No doubt about it, the boy's life had been rough. In his ten years, he had known more suffering than the camp counselor had seen in her whole life. He was unable to live at home because of the regular abuse he suffered there. No wonder, then, that the counselor was looking for reasons to hope wherever she could find them. With relief, the young woman shared with the rest of us the conversation she had had with this child. When she had asked him if he had ever "asked Jesus into his heart," he had replied that, yes, he had done that when he was six. Then, as they had flipped through the pages of the boy's Bible, they had come upon a picture of the crucifixion. The boy had paused to look. "What's that story about?" he had wanted to know. He evidently did not know that Christ had died on a cross. I found myself wondering how this boy could have any idea of how the death of Christ applied to him if he did not even know the basics of the crucifixion story. The counselor's confidence, however, was unshaken. The child had asked Jesus into his heart when he was six, so he certainly must be saved.
This child had not been raised in a Christian home with the benefit of Christian instruction. However, children growing up in our churches often reveal a similar lack of understanding regarding the biblical gospel. Certainly our church children know the crucifixion story. But could they give any kind of clear (even if simple) explanation of what it has to do with them? I have worked with children of elementary and junior high age for many years, almost all of them from Christian homes. It might surprise you to listen in when I ask these children about the gospel. The conversation usually goes something like this.
Me: "What do we need to do to be right with God?""How does that help? What does Jesus dying on the cross have to do with your sins?" That is often as far as the conversation can go. From this point on, the child will usually keep repeating that Jesus saves us from our sins and we need to accept him into our hearts. Very rarely can an elementary or junior high student explain to me that Jesus died in our place, to take the judgment of God our sins deserved. Almost never do I find a child who understands that Jesus also lived in our place, fulfilling God's commands since we could not. My consistent experience has been that children raised in Christian homes and Christian churches do not clearly understand the gospel. Yet it is the gospel God uses to save people of whatever age. Our church children, like everyone else, must understand the gospel.
Child: "Ask/accept Jesus into our hearts."
Me: "What does that mean? How does that help?" The child often falls silent at this point and cannot go on.
Or, I might ask: "Why did Jesus come to earth?"
"To save us from our sins."
"How did he do that?"
"He died on the cross to save us from our sins."
Lest you think I expect too much of children's capabilities, try asking the same children about their favorite sport or computer game. You may have to fish a little and you will need to use vocabulary they understand, but they will answer your questions in intricate detail. Why are our churches' children so incapable of explaining the basics of the gospel? My observation is that Christian parents tend to assume that Christianity will sort of "rub off" on their children. They sign their children up for formal instruction in computer, sports, or music, and, in many cases, they insist that their children spend time practicing these disciplines. When it comes to Christian truth, however, we fail to provide our children with the deliberate, thorough instruction they receive for other things. Random Sunday school lessons and whatever they pick up from the pastor's sermons will do-and this in spite of the fact that the gospel contains some of the most complex, mind-boggling concepts known to man. It is our responsibility to study these concepts, graciously revealed to us by God in Scripture, and make every effort to understand them and to communicate them to others, including children.
When it comes to evangelizing our children, I suggest that the best thing we can do is to provide diligent, systematic teaching, both of redemption history (Bible stories) and doctrinal truth (what God meant to communicate through those stories). It will take years to evangelize children through such involved teaching-but then, God entrusts them to us for years, doesn't he? Great trees require years to grow, but they stand strong, resistant, and fruitful through decades.
Reading or telling our children the stories God gave us will not seem too difficult a task. But how do we glean from a book as large and as adult as the Bible those doctrinal truths our children need to know? And how do we go about explaining those truths in simple, concise language? And then how do we arrange those simply explained truths in some kind of logical order where one doctrine builds upon another and the sense of the whole becomes clear? I have good news for you: all that work has been done for you, and by some of the best Bible scholars the church has ever produced. The fruit of their labor goes by the name of a "catechism" (or "instructional guide"). A catechism contains a number of important questions about basic Christian doctrine, all arranged in a logical, orderly fashion, to which children (or adults!) memorize the answers. Two of the very best are the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. Either of these makes an excellent and effective tool for evangelizing and teaching children and teens.
"But wait!" someone objects. "Catechisms are written by men. Is it right to have our children memorize catechisms instead of the Bible?" We certainly do not want to replace Bible memorization with memorization of catechisms. There is no reason, though, why we cannot use both. In the Bible, an important doctrine may be taught without ever being stated in so many words. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. The Bible's teaching about three persons in one God can only be found by comparing multiple passages, none of which actually says "the one God exists in three persons." To memorize the Bible's teaching on the Trinity in the Bible's words would require memorizing a number of different verses. The catechisms state this important doctrine and others like it in short simple statements, that are easy to understand and memorize. Godly men who studied the Scriptures with extreme diligence created the catechisms. Profiting from the fruit of their labor is like profiting from the fruit of the pastor's labor when we sit under his preaching. In fact, if we insist upon using nothing but our Bibles to study and to teach, so that we ignore what godly, gifted men have produced, we run the risk of despising the spiritual gift of teaching God has given his church.
How does a biblical catechism help us to faithfully evangelize our children? First, a catechism provides an excellent dictionary of terms used in the Bible itself when the Bible presents the gospel message. One of the clearest presentations of the gospel found in Scripture is the third chapter of Romans. This passage, however, cannot be clearly understood without a grasp of the terms it uses. The twenty-third verse tells us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Well, what is sin? That is precisely the question asked in question 14 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The answer: "Sin is disobeying or not conforming to God's law in any way." Surrounding question 14 are questions and answers that deal with how sin entered the world, how it was passed on to all humans from Adam, what its results and consequences are, and what is God's reaction to it. All of these answers would assist greatly in helping a child to understand why sin is a problem that demands a solution. Romans 3 also tells us that we are justified as a gift, by God's grace, and not by works of the law. Justification is one of the most important concepts of the gospel. Our children must understand what it means. Question 33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks "What is justification?" then goes on to give an excellent answer. "Justification is the act of God's free grace by which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight. He does so only because he counts the righteousness of Christ as ours. Justification is received by faith alone." Again, in Romans 3, we find that "faith in Jesus Christ" is necessary for justification. The catechism asks, "What is faith in Jesus Christ?" (Q. 86) The answer: "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, by which we receive and rest on Him alone for salvation, as He is offered to us in the gospel." We could continue this exercise for quite some time, finding in the catechism clear, concise explanations of most of the terms used when the Bible presents the gospel. There is a series of questions explaining the nature of God, another explaining the process of redemption, yet another series explaining at length the nature and work of Christ-all key concepts that must be understood if the good news of the gospel is to be clearly grasped. "But isn't it possible to have all that head knowledge as just so many intellectual facts?" someone might wonder. "Isn't it the response of the heart that really matters?" Of course it is. A child (or an adult) could have an intellectual grasp of gospel truth and fail to respond to it. On the other hand, can anyone respond to truth he or she does not know? Our goal for our children should be that they clearly grasp the important truths of Scripture in order that they may then faithfully respond to them.
A second benefit of a good catechism as a tool in evangelizing children is the use the Holy Spirit can make of it in bringing conviction of sin. Children are just as self-righteous as the rest of us. They tend to believe that knowing the Ten Commandments is the same thing as keeping them. Children cheerfully rattle off "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery," confident that they are in fine shape with God since they have not done any of these things. In those sections where the catechisms discuss the Ten Commandments, they ask questions designed to get at the heart of each one. The resulting answers provide excellent expositions of the commandments, based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. These explanations of the commandments show us just how rigorous God's holy standard is. They also show us how far short we fall. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism asks for a recital of the Ten Commandments, including the first one "You shall have no other gods before me." It does not allow a child (or an adult!) to feel smug about how he or she has never bowed to a little statue. Instead, it goes on to ask what the Lord requires by that first commandment. Part of the answer is this: "That I sincerely acknowledge the only true God, trust him alone, look to him for every good thing humbly and patiently, love him, fear him, and honor him with all my heart. In short, that I give up anything rather than go against his will in any way." Whew! That's a high standard. But it's God's standard. Church children especially need to see that the standard is hopelessly high. They have not attained it, nor will they ever be able to. Only the person who has despaired of ever saving himself sees the need for a Savior. A diligent and careful study of the Ten Commandments as explained in the catechisms can be of great use for helping a child to see something of the sinfulness of his or her heart. Of course, this will prove helpful not just in evangelizing but in day-to-day parenting as well. A big part of parenting is correcting sinful behavior and training in godly behavior. If our children are learning the Ten Commandments in all their fullness, they know God's standard and we can constantly point them back to it as we correct and train.
Third, the cut-and-dried clarity of the catechisms provides a refreshing antidote to the religious thought of our relativistic culture. The catechisms spell out in clear and scriptural terms the nature of God and of the salvation he has provided. For instance, unlike most religious teaching of our day, the catechisms describe salvation as God's work, not man's. To understand the catechism is to understand that God saves us; we do not save ourselves. One series of questions and answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism describes the effects of the fall on human nature. The answers then go on to show that God not only offers salvation but applies it to each person he saves, doing for us what we are not able to do for ourselves. "Effective calling," explains the catechism, "is the work of God's Spirit, who convinces us that we are sinful and miserable, who enlightens our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and who renews our wills." To know one of the reformed catechisms is to understand the process of salvation well enough to clearly see that God alone gets all the credit for it.
One reason for using catechisms to teach is that a catechism fits the way children learn. This is true for both children of elementary age and for children in their early to mid teens. Elementary-age children have an astounding capacity for memorizing. There have been times when I have worried that I was requiring too much memorization of the children with whom I was working. The children, however, just kept on memorizing and reciting it back, in a way that appeared almost effortless. Of course, consistent drill and repetition are required, and, no, these are not always fun; but children of elementary age memorize wonderfully well, better than they ever will again. In early to mid teenagers, the thinking process is becoming more complex. Their minds have begun to analyze. Young teens are starting to understand how all the random bits of information they possess relate. They come up with questions about why things are the way they are and begin to wonder how fact A can be true if fact B is also true. The catechisms use a question-and-answer format ideally suited to this kind of thinking. Each question follows logically on the answer of the last one. This format fits the critical, analytical thought processes that children of junior high age are developing. As parents encourage their teens to study a catechism and its related Scriptures, they can see how logically Christian doctrine fits together. A useful study for children of this age might be the comparison of two of the good catechisms with each other. How are they alike and how are they different? Does one address issues the other omits? How do their answers on a particular topic compare? Is one more biblical or more thorough than the other? This can provide excellent training in the use of those wonderful minds God gave our children for the consideration of truths worth pondering.
"I don't know," a parent may still hesitate. "Isn't memorizing a catechism just rote repetition? What if children can recite answers back, but their Christianity doesn't go any deeper than that? That's not what I want for my children." Of course it isn't. No faithful parent would be satisfied with a child who could merely rattle off correct answers. But keep in mind that before a child can build his life upon the truth, he must possess the truth. The children whom I have interviewed about the gospel rattle off answers by rote as well, but in their case, their rote answers are wrong. I advocate encouraging our children to memorize answers that have substance and biblical accuracy, making sure, as we do so, that they understand what they memorize. We should look up supporting Scripture with them. We should read Bible stories with them that illustrate the point of the doctrine under consideration. We can use one of the devotional or study guides available that explain the catechism on a level the child understands. We teach, teach, teach, explain, explain, explain. Then, as we live with these children of ours (in the family or in the church), we encourage them to apply what we know they are learning in every situation where it is appropriate. An added bonus will be that, as we send our children out into the world, they will have not only a solid biblical foundation for their own faith: They will have the means of clearly explaining the gospel and other points of doctrine to someone else.
Having done all this, can we trust that our children are rightly related to God? If they can correctly answer questions about the gospel or accurately explain Christian teaching, can we have confidence in their faith? Our confidence is never in our children, or in their understanding, or in our teaching, but in the Lord. We trust him to use our efforts as we use the instruments he has provided. Likewise, we trust him to use every circumstance he brings into the lives of our children to accomplish his purposes in his time. One of the principal writers of the Westminster Catechisms wrote this: "Duties are ours; events are the Lord's." Let us be found faithful to carry out our God-given duty to our children, praying for God's gracious ordering of the events of their lives for his glory.
Starr Meade is Family Matters editor for Modern Reformation. She is author of Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism (P&R, 2000).
Issue: "Around the Block, Around the World: Evangelism and Missions" March/April 2005 Vol. 14 No. 2 Page number(s): 17-21
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