Why we should be grateful: What the Catechism teaches about what God has done for us.

In the third of my series of posts on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I shall look at the topic of gratitude.

In contemporary British society, as in the Western world as a whole, there is division over what constitutes morally acceptable behaviour. However, there is general agreement that people ought to be grateful.

When people have something good done for them by other people, whether family members, friends, work colleagues, or those in the front line of the fight against Covid-19, the morally correct response is seen to be to feel grateful, and to express our gratitude in an appropriate fashion.

Conversely, those who do not feel grateful and fail to express gratitude are felt to be morally deficient. We can see this from the way in which the term ‘ungrateful’ is used. It is never a compliment to say that someone is ungrateful. It is always a criticism of the person concerned.

What is strange about our society, however, is that while it is felt to be a failure not to feel and express gratitude towards our fellow human beings, it is generally not felt to be a problem if people fail to feel and express gratitude towards God. The reason that this is strange is because in actual fact it is God who has done, and continues to do, the most for us, and therefore he is the one to whom we should be most grateful.

The reason why this is the case becomes clear if we unpack what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the basic tenets of the Christian faith as these are summarised in the Apostles Creed. What the Catechism says runs as follows:

‘Catechist. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.

Answer. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy Catholick Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

Answer. First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world.

Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.

Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.’

If we look at the question and answer at the end of this quotation we see that there are three basic theological truth that we learn about God from the Apostles Creed – that God made us, that God has redeemed us, and that God sanctifies us.

Why these three truths mean that we should be grateful to God is helpfully explained by the German Reformer Martin Luther in his exposition of the Creed in his Small Catechism of 1529.

According to Luther, the truth that  God made us means:

‘…  that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger and preserves me from all evil. All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God has redeemed us means:

‘… that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God sanctifies us means:

‘ …. that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and all who believe in Christ, this is most certainly true.’ [1]

These words of Luther remind us of why we should be grateful to God above all. Our fellow human beings, however kind and beneficial they are to us, can  only give us a limited amount of temporal and spiritual assistance as we make our way through life. By contrast, as Luther makes clear, God gives us literally everything we need to flourish temporally and spiritually, both in this world and the next. Even those things we receive from other people are ultimately gifts from God. Our parents give us the gift of life, but that life comes from God, farmers provide us with food, but it is God who causes the crops to grow, the Church conveys grace to us through word and sacrament, but the source of that grace is God, and so on.  

What all this means is that we, and all other human beings, should be grateful to God and thank him for all that he has done and does, for us. So, next time we are in a discussion about the importance of gratitude and people start to bewail the fact that people are not grateful enough, we should chip in and remind them that the biggest deficit of gratitude in our society lies in a failure to be duly grateful to God.

‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.’ (Psalm 136:1)

[1] The quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism are from taken from M Luther Small Catechism, in M A Knoll (ed), Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), p 68.

How should I behave? What the Catechism teaches about my obligation to God.

In last week’s post in my new series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I looked at what the Catechism teaches about the issue of identity. In this week’s post I shall go on to look at what the Catechism teaches about the issue of obligations.

An obligation is something that we have a moral or legal duty to do and we are all familiar with the fact that we have obligations to numerous individuals and groups, such as our families and friends, our employers, those in need, or the authorities of the country in which we live. For example, the slogan with which those of us in this country have become familiar during the latest Coronavirus lockdown ‘Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives’ is a summary of the moral and legal obligation that we have to behave in a certain way in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Because of the growing secularisation of British society over that past century, what many people are not aware of is that we not only have obligations to our fellow human beings, but first and foremost have obligations to God.

In last week’s post I noted that if we are a Christian our identity is fundamentally determined by the relationship we have with God, a relationship which he gave to us as a free gift when we were baptised. and which we are called to gratefully acknowledge and to view as the basis for the way in which we are to live our lives. To put it another way, the fact that we have been baptised means that we have an obligation to behave in a certain way as a result.

The nature of this obligation is set out in the second section of the Catechism. This section runs as follows:

‘What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?

Answer. They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the articles of the Christian faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?

Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.’

The point that is being made here is not that the person who has been baptised is bound by the mere fact that promises have been made on their behalf. If, for example, what was promised was something wrong then that promise ought not to be kept. The point is rather that these promises should be kept because they express the obligation that we have to God because of what he has done for us. He has brought us into a ‘state of salvation,’ a relationship with God which enables us to flourish both in this life and in the world to come, but this state of salvation involves living in a particular way which the Catechism sets out.

The Catechism says that we have to renounce three things that will damage our relationship with God:

  • ‘The devil and all his works.’ This means both the devil himself and the sinful thoughts and actions which he inspires (1 Peter 5:8-9, 1 John 3:8).
  • ‘The pomps and vanity of this wicked world.’ This means all the things in this world which lead us away from God (1 John 2:15-17). They are called ‘pomps’ and vanities,’ things that are an empty show, in order to make the point that while they may superficially appear glamorous and attractive they are in reality ephemeral in comparison with the ‘solid joys and lasting treasures’ of the kingdom of God. 
  • ‘The sinful lusts of the flesh.’ This means the sins arising from the desires of our fallen human nature (Galatians 5:16-24).

The Catechism then goes on to say that not only do we need renounce these things, but that we also need to believe ‘the articles of the Christian faith,’ the fundamental truths about who God is and what he has done for us that are summarised in the Apostles Creed, and to obey ‘God’s will and commandments,’  everything that God wants us to do (or avoid doing) as summarised in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

From what has just been said it is clear that according to the Catechism the state of salvation to which God has called us through baptism is one that involves repentance, belief and obedience. It is a state in which we actively respond to what God has done for us.

However, this does not mean that being saved is dependent on our own efforts. It is not as if God did his bit at our baptism and we now have to do ours. We remain dependent on God’s grace for our salvation. This is why the final sentence of the section declares ‘And I pray to God to give me his grace that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.’

In line with New Testament passages such as Matthew 10:22, Luke 8:13, John 15:5-6 and Hebrews 10:39, the Anglican Reformers of the sixteenth century believed that it was possible for people who had been called by God to salvation to fall away from him and they also believed that the remedy against this was both strenuous effort on the behalf of the believer, and a constant seeking for God’s grace which alone made such effort possible. They believed with Paul that it was only because ‘God is at work in you, to will and to work for his good pleasure’ that it is possible for believers ‘to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12-13) and they therefore believed that it was continually necessary to ask God through prayer to be at work in this way.

In summary, according to the Catechism salvation is a gift that has been given to us by God at our baptism, but this gift, which consists in being ‘a child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’ carries with an obligation to repent, believe and obey. This obligation is something that we have to fulfil, but we can only do so because God is at work in us and that is something for which we need to continually pray.

To put the matter in the simplest terms, the Christian’s obligation is to repent, believe, obey, and pray.

Who am I? What the Catechism teaches about my identity.

The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer is designed to give instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. This post is the first in a new series that will look at how the teaching of the Catechism remains relevant in the twenty-first century. In this post I shall consider what the catechism teaches us about the issue of identity.

Throughout history human beings have employed a variety of different ways to identify one human being from another. People have been identified according to their sex, their family ties, their nationality , their class and their religion. Thus Karl, who is  a male, married, middle class, Swedish Lutheran is different from Maria who is a female, single, working class, Italian Catholic. These traditional forms of classification are still used today, but forms of identity based on race (black, white, Hispanic etc.), sexual attraction (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual etc.) and gender identity (cisgender, transgender, bigender etc,) are also becoming increasingly important, particularly in the political sphere.  

In the face of these various approaches to the issue of human identity what does Christianity have to say about the matter? The answer that the Catechism gives to this question is contained in the following questions and answers with which it begins.

‘Question. What is your Name?

Answer. N. or M.

Question. Who gave you this Name?

Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’

In the services for the baptism of infants in the Book of Common Prayer the priest baptises the child in the name given by the Godparents. That is what is being referred to in the opening two questions and answers here. The Catechism starts by inquiring about the name given at baptism because of the way in which name and identity go together. Someone’s name marks them off as a particular individual with a particular identity.

It goes on to ask who gave them this name in order to highlight the fact that the fundamental identity of the person who has been baptised is that given to them by God in baptism. Somebody’s surname declares that they were born of two earthly parents. It identifies them as members of a specific human family. Their baptismal name, by contrast, declares that through their baptism they were born  ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’  (John 1:13) and are therefore members of God’s family, the Church.

Because this new identity is given at baptism, the Catechism then says: ‘wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘wherein’ means ‘at this point’ and what the Catechism is saying is that when they receive their new identity at baptism they became what they were not before, namely a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13), a child of God who can call God ‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 3:27-4:6) and someone who has inherited a place in God’s Kingdom (Titus 3:4-7, 1 Peter 1:3-4). In the words of the 17th century Anglican theologian Thomas Ken, it follows that ‘the happiness of a good Christian is altogether unutterable; he is one who has Christ for his head, God for his Father, and heaven, with all its joys and glories, which are eternal, for his inheritance.’

What is said in the Catechism offers a distinctive Christian take on the question of identity. It says that, fundamentally, who we are is not determined by who we think we are, or who our particular society classifies us as being, or our biological inheritance as the child of these parents belonging to this particular race (or these particular races). Who we are is fundamentally determined instead by the relationship we have with God, a relationship which he gave to us as a free gift at our baptism, and which we are called to gratefully acknowledge and view as the basis for the way in which we are to live our lives.

Therefore, if you are a baptised Christian, the next time someone asks you ‘who are you?’ maybe you should consider surprising them by saying  ‘I am a child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’