One Sunday morning some years ago, a couple walks into church here at Zion. I didn’t know who they were, so as I usually try to do, I introduced myself and asked them what their names were.
“Oh, hi pastor,” they said. “We’re from out of town, but we’re LCMS. Can we take communion? We know all the right answers to your questions…”
This incident has bothered me ever since. Is Christian faith simply a set of things that we “know?” Is it merely intellectual? When we get to heaven, is Jesus going to ask us to recite the meaning to the 3rd article of the Apostle’s Creed? (You really should know it by heart, if you don’t already) No, Christian faith is not merely an intellectual exercise. And yet it is deeply intellectual. It has been said, “we learn by heart that which we love.”
What then is the relationship between growing in the Christian Faith and memory work?
First, we are not saved by our intellectual understandings. Thanks be to God! Even a small child who can’t even speak can have saving faith.
But second, we do speak even to that small child who does not yet understand us. By doing this, that child hears the pattern of speech, the cadence of language, and then slowly (miraculously!) begins to derive understanding. Eventually, within a year or so, the child begins to try to communicate by mimicking a word that he or she has heard many many times before. Surprisingly quickly, the child uses other words, and then starts stringing them together into clumsy phrases and even sentences.
Teaching the Christian faith is a lot like this. We speak the pattern of sound teaching (2 Timothy 1:3) to the child, even before they are understanding. Understanding comes later! First, they need to just hear it. So, we have even the little ones learn the Lord’s Prayer, so that they can begin to learn and love the language of prayer that our Lord gives to us. They also begin to learn the Ten Commandments, long before they have any concept of “adultery” (6th commandment) or “honor” (4th commandment). They begin to learn the language of the Apostle’s Creed, that beautiful and ancient statement of what we believe as Christians.
Before you know it, they will be able to understand these things. And having gained some understanding, they will be able to ask questions about them, compare them to other things they hear in the world, and assimilate them into their own lives.
But first, they have to learn the language. Otherwise, Christianity remains a foreign language to them and we have done them a terrifyingly grave disservice.
God help and preserve us as we at Zion proclaim God’s word of life and salvation to the new generation. We hold God to His promise that His Word will not return empty but will accomplish what He pleases (Isaiah 55:11).