Currently, “discipleship” is one of those buzz words that evangelicals have begun to use all the time, everywhere. It is only a belated reaction against the modern trend to separate “mission” and “evangelism” from “discipleship”. Some have realised that simply being “missional” (another buzz word) is not enough. Predictably, this has prompted various attempts at discipleship manuals and courses. Historically, the Church has always been engaged in making disciples. It has also been clear about the best way to engage in this.
It was well defined by Christ in His Commission to the Apostles. Making disciples involves teaching them to observe “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Those who are Christ’s disciples learn from Him (Matthew 11:29) and continue in His Word (John 8:31). Their life must also be governed by His commandments (Matthew 10:25; John 15:8). There are things to be believed and things to be done.
1. The Best Means to Make Mature Disciples
Faith and Obedience are the main themes and structure of the Westminster Catechisms. They also teach these things comprehensively, in the way that Christ commanded. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, we have tools to hand (though largely forgotten) for making mature disciples. Historically, the Church has used the tool of catechising (in a personal and flexible context) to make mature disciples.
We do not need bullet point crash courses but documents that are so rich and full that they will be lifelong guides to the truth. They will be keys to unlock greater amounts of what we need to believe and obey. The Westminster Catechisms are suitable for groups and individuals at different levels of maturity. Indeed, people can progress from the Shorter to the Larger Catechism.
Many make the mistake of thinking that discipleship involves teaching others to know and assent to biblical doctrines. Yet truths must also be believed and experienced in a practical sense. Discipleship also requires knowing the things to be obeyed and doing them. This is what the Great Commission requires.
As David Dickson comments on Matthew 28:20: “Christ’s baptised disciples may not live as they wish. They must make sure to observe everything that Christ has commanded His ministers to teach them” (see free e-book at the bottom of this post). The Larger Catechism particularly provides a full biblical exposition of the obedience that God requires. As well as applying God’s law, it gives rules to show how the law should be interpreted and applied for living.
David Dickson also provides useful comments on Hebrews 6:1. He notes that there are two parts to Christian instruction.
Firstly to instruct in the key principles of religion, secondly, to bring this instruction to maturity or perfection. The principles must first be learned, and the foundation laid. When people have learned the principles, their teachers must advance them further, towards maturity or perfection
2. The Most Accurate Means for Making Mature Disciples
Complete, accurate summaries: Givens B. Strickler wrote of complete and comprehensive character of the Westminster Catechisms in an essay called “The Nature, Value and Special Utility of the Catechisms”. The answers of the Catechisms stand on their own as comprehensive definitions of the subjects they cover.
They are complete manuals of the great fundamental doctrines of divine revelation…the most complete in existence…they contain them in the most accurate form.
They also form a complete system with every doctrine in its right place and in its right relations to other doctrines. This is true of no other catechism. Doctrines are seen in the light of all correlated truths; and thus can be so seen as to be most thoroughly understood and most fully appreciated.
Careful, accurate summaries: As Strickler notes, there is a balance in the way that the Catechisms state the truths of Scripture. They make sure that unbiblical error is rejected.
while expressing them clearly in a positive form, they, at the same time, negatively, at every important point, guard against the most serious errors.
3. The Most Focussed Means for Making Mature Disciples
The Catechisms focus clearly and comprehensively on the subject that needs to be taught. Their answers provide the basis for further questions to explore the various aspects of the truth stated. This is more focussed than mentioning subjects in passing during a sermon when less direct and sustained attention is given to them.
When Catechisms are used effectively, teaching can also be even more direct, personal and penetrating. Richard Baxter commends catechising as a help to preaching. He realised in his own experience that “some ignorant persons, who had been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close disclosure, than they did from ten years’ public preaching”.
The Larger Catechism increases this focus and widens the subjects covered with accuracy. This is vital in encouraging deeper maturity in Christ’s disciples. As is often noted, the Larger Catechism covers the nature of the Church in greater detail. This is significant for making mature disciples. They are discipled within the context of the Church and the Great Commission emphasises the means of grace – the Word and the Sacraments – as part of this.
4. The Most Urgent Means for Making Mature Disciples
Making mature disciples will not succeed as it should until such means are taken seriously. We need to restore thorough and accurate instruction using the Catechisms to its rightful place. We will not obey the Great Commission properly, unless we give attention to this. John Calvin went so far as to say:
the Church of God shall never be conserved without catechism, for it is as the seed to be kept that the good grain perish not but that it may increase from age to age.
Children need to be catechised and to progress from the Shorter to the Larger Catechism. For adults, the practice of memorisation and public repetition of the answers associated with catechising in the past may not be so easy to achieve now. Yet these documents, together with the Westminster Confession, form an excellent basis for group study and discussion.
The documents can be used in a flexible and natural way to teach the truth. Over a century ago, Givens B. Strickler asked the question as to why ministers and others could not use the Catechisms to instruct in biblical truth so that:
in every church there shall be a number, at least, who shall know how to maintain them against any of the popular assaults that are so frequently made upon them? We shall never succeed as we may and ought until this is done.
“Missional” trends will rise and fall, methods will come and go unless the means for mature discipling are adopted. Evangelical churches will continue with the epidemic of biblical and theological illiteracy and disobedience to Christ’s commands. They will only do so by ignoring the preventive medicine to hand in these catechisms. It is high time for all of us to absorb more fully the biblical teaching of the Westminster Catechisms.
An earlier post about Catechising: How Well Do You Know the Truth?
For further reading about the benefits of Catechising read John J. Murray’s “Catechising: A Forgotten Practice“.
The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary by J. G. Vos is a helpful and very full modern guide to a neglected treasure.
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