Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Church Catechism: Knowing God and Serving Him

This series is based in part off of a lecture given by the Hackney Hub at at a diocesan event.

The Church Catechism, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, is an excellent introduction to the Christian faith, in general, and to the way it has been practiced in England and English-speaking areas since the Reformation. It is to be commended for its simplicity, which makes it accessible to every man in nearly every stage of life. It does not deviate from (the commonly called) first order issues, i.e. those things which are necessary for salvation. 

The Catechism is comprised of the elements that make up the basis of Christian faith. These were the traditional elements learned before confirmation, both before and after the Reformation. They include, the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord's Prayer. The 1604 revision added a section on the Sacraments at the end, another basic component of Christian faith. I believe the Catechism adequately addresses the two main aspects of the Christian life, that being the interior process of conversion and sanctification and the exterior realization of said change. 

The first two sections of the Catechism (the "introduction" and the Creed) deal with the interior process of conversion or coming to faith. "Faith" in itself is a two sided coin as well. First, it describes the mental affirmation, or "head faith", of the doctrines of the Christian faith, that being the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Virgin Birth, etc. These mental affirmations are important because we must know who God is, how he relates to the world, and the manner in which he came to earth, in order to properly have faith in his goodness towards us. The other side of "faith" is "heart faith" or the conviction of sin, whereby we realize that we are nothing without God's mercy and grace, obviously only initiated by the workings of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This conviction leads us to the Cross of Christ, whereby we find healing in his wounds and forgiveness of our wrongdoing. This "heart faith" is the stuff of conversion and sanctification, of turning away from sin and to Christ as Lord and Savior. 

To turn to the first portion of the Catechism:

QUESTION. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or M.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?
Answer. They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.
Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?
Answer. Yes verily: and by God's help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life's end.
In this first portion of the Catechism, we learn some very important things about ourselves and our true identity. In the first question, we see that the whole of our identity is tied to Christ as our name was given to us at our baptism, the beginning of our journey in faith. In this sacrament, Christ claims us as his own and begins his work of redemption within us. Of course, as young infants, we cannot know the nature of sin and repentance, it is for this reason that our godparents made these promises on our behalf. In this sense, maturation in the Christian faith is to take these promises made on our behalf and to make them properly our own promises. For this reason, baptism makes us "inheritors" because of the promises made on our behalf and the faithfulness of God.

What is the nature of the promises made on our behalf? That we should renounce the devil and sin, that we should believe the Christian faith, and that we should walk in God's will and keep his commandments. This is the high calling to which we must strive to live, not of our own power but of the power of Christ within us. These promises are not trivial matters but matters which cut the core of who we are as human beings. For this reason, it is important that we understand the nature of what we are agreeing to by believing in God and secondly, to know the great benefits of this relationship. For this, we can turn to Holy Scripture for clarification on the nature of faith.

The most basic question of all is, what is faith? What does it mean to have faith in God? The Scriptures offer us a clear definition, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). The author goes on to say that it was through faith that the saints of the Old Testament "obtained a good report" (v. 2) meaning that faith has always been the means by which believers find communion with God. Returning to the concept of two "faiths" that I mentioned earlier, this is more the realm of "head faith" which will be dealt with in the next installment of this series (of the Creed) but it is important to note that "head faith" and "heart faith" are intertwined but one must have both to fully comprehend the mysteries of God. In verse 3, we see that faith opens us up to the reality of God and the supernatural world, "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." This is why the natural man has such a hard time understanding the things of God, because his heart and mind have not been opened to this truth. Our hearts and minds must be opened to this truth to truly approach God, for, how can we approach him if we are not certain of his existence and work among us? "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (v. 6).

Having this definition of faith in mind and what it opens up to us, if we turn to the previous chapter of the book of Hebrews, we can see the immense benefits that faith in God can open to us:

19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,
20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;
21 And having an high priest over the house of God;
22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.
23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)
24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

Before even commenting on this passage, we must realize that the basis of our faith is the sacrifice of Christ made for us at Calvary. This is evident in the text itself as the previous portion of the chapter speaks of Christ's sacrifice. The Cross of Christ is the only thing that makes any of this beneficial and it is the only means by which we have access to God.

This portion of Holy Scripture describes the benefits of faith in Christ. There are several benefits listed in this passage. First, in verse 19, we see that we have access to God. We can enter his presence at any time, without the mediation of another. For this reason, the Exhortation at Morning Prayer says, "Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me..." because we can approach the "throne of heavenly grace" at all times and in all places. The point of having this access to God is to have communion with Him, for this is what He desires of us and what we are growing to desire of Him. Second, in verse 20, we note that Christ is the only way to the Father. This verse describes Christ as a "new and living way" and then brings to reference the veil of the Temple. This contrasts the Covenants of Works and Grace.

The next portion is crucial. In verses 22 to 24, we see that faith is the only way by which we can have these benefits. This refers us back to the Catechism, where we see the "plan of salvation" laid out for us, that being the conviction of sin, repentance and faith, followed by sanctification of life as evidenced by our following the Commandments of God. Verse 22 refers to the interior and exterior realities of this transformation. First, our hearts are "sprinkled from an evil conscience" which refers to repentance of sin and consequently "our bodies washed with pure water', which refers to baptism, our entrance into the family of God as his children. Baptism is the sign of regeneration, which is why it is tied so closely to the interior regeneration and repentance of sin here.

This miraculous work of God leads us to not only show evidence of our own faith through charity and good works but also encourages us to help others do the same. Our good works and love are evidence of a life saved by faith through grace. They show our thanksgiving to God for all that he has done for us and in us. The last verse of this passage is perhaps strange to some. What does the public assembly of believers have to do with our salvation from sin? A great deal, according to the Scriptures. We are not saved to be hermits on a mountaintop but to be in the world (but not of it). For this, we need the encouragement of other believers who have experienced the same wondrous salvation in Christ. For this reason, we gather week by week to praise God together and listen to his works among us.

Lastly, we return to the Catechism, whereby we note that the last question states a key point. That being that none of this is possible by our own strength or will. This is God's work in us for his glory. The Christian faith is remarkably humbling in its complete denial of our own role in our salvation. We cannot turn to God on our own, nor do we have the desire so to do. The only reason we are saved is because of his great mercy and love to us. Moreover, the only way that we can continue in his will is through his grace. As the Scripture says, "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)" (v. 23).

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