Last time I emphasized that good catechism teachers will teach with covenant goals in view. A good catechism curriculum is one thing, and the PRCA have a very good curriculum. But using it properly is quite another thing, and the effort required for that is greater than one might think. Using the curriculum without covenant goals may result in merely filling the heads of the church’s children with biblical knowledge. Important as knowledge is (Hosea 4:6), imparting biblical knowledge without covenant goals promotes ‘historical faith,’ the kind of false faith even the devil has. Knowing about God and knowing God as our own covenant Friend are two very different things. A good catechism teacher wants to impart the biblical doctrines in the light of and in the terms of God’s covenant, His living relationship of friendship with His people in Jesus Christ. This kind of instruction God will use to work true faith in the church’s children, the faith that truly embraces and loves God and His Son Jesus Christ.
I have already pointed out that catechism, in the first place, aims at preparing the children to communicate with their covenant Father—to understand His language when He speaks to them, and to reply in language appropriate for covenant sons and daughters. In the second place, catechism aims at preparing children to partake of the covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper. A good catechism teacher will keep both aims in mind as he teaches the children. Third, a covenant approach in catechizing aims at sanctification, which we take up next time.
Living the covenant life (sanctification)
Reformed catechizing aims at teaching covenant living most broadly. Covenant life with God is not limited to the church’s official and public gatherings where sermons are preached and the Lord’s Supper is administered. Covenantal living encompasses the whole of one’s Christian walk. So the children must be taught, in catechism also, to live godly everywhere.
Looking back at their baptism, catechism explains that baptism admonishes them to a new obedience, to love God, forsake the world, crucify their old nature, and walk in a new and holy life. Looking ahead to their confession of faith, catechism prepares them to make a public vow to live “a new and godly life.” Both have to do with godliness.
Teaching godliness has precedence in the church. The assembled believers at the early ‘synod’ of Reformed churches at Wezel (1568) said that children must “be catechized so that from their youth on they can be taught the true religion and godliness.” The precedent for this, though, roots back in the New Testament era when the original outline of catechetical instruction was: 1) what Christians believe—the Apostles’ Creed; 2) how Christians worship—preaching and the sacraments; 3) how Christians pray—the Lord’s Prayer; and 4) how Christians live—the ten commandments. (Our Heidelberg Catechism was built after this model.) And the New Testament practice of teaching godliness in catechism harks back to the very beginning, when God told Israel to teach the children “these words,” which words explain both God and godliness: who God is and what He has done, and how to love Him (Deut. 6:4-7).
Singing the Psalms in catechism teaches piety too. In his integrity (Psalter #69), the young Christian humbly walks with God, everywhere. Whether he is playing or working, he walks with purpose true (Psalter #31) because he understands that the entire “path of truth” is a walk “in godly fear” (Psalter #65). “Steadfast trust in God” means that he does not depart from God’s ways (Psalter #69) at school, with his friends, or at home with his parents: “Within my house I purpose to walk in wisdom’s ways” (Psalter #271). In catechism he learns to “make God’s fear his choice” (Psalter #90) in every sphere of life.
The teens hear the call to a godly walk when they learn the doctrine of sanctification in grade 10, or perhaps already in grade 8 at Lord’s Day 32. But even Bible history teaches godliness. For children “learn from history’s light to hope in our God and walk in His sight.” Bible history warns of those who “faltered when battle was near, who kept not God’s covenant nor walked in His fear” (Psalter #213). And these citations of Zion’s songs again illustrate how valuable it is to sing in catechism, and then explain and apply what was just sung.
A catechism teacher even teaches the Christian life by modeling it, as Paul did with the Philippian Christians (3:17). In the presence of the children, he testifies his trust in God alone (the first commandment). Children see him worship in a spiritual way (second commandment), hear him confessing with them the truth of God (third commandment) from his heart. He speaks of his own blessed rest by faith in Jesus Christ and his observance of the Sabbath (the fourth). He teaches in such a way that the children learn to respect him (the fifth). By his protection of them, he models how to protect and promote the neighbor’s life (the sixth). Nothing unchaste is ever seen in him, or permitted in them (the seventh). Even his clothing and the car he drives show the children that he’s a good steward of God’s gifts (the eighth). The words he speaks, before, after, and during class are truth spoken in love for the children, never to deceive, demean, or intimidate (the ninth). Everything about the teacher exhibits his love for the people of God (the communion of saints) and his interest in the well-being of the congregation.
“True religion and godliness…” (Wezel). Faith and life. A godliness that harmonizes with true doctrine.
Living orderly in the church
Fourth, catechism with covenantal aims thinks ecclesiastically—of decency and order in church life. The questions at confession of faith inquire of a willingness to submit to church government, and catechism ought to give instruction in this as well. Thinking covenantally is more than thinking of our personal relationship to the covenant Father. It includes thinking of our life in and relationship to the covenant community in the church.
The Protestant Reformed curriculum does not have a separate unit on church government. Essentials of Reformed Doctrine students could learn basic principles of church government when the textbook comes to ecclesiology (even though lesson 24 says little about the government of the church), or when the Belgic Confession comes to Articles 30-32. But requiring an oath at confession of faith to “submit to church government” calls for more careful instruction in the working out of these principles in church life. Lacking this instruction risks asking the young people to promise that which they do not understand.
To be positive, including this instruction enables these young church members to understand their relationship to the elders and deacons, and even how to serve as elder or deacon someday. They will learn the purpose and authority of consistory, classis, and synod. They will learn the principles and practices of worship: why the church sings only Psalms, preaches the Heidelberg Catechism, worships on special days, requires the ministers to be antithetical in their preaching and catechism instruction, and what signing the Formula of Subscription implies. The youth learn what it means to submit themselves to ecclesiastical decisions, and how to object to them if they judge these decisions to be wrong. Church government.
Otherwise, these youth will not know how to behave in the church. For this reason, that assembly of Wezel required the churches especially to teach how “to behave properly in the churches and meetings” (which means more than just sitting still in worship). Some New Testament epistles, like the book of Romans, deal primarily with the doctrines of salvation. Other New Testament epistles, like I Timothy, deal primarily with the doctrine of the church. There, Paul teaches the crucially important subject of “how to behave in the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (I Tim. 3:15).
One important section of ‘post-Essentials’ catechism instruction ought to be church government.
Covenant battles against sin
The last needed element of catechetical instruction that has covenantal goals regards the church’s battle against sin. We have already mentioned the Christian’s personal battle against sin, the doctrine of sanctification. Here, we are talking about the church’s battle against sin. Having learned to fight against their own sin that threatens them personally, covenant youth must also learn how to battle in the church the sins that threaten the covenant community, the church.
This is another aspect of ecclesiology that must be spelled out for those who will become members ‘in full standing’ in the church. Included in the vows the youth are asked to make at confession of faith is this: “Will you submit to…church discipline?”
This is the Church Order’s fourth section, “Of Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonition,” that is, discipline. One of the marks of the true church, according to our Belgic Confession, is proper Christian discipline. Certainly, in public worship on Sundays, the Heidelberg Catechism sermons on Lord’s Day 31 may expand into a series of sermons on discipline so that the congregation is taught the biblical doctrine of discipline. But the covenant youth ought to be informed of the manner of Christian discipline before they make confession of faith.
This good instruction will include how to submit to discipline as well as how to engage in discipline. Teaching the youth how to submit to church discipline will help them know what to expect when they fall into sin and are impenitent; or what to expect, even when penitent, when they fall into scandalous public sin. They must learn the saving wisdom of Jesus Christ who ordained a useful process to rescue sinners from the snare of the devil, and to rescue the church from the corrupting leaven of sin.
Teaching the youth to engage in church discipline will instruct in the proper understanding of Matthew 18. The Lord has put into His young people a real interest in the purity of the church. Rather than wring their hands over the sin of others or, worse, backbite, they can learn in catechism the necessity of going to a brother or sister, then taking another with them if necessary, and how to “tell the church” if God did not use their first efforts.
Even more difficult is learning how to keep the church pure from the sins of officebearers and assemblies. But church members who sing the promise to “cleanse from evildoers the city of the Lord” (Psalter #271) want to know how to address error here as well. And in these days, when some are emphasizing the privileges of the office of believer, there must be a corresponding emphasis on the manner of exercising this office. The recent flurry of illegal documents brought to classes and synods may well be explained, in part, by an ignorance of how to behave in the church. Let everything be done decently and in order, Paul demanded of the church (I Cor. 14:40).
As the catechism season begins, may God bless the instruction you ministers and elders (and sometimes seminary professors) give to the youth. Let all of us who teach scriptural truth to the covenant youth have clear covenant aims in our instruction: 1) to teach them to understand the language of their Father and to speak His language as they respond in prayers—both spoken and sung; 2) to prepare them to come to the covenant meal in the Lord’s Supper; 3) to teach them to live the covenant life in holiness; 4) to teach them what good order and decency is in church life; and, 5) to teach them how to battle for purity in the covenant community, in doctrine and life.
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.”