One of the most powerful instruments in the Protestant Reformed Churches for the salvation of souls and the coming of the Kingdom of God is catechism. To their children and young people, the churches give sound, systematic, intensive, and thorough instruction in the truth of Holy Scripture—the history, the doctrine, and the commandments. They begin with the children at the age of five or six and continue until they are in their late teens or early twenties. The program is structured so as to correspond to the spiritual and intellectual abilities of the child at different stages of his or her development and so as to give each child a thorough religious education.
Three times, the child is taken through the history of the entire Bible in successively more advanced courses. Building on the child’s knowledge of Biblical history, the churches teach the child of thirteen through sixteen the Heidelberg Catechism. This is followed by instruction in the essentials of Reformed doctrine after the pattern of the Belgic Confession. The older young people and young adults often study the Word in an advanced doctrines class, using another of the creeds or special material prepared by the pastor. Every church should offer such a class for this age-group; and every young person should avail himself or herself of the class.
Much of the instruction uses the time-tested question-and-answer method.
By the time he or she is eighteen years old, every child has broad and deep knowledge of the Reformed faith, unless he or she sat in class like the wicked hearers in the parable of the sower from whose hearts the devil immediately snatched the Word “lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12).
This is the noble tradition of the church from the beginning. Writing on creeds and their role in the church, John H. Leith notes that the early church prepared adult converts for baptism by “catechetical lectures” in the faith of the church. “The faith was authoritatively delivered . . . to him in the form of a creed. The catechumen then learned the creed and rendered it back as his own.” Increasingly, the church made use of the question-and-answer method (Creeds of the Churches, pp. 7, 8). The notion that the church should not indoctrinate the children of believers, the aversion to the question-and-answer method and to “rote memorization,” and the hope that ignorant young people “get saved” as teenagers by a dramatic conversion experience are all part of the incredible folly of churches today that do not even know the church’s tradition.
The Protestant Reformation depended heavily upon catechisms, particularly for the teaching of the children. Martin Luther drew up “The Small Catechism” for children. At the very beginning of his ministry in Geneva (1536), John Calvin wrote the “Catechism of the Church of Geneva,” primarily, as he himself stated, “to see that children should be duly instructed in the Christian religion.” Our own Heidelberg Catechism is a Reformation catechism, intended, among other ends, for teaching children the Reformed faith.
But the instruction of the children is commanded the church by God in Holy Scripture. Jehovah charged Abraham, in his capacity as father to be sure, but also as teacher of the covenant community, to “command his children . . . after him” (Gen. 18:19). The risen Jesus assigns Peter, apostle and elder in the New Testament church, his solemn duty: “Feed My Lambs” (John 21:15).
The obedience of the PRC to God’s command comes out in the adopted questions used at the annual church visitation. In a fourfold way the churches examine themselves concerning the labor of catechizing the young. The full consistory is asked whether it sees to the conducting of the classes, the materials that are used, and the attendance. Elders and deacons are questioned whether the minister teaches the classes. Minister and deacons are asked whether the elders supervise the classes and help in teaching when necessary. And a vital question to the full consistory asks about the fruit of catechizing, namely, the children’s seeking admission to the Lords Supper. This question, of course, presupposes true faith in the children.
As this last question brings out, Reformed churches have a deep concern for catechism because they recognize that catechism is the means of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the great covenantal work and blessing that God promises to elect children of believers at baptism. By means of the catechism classes, the Spirit leads the children to public confession of faith and, in this way, to the holy Supper of the Lord. He does this by giving them faith, repentance, and daily conversion. Catechism does great and glorious things! It brings little children to spiritual maturity, so that as men (real men of God!) and as women (real Christian women!) they are capable in mind, will, and emotions to do the good works by which they are called to glorify God and serve the church.
Catechism is the instrument by which the Spirit of holiness makes children godly, purified not only from rebellion, fornication, and drunkenness, but also from the idols and false messiahs of the cults, false churches, and heresies. Walking in this piety, they enjoy the friendship of God and the assurance of salvation. Pastors may never forget this practical purpose of their teaching the children! Herman Hoeksema reminds us of this purpose in his seminary notes on “Catechetics”:
This instruction should not only be doctrinal, but also spiritual and practical. The purpose of this instruction must not be lost sight of; i.e., to lead the children of the covenant to the conscious confession of faith. The instruction, therefore, should be adapted unto this purpose. It should show to the children of the covenant the way in which they may expect the assurance of faith and of their personal part in the salvation of God in Christ; and it should encourage and admonish them to walk in that way (p. 38).
The faith, holiness, spirituality, and experience of the friendship with God that the church so ardently desires for her children come as Gods gift through the teaching of the Word, and no otherwise. Not in mystical experiences, not in voices directly from heaven, not in strange operations of the “Spirit” apart from doctrine, not in emotional decisions for Christ under the “ministry” of some vagrant “evangelist,” but in the hearing of the Word from childhood is to be hoped the realizing of God’s covenant with the children of believers.
If this is the importance of catechism—means of faith!, the pastor must teach the classes. Teaching catechism is the second duty mentioned in the “call-letter.” The refusal of Reformed pastors today to teach the catechism classes is not due to their enormous busyness in the Word and in prayer, but rather to their neglect of God’s covenant and, in many cases, to sheer laziness. Shepherds refuse to feed the lambs! And if they think that a silly, little “children’s sermon” for a few minutes on Sunday morning satisfies the Great Shepherd, they are in for the surprise of their lives.
Sufficient time must be devoted to this work. No class should be shorter than forty-five minutes. Fifteen minutes are easily taken up by prayer, singing, and recitation. The half-hour that remains is the bare minimum for a good Bible-story and answering questions with which the little children are full (which surely must be the most delightful work that Christ privileges the Reformed pastor to perform). For older children, classes should be a full hour.
Consistories should strenuously resist all efforts to shorten the season. Thirty classes, which is the rule among us, do not take up a full eight months. In my seminary class notes on “Catechetics” (now yellowing) appears this quotation from Professor Herman Hoeksema:
Besides, in many of our churches, the duration of catechism is far too short, viz., little more than half a year. It should run from September through May.
For the church to delay the beginning of her instruction of the children until they are twelve or fourteen years old is foolish, if it is not disobedience to Christ. The best years for impressing the Word upon their souls are past by then. Besides, Jesus did not say, “Feed My young bucks, and My young ewes,” but, “Feed My lambs.”
Parents, send your children to catechism! They are the church’s children too. The church has a right to them that hour of the week set aside for catechism. Send them prepared. When they come home, make sure that they listened and that they behaved. And pray that God will bless the teaching.
Pastors, teach catechism! Teach with authority. Indoctrinate. Hand down to the children the faith of the church as it has come to us. Teach with urgency and passion. Before you are God’s dear, blood-bought sons and daughters. By your teaching, you save them. Teach the truth. Leave the puppets, movies, and religious comic strips at home, in the trash can. But bring the Word of God—the living, mighty, wonder-working Word of God. Preach the stories to the little ones. Preach them as the true, factual history that they are. How a minister dares to tell five and six year-old baptized children that God really did not create the world in six days by His Word; that there never was an Adam and an Eve; that the story of the serpent and the forbidden fruit is a fairy tale, like “Little Red Riding Hood’; and that the flood (if there was one at all) was just a big puddle in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, amazes me. That parents dutifully entrust their children to such ministers amazes me still more. It would terrify me. Is no one afraid anymore to come into the presence of Jesus the Judge with the blood of the lambs on his hands? Teach the older children sound doctrine, the doctrine contained in the ecumenical creeds and in the Reformed confessions. And as you teach, and sometimes weep over the seeming lack of fruit—the disinterest, the unspirituality, the unholiness, pray. Then, you may teach with confidence. God will honor His Word. God will keep His covenant. Whether sooner or later, He will produce the fruit of faith and obedience. In the end, it will be true for you what we sing from Psalm 126:
The sower bearing precious seed
May weep as in his toil he grieves,
But he shall come again with joy
In harvest time with golden sheaves.
Elders, supervise catechism! Make sure the pastor does this work well. Does he take it seriously? Does he prepare? Does he cover the material? Is he teaching the truth? Does he make the class interesting? Elders can inquire about this also on family visitation.
Children and young people, attend catechism faithfully and with willing hearts! Prepare! Listen! Go to catechism as though it were Jesus Christ Who calls you to come. Hear the instruction as though it were God Who is teaching you.