September 6, 2015

Blessed Sunday

It is the Lord's day, and I am excited and eager to go up to the house of the Lord to worship! It is always a good day when you can go to church freely, to fellowship with other like-minded individuals, and to express joy and adoration of the goodness of our God! Amen!

Psalm 92:1 - A psalm. A song to be sung on the Sabbath Day. It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to the Most High.

As I consider my day today, I am reminded of the tenuousness of life. I am reminded of how fragile and precious our lives are -- I mean -- we are flesh and bone, and limited in our ability to withstand trial, testing, and temptation. Our spiritual bodies have limits just like our physical bodies, and we are creatures that have a beginning and an end. The Word says in Psalm 139:16 NLT, "You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed." The Lord "sees," and He knows the number of our days, how long we will live, and when we will die. For some, this thought brings comfort, but for others, it brings terror. If you are not saved, if you do not have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then you may look at death with fear and trepidation. Death is the end for you. Whereas if you choose to believe in Jesus as Savior, and come to faith in Him and rely upon Him, then you see death as a doorway between the physical and spiritual, between here and there. Death is not an end for you, but it is a beginning.

Yesterday was a difficult day for me. I had a good day for the most part, and I enjoyed resting and relaxing with my Mom. In the evening, as I was looking forward to chatting with my good friend, my love, I received an email from my old church telling me that a family I know had suffered tragic loss. Their young teenager had died, and the email was requesting prayer for the family. Of course, details were not shared, but since I know this family, my first thought was that something had happened to this young man, and that the cause of his death was not accidental. Throughout the evening, more news filtered in, and unfortunately, it turned out to be as I guessed. I spent the majority of the night grieving over this tragedy, and I couldn't help but wonder why this sort of thing happened. I mean, such a young life to be lost. It didn't make sense to me.

I know the truth, of course, and praise be to God, I do believe this young man was saved. I know he was troubled, and struggling greatly in life, but still my heart was consumed with pain as I processed the details of this event. Often, I pray for my own son, now almost 22, because I worry about him. Not that there is anything to worry about, generally speaking, but because as he has matured, his life is more of a mystery to me. I am not intimately involved in his life, in the details so to speak, so I wonder and at times, I worry about him.

Teaching Doctrine (2 Tim. 2:15)

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Last night as I was talking with my friend about this situation, I couldn't help but share my question with him: why is it that my son's life turned out this way, while this other young man's life didn't? I mean, both families were God-fearing, dedicated Christ followers, and both young men were of similar temperament and suffered similar issues. Yet, for some reason, God provided the guidance and direction needed to help my son find his purpose in life, to come to know he was valued, wanted, needed, and most of all, important. I don't know the details of this other young man's life nor do I know if these same things were communicated to him regularly or if he grew up feeling worthless, unwanted, and not valued. I just don't know. 

My heart grieves nonetheless because I see a young life wasted. I see a young man who never learned his created purpose or understood his calling from God. Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher and theologian complied what he called the "Puritan Catechism." Spurgeon was known as the "Prince of Preachers," and it is recorded that he preached to over 10,000,000 people in his lifetime. He was a prolific preacher and writer during his lifetime, having written sermons, hymns, and other works of doctrine and theology. The catechism was a mix of the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647, the Baptist Confession of 1677 and his own theology. His catechism offers 82 questions and answers that explore the various tenets of the doctrines of the Christian faith.
Spurgeon created his catechism in an effort to fight against the errors he witnessed in the church. He states his purpose in compiling yet another catechism when he writes, "I am persuaded that the use of a good Catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times, and therefore I have compiled this little manual from the Westminster Assembly's and Baptist Catechisms, for the use of my own church and congregation. Those who use it in their families or classes must labour to explain the sense; but the words should be carefully learned by heart, for they will be understood better as years pass."

The catechism offers families and individuals an opportunity to understand the tenets of their faith. In short, while we read the Bible, study and pray through it, we may not always know what it is we believe and why. Thus doctrine serves a valuable purpose in that it helps the new Christian to understand what they believe, and it gives them a bedrock on which to stand their newly developing faith. Some Christians believe that we should have no doctrine or theology, but that we must only preach the Scriptures. I agree in part because there is no other authority by which men are encouraged to trust, save the Word of God. However, reading the Bible is not always easy, and for many people, a systematic approach to studying theology can prove beneficial. The definition of theology is "the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious ideas" (Dictionary.com). Doctrine, likewise, is defined as "a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group." 
  • Why should a Christian study doctrine and theology? 
  • What is the purpose, and is it necessary?
According to Clay Craby (2015) "To study doctrine is to learn essential theological truths for the purpose of embracing them in our lives." Craby continues by saying "If we view the Christian life as one of merely loving Jesus and loving others, at the expense of understanding theological truths, we are ill-equipped to guard the doctrine that has been handed down to us." Craby clearly explicates the rationale for studying theology and doctrine, and notes that since much of the disagreement in theological debate was settled by the early Christian church, it is vital to understand that historic Christianity and modern Christianity look vastly different. He asserts, "We see also a disconnect between today’s Christians and the historical roots of Christianity" and goes on to say that "It’s doubtful that…[modern Christians]...even realize that these are heretical beliefs. Having a firm grasp of correct doctrine prevents us from adopting false doctrine." Therefore as he nicely sums up, "Studying doctrine allows us to live out the Christian faith with clarity, confidence, and consistency."

From a purely Biblical standpoint, the gospel writers and Paul specifically, were concerned with errors in the teachings in the church. Doctrinal errors were creeping into the church, and Paul was bound and determined to set the record straight. Many believers who view creeds and ritualistic teachings such as catechisms as heretical in and of themselves, say that the church needs only to teach the Bible, and that Christians need only to read it. Yet, we know that from recent research by Barna, that the decline in Bible readership in the USA has been steady. In 2014, Barna surveyed 1,012 adults on behalf of the American Bible Society. Data show that "millennials or mosaics", the term used for individuals born between 1984 and 2002, are more skeptical, and believe that the Bible is not sacred.  They also do not read the Bible regularly, and do not see a link between the decline in morals with the lack of Bible reading (Barna, 2014). In fact, survey respondents blamed cultural influence (media, specifically) for the decline in morals rather than a lack of knowledge of Biblical teaching or doctrinal understanding.

Rationale for Teaching Doctrine

Spurgeon felt that it was important for children, specifically, to be taught doctrinal truth from Scripture. Thus his catechism seeks to provide a systematic way for parents to teach the basic tenets of the Christian faith to their children. Each of the 82 questions covered in his Puritan catechism includes "proof texts" or Scriptural references to support his conclusions.

In review, let us begin with question one which asks, "What is the chief aim (goal or purpose) of man?" The answer, "Man's chief end is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31), and to enjoy him for ever (Ps. 73:25-26)." Following up on the chief aim of man (our purpose), we read, "What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify him?" The answer, "The Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16) is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify God and enjoy him (1 Jn. 1:3)." Lastly, for our exemplification, question three asks, "What do the Scriptures principally teach? The answer, "The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man (2 Tim. 1:13; Eccl. 12:13)."

I chose the first three questions and answers in order to demonstrate the validity of studying a catechism. Some Christian denominations eschew the use of such documents, believing that they are too closely associated with Catholicism. Furthermore, those anti-catechismistic Christians view the recitation of creeds as religious ritual and base their belief on the practices of the New Testament believers. While it is clear that the early Christian converts didn't recite a written creed (none existed), I have no doubt that they did recite the oral Jewish law (the Torah) and for those living after the 1st century, they would have known or at the least heard the first section of the Talmud (the Mishna, 200 CE) being recited. The second section, the Gemera didn't exist until 500 CE. 

A catechism therefore is "a summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians." Normally, children and adult converts are taught from a catechism in order to introduce them to the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. In many modern churches, a membership class or some other type of course may be offered where a statement of faith, a general understanding of the church and its belief, would be taught in lieu of a catechism.

When we think about teaching doctrine this way, there are some people who think that there is no place for ritual in the modern era. After all, we are under 'grace' and not 'law' so why do we need to study a document like this, memorizing questions and answers, and reciting them before a panel to "determine" if we are to be admitted to membership. Isn't my testimony or witness enough? Isn't what I do, think, and believe, to be judged between me and God?

Amen, so be it. Yes, and yes! However, the problem is that for many new believers who come to faith through a religious experience such as a motivational or evangelical sermon, their genuine response demonstrates a change of heart, but does not necessarily suggest a reasoned understanding of the underlying theology regarding sin, salvation, and sanctification. It is vital for all Christians to understand what it is that they believe, and yes, the only authority is the Word of God. Paul said it this way in chapter 3, verses 12-16 (NIV) of his letter to the Christians living near Ephesus,
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
We know that to grow in maturity, to be of one mind and accord, we must, as Paul says," attain to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God," and to do that means we must not be caught by every wave of doctrine (understood to be heretical teaching and falsehood). We are to grow up in the faith, to become mature believers in Christ Jesus.

Whether or not you believe a catechism has value is certainly up to you. However, I believe it can be a starting point to help guide parents in teaching their children as well as serve to help new Christian adult believers understand more clearly what it is they say they profess (believe).

As I consider all that has transpired, the death of a young man and the issues (known and unknown) that led to this tragic event, I must wonder if he was taught the truth that God loved him, and that God had a wonderful plan for his life. In hindsight, while I don't want to impune the integrity of a grieving family, I seek only to clarify the importance and value of teaching our children NOW that they are highly valued, loved, and wanted not only by their parents and family member, but by God. 

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16 NASB).

Selah (pause and calmly think about it).

References

Barna Group. (2014, April 8). The State of the Bible: 6 Trends for 2014 - Barna Group. Retrieved from https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/664-the-state-of-the-bible-6-trends-for-2014#.VexwgunhEyE

Craby, C. (2015). Reasonable theology: The importance of studying doctrine. [Blog]. Retrieved from http://reasonabletheology.org/the-importance-of-doctrine/

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