Question 1. What is the chief end of man?
Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Question 2. What is your only comfort in life and death?
Answer. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
These words, the opening of the Westminster and Heidelberg catechisms, find echoes in many of our creeds and statements of faith. They are familiar to us from sermons and books, and yet most people do not know their source and have certainly never memorized them as part of the catechisms from which they derive.
Today many churches and Christian organizations publish “statements of faith” that outline their beliefs. But in the past it was expected that documents of this nature would be so biblically rich and carefully crafted that they would be memorized and used for Christian growth and training. They were written in the form of questions and answers, and were called catechisms (from the Greek katechein, which means “to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth”). The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and Westminster Shorter and Larger catechisms of 1648 are among the best known, and they serve as the doctrinal standards of many churches in the world today.
At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.
In short, catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal. Parents can catechize their children. Church leaders can catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. Because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be integrated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.
Because we have lost the practice of catechesis today, “superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today.”
There are many ancient, excellent, and time-tested catechisms. Why expend the effort to write new ones? In fact, some people might suspect the motives of anyone who would want to do so. However, most people today do not realize that it was once seen as normal, important, and necessary for churches to continually produce new catechisms for their own use. The original Anglican Book of Common Prayer included a catechism. The Lutheran churches had Luther's Large Catechism and Small Catechism of 1529. The early Scottish churches, though they had Calvin’s Geneva Catechism of 1541 and the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, went on to produce and use Craig’s Catechism of 1581, Duncan’s Latin Catechism of 1595, and the New Catechism of 1644, before eventually adopting the Westminster Catechism.
Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, who ministered in the seventeenth-century town of Kidderminster, wanted to systematically train heads of families to instruct their households in the faith. To do so he wrote his own Family Catechism that was adapted to the capacities of his people and that brought the Bible to bear on many of the issues and questions his people were facing at that time.
Catechisms were written with at least three purposes. The first was to set forth a comprehensive exposition of the gospel—not only in order to explain clearly what the gospel is, but also to lay out the building blocks on which the gospel is based, such as the biblical doctrines of God, of human nature, of sin, and so forth. The second purpose was to do this exposition in such a way that the heresies, errors, and false beliefs of the time and culture were addressed and counteracted. The third and more pastoral purpose was to form a distinct people, a counterculture that reflected the likeness of Christ not only in individual character but also in the church’s communal life.
When looked at together, these three purposes explain why new catechisms must be written. While our exposition of gospel doctrine must be in line with older catechisms that are true to the Word, culture changes, and so do the errors, temptations, and challenges to the unchanging gospel that people must be equipped to face and answer.
The New City Catechism comprises only 52 questions and answers (as opposed to Heidelberg’s 129 or Westminster Shorter’s 107). There is therefore only one question and answer for each week of the year, making it simple to fit into church calendars and achievable for people with demanding schedules.
The New City Catechism is based on and adapted from Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, the Westminster Shorter and Larger catechisms, and especially the Heidelberg Catechism. This gives good exposure to some of the riches and insights across the spectrum of the great Reformation-era catechisms, the hope being that it will encourage people to delve into the historic catechisms and continue the catechetical process throughout their lives.
It is divided into three parts to make it easier to learn in sections and to include some helpful divisions:
Part 1: God, creation and fall, law (twenty questions)
Part 2: Christ, redemption, grace (fifteen questions)
Part 3: Spirit, restoration, growing in grace (seventeen questions)
As with most traditional catechisms, a Bible verse accompanies each question and answer. In addition, each question and answer is followed by a short commentary taken from the writings or sayings of a past preacher as well as a commentary from a contemporary preacher to help students meditate on and think about the topic being explored. Each question ends with a short, original prayer.
Although it may make the content seem less accessible at first glance, the language of the original texts has been retained as much as possible throughout the historical commentaries. When people complained to J. R. R. Tolkien about the archaic language he sometimes used, he answered that language carries cultural values, and therefore his use of older forms was not nostalgia—it was principled. He believed that older ways of speaking conveyed older ways of understanding life that modern forms cannot convey, because modern language is enmeshed with modern views of life.
For this reason, except in cases where the words are no longer in common use and are therefore incomprehensible (in which instances they often have been replaced with ellipses), the language and spelling of the original authors has been retained throughout the historic commentaries. Occasionally this language is also reflected in the questions and answers where the more poetic forms aid memorization.
The easiest way to use The New City Catechism is to memorize one question and answer each week of the year. Because it is intended to be dialogical, it is best to learn it in pairs, in families, or as study groups, enabling you to drill one another on the answers not only one at a time but once you have learned ten of them, then twenty of them, and so on.
The Bible verse, written commentary, and prayer that are attached to each question and answer can be used as your devotion on a chosen day of the week to help you think through and meditate on the issues and applications that arise from the question and answer.
Groups may decide to spend the first five to ten minutes of their study time looking together at only one question and answer, thus completing the catechism in a year, or they may prefer to study and learn the questions and answers over a contracted length of time, for example by memorizing five or six questions a week and meeting together to quiz one another and discuss them, as well as read the accompanying commentaries.
There are a variety of ways to commit texts to memory, and some techniques suit certain learning styles better than others. A few examples include:
Read the question and answer out loud, and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Read the question and answer out loud, then try to repeat them without looking. Repeat.
Record yourself saying all part 1 questions and answers (then part 2, then part 3) and listen to them during everyday activities such as workouts, chores, and so on.
Write the questions and answers on cards and tape them in a conspicuous area. Read them aloud every time you see them.
Make flash cards with the question on one side and the answer on the other, and test yourself.
Write out the question and answer. Repeat. The process of writing helps a person’s ability to recall text.
Drill the questions and answers with another person as often as possible.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). The Greek word for “the one who is taught” is katechoumenos, one who is catechized. In other words, Paul is talking about a body of Christian doctrine (catechism) that was taught to them by an instructor (here the word catechizer). The words “all good things” probably mean financial support as well. In this light, the word koinoneo—which means “to share” or “to have fellowship”—becomes even richer. The salary of a Christian teacher is not to be seen simply as a payment but a “fellowship.” Catechesis is not just one more service to be paid for, but is a rich fellowship and mutual sharing of the gifts of God.
If we re-engage in this biblical practice in our churches, we will find again God’s Word “dwelling in us richly” (see Col. 3:16), because the practice of catechesis takes truth deep into our hearts, so we think in biblical categories as soon as we can reason.
When my son Jonathan was a young child, my wife, Kathy, and I started teaching him a children’s catechism. In the beginning we worked on just the first three questions:
Question 1. Who made you?
Question 2. What else did God make?
Answer. God made all things.
Question 3. Why did God make you and all things?
Answer. For his own glory.
One day Kathy dropped Jonathan off at a babysitter’s. At one point the babysitter discovered Jonathan looking out the window. “What are you thinking about?” she asked him. “God,” he said. Surprised, she responded, “What are you thinking about God?” He looked at her and replied, “How he made all things for his own glory.” She thought she had a spiritual giant on her hands! A little boy looking out the window, contemplating the glory of God in creation!
What had actually happened, obviously, was that her question had triggered the question/answer response in him. He answered with the catechism. He certainly did not have the slightest idea what the “glory of God” meant. But the concept was in his mind and heart, waiting to be connected with new insights, teaching, and experiences.
Such instruction, Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander said, is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire—the Spirit of God— firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what catechetical instruction is.
1. Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 16.