The Benefits of Catechising

Adapted from a Sermon by Thomas Watson

If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast... Colossians 1:23

To the appeals of George Burder and earnest warnings and encouragements of Samuel Davies and our other friends of the past, I propose to add the instruction of Thomas Watson from his book Titled “A Body of Divinity” which is a collection of sermons based on the Westminster Catechism.

And so, this and the following sermons in this series will be based on and closely follow Thomas Watson’s words and plan.

As I hope to begin this work of catechising, not every Sunday morning but every so often covering, God willing, the next question in sequence, it would seem profitable to give you a general introduction, a preliminary explanation, to show you how needful, how fundamentally important it is for Christians to be well instructed in the grounds of religion.

If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast.’

This we will do under the following two headings, which will show that

I. First, it is the duty of Christians to be steadfast in the doctrine of faith and

II. Secondly, the best way for Christians to be steadfast is to be firmly established.

And so to begin,

I. It is the duty of Christians to be steadfast in the doctrine of faith.

Now what is meant by the word steadfast. One dictionary defines it as to be marked by firm determination, to be resolute, not shakeable. Being steadfast means having firm convictions. A steadfast person shows unbendable perseverance. Other versions of the Bible translate the same word as settled and firm.

So what is meant is that the duty of Christians is to be firm, settled, and unshakable in the doctrines of faith. They are to be steadfast.

It is the apostle Peter’s prayer in the fifth chapter of his first epistle that ‘the God of all grace ... confirm, strengthen and establish you.’ (1 Pet 5:10) That is, that they might not be meteors streaking across the sky, but fixed stars in the firmament.

The apostle Jude speaks of ‘wandering stars,’ in verse 13. He is most likely referring to the planets in the night sky. He knows that a careful observer sees some planets wander through the heavens. They illuminate the darkness but because of their wandering courses, they can’t be relied on for navigational purposes. It is a picture of false teachers in whose company no Christian can chart a straight path. Their devious course of life leads to eternal damnation.

Now, those who are not steadfast in religion, will, eventually, at one time or other, prove to be wandering stars; they will lose their former steadfastness, and wander from one opinion to another. Such as are un-steadfast are of the tribe of Reuben, ‘unstable as water,’ Gen 49:4; like a ship without ballast, overturned with every wind of doctrine.

There are some whose religion changes as the moon. When speaking of religion the words “It’s all good’ drops easily from their lips. They see no need to be so precise and unbending in the doctrines of the Bible. These are not pillars in the temple of God, but reeds shaken every way. The apostle Peter calls them ‘destructive heresies.’ 2 Pet 2:1.

A man may go to hell for heresy as well as for adultery. To be un-steadfast in religion, is a sign of lack of sound judgement. If their thinking was not so superficial, men would not jump so easily from one opinion to another. It is a sign of lightness. As feathers will be blown every way, so will feathery Christians. Therefore such people are compared to children. To the Ephesians, the Apostle writes: ‘that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro.’ (Eph 4:14) Children are fickle; sometimes of one mind sometimes of another; nothing pleases them long; so un-steadfast Christians are childish; the truths they embrace at one time, they reject at another; sometimes they like the Protestant religion, and soon after they have a good mind to embrace some aspect of Catholicism.

I now go on to six encouragements to confirm in your mind the great necessity of steadfastness in the doctrines of grace.

[1] First, it is the great end of the preaching of the Word, to bring us to a steadfastness in religion.

And he gave ... the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers... for building up the body of Christ ... so that we may no longer be children.’ (Eph 4:11-14)

The Word is called a hammer by the Prophet Jeremiah. (Jer 23:29) Every blow of the hammer serves to fasten the nails of the building; so the preacher’s words are to fasten you the more to Christ; they weaken themselves to strengthen and settle you. This is the grand purpose of preaching, not only for the enlightening, but for the establishing of souls; not only to guide them in the right way, but to keep them in it. Now, if you are not steadfast, you are not living up to God’s purpose in giving you the ministry of the Word.

[2] In the second place, to be steadfast in religion is both a Christian’s excellence and his honour.

It is his excellence: being steadfast he will be zealous for the truth, and walk in close communion with God. And it is his honour: Solomon writes ‘Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.’ (Prov 16:31) It is a wonderful thing to see an old disciple; to see silver hair adorned with golden virtues.

[3] In the third place, those who are not steadfast in the faith can never suffer for it.

Sceptics in religion hardly ever prove to be martyrs. Those who are not steadfast hang in suspense; when they think of the joys of heaven they will take up the gospel, but when they think of persecution they desert it. Un-steadfast Christians do not base their decisions on what is best, but what is safest. The apostate seems to put God and Satan in the balance, and having weighed both their services, prefers the devil’s service, and proclaims him to be the best master: and, in this sense, may be said to put Christ to open shame. (Heb 6:6) He will never suffer for the truth, but be as a soldier that deserts his post, and runs over to the enemy’s side when he sees the tide changing; he will fight on the devil’s side for worldly advantage.

[4] Fourthly, not to be steadfast in the faith is provoking to God.

To embrace the truth, and then to fall away, causes others to despise the gospel, which will not go unpunished. As the Psalmist laments, they ‘turned away and acted treacherously.... When God heard, he was full of wrath, and he utterly rejected Israel.’ (Psa 78:57, 59) The apostate drops with no resistance into the devil’s mouth.

[5] In the fifth place, If you are not steadfast in religion, you will never grow.

We are commanded ‘to grow up ... into him who is the head, into Christ.’ (Eph 4:15) But if we are un-steadfast there is no growing: a plant which is continually transplanted never thrives. He can no more grow in godliness, who is un-steadfast, than a bone can grow in the body that is out of joint.

[6] And in the sixth place, there is great need to be steadfast, because there are so many things to unsettle us.

Deceivers are all around, whose work is to draw away people from the principles of religion. ‘I write these things to you’, says the Apostle John, ‘about those who are trying to deceive you.’ (1 John 2:26) Deceivers are the devil’s agents; they are, of all others, the greatest thieves that would rob you of the truth. Deceivers have silver tongues, that can promote bad merchandise; they have a cunning to deceive. (Eph 4:14)

First, deceivers are impostors; they can so manipulate and subtly corrupt the truth, that they can deceive others. They deceive by wisdom of words. Paul says that ‘by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.’ (Rom 16:18) They have fine elegant phrases, flattering language, by which they work on the weaker kind.

Another deception is a facade of extraordinary piety, so that people may admire them, and drink in their doctrine. They seem to be men of zeal and sanctity, and to be divinely inspired, and pretend to new revelations.

A third ploy of deceivers is, working to belittle and nullify sound orthodox teachers. They would eclipse those that bring the truth, like black smoke that darkens the light of heaven; they would defame others, that they themselves may be more admired. In this way the false teachers cried down Paul to the Galatians, that they might be received. (Gal 4:17)

The fourth ploy of deceivers, is to preach the doctrine of liberty; as though men are freed from the moral law, the rule as well as the curse, and Christ has done everything for them, and they need do nothing. In this way they make the doctrine of free grace a key to open the door to all depravity.

Another means is to unsettle Christians by persecution. “Indeed,” Paul tells Timothy, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) The legacy Christ has bequeathed is the CROSS. While there is a devil and one wicked man in the world, never expect a guarantee of exemption from trouble. How many fall away in an hour of persecution! Revelation speaks of ”a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns ... His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven.” The red dragon, by his power and subtlety, drew away stars, perhaps eminent professors, that seemed to shine as stars in the firmament of the church.

To be un-steadfast in good is the sin of the devils. (Jude 6) They are called, ‘morning stars,’ in Job, (38:8) but they are also ‘falling stars;’ they were holy, but mutable. As the ship is overturned by the sail, so their sails being swelled with pride, they were overturned. (1 Tim 3:6) By un-steadfastness, men imitate lapsed angels. The devil was the first apostate. But the sons of Zion should be like mount Zion, which cannot be removed.

Which brings us to the next main heading,

II. the second proposition, that the way for Christians to be steadfast is to be firmly established.

If you continue firmly established and steadfast.’ The Greek word for firmly established is a metaphor which alludes to a building that has the foundation well laid. So Christians should be firmly established in the essential points of religion, and have their foundation well laid.

Here I will speak of two things:

1. The first thing is that we should be firmly established in the knowledge of fundamentals.

The apostle, in Hebrews, speaks of ‘the basic principles of the oracles of God.’ (Heb 5:12) In all arts and sciences, logic, physic, mathematics, there are some fundamentals, some rules and principles that must necessarily be known in order to practice those arts; so, in divinity, there must be the basic principles laid down. The knowledge of the grounds and principles of religion is exceedingly useful.

i) It is useful first because otherwise we cannot serve God aright. We can never worship God acceptably, unless we worship him lawfully; and how can we do that, if we are ignorant of the rules and elements of religion? We are to give God “spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) If we do not understand the grounds of religion, how can it be a spiritual worship?

ii) It is useful in the second place because knowledge of the grounds of religion does much to enrich the mind. It is a lamp to our feet; it directs us in the whole course of Christianity, as the eye directs the body. Knowledge of fundamentals is the golden key that opens the chief mysteries of religion; it gives us a whole system and body of divinity, exactly drawn in all its parts and lively colours; it helps us to understand many of those difficult things which occur in the reading of the word; it helps to untie many Scripture knots.

iii) In the third place, it provides us with armour of proof; weapons to fight against the many adversaries of the truth.

iv) Lastly, it is the holy seed of which grace is formed. It is the seed of faith. (Psa 9:10) It is the root of love. The Apostle writes of “being rooted and grounded in love.” (Eph 3:17) The knowledge of basic principles promotes to the making of a complete Christian.

[2] The second thing is that this firm establishment is the best way to being steadfast: ‘firmly established and steadfast.’ A tree, that it may remain steadfast, must be well rooted; so, if you would remain steadfast in religion, you must be rooted in its basic principles. And so, in order that we may stand in uncertain times, there must be a principle of knowledge within; first established, and then steadfast. That the ship may be kept from overturning, it must have its anchor fastened. Knowledge of principles is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution. First established and then steadfast.

Two final remarks as we come to a close to this introduction and appeal to catechising:

First, see the reason why so many people are unsettled, ready to embrace every novel opinion, and dress themselves in as many religions as fashions; it is because they are ungrounded, not firmly established. See how the apostle Peter joins these two together, “the untaught and unstable.” (2 Pet 3:16 NASB) Such as are untaught in the main points of divinity are unstable. As the body cannot be strong that has weak ligaments; so neither can that Christian be strong in religion who lacks the grounds of knowledge, which are the sinews to strengthen and establish him.

In the second place, see what great necessity there is of laying down the main grounds of religion in a way of catechising, so that the weakest judgement may be instructed in the knowledge of the truth, and strengthened in the love of it. Catechising is the best means for the grounding and settling of people.

It is to be feared that one reason why there has been no more good done by preaching, has been because the main points and articles in religion have not been explained in a catechistical way. Catechising is laying the foundation. (Heb 6:1) To preach and not to catechise is to build without foundation.

And this way of catechising is not a new thing, it is apostolic. The primitive church had their forms of catechism, as those phrases imply, a “pattern of the sound words,“ (2 Tim 1:13) and “the basic principles of the oracles of God,” Heb 5:52.

It was the practice of puritans such as Richard Baxter and God has given great success to it. By laying down the grounds of religion in a systematic way, Christians have been clearly instructed and wonderfully built up in the Christian faith, to such an extent that the emperor Julian the Apostate was compelled to issue a prohibition against Christian schools.

One historian notes: “The Christian schools were broken up, and the children of Christians denied all education save in the school of the idolaters.” Julian knew that if he could deprive Christian families of educating their children, he could check the spread of what he considered to be this loathsome system.

And so it is that I hope therefore (with the blessing of God); to begin this work of catechising more or less on alternate Sundays; and so to lay down among us the grounds and fundamentals of religion in a catechistical way.

That we may, by the blessing and mercy of God, begin or “continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.”