Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way

Packer, J. I. & Parrett, G. A. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned
Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 238pp.

By Chung Jiajun

Christians today disagree on how to approach education within the church.
Some stress the need for a solid apprehension of doctrine, often laid out in question-and-answer
format coupled with numerous proof-texts. Others, in reaction, stress instead the need for a
deep, personal appreciation of the Bible, only grasped by digesting whole books of the Bible or
memorising popular verses for application.

This question of approach becomes even more pressing when the church today sees a plummet
in biblical literacy. The Bible is perceived as tedious, obscure and bland, much less flavourful
than the television, Netflix or the world-wide Web. Unsurprisingly, this neglect begets
malnourished inner selves that, like starving orphans, scurry for scrap in the garbage—the
glittering refuse that our fallen world promises: pleasure, power and peace.

To address this problem, Packer and Parrett published Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers
the Old-Fashioned Way, wherein they propose a solution—catechesis. It is “the church’s ministry of
grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion,
duty, and delight.” (p. 29) True to Packer, this packed definition unravels through ten chapters,
in four parts.

First, the authors show that catechesis is the church’s ministry. This may appear counterintuitive,
for the very word itself, catechesis, is often associated with Roman Catholics. But as the
authors uncover Old Testament precursors and New Testament examples, three themes recur:
rigorous instruction on the self-revealed Triune God, deepening appreciation of the life in
Christ, and an affectionate response to the Lord, expressed in love, gratitude and admiration.
Most significantly, this ministry is modelled and mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ, the “model
catechist” who began “the ministry of serious, sustained, systematic, and substantive teaching—
“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).” (pp. 49-50) Our
attempts at catechesis flows from His.

The history of catechesis is thus the church attempting to imitate and obey Christ. Of all
attempts, three periods shine brightest: the development of the catechumenate under Augustine
(second through fifth centuries), the revival of nation-wide catechesis under Luther and Calvin
(the sixteenth century Reformation), and its practice among families under Baxter and the
Puritans (seventeenth century). Through these golden ages and the declines in between, the
authors draw lessons that develop into their proposal for catechesis in our time: determining
the content and process of catechesis.

This content, unchanging through church history, is communicated through the four fixtures: the
Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), the Lord’s Prayer, and the
Sacraments. They encapsulate both the Gospel—the climax and summary of the Bible’s story
in God saving sinners—and its implications for our beliefs, relationship with God, and conduct.
Thus, the Gospel and its implications form the permanent core of our teaching content. Every
lesson should flow from who God is and what He has done, as truths that demand our assent,
embrace and response.

But our pressing question from the beginning still remains: how should we conduct lessons?
The authors, unfortunately, didn’t provide a detailed framework; they refer the reader
elsewhere.1 Nevertheless, they emphasise two vital elements when crafting lessons: spiritual
growth and cultural sensitivity. Where some churches may harp on denominational distinctives,
the authors urge instead clarity and priority: stressing the Gospel and its implications in every
lesson, as well as confronting the ‘catechisms of culture’, the -isms and idols that compete for
our minds and imaginations. This is the real battlefront; it is where we must present the
Christian Faith in all God-centeredness, His works revealing His praiseworthiness (or doxology),
which demands our response practically. Doctrine, devotion and duty—springing forth in delight.
After persuading the reader of the duty, content and process of catechesis, the authors end with
a summary in question-and-answer format. What must the congregation understand and believe
about catechesis? How can church leaders chart a persuasive vision for the church, and groom
catechists? In sum, how can the church implement catechesis?

“Finally, at every juncture let our efforts to catechize proceed with an abundance of prayer.
And as we pray, we labour in the Lord with all our might to the end that God alone would be
glorified in our midst. May it be always so.” (pp. 201-2) Undergirding our efforts must always
be the humble acknowledgement of our need, and trustful dependence on God in prayer.
To all involved in Christian education, Grounded in the Gospel is an invaluable corrective to the
weakening discipleship today. While it doesn’t provide a detailed, one-size-fits-all lesson
template, the authors succeeded in laying a robust biblical and historical framework for guiding
lesson planning and curriculum development. Arguably, this framework is more pressing than
teaching tips or templates. Every local church today needs to clarify her fundamental beliefs
and emphases in her particular culture before it is taught. For, “… the Church of God will
never be preserved without catechesis.”2

To find out more about the framework for guiding lesson planning and curriculum development, ask brother Jiajun.

1 See especially pp. 142-147 and Parrett, G. A. & Kang, S. S. Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the
Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). More resources are listed in Appendix II.
2 John Calvin, quoted in Westerhoff, J. H. & Edwards, O. C., eds. A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis (Eugene, OR: Wipf
and Stock, 2003), 127.