This article first appeared in the October, 1987 issue of The Outlook.
What we ordinarily call “catechism preaching” is prescribed in Article 54 of the Church Order of the CRC in this way: “a. In the worship services the minister of the Word shall officially explain and apply Holy Scripture. b. At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, following its sequence.”
The church order defines what it means to “preach the catechism,” calling it “preach[ing] the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Behind this formal regulation, there is the ongoing need to preach the gospel in all its fullness, calling sinners to repentance and faith and also helping saints to grow in grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We all recognize that these aims of gospel preaching are only achieved when the Holy Spirit’s accompanying work is accomplished in those who hear.
A quotation attributed to B. B. Warfield deals with this same subject. He reportedly said, “Two things keep the relatively small CRC straight in an ecclesiastically crooked world: the systematic instruction of its youth and the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.” Both the calling to repent and believe and the building up of believers are readily accomplished through catechism preaching, since the catechism unfolds the Bible’s teachings of these purposes. It is the most evangelical of the Reformation-time catechisms, most suited for evangelizing, natural for instructing people from diverse religious backgrounds or with no background in a church at all. Every minister who has ever instructed people with a view to membership in the church realizes how ideal the Heidelberg Catechism is for this purpose, because of its realistic and warm approach to the heart in unfolding the truths of God’s Word.
When we do preach the catechism as defined by the church order, several good things follow immediately. First, we have half of a preaching plan already. It is good to have a preaching plan, I believe; artificially-construed ones are available, but not realistic in many instances. Second, we will have to discipline ourselves to deal with all the phases or angles of the redemption drama revealed in Scripture. Third, we will be involved in a real learning experience ourselves as we work through the truths summarized in the catechism.
The Heidelberg Catechism remains highly praised, widely used, and is one of the few things surviving from Reformation times as still being up-to-date; the reasons for this, I believe are that it is thoroughly biblical; it is very personal and experiential; it is sharply practical, showing the ethical side of Calvinism in a clear, cogent way; the question and answer method sets forth the biblical teaching of salvation in a clear way; and, generally, it is peaceful and irenic in tone.1
What will happen with God’s blessing when the Word is preached as summarized in the catechism? I believe you will see a growth in grace and knowledge beyond the present levels, and people will be challenged with the need for conversion as the demands or challenges of the Word are presented. As far as the minister himself is concerned, he will have to focus on the whole gamut of revealed truths when he follows the subjects as the catechism deals with them.
When it comes to the method of preaching the catechism, we’ve all heard the remark, “He reads the catechism and that’s the last you hear of it.” How can that happen? Historically, there have been differences of opinion about how to preach the catechism, and there are still differences among us today about the preferable method. I do not say that there is only one right way to do it, but I was taught a certain way as a seminary student by a professor for whom I had great respect. While some pick a text, this is not the way I was taught. My class and any others taught by R. B. Kuiper were told to preach a topical sermon and to use Scripture to substantiate what you present. One advantage of this method is that there is no pretense. Everyone knows you are preaching on a certain subject dealt with by the catechism, you are honoring Scripture, and what is distinctive about the biblical Christianity we call the Reformed faith will come out in a natural way. Such preaching should of necessity be eminently practical and a joy to hear as well as to bring.
When we follow the catechism’s order of dealing with what God has revealed in the Bible, we are inclined to call our hearers to salvation and to encourage them to greater commitment in the living of the Christian life. To preach the catechism ably and to listen to catechism sermons profitably, we must know the catechism. While that goes without saying, it does not happen without effort. When we know what the aim of the catechism is, remember when it was written, and look at its method, we can appreciate the fact that from very earliest times after its completion the churches were told to have these truths preached in a systematic way by following the Heidelberger. Where this is still done with zeal and passion, blessings to both those from various backgrounds and those who all their lives have benefited from such preaching are reported.
1. Recall that the more militant Question and Answer 80 were added only after the Council of Trent had reaffirmed the teachings of transubstantiation, the necessity of the sacrifice of the Mass for forgiveness for both the living and the dead, the adoration of the Host, and the pronouncement of anathema on all who differ with these positions.
Rev. Jay A. Wesseling
is a retired URC minister living in Sheldon, IA.