The Imperative of Catechesis
Dear Church Family,
As I wrote last week, this past Sunday we began a new Sunday school lesson series in the Westminster Larger Catechism. In our first introductory lesson, we talked about the historical context in which the Westminster Standards were written in England in the 1640s. We also talked about some of the American revisions to the Westminster Standards, their Biblical basis, and why those were made. Finally, we began looking at an overview of the Westminster Larger Catechism but will actually begin our study of the questions and answers this coming Sunday, September 25th.
So now, in addition to our Youth Catechism Class on Sunday evenings where we are going through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I am also teaching the Larger Catechism in on Sunday mornings. At this point, you might be thinking, “Why are you so obsessed with the catechisms?!”
Well, I don’t think I’m obsessed, but I have increasingly grown convinced that there are three things that are generally lacking in modern American evangelicalism: Christ-centered expository preaching, reverential worship, and catechesis. I think I’ve written and preached about those first items quite a bit but let me emphasize here the importance of catechesis.
J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett define catechesis as “the growing of God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight.” If you did not grow up in a family or a church that used catechisms for this purpose of spiritual growth, I want to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that are available in the church, and to implement a regular study of the catechisms in your home – for yourself, and if you’re a parent, for your children.
Earlier this year, as part of a series of essays about why we worship the way we do, I wrote about the purpose of using catechisms in our corporate worship service. If you’re looking for resources for studying and memorizing the catechism at home, I included some resources in that essay that I think you will find helpful.
But still, you may be wondering why I believe that catechesis is so important. Actually, I have two reasons; one is personal and the other is statistical.
Personally, for me as an individual and for our family, catechesis (especially in the Westminster Shorter Catechism) has been integral for growth in faith and understanding. For me, it wasn’t until I attended seminary that I learned about the Westminster Standards and the Reformed faith. It was actually through the study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism for the first time at twenty-six years old that I came to understand the doctrines of Scripture in a more coherent and applicable way. It helped me to wrestle with the Scriptures and grow in my faith.
So, as my wife and I started having children, we began teaching them the Westminster Shorter Catechism from an early age. You’d be surprised how easy it is for young children to memorize these things. Of course, they may not fully understand everything that they’re memorizing at the time; however, over the years we also instructed them in the meaning of what they were learning and using the catechism as another tool to study the Scriptures. As they’ve grown and begun to leave the home for college and head out into the world, I’ve noticed how often they are able to use the categories that they’ve learned in the catechism. Sometimes, it has helped them to better understand, remember, and apply the teaching from a sermon or Bible study; at other times, it has helped them to discern erroneous teachings that they’ve been exposed to.
But here’s something that really brought this home for me this week. In 2022, Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research partnered together to conduct a survey of American evangelicals to try and find out what they believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible. The results of that survey may be found online here: https://thestateoftheology.com/. I warn you: it can be pretty shocking and depressing.
Their findings are not difficult to read, but if you’d like to read a summary, a couple of days ago Christianity Today published an article about the survey entitled, “The Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals.” The lead line under the title of the article reads, “It’s 2022, but Arianism and Pelagianism are steadily making a comeback, according to the State of Theology report.” You can check out the data for yourself at the above links; here, I’ll just give you the five “top heresies” from the CT article:
(1) Jesus isn’t the only way to God. (56% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”)
(2) Jesus was created by God. (73% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”)
(3) Jesus is not God. (43% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.”
(4) The Holy Spirit is not a personal being. (60% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”)
(5) Humans aren’t sinful by nature. (57% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”
During one of our recent Westminster Shorter Catechism lessons with the youth on a Sunday evening, we were talking about the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I was telling a story of how I had met self-professing evangelical Christians who did not believe that the Son of God existed before the incarnation, before Jesus’ birth. I am happy to report that every person in our study was incredulous and hard-pressed to believe that such a self-professing Christian could exist.
But, as I meet people in the world, and as I read the results of the recent “State of Theology” survey, it is apparent that there is a lot of confusion – and even heresy – among American evangelicals today. That is why catechesis is so important. For in the confession and catechisms, we learn a summary what the Scriptures principally teach: that is, what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man (WLC 5; WSC 3).
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch