Excommunicating sin

June 25, 2015

The American theologian B.B. Warfield tells a story about two men who passed each other, then turned back and spoke. One simply said, ‘What is the chief end of man?’, reciting the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. 

When the other replied with the Catechism’s answer, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’, the questioner simply said ‘I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy; they grow up to be Shorter Catechism men’. 

I am not sure of Warfield’s source, but I do like the story. It ought to resonate with everyone who grew up in our Presbyterian Sunday Schools, and for whom the learning and recitation of the Catechism was staple. As a method of learning, the idea of reciting the questions and answers of the Catechism was simple, but effective. Of course, comprehension did not enter into it; what could we know in our minority years about the meaning of ‘chief end’, far less about the Catechism’s big words? 

But we did learn the Catechism’s big idea: that there is such a thing as a biblical worldview, one in which the Bible plays a supreme role by revealing the mind of God. And while not all Shorter Catechism boys grow into Shorter Catechism men, those who do are profoundly thankful for the way in which their hearts and minds were being grounded in the truth of the Bible through these questions and answers. 

Incidentally, although as a tool of learning catechising is not on the curriculum of many schools, it is still regarded as an effective way of embedding truths. It is also a biblical method; disciples of the early Christian church were called ‘catechumens’ - a word found in the Greek New Testament - for this reason. 

Tim Keller, of City Presbyterian Church in New York has published a ‘New City Catechism’ of 52 questions in order to teach new converts. Many of these have embraced Christianity out of a materialistic, secular and biblically illiterate culture. In his introduction to the catechism Keller reminds us that the Reformation produced many catechisms, and they serve a useful purpose still. 

So in spite of the questions which may be raised by educationalists on the merits of rote learning by question and answer, I am happy, as a Shorter Catechism boy trying to grow up, to endorse the practice. 

Part of the benefit of my learning the Catechism in a previous life is the reminder that there is a higher law to which all of us are accountable.  The culture shifts of the last generation have been remarkable, not least in the areas of morality and ethics. The boundaries of acceptable behaviour have moved astonishingly, to the extent that yesterday’s assumptions have been the stuff of today’s lawsuits. If you do not agree with that, just ask the family who run Asher’s bakery in Northern Ireland. 

I don’t think I understood Question 14 of the Catechism when I learned it first all these years ago. It simply asks, ‘What is sin?’. Answers on a postcard please; I am very interested in how our contemporary society would answer. The Catechism says that ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. ‘Simples’, as Aleksandr Orlov would say. 

Actually, notwithstanding the difficulties of comprehension posed to Shorter Catechism boys learning the definition, it is as simple an answer to a complex question as you can get. It reminds us that where there is no law, there can be no sin. And sin means either that we do not conform to the law’s standard, or we wilfully flout it. 

It is a basic, yet essential point of Christian doctrine. If there is no sin, there is no need of the gospel: no problem, no need for a solution. The Bible’s worldview is that we are all sinners, and all in need of salvation. It doesn’t get more basic. 

But communicating that message in our modern world is increasingly difficult, since it is the question, not the answer, that has become complex. What right does anyone have to suggest today that there is such a thing as ‘wrong’? We are pushing the boundaries of freedom and authority as far as possible, in order to embrace every kind of lifestyle possible. The biggest sin today is to suggest that there is such a thing as sin.

Some lawyer somewhere would have a field day proving that the question is illegitimate. But there is the rub: what is illegitimate, by definition, is what does not conform to, or is a transgression of law. The lawyers who argue that a Christian baker discriminates by not serving a gay couple require a basis in law in which to make the case. We all proceed on the assumption, wired into us, that there is a difference between right and wrong. 

We know, in other words, that there is such a thing as sin. But the moment we allow our own personal preferences to define the term is simply the moment we say that sin is a want of conformity to, or transgression of, my law. And that is when society descends into farce and chaos. 

I think we need a new generation of Shorter Catechism boys and girls. That way, at least, we will be saved from the madness that comes from excommunicating sin from the public square while still insisting that we have rights. 

Rev Dr Iain D Campbell

Rev Dr Iain D Campbell is a former Free Church of Scotland Moderator, and minister of Point Free Church on the Isle of Lewis.