The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Thoughts on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Nearly 400 years old and still as relevant & helpful as ever!

Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

J.C. Ryle on Sin as the Root of All Sorrow

old-pathsIf you were to ask 100 people at random what lay at the root of all of the world’s problems, what answers do you suppose that you might hear? (You might very well hear nearly 100 different answers.) But how many people in a hundred would point to sin as the culprit?

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle has some pointed words about the evils of sin as the ultimate source of all of the misery that mankind encounters in this fallen world:

“Sin is the cause of all the burdens which now press down mankind. Most men know it not, and weary themselves in vain to explain the state of things around them. But sin is the great root and foundation of all sorrow, whatever proud man may think. How much men ought to hate sin!” (p.338)

And so while all of mankind shares in the miseries of this life since the fall, how few there are who trace those miseries back to their true root – sin.  And apart from that, there really is no right explanation or understanding of the state of the world. But if we understand that sin is “the great root and foundation of all sorrow,” then we will begin to truly hate sin (and not just its effects), especially our own (not merely those of other people).

And how thankful we should be that God in His great mercy and grace did not leave all of mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery, but rather, “out of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.20). Thank God that He gave us His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Redeemer of God’s elect (Q.21)!

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

What Is Forbidden in the 4th Commandment? (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.61)

1710_largeIn our brief series of posts examining what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches regarding the Sabbath, we now come to  Q.61, which asks:

“What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?”

What is positively required by the commandment was dealt with at length in the previous three questions (Q.58-60). Now we see the flip side, so to speak – what we are not to do on the Lord’s day. The catechism’s answer to the above question is as follows:

“The fourth commandment forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”

So the first thing that is forbidden is the “omission . . .of the duties required.” Blatant disregard for the Sabbath and for worship (both public and private) is in view here. We must not neglect to observe the holy rest and worship that is required. (See Q.60.) This happens, for instance, when we fail to faithfully attend public worship on the Lord’s day. This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us about:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, italics mine)

‘Neglecting to meet together’ in public worship is all too common in our day, but apparently that is nothing new. Even back in the first century that was already “the habit of some” (v.25). For various reasons some professing believers simply don’t make it a priority. Some attend worship once or twice a year (around Easter or Christmas), and consider that sufficient to fulfill their obligation. This should not be. If this describes you, consider the words of the 4th commandment as well as Hebrews 10:25, and take those words to heart. Don’t waste your Sundays on lesser things.

Lest we content ourselves with mere church attendance, the second thing that we are told is forbidden here is the “careless performance” of the duties required. We are guilty of this when we go through the motions (even the correct motions, so to speak!) in worship. In others words, just showing up is a good start, but it is not enough. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in what we are doing. This is the kind of thing that is spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:

” . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, ESV)

They said all the right things, but it was all just for show; their hearts were not truly into it. How often do we commit similar sins in worship? How often do we say, pray, or sing all the right things, while our hearts are far from God? Probably far more often than most of us would like to admit. There is often much to be repented of and forgiven even in our worship!

The third thing that is forbidden in the 4th commandment is “profaning the day.” What does it mean to “profane” the day? Q.61 outlines a number of the ways that we might do so. The first of those is simply “idleness.” A day of holy rest is not a day of inactivity; it is not intended to be a wasted day!

Another way to profane the day is by doing that which is inherently sinful. Of course, that holds true for every day of the week, but you could say that the offense is aggravated or made worse by doing those things on the Lord’s day! We are certainly not supposed to live wickedly Monday through Saturday, while saving our holiness for Sundays (or for an hour or two on Sundays) – that is rightly called hypocrisy. But we should be especially mindful of resting from our evil works on Sundays.

The last way of profaning the Lord’s day that the Shorter Catechism mentions is “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”  What does that entail?  One obvious example comes to mind – watching sports on Sundays.  Assuming (I hope) that we don’t just skip church altogether for the sake of watching our favorite NFL team, do we hurry home from church on Sundays so that we can watch the game? Or, perhaps I refrain from watching my favorite football team (yes, the Eagles) on Sundays, but do I still find myself checking on the score or following the game online? (Guilty as charged, at times.) Do we spend our time discussing work-related things unnecessarily?

Does that sound like an impossible standard to try to live up to? Does it sound unattainable? Sure it does. But what are we to do about that fact? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and give up on making any sincere or serious effort at obeying the law of God in these things? Certainly not. You would never dare to apply that logic to the commandment against adultery, would you? (I sincerely hope not.) Would you call someone a “legalist” because he or she took the implications of the 7th commandment seriously, and sought (however imperfectly) to refrain even from lustful thoughts? Of course not, right? Well, the same principles clearly apply to the 4th commandment!

So what are we to do? If need be, we must repent of our transgressions of the 4th commandment. If you have neglected the gathering together of the Lord’s people for public worship, resolve by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so no longer. Make worship on the Lord’s day your priority. And seek to delight in it as well (Isaiah 58:13). That is something that may take some time to cultivate and learn; and it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it is well worth the time and effort required.

A Mutilated Faith

calvin-commentaryWhat does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What is faith? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith as follows:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

So saving faith is faith that ‘receives and rests upon’ Christ alone for salvation. And true saving faith receives and rests upon Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It must be said that much of what often passes as preaching of the gospel of Christ does not fit that description. For how is Christ offered to us in the gospel? Is Christ offered as the Savior from the penalty of sin only, or as the Savior from sin – from its penalty, power, and (in the life to come), even its very presence?

The Scriptures plainly tell us that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that His gospel is sent forth to offer both forgiveness and sanctification (Acts 26:18). Clearly, then, Christ is offered to us in the gospel both for our justification as well as our sanctification, and He must be received as such.

Calvin (in commenting on Romans 8:13), puts it this way:

“It is, indeed, true, that we are justified in Christ by the mercy of God alone, but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord to live worthy of their vocation. Let believers, therefore, learn to embrace Him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as He has been given to us for both these purposes, that they may not rend him asunder by their own mutilated faith.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 10, p.167)

Those who would believe in Christ for justification alone (i.e. for forgiveness and acceptance before God as righteous as in His sight), but not also for sanctification, have a (to use Calvin’s phrase) “mutilated faith” that effectively seeks to ‘rend Christ asunder’ (or split Him in two). But a divided faith in a divided Christ saves no one. So let us learn, as Calvin says, to embrace Christ for sanctification as well as justification, for “he has been given to us for both these purposes.”

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).