassionate advice, and faithfulness to the Word. I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing this wonderful saint.

1. Don’t question your salvation simply because sometimes you involuntarily sin.

Iniquities prevail against me; you atone for our transgressions (Psalm 65.3).

It’s never okay to sin, but the fact that Christians do sometimes sin does not mean that they are fake Christians. Rather, it means that we are in that in-between state where are redemption is promised but not fully realized. The consummation of our redemption is a future event that will come about in full-measure in the life eternal, when we are with God. When we sin, we are to repent and, then, trust that God, who is merciful, forgives us.

2. Don’t question your salvation simply because the circumstances of your salvation are different from the circumstances that marked the conversion of other Christians.

Some well-meaning Christians, who know the precise day, hour, and minute of their rebirth by the grace of God, will act as though their experience is the only true type of conversion. This may throw some others, who are not so sure when moment of salvation occurred, for a loop.

3. Don’t question your salvation simply because you don’t feel the same sense of joy that other Christians experience.

The new birth is not always marked by feelings of joy. Just as many Christians can’t pin-point the moment when God made them new, so, too, many Christians are not swept away by wave after wave of bliss when they are reborn. For them, it is a quiet event that has gone, to their natural eyes, unnoticed and unheralded. Nevertheless, if God has done it, it is as real and precious as an ‘extravagant’ conversion.

4. Don’t question your salvation simply because people who are obviously not Christian seem to live better than you.

The author of Psalm 73 suffered a similar problem, only worse. He saw wicked people prospering in their wickedness, bragging about their lifestyle, and daring God to zap them if he was real. After seeing this terrible spectacle, the psalmist cried out to God. The Lord revealed himself to the psalmist in the worship of the Temple. We’re not exactly sure how God showed himself, but it may have been as the psalmist viewed the sacrifice. Did he catch a glimpse of Christ, prefigured in the atoning act of the sacrifice? Did he see the mercy of God, as well as his terrible justice, in the slaughter of the innocent animal? We can’t be sure, but we do know that God granted him understanding. And the psalmist was then able to sing a hymn of praise and adoration to his Lord and Savior. Although the wicked sometimes prosper–and, as a result–confuse the righteous–in the end, God will right the wrongs done in this life. God will vindicate his people.

5. Don’t question your salvation simply because you are not growing in the same areas as other Christians.


Bound for Glory

February 17, 2009

book-bound-for-glory1R.C. Sproul Jr., author of Bound for Glory, says that the family’s chief aim is “to seek ye first the kingdom of [God’s] dear son” and offers a practical plan for husbands and wives to support each other and their children in this endeavor.  Nobody who intends to get somewhere drives around without a clear destination in mind.  Bound for Glory offers a destination for Christian families; to present themselves back to God as faithful members of the covenant with God.

R.C. Sproul, Jr. is pastor of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church, and Founder, Chairman, and Teacher of the Highlands Study Center in Bristol, Virginia, USA. He is R.C. Sproul’s son.

Click here to view more info.


Hospitality—Christian Style

February 13, 2009

jesus-and-children1Little One

I’m studying Jesus’ treatment of children in Matthew’s gospel, particularly Matthew 18.2-6;19.13-15. Our Lord makes a remarkable statement in verses 5-6. He says, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’

Jesus had been talking specifically about little children in verse two. He calls a child and puts the child in the middle of the group. But in verses 3 and 4 he turns the discussion to everyone who humbles himself like the child. Those who humble themselves this way are also ‘little ones.’

So, in verse 5 and 6, the little ones that Jesus refers to are all believers, those who are humble before their heavenly Father. Jesus says, ‘Those who receive one such child (a child of God, regardless of age) in my name receive me’ In other words, Christians who welcome other Christians are, in a real and deeper sense, welcoming Christ. Think about that!

Obviously, Jesus is not saying we should worship other Christians or pray to them or bow down before them. But, rather, we are to show them the kind of hospitality that we would show Christ, were Christ to show up at the doorstep of our home.

 

Turkish Hospitality

This reminds me of when my brother, Rich, travelled through Turkey nearly two decades ago. He returned to Canada with one story after another about the wonders of Turkish hospitality. Under the present political climate, it may be different. But prior to 9/11, the people of Turkey and, indeed, people throughout the Middle East were renowned for their amazing graciousness. One man welcomed Rich into his home, invited him to stay with his family for as long as my brother wished, and strongly encouraged Rich to come again anytime. The whole time he was under this man’s roof, Rich was treated as am honored guest. Now I realize that there are social, cultural, and religious reasons why Turks—who are Middle-Eastern and have an Islamic background—respond that way to guests. But what an example. These folks dedicated themselves to making the stranger feel welcomed. Their warmth was outstanding. Could you imagine how many people would be drawn to our congregation if they received Turkish hospitality from us? I know of a few people who made our congregation their home, in part, because of the kindness they received from those who greeted them for the first time.

 

The law

The law of the Bible includes rules about hospitality. The Old Testament says a great deal about how to be hospitable to others, family as well as strangers. A hospitable attitude and behaviour and nature are mandated. But obviously, no one can perfectly fulfill the demands of the law. We are sunk every time. We may have a reasonable facsimile of the right behaviour—but even that can’t be maintained for long! But how can we possibly have an attitude and nature that is so gracious to others that it perfectly fulfills the demand for hospitality which the law requires?  That’s where grace enters.

 

Grace

We can’t be perfectly hospitable—not with strangers, neighbours, and even loved ones. Our behaviour may be pretty good, but our thoughts and feelings…? Nope, resentment and bitterness and rivalry will eventually creep in and distort even our best efforts at being ‘nice’ to others.

Our Saviour is the only one who perfectly fulfilled the laws demand for lavishly hospitable behaviour, attitude, and nature. We trust in him, in his obedient submission to the law and righteous fulfillment of it. Thank you, Jesus.

 


Reading has a Rich Tradition in Certain Churches

February 13, 2009

calvin-booksSome Christians love reading and studying. Nothing wrong with that! Such activities have enriched their faith. Calvin may not have been the one who established the tradition of studying within the wider church, but he certainly made it a priority among the flocks he was shepherding. This link takes you to a terrific story about the reformer of Geneva.

Christians of the Reformed Churches read books, study Scripture, and have a wonderful heritage of knowledge and wisdom to draw upon, as a result. Paul advised Timothy, ‘Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything’ (2 Timothy 2.7).


How does God Convey His Grace to Us?

February 13, 2009

Herman Bavinck

bavinckHerman Bavinck was one of the great Christian thinkers of the last half of the 19th century. He had important things to say about Scriptures and the Word of God. In saying them, he didn’t mince words, but pointed out errors. So, his criticisms of Roman Catholicism are said to point out deviations from the truth, as it is revealed in God’s word. For Bavinck and other Protestants, the Word of God stands head-and-shoulders above the authority of the church and, at the same time, is the foundation of the church. This is a long quote, but worth every word.

…(T)he relationship between Scripture and the church is totally different in Protestantism than in Roman Catholicism. In Rome’s view the church is anterior to Scripture; the church is not built upon Scripture, but Scripture arose from the church; Scripture does indeed need the church, but the church does not need Scripture. The Reformation, however, again put the church on the foundation of Scripture and elevated Scripture high above the church. Not the church but Scripture, the Word of God, became the means of grace par excellence. Even the sacrament was subordinated to the Word and had neither meaning nor power apart from that Word. Now, in accordance with Christ’s ordinance, that Word was indeed administered in the midst of the congregation of believers by the minister, but this did not alter the fact that the Word was (also) put into everyone’s hand, that it was plain to everyone who studied it with a desire for salvation, that it exerted its power not only when it was proclaimed in public but also when it was studied and read at home. In that way Christians, who accepted that word with a believing heart, were liberated from sacredotalism. No longer did any person or thing stand between them and Christ. By faith they appropriated the whole of salvation, and in the sacrament they received the sign and seal of that reality. Thus the Reformation changed the Roman Catholic doctrine of the means of grace.’ (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pp. 444-445).


Movie Night

February 10, 2009

film-the-crossThe church where I serve, Port Elgin United Church, is showing The Cross–The Jesus in China, a documentary film about the Christian church in communinst China.  Communism is a political system firmly committed to an atheistic worldview. Not only does God not exist, according to Communism, those who believe in God must be re-trained in their thinking. The film is an extraordinary account of Christians in one of the cruelest, most oppressive regimes in Asia, if not the world. The fear and loathing that the regime has for Christians makes for an incredible tale. Yet, despite the trials, the church has grown explosively.

The film has English subtitles and is showing Wednesday, February 11, in our sanctuary at 7:30 PM. Admission is free.


Did Jesus Descend to Hell?

February 10, 2009

dore-judgment2

See my more recent entry here and here.

Over the years, various people have approached me with a question about Jesus going to hell. They had heard about the idea from the Apostle’s Creed and there seemed to be suggestions of it in a few passages from the Bible. They wanted to know, was it true? Did Jesus really descend to hell? The question has resurfaced since our congregation now, periodically, says the creed together during the Sunday morning worship service.

Because of the nature of its subject, the line from the Apostles Creed grabs your attention, drawing your mind back to the clause, ‘…and he descended to hell.’

What does it mean?

Before going any further, it would help with clarity if certain words were defined. In the days of Jesus, Hades (Greek New Testament) simply meant the place of the dead and hadn’t yet acquired the additional meaning of a place of torment. Hades is ‘the intermediate state between death and the future resurrection’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Think of a public bus station: dim, dirty, and perpetually depressing. Once in awhile someone rambles by, screaming incoherent gibberish at you. You never feel comfortable, not only because it is a place that is physically disgusting. But it also is spiritual disturbing. Terminal is the perfect descriptor for such a place. The Hebrew Old Testament term, Sheol, shares the same meaning as Hades.

The equivalence of the two terms, Hades and Sheol, is shown by the fact that the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint) usually uses Hades (Greek) to translate Sheol (Hebrew). Hades does seem to include the sense, sometimes, of punishment. But, since it defines an intermediate state, the punishment of Hades is not eternal. The state of eternal punishment of the wicked is reserved for Gehenna.

The Greek New Testament word for the place of eternal torment is gehenna. It is ‘the abode of the wicked. Whereas hades is the intermediate state, gehenna is eternal hell’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Going back to the analogy of the bus terminal: if hades is the depressing bus station, then gehenna is the final destination from which the wicked will never depart.

In the New Testament, hell is a catch-all word. It  is the place of eternal punishment (Matthew 25.41), everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1.9), everlasting contempt (Daniel 12.2), unquenchable fire (Matthew 3.12; 5.22; 18.9), damnation (Matthew 23.33), the fiery furnace (Matthew 13.42, 50), blackest darkness (Jude 13), a fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21.8), and a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25.41).

There’s little doubt that Jesus died, was buried, and remained in the state of death for three days. But did he go to the place of everlasting destruction and damnation?

Bavinck

Scripture certainly stresses the fact that Christ died and was buried (Isaiah 53.9; Matthew 12.40; 27.59-60; Luke 11.29; 23.53; John 19.40-42; Acts 13.29; 1 Corinthians 15.3-4). As Herman Bavinck said,

Jesus in reality ‘spent three days in the state of death, belonged to the realm of the dead, and thus bore the punishment of sin (Genesis 3.19). To that state of Hades he was not abandoned; his flesh saw no corruption, for he was raised the third day; yet from the time of his death to the moment of his resurrection, he belonged to the dead and therefore spent a period of time in Hades (Matthew 12.40; Acts 2.27, 31) …For the idea that Christ had descended to the place of torment, the actual hell, is nowhere to be found in Scripture, nor does it occur in the most ancient Christian writers (page 413)…For Christ in truth bore unspeakable distress, sorrows, horror, and hellish torment on the cross in order that he might redeem us from them (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three, pages 410, 413, 416).

Grudem

More recently, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, has argued that the phrase is unbiblical and should be eliminated (pages 586-94)

The earliest versions of the creed don’t have it. The clause didn’t appear in manuscripts till the mid-300s (Bavinck, page 413).


Sharing the Gospel

February 8, 2009

pennThe magician Penn (of Penn and Teller) tells of a stranger who gave him a copy of the New Testament and the Psalms.

Watch the video here. Since making the video, Penn has received countless emails and letters from Christians, especially many ministers and pastors. They have thanked Penn for understanding the urgency and obligation of evangelism better than many believers. In the video Penn says that if you believe that faith in Christ determines where you spend eternity, then telling others about the Saviour should be something you eagerly throw yourself into. If the message of Christ is true, then we can’t keep it to ourselves. To do so would be to prove we have little or no love for others. Penn, who is still an atheist, makes an excellent point.

How remarkable that an atheist is the one who points out the obvious.