This article originally appeared in the October 1987 issue of The Outlook.
Every pastor in the Christian Reformed Church ordinarily each Sunday must “preach the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, following its sequence” (Church Order, Article 54). Whether every pastor does this is another matter, a matter to be addressed by the elders of the local church. Ordinarily, then, each Christian Reformed pastor every week goes to his study with the goal of preparing a so-called catechism sermon. He reads the questions and answers listed under a particular Lord’s Day; he checks standard commentaries and sermon helps in English (Z. Ursinus, H. Hoeksema, J. K. Van Baalen, and others) and, perhaps, in Dutch (B. Holwerda, K. J. Popma, H. Veldman, and others); he takes brief notes and organizes them into a rough outline form. But, sooner or later, he must decide on a Bible text. And that is often the most difficult part.
“Difficult?” you ask “How can it be difficult for a preacher to decide on a text? Especially when so many texts are footnoted in the catechism’s own answer?” The difficulty comes not so much in finding an appropriate text as in finding a text that “fits” the particular questions and answers to be considered in the catechism sermon. For example, in writing a sermon on Lord’s Day 33, dealing with daily conversion and the nature of good works, where is the preacher going to find a text that speaks of all these items in the same verse or in the same place: the dying-away of the old self, the coming to life of the new self, good works arising out of faith, conforming to God’s law, performed for His glory, and not being established on human tradition? Obviously, no one Bible text includes all of these items.
The preacher, therefore, faces a difficulty. And to resolve this difficulty, this tension between a set of questions and answers in the catechism and what is found in a particular Scripture text, the preacher will have to make a crucial decision about his upcoming sermon. Either he will have to stay with the catechism answers and develop his main points from them (and bring in various Scriptures along the way) or he will have to go with a particular Bible text (and bring in the catechism where it fits the exposition of this text). These, then, are the two main methods of writing a catechism sermon. For the sake of identification, let us refer to them as the catechism-text method and the Scripture-text method.1
The Catechism-text Method
When I refer to the one as the “catechism-text method,” I do not mean to say that this method does not take the Scriptures into account. All of us would agree that every catechism answer is filled with scriptural content and, in many cases, quotes or refers directly to a particular Bible text. So I do not mean to play off the catechism against the Bible. My labeling of these two main methods concerns the starting point of the sermon and the development of the main points of the sermon outline. Where does the pastor get his main theme for his catechism sermon? From a particular Lord’s Day or particular answer within a Lord’s Day? Or from a particular Bible text? And how does the pastor decide the main points of his sermon? By looking at how the Bible text flows in its logical or rhetorical development? Or by checking the particular Lord’s Day or a particular answer to one of the questions within the catechism?
Let me give two examples to show the differences between these two methods of writing the catechism sermon. Take question 86, part of Lord’s Day 32, which basically asks, “Why must we do good?” The catechism answer may be divided into three main points, each point giving a reason for doing good works. We ought to do good works: (1) for God’s sake (to “show we are thankful to God . . . and so that he may be praised”), (2) for our own sake (“so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits”), and (3) for others’ sakes (“so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ”). So this would be the sermon outline, using the catechism-text method. (Perhaps I have already violated the purest form of the catechism-text method by outlining a sermon based on only one answer when Lord’s Day 32 actually contains two questions and answers. A rigorously consistent use of the catechism-text method would require fifty-two sermons, each based on one of the fifty-two Lord’s Days.) In further expounding these three points of his catechism sermon, constructed according to the catechism-text method, the pastor would draw upon the various Scriptures footnoted in answer 86.
The Scripture-text Method
Now take that same theme, namely, the importance of doing good works, and let us proceed from the Scripture-text method. To begin with, I know of no Scripture text that lists in one place all three of the catechism’s reasons for doing good works. However, I can find a text that mentions at least one of the reasons. Take Matthew 5:14–16, considered under the sermon theme, “Christians Shine as Lights.” Briefly scanning the text (without, I must confess, having studied it carefully or yet having preached on it), a basic sermon outline emerges. Focusing on light and how Christians shine as light, the outline might take shape as follows: (1) its nature (“you are the light”—what is light?), (2) its display (“cannot be hid” but is “put on a stand”), and (3) its usefulness (“gives light to all in the house”). Or, if one is inclined to alliteration: (1) its essence, (2) its exhibition, (3) its effectiveness. (Of course, pure Volbedian2 construction would also require alliterative adjectives, no matter how redundant: its pure essence, its public exhibition, its practical effectiveness.) As you can readily see, this sermon begins with the Scripture text and is developed in harmony with the text. As a catechism sermon on question and answer 86, the preacher would pull in the part of the catechism answer that teaches that God is praised as we perform good works. He might even make reference to the fact, taught in Matthew 5:16, that our good works serve as a witness to our neighbors (another fact noted in answer 86). But in this sermon the preacher would not mention how good works assure us of the genuineness of our faith. Why not? Simply because Jesus does not address this matter in Matthew 5:14–16. That would have to wait for another sermon, with another theme based on another Bible text.
By this time, the differences between the catechism-text method and the Scripture-text method should be quite obvious. The two methods offer two different ways of writing the catechism sermon, from the choosing of a main theme to the logical or rhetorical development of the sermon outline.
Is the one method to be preferred over the other? I can only give you my personal preference. Having tried both methods, I have come to prefer the Scripture-text method. Although the catechism-text method may be the traditional method for the construction of a catechism sermon, the advantages of the Scripture-text method seem to outweigh the strength of that particular tradition.
Having spent some years as a listener of sermons before becoming a preacher of sermons, I have found that it is the rare preacher who can consistently deliver high-quality catechism sermons using the catechism-text method. Although there may be a few preachers who have mastered this method, even they will have difficulties with the themes and outlines contained within some of the Lord’s Days and some of the answers. I am willing to admit that perhaps the problem with the catechism-text method is not so much the method as the preacher. But until the preacher learns how to better use the catechism-text method, he ought to stick with the Scripture-text method.
Another advantage of the Scripture-text method can be seen in a day in which “sharing” from the pulpit often replaces the authoritative preaching of the Word of God. Many preachers thrive on inserting so many of their own personal opinions and anecdotes within the sermon that the scriptural content of the sermon, if ever there was any, is not readily apparent to the listener. In my opinion, using the Scripture-text method will help to guard against this kind of preaching. As he prepares his sermon with strict adherence to the Bible text, following the words and phrases of a specific verse, the preacher will be less likely to get lost in the mists of personal opinion and in the mire of shared feelings. Of course, the preacher who is intent on sharing opinions and feelings will do it regardless of the method he uses in writing his sermon! Yet, being forced to stay as close as possible to the Bible text should minimize “sharing” and maximize true preaching.
Another advantage of the Scripture-text method, as I see it, is closely related to the above. And this has to do with those who listen to sermons. Increasingly, I hear Christians saying that they want sermons that stick to the text, the Bible text. They will tolerate and even appreciate references to the catechism when such references relate to the text, but many of them are tired of preachers who do not refer to their Bible text after it has been read before the sermon begins. More and more of our members are sifting with their open Bibles and notepads in hand, waiting for the preacher to expound God’s Word—to explain it and to apply it. They appreciate a preacher who will lead them carefully, word by word and phrase by phrase, through a verse or group of verses. For such listeners, and their number is growing, the Scripture-text method is the preferred method.
We preachers do not have a choice as to whether we will write and preach catechism sermons. We will. But we do have a choice as to how we will write those sermons. Every week we must make a basic decision. Which method will you use in writing your sermon? And for those who do not stand behind the pulpit but who sit in the pew, which method will your pastor use as he prepares next week’s catechism sermon? 1. These two methods, although labeled somewhat differently, are found in unpublished lecture notes by Dr. Carl Kromminga as well as in a thesis written by Rev. Paul Zylstra. 2. Samuel Volbeda (1881–1953), a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Rev. Randal Lankheet is pastor of Covenant Reformed Church of Toronto (URCNA).