Many Christians have a hard time knowing how to make "gospel" and "discipleship" stick in our personal lives and relationships. We're called to be disciples who make disciples, but how? In our desperate search to answer this profound question, we devote books, studies, podcasts, and resources to uncover how we live this out. In his short and powerful book The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, Ray Ortlund champions one pivotal idea: "Gospel doctrine creates gospel culture." Ortlund concisely demonstrates that the Christian life is founded on the truths of our faith, which then become the lifeblood for our relationships. Therefore, our discipleship efforts and relationships must converge with the foundation of our faith. Thankfully, we've had many faithful men and women in our generation labor to help us. But in our search for fresh answers to this question sometimes we forget time tested resources.
What is a Catechism?
A catechism is a collection of theological questions and answers. They are meant for instruction and teaching. Although many evangelicals who are unfamiliar with catechisms might associate this practice with the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestant traditions have gospel rich catechisms waiting to be re-discovered Studying a catechism might seem dated, laborious, and overwhelming for many Christians today. This may be the likely reason they aren't a part of our regular worship and study of God. It's important to note here the various benefits of catechisms, and how easy it is to make them the "glue" for the gospel in our pursuit of a life of discipleship.
The catechisms are excellent tools to focus like a scope of a rifle. They give us clearer insight into who we are, who God is, how we respond, and how to live life with others. Because of the many faithful pastors who have gone before us, we have at our disposal a collection of confessional, rich, and succinct declarations of our God and our faith. They are devices for Christian use that make doctrine and culture gospel-centered. Here are six reasons why catechism make "gospel" and "discipleship" stick.
1. Putting Words to Beliefs
Oftentimes one of the pitfalls in explaining your doctrines to another person is trying to figure out how to put words to what you believe. That seems backwards, but out of fear of incorrectly describing or using too technical language, we often become complacent with "I don’t know." Certainly admitting what you don’t know is appropriate, but it should be our exception, not the norm. Catechisms "do the talking for us," helping us describe in succinct, clear, and assured words what we believe. Personally, this was a huge factor that drew me to using catechisms. Instead of having to create my own evangelistic tract or discipleship program, I could walk someone through a catechism like Q&A2 from the Heidelberg Catechism. In this question we learn the three necessities of the gospel: man's sin, Christ's redemption, and our response, with a slew of verses for support. As our culture grows more post-Christian by the day, we must hold fast our beliefs and have the appropriate language for them. Catechisms are not the source of truth but they can give us structure to speak about it.
2. Connecting Scripture to Doctrine
While the doctrines we hold should be based on the whole of Scripture, the great advantage of familiarizing ourselves with catechisms is that it gives us immediate and clear support for our beliefs from Scripture. This does wonders not only for our personal relationship with God's Word, but it helps us in apologetic and doctrinal discussions with those who ask us questions. For example, say a Catholic friend of yours asks you how many sacraments you believe in. You remember the Heidelberg Catechism question 68 is devoted to this subject. Not only does it give us the answer ("Two: holy baptism and the holy supper"), but it also gives us passages under this answer as Scriptural support (Matt. 28:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Divorcing Scripture from our beliefs is dangerous practice; likewise, uniting these two as often as we can help us stay grounded in the Word and able to make a clear defense (1 Pt. 3:15) for our faith.
3. Helping Readers to Interpret
Few people want to spend the time going through a seminary-level hermeneutics class to learn principles for better Bible study. A great place to start in our search for better Bible interpretation is a catechism. Because of this connection to Scripture, we are aided greatly in how to summarize key Biblical texts. We start to see how Scripture not only supports, but relates to our thoughts. Associating ourselves with catechetical thinking will help us approach further Scripture reading with the same interpretative ideas.
4. Committing Truth to Memory
Catechisms exist not merely to serve as reference tools, but as our very own pre-written "flash cards" that will help us learn how to recite and retain what our beliefs are. The practice of Biblical memorization is neglected in our culture, but the catechisms revive the importance of firmly grasping our doctrines and their corresponding Scriptures. From personal experience, I will say that the more effort you put into memorizing of any kind, the easier memorizing Scripture becomes. Using catechisms for memorizing and thus retaining our knowledge of the faith will only propel us into better and quick Scripture memory.
5. Training Children to Study
As a child, I was never exposed to catechisms in my home. I also do not have any children of my own. It is obvious I cannot speak from practical experience in this regard. But I have watched parents wrestle with how to introduce the "weightier" truths of Scripture to their children. Catechisms are a time tested way to do that. For children, memorization is far easier (and thus probably more enjoyable, too!), but also these are excellent conversation starters for children. Naturally, I won't expect my 4-year-old to recite "penal substitutionary atonement" and its Scripture references, but with the help of many "kid-friendly" catechisms out there, such as Luther's Small Catechism, I look forward to helping my children learn the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and other essentials of the Christian faith. When our children have a question about something, catechisms invite gospel conversations into the household. Catechisms can and should become part of our family routine.
6. Teaching Disciples to Slow Down
In today's culture, anything that requires you to slow down is not worth your precious time. To us, "slow" is viewed as a negative word—our minds default to traffic, old desktop computers, and bad waiters! But the practices of meditation and reflection are critical to our understanding and study of God and his precepts. God is infinite, and, therefore, cannot ever be fully known. This is even more reason for us to take pause as often as possible instead of skimming over the rich theology found all around us. Using catechisms helps us take our foot off the gas and take time to consider the glorious, unsearchable riches of our God. As a side note, such an attitude can only help our prayer lives.
How to Study A Catechism
Some people will attempt to memorize an entire catechism; others will find it helpful to use them in a more devotional sense, focusing less on memorization and more on exploring the ideas themselves. There is no one right way to use a catechism; the only wrong way is to leave it unused. Do what works for you. The more we familiarize ourselves with the catechism, the easier meditating, praying, and memorizing the catechisms will get for us.
I highly recommend Kevin DeYoung's The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism to get acquainted with catechisms. DeYoung spends a lot of time providing commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, but his book more than anything outlines the kind of intimate, reflective, and dedicated approach we should take to unpacking catechisms.
Let us labor to use this "gospel glue" to help us stand firm in our faith, ground ourselves in the Word, compel us to unity with our brothers in discipleship, aid us in teaching our children and those we mentor, and awaken us to the rich truth of God himself.
There are multiple catechisms that prove fruitful to study. See below for a list of some catechism-based resources that can help beginner and advanced students alike:
- Luther's Shorter/Larger Catechism - Great for families and children
- Heidelberg Catechism - More devotional treatment of doctrine
- New City Catechism - Recently adapted from Reformation catechisms for families
- Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechism - More systematic treatment of doctrine
- Westminster Shorter Catechism Songs: Vol 1 - Holly Dutton (Westminster Catechism Q&As put to music and lyrics)
- Training Hearts, Teaching Minds - Starr Meade (Devotional on the Westminster Shorter Catechism)
- Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds - Starr Meade (Devotional on the Heidelberg Catechism)
- The Good News We Almost Forgot - Kevin DeYoung
Zach Barnhart (@zachbarnhart) currently serves as a church planting intern with Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and is pursuing pastoral ministry. He is a college graduate from Middle Tennessee State University and lives in Knoxville with his wife, Hannah. He is a blogger, contributor to For The Church and Servants of Grace, and manages a devotional/podcast at Cultivated.