The Westminster Shorter Catechism

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

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).

B.B. Warfield on the Importance of the Incarnation of Christ

BB Warfield 2It has been said that justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Likewise in his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin similarly wrote that justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns” (Ford Lewis Battles translation, p.726). In other words, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is in some way the central doctrine of true Christianity.

Benjamin B. Warfield said something similar about another central Christian doctine – the doctrine of the two natures (God and man) in the one person of Christ. He writes,

“[T]he doctrine of the two natures is only another way of stating the doctrine of the Incarnation; and the doctrine of the Incarnation is the hinge on which the Christian system turns. No Two Natures, no Incarnation; no Incarnation, no Christianity in any distinctive sense.” (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. III, p.259)

Warfield calls the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ “the hinge on which the Christian system turns.” Why? Because without it there really is no Redeemer, and so no gospel as well. Without the truth of the incarnation of Christ, you may still have a system of doctrine that goes by the name “Christian,” but it will not be truly Christian (to use Warfield’s phrase) “in any distinctive sense.”

In other words, it would be “Christian” in name only, and would then be essentially no different at its core from any other religion known to man, all of which (except for the biblical gospel alone) basically boil down to one form or another of salvation by works. You can either hold to a salvation by works (by self!), or a salvation by a Redeemer. And the only Redeemer (in order to actually be the Redeemer of sinners) must be both God and man in one person.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q.21) puts it,

“The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.”

The doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, which we celebrate every Christmas, really is “is the hinge on which the Christian system turns.” Without it, there is no real Christianity.

 

The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory (The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer)

Praying Hands

In this our last study through the Lord’s prayer, we now come to the conclusion of the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer concludes with these words:

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13, KJV).

If you were raised in a church where the Lord’s prayer was a part of the liturgy of the worship service on Sundays (which used to be much more common than it seems to be in our day), no doubt those words are very familiar to you. If so, you may well have uttered these very words in prayer more times than you can even count.

But have you ever stopped to think about what these words mean? What exactly are we saying when we pray, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”? And what is the Lord Jesus teaching us about prayer when he concludes this great model prayer with those words?

The very last question (Q.107) of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful explanation of what Jesus teaches us here in the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer. It says that these words teach us the following:

“to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise Him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to Him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

So the first thing we see there is that the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us “to take our encouragement in prayer from God only.” In other words, it is because we pray to the one true and living God, whose kingdom is over all, whose power is infinite and without limits, and whose glory outshines and outstrips all else, that can and should pray with confidence that He is both willing and able to answer all of the requests that we are taught to pray for in this great pattern prayer.

Secondly, the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teaches us to praise God in our praying. It is far too easy to neglect to do that in our prayers, isn’t it? How often do we approach God in prayer as if we were presenting a shopping list of sorts? As Psalm 33:1 tells us, “Praise befits the upright” (ESV). We should praise God because it is fitting – it is the right thing to do. And we should remember to praise God in our prayers. In doing so, we remind ourselves of who it is that we are praying to in the first place. What an encouragement that would be to us in prayer!

Last but not least, the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us to testify to our desire and our assurance to be heard by God in our prayers by adding the simple word “Amen.” That word has the idea of saying “Let it be so.” The better we conform our praying to the Lord’s will as expressed in this model prayer, the more easily we will be able to add our “amen” to it!

I hope (and pray!) that you have found this brief series of studies through the Lord’s prayer to be helpful, and to be an encouragement to you in prayer. May the Lord Jesus teach us more and more to pray in accordance with this great pattern prayer – Amen!