Charles M. Wingard
The Preacher’s Catechism, by Lewis Allen. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018, 226 pages, $10.92.
Years ago someone pointed out to me that a principal value of a catechism is to teach students to ask the right questions. Since the seventeenth century the Westminster Shorter Catechism has taught believers to ask (and answer) the right questions about the Bible, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, man’s duty to God, the way of salvation, and the means of grace.
Employing the Westminster Shorter Catechism as his model, Lewis Allen’s The Preacher’s Catechism helps preachers ask the right questions about their lives and ministries. He is convinced that it “is an outstanding resource for the heart needs of every preacher” (21), a conviction that he demonstrates admirably.
The book’s forty-three brief chapters—each in question, answer, and commentary format—are divided into four sections:
Each chapter of The Preacher’s Catechism is three to four pages, making it an excellent companion to personal devotions. The author makes good use of classic Puritan and Reformed texts on the preacher and his work.
Just as the Westminster Shorter Catechism covers much territory, so does The Preacher’s Catechism. It contains brief reflections on a large number of topics. Because of this, perhaps the best way for me to introduce this book is with a sampling from each of its sections. Below, the catechism questions are in bold followed by snippets of his commentary.
Like the catechism, Allen begins with first things:
Q. What is God’s chief end in preaching? A. God's chief end in preaching is to glorify his name. (27)
What is your heartbeat? Do you love to preach, or do you love the One you preach? Do you love to prep your sermons, enjoying the hard mental and spiritual work, or do you love the One you are discovering more about? … Our challenge as preachers is to remain lovers, to refuse to let our calling, however important and exciting, obscure our primary calling to be captivated ourselves by God's love in Jesus Christ. (30)
On the hardship that comes to the preacher as he loves and walks with Jesus:
Q. Surely we preachers don’t have to suffer, do we? A. We have no choice but every help as we follow the Jesus who chose to suffer. (83)
Endure hardship. Not because it is good for you, like a diet or exercise, but because Jesus did, and our calling is to be transformed in the image of his holiness. (84)
The Ten Commandments are considered from the preacher’s perspective. Take for example the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” As in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the application of the commandment goes beyond one’s parents to all who are in positions of authority.
What does the fifth commandment teach us? You shall honor those who preached the Word of God to you, and obey what they taught you.
Rather than waiting to be respected (which is never taught in the Bible), preachers need to work out how to give honor as they should. … All of us have been deeply influenced by other preachers. Some are now in glory, many of whom, known to us only through their books, have been there for centuries; and others we will never meet though their ministries continue to bless us through sermons we download. … Honor them. … Honor the preachers who are in your life, too. The best and most godly preachers seek out others who share their calling. There's no competition or jockeying for attention. Godly preachers serve each other with support and advice, when requested. Preachers who avoid local brothers engaged in the same work show an integrity gap: who wouldn't want to support and be supported by brother preachers? Where is the honoring in avoidance? (137–139)
In considering the work of the pastor, readers are asked:
What happens when preachers actually believe in Jesus? A preacher living close to the cross and relying on grace is a fearsome weapon in the hands of God.
Be a man of the cross. We are never more in awe of the work of Christ for us, and then able to serve our hearers than when we are on our knees, confessing our need of forgiving grace in repentance. The gospel we preach must be the gospel we consciously rely on. And what we rely on, we love. (171–172)
The author is sensitive to the swings that can take place in a minister’s interior life. The pendulum moves back and forth between sinful pride and sinful despair, and between painful insecurity and dangerous self-confidence. At times we preachers rob God of his glory by self-promotion; at other times—when discouraged—we overlook the imperceptible but real growth that takes place as the Word is faithfully preached. Allen reminds us that “self-pity is as much out of place in Christian ministry as self-promotion is” (49).
Asking the right questions and identifying the right answers are indispensable to a fruitful and enduring ministry. The Preacher's Catechism supplies both. As I read this book, I came to believe that I was in the hands of a sound physician of the soul. His well-framed diagnostic questions can lead to deeper faith, genuine repentance, and the restoration of joy to ministry.
The pastor works hard and often finds himself weary. Add ministry’s trials to fatigue, and even the most faithful minister can become discouraged. Ministers who’ve been down this path will treasure this book. So too will the pastor who amidst the daily routines of ministry, senses that he, like the Ephesians, is in danger of abandoning the love he had at first (Rev. 2:4).
The Preacher’s Catechism is not a book to be hurried through, but savored. I’ve now read it twice in consecutive years. One sentence especially stands out: “Our first calling is not to preach [Jesus] but to love him and to walk with him” (79). Remember that, preachers, and we will glorify and enjoy the Savior we proclaim.
Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and associate professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, November 2020.