Just the other day, I walked through my front door, thinking about church stuff, when the question “What is God?” randomly popped into my head. Without any effort or hesitation, my mind rattled off: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
Don’t be too impressed, though. Of the 107 questions and answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I think I can only recite two—that one and the famous first question (Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.). Although my memory can’t capture the entire catechism, my automatic mental response is proof that catechisms unite two important things: clarity and memorability.
Lewis Allen, in his new book, The Preacher’s Catechism (Crossway 2018), seeks to capitalize on the doctrinal clarity of catechisms and their memorability. Allen also focuses on a third element that he believes catechisms offer: the ability to probe the heart. He writes, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism is an outstanding resource for the heart needs of every preacher” (p. 21). I might not have believed that sentence when I first read it, but now I’m a believer.
Applying the gospel balm to a heart laid bare is delicate, slow work.
The Preacher’s Catechism has 43 mini-chapters, each beginning with a reprise of a question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism that aims to edify both preaching and the preacher himself. A good example of this tailoring is in the first chapter. “What is the chief end in preaching?” he asks. “God’s chief end in preaching is to glorify His name,” he answers.
Allen is a gifted writer and a church pastor in England. I appreciated his occasional clever tweaking of a familiar Bible passage. On page 31, he writes, “God loves a cheerful preacher.” And when discussing the struggles associated with retirement from the preaching vocation, he reminds us, “Naked [we] came to preaching, and naked [we leave] it. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (p. 105).
I suspect each reader will have his or her own favorite chapter. For me, it was the chapter on Sabbath titled, “Stop,” which is situated in a block of chapters that explore the use of God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments. Allen frames the opening question and answer this way:
Q: What does the fourth commandment teach us?
A: You shall rest from finding your justification in your preaching, and rest content and safe in the finished work of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. (p. 131)
In the exposition that follows, he challenged me to consider if my rhythm of laboring and resting declares to others that the gospel is my hope, or if my rhythm betrays that, deep down, I want to be justified in the eyes of God by my constant doing. “Rest is not a sin,” he writes. “Not resting is. God commands us to rest. . . . Burnout is not the will of the Lord; it is the strategy of Satan” (pp. 131–32).
I’m pretty sure, however, I went about reading this book in the wrong way. A book reviewer is typically afforded a few weeks to read and turn around a review, but The Preacher’s Catechism is best sipped slowly. Here’s the reason: Allen’s focus on the inner life of the preacher is too probing to chug the chapters one after the other. This isn’t a preaching book about how to craft illustrations that sizzle; it’s a book, as he writes in the beginning, to acquaint preachers with “our own inner lives” (p. 18). I take Allen’s use of the phrase “inner lives” to mean all the ways our sinful hearts are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. In the first chapter, he asks about the “heartbeat” of our preaching.
What is your heartbeat? Do you love to preach, or do you love the One you preach? Do you love to prep your sermons, enjoying the hard mental and spiritual work, or do you love the One you are discovering more about? As Sunday comes, do you long to lift up the name of the triune God in your preaching, declaring the wonder of the three persons, or is your heart set on getting a bit more congregational love in your direction? . . . You can only preach what you love. (p. 30)
These are great, searching questions, and there are many such questions he asks. By page 200, however, I was weary. I’m sure the same fatigue would happen if someone binge-listened to the last year of my preaching.
Applying the gospel balm to a heart laid bare is delicate, slow work. While reading this book, I always felt in good hands as Allen wielded his scalpel, but still, it’s never wise to rush a surgeon.
Have you found catechisms inspiring in your spiritual life? Share your thoughts in the comments.