“There is a great deal of comfort in skepticism,” writes Gordon H. Clark. “If truth is impossible of attainment, then one need not suffer the pains of searching for it… Skepticism dispenses with all effort… Skepticism is the position that nothing can be demonstrated.”
Sadly, rather than displaying a Berean spirit in sanctified searching and confirming God’s truths, many Christians express a default “authenticity” in skeptical generalities to excuse themselves from determining and affirming specifics in deference to Scriptural authority.
Ministerial candidates take flabby, unproven exceptions to the Church’s time-tested confessional standards almost as a rule these days. Few believers would be compelled by R.C. Sproul’s appeal to engage in strenuous study and show oneself approved: “I think that we should seek to be faithful in small things that we may be prepared to be faithful in many things.” Yet, as comfortable as skeptical non-commitment may feel, Clark warns, “Suspension of judgment… is but a disguised, if dignified, form of unbelief.”
How refreshing to encounter Thomas Watson’s opening chapter to his book, A Body of Divinity, made up of his sermons through the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  In “A Preliminary Discourse to Catechising,” he writes, “Intending next Lord’s day to enter upon the work of catechising, it will not be amiss to give you a preliminary discourse, to show you how needful it is for Christians to be well instructed in the grounds of religion.”
Watson’s text for this opening sermonic discourse is Colossians 1:23: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled … His emphasis is on being settled in Christianity, and he would have us look not to succor ourselves in suspended reservations but to secure our resolve in the details of what the Scriptures principally teach regarding our belief concerning God and His required duty of us.
“To be unsettled in religion argues want of judgment. If their heads were not giddy, men would not reel so fast from one opinion to another. It argues lightness. As feathers will be blown every way, so will feathery Christians.”
Such theological lightweights are the opposite of the church being “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Thus, “…unsettled Christians are childish; the truths they embrace at one time, they reject at another.” And isn’t this constant wavering in fact to be the wayward man James exposes as always unsettled and thus “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8)?
Watson particularly warns would-be preachers and their Presbytery examiners about being unsettled:
“It is the great end of the word preached, to bring us to a settlement in religion … This is the grand design of preaching, not only for the enlightening, but for the establishing of souls; not only to guide them in the right way, but to keep them in it. Now, if you be not settled, you do not answer God’s end in giving you the ministry.” (He references Eph. 4:11-14 and Jer. 23:29.)
We should seek certainty in God’s revelation of Himself and His will, with the disposition to change when we are shown we need a better understanding, just as Apollos heeded the correction of Priscilla and Aquila. We should be dedicated to the fact that God intends to be understood and obeyed by us, and that when we do so, we are building our house upon the Rock.
Watson continues with a list of reasons why Christians should seek to be settled in religion:
“To be settled in religion is both a Christian’s excellence and honour. (Proverbs 16:31.)
Such as are not settled in the faith can never suffer for it. Sceptics in religion hardly ever prove martyrs … Unsettled Christians do not consult what is best, but what is safest. (Heb. 6:6.)
If ye are not settled in religion, you will never grow … ‘the plant which is continually removing never thrives.’ (Eph. 4:15.)
There is great need to be settled, because there are so many things to unsettle us … A … cheat of seducers is, labouring to vilify and nullify sound orthodox teachers. They would eclipse those that bring the truth, like black vapours that darken the light of heaven; they would defame others, that they themselves may be more admired. (1 John 2:26; Eph. 4:14.)
Continuing with Colossians 1:23, Watson goes on to say that to be settled Christians we must be well grounded, explaining the Greek word intimates the building of a well-laid foundation. First, we must emphasize the fundamentals: “We can never worship God acceptably, unless we worship him regularly; and how can we do that, if we are ignorant of the rules and elements of religion?” What’s more,
“The knowledge of principles conduces to the making of a complete Christian [cf. Rom. 12:1; Psalm 9:10; Eph. 3:17-19]. This grounding is the best way to being settled … A tree, that it may be well settled, must be well rooted; so, if you would be well settled in religion, you must be rooted in its principles … Knowledge of principles is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”
And what is the most sure way to be so firmly fixed? “Catechising is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people. I fear one reason why there has been no more good done by preaching, has been because the chief heads and articles in religion have not been explained in a catechistical way. Catechising is laying the foundation.” (Heb. 6:1).
For those dubious of the Scriptural basis of catechisms (wrongly assuming they are a Roman Catholic invention), Watson points out that,
“This way of catechizing is not novel, it is apostolic. The primitive church had their forms of catechism as those phrases imply, a ‘form of sound words,’ [2 Tim 1:13] and ‘the first principles of the oracles of God,’ [Heb. 5:12]. The church had its catechumenoi, as Grotius and Erasmus observe. Many ancient fathers have written for it, as Fulgentius, Austin, Theodoret, Lactantius, and others. God has given great success to it. By thus laying down the grounds of religion catechistically, Christians have been clearly instructed and wondrously built up in the Christian faith, insomuch that Julian the apostate, seeing the great success of catechising, put down all schools and places of public literature, and instructing of youth. It is my design, therefore (with the blessing of God), to begin this work of catechising the next Sabbath Day; and I intend every other Sabbath, in the afternoon, to make it my whole work to lay down the grounds and fundamentals of religion in a catechistical way.”
Now here is the vital stuff of sound Christian thinking and living. As Clark put it, “A life without doctrine verges on insanity; at best it would be a desultory life without conviction or purpose.”
I think of my dear seminary professor, Steven F. Miller, now in heaven, who taught us (using his own skillfully drawn diagrams) to think of the Westminster Standards as a tree with roots and fruit. He shared how he learned in his ministry that any time he had apparent disagreements with the teachings and Scripture references of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms, he deferred to the divines, saying, “They are probably right and I am probably wrong, and this always proved to be true.”
May we similarly follow Watson’s guidance and give ourselves to historic confessional catechizing as a regular church experience in leadership and learning with the heart of Psalm 119:89: For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.
Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.