Do I Have to Learn the Catechism?

I grew up as a Baptist in a town full of Presbyterians. In elementary school I wasn’t aware of the various differences regarding the sacraments or church government. But I was aware of one thing. My Presbyterian friends would talk about how they had to learn something called a catechism! I had never heard the word, let alone tried to learn it — whatever that might involve!

Since the beginning of the Free Presbyterian Church, it has been common practice to encourage children in the Sunday school to learn the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In some quarters that practice is being questioned, even discouraged. It is looked on, by some, as being too difficult or unnecessary. Should elders continue to ensure it is part of the Sunday School curriculum? Should parents encourage their children to learn the Catechism and indeed reinforce the teaching at home.

We should remember that catechization is simply one way of learning. The method uses questions and answers to teach information. The student is asked to respond to the question; their response requires remembering the information. It is a method of instruction that has biblical warrant. Luke wrote to Theophilus that he might know with certainty those things wherein he had been “instructed” (Luke 1:4). The word “instructed” is the Greek word from which our English word catechism was derived. Romans 2:18 uses the same word when it describes how the Jews were “instructed out of the law.” The question-answer model was used by the Jewish rabbis to teach the law. We see that in the example of our Lord in the temple (Luke 2:46-47). We ought to be slow to dismiss a method of learning that God was pleased to use to instruct generations of Jewish children.

The Catechism presents an opportunity to teach our children a summary of sound doctrine, along with the principles of the Ten Commandments and a guide to praying the Lord’s Prayer. In one hundred and seven brief questions, the framers of the Shorter Catechism did a masterful job in producing a compendium of Christian doctrine and practice. In the language of Question 4, they present in summary what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.

Our children need to have a grasp of the fundamental doctrines. How precise, brief, and clear is the answer regarding the person of Christ: “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” The Catechism presents them with the truth that men are sinners. “All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death, and to the pains of hell forever” (Question 19). But the Catechism also presents our children with the gospel. Questions address the atonement as well as the nature of faith and repentance. By teaching these fundamentals we look to the Lord to bless His truth unto the salvation of children. We also trust that they will come to love the truth they learn. It is also vital that our children learn truth because a knowledge of the truth is the greatest antidote to the evil of error. I appreciate that teaching the Catechism is not the only way to convey truth. It is, however, a most helpful way for truth to be taught in brief, memorable form.

In a lawless world, we long for catechized children to grasp the importance of the Ten Commandments for today. The gospel that frees us from the penalty of the law, brings us into a desire for obedience to its precepts. Our children see in the Catechism the breadth and depths of God’s law. But they see that to be sanctified they are enabled by God’s grace “more and more to die unto sin and to live unto righteousness” (Question 35). The Catechism presents a balance often missing today. As God’s children we are to keep God’s law; but we will only keep it by the enabling of God’s grace.

In its aim to be brief, the Catechism admittedly contains terms and consists of some long sentences. Thus, as teachers and parents we must be prepared to take on the task of teaching the doctrines presented.

C.H. Spurgeon, (a Baptist!), helpfully comments:

“For my part, I am more and more persuaded that the study of a good scriptural catechism is of infinite value to our children…Even if the youngsters do not understand all the questions and answers…, yet, abiding in their memories, it will be of infinite service when the time of understanding comes, to have known those very excellent, wise and judicious definitions of the things of God. If we would maintain orthodoxy in our midst, and see good old Calvinistic doctrines handed down from father to son, I think we must use the method of catechizing, and endeavor with all our might to impregnate their minds with the things of God.”

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By Stephen Pollock

Dr. Stephen Pollock is minister of Malvern FPC, Malvern, PA. He is also the present Editor of Current.