Rev H M Cartwright
Ministers are very much aware of the usefulness of the Confession of Faith to them in their principal task of preaching the gospel to their fellow sinners. Preaching is not based upon the Confession of Faith; its statements are not taken for the text of the sermon. Nor are they appealed to as the ultimate authority for what is said in the sermon. The basis and authority of preaching is the Word of God. But next to the Bible, and because of its strict conformity to the Bible and because of the remarkable way it reflects the Bible in its scheme and in its proportion and in its statements, the Confession of Faith is of inestimable help to the minister. Every statement and doctrine of Scripture has its own place in the perfectly consistent system of truth revealed in the Bible, and it is the minister’s concern to preach that truth in its Biblical integrity and proportion. As a help in this great work, this Confession of the Church’s faith is more authoritative, and indicative of the real priorities of the Bible, than a Systematic Theology written by any individual, however gifted and true to Scripture his writing may generally be.
The minister who soaks in the Biblical and Systematic Theology of the Confession of Faith is helped thereby to maintain a theological content to his preaching, to check the theological accuracy of the points he is making and to keep a Biblical proportion in the subjects with which he deals in the pulpit. Some ministers have made a conscious effort from time to time to follow through the scheme of the Confession or of the Catechisms in their preaching, taking passages of Scripture suggested by the various sections of the Confession or the questions of the Catechism. Of course their sermons take the line dictated by the texts of Scripture on which they are based, but as they are led to various texts of Scripture in this way they find that they are covering the main truths of the Bible set out so systematically in the Confession and Catechisms. Even when this method is not pursued, the minister’s acquaintance with the Confession of Faith as the best uninspired summary of Biblical Truth available to him is of inestimable benefit in assisting him as he studies “to show himself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
It is also a benefit to the Church that the people as a whole should be familiar with the Confession of Faith. There is no doubt that such familiarity in the past in Scotland, at least with that doctrine as summarised in the Shorter Catechism, meant that the pews were occupied by people who could appreciate, and benefit from, the preaching and to whom ministers could preach in the assurance that they understood the terms and doctrines which the Confession made familiar. It also meant that there were many among the people whose faculty of discernment was sharpened. As it is from among the people that ministers and elders and deacons are raised up, it is good even from this point of view when the people are well grounded doctrinally, and nourished by the sound words of the Confession.
Often when the teachers and preachers of the Church as a whole have departed from the truth which they had vowed to uphold, the Church has been preserved by the faithfulness to truth of office-bearers and members of the Church. These office-bearers and members were greatly aided in their ability to “try the spirits whether they are of God” by their familiarity with the Bible and with the Biblical truth summarised in the Confession – a fact illustrated in the origins of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. When we read of declension from orthodoxy and confessionalism in formerly Calvinistic Churches around the world, we find that generally the people in these Churches had already long ceased to have any meaningful acquaintance with, or interest in, the Confession.
We shall concentrate, however, on the usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the personal level to each one of us, whether minister, elder, deacon, communicant member or other soul seeking to know the truth and to benefit from the Word of God. Knowledge of the Confession of Faith is useful to the individual intellectually, experimentally and practically.
(A) The usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith to the individual intellectually.
“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:29,30). “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom 12:1,2). There is more to loving the Lord with all our mind, rendering reasonable or intelligent service, and having our minds renewed, than entertaining correct views of truth. But it is by means of the truth that God works. While incorrect notions can have a detrimental effect upon the character and experience and life of a person, correct views of truth can only be useful in the hand of the Holy Spirit. The Confession of Faith greatly helps in bringing us to think biblically in a general way, and on the particular subjects with which it deals. The authors of the Confession did not regard ignorance as the mother of devotion. They “believed that God’s revelation can be formulated accurately. They were not enamoured of ambiguity; they did not identify piety with a confused mind”. (2)
Think of the structure of the Confession. It begins with a chapter Of the Holy Scripture. It begins with the doctrine of Holy Scripture because the Bible is its authority and the source of all its doctrine. It does not begin with God because it would have us understand that we can only know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, that we must derive from the Bible our knowledge of God and His purposes, and that all our views must be formed by God’s Word. We would know nothing of those purposes of God’s grace in which the Confession glories, were it not for God’s revelation of Himself through men whom He inspired to communicate His thoughts precisely, in His words. In its definition of Scripture, and its account of the necessity of Scripture and of the implications of possessing Scripture, the Confession provides us with an answer to the various criticisms of Scripture and additions to Scripture which appear today. It shows us with what confidence we can go to the Bible. By putting its discussion of Scripture at the beginning of its treatment of Christian doctrine, it teaches us to come to our understanding and belief through the instruction of the Word. This is the touchstone to which it would have us bring every idea. Those who adopt the method and the spirit of the Confession will be students and servants of the Word.
From this starting point it goes on to God and the Holy Trinity. The Westminster Confession is God-centred. As R L Dabney puts it: “It is the constitution of the Godhead as a triunity in unity and the august circle of the divine attributes which regulate everything in their system of revealed theology. And hence again it results that every head in their system of doctrine must converge to God’s glory as its ultimate end”. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever” (Shorter Catechism, 1).
Following its statement on the doctrine of God and of the Trinity, the Confession deals with God’s eternal, all-determining decree and his works of Creation and Providence. It then begins to deal with man as a sinner who has “wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation” (chapter 9, Of Free Will). God’s salvation is traced to its source in His Covenant, through Christ as Mediator, along the line of what God does in and for His people in the way of effectual calling, justification, adoption and sanctification, with the response produced by His grace in faith, repentance, good works, perseverance and assurance. One chapter (8) deals directly and wholly with Christ the Mediator. But, as has been said, “the Confession is a Christ-focused Confession, from beginning to end. It quickly reaches a crescendo in chapter 8, where Christ is described in rich Biblical detail and nearly breathtaking precision as the mediator of the Covenant of Grace. That early zenith of praise is never abandoned by the Confession. Remove Jesus Christ from this glorious document and its accompanying catechisms and they disintegrate. Christ is the unifying reality throughout.” (3)
It is also a Confession which recognises the essential work of God the Holy Spirit. It has been suggested that the Confession does not deal adequately with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Commenting on this claim, S W Carruthers remarks that “this is quite unjustifiable, for, while there is no special chapter on the subject, He is mentioned four times as a Person of the Trinity, five times as an inspirer and interpreter of Scripture, thrice in relation to Christ, thrice as the effective agent of the sacraments, and in 18 places as the agent of effectual calling, quickening, faith, sanctification, assurance, grace, and other influences over the heart and will of man”. (4)
Having dealt with the origination, accomplishment and application of God’s saving work, the Confession proceeds to the Law of God and the way that God’s will is to be obeyed in the exercise of Christian liberty and liberty of conscience, in religious worship and the Sabbath Day, in civil matters, in the marriage relationship, in the Church and her fellowship and sacraments and discipline and government. It fittingly concludes by bringing us face to face with the truth concerning death, resurrection and the last judgement.
This sketchy outline of the method of the Confession underlines the fact that it provides us with a Biblical scheme and order in which the priorities and proportions and relations of Biblical teaching regarding doctrine, experience and practice are systematically set before us in a way which provides us with an intellectual framework within which we can study individual teachings of the Word of God from the overall perspective of the Word of God itself.
The Confession of Faith is a great help in bringing us to think biblically not only in a general way but also with regard to the particular subjects with which it deals. This could be illustrated from any chapter in the Confession. An example is Chapter 11, Of Justification, which deals with a very basic subject, and yet a subject about which there is much intellectual and spiritual confusion. This chapter identifies the justified as those whom God has effectually called, as Romans 8:30 does: “Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified”. In the order of salvation, justification follows upon effectual calling. In a minimum of words it refutes wrong notions of what justifies a sinner, while setting out the truth on what does justify. This section illustrates how, in the most precise and yet warmly Biblical language, the Westminster Confession of Faith overthrows the doctrinal and spiritual errors of centuries and affirms the truth of God concerning how it is that He justifies sinners: “Not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them for their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God”.
It then goes on through the subject, refuting error in the process of stating truth, so that when one studies the history of doctrine one can see that it is taking account of all relevant discussions and controversies. But it does so in a way beneficial to the person whose interest in the subject is purely personal and practical. Faith, which receives and rests upon Christ and His righteousness, is the instrument, the alone instrument, of justification, but faith is never alone in the justified. It is always accompanied by all the other saving graces and by works of love. While Christ gave full satisfaction to the Father’s justice on behalf of the justified, the provision and acceptance of Christ in their stead proclaims that their justification is only of free grace, “that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners”. While their justification was decreed in eternity and was effected in the death and resurrection of Christ, “nevertheless they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them”. The forgiveness of the justified is a continuing work of God. They can never fall from the state of justification, but by their sins they can come under God’s fatherly displeasure and lose the light of His countenance “until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance”. Believers under the Old Testament were justified in the same way as believers under the New Testament. This chapter provides us with a comprehensive and positive account of the Biblical teaching on justification and in the process refutes the errors held on the subject. It promotes a clear and Biblical understanding of the subject.
The intellectual usefulness of the Confession of Faith in helping us to think biblically, both in a general way and on the particular subjects with which it deals, is enhanced by the Scriptural proofs brought forward in support of the propositions made. The propositions of the Confession do not depend solely upon isolated proof texts but upon the wide sweep of Scripture teaching and principles. These men were steeped in Scripture, and their proof texts were considered in their Biblical context and were carefully debated and reviewed between January and April 1647. One should not too readily think on first sight that some of them are irrelevant. Study of the statements of the Confession in connection with the proof texts will not only enforce these statements but will deepen one’s understanding of the Scriptures adduced. The diligent student of the Confession will learn to think scripturally and rigorously, and not to be content with vague ideas concerning the things of God or a merely sentimental attitude to spiritual things.
1. The first part of this paper, published last month, 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. This article is the first half of the final point: The usefulness of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the more personal level. We expect that the final section of the paper will be published next month, DV.
2. Gordon Clark, What do Presbyterians Believe? p 283, Presbyterian and Reformed.
3. Joel Nederhood, in John L Carson and David W Hall (eds), To Glorify and Enjoy God, p 213, Banner of Truth Trust.
4. The Westminster Assembly, What it Was and What it Did, p 13.