Category Archives: Preaching

Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


Open Your Bible

Imagine a morning worship service.  The pastor reads the text for his sermon.  Then everyone closes their Bible.  Dangerous – I can think of no other word to describe this situation.  Let me explain why.

The Bible teaches us that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.  Nowhere is this made more explicit than 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  When the Thessalonians heard the preaching of men like Paul, they heard the voice of God speaking to them.

This is implicit in Ephesians 4:17, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  The Holy Spirit says that Jesus came and preached to the Ephesians.  But we know that the Lord never traveled to Asia Minor to preach.  So, how can it be said that Jesus preached in Ephesus?  He preached through Paul and others.  When they preached, it was as if Christ was preaching through them.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.

However, there is a crucially important biblical qualification.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word when it’s done faithfully according to God’s Word.  If the words of the pastor are contradicting God’s Word, they can’t possibly be God’s Word.  The preaching has to be in line with intention and meaning of Scripture.  We see this from the example of the Berean Jews in Acts 17.  Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The Holy Spirit commends these Jews for hearing the preaching of the apostles and comparing it with the written Word.  Because the two lined up, “many of them therefore believed.”

There are three reasons why it’s dangerous for believers to close their Bibles when listening to preaching.

First, it’s dangerous for you.  What if the pastor is just feeding you his own opinion instead of preaching the text to you?  How will you tell if you don’t have your Bible open?  When you have your Bible open, you can better discern whether the pastor is preaching the Scriptures or his own ideas.  You can better discern whether the preaching you’re hearing is God’s Word.

It’s also dangerous for your pastor.  Every human being needs accountability, including pastors.  When pastors face a congregation where everyone has their Bible closed, the likelihood they’ll get away with preaching their own opinions is far greater.  In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  In Galatians 1:8, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  Accursed means “damned.”  In other words, damned be the pastor who preaches another gospel.  As a preacher, those words make me tremble and bring me to beg for the accountability of my listeners.  I want them to hold me accountable to preach only God’s Word.  They can do that far better when they listen to me with an open Bible.

Finally, it’s dangerous for the gospel.  All Christians want the gospel to move forward.  We all want the gospel to touch hearts and transform lives.  But if God’s Word is not being preached faithfully, how is that going to happen?  Preaching is a means of grace.  It is a way through which the Holy Spirit graciously brings people to Christ.  Yet it only does that as the preaching is faithful.  If we love the gospel, if we long to see people saved through it and lives transformed through it, then we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the preaching we hear is the preaching of the Word of God.  That’s done best when you have your Bible open in front of you.

It’s not just the responsibility of elders to ensure that the preaching is faithful.  All believers have a calling to hear preaching, but also to think about whether it is faithful, biblical preaching.  When we close our Bibles and blindly trust our pastor to do what’s right, we’re actually not too far off from the medieval church.  In the medieval church, many people just uncritically trusted what the priests were saying.  Look where that led.  The Reformation put preaching front and centre.  But the Reformation also put the Bible in people’s hands.  Regular Christians could again follow the example of the Bereans.  Not only would it be sad, it would also be dangerous if we would dial back the Reformation’s gains by listening to preaching today with a closed Bible.


Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!


Fighting Truth Decay

Truth has fallen on hard times.  As I read the headlines each day, I can’t help but wonder:  “What happened to truth?”  Then I think of all the ways God’s people are bombarded with lies every day.  They’re carefully crafted lies and they so easily deceive.  Satan, the head trafficker of lies, is doing booming business.  Though it comes from an entirely different context, Isaiah 59:14-15 seems to have been penned just this morning:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.  Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

How can we as Christians continue to stand in the face of this truth crisis?  How will the church survive?  It’s going to be like it always has:  on the basis of the public, objective truth of God’s Word.  Let me point out four ways we need to work with God’s Word to battle truth decay in our day.

The Preaching

When you come to worship each Lord’s Day, you’ll hear your pastor proclaim God’s Word as steadfast, eternal truth.  You can’t underestimate the impact that has.  When you hear a man himself firmly convicted of the truth he’s preaching, that’s going to be a boost for your own grasp on the truth.  Moreover, if that preaching is faithful to God’s Word, it’s not merely a man you’re hearing.  In fact, Scripture teaches that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word (1 Thess. 2:13).  It’s a word from him who will never lie (Titus 1:2).  Faithful preaching is the Word of Christ, who is not only the way and the life, but also the truth (John 14:6).  There’s a reason why the Holy Spirit tells believers not to forsaking gathering together (Heb. 10:25) — the Spirit of truth drives home the word of truth in our gatherings.  So come each Lord’s Day and get your truth supplement.

Regular Daily Family Worship

Imagine if every family in the church were to gather regularly for the reading of God’s truth.  Imagine the good that would do not only for our children, but also for parents.  To listen to the truth of God’s Word each day and then to reflect on it together is going to be powerfully reinforcing its message for us.  A super helpful resource for reflecting and discussing every chapter of the Bible together is the Family Worship Bible Guide.

Regular Daily Bible Reading

One of the biggest regrets of my pastoral ministry is that in my first congregation, I didn’t teach the importance of developing the discipline of reading through all the Scriptures — that was so foolish!  God taught me this in my second congregation through a godly elder in a home visit.  More than ever, we need to be imbibing the truth of Scripture for ourselves every day.  It’s not enough just to read a Bible devotional.  Bible devotionals are selective — they only give you a verse or two chosen by the author of the devotional.  Bible devotionals are sometimes defective — too many of them neglect the fact that the Bible is first of all about Jesus.  Bible devotionals are always subjective — as you read it you only get the limited viewpoint of that author.  Bible devotionals can be helpful, but it’s not the same as doing the hard work of reading and studying the Bible for yourself.  It’s through that hard work that you appropriate God’s truth for yourself.  Developing that habit means that every day we’re letting the Holy Spirit speak truth to our hearts through the Word.  There are all kinds of Bible reading plans out there — you just need to pick one and starting running with it.  It may be hard at first, but if you persevere for the long haul, you won’t regret it.

Studying the Bible with Others

Finally, the truth gets reinforced as we study the Scriptures with one another in the communion of saints.  We have brothers and sisters who have seen truths in the Bible that we have not yet seen.  We need them to share that with us.  Similarly, we may have grasped truths from the Scriptures that they haven’t yet.  They need us to bring those truths to them.  Getting a better handle on the truths of God’s Word needs to be a communal effort.  Together, we can see and grasp more of the truth we need for life in this world in the grip of lies.

Let me leave you with Phil. 4:8, where the Holy Spirit says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true…think about these things.”  What is more true than God’s own Word?


Get With The Times

Every pastor knows the value of a good illustration.  I have a few in my pedagogical toolbox and I use them regularly.  Some are timeless and I’ll likely keep using them as long as I teach and preach.  Others made sense to everybody 10-20 years ago, but fewer people are grasping them with the passage of time.

One of my favourite illustrations has to do with baptism and the covenant promises signed and sealed by God in this sacrament.  I’ve used it countless times in sermons and catechism lessons.  I didn’t come up with it — I don’t even remember where or from whom I first heard it.  It’s the illustration of the cheque.

This is the illustration as used in my book I Will Be Your God: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace:

We must distinguish between extending the promise and receiving what is promised.

An illustration might help.  It is not a perfect illustration, but it will get the point across.  Imagine if I were to give you a cheque for $10,000.  Another name for a cheque is a promissory note.  It is a promise from me that you will receive $10,000 from my bank account.  But say that you take my cheque and put it in your pocket and then forget about it.  Next week you pull those pants on and you put your hand in your pocket and there is a crumpled wad of paper.  It has been through the washing machine, so you are not quite sure what it is anymore.  You throw it in the garbage.

Did I extend a promise of $10,000?  Yes, I wrote the cheque and gave that promissory note to you.

However, did you receive $10,000?  No, because you did not take the cheque to the bank and deposit it or cash it.  You did not do anything with that cheque and so you missed out on what was promised.

Do you see the difference now?  It is the difference between extending a promise and receiving what has been promised.  It is the difference between giving a cheque for $10,000 and getting $10,000 in your hand.

That is what happens in the covenant of grace.  God proclaims the promises of the covenant to all in the covenant.  Every single person — and that needs to be stressed.  However, not every single person receives what is promised in the covenant: the blessings.  That is because there is a human responsibility within the covenant relationship.  Everybody needs to bring the cheque to the bank, so to speak.  The big question is how.

Do you see a possible problem this illustration might encounter today?

When we moved here to Australia in 2015, we right away noticed that cheques are almost completely extinct here.  It was getting like that in Canada, but Australia is even further along in electronic payments for everything.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an Australian bank cheque.  Still, I’ve kept on using the cheque illustration, banking on the hope that most people still know what I’m talking about.  Most probably do, even the kids in my catechism classes.  Yet the illustration is undoubtedly losing its currency.

I’m mentoring a couple of young men from my church in teaching catechism.  I have a sabbatical coming up shortly and they’ll be taking over my catechism classes.  One of them was teaching on baptism.  Afterwards, we got to discussing this illustration and I asked how it could be updated.  “A gift card,” was the reply.  Hmmm…..

Indeed, if someone gives you a gift card for $10, it’s like a promise for that amount.  However, in order to cash in on the value of the gift card, you need to do something with it.  If it’s for iTunes, you need to get yourself to the iStore.  If you leave that gift card in your pocket and forget about it, it’s given you no benefit.  You have to redeem it.  Similarly, with God’s covenant promises, you have “to redeem them” in order to receive their value and benefit.  The way that’s done is through faith in Jesus Christ.  I think that works to bring the illustration into a new era.

As I intimated in the book excerpt above, it’s not a perfect illustration.  It can only be taken so far.  For example, it doesn’t reckon with the reality that not appropriating the promises for yourself doesn’t leave you in a zero-sum state.  If you don’t deposit your cheque or redeem your gift card, you’re just left with nothing.  There’s no penalty.  But if you neglect or spurn God’s covenant promises, there are serious consequences (e.g. Hebrews 10:26-31).

It’s often said that the best way to teach is to show and not tell.  A well-crafted illustration does exactly that.  “Well-crafted” means also ensuring our illustrations are relevant and easily grasped.