Table of Contents
Part I – Prolegomena
- Section One: Authority, Revelation, and Scripture
Part II – What Man Ought to Believe Concerning God
Part III – What Duty God Requires of Man
- Section Eight: Introduction to the Moral Law
- Section Nine: The First Table of the Moral Law (Part One)
- Section Ten: The First Table of the Moral Law (Part Two)
- Section Eleven: The Second Table of the Moral Law (Part One)
- Section Twelve: The Second Table of the Moral Law (Part Two)
- Section Thirteen: The Proper Response to Law and Gospel
Part VI – The Communication of God’s Grace
- Section Fourteen: The Ordinary Means of Grace
- Section Fifteen: Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
There have been several commentaries and helps written on the catechisms of other traditions, especially commentaries on The Westminster Shorter Catechism. Here is a list of some of those that I have found particularly helpful:
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism for Study Classes by G.I. Williamson
- The Assembly’s Shorter Catechism explained by The Westminster Assembly (1753)
- The System of Theology Contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism by A.A. Hodge and J. Aspinwall Hodge
- An Exposition on the Shorter Catechism by Alexander Whyte
One scriptural exposition of Collins’ The Baptist Catechism (1693) in question and answer form has been offered, which I have found immensely helpful:
- A Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism by Benjamin Beddome
I don’t hope to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these men in writing this humble series. What I do hope to accomplish is to make The Baptist Catechism a bit more accessible and clear for my generation. With that in mind, having completed the first series of articles on the Catechism, you may now read it in its entirety below or click on the links to read it question by question.
Q.1: Who is the first and chiefest being?
God is the first and chiefest being.1
1Isaiah 44:6; 48:12; Psalm 97:9
In January of 2012, I had the honor of taking a winter course on “The Theology of the Word of Faith Movement” with Justin Peters at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The class was memorable to me for several reasons. I had been following the career of Mr. Peters for a while with great interest. One night, my wife and I even had the honor of having him into our home and serving him chicken pot pie. I recall sitting in my living room laughing and singing Ray Stevens’ The Mississippi Squirrel Revival together while my wife rolled her eyes.
I also recall one of the first statements he made in front of the class. I recall it because I wrote it down. He said, “Your worship of God will only be as deep as your theology.” Then he said, “Let me rephrase that. Your worship of God will only be as deep as your knowledge of Him.” In making this statement, Mr. Peters was answering one of the most important questions a Christian should ask himself: “Why do I study theology?”
What is theology? Theology, simply put, is the study of God. The word is derived from two Greek terms: ὁ θεὸς (ha theos) and ὁ λόγος (ha logos). ὁ θεὸς means God or the divine, and ὁ λόγος can be translated word, message,knowledge, and many other similar terms. In modern English usage, –ology (derived from ὁ λόγος) has come to mean “the study of. . .” When combined into one word, then, theology means the study of God.
Why do we study God, though? Well, as Mr. Peters so eloquently stated, we study God so that we might deepen our worship of Him. As The Westminster Catechism teaches, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This is why we study theology. This is our end goal in all our study and apprehension of God and the things of God. If a man is to glorify God and enjoy Him, he must first take hold of some knowledge of Him.
A great many people in this world claim a high level of piety, claiming to have reached new heights of spirituality through private contemplation and stimulating conversation. However, if they have not tapped into the actual truth of God as revealed directly from God, all their musings are a mere pooling of spiritual ignorance. They may speak with flowery language and elevated tones, but they have no real knowledge of the One whom they claim to represent. They have speculation. They have imagination. They have fantasies and rhetorical prowess, but they do not have God.
“20Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,”(1Cor. 1:20-24; NKJV).
All proper knowledge of God must have God as its Source. The world will tell us that this is circular reasoning and that we cannot point to God as the authority that establishes His own authority. We must ask in return: “What then stands as the prime authority above God that would be sufficient to establish His authority?” If they answer reason, we must ask what gives reason its authority and, in order to assist them to remain consistent, we must ask that they not use reason to argue for the authority of reason. If they answer evidence, our response is the same. We ask them to prove evidence as a sound authority by which to judge God without the use of evidence.
How is the authority of God different, then, from evidence or reason? While our interpretation of evidence can be flawed and our reason will inevitably fail us, God never fails. Wherever we find God, whether in Scripture, or in nature, or in our own consciences, we find that He always ultimately lines up with what He has spoken about Himself in His word: the Bible. Apart from His word, we are destined to run into error.
“God is the source and fountain of all our knowledge. He possesses an archetypal knowledge of all created things, embracing all the ideas that are expressed in the works of His creation. This knowledge of God is quite different from that of man. While we derive our knowledge from the objects we perceive, He knows them in virtue of the fact that He from eternity determined their being and form,” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, Grand Rapids. 1996, pp. 93-94.).
We have limited knowledge; God has exhaustive knowledge. God knows all things perfectly, fully, and truly. There are many things we know truly. There are many things we know falsely. There are many things that are true that we don’t know. There are many things that are untrue that we don’t know. It is not our place to strive to know all things. “It is totally inconsistent with creatureliness that man should strive for comprehensive knowledge; if it could be attained, it would wipe God out of existence; man would then be God,” (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ. 2008, pg. 36). Rather than comprehensive knowledge, we ought to strive after the apprehension of true knowledge. We cannot know all things but, by God’s grace, we can know true things.
All that there is to know, including the depths of God Himself, are known by God. “God’s knowledge is primary, and whatever man is to know can only be based upon a reception of what God has originally and ultimately known,” (Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready. Covenant Media Press, Nacogdoches, TX. 2011, pg. 19). Thus, if we are to have any assurance that what we know about God is true, we must receive affirmation of its truthfulness from Him. We must do the impossible and reach into the heavens to pull down truth. Rather, God must condescend to us in order that He might reveal His truth to us.
The Baptist Catechism starts with the question, “Who is the first and chiefest being?” This question is necessary because it starts with the origin of all proper thought about God: God Himself. “God is the first and chiefest being.” This recognition is key. As finite, material creatures, we are incapable of grasping the truth of an infinite, immaterial God (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33-36). We are wholly inadequate for these things, unless God graciously enables us. Out of recognition of our human impotence, The Baptist Catechism begins by highlighting our supremely omnipotent God. We are fallen, sinful, finite beings; God is the first and chiefest Being. Thus, we do not start with man, but with God.
In recognizing God as the first and chiefest of beings, we recognize in Him a particular otherness. He is completely unlike all His creatures. Specifically, He is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the only Being without beginning. Thus, He is the only Being who can rightly claim to be both the first and the last, and He does so time and again.
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last,
And there is no God besides Me,’” (Isa. 44:6; NASB; cf. Isa. 41:4; 48:12; Rev. 1:8; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13).
No creature can lay claim to being first and last over all creation. All of creation has a beginning and, were it God’s design, all creation would have an end. God not only created all things, but He sustains and directs them, too (Col. 1:17). All of creation is God’s creation and, with it, He does as He pleases (Ps. 115:3; 135:6). How shall man stand as a mere spectator of the vast scope of God’s creation and not give Him due honor and praise for all of His mighty works?
God is distinct from all of His creation. However, He is not merely distinct from it in His eternality, His creation, and His providence; He is also distinct from it in His majesty. God is the first Being; He is also the chiefest Being. By this, the catechism means to draw our attention to God’s preeminence over all things.
Our tendency, as fallen creatures, is to worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). As a Master Artist, God has adorned His creation with His divine signature. We are like art critics who stand in awe of a masterful painting and give credit to the individual brush strokes and arrangements of color rather than to the painter who gave the painting life. Credit for Symphony No. 5 does not go to the individual trumpet blasts, but to Beethoven himself. How much more is the God of creation due His proper exaltation and adoration for the works of His hands?
“For You are the Lord Most High over all the earth;
You are exalted far above all gods,” (Psalm 97:9; NASB).
Let the pagans sing the praises of their false gods, but let our praises of the one true and living God far exceed theirs. Let us exalt Him as the Lord Most High over all the earth! Let us sing with the saints of old:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Let our study of theology always stem from a heart of doxology. Let our pursuit of head knowledge always spring from a wealth of heart praise. Let our desire to take in greater truth about God never be to the end of puffing up the student, but that of lifting up the Creator in praise, and adoration, and worthy exaltation. He truly is worthy, for He truly is the first and chiefest of beings. As J.I. Packer writes:
“We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things? What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it? For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens,” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God. IVP Books, Downers Grove, Il. 1993, pg. 21.).
Q.2: Ought everyone to believe there is a God?
A. Everyone ought to believe there is a God;1 and it is their great sin and folly who do not.2
The world is full of art critics. Everywhere we go, we see people standing in awe of great art. They study it, they marvel at it, and they even try to duplicate it. What they will not do, however, is recognize the existence of the great Artist who gave it birth. This great art of which I speak is the art of creation, and the great Artist, of course, is the Creator. God is not merely an Artist, though. He wears many hats. Like the great Leonardo di Vinci, God assumes the titles of Artist, Engineer, Innovator, Inventor, and a great many others. However, unlike Leonardo, God is the Chief among all others in these fields. He far surpasses all His creatures, as we noted in the previous section.
One great difference between God and all others is that His art, His engineering, His innovation and inventiveness pervades all of His creation. Painters place their signatures in the corners of their paintings. The signature of the Divine is pervasive throughout the vast scope of creation and notable in every detail of every element and atom. God is at once immensely God and intimately God. He is both the God of the stars and the planets (Job 38:31-33; Ps. 8:3; 136:7-9) and the God of our grief and our joy (Mt. 6:25-34).
This God is unavoidable and, as such, He is undeniable. He consumes and pervades all around us and all within us, though He is completely distinct from us. It is at once our familiarity with Him and the odd otherness of Him that bids us recognize Him. This too is by divine design. The signature in the bottom right corner of a painting is not so recognizable because it so readily melds into the motif of the painting. It stands out as different so that it might be recognized, but it is not so different that it does not complement the general beauty of the painting.
In the economy of God’s created order, the highest good for man is that He know God and, as such, honor Him. God’s artful creation, then, does not exist for art’s sake. Rather, God’s artful creation exists to point man to the Artist Himself. As we recognize the art and, more importantly, the great Artist behind the art, we fulfill our great purpose as the only creatures made in His image.
This was the great purpose for which God created man: that we might glorify Him and enjoy Him. However, it is impossible to glorify and enjoy One we do not believe to exist. “And without faith it is impossible to please Him,” (Heb. 11:6a; NASB). Thus, because God loves His creation, He has made Himself known through His creation. God’s existence is evident to all through two distinct witnesses: the internal witness and the external witness.
God reveals Himself internally through our consciences. Each of us has the works of the law written on our hearts from birth (Rom. 2:14-16). None of us can rightly claim ignorance of God before the God who reveals Himself to us through our consciences. None are without excuse, “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them,” (Rom. 1:19; NASB). We are programmed to have an innate knowledge of God’s existence. It is inescapable.
Furthermore, we are programmed to receive knowledge of God’s existence from our surroundings. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse,” (Rom. 1:20; NASB). The sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and the world and everything in it all call out to us proclaiming God’s divine artistry.
“1The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
4Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
In them He has placed a tent for the sun,
5Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.
6Its rising is from one end of the heavens,
And its circuit to the other end of them;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat,” (Ps. 19:1-6; NASB).
If God is so evident in His creation, then, why do men still deny Him? It is not because they are necessarily convinced that He does not exist. Rather, it is out of a willful, sinful, foolish suppression of the truth that men deny Him. “Sin involved every aspect of man’s personality. All of man’s reactions in every relation in which God had set him were ethical and not merely intellectual; the intellectual itself is ethical,” (Van Til, Defense, 70.). Thus, when a man deceives himself by denying God’s existence, he is acting out of a corrupt heart and committing abominable deeds.
“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good,” (Psalm 97:9; NASB).
The default belief of man is not the nonexistence of God, but His existence. Out of the corruption of the fallen heart and mind, unregenerate men suppress the truth of God’s existence: “as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” (Rom. 1:17b-18; NKJV). The contrast here is between those of faith and those who suppress the truth. “The just shall live by faith,” but the unrighteous and ungodly “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Paul means to say that the active suppression of truth required to disbelieve in God is an act of willful rebellion against Him.
Adam and Eve knew of God’s existence, for He walked among them (Gen. 3:10). Godly men of the earliest ages also know God existed and called upon His name (4:26). Men and women of all nations have always known Him, but they do not glorify Him as God (Rom. 1:21). Belief in God, then, is the default (Benjamin Beddome, A Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism. Solid Ground Christian Books, Birmingham. 2006, pg. 3). The suppression of this belief then is absolute rebellion. This is no mere intellectual exercise. This is an active, willful sinning against the God who reveals Himself to us in His creation.
One of the duties, then, that Christians owe to one another is to spur one another on to greater faith (Heb. 10:23-25). If unbelief is sin, then we should seek how we might aid one another in avoiding it. If I, as an ember in the fire of the church, rely on the other embers to keep me burning, with what zeal should I blow on my fellow embers until I feel the return of the warm glow of their faith in Christ? In the same way, it benefits all members of the church to encourage others in their faith and purity, for it will only reap returns of greater faith and purity in their own lives.
Q.3: How may we know there is a God?
A. The light of nature in man and the works of God plainly declare there is a God;1 but His Word and Spirit only do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners.2
1Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-3; Acts 17:24
21 Corinthians 2:10; 2 Timothy 3:15-16
I have long taken issue with the use of the terms nature and natural in discussions of God’s divine revelation. To suggest that revelation can be natural is to suggest that it could be something other than divine in origin. Indeed, nothing about divine revelation is natural. What is meant by many theologians when they refer to natural revelation might best be rendered cosmic revelation.
When referring to natural revelation, what is meant is that which God reveals to us about Himself through His created order. However, post-Darwin, the term nature has come to mean something vastly different than what it once meant. Where the pre-moderns may have been referring to the created order when they referenced nature, Charles Darwin and his humanist predecessors have redefined nature as an undirected, impersonal, random order of events and laws in the vast universe. Thus, the Christian sojourning through a modernist society does himself and the Bible a great disservice to persist in the use of the term natural revelation.
The Baptist Catechism uses a similar term to describe one aspect of cosmic revelation (cosmos from ὁ κόσμος, or the created order): “The light of nature in man…” Another way to describe this is the internal witness. The catechism breaks up cosmic revelation into two categories. God’s existence is attested to us by (a) the internal witness of the conscience and (b) the external witness of God’s works of creation and providence.
“because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse,” (Romans 1:19-20; NASB).
Notice how Paul writes that what is known about God is evident within His human creatures. This line of reasoning refers to the internal witness of the conscience. Because men know right and wrong, and have an innate sense of justice, we can know that God must exist. We are confronted with this undeniable fact every time we read a news story about a child being victimized. Our hearts cry out for justice. We are aware, deep within ourselves, that love demands a verdict.
We also know that anyone who would pass such a judgment, loving though He may be, must be absolutely perfect in order to render such a verdict. As a result, we are struck with a dilemma. If God exists and loves that child enough to punish her abuser, He must in His infinite perfection punish me for the crimes I have committed against Him. Such an undeniable truth causes people to make all kinds of irrational claims.
The first is the outright denial of God’s existence. God cannot exist, goes the argument, or else I would have to be punished. The second is the denial of absolute truth in the realm of ethics and morality. We cannot rightly deny the existence of absolute truth in medicine or physics, because that would lead to utter insanity on those fields. Absolute truth cannot exist, goes the argument, or else there would be one universal standard of justice under which I must be punished.
All that is left is to outright deny justice or love, which only leads to nihilism and the pure futility of an unlivable life. These are all the mere suppressions of the internal witness to God’s existence. All that is within us screams to us that God exists, therefore absolute truth exists and, with it, love and justice.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard,” (Psalm 19:1-3; NASB).
Alongside the internal witness to God’s existence is the external witness. Yes, we live in a fallen world, but it is still a universe that undeniably declares the glory of God. The mere existence and grand design of the created order attests to His great work of creation. The perpetuity of the cosmos generally and of humanity specifically attests to God’s great work of providence. Yet, for all of the telling, for all of the declaring, for all of the pouring forth of speech, and for all the revelation of knowledge, there is no speech and there are no words, for their voice is not heard. Men, in our sin, suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.
Paul argued for the existence of this great God in his sermon on Mars Hill. He did not waste time giving an over-abundance of evidence or trying to convince these Roman philosophers of the existence of God. Rather, He recognizes that they must know He exists: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands,” (Acts 17:24; NASB). Paul assumes they have the “light of nature,” that internal witness. He assumes they have looked up at the stars and, perhaps, examined their immediate surroundings and have picked up on the undeniability of God.
Paul’s goal was not to try to argue from a neutral position of, “Perhaps you are right and the Christian God of the Bible does not exist,” to a more Christian position. Paul’s goal was to assert the authority and superiority of the Christian position and to defend that non-neutral position with gentleness and reverence (1Pt. 3:15). Paul understood that they had sufficient witness (both internal and external) to God’s existence. His goal was to remind them of what they already knew and stand firm on it.
Sinful men are accountable for their sinful, foolish denials of God. They are without excuse. What then does cosmic, or general, revelation accomplish? It renders men speechless and excuseless before an eternally holy and just God. This is why we do missions. Some say that men are saved from God’s wrath on the basis of what they do with the light they have been given. If they do not hear the gospel, they may be saved by virtue of the fact that they did not reject it. Were this the case, there would be no reason whatever to do missions.
Rather, the reason we do missions, the reason Christ came as the first Missionary, is because men see the glory and goodness of God in the internal and external witness but, apart from the preaching of the gospel, they cannot turn from their sin and receive the cleansing of the new birth with all that it entails.
“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14; NASB).
Men must then have not only the internal and external witness in order to be saved; they must also have the witness of the word of God and His Spirit. Where cosmic revelation falls on ears that cannot hear and eyes that cannot see, God’s word and Spirit open the ears and restore the sight. Where general revelation is only sufficient for the condemnation of men, His special revelation is fully sufficient to save him to the uttermost.
“and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” (2Tim. 3:15-16; NASB).
However, God’s word alone is not sufficient salvation in the strictest manner of speaking, because God Himself must also attest to it. He does so through His Spirit: “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God,” (1 Corinthians 2:10; NASB). The word of God is merely words on page just like any other words on a page apart from the work of the Holy Spirit to illumine him who reads or hears it.
Q.4: What is the Word of God?
A. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, and the only certain rule of faith and obedience.1
12 Timothy 3:16; Ephesians 2:20
In ages past, God revealed Himself in many ways. He spoke through visions, dreams, a burning bush, and even a donkey. At one point, He spoke through a stuttering, stammering prophet. At other points, He spoke directly to people. This same God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world,” (Heb. 1:2; NASB). These words of Christ, by the work of His Spirit, were brought to His apostles’ remembrance and written down in His holy word.
Whether we are referring to the Old Testament or New Testament, all Scripture is the word of God. It is God-breathed, or breathed out by God. This is what Paul meant when he wrote that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος (theo-pneustos, or God-breathed) in 2Tim. 3:16. Most translations render the term inspired. Thus, when the term inspiration of Scripture is used by theologians, they mean to say that Scripture is breathed out by God—the very word of God Himself.
As such, it would be improper to say that Scripture is the word of man, as though God had spoken to man and man, to the best of his ability, conveyed what had been revealed to him. This is the view held by the neo-orthodox school of theologians, like Karl Barth, who argue that the Bible contains the word of God, but is not itself the word of God. As orthodox Christians, Reformed Baptists affirm every word of the Bible, in the original languages, to be the very word of God. However, Barth and his neo-orthodox companions would contend that “the word of God is within the Bible” (Barth,The Word of God and the Word of Man. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR. 1957, pg. 43).
This view came to have prominence in some pockets of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), in the mid-to-late 20thcentury. The Baptist Faith & Message of 1963 (BF&M 1963) included language that allowed for such views to be held. This neo-orthodox influence was successfully eradicated from the SBC through an effort spanning more than two decades that would come to be known as the Conservative Resurgence. Compare the first sentence of the BF&M 1963with the first sentence of the BF&M 2000.
“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man,” (BF&M of 1963; emphasis added).
“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man,” (BF&M of 2000).
Asserting that the Bible is “the record of” God’s revelation of Himself to man leaves open the possibility that the Bible may not be, in its purest form, God’s actual revelation of Himself to man. Neo-orthodox pastors and seminary professors within the SBC had seized upon this language as justification for teaching that the Bible contains the word of God while not, in total, being the word of God. Dockery and Nelson explain in A Theology for the Church:
“With respect to its nature, Barth distinguished the Bible from revelation itself: ‘Therefore, when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation, but only—and this is the limitation—the witness to it.’ The Word of God is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ; the Scriptures are witness, however imperfect, to the perfect revelation of the God-man. It is the church’s responsibility to preach the Scriptures; and, Barth contends, as they are preached, the Holy Spirit works such that the Bible becomes the Word of God to the people,” (ed. Daniel Akin, A Theology for the Church. B&H Academic, Nashville. 2007, pp. 138-139).
We, as orthodox Christians, affirm what has come to be known as the verbal-plenary inspiration of Scripture. That is a fancy way of saying that we believe every word of the Scriptures to be inspired of God. Particularly, we look to the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. As Jesus taught of the Old Testament canon:
“17‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,’” (Mt. 5:17-19; NKJV).
Jesus believed that even the most minor of strokes in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament bore with them the very authority of God. This is because they are the very word of God. Intrinsically linked with the 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament are the 27 books of the New Testament. Peter affirms this fact when he writes: “15and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction,” (2Pt. 3:15-16; NASB). For Peter, the writings of Paul were to be included with the “rest of the Scriptures.”
This prestige was not merely meant to be ascribed to the writings of Paul, though, for Paul himself wrote of the church of God: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,” (Ephesians 2:20; NASB). How was the church of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets? Through their writings and teachings. Notice what we are told of the New Covenant church from her earliest days: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers,” (Acts 2:42; NKJV). The apostles’ teaching was paramount for the early church.
It was paramount because it, along with the 39 books of the Old Testament, is “the only certain rule of faith and obedience.” It is certain in that it is spoken, through the apostles and prophets, by God Himself. God used the personalities and backgrounds of the authors of Scripture to preserve for us precisely what He desired for us to know about Himself. God, then, is the prime author of Scripture, though He used the instrument of fallen, sinful men to pen it.
God chose Amos and Paul, Moses and Luke, Nehemiah and Peter to write His holy word, precisely because of who they were and the gifts and limitations He had placed in their lives. He used these human instruments to write Scripture much like a teacher or a professor might use different color ink pens to grade a paper. The characteristics of the human authors were as much important for the writing of Scripture as were the words they wrote. Again, there is no undirected molecule in the creative and providential working of God.
Therefore, even though Scripture was written by imperfect human beings, we can trust that its primary Author is perfect and has not spoken a word, through them, in vain. Scripture is the only certain, sufficient, inerrant, infallible rule for all faith in God our Creator and Savior. It is also the only certain, sufficient, inerrant, infallible rule for all obedience to Him.
Q.5: May all men make use of the Holy Scriptures?
A. All men are not only permitted, but commanded and exhorted to read, hear, and understand the Holy Scriptures.1
1John 5:38; Revelation 1:3; Acts 8:30
Having conducted a survey into the nature of Scripture itself, we now bring ourselves to the consideration of how men are to make use of it. The question is asked of the catechumen, May all men make use of the Holy Scriptures? What does the catechizer mean by the words “make use”? To make use, according to the answer offered, is to read, hear, and understand the Holy Scriptures. The catechism goes so far as to note that we are not only permitted, but are commanded and exhorted to avail ourselves of the Scriptures in this way.
Before we begin to flesh out this divinely ordained obligation, another question needs answering. In the realm of soteriology (the study of salvation), we often ask what the biblical authors mean when they use the term all men. There are two possible definitions of this term: all men without exception, and all men without distinction. It is not readily apparent which is meant by the catechism, so let us consider the implications of both.
If by all men the catechism means all men without exception, we must give a hardy “Amen!” Every single person everywhere is bid to hear the word of God and repent. “30Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead,” (Acts 17:30-31; NASB). The word of God and, therefore, the general call of salvation is to go out to all people everywhere throughout the earth. And, as it comes to each ear, it comes with a divine obligation to read, hear, and understand.
If by all men the catechism means all men without distinction, we must likewise give a hardy “Amen!” for this divine obligation is binding on all men of all positions in all tribes, tongues, and nations. Let us recall the Great Commission:
“18And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,’” (Mt. 28:18-20; NKJV).
Notice two things. The Great Commission that is given to the church is to go and make disciples of all nations. This means that all men without exception will now read, hear, and understand God’s holy word. Notice that the church is not merely commissioned to make converts of all nations. Rather, we have been tasked with making disciples of all nations. This means that they will partake of at least two local church ordinances. They will be baptized into church membership, and they will be taught all that Christ commanded in the Holy Scriptures.
Read the Scriptures
We can affirm, then, that if by all men the catechism means all men without distinction (people of all positions in every tribe, tongue, and nation) and all men without exception (every single human being on earth), that includes us. How then ought we expected to read God’s word? First, we must have access to His word. That means translation. In order for men and women of all tribes, tongues, and nations to avail themselves of Scriptures, they must have it in the common language of their people. Note what is affirmed in The Baptist Confession (1689):
“The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read, and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope,” (The Baptist Confession of 1689, 1.8).
Imagine a missionary from England that goes into a foreign land and in order to bring them the gospel of Christ, but who only speaks to them in English with no translation or interpretation. No matter how much he reads to the people or preaches to the people, that man would be speaking only “to himself and to God” (1Cor. 14:28; NKJV). Of course, there are some King James Only movements that would argue for teaching all nations, or at least the most learned among the nations, English so that they can read the King James Version of the Bible.
This mindset is precisely what our Particular Baptists forefathers were hoping to avoid. For centuries the world was shut up in darkness because of this type of thinking. The church had taken a stance that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was to be the only translation used by the church. As a result, Latin speaking people had the word of God in their language, but the rest of the world had to rely on priests within the church to explain the Bible to them. This period of church history is rightly called the Dark Ages, because the nations were forced to be in darkness as a result of a refusal to translate the Holy Scriptures into their languages. Hence, as Luther and others began to translate the Bible into the common languages of the people, the Reformers coined a new Latin phrase: post tenebras lux, or after darkness, light!
It is important to note, also, that the post-Renaissance education movement was largely started as a biblical literacy movement. Luther is reported to have written to his princes in Saxony demanding that they educate the peasants, because he was finding that none of them could read the Bible he had labored so diligently to translate into their languages. He reportedly told the princes that it was their duty before God to ensure that their people could read His word.
We are not merely exhorted to read the Scriptures in order to have private dealings with God. In reading the Scriptures, we are able to check what is being taught from the pulpit by the very word of God. “10Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so,” (Acts 17:10-11; NKJV). It is when people are robbed of their rightful access to the Holy Scriptures that they accumulate false teachers to themselves (2Tim. 4:3).
Hear the Scriptures
We are not only commanded and exhorted to read the Scriptures, as though the whole of the Christian life were one of seclusion and subjective interpretations of God’s word. Rather, we are also commanded and exhorted to hear God’s word. This brings us to the primary way by which God has promised to work in His church: the public reading and preaching of Scripture.
Over and over again, we are told in Scripture to attend to the public reading and preaching of Scripture. In Antioch, nearly the whole city (Gentiles) came together on the Jewish Sabbath to hear the word of God from the apostles, inciting the Jews to jealousy. Many of the Gentiles received the word with gladness, but they apostles were persecuted and driven out by the Jews (Acts 13:44-50).
Paul binds up saving faith in the preaching of the word of Christ: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ,” (Rom. 10:17; NASB). For this reason, he exhorts his protégé Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching,” (1Tim. 4:13; NASB). The author of Hebrews goes further by exhorting even the hearers to attend faithfully to the public worship of God:
“23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching,”(Heb. 10:23-25; NKJV).
The preaching of the word of God holds a certain primacy in God’s redemptive economy. It is through the proclamation of God’s word, by God’s ordained ministers, that He has promised to unite His people in truth. Paul tells the church at Ephesus:
“11And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,12for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-13; NKJV).
It is thus through the hearing of God’s word that He has determined, primarily, to work in and through His people. When the church is given either to private interpretations or to untested teaching from the pulpit, the church is opened up to error and to division. This is how cults start. Either men and women come up with doctrines that the church has never believed through private interpretations or they give themselves to the teaching of one man without ever searching the Scriptures for themselves to see if what he is teaching lines up with Scripture.
Along with reading and hearing God’s word, the readers and hearers are expected to understand it. The Christian life is a life of taking in knowledge, understanding it, and walking it out in wisdom. Paul writes about this correlation between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in his letter to the Colossians:
“9For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; 10that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God,” (Col. 1:9-10; NKJV).
The hearers of God’s word are to follow this cycle. We take in knowledge. After obtaining knowledge, we couple it with understanding, which is to say that it affects our character and shapes our dispositions toward God and others after Christ’s. Finally, it is to be coupled with wisdom so that we walk according to the knowledge and understanding we have obtained. The result of this taking in of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is that we take in more knowledge (vs. 10).
This is an obligation both on the part of he who preaches and on the part of him who hears. It is the job of the pastor to take the cookies down off of the shelf so-to-speak. It’s easy business to confuse people with overly academic language; it takes great work to convey difficult truths with clarity and simplicity. I have heard James White say that the way one truly knows that he knows a doctrine is if he can teach it to children. This is true. The preacher must do all he can to help his hearers understand the meaning of the text of Scripture.
This obligation is not merely a one-sided obligation, though. Hearers have an obligation as well. When any confusion arises over any teaching from the pulpit, it is the hearer’s obligation to ask the preacher afterward for clarification. No godly pastor would ever be upset to be questioned, if he is approached appropriately, about his interpretation of a particular text. In fact, pastors are encouraged by such active listening on the part of the hearers.
Q.6: What things are chiefly contained in the Holy Scriptures?
The Holy Scriptures chiefly contain what man ought to believe concerning God, and what duty God requireth of man.1
12 Timothy 1:13; 3:15-16
Questions one through five provide the foundation for The Baptist Catechism, in much the same way that the teachings of the apostles and prophets as set down in Scripture provide the foundation for our faith (Eph. 2:20). The answer to question six could rightly be labeled the thesis statement of The Baptist Catechism, insofar as it provides the structure for all the questions and answers that follow.
The catechism could appropriately be said to be structured according to two categories: right believe about God (orthodoxy) and right observance of the duties God requires of us (orthopraxy). The catechism is so structured because it is meant to teach us the Bible, and these two themes are the two primary themes of Scripture. We are taught in Scripture to know the things of God (John 17:7-8; Acts 2:36) and to love God (Exod. 20:6; Neh. 1:5; John 14:15; John 15:10; 1Jn. 5:3). These two commands go hand-in-hand.
A husband cannot rightly say that he loves his wife and yet know nothing about her. At the same time, he cannot learn more of her without being provoked toward greater or lesser affections toward her. As the unbeliever learns more of God, apart from the effectual calling of the Spirit, he will grow in his hatred for Him. As we believers learn more of Him, we grow in our kindly affection toward Him. As we commit ourselves to a study of The Baptist Catechism, let us keep these two commandments in mind. Let us endeavor to know the things of God more, through His word, and so to grow in our love for Him.