In previous weeks I’ve used one particular image or illustration to help us as we’ve been working our way through the church’s Shorter Catechism. I’ve suggested that we can think of the Catechism as a house. You go into a house and immediately you come into the hallway where there’s a choice to make. You can either choose to stay on the ground floor or you can choose to go up the stairs to the upstairs. And, if it’s a stately home you’re visiting, you know that whether you stay downstairs or go upstairs, no matter where you go there will be interesting things to look at and fine pieces or art or furniture to look at and to admire.
And I suggested in the past that we can look at the Catechism like that, because the first three questions are like an hallway or the entrance. The first question, you might recall, asks ‘What is man’s chief end?’ And the answer is: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ Okay, where can we find out how to do that? We find out from the Bible. That’s what question and answer 2 are about: ‘The word of God, which consists of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how to glorify and enjoy him.’ And what the Bible principally teach us? That’s what question and answer 3 is about: The Scriptures principally teaches what we’re to believe about God and what duty God requires of us. In other words, the Bible is about what we’re to believe and what we’re to do. That’s the introduction, the beginning of the Catechism.
And the rest of the Catechism can be divided into those two parts: what we’re to believe and what we’re to do; faith and practice. And so, if this were a house, we could stay on the ground floor and examine what we’re to believe. Or we might decide to go upstairs and examine what we’re to do. But whether we go upstairs or whether we stay downstairs, we know that we’re going to come across one wonderful thing after another, because the Catechism is just full of wonderful things for us to know and to think about and to admire about God and our salvation.
Up to now, we’ve been on the ground floor of this house. And over previous weeks we’ve been going from room to room, learning one thing after another about what we’re to believe about God. But we’ve finished with the ground floor now. Question 38 (which we looked at last week and the week before) on the benefits we receive from believing in the Lord Jesus at the resurrection was the last thing to look at on the ground floor. And so, we’re ready to go upstairs and to begin examining the second part of the Catechism which is all about what we’re to do. And just as there were wonderful things to see and to examine in the first part of the Catechism, so there are marvellous things for us to learn in this part as well. And, of course, if we learn these things and understand them well, then we’ll understand our Bibles better and we’ll understand much more clearly than ever before what Christianity is all about and why we ought to love and trust and worship God above all other things. And, of course, that’s the whole purpose of the Catechism. The Catechism summarises for us what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a big book. And so the Catechism is trying to summarise the message of the Bible for us. And it’s trying to summarise the Bible for us to help us to understand what God has done for us in the past and what he promises to do for us in the future. And knowing this, knowing what God has done for us and will do for us leads us to praise him and to worship him for all his goodness towards us.
If the ground floor is all about what we’re to believe and the upstairs is all about what we’re to do, then today we’re really only going to stay on the stairs. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, today we’re neither up nor down, but somewhere in the middle, because today I want us to thanink back to what we’ve already learnt and to look forward to what we’re going to cover next.
What we’re to believe
What have we learnt already about what we’re to believe about God? Well, in one room of this house we learnt something about the nature of God and what he’s like. We learnt that he’s a Spirit — so he doesn’t have a body like us. And he’s infinite — so he’s not limited or restricted in any way like us. And he’s eternal — so he has no beginning or end like us. And he’s unchangeable — so he does not change like us. And he’s infinitely and eternally and unchangeably wise and powerful and holy and just and good and true. There is no one like him.
We learned as well that while there is only one God, nevertheless this one God is a Trinity of Three Persons because there’s God the Father, and there’s God the Son, and there’s God the Spirit. However, there aren’t three gods. There’s only one God. But this one God is three Persons. And so, do you remember we looked at the baptism of the Lord Jesus in the River Jordan? And the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. And a voice spoke from heaven, saying: ‘This is my beloved Son’. And so, you had the God the Father speaking from heaven. And you had God the Son being baptised. And you had God the Holy Spirit descending on him. People say they believe in God. Yes, but do you believe in this God: the God of the Bible who has revealed himself to be a Trinity of Three Persons. People say they believe in God. But do you believe that Jesus Christ is God the Son and therefore should be loved and trusted and worshipped along with the God the Father and the Spirit? People say that all religions are basically the same. But no — only Christianity believes in this God who is one God and yet Three Persons.
We then moved into a new room because the next set of questions were all about the work of God the Father. And we discovered that God the Father is a planner: he plans things. Now we also plan things. But often our plans come to nothing. We have an idea that we’re going to do this or that or go here or there. But for whatever reason, we don’t get to carry out our plans. Maybe there was something wrong with our plans; we didn’t think of everything. Or maybe something outside of our control occurred which ruined our plans. But God is very different from us and not only does he plan things perfectly, but he also carries out his plans perfectly.
And we learned that he carries out his plans first by creating the world and then afterwards by controlling and sustaining all that he has created. So he made the world in the beginning; and he rules over it and maintains it now. Well, as part of his plan for controlling and sustaining the world, he entered into a covenant with Adam, the first man. God promised Adam (and all his descendants after him) eternal life if Adam obeyed God’s special commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit. Obey God’s command and live forever — that’s the promise. Disobey God, and you will die — that’s the threat. And, of course, we know that Adam disobeyed God. And so he (and all his descendants after him) fell into a state of sin and misery. It’s a state of sin because we inherited Adam’s guilt and his fallen, sinful nature so that it’s natural for us to sin and to disobey God now. No one needs to teach us how to sin because it comes so naturally to us. And it’s a state of misery because our sin separates us from God who is the source of all that is good; and because of our sin we come under God’s wrath and curse.
But God is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably good. And God is also a planner. And so, because he is good and because he is a planner, he had a plan to do something good in order to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us into a state of salvation. His plan was to send into the world his Son to redeem us or to free us from our sin and misery.
And so, we moved into the next room of this house in order to learn more about God the Son. And we learned that God the Son came into the earth as a man in order to be our Great Prophet and Priest and King. As our Prophet he makes known to us God’s willingness to save us from our sins. As our Priest, he offered himself on the cross as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins and to reconcile us to God forever. And as our King, he makes us his people and he rules over us and defends us and he conquers all his enemies. We learned that he humbled himself: God the Son lowered himself and came down to earth as a man and suffered so much for us and died and was buried. We also learned that afterwards he was exalted: he rose from the grave to resurrection life and then he ascended to heaven and took his seat beside his Father in heaven, from where he rules over all things, and from where he will come to judge the world one day. And in the meantime, he sends the Holy Spirit to ensure that the salvation he won for us on the cross reaches us.
And so we moved into the next room of this house and there we learned about the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ the Saviour through faith. We hear the good news of what Christ has done for sinners like us. And the Holy Spirit enables us to believe and to cling to Christ. And whenever the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ through faith, we receive various benefits in this life, and various benefits at death, and various benefits at the resurrection when Christ returns to earth. We receive one good gift after another from believing in the Lord Jesus.
And so, we receive justification, so that we are pardoned for all that we have done wrong and are accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. And we’re adopted in God’s family. And we’re sanctified so that more and more we’re enabled to resist sin and to obey our heavenly Father. We’re also assured of God’s love; we’re given peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit; we grow in grace and are enabled to persevere as Christians right to the end of our lives.
And the gifts don’t stop there, because at death, our souls go to be with the Lord in heaven; and at the resurrection, our bodies are raised from the grave and we’re enabled — body and soul, made perfect and glorious — to be with God, enjoying his presence forever and ever. And that, of course, is what we were created for. God made us to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. And because of God the Father who planned our salvation, and because of God the Son who redeemed us, and because of God the Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ through faith, we will be brought into the presence of God in eternity to do what we were always meant to do.
What we’re to do
That’s the ground floor and that’s what we’ve spent, I think, 24 weeks studying together. And when we grasp these things, it makes us want to praise God for who he is (this great and glorious God who is infinite and eternal and unchangeable) and it makes us what to praise him for what he has done to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life. Once Adam sinned that first time, he could so easily have destroyed the world and everything in it. He could have left us all in our sin and misery. But no, he was prepared to do all things necessary to save us.
That’s the downstairs; the first part of the Catechism. What will we find upstairs? Question 39 asks:
What is the duty which God requires of man?
What does God want us to do? And really the remaining questions can be divided into two parts, or if you want to continue the image of the house, we can divide the upstairs into two large rooms. First of all, questions 39 to 81 are all about God’s moral law. What duty does God require of us? The duty he requires of us is obedience to his moral law which he has written on our hearts and which he has revealed throughout the pages of the Bible and which is summarised in the Ten Commandments. What does God want us to do? He wants us to keep the Ten Commandments. And the Catechism takes us through the Ten Commandments. The first four are about how we’re to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And the remaining six are about how we’re to love our neighbour as ourselves. And the Catechism goes through each of the ten, explaining what each commandment requires us to do and what they forbid us from doing. So, each commandment is explained positively: do this. But each one is also explained negatively: don’t do this.
But question 82 confronts us with a massive problem. Question 82 asks whether any of us is able to keep the commandments perfectly? And the answer is that none of us, since the fall, is able to keep them perfectly and that everyday we break them in thought and word and deed. And then the answers to questions 83 and 84 teach us that though some sins are worse than others, nevertheless every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse both in this life and in the life to come. God requires us to keep his commandments. But none of us can. And that’s the bad news which every person needs to hear and to understand before they’re ready to hear the good news of the gospel. Every person needs to be convinced that they are a sinner who has broken God’s holy law and that they are therefore liable to God’s punishment in this world and the next. We need to be convinced of this, because only then are we ready to hear what we learn in question 85 of the Catechism, because question and answer 85 of the Catechism is about what we must do now, now that we have broken God’s moral law.
What are we to do since we haven’t kept his commandments perfectly? The answer to question 85 tells us that in order to escape God’s wrath and curse, we’re required to believe in the Lord Jesus; and to repent of our sins; and, having done so, we’re to make diligent use of the outward means of grace by which our faith is strengthened. And so, this takes us into the next room. The first room upstairs was about keeping the commandments. This next room is about what we need to do in order to be saved because we have not kept the commandments. And so what are we to do? We’re to repent of our sins and believe in Christ — because through faith in Christ, we’re justified, adopted and sanctified and receive all the other benefits of his life and death and resurrection.
And so the Catechism explains to us what faith is — it means receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is held out to us in the gospel. The preacher offers us Jesus Christ: Here’s the Saviour of the world. And he will save you as well if you will only take him as your Saviour. And so, we take him and cling to him and to him alone. And the Catechism explains to us what repentance is — it means being sorry for our sins and hating them so that we turn away from them and turn to God and resolving from now on to obey him.
And we’re to make diligent use of the outward and ordinary means of grace. And the means of grace are: the reading and preaching of God’s word; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and then there’s prayer. Through the reading and especially the preaching of God’s word, God the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds to create and to sustain our faith. And so the Catechism explains the value of the public preaching of God’s word as the means appointed by God to strengthen our faith. And through the sacraments, God also works to strengthen our faith. And so the Catechism explains the value of baptism and the Lord’s Supper when God’s promise to wash away our sins forever and to give us everlasting life for the sake of Christ who died for us is set before us in a visible way. And by means of these sacraments God works in us. And through prayer, God acts to sustain our faith as well. And so the Catechism explains what prayer is and it closes with an explanation of the Lord’s Prayer which is a model for how we’re to pray.
God commands us to keep his commandments. But we can’t. And so we deserve to be punished. So, in order to be saved, we’re commanded to believe in the Lord Jesus, because all who believe in him are pardoned for all that they have done wrong and they’re reconciled to God forever, receiving the hope of everlasting life in the presence of God. And to enable us to persevere right to the end of our lives God works graciously in our lives as we gather here Sunday by Sunday to hear his word, and to receive the sacraments, and to pray together.
That’s where we’re headed over the next weeks. And so we’ll spend our time on the upstairs of this house, examining all the wonderful things that appear in both of these rooms. First, it tells us about God’s moral law. And then, it tells us about how to escape God’s wrath and curse for disobeying his law.
But here’s the thing, and with this I close. The Catechism reminds us that our salvation depends entirely on God. As someone once said, the only thing we contribute to it is our sin, because God takes care of the rest. Why do I say that? The first part of the Catechism teaches us all about God’s work. First of all, the Father planned our salvation. Then the Son came and accomplish our salvation. Then the Spirit came and applied our salvation by enabling us to believe in the Saviour. The first part of the Catechism teaches us what God the Father and the Son and the Spirit did to save us. And in the second part of the Catechism we’re taught that we must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to escape God’s wrath and curse. So again, the focus is on Christ and not on us. But someone may object and say: Yes, but we must repent and believe and we must continue to trust in him. That’s my work. That’s down to me. That’s something I have to do. But what does the Catechism teach us? That even here we must rely on God, because it’s God the Holy Spirit who works through the reading and preaching of God’s word to create faith in our hearts. He enables us to believe. And it’s God the Holy Spirit who continues to work through the preaching of God’s word and through the sacraments and through our prayers to enable us to persevere and to keep believing. Do you see? From beginning to end, our salvation is all God’s work. And so, when we finally come into our eternal rest, we will spend all of eternity praising him for his goodness to us.