Continually Learning the Meaning of our Baptism

Peter L. Bender
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Jan/Feb 2001

When a child utters her first words it is a joyous occasion for her parents. Though her voice is that of a child and her pronunciation may falter, father and mother recognize her words as their own. The words that she uses came from them. For months the child has listened to father and mother. Now she is finally beginning to speak. She is "echoing" words that she first heard in her ear perhaps a thousand times. This understanding of hearing the Word and "echoing" the Word in the confession of one's mouth is central to the Church's ongoing work of catechesis. To catechize means to speak a word in the ear that is echoed by the catechumen who has received it. To catechize means to speak a word that both creates faith and becomes the Christian's own word in confession and prayer.

Luther's Favorite Texts for Catechizing

In catechizing the young and old alike, Martin Luther emphasized the need to return to the basic texts of the Ten Command-ments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. In the ancient Church, these texts, particularly the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer, were given to the newly baptized so that they would have a word to say by which they would confess the faith and cry out to God in prayer. According to Luther, these texts contain everything a Christian needs to know and believe in order to be saved. They are to be used as the basis for catechesis and as a daily prayer book for the Christian life. These texts outline a "pattern of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13) through which the believer learns to understand himself and his relationship to God: "I am a poor miserable sinner. The Ten Commandments show me my sin and how much I need a Savior. The Apostles' Creed teaches me who God is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is my Lord. He has redeemed me from sin through the shedding of his precious blood. He loves me in all his works. He has made me his own dear child in holy baptism, that I, with all my brothers and sisters, might call out to him in faith for all that we need, saying, 'Our Father …' The Lord's Prayer teaches me that my life is a holy life because I live by faith in the promises of God in Christ."

The texts of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer are the oldest catechism of the Church. It is clear that Christians in the apostolic era were catechized to understand the significance of God's law (the Ten Commandments) and how it demolished self-righteousness and served faith in Christ. Jesus preached the law in the Sermon on the Mount, like the Jews had never heard it preached: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28 NKJV). No one could escape the condemning force of the law. The law was necessary in the Church, not chiefly for its ethical value, but to direct us to Christ, the only Savior of sinners. This is how Paul used the law in his catechesis, "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20 NKJV).

The Apostles' Creed cannot be found in any single chapter and verse of Scripture, but every word and phrase of the Creed is biblical. The Apostles' Creed sets forth in simple concrete assertions all that God has done for us in love. All Scripture, like the Apostles' Creed, proclaims the faith of the Triune God which has Jesus Christ, his incarnation, birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, at its very center. This is what Christians believe in: "God the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived … born … died … rose again … and ascended into heaven, and the Holy Spirit who raises us from the dead and gives us eternal life in Christ."

The centrality of the Lord's Prayer is also taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of Luke: "When you pray, say: Our Father who art in heaven …" The Lord's Prayer is a classic example of receiving a Word from God that is to become our own. The Word of God is what makes our lives holy as it creates faith and directs us to rely upon all that God promises us in Christ. Each petition of the Lord's Prayer is first a promise of God. Through these promises God invites the baptized faithful to call upon him as dear children call upon their dear father.

Unlike so many catechisms, these texts were intended to be spoken out loud and to serve the Christian for a lifetime in his daily vocation, confession of faith, prayers, and meditation upon Scripture. Luther wished for his catechumens to develop a love affair with these texts. To know and believe in these texts was to know God. "First teach them the words, then teach them what they mean" is an axiom for Luther's approach to catechesis. Baptized children, young and old alike, learn the language of their heavenly Father in the same way all children learn a language. They hear their father and mother speaking to them over and over and over again, until they begin to echo the language themselves. They begin to use the words that they have heard, even before they fully understand what the words mean. So it is for the baptized. We hear the Word of God over and over and over again until it becomes embedded in our hearts. We begin to hear, learn, and use words before we fully understand what those words mean. In fact, learning to believe and understand those words is the lifelong process of catechesis. This process, like faith itself, begins with hearing and receiving the Word through the ear.

The Language of Our Holy Faith

To be a Christian is to have faith in Christ that trusts in him for the forgiveness of sins. Faith in Christ is the victory that overcomes the devil, the world, and our own sin (1 John 5:4). Through such faith in Christ, love is born in us that we might serve our neighbor. Through such faith we learn to live in our earthly callings in the joy and freedom of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ is the object of our worship and the source of our life and salvation. He is our highest good. Catechesis is the passing on of the language of our holy faith, God's own Word, that we might be led to embrace Christ by faith in every time, place, circumstance, and need of our lives.

The goal of all catechesis is faith in Christ. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17 NKJV). The ear is the organ to the heart. The pastor is called to teach. Christians are called to listen. Oral teaching is the primary method of catechesis. Written material is no substitute for what the Apostle Paul calls, "the Word of faith which we preach." This "Word of faith," he declares to the catechumens of the congregations of Rome, "is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart" (Rom. 10:8 NKJV). To be sure, the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are the only authority for the Church's oral proclamation, but the primacy of oral proclamation for the creation and sustaining of faith in Christ must be clearly understood.

The pastor's primary goal in catechesis is to convert the catechumen's heart to faith in Christ. This is true both for the unconverted and for Christians who still struggle with their unbelieving Old Adam. Faith always lays hold of the Word that is proclaimed, so that the catechumen learns to confess: "I believe what God's law says of me, that I am a poor miserable sinner, that I have sinned against the God who loves me, that I deserve his wrath and punishment; and I believe what the Gospel says of me, that for Christ's sake my sins are forgiven and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Such "learning" is fundamentally an issue of the faith of the heart, rather than the knowledge of the mind. As such, it is highly experiential in nature. Catechumen's are confronted with the Word of God that is contrary to the sinner's nature and one that he does not want to hear: "All my righteousness is filth" and "faith in Christ is a gift of God, not of works." These are the two major stumbling blocks for the catechumen. Unless the catechumen is converted to these two truths, the catechesis can go no further and nothing else really matters.

It must be remembered that faith in Christ is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. Conversion is not worked by man; it is worked by the Spirit. Thus faithful catechesis will produce either hardness of heart or faith in Christ. This must be clearly understood. There is no middle ground. Nevertheless, the catechist who sows the seed of repentance and faith in Christ is called to be patient with his catechumens, allowing the Holy Spirit to do his work in their hearts when and where he pleases through the Word that has been taught.

Learning the Life of Faith

As children learn to speak and live from the words and pattern of life passed on to them by father and mother, so catechumens learn the life of faith in Christ. The texts of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer are the foundation of that life. By these texts they are firmly grounded in the faith. They understand who they are before God, what he has done for them, and how they might call upon him. Catechumens are taught to confess sin and to hear Christ's Word of forgiveness spoken to them. From the reception of that Word in their ears they learn to forgive others who have sinned against them. Catechesis, like a child in the home under the tutelage of father and mother, involves "the doing" of those things which will continue to be part of the Christian's life after Baptism: attending worship, confessing sin, hearing preaching, receiving the Lord's Supper, and living in one's calling. Living in one's calling involves confessing the faith; loving spouse, family, and neighbor; and contending with the weaknesses of the sinful flesh in the joy and confidence of Christ's forgiveness. This is the life into which the catechumen is baptized. All this flows from faith in Christ born of the Word of God received in the ear.

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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