B) The usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith to the individual experimentally.
J G Machen comments that “the creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. . . . Christian experience . . . is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God.” (2) There is a very close connection between belief and character and experience and, even where the grace of God is truly present, the character and experience of the child of God will be deeply affected by his understanding of the truth. “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). One nineteenth-century Scottish minister, Horatius Bonar, summed this up when he said: “All defective views of God’s character tell upon the life of the soul and the peace of the conscience. We must think right thoughts of God if we would worship Him as He desires to be worshipped, if we would live the life He wishes us to live, and enjoy the peace which He has provided for us.”
The concern of the Confession as a whole is expressed in what it says about the necessity of handling the doctrine of the “high mystery of predestination”: “So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and humility, diligence and abundant consolation, to all that sincerely obey the gospel” (3:8).
The concern of the Westminster Divines for the spiritual welfare of the Lord’s people is illustrated in their chapter on Assurance of Grace and Salvation (18). It is constructed with the same intellectual rigour and Biblical faithfulness as the other chapters but the pastoral concern for the spiritual well-being of the flock is evident. There is care to warn against the false hopes and carnal presumption of hypocrites and other unregenerate men and yet to encourage the hope of “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him”. It points to the grounds upon which an infallible assurance may be entertained: “The divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces to which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God”.
It recognises that a true believer may wait long for such assurance, but it encourages him to believe that “he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto . . . that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance: so far is it from inclining men to looseness”. Finally, as it summarises the causes for which the assurance of true believers may be shaken, diminished or temporarily taken away, it points out that the seed of God remains, along with the life of faith, and love for Christ and for the brethren, sincerity of heart and conscience of duty. And their assurance will grow again from that seed, by which they are meantime kept from despair.
What is true of this chapter, which deals specifically with Christian experience, is true of many other chapters also. The truth which they set forth is presented in a way which promotes a God-glorifying, Christ-centred, self-abasing frame of soul – true Christian experience. As someone has said, “A consciousness of the holiness of God, and of the necessity of holiness on man’s part in relation to Him, runs as a thread through the whole of it”.
In The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell there is a letter which Thornwell wrote home while on his travels. In it he says: “My Bible and Confession of Faith are my travelling companions, and precious friends have they been to me. I bless God for that glorious summary of Christian doctrine contained in our noble standards. It has cheered my soul in many a dark hour, and sustained me in many a desponding moment. I love to read it, and ponder carefully each proof-text as I pass along. . . . I never in my life enjoyed so richly the portion of the Larger Catechism extending from question 178 to the close. The answers there set down, and the various proof-texts, precious jewels from the exhaustless mine of God’s holy Word, contain a summary of Christian instruction, and a model of Christian spirit, which cannot be too faithfully studied. I have read the creeds of most Christian bodies; I have been rejoiced at the general harmony of Protestant Christendom in the great doctrines of the gospel; but I know of no uninspired production, in any language, or of any denomination that, for richness of matter, clearness of statement, soundness of doctrine, scriptural expression and edifying tendency, can for a moment enter into competition with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It was a noble body of Divines, called by a noble body of statesmen, that composed them; and there they stand, and will stand for ever, the monuments alike of religious truth and civil freedom.” Referring to this letter by Thornwell, Warfield says: “We can ourselves testify from experience to the power of the Westminster Confession to quicken religious emotion and to form and guide a deeply devotional life”.
C) The usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith to the individual practically.
The Confession follows the pattern of Scripture in showing how the doctrines of grace, received into the soul and mind by faith, are expressed in Christian conduct. While the emphasis is on the grace of God in the salvation of the sinner, as is the emphasis of the Bible, the Confession, again like the Bible, makes it very clear that experience of the grace of God will promote love for the law of God, which will find expression in a concern to know and conform to His revealed will in all the practicalities of life in the home, the church and society. Any person concerned, as we all ought to be, about the practicalities with which the Confession deals, will find that it provides a succinct summary of the Biblical teaching on each subject taken up. The essence of what has been developed into major books is found here. This could be illustrated from any of these chapters.
On the practical level the Confession is also useful in assisting the child of God to give an answer to every man who asks a reason, or account, of the hope that is in him (1 Pet 3:15). What have we to say to anyone who puts such a question to us?
We need in this generation to recover, as a power in our lives, the Biblical theology so dear to the Reformers and Puritans and Scottish Fathers. If we would receive the truth of God’s Word in the love of it, in all its comprehensiveness and detail as presented to us so powerfully in the Westminster Confession of Faith, we too would have the Scriptures as our supreme authority, God and His glory as our chief concern, Christ and His work as the ground of our confidence, and the pursuit of holiness in all areas and relationships of life as our controlling principle. It would be good for us all to discover more and more the usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith as an aid to understanding the Word of God. If we could only have one book alongside the Bible, there should be no difficulty deciding what that book should be!
May our perusal of the Westminster Confession of Faith bring us more and more into the atmosphere in which the divines conclude their work: “As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgement, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity; so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.”
1. The first article dealt with two points: (1) The necessity and legitimacy of Creeds, (2) The public or ecclesiastical uses of Creeds and the suitability of the Westminster Confession of Faith for these uses. The third and final point is: The usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the personal level. The second article handled the first half of this third point: its usefulness intellectually. This article deals with the second half of the third point; it concludes a paper originally presented to the 2000 Theological Conference.
2. “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance” in his God Transcendent, p 145.