Why all those catechism sermons, anyway?
By George van Popta
Recently I began again with Lord's Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism in the afternoon services. This made me reflect upon the custom of "catechism preaching" and "catechism sermons." Ever since the late 1500s, Reformed ministers of the Word have, once per Sunday, preached and taught the Word of God with the help of the Heidelberg Catechism. As churches we have even agreed that: "The consistory shall ensure that, as a rule, once every Sunday the doctrine of God's Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed" (Art. 52, Church Order).
Why do we have this custom? Is it a valid custom? Is it correct? Is a "catechism sermon" a proclamation of the Word of God? Why do we have regular catechism preaching, as a rule once per Sunday, year after year?
In several of his letters the apostle Paul wrote that in addition to bringing people to confess their faith in Christ, he also wanted to present every man mature in Christ. He wanted to establish every member of the church firmly in the true faith. In Eph. 4:11ff Paul stated that the task of ministers of the gospel is to equip the saints, to build up the body of Christ, and to perfect the children of God. The congregation is to be well instructed so that it will not be thrown around by every wind of doctrine. Some people think that "doctrine" is a dirty word. It is not. It is used often in the Scriptures. Further, a church without doctrine (and there is no such church) is no church. The church needs to formulate its doctrines carefully—for three reasons. It holds up its doctrine as a banner stating what it believes. These doctrinal formulations (creeds and confessions) are also a defence against heresy. Furthermore, the church summarizes the biblical teaching so that it can teach it to the members and hand it on to the next generation.
According to the apostle Paul, ministers are not only proclaimers of the gospel. They are also teachers, called to teach the people of God, and to confirm them ever more firmly in the different aspects of the Christian faith.
The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism understood well what the apostle Paul was saying. To teach those whom God, in his grace, had released from bondage to the church of Rome, they wrote this catechism. For about 400 years now, the Reformed churches have been taught the sound and comforting doctrines of the Scriptures by way of catechism sermons. For 400 years now, Reformed believers have been more thoroughly rooted, more solidly built up in Christ, by means of the doctrines of the Word of God as they have been summarized in the catechism.
We should not make a false contrast between the Word of God and the Heidelberg Catechism. Some people want to make such a contrast. Although the Heidelberg Catechism was written by men, every word is backed up by Scripture. The many Scripture references you find at the bottom of each question and answer prove that, as do the many lines of the Heidelberg Catechism that are direct quotations from Scripture.
For what is the Heidelberg Catechism? It is a summary of the Word of God by which the church confesses and says: Thus says the LORD. This is what the Word of God teaches. When Lord's Days of the Heidelberg Catechism are faithfully explained to the congregation, then God's people are being comforted by the Word of God and by Jesus Christ.
There is a difference in method between the morning sermon, which is a text-based sermon, and the catechism sermon. In the morning the minister typically takes a few verses or a chapter out of the Bible, and works that out. The sermon is focused on those verses or that chapter. He will show how that text lies in the context of the chapter, the book, the testament, and the Bible, and yet, he focusses on those few words. When the minister preaches the Word of God using a few questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, he and the congregation together look at the entire Scriptures through the lense of a particular biblical doctrine (which ever one that particular Lord's Day summarizes). One, then, does not, strictly speaking, preach a specific text of Scripture, but the Word of God is being proclaimed. When the minister uses the Heidelberg Catechism as text, then he uses a Lord's Day as a window on the Bible. His aim is to proclaim and teach the Word of God as it has been summarized in that Lord's Day, looking at the entire Scriptures through the window of the Lord's Day, and using formulations the church of all ages has accepted as being entirely biblical.
And so, even though I and my congregation had just completed the catechism, it was good for us to begin it again. For, like a faithful map, it will once again take us across the terrain of Scripture. It will guide us to, what we might call, the main points of Scripture. It will, in a summary way, teach us the whole counsel of God. We will learn what the Bible teaches us about our sinful natures, about salvation, and how to be thankful to God. And doing so, it will comfort us with the knowledge that God has saved us from sin and eternal destruction by the blood of Jesus Christ, and has called us to be his people.
Should we keep preaching the catechism? Yes, we should. It is one of our strengths. The Heidelberg Catechism is part of the great heritage we have received from the Reformation. It is a wonderful tool to keep us closely attuned to the doctrines of Scriptures. As it takes us back and forth through the Word, as we scale the heights and plumb the depths of the teachings of Scriptures, it helps to keep us as people of the Word.