Familiar word in Protestant Reformed families in the fall of the year. As in, “Learn your catechism”; “Do you know your catechism?”; and, “Let me ask you your catechism.”

It makes up a big part of the work-load of every Protestant Reformed minister from the fall of the year through the spring of the following year. Every week he prepares for and teaches five or six catechism classes, each of which is 50 minutes to an hour in length. Some of the classes require him to grade written work afterward.

Catechism is part of the weekly routine of every child in the church from five or six years of age to the late teenage years. He or she attends a catechism class. To prepare for the class, the child must memorize an assigned lesson and often do some written work.

As an activity, catechism is the church’s official instruction of the children of the congregation, sons and daughters of believing parents, in the Word of God. She does this also in the preaching on the Lord’s Day inasmuch as the children are members of the congregation with their parents. But catechism is the church’s teaching specifically of the children in classes devoted exclusively to them. The teaching is adapted to the children’s capacity and level of spiritual and intellectual development.

Whether the method is question-and-(prescribed) answer or straightforward explanation of a lesson, catechism is indoctrination of the children in the truth. The church knows the truth by divine revelation in Holy Scripture and by the internal testimony and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. She teaches the truth to her children. The children learn what is taught.

The word “catechism” itself expresses the nature of the teaching as indoctrination. The church “sounds down” upon the children the Word of God. She does not share religious insights and values with the children, leaving to the children to choose for themselves among all the possibilities. She does not lay before the children all kinds of social and personal issues of right and wrong for the children’s consideration. She does not merely make the children, especially the youth, aware of what the church of the past has believed, or even what she herself now believes. But in catechism the church binds the Word of God that she teaches upon the children. She calls them to know these teachings as the truth with their minds, to embrace them with believing hearts, and to live them with soul and body.

The only objection to this indoctrination could be that what the church teaches is not in fact the Word of God.

Implied, of course, is that a church has the truth and is absolutely sure that she has the truth. A reason why many Protestant churches have left off catechizing is that they have become doubtful whether they possess the truth and even whether there is truth at all.

The reason for catechism is God’s covenant with believers and their children. Catechism rests on and serves the covenant. The covenant demands catechism. As revealed by the promise of the gospel (Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39) and as signified by their baptism, the children of believers are God’s elect, redeemed, and regenerated children. They are God’s elect, redeemed, and regenerated children already as children. They are God’s elect and redeemed children already as little children, as infants, before their baptism. Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the infants are to be baptized because they already are, before baptism, included in the covenant and church of God. The prayer after baptism in the Reformed form for baptism thanks God that He “hast forgiven us and our children all our sins through the blood of (His) beloved Son Jesus Christ.”

As a rule, they are born again already as infant children. The first question to parents at the baptism of their children, in the Reformed form, is, whether they acknowledge that our children are “sanctified in Christ.” Earlier, the form declares that just as our young children “are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again (understand: without their knowledge) received unto grace in Christ.”

This must be the joyful answer of parents to a question about catechism that is not unknown in Reformed households at this time of the year: “Why must we go to catechism?” Take the opportunity to tell the children who they are by the mercy of God in the covenant. Remind them of their baptism. Explain what their baptism means. The ministers might profitably make this explanation the beginning of every catechism class at the start of the season. “Children, young people, the church has catechism classes for you, because of who you are. This is who you are.”

The reference is not to all the physical children of believers. When the Reformed confessions and Scripture speak of the children of believers as elect, redeemed, and holy, they refer to the true spiritual children of believers. “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel … but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:6, 8). The real covenant children are those in Christ according to eternal election (Gal. 3:16, 29). They show themselves by hearing and heeding the Word that is taught in catechism.

There are others. These show themselves profane by despising the Word that is taught them in catechism, whether at the time that they are being taught or later in life. They thus wickedly reject the Word in accordance with God’s reprobation of them in eternity (cp. Heb. 12:16, 17 and Rom. 9:10-13). Our children should also know about this. The Bible story of Jacob and Esau, very early in the catechism program, teaches this to the youngest children.

God’s sanctification of the children in the covenant makes instruction of them possible. The church cannot instruct boys and girls in the things of God who are spiritually dead. Unregenerated children cannot know the things of God. These things would be foolishness to them (I Cor. 2:14).

The church may (and must!) approach the children at catechism as elect, redeemed, and holy by virtue of the covenant. This must be her approach to all of the children. She brings the same Word of salvation to them all, and she earnestly calls all of them to believe it. She leaves the outcome to God, confident that by her instruction in catechism all her children will be taught of the LORD (Is. 54:13).

The purpose with catechism, then, is the growth of spiritually immature citizens of the kingdom of heaven into full, spiritual manhood and womanhood. With this, the church aims at preparing her children for public confession of faith, so that they may partake of the Lord’s Supper.

These purposes in no way rule out, but rather include, that the children are converted under the teaching at catechism. Only, this conversion is not the cheap acceptance of Christ of modern child-evangelism, which is the false gospel of salvation by man’s will. Nor is it a matter of the teacher’s unscrupulous manipulation of the child’s emotions, which is the false gospel of salvation by man’s feelings. But it is the daily, lifelong conversion of Lord’s Day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which begins in the covenant already in youngest childhood. The child turns from sin to God in Jesus Christ. She experiences sorrow over her sins. He is conscious of joy in the God who gave Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. They desire, in a childish way, to please God by a life of good works.

At the same time that the church is working at these goals with the children, she is handing over to the coming generation the great, grand deposit of the Christian, Reformed, and, more particularly, Protestant Reformed faith.

These purposes of catechism are realized by the teaching of the Word of God. The Word of God must be the content of the catechism class. In the classes for the younger children, the Word is especially the history of the Bible. In the classes for the older children, the Word is the doctrine of the Bible. The Protestant Reformed Churches, in an excellent program, teach the children the history of the entire Bible in three, increasingly more advanced stages over seven years. When the children are about 13, they receive instruction in doctrine, beginning with the Heidelberg Catechism for two or three years, going on to the study of Reformed doctrine in a systematic way, and concluding with a study of the Belgic Confession or the Canons of Dordt, or both.

I urge our ministers and consistories to require the young people to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism as part of their instruction in that precious statement of the faith. This will fix the truth in their minds in exactly the words and phrases used in that memorable catechism. This will help them to understand the doctrines taught in the creed. This will enable them to recall the comfort of the Heidelberg in times of need to the very end of their lives. This was the intention of the authors of the Catechism, as it was the intention of the Synod of Dordt that adopted it for the Reformed churches. It can be done. It can be done by almost all the young people. During my 25 years as a pastor in the churches, I required this of all the catechism students. They all did it, although the stumbling efforts of a few had to be borne with patiently.

Whatever the materials may be, the content of the classes must be the knowledge of God in Christ as made known in Scripture and systematically expressed in the Reformed confessions. The Holy Spirit, great Power of the covenant, works by and with the Word of God, and no otherwise.

When the “educational ministry” of a Reformed church consists of weekly fun and games in a gym, or of raising the social consciousness of young people by confronting them with all the politically correct views on current issues in society, or of teaching them the heresy that “God loves everybody, Christ died for all, please let Jesus come into your heart, and now let’s be nice to everybody,” it is all over with the covenant in that church and among those families. If I can understand why men and women who profess to be Reformed stay in such churches, I cannot understand that they allow their very own children, not only to be deprived of sound instruction in the Word but also to be infected with drivel and false doctrine. They do not love their children. They hold the covenant of God in contempt. They will pay the price. In their children!

Catechism is vitally important. It is vitally important for the church. Catechism is in her own best interests. By it she grows spiritually and numerically. It is vitally important for the children. As we love our children, catechize them! It is vitally important for the covenant of God with His people, a very means by which He realizes, maintains, and perfects it. Let us make this more concrete, more personal: Catechism is one of the main means by which God enters into friendship with our children and gets their friendship for Himself.

This importance is indicated in the documents and life of the Reformed churches. The call-letter to every minister includes among his duties (the second mentioned, immediately following the duty of preaching on the Lord’s Day) “attending to catechetical instruction.” Three times at the annual visit of the consistories (or, councils) of all the churches, the question is put by the church visitors concerning catechism and its supervision.

Minister and church must take it seriously. The minister must do the teaching. He must prepare for the classes. He must put his heart into the teaching. Words fail to express outrage over the preacher who gives catechism a lick-and-a-promise, who comes to class totally unprepared, whose disinterest in this “drudgery” is plain for all the children to see, and whose chief concern is obviously to get away as quickly as possible. What will Jesus say to such a man one day, the Jesus whose mandate to the apostle and thus to every minister was a solicitous “Feed my lambs”?

We preachers should pray often for the catechism classes in our congregational prayers. Catechism is not inferior to the good, Christian schools.

The church must carefully supervise both the classes and the minister. She does this by her elders.

The supervision by the elders should extend to the time of the classes. As much as possible, the classes should last a full hour. This is especially necessary for the classes in doctrine. If there are a goodly number of children, this is virtually necessary also for the classes in Bible history. Otherwise, by the time all the children recite their answers and memory verses, the teacher has a scant 20 minutes to tell the story. The classes should run a full 30 weeks. Consistories should watch against shortening the season. A 30-week season is barely over half the year. Catechism is deserving and demanding of this much time, surely.

When in the day the classes are held is important. The worst possible time for the younger children, it seems to me, is immediately after school. They are weary of learning. Their interest, an essential component in effective teaching, understandably flags. They are physically tired. The little children fall asleep. When catechism cannot be coordinated with the classes in the local Christian School, the church should seriously consider having catechism on Saturday morning.

The importance of catechism calls the children and their parents to good, thorough preparation for the classes each week. The responsibility falls on the parents. We teach the little ones; help the older children; and make sure that the young people have memorized the lesson by having them recite to us before they leave for catechism.

Afterwards, the word “catechism” is heard yet again in Protestant Reformed households. As in, “How was catechism?” “Did you know your catechism?” and “What did you learn in catechism?”

—DJE