This summer, our family has renewed its work to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We try to fit some of the questions in our daily devotions and as we drive on the road. Recently, I was explaining to my six year-old son that God has planned every event in history - even the minutest detail. He then looked me squarely in the eye and asked “even the bad things?” The discussion flowed from Q&A 7 that says “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”
My son asked a question that everyone asks, and the catechism simply helped him to draw it out. The Shorter Catechism has the knack of not only asking great questions, but it helps us ask questions that exist deeply in our souls that we might not otherwise articulate. Better still, it gives the answers of the Bible and points us in the right direction for further thought and study. Why else should you memorize the Shorter Catechism? Here are five more benefits that I have experienced – from among dozens that could be listed:
- It will fill your mind with truth. Theologian John Murray has famously said of memorizing the Shorter Catechism “It will not only give you the most perfect human compendium of Christian truth that there is in the whole world, but it will be the finest mental exercise, and it will lay a foundation in your mind and in your life for a hundred other things as well as for true religion.”
- It will organize your thoughts about God. This catechism is a series of 107 questions and answers. It is what we call a miniature systematic theology. It draws together the truth of the whole Scripture to answer the poignant and difficult questions that face every person. It divides into two sections. The first section teaches what man is to believe about God, and the second section teaches what God requires of man. The first 38 questions address the purpose of life, the nature of God’s word, the nature of God, his eternal plan, creation, providence, sin, mankind, his plan of salvation, the person and work of Christ, how we come to know Christ, and the benefits we receive from him.
- It will comfort your soul. When our thoughts about God are mature, all of life makes more sense experientially. For example, in the death of loved ones, Q&A 37 floods my mind and points me to meditate on the related Scriptures when it says that “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.” That is merely one example.
- It will enrich your prayer life. When we have a good handle on who God is and what he wants from us, it becomes much easier to petition him according to his will. For example, I do not know how many times I have heard my parents pray for unbelievers along the lines of Q&A 31. As I grew up, they would ask that God’s Spirit would convince unbelievers of their sin and misery, enlighten their minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renew their wills so that they would be persuaded and enabled to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered in the gospel.
- It will strengthen your evangelism. The more grounded we are in truth, the more we will be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us. Specifically, the Shorter Catechism equips us for evangelism effectively because it is by nature designed to give basic answers to the most important and hardest questions of life. What is our purpose? Who is God? What is he like? How does he relate to the world? What is sin? And so on. The Westminster Shorter Catechism also provides the best outline for street preaching that I have found. Unless my listeners know the catechism, they would not know I was using it as my outline. But, by speaking for a few minutes on each question (summarizing the answer, quoting related Scriptures, adding anecdotes, and applying the truth to life), the preacher can reach people with the nub of salvation in only a few moments from one of many angles, present continuously fresh and deep material that is still systematically connected for anyone listening for lengthy periods, and relate to the most relevant questions of life. Invariably, people stop and inquire further. This idea is not original. My great-great grandfather was once on a voyage at sea. Being a pastor, he was asked to preach on the Lord’s Day. Having no notes or prepared sermon in mind, he simply preached the Scriptures working with the outline of answers from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He set the Lord and his salvation before the passengers who later commented on the amazing breadth and depth of the sermon.
From one generation to the next, this marvelous human compendium of Christian truth has asked and answered many of life’s deepest questions. It is not breathed out by God like the Scriptures. It simply summarizes them for us and disciplines our minds to meditate more deeply on the inspired word. Like memorizing anything, committing the Westminster Shorter Catechism to memory is hard work, but the reward of possessing true answers is more than worth it.