J. I. Packer on One of the Most Urgent Needs in the Church Today

Train in the Truth

It's every Christian's calling to continue learning, growing, and striving to know the truths taught in the Bible. Catechesis—from a Greek word meaning "instruction by mouth"— is a historic teaching method of giving Christians the language with which to articulate the basic tenets of faith—narrowing in on what the Bible says, and what it doesn't say.

In a question and answer format, catechisms pose an inquiry (like the Heidelberg catechism's first "What is our only hope in life and in death?") and then supply a theologically-packed response drawn from Scripture.

In Finishing Our Course With Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (Crossway, 2014), theologian and author J. I. Packer stresses the importance of the practice of catechesis within the church:

Congregations in every age must see themselves as learning communities in which gospel truth has to be taught, defended, and vindicated against corruptions of it and alternatives to it. Being alert to all aspects of the difference between true and false teaching, and of behavior that expresses the truth as distinct from obscuring it, is vital to the church’s health.

While many Christians are actively involved in devotional Bible study, he laments the lack of formal catechetical study, without which, he says, "Well-intentioned minds and hearts will repeatedly go off track."

Well-intentioned minds and hearts will repeatedly go off track.

Like Scripture says, we all, like sheep, have gone astray. We need constant shepherding and guidance, and knowing and repeating a catechism can be a way to ground our hearts in unchanging truth. The tradition of repeating established statements of faith helps with that shepherding, and it has a long history. Many modern congregations, however, have allowed a lapse in the practice.

In Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Crossway, 2013) Packer says:

As the years go by, I am increasingly burdened by the sense that the more conservative church people in the West, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, are, if not starving, at least grievously undernourished for lack of a particular pastoral ministry that was a staple item in the church life of the first Christian centuries and also of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era in Western Europe, but has largely fallen out of use in recent days.

That ministry is called catechesis. It consists of intentional, orderly instruction in the truths that Christians are called to live by, linked with equally intentional and orderly instruction on how they are to do this.

That is why, he says, churches need practical help in knowing how to incorporate the tradition into their lives and families. While it may take time to acclimate to the discipline, the benefits of establishing a tradition of catechesis can far outweigh the costs, and there are many ways to involve people of various ages in the practice. Packer continues:

There are different levels of catechizing, according to the age groups involved: catechizing is, or should be, a vital ongoing discipline for church people from nine to ninety, so angles, styles, and emphases will naturally vary.

There are different ways of catechizing— question and answer, one-on-one; set presentation, orally or on paper, leading to monitored group discussion; offering formulae for memorization and affirmations for amplification; or the time-honored school system of chalk, walk, and talk in didactic dialogue with a class of learners—but essentially the same thing is being done each time. The Bible calls it, quite simply, teaching; on that basis we may further label it, discipling.

Catechesis is, in essence, a simple way to train in the truth, and thus, stir affection for the beauty of the gospel. Packer continues:

Though Bible-based, catechesis is not exactly Bible study, and though it spurs devotion to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is in itself a discipline of thought in God’s presence rather than of direct address to the Holy Three, or to any one of them. Its intended end product is Christians who know their faith, can explain it to enquirers and sustain it against skeptics, and can put it to work in evangelism, church fellowship, and the many forms of service to God and man for which circumstances call.

The New City Catechism

This modern-day catechism sets forth fifty-two questions and answers designed to build a framework to help adults and children alike understand core Christian beliefs.

This devotion-stirring practice may not seem central to ministry, which is particularly why it has become less frequently emphasized in churches. But, when adopted into a church or family life, the effect can be great. He goes on to say:

As a nurturing discipline, catechesis may be said to correspond to the innermost ring of the dartboard, or rifle or archery target. Bible study meetings and prayer gatherings will reach the outer rings, but it is catechesis—this ongoing procedure of teaching and discipling—that hits the bull’s eye. The fact that all-age catechesis has fallen out of the curriculum of most churches today is thus a major loss, which, as was indicated above, has left many Christians undernourished and hence spiritually sluggish.

Thus, the catechized Christian is not just one that knows how to rotely repeat antiquated phrases, but ideally, one who has the tools to translate belief into action.

The essence of catechetical material is that it links the formulation of Christian truth (i.e., orthodoxy) with its application in Christian living (i.e., obedience).

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