“Comments on The New City Catechism and Some New Answers to Questions 27 and 48″

, posted by AndrewH

[This post first appeared at gospelencounter.wordpress.com]

I have started working through The New City Catechism (produced by the Calvinist organization The Gospel Coalition together with Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church) with my children, and I have been enjoying it very much. I am not from a tradition that uses Catechisms, so this is new ground for me.

I was pleasantly surprised that, even though this Catechism is produced by Calvinists, looking through the commentary included for various questions they have included, not just Calvinist authors, but also some excerpts by John and Charles Wesley, as well as some of the Church Fathers (John Chrysostom especially stood out, since he is one of the authorities so often quoted by Thomas Oden in his book, The Transforming Power of Grace [1]).

The popularity of this Catechism, I think, comes mostly from its wide availability. It can be accessed for free online, free by downloadable app, or in print versions. It also uses modern language, and does a very good job of including references to resurrection and restoration of creation (rather than a “heaven when you die” focus).

However, reading ahead, I’ve also noticed that a few of the questions have starkly Calvinist answers.  Thankfully, there are only two I have found, and so I have planned to swap out these answers and thought I would share my approach in case others are interested in using this Catechism as well:

Question 27

Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?

The New City includes a long answer, and then a shortened version for children.  Their Answers are:

“No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith. Nevertheless God in his mercy demonstrates common grace even to those who are not elect, by restraining the effects of sin and enabling works of culture for human well-being.”

Or for Children: “No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith.”

The Problem here is that:

 (1) “elected” is being used in a way that disjoints it from faith, when we hold that the more Scriptural usage is that one becomes part of the elect when they are (or become) united to Christ by faith (that is, “election” language in Scripture is normally corporate); and

 (2) the second sentence uses “common grace” in a way which means there is a grace that is not intended to save, but as William Burt Pope points out, “All grace … is the same in its Divine purpose.”[2] Or, again, from Dr. Ben Witherington: “The only grace Paul knows anything about is a grace that comes from and has to do with the saving work of Christ, revealed in person in the Incarnation. That’s it. There is no ‘common’ grace in the Bible, if by that one means a sort of B grade grace that has nothing to do with the salvation of the individual or group in question.” (link)

Instead, we hold that God has extended His Prevenient Grace to all people, that the Holy Spirit is actively drawing all to Himself, convicting us of sin, and persuading us of the truth of the Gospel. In other words, we want to be clear that the grace God extends to all people is that same grace He uses to call us to Himself, but we can resist God’s gracious overtures.

With those points in mind, I have two alternative suggestions:

First, we might borrow the wording from the 1855 catechism of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and answer:

“No, although Christ has died for all, yet men are not saved unconditionally … The conditions of salvation are repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. …. the power to repent and believe is freely given of God” (link, at page 111-112 [3])

The Children’s version may read: “No, although Christ has died for all, the conditions of salvation are repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But there is an opportunity here to teach prevenient grace which would otherwise be missing from the Catechism, and the existing reference to common grace is calling out for a correction.  On top of that, I do like the reference to “united to Christ by faith”, and would like to keep it.

Here is my own suggestion:

Q: Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?

Answer: No, only those united to Christ by faith. Although Christ has died for all, and the Spirit actively convicts the world of sin, calls for return to God, reveals the word of God, and enables people to respond to God’s call, yet sadly, many persons resist the Holy Spirit & reject the grace that is offered.

Children’s answer: No, only those united to Christ by faith. Sadly, many persons resist the Holy Spirit & reject the grace that is offered.

This is mixed and matched from a few sources:

  • “No, only those united to Christ by faith” is from the existing New City answer but removes the words “elected by God and”;
  • “Although Christ has died for all” comes from the 1855 MEC answer, noted above;
  • “The Spirit actively convicts the world of sin, calls for return to God, reveals the word of God, and enables people to respond to God’s call” is wording borrowed from the EMMC Confession of Faith (2001), link;
  • The last line is actually part of a quote from Arminius [4].

Question 48

What is the church?

New City’s answer to this question is: “God chooses and preserves for himself a community elected for eternal life and united by faith, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together. God sends out this community to proclaim the gospel and prefigure Christ’s kingdom by the quality of their life together and their love for one another.”

Children’s answer: “A community elected for eternal life and united by faith, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together.”

Here the authors are presuming both unconditional election and unconditional perseverance, but I think the rest of the answer is well done.  I suggest a simple amendment.  In their book, Key United Methodists Beliefs, William J. Abraham and David F. Watson answer the question “What is the Church?” with the concise: “The church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ” (page 98)

I suggest incorporating this into the first part of the New City answer, so the amendment reads:

Q: What is the church?

Answer: “The church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together. God sends out this community to proclaim the gospel and prefigure Christ’s kingdom by the quality of their life together and their love for one another.

Children’s answer: “A community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together.

Notes:

[1] One quote of Chrysostom that Oden includes that especially stood out to me, because it so closely follows the way modern Arminians understand grace, was his comments on John 1:9:

If he “enlightens everyone that comes into the world,” how is it that so many continue unenlightened? For not all have known the majesty of Christ. How then does he “enlighten everyone”? He enlightens all who live in him. But if some, willfully closing the eyes of their mind, would not receive the rays of that light, their darkness arises not from the nature of the light but from their own wickedness as they willfully deprive themselves of the gift. For the grace is shed forth upon all, turning its back on no one… but admitting all alike and inviting all equally. And those who are not willing to enjoy this gift ought in justice to impute their blindness to themselves. For if when the gate is opened to all and there is none to hinder, any who are willfully evil remain outside. They perish through no one else but their own wickedness. (HOMILIES ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 8.1.28)

[2] The fuller quote from Pope is:

 All grace is not the same grace in its issues, though all is the same in its Divine purpose. It [Methodism] distinguishes measures and degrees of the Spirit’s influence, from the most universal and common benefit of the Atonement in life and its advantages up to the consummation of the energy of the Holy Ghost which fits for the vision of God. It rejects the figment of a “common grace” not χάρις σωτήριος (Tit 2:11) and refuses to believe that any influence of the Divine Spirit procured by the Atonement is imparted without reference to final salvation. (A Compendium of Christian Theology, Volume 2, p 390)

[3] In the MEC Catechism, this is actually part of the answer to the question, “Will you state what you know of the conditions of salvation?”, but the answer fits well here.

[4] Arminius says:

For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did,) but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.

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