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.