A Neglected Jewel of Discipleship
Recovering the Westminster Larger Catechism
In the Presbyterian Church in America we celebrate and value our Reformed and Confessional heritage. Our aim since 1973 has been to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed Faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” This has been our goal from the start because we believe that Reformed and Confessional Presbyterianism is the truest expression of biblical Christianity. Confessional Presbyterianism is Christianity come into its own.
In order to maintain and nurture confessional integrity in our churches, however, we must be intentional in the use of our confessional standards— The Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. We cannot expect our congregations to embrace Reformed doctrine and develop sound theological categories without regularly being exposed to them. It could be argued that denying our congregations exposure to these doctrinal treasures leaves our flocks more vulnerable to the myriad errors of broad evangelicalism. Moreover, leaving our confessions on the shelf can convey the popular notion that doctrine really isn’t that important in the whole scheme of things, and that it tends to foster division; that what really matters are felt needs, practical service, and numerical growth.
One of the greatest, and most overlooked, tools for Christian discipleship in the PCA is the Westminster Larger Catechism. Along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism, the Larger Catechism constitutes our confessional standards. Even so, it is rarely used in our congregations. The Larger Catechism is a neglected jewel of discipleship, ready to be rediscovered for the spiritual benefit of our churches.
A Very Brief History
The Westminster Confession and catechisms were penned in the 1640’s. It was a dynamic and complex period of British history. King Charles I and his royalist army were at war with the English Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell. Amidst the bloody civil war, parliament called for an ecclesiastical assembly for the purpose of uniting the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland under one confession of faith, church government, form of worship, and catechesis. The meetings were held in London at the Westminster Abby from 1643-52.
Several well-known catechists were among the members of the Westminster Assembly. Herbert Palmer, described by at least one member of the assembly as “the most notable catechist in England,” was chosen to lead. After some delays and disagreements about the form and content of Palmer’s catechism, however, a new committee was formed to assist Palmer. Unable to agree on the theological depth of the new catechism, the committee was eventually tasked with writing two catechisms rather than one — a shorter catechism for children and new believers, and a larger, more exhaustive, catechism for mature believers and the corporate church. The two catechisms were completed in the fall of 1647.
Structure and Content
The Larger Catechism is a distillation of the doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and an amplification of the Shorter Catechism. The 196 questions and answers in the Larger Catechism are more thorough and in-depth than the 107 questions and answers in the Shorter. This is especially true of the sections on Redemption in Christ, sanctification, the Ten Commandments, the means of grace, and the Lord’s Prayer.
The large and detailed section on the means of grace — preaching, sacraments, and prayer — reminds us that the Larger Catechism was written for the benefit and use of the corporate church (Q. 154—186). It is also a highly practical section, teaching the church the what, where, when, why, and who of Reformed worship and piety. Both ordained pastors and church members are given invaluable instruction on the use and appropriation of the means of grace. Here is a small sampling:
The Preaching of the Word
- How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?
They that are called to labor in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season, plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessity and capacity of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.
- What is required of those that hear the Word preached?
It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- How is our baptism to be improved by us?
The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
- What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the time of administration of it?
It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.
- How are we to pray?
We are to pray with an awful apprehension of the majesty of God, and deep sense of our own unworthiness, necessities, and sins; with penitent, thankful, and enlarged hearts; with understanding, faith, sincerity, fervency, love, and perseverance, waiting upon him, with humble submission to his will.
In this small sampling of questions and answers we are reminded of the rich depository of biblical truth that is found in the pages of the Larger Catechism. It is a jewel of discipleship for Confessional Presbyterians, designed to be taught by our ministers and “echoed back” by our congregations with faith, understanding, and love [Gk. katecheo = kata —down; echeo— to sound]. When practiced faithfully, it is the echo of sound doctrine for the glory of God and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16).
Perhaps it’s time, then, to pull the Westminster Larger Catechism off the shelf. If you are a pastor or ruling elder, maybe you could plan to teach it to an adult Sunday school class, Bible study, or small group in the future. Don’t let its size intimidate you. It doesn’t have to be taught all at once or straight through. Maybe your church could include a question and answer from the Larger Catechism in the bulletin each week or in the quarterly newsletter. Or perhaps the pastor could begin a series of short pastoral letters reflecting on the Larger Catechism for the edification of the flock. You may think of other ways to incorporate this rich resource. Perhaps you could take time in your next session meeting to consider how to utilize it in your church.
As Confessional Presbyterians, it makes no sense to neglect this significant and highly beneficial portion of our doctrinal standards. The Larger Catechism is truly a jewel of Christian discipleship; a rigorous summary of the Gospel.
Let’s recover its use in our churches today.
For further study see John Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010); Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary(Phillipsburg: NJ, 2002).