Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Things My Mom Taught Me About Theology — What That Means For Your Kid

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I'm giving you one of John Calvin instead.

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I’m giving you one of John Calvin instead.

On a whim last week I stopped to try and think about who, out of the various books, pastors, and theologians I’ve been shaped by, has most shaped me theologically. I started rifling through the names–Calvin, Vanhoozer, Horton, Wright, Barth, Newbigin, Kreeft, Lewis, Kierkegaard–and came up with a surprising answer: my mother, Arliett. This is no joke, or even my attempt at a heart-warming post about dear old mom (who really isn’t old anyways), it’s just a practical point. For all the Calvin or Vanhoozer or Horton I quote, the deepest roots of my theological instincts can probably be traced back to my mom’s early instruction in the faith.

I’ll be straight with you and say Mom doesn’t have what most would consider formal theological training. She was raised in a Catholic school and got saved in a Calvary Chapel Bible study a couple of years before I was born. There was no seminary and I don’t recall us owning a single systematic theology text in the home before I bought mine in seminary. Mom learned what she knew from a lot of Bible studies, personal reading, and a lot of hours listening to sermon tapes from Bible teachers. Still, she learned enough to be recognized by the leadership and was eventually asked to be a bible study leader in the women’s groups at our churches.

Her first aim though, besides knowing and loving Jesus herself, was that my sister and I would know him too.  For the first few years of my life in church, she was my Sunday School teacher using the flannel-graphs, telling us the stories, and teaching us from the Word of God. When she had a major surgery related to a tumor when I was in Jr. High, she told us afterwards, that her one prayer was that she would live so she could make sure and encourage us in our faith until we were adults. And honestly, I can attest she did not let up–ever. Whether it was playing hundreds of hours of sermons in the car, buying us teenage devotionals, making sure we were in Bible studies, or praying for us in moms’ groups, we had a full-time spiritual cheerleader and gadfly in my mom.

So what exactly did my mom teach me that’s still with me today? Plenty, but I think I’ll limit it to 5 key points:

  1. The Trinity is Non-Negotiable – Back when I was a kid we had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons walking door to door a lot in our neighborhood. My mom was aware of this and told us one key question we should always ask when someone came around trying to talk about Jesus was “Do you believe in the Trinity?” If they didn’t, just tell them you do and don’t continue the conversation. While maybe not the best example of ecumenical dialogue, she wasn’t much interested in it at that point, but rather with the spiritual health of her children. She never mentioned Arianism, tri-theism, modalism, or the difference between the economic and immanent Trinity, but she did teach us very clearly that Christians confess a Triune God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anything else is not the God of Jesus Christ.
  2. Is it in the Bible? – Next, she taught us the importance of the Bible. Her and my dad both would read the Bible to us at night, (although she preferred my dad to do the reading before bed because she didn’t want us picking up her Honduran spanish accent in our English). In that, and a million other ways, she was always telling us that the Bible was where the truth of God was found. We weren’t fundamentalists rejecting all other books (my parents took me to the library a lot), but the bottom-line was, for faith and morals, if it wasn’t in the Bible, then it wasn’t binding on us for salvation, and should probably be avoided. Now, of late I’ve come to a more appreciative view of the weight of tradition, creeds, councils, etc., but that basic instinct to strive to trust the Word of God above all other words came through the words of my mother.
  3. We Have a Story-Shaped Gospel – This one’s kinda simple. Like I mentioned above, my mom taught us Sunday School. I learned a lot of Bible stories at her knee. Also, I don’t know if it was my dad or my mom who made the decision to use the sweet comic-book-style Picture Bible when we were kids, but that was a great move. From a very early age I had the inarticulate sense that the Bible was not just a collection of disembodied truths, but a series of stories telling the spiritual history of all the generations of believers that came before, leading up to the saving actions of Jesus Christ. Long before I read Hans Frei, my mom taught me about story.
  4. Balance – Another theological instinct bequeathed to me by my mom was a sense for balance. I’ve never been a fan of extreme positions or false dichotomies. For instance, I’ve always been peeved at those who try to pit a Christus Victor angle against the penal substitutionary angle or vice versa, in the atonement discussion when they’re both fully compatible with each other and found in scripture. (Col. 2:14-15) The one issue that I remember my mom giving me a sense of balance about when I was a kid was regarding spiritual gifts. We were at a decent Assembly of God church for a couple of years because they had a good kids program, but when I came home asking why I didn’t have the gift of tongues in the 3rd grade, my parents decided it was time to roll out. She made a point to tell me that yes, the ‘charismatic gifts’ like tongues and prophecy were real (not cessationism), but they were always to be used in proper order, and they weren’t necessarily for everybody (charismaniacs). We all have different gifts. Again, I’m pretty sure she’d never read Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, but she taught me to handle the Word in a way that wasn’t reactionary or ‘enthusiastic’, but calmly responsible.
  5. Humility – Finally, my mom strove to teach me humility. I can’t tell you how often she would talk to me about Solomon’s humility in asking for wisdom. In a hundred different ways she warned me against pride in thinking I knew more than I did, simply because I usually knew a little more than the rest of my friends. This continued from the time I was a small child until I was in high school, and then in college, and on into grad school, and–you get the picture. For natural born sinners, humility before the Word of God and the God who is beyond fathoming is a lesson that can never be taught too early or too much.

What Does this Have to Do with You? As I mentioned earlier, I’m not just trying to write a heart-warming post about my mother, or my childhood. My point in ripping through all of those truths my mom taught me is to encourage parents to understand their primary role in the spiritual education of their children. I didn’t learn those very important lessons in seminary, but in the home.

I say this as someone who works in student ministries. I know about the wonderful programs, Sunday School teachers, directors, studies, and lessons that can be used to help shape the spiritual life of your child. The plain fact of the matter is that, at best, we get your kids for about an hour or two a week while you have them for the rest of it; there is simply no competition.

You need to realize that your child’s spiritual life is not the church’s responsibility, but yours. We are there to help you do your job as a parent. See, your primary job as a parent is not to make sure that your kid gets on the right sports team, or the right college, or has a “successful life”, or is even “happy”. Your primary job is, by implicit example and explicit instruction, to point your child to Christ in all that you do.

If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of being responsible for the spiritual well-being of your child hear me say three words of encouragement:

  1. First, good for you–it is a big deal and from my experience in student ministries not enough parents care about it beyond wondering why we haven’t speed-sanctified their child for them. A little urgency isn’t a bad thing.
  2. Second, calm down–you are not responsible for converting them, as that is work of the Holy Spirit, but pointing them to Christ. Too much urgency will make you crazy.
  3. Third, take heart–you are not alone in this. You have the promise of Jesus that he will be with you until the end of the age as you go out to fulfill the Great Commission even unto the ends of your own backyard. (Matt 28)

Soli Deo Gloria

Some resources for newly-inspired, but lost parents:
1. The Jesus Story-Book Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
2. Big Truths for Young Hearts by Bruce Ware
3. The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung (More for parents who feel shaky about theology)

Beefing Up Your “Quiet Times”: Catechisms and Confessions as Devotional Literature

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.

How exciting!!!

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.