The Famed Commentator and Catechism Advocate
On April 7, 1713 the famed commentator and preacher, Matthew Henry, delivered a sermon entitled, “Concerning the Catechising [sic] of Youth.”
The message was preached to an anonymous group of young men designated only as “Mr. Harris’s Catechumens.” While we do not have the names of these young men, we do have the invaluable lesson they learned that day.
The text that the famed Bible teacher so capably handled was 2 Timothy 1:13,
“Hold fast the form of sound words which thou has heard of me…”
Matthew Henry noted that these “sound”, or good, words referred to by Paul, were undoubtedly a collection of faithful Bible truths. This would essentially make it a first century brand of Christian catechism. No doubt, these were a kind of Bible and doctrinal summary much like the “apostle’s teaching.” (Acts 4:24)
Matthew Henry noted that Timothy had been well taught by a godly mom, a godly grandmother as well as a godly mentor, Paul himself. Both parental and ecclesial instruction in the faith, Henry stated, “are necessary, and do mutually assist one another, and neither will excuse the want of the other.” Timothy was taught God’s Word at church and at home. We need to do the same.
About half way through his sermon, Henry spoke personally and directly to the students in front of his eyes. He said to them…
“I know that your being thus catechised…will be of unspeakable advantage to you.”
Matthew Henry then shared a list of several benefits that they could expect. Though I have modernized Henry’s language, what follows is an accurate summary of the list of great advantages of using catechisms. While other benefits could be added to this list, truly, these are both comprehensive and convincing enough.
1. Catechism-time is time well spent as compared to the other activities of youth.
Quoting from Ecclesiastes 11:10, Henry stated that “childhood and youth are vanity.” He was not saying that children are useless or that childhood games are a mere waste of time. He was making the point that the activities and pursuits of adolescence are only temporary in their value. While it is good for a boy to learn how to throw a ball, it is an even better use of his time to learn the Lord’s Prayer. Henry told these young men,
“Your being catechised obliges you to spend at least some part of your time well.”
Rather than spending excess amounts of time, as Henry said, in “sport and recreation,” young people need to “converse with the word of God” and “repeat” to themselves “the things of God.” He encouraged parents to spend adequate time training their children in catechisms. He suggested Sunday evening as an ideal opportunity.
Matthew Henry lived in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. This was surely a more primitive and simple time than today. We often think of the pre-colonial era as a period with more drawbacks and difficulties than our own. Nevertheless, we are the ones at a disadvantage here. The childish “sport and recreation”, that Henry spoke of, has been multiplied exponentially in our day.
Young people are no longer amused by a mere game of tag or a stick and ball. Now, they have an endless supply of sophisticated distractions in television, video games, digital music players and the internet. Children naturally drift towards the more meaningless. Parents should redirect them towards that which is more timeless. Catechism time is time well spent.
2. Catechisms introduce a basic Christian vocabulary and Christian worldview.
Have you ever heard a person refer to the church as speaking “Christianese?” Often this word is used in a derogatory fashion. The traditional vocabulary of the church is considered, by some, to be too religious and stuffy for normal people. We are rebuked for our “rebukes” and condemned for our “condemns.” Words such as “justification” and “exaltation” are said to be too strange and archaic for modern men.
Truth be told, virtually every subculture uses jargon that sounds strange to anyone unfamiliar with it. However, a little time and simple explanation of these terms will help integrate newcomers into the community. For instance, the first time I heard the term “double-header” I thought it was some kind of mutant monster with two craniums. I quickly learned that it was a common baseball term.
Ask a tech-savvy teen and an Amish farmer “How much RAM does your Apple have?” and you will likely get two very different answers (not to mention, one confused Amish farmer). The point, here, is that every group has its own lingo. Christianity is no exception. Denying this is untrue. Avoiding it is unhelpful.
Younger generations must be educated in the common vernacular of the faith. If we want them to believe Christianity, we need them to be familiar with the terminologies of Christianity. Rather than “dumbing down” the Bible, it would be better if we took time to “smarten up” the people. Common language provides a common bond. Catechisms can help introduce children to some great Bible language. It will help them build a vocabulary which will include: “redemption”, “grace”, “hope”, “salvation” and other such ideas around which the church organizes its worship, preaching, and discipleship.
Furthermore, a good catechism will instill the beginnings of a biblical worldview. Certainly, children do not need to be taught about the philosophical underpinnings of life in order to have them. All they need to know is that they are learning to think as God thinks. They are learning to speak the words that God has spoken. They are learning to look at life, look at the Bible, and then choose wisely. This is, in essence, how the Christian worldview is supposed to function.
Parents who assume that their children understand these things or, worse, think that they do not need to learn these things at all, are sadly mistaken. Catechisms provide a simple but solid grid upon which a full, rigorous infrastructure of faith can be built in the years to come.
Building a Christian vocabulary and biblical worldview will only benefit children. This is especially true for the church setting. Matthew Henry told his listeners,
“[By learning a catechism] you will become better able to understand the word preached and more capable of profiting by it…”
He compared it this way,
“Catechising does to the preaching of the word the same good office that John [the] Baptist did to our Savior; it prepares the way and makes its paths straight.”
Simply put, catechisms can help your children pay better attention in church and enable them to glean from what they are hearing.
3. Catechisms lay a foundation for faith and the Holy Spirit’s work.
Every Christian parent wants their child to be saved. We pray for it. We look for it. We long for it. We want the Holy Spirit to do His work of bringing our children to God. But, have we first done the necessary work of bringing our God to children? No man can believe that which He does not, first, understand. Matthew Henry said it this way, ”
[By learning a catechism] you will have a foundation laid for a good work of grace in your souls.”
The potter works with unformed clay. The Holy Spirit works with implanted Bible verses and recognizable Christian truths. As Tom Nettles has said, “A connection, between prior knowledge and proclamation is a part of God’s ordained means of salvation.”
Catechisms can pave the way for a child’s salvation. Romans 10 tells us that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the words of Christ.” Let children hear the words of a good catechism and they will be storing up the words of Christ for future use. When a child memorizes lessons about God’s holiness, God’s law-standard, man’s shortcomings, and Christ’s provision, he begins marinating in the gospel long before he embraces it. This is indoctrination in the best sense of the word.
Matthew Henry said,
“We must come to the knowledge of Christ…and nothing is more likely to prepare for the particular application of divine grace, than this particular application of good instruction by catechizing.”
John Bunyan, the famous author of Pilgrim’s Progress, concluded the introduction to his catechism with this prayer,
“Now the God of blessing bless it [these catechisms] to the awakening of many sinners, and the salvation of their souls by faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.”
4. Catechisms inoculate against doctrinal error and encourage godly living.
Parents go to great lengths to protect their children. This is why we buy the best-rated car seats, bike helmets, and shin guards available. We hate to see them hurt, ache, bleed, and writhe. At the first sign of illness, we call the doctor. Whenever a child complains of a headache, we give them medicine. Shielding a child’s body from harm is part of responsible parenting. How much more, then, is at stake when it comes to protecting a child’s soul? Are we putting forth ample effort towards the latter?
Henry began his fourth point by stating,
“Satan is a roaring lion…and none are such an easy prey to him as those who are ignorant and unskilled in the word of righteousness.”
Catechisms provide children with a shield for protecting them against Satan’s arrows. Catechisms lay a sword in their hands for attacking temptation. Catechisms provide a clear map for navigating the difficult and tricky paths of life.
He went on to say,
“Those who are well catechised, are well fortified against temptations to atheism and infidelity, which, under pretense of free-thinking…invite men to foolish-thinking.”
Without an easily accessible foundation of biblical truth, young people will likely have their morals uprooted and their souls enslaved. Like an infant’s immunization shots, catechisms inoculate against spiritual viruses that weaken and destroy the soul. Catechize your children and you will be protecting them for the future.
5. Catechisms codify and simplify the vast and complex teachings of Scripture.
Let’s face it, the Bible is a dense book. It details thousands of years of history, numerous cultures, multiple languages, hundreds of people, and some rather complicated ideas. Even grown men who have earned PhD’s in biblical studies find themselves overwhelmed and in awe of the Bible’s intricacy. If this is the case, how on earth do we ever expect a small child of seven years of age to understand it? Matthew Henry said that catechisms are a helpful solution.
Henry noted that in catechisms,
“The truths of God are brought down to the capacity of young ones, and those who are as yet but weak in understanding.”
Teach a Bible survey about polytheism to children and the necessary nature of monotheism and you will have some very confused children. Nevertheless, even a three year old will understand and appreciate the answer to catechism #9 (in my rhyming set that I have written), “One God lives. One God’s true. There’s only one. There isn’t two.”
Catechisms function like a net for the Bible. When a fisherman drags a net across the sea floor, the net will only scoop up the larger fish. The net does not collect everything in its path. It filters the smaller things out and grabs hold of the big ones. Matthew Henry said that through catechisms,
“The main principles of Christianity, which lie scattered in the Scriptures, are collected and brought together.”
Using a catechism will help children recognize and appreciate the most important ideas found in God’s word.
6. Catechisms pass the faith from one generation to the next.
Just a few verses beyond Matthew Henry’s core passage, Paul instructed Timothy in chapter two verse two, saying
“The things which you have heard from me…entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Christ gave the apostles a great treasure. The apostles, through their teaching, carefully handed this gift on to the early church fathers. The church fathers passed it along to the next generation. It is this very plain and unsophisticated approach that has insured the church’s survival for 2,000 years now.
As a Christian yourself, you are now holding this great Christian treasure and are expected to pass it along. The members of a relay race are not concerned with decorating the baton once they have received it. Their primary interest lies in passing it successfully to the next person. So, too, the church must focus her efforts at securely and carefully passing along what has been entrusted to us.
In fact, the impact of this is greater than we often realize. If this cycle is continued, then parents who teach their children catechisms will soon discover, in about twenty to thirty years, that they were actually teaching their grandchildren as well.
Matthew Henry said,
“[By learning a catechism] you will be enabled to transmit pure and entire, to those who come after you, that good thing which is committed to you.”
Catechisms help us pass along the faith.
As you see, a biblical catechism is a wonderful tool for instructing and teaching young ones in the faith.