A four-year-old boy was boisterously arguing with a girl roughly the same age in the corridor of Yullin Church, where I serve as senior minister. In the middle of the fight, the boy quipped, "Do you know why we are fighting?" She answered him back, "You were cruel to me first." "No," the boy replied. "We are fighting because our inner being is dirty." A parent of these children thought this was funny and said, "I am sure this is a scene that can be found only in Yullin Church!"
Though very young, the children were basing their arguments on the doctrinal knowledge they had learned in Sunday school of Yullin Church. To the boy's mind, the doctrine of man's total depravity could explain the cause of their fight. When I regularly encounter young children exchanging remarks about the glory of God in the gospel of Christ, and the excitement of older teens exploring and defending the Christian faith in response to religious pluralism and relativism, my passion for catechesis only deepens. And it is not only intellectual; it shapes their lives as they bear witness to Christ to their neighbors in words and deeds.
Value Standards No Longer Found in Today's Age
Today the Christian church is widely steeped in the spirit of the age, which can be summed up as rejecting the absolute value standard and taking relativism as a whole instead. By secularization of the church I do not mean leaning toward materialism or hedonism but rather shifting, in essence, its value standard from God to man himself. Far from being a distraction from Christian living and outreach, theology gives us a specific logic for truthful relationships with God, others, and the whole creation. Tragically, the de-theologizing of the church has resulted in the weakening of its spiritual immune system and has shifted our focus from the glory of God to our own prosperity.
Today there are many speculative reflections as to why the line between the world and the church has been blurred. Some infer that the church needs to improve morally. Others argue that a new pastoral approach should now determine the growth of the church. But I do not think those are the main issues. It is frustrating to us that the majority of church members are ignorant of what they should believe and how they should live as Christians. As Scottish theologian James Orr pointed out, it has been proved that Christian ministry not founded on biblical logic and solid theological thoughts has never lasted long. (1)
Christian Doctrine as Wisdom of Life
Let us think for a moment about how the gospel was first given to the Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles listened to the apostle Paul when he went around the cities of the Roman Empire and taught the teachings of Jesus, because he talked about new ways of life. Since ancient Greece, people have pursued ways to achieve a happy and virtuous life. What was attractive to people about Paul's proclamation was their new way of life and the impression that they were living with a strong belief in morality and the values within them.
The most concise summary of the gospel is: "Christ died for us." We do not need a great deal of biblical knowledge to be saved. With this short phrase, the Holy Spirit can convict a person to repentance and salvation. People do not need complex formulae or a lot of systematic knowledge to repent and believe in Jesus.
To live as true Christians, however, they need various kinds of doctrinal knowledge about God, man, and creation. That is why John Owen, the great Reformed Puritan theologian of England, once said that to know the gospel is to know the gospel itself and gospel doctrine. (2) Although simple, the gospel is far from simplistic; we spend our lives plumbing its depths without ever reaching bottom, and it has myriad effects in every aspect of our lives, individually and corporately. It is the very merit of Christian religion for men to weave piety and life just like embroidered brocade, with a needle of doctrinal knowledge and a thread of gracious affection.
The Values of Babel and Jerusalem
The true idea of Christianity does not lie in size. The desire to have more is not the value of Jerusalem but rather of Babel. If God had wanted to apply the size principle to religion, he would not have chosen the Israelites. Instead, he would have chosen a larger nation such as the Roman Empire, Egypt, or China. The true ideal of the church is not to become a body that wins over the world with size and scale, prosperity and success. Confusing the gospel with capitalism, the prosperity gospel in Korea (as in the U.S.) is an example of what can happen when God's people are poorly taught.
The true value of a lighthouse on a dark sea does not lie in its magnificent grandeur. Just emitting light clearly and brightly is all it is required to do. Such is the value of the church. Remember, presence is the best proclamation. Even if Jerusalem was just a small city and Israel a meager nation in the history of ancient Palestine, God made Jerusalem his footstool and Israel his priestly nation and the light for all other nations. Without Israel, people could not have seen clearly through the history of the world nor rightly known God. The world came to know who God is through his economy that made covenant with his people and governed them. Therefore, the value of the church is not in becoming bigger and higher but in remaining true and right. For it is impossible for the church to become more church-like without its saints becoming true Christians.
Whatever Happened to Conversion?
God's glory is not only the cause but the end or goal of creation. It is falling short of that glory that measures the terrifying character of sin. In some circles, it was common to talk about conversion instead of justification. Increasingly, however, a more therapeutic way of speaking has arisen and we hear more about transformation than we do about regeneration and conversion.
Regeneration is a miracle of God's grace. Once dead in trespasses and sins, one becomes conscious of this fact and trusts in Christ. The repentance and faith that arise from this regenerating grace belong to conversion. All of this is a gift of grace. Yet in regeneration we are passive, and in conversion we are active. We repent and believe.
In conversion, God gives us the grace to give up the idea that we are the center of the universe and that our own happiness is the highest value. Instead, we recognize God as the center of the entire universe and his glory as the highest value. The crisis of today's Christianity is the disappearing of fervent outcries of preachers urging for regeneration and conversion of the unconverted. In fact, there has been a wide-scale reversal: no longer sinners who need to turn away from ourselves to Christ, we are good people who need God to adjust himself to us and to our goals.
But conversion, unlike regeneration, is not simply a one-time event. God gives us preserving grace for a life of continual conversion’that is, perpetual repentance and faith in Christ. From the gospel we embraced at the beginning, we receive continual life. From this source, we die daily to ourselves (mortification) and live to God in Christ by his Spirit (vivification). This is the vitality of gospel holiness. By God's grace, believers cannot help but grow in their trust in Christ and bear the fruit of this faith in their affections and actions. A truly new creation has entered into this old creation. Though still corrupt, we can’and do’begin even now to experience what it means to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Knowing God in Jesus Christ
Deepening our understanding of Scripture and its doctrines is therefore essential for any genuinely Christian piety. Conversion involves the whole person: thinking as well as experience and action. In all of our catechism classes at Yullin Church, we point out the importance of understanding God, his creation, and ourselves. We say, "Since the knowledge of these three objects is revealed in the Incarnate Christ, I have to study God, his creation, and myself through Jesus Christ."
All we need to give a person is a simple statement of the gospel. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals the gospel and gives us the grace to know a holy God, our sinfulness, and Christ's redemptive death on the cross for us. The law and gospel give us repentance and trust in Jesus Christ. We can die for the gospel because of the deep assurance of the truth we have obtained from it. However, it is not so simple for a believer to live a life on this earth as a Christian in compliance with the purpose to which God has called him. Gospel doctrine is the construction material for the house of thoughts. Two main structures of our faith are regulae credendi, namely, what ought to be believed, and praecepta vivendi, what ought to be lived out. They are not randomly mixed like beads in a bag. They must be logical and systematically structured. The establishment of firm believers lies in the completeness and comprehensiveness of such thoughts. Today, the loss of systematic knowledge of faith and belief has made vague the distinction between the church and the world.
Recovering Serious Doctrinal Training: Experiences of Yullin Church
It is not enough for a denomination with many local churches under it to hold fast to the Reformed faith. A theological standpoint of a denomination is difficult to figure out, barely disclosing itself even during a theological disputation. Most of the time, it does not reach the practical life of congregations of individual churches. This may stem from the fact that pastors and church political leaders do not have a firm belief in and experience of Reformed theology.
The first step in dealing with this issue is that individual churches need to clearly teach church members the rules of faith to be believed and what the Bible specifies for wise living and action. Teaching should not be sporadic but rather systematic, detailed, extensive, effective, and practical.
I would like to share what my Yullin Church is doing. We are active in evangelizing, and for at least twenty weeks we teach new believers Christian doctrines such as the Holy Trinity and the Fall of man, the redemption of Christ and the salvation of human beings, the church, the kingdom of God, end times, the perfection of the world, and so forth. Throughout the course, trainees need to do homework and assignments every week and study with a pastoral instructor once a week. They study about worship, salvation, the cross, and our pastoral ministry. Only after completion of the course can they become official church members. As in the ancient church, adult converts first complete a month-long doctrine course and then make a profession of faith before the elders and pastors. They are instructed in the privileges and responsibilities of church membership, and after a period of further catechesis, they receive baptism and become members. Assessments by parish pastors and lay leaders play important roles for the period of instruction.
That is just the beginning of doctrinal education in our church. New believers are then deployed to a cell group and encouraged to engage in a weekly cell Bible study. In a cell group, one gets to study not only devotional books for the laity but also doctrinal books for specialized theological knowledge, such as Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck or other books by Puritan writers. (3) Members are then entitled to take the elementary doctrine course. Every year, between 250 and 350 people start and finish the course.
A typical course lasts about sixteen weeks; we use The Manual of Christian Doctrine by Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof as the main textbook, and several other doctrinal books. (4) In this course, members write a review of the sermon and the assigned reading each week. Those who take this course, upon scoring 95% or higher, may teach. This is true even of those who teach our children.
The catechism used for questions asked during the confirmation and baptism ceremonies at our church is the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Repetition and memorization of the catechism is a special trait of doctrinal education at our church. When people have a wedding, they need to pass the catechism test even if they have already been baptized. If they do not pass the catechism test, they are not allowed to use the church facilities or to ask a pastor of the church to speak or officiate at the ceremony. When parents want to have their infant baptized, they must pass the catechism test again.
In my pastoral experience, even this much training is not sufficient, for to know right doctrine also requires the ability to criticize faulty doctrines. The duty of defending the truth is enormous and consists of these three aspects: a logical understanding of the content of one's belief; a present religious experience of the content; and the apologetic faculty to argue one's belief correctly. That is why at our church anyone who has finished the elementary doctrine course is allowed to take an advanced doctrine course two years after taking the elementary doctrine course. In the advanced doctrine course, students study Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated directly into Korean from Latin, for sixteen weeks. Students are required to listen to one sermon on doctrine or a theological seminar every week and to do reading assignments and practice piety such as prayer, evangelism, Bible meditation, and so forth. Weekly quizzes, as well as a midterm and a final exam, prepare students for election to service in the church. When pastors, elders, and deacons are so thoroughly instructed in a common faith, there is consistency. The whole church is built up into Christ together in this way, from teachers who shape the early lives of children to the elders who visit members and the deacons who care for the temporal welfare of the flock.
I have come to realize from my own experience that the most ideal way of teaching is by preaching during worship services. The most ideal way of doctrinal training is to learn from preaching in a worship service that one offers to God with reverence and obedience. There are three official worship services at our church: Sunday morning service, Sunday afternoon service, and Wednesday service. All of my sermons deal with doctrine, but I give an intense doctrinal sermon for at least one of the three official services. Yullin Church also has Bible Training Meetings four times a year. In traditional Korean church settings, Sakyunghoe or Bible Training Meeting is a conference where participants are blessed by closely contemplating the Word of God, constantly asking "Is it really so?" (5) The four Bible Training Meetings are: New Year Bible Training Meeting in the second week of January; Passion Bible Training Meeting during the Passion Week; Summer Family Bible Training Camp in August; and Fall Bible Training Meeting in the middle of October. Sermons during these meetings mostly deal with theology and Christian doctrine, but also occasionally practical issues. (6) Afterwards, sermon texts of each meeting are made into a book so that church members can use them for one or two months in their Bible studies and discuss what they have learned and what blessings they have received.
Although it is true that teachings on the Reformed doctrines should be a foundation for piety, we need to know not only static doctrinal information but also the dynamic history of the world in order to understand the significance of the Reformed faith in today's context. To address this issue, we came up with the idea of a special seminar for all church members called Seminar on the Mountain, which is offered two or three times a year. (7) All church members go to a camping facility on a mountain far away from the city and spend a Sunday afternoon in fellowship, eating, resting, and learning the wisdom necessary for them to live in this age and world according to the Reformed faith. While interacting with nature, they learn knowledge that may not be provided at regular worship services. Philosophical history from the Renaissance up to the Reformation and the modern and postmodern eras is delivered for a better understanding of general and intellectual history. Events of interactions between the church and the world are examined and explained in interpreting the history and the meaning and significance they give us today. Furthermore, the seminar addresses basic questions in Christian theology’not only to train believers to lecture, but also to help them draw out doctrine while meditating on the Word. This is why our church encourages the congregation to read the works of not only the Reformers and Calvinistic Puritans but also modern writers in the Reformed tradition.
Merits of Doctrinal Education to the Ministry
The church is reaping the following harvest by educating everyone from young children to the elderly.
First, we can achieve theological unity between pastors and laity. Yullin Church was established seventeen years ago by seven seed members, and currently 4,500 people attend every Sunday. During these seventeen years, however, there has not been a single incident of theological dispute between church members or between pastors, for every pastor is first required to complete doctrinal training with his wife.
Second, preachers can preach theologically without worry, which is an attractive feature to a minister. To build a storehouse of knowledge, one necessarily needs logic. If you build a pile by dumping a load of bricks on the ground from a truck, you can heap only so much; but if you squarely stack them one by one according to a predetermined design, you can easily stack tens of truckloads of bricks. Today, the educational function of worship has lost its merit, and people cannot discern between worship and ritual. Worship today has become a ritual, like a convention on a national holiday. But worship is where we meet God in spirit and in truth. Giving glory to God means that we acknowledge God by meeting him. We need clear truth, the working of the Holy Spirit, and a desperate desire to meet God. The best preparation of a worshiper is an intellectual desire for God's Word, the truth. God takes the heart of a worshiper from the world and floods it with God's fullness by revealing his goodness and beauty in a glorious way through preaching.
Another reason why man needs to study doctrine, Jonathan Edwards says, is that studying theology is just fun. (8) In Korea, just as in America, a popular entertainer can be an idol to young people. They have a deep interest in every move the entertainer makes, and they collect a lot of information on this person. The more complex the information, the merrier they are, for they love the subject of the information’the entertainer. To love God means to enjoy what he has done and to be happy to know of his existence and attributes exhibited through his works. And when learning who God is and the attributes exhibited through his works, one's ways of thinking and living are affected’love accompanied by knowledge will influence the whole person. To enjoy something means a final pleasure of it without any other end than itself.
Third, it protects your congregation from dangerous teachings. Like America, Korea has seen in the last decade several influential errors the church must not ignore. Oddly enough, the primary target of those in error is not unbelievers but believers who regularly attend the church. However, when church members are well taught through systematic doctrinal education, they will not be swayed by those teaching false doctrine. Christian development, after all, is the maturation of knowledge and love. "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen" (2 Pet. 3:18).
Fourth, doctrinal education provides the church congregation with a worldview that can encompass all phases of life. Originally, the word "doctrine" had the same meaning as the Greek word sapientia, which is used frequently in philosophy. It is in the same line of thought of Petrus van Mastricht, one of the great theologians in the seventeenth century's Reformed orthodox tradition: "Theology…is doctrines to live with God through Christ." (9) Thus one should not regard doctrine as mere knowledge or speculation. Through doctrine we can be armed with Christian thoughts, overcoming notions of vague religious dependence on God. Right knowledge of God shapes our relationships with our neighbors. And the death of the incarnate Christ on the cross’who showed God's holy justice, our sinfulness, and the love of God toward us’is the gateway to all sound knowledge. Reverence for God and indescribable love toward him draw his people to learn piety.
Unbelievers will be reminded of God's holiness by watching the lives of holy saints who had a relationship with God who is highly exalted above all creation. This is the true meaning of missions, which is about God's activities of raising true worshippers. Nowadays, it is hard to find extraordinary evidence of success in evangelism and the gospel ministry, for true success is determined not by the number of church attendants but by true worshippers. By focusing our lives on trivial matters, we distort our calling as Christians in crucial matters with an unbiblical yielding spirit. True and earnest pious living comes only out of systematic doctrinal knowledge. Thus we need to put our lives on the ground of knowledge, and by our living prove that this knowledge is true. (10) The goal of Christian education is to raise a generation of Christian thinkers.
Fifth, doctrinal education moves us away from the fierce competition of church growth. If a pastor wants to plant or grow a church in Korea by employing marketing strategies, discipleship training, cultural ministries, the prosperity gospel, mysticism, or psycho- logical approaches, he would have severe competition from many churches in the neighborhood, for they too employ similar tactics to try to increase the size of their congregations. In that environment, the harder you try, the fiercer the market will become among the other churches. But when you want to grow your church with doctrinal education in Korea, competition is very loose. In the seventeen-year history of Yullin Church, I have never found that a large church in the vicinity has prevented our growth or put us in a difficult situation. Every year, we plan goals for evangelism but never set a goal for a specific number of members, which has not been in our interest. The glory of the church is not in size or number but in purity, as the essence of a lamp lies in emitting light. Therefore, we have to be sure about the gospel truth that we have received, experience it in our daily lives, and teach and spread it to our neighbors as covered with our sweat and blood.
It may seem that not all people would like sophisticated systems of doctrine and strict training. But a lot more people than we think have a desperate desire to hear and understand in a short time comprehensive explanations of God, this world, and themselves. I have personally seen so many people whose hearts seem dead, although they know about the gospel and attend church services. But when they think about the meaning of the gospel from sermons that cover the universe, the world, and the birth and death of men, their perspective on the gospel changes and leads them to true conversion.
Sixth, doctrinal education spurs the spiritual growth of a pastor. When the congregation is armed with doctrinal knowledge and grows in it, the pastor feels more responsible for his ministry, for he must continue to study Christian truth. Moreover, he needs to experience presently and directly the doctrine in order to speak about it in the way of Jesus, and not as a picky teacher. In 1740, during a revival in Cambuslang, Scotland, many were blessed by a sermon when tears flowed down the cheek of a gray-haired elder. He was a professor in the local seminary and confessed to the congregation: "All my life, I have taught the doctrine of atonement, but finally I am meeting the Christ who redeemed me." (11) The most important duty of a pastor is to study Christian truth and become the person who points to this truth. When that happens, he becomes a witness, not to cold pedantic knowledge, but to the truth. As Gisbertus Voetius, the famous Reformed orthodox theologian, once said, "One of the most elevated elements of piety toward God is prayer in the Holy Spirit." (12) By surveying the lives of the Reformers and Reformed orthodox theologians, the Puritan theologians of England, and the fathers of the early Christian church, I am challenged in fear and trembling at how much pastors need to study. Before being pastors and preachers, they were truth-seekers, which is evident in the affinities to truth and affections for doctrines flowing consistently in their preaching and writing. Therefore, preachers must devote every second of every day to studying the Bible and theology, except the hours to be allotted for ministerial chores and family and social obligations.
Churches thrive when they combine deep Christian thinking with genuine religious experience. The duty of a pastor is to proclaim and to teach God's Word, with God’his glory and grace in Christ, rather than human flattery, as the goal and substance. The glorious means of grace entrusted to us are great instruments for such tasks. Thus our worship needs to be filled with glorious emotions for meeting the holy God, and our preaching needs to be an honest and pure proclamation of God's truth. Our sacraments must also be conducted in reverence and grace with a congregation who understands their meaning. Pastors are not tour guides but leaders of soldiers of Christ gathered for the kingdom of God.
Having said so much about the need for rigorous catechesis, I should not forget to underscore an important point. God's grace is not only a doctrine that we teach, but it is the constant source of any growth. Faithful ministry is utterly dependent on God's blessing, which keeps us on our knees in earnest prayer. Without this grace, our preaching and doctrinal education cannot change a single soul. Nevertheless, God has promised to bless his chosen means of grace. Likely, the next generation will be even more uncertain and relativistic in their value system, overflowing with religious pluralism. In the face of this challenge, we need to build up believers intellectually and arm them through doctrinal education so as to raise the next generation on the foundation of knowledge, inspired by the love of the cross of Christ. This must be the vision of which pastors dream.
2 [ Back ] John Owen, On the Nature and Causes of Apostasy, and the Punishment of Apostates in The Works of John Owen, vol. 7, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), chapter 3.
3 [ Back ] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002).
4 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (Arlington Heights: Christian Liberty Press, 2007).
5 [ Back ] "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
6 [ Back ] Following are an example of the titles of theological sermons of the series delivered during the Bible Training Meeting: "Doctrine on Keeping Heart," "God's Plan for our Salvation," "The End for which God Created the World," "The Church and God's Love," "Sanctification and Weariness of Souls," "Sanctification and Uprightness," "Christ: the Mystery of Piety," "Doctrine on Overcoming Tests and Temptations," "On Man's Happiness," "On Creation and Holy Trinity," "On the Order of the Church and God's Governance," "The Beauty of the Church and Blessed Saints of God," "Mortification of Sin, Dominion of Sin and Grace," "Ways to Overcoming Deceits of Sin," "Excellency of Christ and Duties of Men," "Grace and Corruption," "Doctrine of Recapitulation of Christ."
7 [ Back ] Following are the titles of such seminars: "A Study of the Role of Christians as Truth-Communicators in Global Society," also presented at the Periodical Academic Seminar of Reformed Theological Society hosted by the Korea Reformed Theological Society in Chongshin University (15 March 2008); "The Growth of the Korean Church and Its Future Role," also presented at Global Legacy and Mission: Korean-North American Diaspora Consultation (5-6 May 2010), jointly sponsored by Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology in Seoul of Korea and Westminster Seminary California. Other titles of seminars include "Current Trend of Contemporary Evangelicalism," "Time and Eternity," "Wonderful Symmetry of the World and Its Consummation," "Immanent and Economic Trinity," "Lectio Divina: Christian Tradition, Uprightness of Human Will through Sanctification."
8 [ Back ] "Third. This is a pleasant way of improving time. Knowledge is pleasant and delightful to intelligent creatures, and above all the knowledge of divine things; for in them are the most excellent truths, and the most beautiful and amiable objects held forth to view. However tedious the labor necessarily attending this business may be, yet the knowledge once obtained will richly requite the pains taken to obtain it. 'When wisdom entereth the heart, [and] knowledge is pleasant to the soul' (Proverbs 2:10)." Jonathan Edwards, "The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 22, ed. Harry S. Stout (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 100.
9 [ Back ] "Theologia...est doctrina deo vivendi per Christum." Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, qua, per capita theologica, pars dogmatica, elenchtica et practica, perpetua successione conjugantux., Tomus Primus (Trajecti: Thomae Appels, 1699), 1. Cf. Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety in Brill's Series in Church History, vol. 35 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), chapter 2.
10 [ Back ] Francis Turretin, a Reformed Orthodox theologian, once said, "[So] neither can that knowledge of God be true unless attended by practice. Nor can that practice be right and saving which is not directed by knowledge." Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 22.
11 [ Back ] For the Cambuslang Revival, cf. Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, ed. John Gillies (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), 433-64; Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival: The Scottish Evangelical Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971).
12 [ Back ] "The most elevated part of the practice of piety consists in prayer in the Spirit, in meditation, or in both. For in these all parts of theology come together." Aza Goudriaan, professor of patristics of the Free University, Amsterdam, "What Piety Is Needed?" Second Reformed Orthodox Theological Seminar held under the theme of "Voetius on Piety and Learning," Yullin Presbyterian Church (October 2010). For books on prayer by Voetius, cf. C. A. de Niet, ed., Gisbertus Voetius: De praktijd der godzaligheid (Ta asketiva sive Exercitia pietatis, 1664), chapter 3.