Posted by: gmscan | January 24, 2011

The Westminster Confession

As I continue to learn and grow in my faith, I am also learning more about the church I am a member of. I said early on in this adventure that we were drawn to the Presbyterian Church because that was our family tradition and because we largely agreed with its interpretation of Scripture. Plus we were very impressed by both the congregation and the pastor of the church we found.

Other than a general understanding that most of the mainstream Protestant denominations have been becoming more politically liberal in recent years – and losing members in droves as a result – I didn’t know what was happening internally. My congregation seemed pretty orthodox and that was fine with me. I don’t need a church for finding my political direction. I needed a church for my salvation and for finding my brotherhood with Christ.

But as a member of the church, I have also felt a duty to become better informed of what I was agreeing to in my membership. I kept hearing about a “Book of Confessions” that lays out the essential tenets of the faith, plus I heard there is a new confession being proposed that is apparently pretty controversial. So I figured I should do some research.

I have now done a whole lot of reading about the history of the church, the life of Martin Luther, the various, and ongoing, schisms within the reformed movement, the various approaches to millenialism, dispensationalism, and a lot of the other issues that people get agitated about. Many of these things are waaaay too inside baseball for me.

I started with the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647. This was enormously helpful in understanding the Presbyterian outlook and how it differs from some other views, notably Roman Catholicism. It is fairly nasty towards Rome, but keep in mind this was written only 100 years after the death of Martin Luther, so the break of the Reformation was still new, especially in the British Isles. The King James version of the Bible was only 36 years old at the time, so the idea of literate laypeople reading the Bible for themselves was still pretty novel. But this was a fundamental precept of the Westminster Confession, that “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

This idea alone was a radical departure from Roman Catholicism. The Confession calls for translating the Bible into “the language of every people,” so that people from all over the world would be able to read it for themselves.  I was relieved that the church agrees that a literate layman like myself is able to grasp a “sufficient understanding” of scripture without comprehending all these doctrinal detours.

There is a lot in the Westminster Confession that speaks to me. On Predestination, for instance, it says that while God knows what we will do, we don’t, so the fact that God knows should make no difference in our behavior or our decisions. God may know what we will decide to have for lunch tomorrow, but it is still up to us to make the decision.

Similarly, the Confession says that God already knows who will be saved and who will not be, and that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation. The author of “What’s So Amazing About Grace” put it this way – “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make Him loves us less.” So, we do not glorify God in order to win bonus points, and there is no point in pretending to be holier than we are. Forget about putting on a show. The only reason to worship God is because we recognize His power and His mercy. In fact, the very idea of having faith is itself a gift from God. Having it may make us feel happier and more whole, but pretending to have it does nothing for us. Once we recognize the gift of faith we have been given, we will choose to obey God to the best of our abilities, even though we are never going to be very good at it.

I have often wondered about how people can be saved who have never heard of Jesus. The Confession states that God will save (justify) whomever he wants to – infants, foreigners (“persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word’), even the Jews of the Old Testament  — “The justification of believers under the Old Testament was one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.”

The Confession does expect believers to repent of their sins – “none may expect pardon without it” – but “As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.” It isn’t just to God that we must repent and ask forgiveness, but directly to those we have sinned against.

The Confession says that “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as… are devised by men out of blind zeal or upon any pretense of good intention.” Our ability to do Good Works comes from the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot here about Christian liberty and liberty of conscience – “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.” It is insistent on freedom of religion and the obligation of the civil authorities to protect such freedom, and on the obligation of Christians to honor and obey civil magistrates – “Infidelity or difference in religion doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him.”

It is quite clear on marriage – “Christian marriage is an institution ordained by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter…” Yet it acknowledges that the world is sinful and may tear apart such marriages. It therefore allows divorce and remarriage “on grounds stated in Scripture implicit in the gospel of Christ…” Another version of the Confession allows divorce “only in cases of extreme, unrepented-of, and irremediable unfaithfulness (physical or spiritual).”

The Confession recognizes only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It distinguishes itself from Baptists by not requiring immersion and allowing the baptism of infants, and it distinguishes itself from the Roman Catholics by saying that “transubstantiation”  (in which the bread and wine in communion are literally turned into the body and blood of Christ) is “repugnant, not to Scripture alone but even to common sense and reason.” For Presbyterians, communion is strictly a symbolic commemoration.

One final point about the Westminster Confession: It acknowledges throughout that the church is fallible and may err, and that the final authority always rests in Scripture. So, it notes that, “all synods and councils since the apostles times may err … therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used and a help in both.”

It goes on to say that these councils “are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical, and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary.”

This last point will be the jumping off point for my next posting.




  1. Greg,
    Before you go too far beyond the basics, let me challenge you to go through the book of Romans and identify and mark everywhere the Greek word DIKAIOSUNE (and its variant forms) occurs. The basic meaning is BEING MADE RIGHTEOUS, but at times is rendered in English as JUSTIFIED. In its translation to English, the experts took it upon themselves to make the distinction for the poor ignorant lay persons, like us.
    If you think about it, being rendered righteous, by grace, and by God’s standard, and by God, there is no need for the courtroom analogy of being delcared just by a judge.

    • Jerry,
      My Greek is a little rusty, so I will take your word for it. You’re right though that the word “justify,” at least to my modern American mind, connotes a number of things that are not intended by the original meaning. The expression “Christian apologist” threw me for a loop, too until I looked it up in a dictionary. The use of the word isn’t wrong. It is my education that is lacking.

  2. I find your study of the Presbyterian doctrine quite refreshing. I have a friend who attends the Presbyterian church near me. He says he likes this church because he finds it a great business networking location. He likes that the teaching is just about being good to one another without tying him to “thou shalt not’s.” He especially enjoys teaching a Sunday School class while openly professing his homosexuality which the church couselor assured him was Biblical because the scripture “love one another” does not mention gender. I have been concerned about him and this church for some time.

    • YIKES, Bev!

      That is scary. Of course we should “love one another,” but that does not mean we condone sin. I’m not sure what a “church counselor” is, but it sounds like this person has been leaving out the parts of the Bible that are inconvenient to modern living – yeeech.

  3. I have a question. The Modern English version of the Westminster Catechism used by the EPC and the former PCUS allows divorce “only in cases of extreme, unrepented-of, and irremediable unfaithfulness (physical or spiritual).” I understand the situation of physical unfaithfulness and that alone seems indicated by the Greek word used in Scripture (pornea). What is envisioned here as unrepentant “spiritual” unfaithfulness. The only thing I can think of is when a non-believer chooses to depart the marriage. (1 Cor 7:12-15). A change just reflecting the spouse to not be a believer would not be condoned in that passage. If that is what is in view here, this seems to be very awkward wording.

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