A little bit ago, a buddy of mine was musing about the fact that he doesn’t connect to most devotional literature of the type that truly “spiritual” people normally rave about. His critical, analytical mind and personality just doesn’t connect with warm meditation, but rather with critical analysis of history and culture.
For a while I’d found myself in a similar place. After seminary, my devotional life became a bit trickier. I find that my mind comes most alive to God when I’m reading systematic theology, or wrestling with some interesting piece of biblical theology, but when I try to slow down, pause, and meditate on something like My Utmost for His Highest, I just can’t do it. (That’s not to disparage Chambers. I loved it in college. The sad thing is, most current, popular stuff doesn’t even come close to his depth.) Because of this, finding good devotional material has been a challenge.
This didn’t trouble me much at first. I would simply pray, read my Bible, and then move on to my academic reading. Still, after a while I realized that I need a slowing down, a place for a more contemplative, heart-oriented approach to God in my devotional life. When I “just read my Bible” I found it hard to turn off the analytic mode. When I did, I didn’t really find my heart moved, but rather just bored.
The Good News We Almost Forgot
Just when I thought all was lost, I got my hands on The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung. The book is basically a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which you can read for yourself here. For those of you unfamiliar with catechisms, they are a series of questions and answers designed to be memorized by either new believers, old believers in need of depth, or children in order to teach them the content of the Christian faith. They’re employed across various confessional church traditions and they usually they have scripture references attached to the answers for believers to look up and study as well.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written at the University of Heidelberg at the commission of Elector Frederick III and was approved by the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563. The Catechism has 129 questions and answers that are basically commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 10 Commandments, but it is divided into fifty-two sections, called “Lord’s Days,” so that pastors could preach through them on each of the 52 Sundays of the year. It is one of the most universally recognized pieces of Reformed theology across confessions and was adopted by the great Synod of 1618-1619, as one of the Three Forms of Unity, along with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.
Now for myself, having been raised in a barely-denominational Friends church, I hadn’t spent more than a minute with anything like a catechism, except to know \the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer: “Q. What is the Chief End of Man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” To my less-than-enlightened mind that was great, deep, but spare stuff. The thought of spending a whole book reading about a catechism didn’t originally strike me as an edifying experience, because at that point, “I already knew that stuff.”
Still, my buddy told me that he’d been using DeYoung’s book as a devotion because it breaks up into 52 short chapters (2-3 pages) commenting on each of the Lord’s days. I figured, why not? It can’t hurt.
After a short introduction to the catechism much more exhaustive than my paragraph, I got to the first Lord’s Day and read Question and Answer 1:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
When I read this I nearly started to tear up immediately. The first sentence alone gripped me: “I am not my own.” There is nothing sterile, dry or impersonal about this answer. At the same time, it deploys in a matter of sentences the doctrines of atonement, providence, adoption, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, assurance, and sanctification, in order to draw me into the saving reality of the Gospel. As you read through the rest of the catechism, there are other questions of similar depth and power. DeYoung’s commentary each day was solidly theological, scriptural, and very pastoral. For the next month and a half I found myself daily edified by the truths encapsulated in the short answers and the meditation that followed.
I had finally found something to found the devotional gap in my life.
Why Read Catechisms– After this I went on a search and started reading through the different catechisms and confessions I could find, (Westminster, Luther’s, Belgic, Scots), as a part of my daily time of prayer and scripture. I found myself time and time again, blessed, challenged, and moved to worship and delight. I also found myself wondering why I had never done this before.
If you’ve never spent time with a catechism, here are three reasons you should in no particular order.
1. Hearing voices from other centuries– Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. This means that Christians have been reading, praying, thinking, and writing about the Gospel for 2,000 years. It is foolish to not pay attention to what our mothers and fathers in the faith have said in past generations as if the truth of the Gospel had a 2 month shelf-life. Their voices are needed if we are to hear the Gospel in all of its fullness in our own day. Catechisms are a great way of doing that given that most of them were written centuries ago and have still been found spiritually beneficial after all of these years.
2. Deep truths; short phrases. Most catechisms and confessions are doing serious theology and yet condensing it down into short, memorable phrases that are perfect for meditation and contemplation throughout the day. They are perfect for engaging the mind as well as the heart with the truth of God throughout your day.
3. Know Your Bible- Finally, most catechisms and confessions are packed to the gills with scriptural references backing up every statement. You can trace them down as a devotional exercise that can help you get to know your Bible better than you did before, as well as learn the deep, biblical basis for what we believe. It also can help you get into the scriptures in a focused, guided way that is less intimidating for some people than just opening the thing up and reading it.
Where Do I Start?
Honestly, I think DeYoung’s book, The Good News We Almost Forgot is a great place to start. I don’t have a copy of my own any more because I keep giving it away. When one of my college students asks me if I know of a book they should read, it’s one of the first two or three that I recommend.
If you want to start checking out catechism right away, you can start here.