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A Dozen Reasons Why Catechizing Is Important

Thomas E. Tyson

What is catechizing? Simply put, it is systematically presenting Bible truth in a form that can be memorized, understood and embraced, so that the covenant member knows what he or she believes and acts on it. It may be done by parents at home, by the church (in Sunday school classes, catechism classes, and via sermons), or by the Christian school or the home school. The word “catechizing” comes from the Greek verb κατηχέω (katēcheo), which means “to sound down,” or “to speak with the objective of getting something back in an echo.” So, I am not speaking here of one more Sunday school “doing and seeing” exercise, but rather of the question and answer method, with the employment of creeds and catechisms, and with what we hear God in the Bible chronicling and commanding.

The purpose of this exercise, then, is to underline God’s command that both Christian parents and the church together catechize covenant children both to understand and to embrace the gospel. To accomplish this I intend to identify twelve reasons why catechizing is important.

1. Being a Command of God, It Is Not Optional

The scriptural mandate for catechizing is clear: to Moses, representing the whole of Israel, God said, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6–7). It is clearly the parents of Israel who are addressed with this command, and in what words are these children commanded to be catechized? In “all the great work of the LORD that he did” (Deut. 11:7, which work is summarized in vv. 2–6). That work is termed historia salutis—history of salvation. And how is this Old Testament church to respond? Just to “hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God” (Deut. 31:12–13). That obedient service is termed ordo salutis—order of salvation. Catechizing, then, takes into its compass historia salutis and ordo salutis, both what God has done to deliver his people out of the estate of sin and misery and what he commands of them by way of fearing him and doing what he commands.

The people of Israel (the Old Testament church) were catechized by Ezra the priest and the Levites (ruling elders?): Nehemiah 8:8 tells us, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

The Lord Jesus Christ, incarnate Son of God notwithstanding, as a son of Israel submitted to his own bar mitzvah (catechesis), as recorded in Luke 2:41–52, and as a result “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

In the Great Commission, as it has been termed, teaching appears to be the climax of the command: “discipling,” yes; “baptizing,” yes; but especially “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Consequently, catechizing seems to be anything but an afterthought in the church’s “marching orders.”

2. God Has Saved for Himself a Family, Not a Collection of Individuals

Of Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” God said “for I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him (Gen. 18:19). The “way of the LORD” [דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה derek yahweh] is two-fold, involving: (1) divine accomplishment, “shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do” (v. 17), and (2) human response, “keep the way of the Lord.” Thus the election of “some to everlasting life” (WSC 20) in the covenant of grace involves the election of Abraham and his seed. We understand, therefore, what the task of catechizing was that the LORD laid upon Abraham. And furthermore, that it is a task that has never been abrogated in the New Testament church. Abraham’s was a task not merely to provide a model for the world of adherence to the worship of Yahweh, with the hope that disparate individuals might, here and there, be snatched hopefully from hell. His was also a task to build, maintain, and indeed enlarge a covenant family which would exist to the praise and glory of the God of grace. And that covenant family would never disappear from the face of the earth, but would continue through its generations until the end of the age. That is what we have likewise in the New Testament church, and it forms the foundation for the instruction of the succeeding generations of the family of God’s gracious covenant. It is also why parents and the Christian church today find catechizing important.

3. Covenant Children Are Members of the Church

This is really a corollary of the preceding reason, as we shall see.

If God had determined to save a collection of disparate individuals, willy-nilly, then we would expect that members of the Christian church would consist of all those individuals who express faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. As far as their children would be concerned, they would be seen as potential members, and would indeed become such if they happen to choose to believe in Jesus when they grow up. Meanwhile, while they are still children, and make no profession of faith in Christ, they would not be considered church members. Consequently, the church would seek to evangelize them, but that would be a far cry from understanding that it is to catechize them.

But the truth of the matter is that (as we have already seen above), God has saved for himself a family, not a collection of individuals who are the proper members of the church. That family includes the young children of the church’s members, and those children are themselves members as well. Otherwise, God would not have dealt with his people in Old Testament times as he did (again, as I have said above). Now, there is mystery here, to be sure, because it would seem that only those who have faith in Christ should be termed “church members.” And, we do not have an absolute promise in Scripture that every covenant child is, in truth, elect. But we are not here dealing with the secret counsel of God’s will, which we cannot fathom. What we are dealing with is his word of command, which is abundantly clear. And that word commanded the circumcision of Israel’s male offspring, thus identifying them from their earliest age as members of the covenant family of Yahweh. Likewise, the New Testament indicates that the infant seed of the church were, and indeed ought to be, baptized.[1] As baptized, therefore, these children are indeed identified as church members. And as church members they deserve to be catechized. We say more: indeed, they must be catechized.

4. Catechizing Is the Responsibility of Both Parents and the Church

Biblically it is primarily the family’s duty to train the children, and that by the head of the house, the father, chiefly. However, the church, especially on a local level, has a responsibility to assist, augment, and strengthen the impact of the training received in the home. It is the family’s responsibility to educate its children in all things of life (arithmetic, geography, biology, etc.) as well as the “way of the LORD”—his precepts, his ethics, his history, and his Word. However, the church and her officers still have a responsibility to educate children from the pulpit and through other means. The church and the family should not allow a false dichotomy to be wedged between them. Rather, they supplement each other in a unique way, a spiritual way. A father should indicate to his children the significance of the church’s catechetical instruction, and likewise the church should support the family’s role. These two institutions, church and family, should not oppose each other, but instead assist each other like two pillars that hold up the ceiling of truth. Thus, we might inquire: is the father more culpable than the church, when failure occurs in catechizing? I think we have to say: it’s a toss-up!

5. Parents Vowed to Catechize their Baptized Children

At least Orthodox Presbyterian parents did! They did it when they responded affirmatively to this question: “Do you promise to teach diligently to [name of child] the principles of our holy Christian faith, revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and summarized in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church?”[2]

Howsoever faithful and diligent their local church might be, in fulfillment of its responsibility to teach the child, the parents cannot escape theirs! And, I remind the reader of this: it was a sacred vow. Not an indication of one’s propensity, wish, or even human promise. It is a vow. In Ecclesiastes 5:4, the preacher warns: “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.” Thus, violating a vow through either negligence, disregard, or even substitution, is a serious matter indeed. It is sin; and, if committed, can be confessed, repented of, and indeed forgiven by God. But that correction, though gracious to the highest degree, does not erase the fact that such a sin, though removed by the blood of Christ, may indeed still have consequences, especially in the life of the child who was not faithfully catechized.

6. Christianity Is to Be Embraced, Not Inherited

I say this in order to preclude anyone’s thinking that the above mention of God’s saving a family, and the inclusion of covenant children as members of that family, mean that such children are automatically regenerated and saved. Such might seem to be the case to some, but it isn’t! Yes, perhaps strict logic might be seen to demand it, but the Scripture will not allow it. John 3:16 is still there, and it is crystal clear: “Whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Once more, we are faced here with mystery.

But that is precisely why catechizing is so important! Both are true: our covenant children are God’s, and they belong to his church; but because that is so, it is all the more vital that those children be instructed in his truth, to the end that they embrace and own that truth individually, and for themselves, by the working of the Holy Spirit, in and through the Word of God. It simply will not do for Christian parents to sit back inactively, with regard to the religious instruction of their children, operating under the foolish and ungrounded hope that their children’s baptism and church membership will undoubtedly save them.

7. Knowledge Is Foundational to True Religion

For covenant children to embrace and own God’s truth they are going to have to know it, in the first place. Thus catechizing is, first of all, instruction in the Bible, God’s Word. Here these children learn who God is, and what he requires of them, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 3). Without that revealed knowledge, they will grow up ignorant of God’s truth, the foundation of the entirety of their innermost thoughts and outward actions. As such, having not attended to God’s revelation, they become, as adults, misguided religionists. They fall into well-intentioned preoccupation with philosophy and ethics but, lacking the foundation of God’s Word, fail to draw correct conclusions regarding behavior. They may know of the Bible, but they do not know it.

This was Adam’s sin. He heard of God’s command, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:3); but he lacked true knowledge of it. For if he knew it truly, he would immediately and summarily have rejected the serpent’s lie: “You will not surely die.” Satan was there proposing another course, saying, “God knows that in the day you eat of it, you will become like God knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5). But that was a lie, and Adam should have known it because it contradicted the Word of God. Thus we see just how critical true knowledge of God’s revelation is, if our covenant children are to be equipped to withstand the temptation to embrace wrong thinking and sinful acting.

Knowledge is the absorption of things perceived or learned, the detection and recognition of truth. So, the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus was that God might give them a spirit “of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” (Eph. 1:17–18). Knowledge comes from revelation, both general and special, so the covenant child is called upon to study both God’s world and God’s Word. We could even say that in both cases, he is catechized.

8. Knowledge without Wisdom Is Folly

On the other hand, knowledge without wisdom yields smart people who don’t use what they know to obey God—and that’s bad. That too was Adam’s first sin, and it produced arrogance in the heart of our first parent. He knew very well the situation about that special tree: God couldn’t have been clearer: “Hands off!” It is forbidden to you. Whatever ruminations of logic, twisted or otherwise, in which you might engage, you may not, and cannot, overturn the “revelation of the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17) set forth in crystal clarity in the prohibition to eat of that special tree. Without wisdom, knowledge puffs up, as Paul wrote the Corinthians, and in Adam’s case his arrogance and direct violation of God’s command led to his death.

All of this yields the conclusion that catechizing is not satisfied simply with communication of the knowledge of God’s Word to covenant children; catechizing must include a homiletical purpose, namely, to call the covenant child to exercise wisdom by obeying the commands of the LORD. The children’s catechism answers the question, “How do you glorify God? By loving him and doing what he commands.” That is wisdom: appropriate action on the basis of, and in the use of, knowledge. It is the opposite of the mindset of the fool in Solomon’s Proverbs, who is a covenant breaker. The spiritually wise person is the covenant keeper. So, when it comes to catechizing, we are not dealing with super-intelligence, but with godly application of what is known. Our covenant children are wise when they obey God—another reason why catechizing, indeed homiletical catechizing, is so important!

9. God’s Saving Activity Is Both Declared and Explained in the Bible

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our catechetical text. Whatever creed or catechism we might employ must never be allowed to supersede or trump the Bible. In fact, catechizing should always include memorization of its very words, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).

10. The Concept of Covenant Is the Key to Understanding the Bible

Genesis 2:15-17 records God’s setting up the first of two great biblical covenants, wherein he commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It has been called either “the covenant of works,” or “the covenant of life.” The second one is the “covenant of grace,” and the rest of the Bible after Genesis 3:13 is all about it—but you cannot understand that second covenant without the first. Now, a covenant is indeed what we might call a set-up, or an arrangement. It describes the way God relates to the people he created, to everybody who has ever lived or who will ever live. That is true, at least, of the first covenant, which we’re calling the covenant of works. The second one, the covenant of grace, applies only to believers, in the New Covenant believers in Jesus Christ—for Christians.

Here we are discussing the fact that the creator of heaven and earth has such a lively interest in the human race that he talked to man, made arrangements with him, and entered into covenant with him. The first man, Adam, stood as a representative of the whole human race, and plunged us all into sin and misery through his disobedience. And the central theme of the whole of the Bible is this: that God is, and that he is interested in the people he has created, and has done special things for them—supremely a work of salvation—to deliver them from that broken covenant of works through the redeemer of sinners, Jesus Christ. That is why we affirm that the concept of covenant is the key to understanding the Bible. And that concept is to be pressed upon our children when we engage in catechizing them!

But just what is a covenant, in biblical terms? In the covenant of works God condescended to bless Adam and Eve upon condition of perfect obedience, something only the Second Adam, Jesus Christ would ever achieve. In the covenant of grace God’s elect are called into his kingdom by trusting the one who has perfectly obeyed and died as the only acceptable sacrifice for their sins. Both covenants are sovereignly arranged. Man agrees; he can do nothing else, for God has ordered it. That’s the case even when man breaks a covenant—for then the penalties that God has imposed will surely come to pass. That is what the Bible is all about—the covenants of God.

Thus, in catechesis covenant children are taught to grasp that the Bible is essentially the story of God’s great covenant relationship with man, in two parts: He entered into covenant with Adam, representing the whole human race to follow; then, when Adam broke that covenant of works, God made another, a covenant of grace, which has been in force from the fall of Adam until the present time, and it will go on as long as time endures, to the end. Possessing that grand concept, children have a marvelous key to understanding the whole of the Bible.

11. The Catechism Is a Roadmap of the Bible

Again, we emphasize: the catechetical aid, whether it be the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, or another, must never be held above Holy Scripture. Still, use of such an aid in catechizing covenant children is not to be avoided. This is because such catechisms may nevertheless be helpful; when used properly they may be seen as roadmaps to the Bible. This advice has been remarkably put forth by G. I. Williamson.[3] Perhaps just one quote will be sufficient to make his point:

The Bible contains a vast wealth of information. It is no easy thing to master it all—in fact, no one ever has mastered it completely. So, it would be very foolish to try to do it all on our own, starting from scratch.

It would be foolish, because the results that we have from the study made by many great men of God down through many centuries are summarized for us in the catechism. The catechism ... is a kind of spiritual map of the Bible—worked out and proved by others who have gone before us.[4]

When going on an automobile trip, the main thing that needs to happen is that we make the right turns and go on the right roads in order to get to our destination. We may not think that because we have a good map, that our possession of it will guarantee good success. We have to actually “do it on the ground,” as they say. Likewise, saying that the catechism is a kind of “roadmap” of the Bible is not to affirm that all we need is the catechism, i.e., that we can trust it absolutely to get us to where we want to go. No, we must work out the map’s directions in actual driving! The catechism can be a real help in our understanding the Bible, but it is only that, and must never be allowed to replace Holy Writ, which is all the right turns and roads!

12. Rejection of the Gospel Has Dire Consequences

Perhaps considering a somewhat different understanding of one verse of the Bible will prove acceptable to the reader, and if so, will form a powerful reason for catechesis. We have already seen that wisdom demands obedience to God’s commands from our covenant children; and that obedience must be demanded by the parents of those children. Discipline is not optional, and this is underscored by a careful reading of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” However, a strict rendering of the original Hebrew text is: “Train up a child according to his way; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Thus, “his way” would appear to be the child’s way, and not God’s way, yielding this striking conclusion: “spoil your child and he will stay spoiled.” If this exegesis is correct, the warning is a powerful reason for faithful (disciplinary) catechizing. For a full explanation of this exegesis, see Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel.[5]

These, then, are twelve reasons why faithful and ongoing catechizing of covenant youth must be done by parents and the church, at all costs.

Endnotes

[1] John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education of the OPC, 1952), 51–71.

[2] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, III.B.1.b.(5),(2) (Willow Grove, PA: Committee on Christian Education of the OPC, 2011), 145.

[3] G. I. Williamson, “Catechism: A Map of the Bible,” New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 8, no. 5 (May 1987):1–2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), 158n.

Thomas E. Tyson is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church living in Shermans Dale, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April 2015.

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