Results tagged “Westminster Confession of Faith” from Reformation21 Blog

It Pleased Create


The words "it pleased create," in Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1, refer to divine willing, to the decree of God. Creation is due to the will of God. It is not necessary to the divine essence, however. The Triune God is God without creatures and in no absolute sense (or necessary to the divine nature as such) must make creatures. Richard Muller states that both the Lutheran and Reformed of the post-Reformation era agreed on the gratuitous nature of creation. He says:

"The Lutheran and Reformed agree in calling the entire work of creation a free act of God resting solely on the goodness of the divine will. That God created is therefore neither an absolute necessity...resting on an antecedent cause nor a necessity of nature...since God was not bound by his nature to create the world but could have existed without the creation. The Reformed add that creation is a necessity of the consequence...since the divine act of creation does result from the eternal and immutable decree of God..."1

This entails that creation is entirely gratuitous, and this fact ought to enhance our worship as we contemplate it. To be is of the essence of God, or necessary to God, but not to creatures. Creatures do not necessarily exist; their existence is contingent, or by "necessity of the consequence." God willed to create, to bring into contingent existence that which did not exist necessarily, which is everything other than God. Creation did not appear due to absolute divine necessity. In other words, there is nothing in God that makes creation absolutely necessary. Louis Berkhof's words are helpful at this juncture. He wrote:

"The only works of God that are...necessary with a necessity resulting from the very nature of God are the opera ad intra, the works of the separate persons within the Divine Being: generation, filiation, and procession. To say that creation is a necessary act of God, is also to declare that it is just as eternal as those immanent works of God. Whatever necessity may be ascribed to God's opera ad extra, is a necessity conditioned by the divine decree and the resulting constitution of things. It is necessity dependent on the sovereign will of God, and therefore no necessity in the absolute sense of the word. The Bible teaches us that God created all things, according to the counsel of His will, Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11; and that He is self-sufficient and is not dependent on His creatures in any way, Job 22:2,3; Acts 17:25."2

The creation is predicated upon the divine pleasure, or will, to create, as mysterious as that is to us. Though some have argued (I think rightly) that creation is fitting to the divine essence, this does not entail that creation is absolutely necessary to the divine essence. Creation, we must affirm, is utterly gratuitous and mysterious. Before considering an eloquent statement by John Webster, let us remember that theology is an intellectual act, a creaturely reflection, the goal of which is worship. We are attempting to grasp what God has revealed to us, a great privilege, and creaturely theology's goal is communion with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and all its entailments. Webster put it in the following way:

"God requires nothing other than himself. Yet his unoriginate love also originates. Why this should be so, we are incapable of telling, for, though with much consternation we can begin to grasp that it is fitting that God should so act, created intelligence remains stunned by the fact that God has indeed done so. What stuns us - what our intelligence can't get behind or reduce any further - is the outward movement of God's love, God's love under its special aspect of absolute creativity. God's creative love is not the recognition, alteration or ennoblement of an antecedent object beside itself, but the bringing of an object into being, ex nihilo generosity by which life is given. By divine love, the 'infinite distance' which 'cannot be crossed' [quoting Aquinas] - the distance between being and nothing - has been crossed. The love of God, therefore, has its term primarily in itself but secondarily in the existence of what is other than God, determined by that love for fellowship with him.

Creation is, again, not necessary for God. God's creative love is not 'a love which is needy and in want' and so 'loves in such a way that it is subjected to the things it loves'; God loves not 'out of compulsion of his needs' but 'out of the abundance of his generosity' [quoting Augustine]."3

If creation were necessary to the divine essence, it would be the divine essence, for that which is necessary to the divine essence is necessary for the divine to be.

It makes sense to us (kind of) that God created, since we know it is His will to do so, due to divine love and goodness. But the divine will is not arbitrary, as in capricious or unreasonable. It is not, as Webster says, to be thought of "as a mere spasmodic exercise of divine power..."4 Divine willing "signifies determination to act according to nature."5 God does not have to create in order to be God or in order to be enhanced by that which He created, but create He did, and when He does it reflects who He is. This should astound us and promote worship in us. Hear the words of the Psalmist: 

"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deep in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:6-9).

God is happily God without creatures. Creation is an utterly gratuitous divine effect, indicating to us the "supreme generosity in accord with and on the basis of God's eternal love of himself in the processions of Son and Spirit from the Father."6 God acts for the love of God. Creation makes sense to us (kind of), but only as we contemplate the divine processions behind creation and meditate upon the divine self-sufficiency and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though God is happily God without creatures, creatures exist, and they exit "out of the abundance of his generosity."

1. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985, 2017), 83-84.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939, 1941; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 130.

3. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1:92-93.

4. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.

5. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.


Considering Exceptions: Singing Psalms


Often, potential exceptions to the Westminster Standards take this form: "If the Confession is saying 'x', then I must state my difference with that section." One particularly common example of this is found in WCF 21.5, which reads, If the "singing of psalms with grace in the heart" means that we may only sing psalms, as opposed to hymns, many (myself included) would need to seek an exception. It is, therefore, a matter of no small importance for us to understand just what that phrase-and the section as a whole-truly means.

Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith covers the subjects of worship and the Sabbath. Section one asserts the principle from Romans 1-that by the light of nature all men know that there is a God and that he deserves our worship. While all men know this truth (however much this truth is suppressed), the acceptable manner by which we are to worship God is instituted only by Himself in His word. As such, men may only properly worship God in accordance with the revelation he provides. For us, that means we must worship God only as he has revealed himself in the pages of the Old and New Testament. Section two, then, specifically directs our worship only at the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sections three and four cover prayer as one special part of worship. Section five sets forth the ordinary and seasonal parts of worship. Section six talks about the time and place for worship, while the remaining sections deal with the Christian Sabbath.

When we come to section five, we find a list of the parts of worship: the reading, proclamation, and conscionable hearing of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, and the administration and receiving of the Sacraments. These are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. In addition to these ordinary elements, various activities can be added as the season or occasion demands. These include oaths, vows, fasts, and thanksgivings.

The primary question, of course, concerns the statement about singing: Is the Westminster Confession of Faith advocating exclusive psalmody? Or, to put it another way: If one were to adhere to the confession without any stated difference, must that person refrain from singing any song in worship that was not one of the one hundred and fifty Psalms found in Scripture? For a variety of reasons, I do not believe the answer to either question is "yes."

The first reason is that the confession's use of the word 'psalm' does not necessarily restrict worship to the book of the Bible with that particular name. As Chad Van Dixhorn has stated in his reader's guide to the confession:

...the commendation of the Psalms in the confession and the directory [for public worship] needs to take into account that early modern use of the term 'psalm' is not limited to the Book of Psalms only. The common use of psalm almost always included hymns, and in it is scriptural proof texts the assembly deliberately directs readers of the confession to passages like Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13, which call Christians to 'sing praise', or to sing 'psalms and hymns and spiritual songs'.1

As an historical document, the common usage of the word when it was originally written must take precedence over our usage of the word today. Further, however much the divines may have disliked the idea of adding in the Scripture proofs, the confession itself was not finalized without them. As such, they provide additional insight into their thought process (even if collected after the fact) in putting forth the Confession and Catechism.

Yet, even if one were convinced that "the singing of with grace in the heart" meant just that (and only that), I would still argue that the singing of hymns would not be contra-confessional and the conviction that singing hymns is acceptable and biblical would not require the granting of an exception. Further, it is my frank opinion that to argue otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand this chapter of the Confession.

The contrary argument (that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms) is based upon the notion that this section gives us an exhaustive list of acceptable elements of worship. 21.5 lists several elements and declares that these "are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God." At least two things mitigate against this being an exhaustive list. First, 21.5 does not say the preceding are "the parts" or even "all the parts" but rather "are all parts." The very language the divines used shows us that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

Second, we can consider the good and necessary consequences of an exclusivist reading of 21.5. If you believe that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms, you also have to admit that the collection of an offering is not part of ordinary religious worship. To be sure, an offering may be a form of thanksgiving. It would at least seem odd, however, to include something appropriate in "their special times and seasons" every week (especially while only occasionally observing the Lord's Supper!). Therefore, to assert that the confession only allows Psalms is to introduce a inconsistency with the very principle the Confession puts forth: the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and is not limited to the list in 21.5.

If, however, one does argues that 21.5 is an exhaustive list (perhaps because they don't collect an offering...), you still have an even larger problem of inconsistency. If 21.5 is the list of what can (and therefore cannot) be included in the ordinary or seasonal worship of God, then the confession of faith is precluding prayer in worship. Prayer is not found in the list that 21.5 gives. It is, of course, the subject of 21.3-4 - but if 21.5 is the list, it is utterly unbiblical in its setting forth the whole of worship! But, of course, that isn't the case: 21.5 sets forth examples from Scripture on the basis of the principle outlined in 21.1. We look not to the confession for our exhaustive instruction in the proper worship of God, but to Scripture alone.

I would, therefore, encourage everyone to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs - knowing that the confession does not discourage the practice at all. Further, I would encourage anyone who believes that this portion of the confession is worthy of a stated difference (no matter how minor or merely semantic) to reconsider. When properly understood, the 21st chapter of our confession deepens our understanding of and reliance upon the self-revelation of God that is found in Scripture and 21.5 continues this by way of example, not by way of exhaustive list.

1. Chad Van DIxhorn, Confessing the Faith, A reader's guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2014), p. 285. Note that this is contra G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (P & R, 2004), p. 217. I agree with Williamson that the historic practice of Presbyterian (and many Reformed) churches has been to sing only Psalms. I am not convinced that this necessarily means that the Westminster Divines were of the same mind. See also Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Mentor, 2005), 2:223-306.

Considering Exceptions: Covenant or Testament?


In the intro to this short series of posts, we began to look at a few common differences with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms stated by some of the elders in the PCA. The purpose of these posts is not to tread ground covered by other, more able, men regarding major issues (days of creation, paedocommunion, etc.); rather, it is to examine a few places in our standards that garner less attention. Today, we begin with WCF 7.4--which reads:

"This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed."

The common objection to this section of the confession is due to the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament." Most modern translations, along with most modern commentators, recognize (at most) one place in Scripture where the word διαθηκη should be translated either will or testament. Once is not frequent, not by any measure. As such, 7.4 is an inaccurate statement. Or, so this commonly stated difference goes.

By starting here, I am not saying that this is the most controversial difference. Further, I don't know anyone who would argue that this stated difference is hostile to our system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion - in fact I doubt anyone has been granted an exception for this difference that rises above "merely semantic." Indeed, one could argue that this is the poster child for merely semantic exceptions. Yet it is precisely for this reason that I wish to begin here.

Having studied WCF 7.4, I have personally decided again stating a difference with this section of the Confession, concluding that it is important and correct both as a historical document and for continued use in the contemporary church. I will therefore look at this section from these two perspectives.

When the divines originally wrote the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament," it was wholly accurate. As pedantic as it may sound, 7.4 does not make reference to a Greek word, but an English one. That is, the divines were not so much commenting on the proper (or improper) translation of διαθηκη as they were commenting upon the phenomenon of the word testament in the King James Version of the Bible. It is vital to remember that the divines did not seek to write a confession merely for theologians or academics. Rather, they wrote these documents for the church (indeed, for their church). Therefore, while the confession instructs us to consider controversies by way of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, the divines sought to present the church's confession in the language of the pew.

When a Christian in the 17th Century read the book of Hebrews or heard the words of institution for the Lord's Supper, he or she would come upon the word testament. We might even say that he or she would do so frequently, as the word occurs in the King James Version some fourteen times in seven different books. To gloss over this phenomenon would have been a disservice to the version of Scripture the members of their churches read.

At the same time, the divines were certainly aware that covenant and testament in the King James Version were variously translating a single Greek word. But they would also be aware that not every person reading their Bible or hearing a sermon would know this. Therefore, they sought to make the connection between covenant and testament explicit in the confession. Whenever a Christian read testament, the divines wanted them to realize that this inheritance bequeathed to them through the death of Jesus Christ is not something set alongside the covenant (i.e., tangential to or beside it) but is an integral aspect of the Covenant of Grace. And this is all the more important because the notion of inheritance belongs more properly to testament than to covenant. That is, the link between inheritance and covenant is found in the promises that God repeatedly makes, rather than in the nature of a covenant itself. We do not inherit eternal life in Christ because of the concept of a covenant in general, but because of the content of this specific covenant. Therefore, one could say that in a world in which the most commonly read English Bible was the King James Version, 7.4 becomes immensely important to the covenantal theology of the church.

Of course, times have changed and the current situation in our churches is very different. But have they really changed all that much? According to organizations that track such things, the King James Version of the Bible has outsold all other versions every year for all but the most recent years. Even in the years that the KJV has been surpassed, it still comes in at number two. Plus, at least one research site found that over half of the Christians they surveyed stated that the version of the Bible they read regularly was the King James. In other words, there is a collective impact of the KJV being the top seller year after year after year. As such, it is highly likely that any time you preach, any time you teach, there will be a few King James Versions in the pews or seats in front of you. And that means that, more likely than not, some of the people to whom you minister will need the instruction that takes place in 7.4. They will need the instructive reminder to think covenant whenever they see the word testament. And everyone - regardless of the version they prefer - will need the reminder that the concept of testament (no matter if or how many times the word itself is used) is vital to our understanding of the covenant promises our God has made and our Savior has fulfilled.

But doesn't that just mean that the church as a whole needs this instruction. And isn't that the point of a confession in the first place - to provide instruction the church as a whole needs? Therefore is it not preferable for me, whose preferred Bible version does not even have the word testament once, to confess this section of our subordinate standards precisely because the point of our confession is not to reflect my personal preferences but the needs of the church at large? Like the divines, I am not confessing what translation of διαθηκη I think is most accurate - I am confessing a reality of the current state of translation in the English versions of Scripture.


Considering Exceptions


It is not uncommon for ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I pastor--to lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity among fellow pastors in our denomination. It is also not uncommon for ministers in the denomination in which I minister to lament the lamentations of those who lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity. At the center of these expressions of grief are the stated differences that ordained men either do or do no have regarding the doctrine set out in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (i.e. the Westminster Standards). Many of those who have no stated differences with the Standards look with suspicion at those who have stated difference-and vice versa. Each group of ministers wonders if those belonging to the other group has ever carefully read and studied the Confession and Catechisms. 

A candidate for licensure, ordination, or transfer must state their differences in their own words for all to read and examine. In these instances there is usually no doubt as to their depth of understanding. The candidate for ministry must define and defend their understanding of the Standards to the degree required by the Presbytery and/or its examining committee. Yet, for many Presbyteries, there appears to be no process for examining a man with no stated differences on a number of those doctrines on which others frequently state differences. For instance, I have yet to witness a man with no stated differences examined with regard to his view of such portion of the Standards as WCF 7.4 (regarding "the covenant of grace frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament."), WCF 21.5, WLC 109 (regarding "the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image"), or WLC 123-133/WSC 63-66. These issues only ever seem to arise in an examination if a man has brought up an issue that he had with the wording or substance of the doctrines set out in the Westminster Standards. Assuming most theological exams are at or below the level I have witnessed (a dangerous assumption, to be sure), the questions tend to focus on major points of doctrine and rarely get to some of the issues about which many elders state differences. Examining committees ask questions about days of creation, who can and should take communion, and the role of women to the various ordained offices;  but, these other issues rarely come up.

Some ministers in the PCA will suggest that it is prima facia evidence that a man has not carefully read or studied the Standards since he does not state a difference with any of these sections. How--the argument usually goes--can any thinking man, with the benefit of all the theological and biblical study of the past 350 years, not find some place or point of the Westminster documents to be lacking, if not in error? And yet sometimes those who do not state such differences provide more than merely prima facie evidence: they are unprepared to defend their position on these issues. Certainly, they are trained and prepared to defend the major points of contention within Christendom, such as the five points of Calvinism, the deity of Christ, or substitutionary atonement. The continuing validity or helpfulness of 17th century British social structure? Not so much.

Therefore, I'd like to put the commonly stated and frequently overlooked doctrines in the Standards under examination in a short series of posts in order to encourage all of us to read and study them. As one who happens to have no stated differences, I want to define and defend why I believe these doctrines to be worthy of our defense - both in terms of their inclusion in a document, and in terms of our assent to them. To that end, in the forthcoming series of posts I want to take up a few statements in our confession and catechisms that are more rarely considered - but which might be a larger cause of the disunity that we have experienced in the PCA.

At the outset, I want to be clear that it is not my desire to be unduly polemical. To that end, I am committed to refraining from attacking those who hold views contrary to my own and to discouraging others from doing so. Rather, I only desire to demonstrate why I believe that the Standards are biblically faithful in those places where there are often challenged. I sincerely hope that I can encourage brothers who may have stated differences on these points of doctrine to study them more carefully and to know that, at least, some who agree with the Standards on these disputed doctrines have themselves carefully studied them.

Additionally, I am not and do not confess to be an expert on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. I trust that all of us are willing to admit that we do not know the theology of the Standards (as nuanced as it is) as we ought. Neither am I saying that I have thoroughly examined every debated issue, or that I could correctly capture every position. I too am seeking to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the theology of the Westminster Standards.

Finally, it is my desire that everyone who read these posts will come away with a greater appreciation for our brethren and for our Standards. We can love someone with whom we sometimes disagree and we can love a doctrinal statement with which we sometimes disagree. That is something, I believe, that those of us who have no stated differences with the Westminster Confession and Catechism could benefit from remembering.

I've enjoyed the recent interaction between Mark Jones and Rick Phillips on the question of whether divine grace informed the covenant of works. I've also appreciated the generally cordial spirit of their interaction.

As both Mark and Rick know (and have reminded us), confessional theological traditions, by their very nature, permit a significant degree of difference on relatively important (or at least intriguing) issues. Confessional traditions, for those unfamiliar with such terminology, are those which look to one or several historic confessions of faith (the Westminster Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Augsburg Confession, etc.) to establish boundaries for appropriate theological expression. The original authors of such confessions -- for example, the Westminster Divines -- disagreed among themselves about quite a few things (See Haykin and Jones's Drawn into Controversie). Thus they purposefully produced statements of faith which were simultaneously inclusive of their divergent views and exclusive of views which, to their thinking, were sinister enough to require a severing of Christian fellowship. Present-day disagreement which occurs within the boundaries created by some common, historic Confession of Faith (such as the WCF) is, then, intramural (intra = within; muri = walls) and fraternal (fratres= brothers) by definition. That realization can and should inform the tone of such disagreement.

With that in view, I'd like raise a question or two in response to Mark and Rick's respective posts. I hope my questions will reflect the fraternal tone I've just advocated. I hope, more importantly, that they might serve to clarify where the boundaries actually lay -- for those who subscribe to the WCF -- for what's permissible and appropriate to say about divine grace and human merit vis-à-vis the covenant of works.

On Grace in the Covenant of Works

Regarding, first, the issue of grace in the covenant of works: I wonder if Mark hasn't overstated his case to some degree? Mark's done a masterful job of demonstrating that numerous seventeenth-century Reformed divines recognized the covenant of works as an essentially gracious arrangement, and/or acknowledged Adam's obedience, as long as such lasted in the Garden, as a product, ultimately, of divine grace. It would, I think, be irresponsible, in light of Marks' argument, to read the WCF as if it denied any present-day Reformed believer the freedom to refer to the covenant of works as a gracious relationship in which Adam's "perfect and perpetual obedience" might have secured (eternal) "life" for "Adam and... his posterity."

At times, however, Mark almost seems to suggest that recognition of grace in the covenant of works was unanimous among early modern Reformed thinkers, and -- consequently -- that the WCF's reference to every divine covenant per se being an instance of "voluntary condescension on God's part" was tantamount to naming the covenant of works as gracious in kind. So, for example, Mark advises those who "wish to maintain general agreement with the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century" to "be comfortable with (and perhaps insist upon) pre-Fall grace."

I'd like to point out, on this score, that there were early modern Reformed thinkers who very explicitly denied divine grace a presence or role in the pre-Fall covenant of works. Robert Rollock, the first principle of Edinburgh University and a pivotal figure in the history of Reformed covenant thought, comes to mind. In Rollock's 1596 catechism on the divine covenants he firmly insisted that those "works" which God required from Adam in the pre-Fall covenant were products of Adam's holy and upright nature, and so of his innate powers, not "works proceeding from grace." This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from Ames. In his Treatise of Effectual Calling a year later, Rollock denied that divine grace served as the fundamentum -- the foundation or basis -- of the covenant of works, and named Adam's holy and upright nature and friendship with God as the proper foundation of said covenant. This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from the multitude of writers Mark quotes who insisted on recognizing every covenant between God and man as an instance of divine grace per se. Rollock's analysis of the covenant of works is consistent with his own definition of "divine covenants" per se, a definition which omits any mention of grace.

It may be that Rollock was entirely alone in his refusal to place grace in the Garden of Eden. But I doubt it. Rollock was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with in the development of Reformed covenant theology, and I suspect that one finds his views on this matter reflected to some extent at least among his students and theological heirs. I suspect, moreover, that when the Westminster Divines spoke of "voluntary [divine] condescension" as the basis for each and every covenant, they were, with a view towards Rollock's opinion if not the man himself, more intentional in their avoidance of the term "grace" then Mark contends. The very carefully crafted wording of WCF 7 permits one to acknowledge grace -- not redemptive grace, but grace in some more general sense -- as foundational to the covenant of works as such. It certainly doesn't require anyone to acknowledge the covenant of works as a divinely established gracious relationship.

On Merit in the Covenant of Works

On the issue of merit in the covenant of works: I wonder if Rick hasn't misread the sources to some extent when he claims that "the [Westminster] confession restrict[s] merit to the person and work of Christ alone," and denies such (that is, merit) to anyone else, Adam included. There's no question that our Confession denies the possibility of fallen sinners meriting forgiveness and eschatological life (16.5), but, so far as I can see, the WCF never explicitly comments upon the issue of whether Adam's obedience could or would have been meritorious or not. 

Such lack of commentary on the issue of pre-Fall merit follows, I'd wager, from the diversity of opinions one actually encounters among seventeenth-century Reformed writers on this question. Rollock, whom I referenced above, specifically denied that Adam's obedience would have had the nature -- the ratio -- of merit because his work was owed to God in light of God's preceding goodness (not grace) to him. Others, however, insisted that Adam's obedience would have been meritorious, even if they labored to define "merit" in some way contrary to medieval notions of condign and congruent merit.

So, for instance, Johannes Braun wrote in his De doctrina foederum: "If Adam had remained upright and done everything which God required of him, he would indeed have merited his reward, but not condignly, as if either his own person or his works were equal in value to the reward. For no creature, no matter how perfect, can merit anything from God in that sense. [...] Rather he would have merited ex pacto, according to the stipulation of the covenant -- that is, according to God's good pleasure." One finds the same doctrine of pre-Fall merit in Francis Turretin, Benedict Pictet, and -- I presume -- in others of the period. 

I would contend, then, that diversity on the question of pre-Fall merit existed just as much as it did on the issue of pre-Fall grace. Thus, moreover, I would contend that persons affirming the meritorious nature of Adam's works in the pre-Fall covenant are no more "out of bounds" (as it were) than persons affirming/denying the presence of grace in the Garden.


I doubt that current debates over covenant theology can be effectively arbitrated by appeals to our Reformed "tradition," our historic confessions, or any singular Confession (say, Westminster). There's considerable diversity in our tradition (even with regard to something as specific as the covenant of works) and our historic confessions reflect that diversity by refusing to take sides on intramural squabbles. Contemporary debates over aspects of Reformed covenant theology are important and necessary, but they must be waged primarily on the fields of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematics. What our shared Confession of Faith can do in these debates is remind us of the unity we share despite our lack of complete uniformity in doctrine, a point which should in turn inform the tenor of our conversations.

Whatever parties exist on questions of grace and merit in the covenant of works, all who genuinely ascribe to the WCF affirm "the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ," and base their hope for eternal reward entirely upon the same. That truth bears repeating in the midst of (fraternal) discord. I'm reminded of Calvin's words to Bullinger in the 1540's regarding their differences on the Lord's Supper: "In whatever way I may hold the firm persuasion of a greater communication of Christ in the sacraments than you express in words, we shall not on that account cease to hold the same Christ and to be one in him. Some day, perhaps, it will be given us to unite in fuller harmony of doctrine."

Through the Westminster Confession Coming Monday!

This Monday, January 14, we will launch a weekly study of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Look for new entries on a weekly basis on each chapter of the Confession from contributors such as Joel Beeke, Richard Phillips, Jeffrey Jue, Philip Ryken, and Scott Oliphint. This series promises to be both historically informed and spiritually strengthening. Happy 2013! 

Say it with confessions

BoT confessions.JPGFor those persuaded beyond all reasoned argument that Christmas is truly the most wonderful time of the year (and, indeed, for those who are not), might I draw your attention to a couple of new volumes from the Banner of Truth? Just published are two gift edition confessions of faith in the Pocket Puritan series.

The Westminster Confession is that approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, with chapters 20, 23 and 31 as altered, amended and adopted as the Doctrinal Part of the Constitution of the PCA in 1788, with footnotes to identify other alterations by the OPC and PCA.

The gents at the Banner have gone with the popular title for The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, which saves the hassle of writing "The (Second London) Baptist Confession of Faith 1677/1689" every time you want to refer to it. It includes the all-too-often-overlooked epistle to the judicious and impartial reader (hooray!) but sadly omits the appendix on baptism (understandable, but boo!). The text has been lightly edited for the modern reader.

They are both in a soft cover edition (that durable leather-lite feel) at £10 or $14 each. Small enough to slide into a common or garden pocket, these are ideal editions for those who want to learn or to refresh their understanding of these gems from the past.

All in all, I sincerely hope that these small but rich volumes will get these time-honoured testimonies to Biblical truths into the hands and hearts of more people. Buy one for the Baptist/Presbyterian in your life, whack it in the Crimbo knitted footgear, and get ready for the whoops of joy untrammelled on that morning that hordes of you will be celebrating with all manner of vim and excitement.

Results tagged “Westminster Confession of Faith” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 33.3

iii. As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: (2 Pet. 3:11, 14, 2 Cor. 5:10-11, 2 Thess. 1:5-7, Luke 21:27-28, Rom. 8:23-25) 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. (Matt. 24:36, 42-44, Mark 13:35-37, Luke 12:35-36, Rev. 22:20).

We can be brief as we finish our focus on the final judgment of Christ that will surely come to every person.

The first thing we should not pass over too quickly is the Confession's assertion that "Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment." There is a large body of literature, unfortunately including some Christian literature, that attempts to set forth the notion that certainty, for us, is an unattainable, perhaps even a prideful, goal. The notion of "certainty" has fallen on hard times of late. The reasons for this are primarily two: (1) Modernism's prideful attempt to show that universal knowledge was "the norm" was shown, like every other "-ism" (except Christian theism) to be bankrupt. Anyone claiming to be certain has too much confidence in his own intellectual powers and is, in a word, naïve.Thus, the conclusion has been that knowledge is only and always a matter of individual "contexts." (2) Related to this, skepticism has exerted enormous influence, philosophically and culturally, such that one dare not say he is "certain" of anything. The alternative, we are told, is a humble, chastised attitude that confesses that certainty is a modernist myth that has rightly made its way to the intellectual graveyard.

But this is not the biblical view. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It masks itself in pious jargon, like "humility" and "chastened," but it has its roots in that subtle and subversive question from Satan, "Has God said?" And that question points us to the true root and foundation of any certainty we might have. When we are certain about some things, as we must be, we are certain, not because we take particular pride in our intellectual abilities, or because we are able to understand things in a way other people are not; quite the opposite. We are certain only when and where God has spoken. And when God speaks, we are obligated, as His servants, to be certain that what He has said is the actual truth of the matter. So it is with the final judgment. We are to be certain about it. We are to harbor no doubts that Christ is coming back, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead.

But there are things concerning the final judgment of which we are not to be certain. The Confession mentions the primary one: " 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..." One of the sins, among many, unfortunately, that has caused a watching world to scoff at Christianity is the sin of certainty with respect to the day that the Lord will return. Such certainty can be nothing other than utter deception and spiritual pride, in that there is no warrant for it from the Word of God. Not only so, but there is clear and unequivocal teaching that we are not meant to know "the day or hour" (see, for example, Matt. 24:36, 42-44).

This certainty/uncertainty mix of truths is meant to provoke us to be ready, to pursue holiness, to patiently wait and pray. Especially, in this regard, note Revelation 6:10. Speaking of the martyrs who were in heaven, awaiting their final destiny, John writes:"They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

This helps us to recognize two central, Christian truths concerning the final judgment. First, those who have died in Christ have not reached their final goal. To live is indeed Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21), but to die is not to reach our final destiny. It is, as Paul reminds us, to "depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Phil. 1:23). But "far better" is not best, from a biblical perspective. As saints in heaven, there is a better place to be, and that place is in the new heaven and the new earth (see Is. 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1-5). Second, the souls who cry out to God in heaven are not complaining about God's timing. They are, instead, praying for the full and climactic manifestation of His holy character in His second coming. They are, in effect, praying the prayer that we pray when we say, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." When we pray that prayer, we are praying that justice will come to those who steadfastly oppose the Lord, but we are also praying that mercy will be manifest, finally and completely, as the Lord draws all of His people to Himself, for eternity.

Finally, the reason the Lord tarries, according to Scripture, is because of His patient mercy (2 Peter 3:9). Many of us have perhaps come to Christ at a definite point in our lives. We can think of this in terms of a (admittedly impossible) "what if" scenario. Suppose you came to Christ in 2012. What would have happened if Christ had come in 2011? If that had happened, the Lord's mercy would not have been extended to you; you would have perished in your sins. His patience is a merciful patience.

Given what Scripture and the Confession teach us, however, we know that such things could not happen. We know (and are certain) that the Lord will gather all of those given to Christ by the Father, and for whom Christ died to Himself, and will keep them for eternity (see John 17). In the meantime, the Lord is patient, mercifully patient, and we wait. We wait for more of His mercy to be extended to more of His own. 

In waiting, as Scripture and the Confession remind us, we pray, "Even so, come Lord Jesus, come quickly." We do not pray that, in the first place, in hopes that our suffering will be alleviated, or that we might get out of difficult circumstances. We pray that, in the first place, because we long for the full manifestation of the mercy and the justice of the Lord over all the earth, and in heaven itself. In other words, as goes our Christian lives, so also go our prayers for Christ's return. We pray that the Lord will come quickly because we long for the full, glorious and climactic manifestation of Christ Himself, in whom is the fullness of God's justice and God's mercy.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 33.2

ii. The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:5-6, Rom. 9:22-23, Matt. 25:21, Acts 3:19, 2 Thess. 1:7-10).

There are three points that should be underlined in this section. First, this paragraph rightly and wisely connects the truth of the dual destinies of all of humanity with the glory of God. The biblical teaching of the final judgment has its ultimate and climactic goal in the truth and manifestation of the glory of God.

With respect to the glory of God, the Confession has consistently maintained that this glory is the rationale for all that takes place in history, and into eternity. "From Him, through Him and to Him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). This summary of all of creation is oftentimes not given its proper due in our thinking and living, and it will help us understand the final judgment if we remember its centrality. All things are what they are, ultimately, for the glory of God. This glory has two covenantally-connected aspects to it.

1. The glory of God is just who God is. That is, the character of God is itself His glory. When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord explained to Moses that if his request were granted, he would perish. No one can see God's glory and live (see Ex. 33:18ff.). This glory of God, which is His incomprehensible and refulgent character, of course, fully and completely characterizes the three persons of the Trinity, in that each is fully God. But it is not something that mere humans can have or grasp or experience. He is the LORD and there is no other. He will not give His glory to another (Is. 42:8). To "glorify" God is to give Him His due weight; it is to ascribe to Him the proper praise because of who He is. This is what man, as image of God, was meant to do; we were/are meant to show God's character, in an "image" and derivative way. 

2. The covenantal condescension (WCF 7.1) of this triune God, however, includes the condescension of His glory. So, as God relates Himself to His creation, part of that relationship includes various manifestations of His glory, which is to say, manifestations of His majestic character. When Scripture tells us that "all things" are "from, through and to Him," what it is telling us, in part, is that all things are designed to show us something of God's resplendent and glorious character.

I know from teaching the "Doctrine of God" to seminary students that the centrality of God's glory is one of the most difficult truths for Christians to digest. It seems, more often, to provoke spiritual indigestion, rather than fruitfully to nourish Christian growth. But we will not be rid of our dysfunction and sin in our daily lives and in this world unless we learn joyfully to embrace this glorious truth. Everything in this world and beyond has God's glory, and not us, in view. Anything that happens to us, for us and in us is meant to point to that glory. It is not meant to point, in the first place, to us and our lives. (In light of this, re-read chapter 3 of the Confession and notice how the Confession in its explanation of God's eternal decree and meticulous sovereignty repeats the refrain, in various ways, of the "glory of God." We struggle with election to the extent that we neglect to center it on God's character, and attempt to focus it on man).

Since God's glory is a manifestation of His character, the final judgment, in its dual modality, shows us something of the glory of God; it shows us what God is like in His dealings with men. It shows us, as the Confession says, "the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient."

This leads to our second point. Every person will acknowledge that the biblical teaching of eternal damnation brings grief. That is as it should be. God Himself takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23, 33:11). Christ wept over Jerusalem because of their unwillingness to come to Him (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). There is no delight that emanates from the triune God when men refuse to come to Him.

But we should not allow that grief to cloud the reality, and tempt us to pervert or distort it. We may not have all the information we would like to have about why God set the world in motion and providentially directed it the way that He did. We do know, however, that His judgments are inscrutable and His ways past finding out (Rom. 11:33ff.). If we lose the true, biblical focus on eternal damnation, therefore, we may be in danger of losing the God whose glorious justice is manifest in its reality.

There must, then, be a dual affirmation with respect to eternal damnation. We must rightly grieve its existence; its existence is a manifestation of all that opposes God and His character, and it is an ugly and abhorrent place, devoid of the mercy and grace of God. But we should not grieve that existence only because some we know may be there. That is tragic, and we "think God's thoughts after Him" when we take no delight in it. But the ultimate tragedy of it is that its existence is a testimony of those whose lives were set against the holiness of God's character, and who would not honor Him for who He is. The biblical focus of the tragedy, in other words, is the opposition to God that hell displays. With this focus, we should, in turn, learn to hate and despise that same opposition to the extent that its effects still remain in us.

This brings me to a third point, which itself is not explicit in the Confession, but is implicit, and which should at least be broached here, given its influence. Why can we not hold that those who die outside of Christ simply cease to exist? Why not affirm the doctrine of annihilationism? This doctrine is not only reserved for cults, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but has found its way into some otherwise orthodox contexts as well.

Briefly, annihilationists argue that the orthodox view of everlasting punishment misreads Scripture, in at least two important areas. They argue, first of all, that the word eternal (aionios) is assumed to mean endless, though it really means (something like) "belonging to the age to come." "Eternal" refers, they think, to a quality, and not to longevity. Thus, "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) does not mean eternally enduring punishment, but "the punishment of the age to come." The problem with this is that, while the term ainios is used in the New Testament in the context of the biblical distinction between the present age and the age to come, the "age to come" is by definition endless, endlessness being an essential element in its quality.

Annihilationists also argue that biblical terms such as perishing and destruction in Scripture should be taken for what they mean, i.e., the end of existence altogether. The problem with this is that Scripture uses those terms not as the end of existence, but as the disintegration of a previously constituted state or condition. So, for example, in Matt. 9:17, we see that men do not put new wine into old wineskins, or they will be destroyed. What is destroyed here is not the existence of wineskins, but their ability to function as intended. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 is of special interest in this connection. It speaks of being "punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord." But if destruction means complete and total annihilation: 1. the adjective "everlasting" serves no function whatsoever, and 2. "shut out from the presence of the Lord" loses its force, since the phrase naturally implies ongoing conscious existence. Paul is speaking here of the destruction that consists in being excluded from the presence of God. Instead of implying cessation of existence, therefore, the biblical terminology actually underlines its continuation (1)

It is the glory of God that rightly focuses our view of the final judgment. All that takes place on planet earth, all that takes place in our lives, has its terminus in that judgment, and its meaning in His glory. If you are in Christ as you read this, praise Him for His grace. If you are not, now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). 

Tomorrow we will finish with the third and final section of this chapter.

1. This section on annihilation is a slightly edited version of the "Appendix" in K. Scott Oliphint and Sinclair B. Ferguson, If I Should Die Before I Wake: What's Beyond This Life?, (UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004).

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 33.1

i. God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

I suspect that the vast majority of readers of this site will not quibble with the biblical doctrine of the final judgment. There will, no doubt, be variations and nuances among us, but the general teaching itself should be beyond doubt for any who take seriously the authority of God's Word.

The first thing we must recognize is that this chapter is consistent with every chapter preceding; it does not come to us, nor is it meant to be read, "on its own." The affirmation that all people will "receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil," is consistent with what the Confession has said previously. So, for example, what is said here in no way conflicts with, negates or undermines those great truths articulated in chapters 10-17, which include, among others, our effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. In other words, this chapter presupposes the Christian's union with Christ (see, e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 66, 69).

But we also affirm that there is no conflict in this chapter and the Confession's teaching in chapter three on God's decree of election and reprobation. The Confession is clear, because Scripture is clear, that the biblical teaching of God's unconditional election is the foundation on which our own responsibility to Him rests. Election, as chapter 3.1 says, does not in any way take away the liberty or contingency of second causes; rather, election establishes those causes, and puts them within their proper context.

With that in mind, I will highlight a few points that deserve our special attention when affirming this great truth, "Of the Last Judgment:"
God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, (Acts 17:31) to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. (John 5:22,27) In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, (1 Cor. 6:3, Jude 6, 2 Pet. 2:4) but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor. 5:10, Eccl. 12:14, Rom. 2:16, Rom. 14:10,12, Matt. 12:36-37)
Three brief points to make about this first paragraph. First, we affirm that God, in His eternal decree, has set aside a day -- an actual day on the calendar -- that will be the last day in human history. The final judgment is the end of the beginning and the beginning of that which will never end. God brought all things into existence "in the beginning." "In the beginning" and until the end, life is offered by God, taken by some, and lost by others, until the end. Eternal life was offered by God to Adam and Eve, but was lost. It was then offered by God to those who were in Adam, but it could now only come if God Himself, by sacrifice, provided what was needed to cover our sinful nakedness (Gen. 3:21). This history of the offer of life was never meant to be forever. It would have an end, a terminus, and that terminus would be when the serpent's head was finally and completely crushed, and the last enemy was no more (see 1 Cor. 15:54-56).

Second, there is an important connection that Scripture makes, and that is highlighted in the initial paragraph of this section, that deserves careful thought. The language of the first clause of this paragraph, as the proof-text indicates, is taken from Acts 17:31. There, on Mars Hill, Paul declares to the philosophers and Athenians that history will end, and that the end will take place by way of the judgment of Christ.

Paul's address on Mars Hill presupposes the truths that Paul spells out in Romans 1 and 2. Specifically, Paul begins his defense to the Athenians by telling his audience about the character of the true God (Acts 17:24-29). This is in keeping with Paul's Spirit-wrought diagnosis of unbelief in Rom. 1:18-25. But then Paul moves from the "reminder" of who the true God is (whom they already know, but suppress), to the reality and certainty of a day of judgment.

Here we need to remember again what Paul says beginning in Rom. 1:32 and into Rom. 2. In 1:32, Paul, referring to what all people know by virtue of God's continual revealing activity to all people, and at all times, says: "Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."

This one verse is replete with judgment implications. In knowing God, Paul tells us, all people also "know God's righteous decree." That is, they know what God requires of them. They don't know His requirements in explicit, biblical detail. But they know enough of who God is to include the knowledge that they should be spending their lives giving Him thanks and honoring Him for who He is (Rom. 1:21). Since they do not do that -- and this is the key point about judgment -- they know that their own suppression of, and rebellion against, the character of God is such that they "deserve to die." That is, included in the true knowledge of God that all people have is the true knowledge that their rebellion against the God whom they know brings with it the knowledge that death is justly deserved. This can only mean that all people who are and remain in Adam are, right now, judged by God, they know they are judged, and they know that His judgment is true and just.

This should be an encouragement to us. We live in a world in which, no matter the facades and fairy tales, all people know God and know that a violation of His character brings sure and righteous judgment. We never approach anyone with the gospel, and with the truth of his or her own sinfulness before God, who does not already have the knowledge of that sinfulness already deeply and permanently embedded in his or her heart. So when the Confession writes of this judgment, just as when Paul affirmed it on Mars Hill, it is writing into a context, and to people, who already know that this judgment is coming, and is proper. Notice, as Paul says, all people know they deserve to die. That is, we all know that what our lives and activities have merited is death, not life.

So a general understanding of the final judgment is nothing new. What is new, and this is one of the things that Paul highlights on Mars Hill, is that this judgment will come through God's appointed Son, who himself was judged on the cross, was raised from the dead, and who will come again to separate the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:32-33). This is why the knowledge of God, of sin and of judgment which God gives, always and everywhere, to all people, in general revelation, is meant to be inextricably tied to the knowledge of Christ and His work. General revelation points inexorably to the gospel, which is only given in God's spoken Word (see Psalm 19).

Third, (and we can only touch on this matter briefly) the notion that in the judgment all people will be required "to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil," may, taken out of context, sound as though our final judgment is based on our deeds. Consider in this regard, however, Matt. 25:34-36:
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Here the Savior is clear that those who will be accepted by Him are "blessed by my Father," and therefore will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." In other words, behind the kingdom works that are manifest in those who follow Christ, is the inheritance, which by definition is not earned, and that inheritance was prepared before creation began. As the Confession makes clear, especially in 3.2, God's preparation for us of His kingdom cannot be because He foresaw our works as future, and on that basis, made preparation for us. Rather, He chose us before the foundation of the world. What follows from that is our union with Christ, which includes our sanctification (good works). Those not so chosen do not do kingdom works. They may do the same things that Christians do, in many cases, but they do those things in the context of their rebellion against the God whom they know, and against His character (law), not of their love for Christ. So even in the doing of what might appear (to us) to be the same works, they cannot enter in the joy of Christ's presence. This truth has significant implications as well for how we should think about the Christian's "cultural" activity.

Tomorrow we will comment on section two of this chapter.

Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

Chapter 32

i. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

ii. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.

iii. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honour; and be made conformable to His own glorious body. 

The last two chapters of the Westminster Confession address the doctrine of the last things, or what theologians refer to as eschatology. WCF 32:1 clearly states that our souls are immortal. Our physical bodies "return to dust" and "see corruption," but our souls have an "immortal subsistence." It is very easy in our day to follow the conclusions of secular scientists and philosophers who assume that there is nothing beyond our physical bodies; according to them,  once we die we cease to exist. 

However, this is not what the Bible teaches. Though our physical bodies die, our souls continue to exist. This teaching should give us both comfort and a sober perspective on life in this world. When experiencing the wasting away of the outer man, as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:16, we have the hope that our inner man is being renewed and ultimately will not perish. Likewise, when looking at the world around us, we can have the proper Biblical perspective, which is neither overwhelmed by the material or physical limitations in the world, nor overly confident in what the world can provide. 

WCF 32:1 is also very direct in teaching us that after death our destination depends upon whether or not we have received by faith the righteousness of Christ. In other words, for Christians the blessing of holiness and being ushered into the presence of God is what awaits us after death. For the unbeliever, their soul is consigned to hell and the torments that accompany it. A few implications from this teaching:

1. After death there is no opportunity to receive the gift of salvation in Christ. The unbeliever's soul is in hell awaiting the final Day of Judgment.

2. This should instill urgency in us to preach the Gospel. The opportunity for salvation is now, and it is important for us remember that hell is real and that God's righteous judgment is impending.

3. We must continue to pray. Eternal condemnation is clearly what the Bible and the Confession teaches for those who die without Christ.

Before moving on to the next paragraph, it is worth pointing out two brief statements in paragraph one. First, the Confession is explicit that after death our souls do not "sleep." This statement denies a doctrine taught by some of the early Church Fathers that our souls sleep after death awaiting the return of Christ. Second, the Confession states, "besides these two places [going to Heaven and Hell], for souls separated from the body, the Scripture acknowledgeth none." The Roman Catholic Church teaches that after death all souls are held in purgatory. The Westminster Confession does not believe that the Bible teaches a doctrine of purgatory, where individuals continue their "purging" of sin. As was stated earlier, after death there is no further opportunity for salvation.

While after death our souls are separated from our bodies, according to WCF 32:2, on the last day our souls will be reunited "with the selfsame bodies ... forever." The disembodied state of the soul is only temporary; we were created to exist with a body and soul. Likewise those believers who are alive on the last day will have their bodies changed as well. The body that we receive on the last day will have "different qualities". In other words, that body will be suitable for an eternal existence without corruption or decay. Like Jesus Christ's resurrection body, believers will be given a body that is discernable and glorified.

For the unbeliever, the last day will include a reunion with their bodies as well. The unbeliever will be raised or resurrected to "dishonor" as the Confession states. This dishonor again is the punishment that awaits those whose sins have not been atoned for by the blood of God's eternal Son. 

When is the last day? The Bible does not give us a precise date and any speculation is just that - vain speculation. Instead we are to watch and pray. This is the great hope and encouragement for Christians throughout history. There will be a great resurrection at the triumphant and glorious return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Dr. Jeffrey K. Jue is Stephen Tong associate professor of Reformed Theology and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Chapter 31

i. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils; and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.(1)

ii. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.

iii. All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

iv. Synods and 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; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. 

Does the doctrine of the church really matter? Isn't it of far less importance than the gospel, personal piety, or mission? So what if your congregation is independent, congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian? What difference does it make? Our confession is that God's Word provides answers to these questions. 

When it is faithfully lived in coherence  with the Word of God, the doctrine of the church is not some dry, arcane, or at best third-tier thing. It is a living testimony of the fruit of the Spirit, a living witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It brings glory, honor, and delight to him, just as much as showing mercy to orphans or singing his praises does. The scripturally revealed doctrine of the church is Christ's mandate for the shape and function of the kingdom of heaven in its earthly manifestation. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, building on previous chapters (cf. 25, 30), summarizes the teaching of Christ by his Word on the church, in this case focusing particularly on "synods and councils".

Synods and councils are scripturally warranted (cf. Acts 6:2-3; 11:27-30; 15:2-6, 23-25; 21:15-25) and should be called to meet together by teaching and ruling elders of local church bodies, "as often as they judge it expedient for the good of the church". The book of Acts testifies to this pattern with regular occurrences of gatherings of the apostles, ministers, and elders to deliberate on and address issues of importance for both local congregations and the broader church as a whole. Local church bodies are to be connected with others in a meaningful mutual accountability, particularly through (and including) their ministers and elders. Our confession notes that this is a part of the delegated and derivative authority, the "power"  given by Christ to the overseers of the church, "by virtue of their office".

The Confession next addresses the nature and extent of the work engaged in by synods and councils. Following the paradigm of the book of Acts, the role of synods and councils is (1) "to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience", (2) "to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church", (3) "to receive complaints of maladministration, and authoritatively determine the same." Following Scripture's pattern, we are to maintain a high view of these actions and decisions of synods and councils when their actions and decisions are consistent with God's Word. Our confession is that "they are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word." Like Paul in his challenge to an erring Peter (Galatians 2:14), in love for Christ, his church, and fellow overseers, we are called to make use of the means God has given in ordaining synods and councils in dealing with needs and problems in the life of the church.

Section three of this chapter reminds us that synods and councils do not possess infallibility. They "may err, and many have erred." Our confession reminded us in the previous section that the Word of God is the rule of life and practice; it now reaffirms this by reminding us that synods and councils "are not to be made the rule of life and practice". They are "to be used as a help in both" life and practice of the church and her members (2 Corinthians 1:24), but remain subordinate to the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). 

Taking hold of these concepts does great good in promoting the prosperity of the church in peace, unity, and truth in Christ. Is there an unresolved problem in your local congregation despite all attempts to resolve it locally with the church session or consistory? Bring it by appeal to the broader and higher courts (presbytery, synod, and/or assembly) of the church, seeking resolution according to and in harmony with God's Word. Do you find that you disagree with part of the church's confession on scriptural grounds? Bring it to the higher court of the church--the presbytery. Do so prayerfully looking to God and His Word, and honoring the means the ascended Christ, the head and governor of the church, has given to address the issue. If outstanding disagreement remains and you cannot submit in good conscience before God to what you believe is an erring court, then appeal to a yet  broader and higher court--the synod or assembly. By scriptural paradigm (cf. Gal. 2:14; Acts 15), the Confession indicates that broadest and highest court of the church, in its entirety, ought to be the place of final appeal; where denominations have judiciary committees or commissions at the synod or assembly level, these committees and commissions ought to report in a manner open to review and reconsideration by, and requiring the ratification of, the entire body of the synod or council. If you believe that a synod or council of final appeal errs in its deliberation and determination, and you are convicted you cannot acquiesce or remain in fellowship, then tell them, and prayerfully determine together with them (if possible) what to do.

The final section further addresses the limitation of the scope of the work of synods and councils: "they are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth." (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36) The responsibility of synods and councils is restricted to issues of the life of the church: controversies of faith; cases of conscience; public worship; church government; and complaints of maladministration of these. At its broadest definition this includes the ecclesiastical church as an entire body, with its courts, particular congregations, and their agencies of ministry. Synods and councils are only to make comment on "civil affairs which concern the commonwealth" in "extraordinary cases", and then by "humble petition" to the secular government. They are to provide advice and counsel to the magistrate when required or requested to do so. 

Our confession provides great wisdom as it summarizes Scripture's teaching, given by Christ to and for his church. We confess that the doctrine of the church, including her form and function of government, matters. It matters because Christ has displayed in his Word how the church is to be shaped and governed for her good and His glory. 

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

1. This version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 31, is that which is held by the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is an American modification of the original chapter, rewording the role given to the civil magistrate in the calling of synods and councils in response to concerns in the late 1700's that the original version allowed for interference by the civil magistrate in the life of the church. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church's version of the Westminster Confession of Faith retains a closer form to the original, though its revision also narrows the potential role of the civil magistrate in calling synods and councils to "extraordinary cases" in which it is "the duty of the church to comply." This is further qualified by an annotation on the relationship of church and state, noting that the church "does not accept the principle of ecclesiastical subordination to the civil authority, nor does it accept the principle of ecclesiastical authority over the State." The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America maintains the original wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith but amends its meaning through its Declaration and Testimony, with results similar to the revisions of the PCA, OPC, and ARP. To see an explanation of the original version consult David Dickson, Truth's Victory over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2007), 253-254.

Chapter 30.3, 4

iii. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

iv. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person. 

What are Church Censures for?

Christ has a government in his church and it is called to discipline. But what are these censures for? Paragraph three summarizes five reasons why church discipline is necessary. 

First, it is necessary 'for reclaiming and gaining' the offender. Discipline is intended to help the sinner, to draw him back to the Lord. Jude urged Christians to save people 'by snatching them out of the fire' (Jude 23). The Apostle Paul told Timothy that Hymenaeus and Alexander were 'handed over to Satan'. Why? So 'that they may learn not to blaspheme' (1 Tim. 1:20). The apostle urged the Corinthians to correct a man. Why? 'So that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord' (1 Cor. 5:5). He warned them about their sinful conduct at what they called the Lord's supper. Why? Because he did not want them to 'eat and drink judgement' on themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). He later reminded them that 'when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined'. Why? 'So that we may not be condemned along with the world' (1 Cor. 11:32).

Second, the chastisements of the church are necessary as a deterrent. Discipline is alarming. It clarifies the minds of disciples and often discourages us from following the pattern of an offender. Paul told Timothy that when it came to people 'who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear' (1 Tim. 5:20). Censures help us to remember who and what we are to follow, and who and what we are not. God has a preventative purpose to discipline.

Third, God-ordained ecclesiastical punishments, such as those mentioned in paragraph four, are necessary tools for keeping the germ of sin already present in the church from infecting the whole body. When Paul chided the Corinthians, who were reluctant to correct a member in their midst, this third argument was one that he made with great force: 'Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened' (1 Cor. 5:6-7). Discipline purifies the church.

Fourth, Church censures are necessary 'for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel'. What Christ offers to us is holy; it is a pearl of great price. We are to keep what is holy from those who act like dogs and pigs in the church (Matt. 7:6). Furthermore, God's people are called to be godly. Jude says we are to hate 'even the garment stained by the flesh' (Jude 23). We discipline for Christ's sake.

Finally, discipline is also sometimes necessary 'for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders'. Paul's admonitions about the Lord's supper, his mysterious comment in 1 Corinthians 11 about some offenders being weak, ill and dead - these are warnings about God's displeasure over disrespect to the seals of the covenant (the sacraments) or to the covenant itself (the gospel). God is displeased with churches that tolerate sin - for example, allowing unrepentant sinners to partake of the supper or baptize their children. To avoid God's displeasure, we must deal with sin faithfully, and that sometimes entails discipline. If only we judged more faithfully in the church, and more truly, the apostle tells us that we would not have to be judged by the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27-34). 

Degrees of Discipline

It remains to be said that to attain any of these five ends, there are different kinds and degrees of censure to be carried out by the church's officers (rather than the church's congregation). The method of discipline pursued, and the lengths to which it is pursued, should always take into consideration the nature of the wrong itself, the faults of the person, their response to correction and, we might well add, God's great grace to us.

Sometimes all that is needed is admonition. This is the kind of rebuke that Paul urged the Thessalonians to accept from their leaders (1 Thess. 5:12). 

Sometimes what is needed is suspension from the sacrament of the supper, at least for a time. This may be what Paul meant when he talked about keeping away from brothers and sisters who were not obedient in life and doctrine, bringing them to shame in order to warn them - but still treating them like brethren (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15). 

Sometimes someone needs to be cut off from communion with the saints altogether: excommunication from the Church. This is the severe treatment that Paul advocated for a member of the Corinthian church, what Jesus commanded for those who refuse to listen to the church, and what Titus was called to do with divisive people who ignored multiple warnings (1 Cor. 5:4-5, 13; Matt. 18:17; Tit. 3:10). Yet even here, it is our hope that the sinner can be restored (1 Cor. 5:5). And as the church can testify, with joy, they sometimes are. 

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 30.1, 2

i. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

ii. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

The Government of the Church

The first port of call for a chapter on church censures is the subject of church government. Thus the first paragraph of chapter thirty begins by identifying the governor himself: the Lord, whose name is Jesus. 

In his verses about the coming servant king, Isaiah wrote about one who would carry on his shoulders a government, the increase of which would know no end (Isa. 9:6-7). This governor is the king and head of his church, the one with 'all authority in heaven and on earth'. He issues the commands, as he did in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He is the one who appointed New Testament governors and government under himself. It should not need to be said that no mere mortal should seek for himself the title of head of the church, when the actions of our Lord, and the praise of his apostles, give this title to him alone (Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18).

The governors that Jesus Christ appoints under him are called 'elders' (1 Tim. 5:17; Acts 20:17-18) or 'leaders' (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Here they are simply called 'church officers'. They have the gift of 'governing' or 'administering' (1 Cor. 12:28). The Christian church knows them as those who 'labour among' us and 'over' us. They are the people who sometimes 'admonish' us (1 Thess. 5:12). These are the hands used by the head of the church.

Christ's government is administered by church officers, distinct from civil magistrates. Historically, the very fact of the independence of church government was resisted by both king and parliament, for leaders in the state did not want to be accountable to a leadership in the church. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that in the New Testament Christ established a government that was churchly, or ecclesiastical, over Christians, and that government was separate from the civil government. 

We know this, historically, because the Roman civil government that was over Christians was opposed to the church, its message, and its work; and biblically, because only the government of the church would do the kind of work God commends elders to do: not just ruling, but preaching and teaching, speaking to us the word of God, and 'keeping watch over' our souls (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The church is not the religious arm of the state; it is an institution distinct from the state and has its own unique purpose.

The Keys of the Kingdom

The focal point of church government is the power and exercise of what Jesus called 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven'. Here the Confession is picking up language used in Matthew 16, where the keys of the Kingdom are mentioned in the context of the pre-eminence of Christ. Before all the disciples Peter confessed Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God'. Our Lord commended him, and with a word play on Peter's name (which means 'rock') he promised that 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Matt. 16:13-18).

It is a passage that underlines the government of Christ, his power, and rule over the church. Famously it is also the passage where Jesus goes on to declare to his disciples that they would be given 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven': 'whatever you bind on earth', Jesus said, 'will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 16:19). Jesus gave these keys in Matthew 16 to his disciples, and in them to the governors or officers who rule his church. Church officers are given the task of binding and loosing, or retaining and remitting sins - making judgements as to whether sinners are impenitent, unrepentant, and bound by Satan, or penitent, repentant, and freed for Christ. 

The same truth was taught again by our Lord, recorded only two chapters distant, in Matthew 18. There Jesus was again speaking with his disciples, this time giving instruction about church discipline. At the end of the discussion Jesus announced, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 18:17-18). On yet another occasion, this one recorded in John 20:23, Jesus told his disciples, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld' (John 20:23). 

The message of these three passages is astonishing. It seems to be the plain point of these pronouncements in Matthew 16, 18, and John 20 that it is the responsibility of church officers to judge by the word of God, as far as is possible, who is going to heaven and who is not. Church governors have power from Christ, 'respectively, to retain, and remit sins'. The elders of the church guide the body of Christ in determining if someone is to be treated as a brother, as an erring brother, or as what Jesus called a Gentile or a tax collector. The elders 'shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel'. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we leaders must preach stern words, and exercise real discipline. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we must open wide the kingdom by preaching the gospel and offering release from correction. Officers offer what the Westminster assembly calls 'absolution from censures', and what the Apostle Paul calls a turning 'to forgive and comfort' (2 Cor. 2:7; cf., vv. 6-8). Even the most godly church officers are by no means perfect, as we all know, but they are appointed as gate-keepers who, 'as occasion shall require', sometimes shut the kingdom on Christ's behalf. 

They do this by the Word, and by censures. The preaching of the Word alone lets some people know where they stand before God. The reading and preaching of the word is the most commonly applied tool of discipline, for it convicts us of sin and drives us to repentance. Usually this is enough for us. Sometimes we need the censures of the church to have matter further clarified for us. Practically, this means that when the officers of a church examine a person for membership in the church, they are making an awesome decision. They need to decide if they will give someone the assurance that the leaders of the church think that all is well with their soul - or not. And when your elders travel a long way down the road of church discipline, they are forced to ask hard questions: does this person's life and testimony so contradict the Word of God that they must be put outside of the church, and a present hope of heaven? 

This should carry real significance for the members of the church. If you are a member in good standing in the church of Christ, this is material for encouragement. Those whom Christ appointed to look after your eternal welfare think there is sufficient reason to think that you are on the narrow road of the kingdom. And if, on the other hand, the eldership of a church is admonishing a member, or suspending him, disciplining him, or excommunicates him, that member should consider these things with the utmost gravity, and once the matter is made public, every other member must be in prayer for that person incessantly.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 29.7, 8

vii. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

viii. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.

The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Supper

The remedy to a doctrine of the real physical presence of Christ is not a doctrine of real absence, but a doctrine of Spiritual presence, and paragraph seven presents that old Calvinistic doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ in the supper. When we are properly receiving the supper (including an examination of ourselves, 1 Cor. 11:28), we are 'inwardly' partaking of Christ while 'outwardly partaking of the visible elements'. The apostle Paul calls this 'participating' or 'fellowshipping' in the blood and in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16) - a concept which usefully challenges conventional assumptions in evangelicalism that the Lord's supper is merely a memorial moment to remember Jesus. 

This participation in Christ in the supper is 'by faith' and 'spiritually'. That is to say, when we come to the supper, trusting afresh in Christ and the triumph of his cross, we find Christ present by his Holy Spirit in the supper. And through this meal we by faith receive him, with all the benefits of his death that are reserved for believers. We feed upon him. We are nourished by him. And although that receiving and feeding is not carnal or corporal, it is real and actual. 

To state it a different way, and even more emphatically, 'the body and blood of Christ' is not during the supper 'corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine'. Christ is not present in the body or in the flesh. No Catholic, or Lutheran, or 'high Anglican' formula of real presence in the sense of physical presence is correct. But nor are these doctrines necessary! Spiritual does not mean artificial. Spiritual realities are true realities. And so this confession rightly insists that Christ is present 'really, but spiritually' in the supper. He is as 'present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves' are present 'to their outward senses'. 

Eating and Drinking Damnation

Along with the theory that Christ is physically present in the supper, came the puzzle of unworthy participants eating the bread of the supper. Did they partake of Christ in the supper? The early medieval answer to the questions was yes, but without benefit. Later theories argued that any participation in the mass had almost automatic benefit. Medieval skeptics about physical presence, and the Protestant Reformers with them, parodied the theory by asking about the mice. Did mice eating the crumbs that had fallen on the cathedral floor also partake of Christ's body? Unlikely, it seemed. But how could the conclusion be avoided?
The Westminster assembly, like the Reformers before them, concluded that 'ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament' but 'not the thing signified thereby'. They get food and drink. They do not get the Saviour or any benefit from him. 

Nevertheless, not only is there no positive benefit in coming to the table, there is also real harm. As scripture states so clearly, by unworthy participation in the supper, people become 'guilty of the body and blood of the Lord' (1 Cor. 11:27; c.f., vv. 27-29). That is to say, they drink to their own damnation. 'Ignorant and ungodly persons . . . are unfit to enjoy communion with' the Lord and 'so are they unworthy of the Lord's table. The problem is not simply that unbelievers should not hide in the ranks of believers. It is much deeper than that. This meal speaks of Christian partnership and fellowship and as Paul asks, after all, 'what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? Christ with Belial? God with idolatry? (2 Cor. 6:14-16). Partaking of 'these holy mysteries' while remaining an unbeliever is not merely a mistake, it is a 'great sin against Christ'. Ministers need to speak words that force a serious rethink for non-Christians who assume they are entitled to partake of Christ's supper.

But why does coming to the table unworthily involve eating and drinking damnation? Why is it a great sin? What is so dangerous about a pretended communion with Christ and his church? The answer is found in the great privilege that it is to partake of a meal which so perfectly pictures our participation in Christ. It is intended to nourish Christian faith. To come to the table without that Holy-Spirit-worked faith in the Saviour is to try to seize a gift which can only be given. Coming to the table then becomes the personal symbol of a man or a woman's presumption. The supper becomes an emblem of the arrogance of someone who fancies he or she can fellowship with the Father, without coming through his Son. 

Out of concern for unbelievers themselves, we warn them not to partake of the table. We also refuse to invite them to the table because those who reject Christ and his church must not be admitted to the fellowship meal designed for those who accept him and his people. Here, what is true of the membership of the church is true for the sacrament of the church. What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5 applies to his discussion in 1 Corinthians 11. 'Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed' (1 Cor. 5:6-7). The church and the table need to be 'purged' (1 Cor. 5:13). We must, in the strong words of Jesus for those who reject truth, not 'give dogs what is holy' or 'throw pearls before pigs' (Matt. 7:6). As a serious warning to those who are erring, we must avoid fellowship and warn 'any brother' who is idle and unwilling to be instructed - surely a command which sometimes justifies suspending a member of the church from the communion table of the church, and always justifies insisting that those who come to the table be members in good standing with a church that loves and preaches the gospel of the Triune God (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 29.5, 6

v. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.

vi. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ's body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.

A Reader's Guide to the Sacraments

The fifth paragraph of the chapter offers a condensed reader's guide to the sacramental sections of the Bible, one of a number of such guides to Bible readers found in the Confession. It is designed to explain the vivid language used in Scripture to describe the Lord's supper: 'The outward elements in this sacrament', the bread and the wine, when 'duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ', have such a close 'relation to Him crucified' that 'they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent'. 

We see this kind of language, for example, in Matthew 26:26-28. There 'Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant"'. The Westminster assembly's observation here is that Jesus did not say that the bread was like his body. He did not say that the wine was like his blood. He effectively, and shockingly, told his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood. The Westminster assembly's conclusion here is that what Jesus spoke, he spoke 'truly'. That is to say, there is nothing inappropriate or problematic about this kind of talk. It is just as acceptable for us to use this language today as it was for Jesus to use that language himself. He substituted the reality for the symbol, instead of the symbol for the reality. And so can we.

Evidently Jesus spoke this way because his sacrament and his sacrifice are so closely related; because the symbol chosen by Christ is so perfectly suited to represent himself. Nonetheless Christ's statement (made by a Saviour of flesh and blood) was true in a sacramental sense only. That is to say, the bread is a true symbol of Christ's flesh. In substance, in nature, the bread is bread and the wine is wine. 

The interchange between symbol and substance is amply illustrated in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul moves back and forth between mentioning 'the body and blood of the Lord' (once, referring to the crucifixion and the supper), and eating the bread and drinking the cup (three times, referring to the supper). The Apostle's continued references to the bread and cup illustrate the fact that references to 'the body and blood of the Lord' do not change the fact that even after these common elements are properly set apart for holy use 'they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before'.

The Physical Presence of Christ in the Supper: The Trouble with Transubstantiation

If the fifth paragraph's instructions on reading biblical language is correct, then the truth of the sixth paragraph carries real force. The Roman Catholic 'doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ's body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation)' is simply incorrect. The doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that when the elements of bread and wine are consecrated, or ceremonially set apart by a priest, that the real substance of the bread and wine changes into flesh and blood even though all the apparent characteristics of the bread and wine don't change. The bread still looks and feels and smells and tastes (and if you drop enough of it on the floor it still sounds) like bread. The wine still tingles on the tongue and smells like the South of France or Napa Valley. But Roman Catholics are taught that it is really Christ's flesh and blood.

Transubstantiation was the dominant theory, but by no means the only theory, employed to explain how the elements of the supper could become the body and blood of the Lord. Here the Westminster assembly is rejecting not just transubstantiation, but any theory that attempted to justify a doctrine of the real physical presence of Christ. Neither the 'consecration of a priest', nor any other special words or actions, are capable of changing the substance of the elements of the Lord's supper. The idea of transubstantiation or any similar theory really is 'repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason'. Without doubt it is contrary to Scripture. After all, as the resurrected Jesus explained to his disciples, he has normal 'flesh and blood' (Lk. 24:39). As Peter preached at Pentecost, heaven has received Jesus and will keep him until all things are restored at the last day (Acts 3:21). We celebrate the supper 'in remembrance' of Jesus, but 'remembering' is certainly an odd thing to do if Jesus is actually present with us bodily, first on the table, and then in our mouths (1 Cor. 11:24-26). Angels once had to tell people standing around an empty tomb, 'He is not here, but has risen' (Luke 24:6). We sometimes need to tell people standing around the Lord's table, 'He is not here, but has ascended'. 

Transubstantiation and the family of associated theories are also contrary to common sense. We should not require a simile in order to identify a metaphor. When Jesus stated that the bread or wine was his body or blood, we should not need for him to spell out that he means that the bread or wine 'is like' his body or blood. It is no exaggeration to say that the idea of a physical presence of our Lord in the Lord's supper theologically and linguistically 'overthrows the nature of the sacrament' but also, historically, has been the cause of many superstitions - yes even obscene idolatries.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 29.3, 4

iii. The Lord Jesus hath, in his ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break bread, to take the cup and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation. 

iv. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone, as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshipping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.

Celebrating the Supper

Having defined the essence of the supper in paragraphs one and two, the Confession directs the celebration of the supper in paragraphs three and four. The place to find basic directives on the celebrating of the supper is in the fourfold summary of the first supper recorded in the first, second, and third gospels and in one epistle (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). There we find three key features.

First, Jesus, serving as the prime minister of the new covenant, declared his word of institution - he directed his disciples, telling them what to do and when, and explaining what the elements and actions meant. His disciples then passed this instruction on to other disciples, although the subject of the supper is important enough that the Apostle Paul appears to have received instructions on the supper directly from the risen Christ himself. 

Second, we can see from these four accounts that as an essential ingredient of the supper we are to mix in prayer, as we see Jesus himself doing. These prayers are to include a petition for the blessing of the elements, asking God to set apart what is common to be used for a purpose that is holy. We are to ask that God would take this ordinary bread, and ordinary wine, and bless it by his Holy Spirit for extraordinary good.

Third, the minister is 'to take and break' the bread, and 'to take the cup' and, not forgetting to partake of the meal themselves, they are to give the supper to all those who are communing with Christ and his people at that supper, as Christ did on the night when he was betrayed.

Private Communion

The last line of the third paragraph specifies that the Lord's supper is not to be received privately. One reason why the Westminster assembly frowned on bringing the bread and wine to persons not present in the worship service, was presented in paragraph one: this meal is intended to celebrate communion with Christ, but also with fellow Christians.
A second related reason why the Westminster assembly disapproved of private communion is found in the Bible itself: not only did the individualistic approach of the Corinthians earn an apostolic rebuke (1 Cor. 11:20; c.f., 17-22), it seems to have been the settled pattern of the first Christians to 'gather together to break bread' rather than to eat in isolation (e.g., Acts 20:7). 

A third reason why the assembly worked to banish the still-popular practice of private communion is suggested in paragraph two and clarified in the opening line of paragraph four: Roman Catholics had long inflated the saving efficacy of the mass and offered private masses as a kind of life-line to grace. The assembly considered the continuation of private communion a poor example, even in churches where the theology of the Lord's supper had been corrected. Like the Israelites who were to remember the rebels of the wilderness days, Protestants were to remember the Romanists of the theological wilderness and avoid their ways (1 Cor. 10:6).

Pretended Religion

Having forbidden private communion, the assembly tackled other ceremonial abuses too. The most egregious was the Roman Catholic practice of forbidding people to drink of the cup, lest they accidentally spill the blood of Christ on the floor of the church. Suffice it to say that when Jesus gave the cup, he gave it to all disciples, both the coordinated and the clumsy (Mark 14:23; 1 Cor. 11:25-29). The practice of withholding the cup from the laity was a gradual, natural, and tragic development from the idea that the wine miraculously become blood when blessed by the priest - a theory which the assembly confronts in paragraphs five and six. 

Actually, any additional ceremonies attached to the supper and required either of those who administer or of those who receive the supper is an offence to God. Bowing down to the elements, lifting up the elements, parading the elements, adoring the elements, storing them for later religious purposes - all of these activities oppose the true nature of the sacrament and subvert the simple institution of Christ. It is vain worship - empty and useless. Yet all of these practices were commanded by the Roman Catholic church, with penalties for nonconformity. Some of these practices were commanded by the Church of England, with penalties for nonconformity. Both the Reformation and post-Reformation histories vividly illustrate the drift and the danger to leaders in the church who 'teach as doctrines the commandments of men' (Matt. 15:9). 

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 29.2

ii. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; not any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same, so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.

Not an offering, not a sacrifice

Having once charted out what the Lord's supper is, the Confession now adds in many comments about what it is not. It is not, in the first place, an offering. 'In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father'. In fact, in the ceremony of the supper, there is 'not any real sacrifice made at all'. Jesus is not given up once more either for the forgiveness of the sins of the living, or of the dead, or for any other purposes.

As students of history will know, the Westminster assembly is here refuting the notion of a 'sacrifice of the mass'. As students of world religions will know, this continues to be an abiding error in the sacramental theory of the Roman Catholic Church. As students of the Bible will know, that Christ can ever be sacrificed again is denied in the most emphatic terms in the New Testament, especially in Hebrews 9.

First, in contrast to the Old Covenant regime, Jesus has no intention to 'offer himself repeatedly', or to 'suffer repeatedly'. The very thought is absurd to the author of the Hebrews. We see this in Hebrews 9:25-26.

Second, there can be no repetition to Christ's finished work. Jesus 'has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself'. Nothing more will ever be needed. There is only one Christian sacrifice and it is seen on the cross and not in a supper. We see this in Hebrews 9:26.

Third, the so-called bloodless 'sacrifice' that is supposedly offered in the Roman Catholic mass can have no merit because 'without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins'. We see this in Hebrews 9:22.

A commemorative offering or a commemoration of an offering?

The second point made in this second paragraph is that this sacrament is not a commemorative offering but a commemoration of an offering. Roman Catholics under siege will describe the mass merely as a commemorative offering of Jesus - a memorial offering. Given the stern statements of Hebrews 9, the Westminster assembly is right to see the supper instead as a commemoration of an offering - the one offering up of Jesus himself, by himself, upon his cross, once in history for all time. That is why Jesus kept saying that Christians are to observe the supper in his remembrance (1 Cor. 11:24-26): because it is that important, and because it will not be repeated.

By its very nature the Lord's supper is the kind of commemoration which is also a 'spiritual oblation'. Christians engage in this supper, like Christ, by blessing God and giving thanks (Matt. 26:26-27). As it is a meal which offers spiritual rather than physical benefit, in doing so we are giving thanks for Jesus more than we are giving thanks for wheat or wine. We are offering heartfelt sacrifice of praise to God for Jesus. We are publicly proclaiming the good news of what Jesus has done, which is yet another way of offering praise (1 Cor. 11:26). Nonetheless, it is praise that we offer again and again in the supper, not Jesus. The meal remains a commemoration. 

It is for that reason that Reformation era theologians protested effectively, against what some major medieval theologians had earlier protested ineffectively: the 'popish sacrifice of the mass'. And for those reasons it is not an exaggeration to say that the mass 'is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect'. The 'sacrifice' of the mass requires the return to a priesthood, while we have priests enough in the one permanent priest who is Christ (Heb. 7:23-24). The 'sacrifice' of the mass calls for continued offerings when Christ has 'once for all . . . offered up himself' (Heb. 7:27). 

So let us listen to the Scriptures! They tell us that Jesus 'offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins'. Let us trust the Word of God, which tells us that after Jesus offered himself and completed his work, 'he sat down at the right hand of God' (Heb. 10:11-12). Let us never drift into a church that ceremonially re-sacrifices Christ when 'by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified' (Heb. 10:14). Let us not look for grace or forgiveness mediated through the mass when we find it directly from Christ himself. 

After writing eloquently about the end of daily sacrifices in the final sacrifice of Christ, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reflected on what this means for Christians who will one day be summoned to meet God. By the inspiration of the Spirit, he was brought to recall two promises of God in Jeremiah 31:33 and 34. In the first, God promised to put his law on our hearts and write it on our minds. In the second, he added, 'I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more'. 

If that is the essence of God's gracious covenant with us then, as Hebrews 10:18 rightly states, 'where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin'. The Lord's supper witnesses to what Christ has already done - the one who is the only propitiation, the only wrath remover, for all God's chosen ones. 

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust

Chapter 29.1

i. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death, the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.

One reason for the particular poignancy of the Lord's supper in the life of the Christian church is its birthdate: this sacrament came into being the night Jesus was betrayed. The gospel histories highlight this fact. The Apostle Paul recalls this context again in his letter to the Corinthians. And Paul in turn was only delivering what he had received from the Lord himself. Here, in a paragraph which paraphrases a passage from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, the Westminster assembly brings us back once again to the night of the betrayal. In returning to that scene, we are reminded of all the cardinal truths about this supper and what it represents. 

First, it was our Lord Jesus who instituted this new sacrament. No one less than Jesus could and did replace the Passover meal with another meal. No one less than Jesus could and did command the Christian church to celebrate a meal that centered completely on himself. As Paul explained to the Corinthians, this meal is 'the table of the Lord' and 'the cup of the Lord'; it is 'the Lord's supper' and we are to observe the meal as he requires (1Cor. 10:21; 11:20).

Second, it was on that night that Jesus instituted a sacrament of 'his body and blood'. This is a striking phrase, not popular in Protestant churches today, but historically very accurate in its emphasis. When Jesus instituted the Lord's supper he showed, he ate, and he drank the elements of bread and wine. But his words emphasized not the elements of the supper, but the reality they represented. For what did Jesus say? 'This is my body which is for you.' 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' (1 Cor. 11:24-25; c.f., Matt. 26:26-28; Mk 14:2-24; Lk. 22:19-20). 

Third, the sacrament of Christ's body and blood is 'to be observed in his church'. This is a point which paragraph three will take up in greater detail, but it is evident enough in the very context in which the Lord's supper was originally delivered. This meal was not given to Peter, James, and John - a few favourite friends of Jesus. It was given to all the disciples (Matt. 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk. 22:14-15). It is be observed, or performed, in the church.

Fourth, this supper is to be observed until 'the end of the world'. Christians have always understood that when Jesus twice told his disciples to remember him, that he intended a 'perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death'. This is why the Apostle Paul repeated both of Jesus's calls to remembrance, and then concluded by saying that 'as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor. 11:24-26). It is unthinkable that Christians would forget Christ's sacrifice. On the contrary, we proclaim his death until he returns, not only with our words, but also with his supper.

Fifth, a return to the events of that dark night helps us to see that Jesus was promising benefits to true believers. We celebrate the supper not only in remembrance of Christ's sacrifice of himself, but also in remembrance that Jesus promised his body for us, and that his bloody covenant is with us (1 Cor. 11:24-25). Jesus gave himself in our place, and for our sake, and the supper was designed to keep this glorious fact before our eyes. It's because the supper serves as a seal of the benefits and treasures of redemption that Paul refers to the wine as 'the cup of blessing' (1 Cor. 10:16; for 'sealing' see WCF 27.1). 

Sixth, this supper is to be observed for our 'spiritual nourishment and growth' in Christ. We can see from the gospels that the Lord's supper was, at least in part, a ceremonial addition to an existing meal. It was not a normal meal. It was not intended for bodily nourishment and growth. Paul had to remind the Corinthians of this because they were hurrying to serve themselves so that they would have enough to eat (1 Cor. 11:17-22). That is one reason why we need to remember that Jesus took the symbolic cup and used it as an emblem of his own sacrifice 'after supper' (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The Lord's supper is like a good sermon: it is intended as food for the soul.

Seventh, we are to celebrate the Lord's supper for our 'further engagement in, and to, all duties' which we owe to him. In saying this the Westminster assembly is not drawing on a particular passage in Scripture. The gathering is simply noting the gratitude that guilty Christians show in response to grace. In realizing that Jesus not only gave us himself, but also gave us this abiding reminder of his gospel, we are moved to thought and action. We are renewed in our commitment to Christ and in the service that we owe him. These are reasons enough to observe the supper, nonetheless, participation in this meal is also a profession of exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ that implies submission to his lordship alone. After all, as Paul warned the Corinthians, 'You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons' (1 Cor. 10:21).

Eighth, the Lord's supper is to be observed in the church as a powerful symbol of our communion with Christ, by his Holy Spirit. We can see that this meal is communal by thinking about its first participants: the disciples were there communing with Jesus. Naturally, Jesus was there with those disciples in a way that he is not with later disciples. Nonetheless, Jesus Christ is present with us by his Spirit in this supper (see WCF 29.7), a fact which is central to one of the proof-texts proffered by the authors of this confession. In fact the Apostle Paul speaks of Christians partaking of the cup as those who 'drink of one Spirit' (1 Cor. 10:13). He also refers to the act of drinking the cup as 'a participation' or 'fellowship in the blood of Christ', and the act of breaking bread as 'a participation' or 'fellowship in the body of Christ' (1 Cor. 10:16). 

Ninth, recollection of that first supper and reflection on 1 Corinthians 10 is clearly calculated by God to underscore the closeness of our communion not only with Christ, but with Christians. The disciples communed with Christ at the Last Supper, but they also communed with one another. And while 1 Corinthians 10:16 stresses our union with Christ in this supper, 1 Corinthians 10:17 stresses our union with other believers in this same supper: 'Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread'. This unity with one another in Christ, reinforced in this supper, is also a unity with one another in the Spirit. Just as 'in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body' so also, now thinking of the Lord's supper, 'all were made to drink of one Spirit' (1 Cor. 12:13). No wonder that the assembly concluded that the sacrament of Christ's body and blood is to be observed as 'a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body'. The meal so often called the Last Supper was really the first supper.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 28.4

iv. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but alsot he infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized. 

The fourth topic treated by the Westminster Confession's teaching on baptism pertains to its recipients. Who is to be baptized? The answer is unequivocal: believers and their children are to be baptized. Here we see a plain statement in favor of infant or (as I prefer to call it) covenant baptism.

There are a number of good books or booklets that present the overwhelming biblical case for covenant baptism; that is, the practice of administering baptism to the covenant children of believers. I would especially recommend: John Murray, Christian Baptism, Bryan Chapell, "Why Do We Baptize Infants?" and John Sartelle's, "What Christian Parents Should Know about Infant Baptism." It is interesting, however, to peruse the proof-texts to the Confession on this subject as a way of unfolding their thoughts. From the proof-texts, here is the main argument in favor of infant/covenant baptism:

1.    God's covenant promise, which includes believers' offspring:

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you" (Gen. 17:7).

2.    The essential continuity between circumcision in the old covenant and baptism in the new covenant, both of which are applied to believers' children:

"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12; this is also suggested in Gal. 3:9, 14 and Rom. 4:11-12).

3.    Peter's Pentecost promise, which includes children among those to be baptized:

"For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39).

4.    Christ's known zeal for receiving covenant children to himself:

"Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:14).

5.    The New Testament's teaching of covenant headship, by which the children of believers are considered holy:

"For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:14).

In addition to this compelling case, we might add two more factors that are not emphasized in the Confession's proof-texts:

6.    The many examples of household baptisms in the New Testament (3 out of 12 overall baptisms recorded). In these three cases, the believer's households are also baptized, without our being told that they first believed:

"She was baptized, and her household as well" (Acts 16:15).

7.   The continuity between the Old Testament practice of presenting children for circumcision and the New Testament practice of presenting children for baptism. The New Testament is clear when abrogating Old Testament practices (see Acts 10:20-26). The most natural thing for believing parents to do in the new covenant is present their children to the church for formal inclusion into the covenant community. 

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 28.2, 3

ii. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.

iii. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

 The Westminster Confession's third concern pertaining to baptism is its mode. Since this sacrament was instituted by Christ, it must be administered in accordance with his instructions and with relevant biblical examples. According to the Confession, a valid Christian baptism involves three elements: water, the name of the Triune God, and a validly ordained Christian minister.

It is obvious from biblical examples that baptism is performed with water. Peter urged the baptism of the centurion Cornelius and his believing friends, saying, "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47; see also Acts 8:36, 38). Jesus' own teaching makes clear that Christians are baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). Third, it is clear from the New Testament examples that baptism is not administered by just any believer but by an ordained minister. The vital question, "Does this person have the right to receive baptism?" can only be answered by the elders, who therefore administer the sacrament. Moreover, Presbyterian polity notes the integral relationship between the sacraments and the ministry of the Word, which means that baptism should only be administered by teaching elders, that is, by ordained ministers.

Most Christians are settled on the three basic features of baptism. The burning question pertains to how the water is administered: by immersion or by sprinkling or pouring? Before answering the question, it is worth noting that the Westminster Confession does not place this question in the first rank when it comes to the mode of baptism. The three clear essentials are water, the Triune name, and a minister. Only in a follow-on paragraph does immersion vs. sprinkling come up. This is entirely appropriate, for the simple reason that the Bible does not expressly prescribe how the water is to be administered. Unlike the Lord's Supper, which receives procedural specificity, this question is going to be answered by inference from other passages. For this reason, the Westminster Confession recognizes and accepts dipping, while arguing that the right administration involves "pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person."  Following this example, we should accept that thoughtful and faithful Christians may differ on this matter.

Most Baptists will argue that the Bible does specify dipping as the mode of baptism. They will point to the passages that speak of persons going into the water.  Matthew 3:16 says that when Jesus had been baptized "he went up from the water." Likewise, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch "went down into the water" and then "came up out of the water" (Acts 8:38-39). Does this not prove immersion? The answer is no, for the simple reason that these passages might very well be saying that they went into the river (both clearly involved rivers, since water was needed), whether baptism was administered there by pouring or by immersion. In this matter, Paul's baptism is very instructive. Ananias entered the house where Paul was staying, laying hands on him. Paul then regained his sight, "Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food he was strengthened" (Acts 9:17-19). A straightforward reading of this passage states that Paul was baptized while still inside the house, which would make immersion virtually impossible in his case. But does not the Greek word bapto mean "immersion?"  The answer is not necessarily.  The Jewish practice of ceremonial washing involved both the immersion of hands and the pouring of water. If anything, in fact, the Jewish background for baptism favors pouring.  

There is undoubted ambiguity in these texts, although I do believe the data leans heavily on the side of sprinkling/pouring. Most potent is the connection between the covenant ceremonies of the Old Testament and their analogy in the New Testament. A good example is seen in Exodus 24, the worship service to institute the Mosaic Covenant. There, Moses applied the blood of the covenant by sprinkling it on the altar and then on the people: "Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant'" (Ex. 24:8). Hebrews 9:13-14 says that this symbolism was fulfilled when Christ, having died for atonement, went into the heavenly tabernacle and there sprinkled his blood. Just as Moses sprinkled the blood on the people, Christ also sprinkles his people in baptism, not in blood but in water, since his presentation of the atonement in heaven has put an end to blood for sin. This perfectly fulfills the new covenant promise given in Ezekiel 36:25, which strongly supports sprinkling as the biblical mode of covenant baptism for the people of God: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you."

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 28.1, Part Two

i. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.

The Westminster Confession's second important theme in treating baptism concerns the efficacy of baptism. This is a vitally important matter today, in which Christians must avoid errors that fall on both sides of the Bible's teaching. On one side, Baptists and many other evangelicals err by denying that there is any efficacy to baptism, instead treating the sacrament as a bare sign. On the other side, hyper-covenantal Reformed Christians err by granting too much efficacy, or rather the wrong kind of efficacy, to baptism's role in Christian salvation. This latter concern is especially associated today with the so-called Federal Vision movement, which treats the rite of baptism as being essentially the principle instrument of salvation.

The Confession takes up this matter by making the classic statement that baptism is "a sign and seal of the covenant of grace." As a sign, baptism points to the blood of Jesus which cleanses our sin and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe and be saved. As a seal, baptism presents an authentic offer from God and an official authentication of saving faith when it has been acknowledged by the elders of the church. Properly defining the word "seal" is essential, since some readers take the Confession to mean that the grace of Christ is more or less infused by baptism into the recipient's spirit. Instead, baptism serves as a seal in the way that a government seal makes a passport official. Those who profess true faith in Jesus receive baptism as a seal that makes the covenant relationship official, together with all its benefits.

A particular controversy today concerns the claim that the Confession's teaching that baptism confers "ingrafting into Christ," "regeneration," and "remission of sins." This is the Federal Vision teaching that states that baptism confers the reality of these saving graces, so long as one upholds his or her baptism by remaining in the church. This is not what the Confession teaches, however. The Confession teaches that baptism confers the "sign and seal" of these things.  Union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and regeneration come only with faith; baptism presents the sign and seal of these things, upon the confirmation of saving faith. Appeal is made to paragraph 6, where the Confession states that "the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost."  This is true, so long as we remember that the grace promised in baptism comes in the form of sign and seal. Baptism never confers the reality of union with Christ and its saving benefits, but rather the sign and seal of those blessings which only faith may receive. This understanding is confirmed when we consult WCF 14:1, which says, "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word." Salvation is received only through faith in the Word of God (see 1 Pet. 1:23). That statement goes on to say, "by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened" (WCF 14:1). In other words, union with Christ and its saving benefits occurs through faith alone in God's Word, and that saving faith is then strengthened by the Word, the sacraments and prayer.

WCF 28:6 makes the interesting point that the "efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether or age or infants) as that grace belongeth to, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time." This answers the objection that many are baptized without believing (often as infants), so that they cannot receive the grace offered by baptism. The Confession answers that the grace of baptism is nonetheless conveyed at the time of saving faith, at whatever time that God has willed. Here again, we must remember that the Confession speaks of baptism conferring not saving grace but signing and sealing grace - that which signifies and confirms salvation through faith. The point of the Confession is that whenever true and saving faith occurs, that is when the sign and sealing grace of baptism is actually received.

Consider two situations. When a non-Christian adult believes, the subsequent baptism conveys the sign and seal of the covenant that faith has received. What about a covenant child who was baptized as an infant, who then comes to saving faith later in life? In this case, the saving faith looks back to what was offered and exhibited in baptism, the reality of which has now been conferred through the gift of faith. Understanding this teaching helps us to realize that when a covenant child is baptized, the grace of salvation is really offered and exhibited to him or her, and the sign and seal of that grace (to be received through faith) is really conferred. With such a beginning to the child's life in the church, our covenant nurture of the child must continue to offer and exhibit the covenant of grace. Later, when faith marks the child as truly possessing salvation, that faith receives the grace that was set before the child from the beginning of his or her life in the church, through baptism, which grace now belongs to the believing child through the Spirit's gift of saving faith.

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 28.1

i. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace... Which sacrament is, by Christ's appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

The Westminster Confession's teaching of the sacrament of baptism may be understood under five headings, the first of which is the necessity of baptism. This sacrament is "by Christ's appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world." The point is that the church is obligated to administer baptism and Christians are likewise obligated to be baptized, as Christ's prescribed manner for joining his Church.

One argument against the necessity of water baptism is made by Quakers, who assert that there is no gospel precept for this sacrament and that we are instead to baptize in the Spirit (see Mt. 3:11).  To the contrary, however, Jesus expressly charged the church with instituting baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a necessary accompaniment to evangelism: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). It is evident that this does not refer to baptism in the Spirit, for the simple reason that the Church is not able to regenerate the sinner's heart.* Instead, the example of the New Testament makes it perfectly plain that the Church is to administer water baptism in the name of the Trinity, so that believers and their households may properly receive admission into the visible body of Christ's people (see Acts 8:36-38, 9:18, 10:47-48, etc.).

Christian baptism is necessary, therefore, because it was instituted directly by the Lord Jesus Christ, together with his express command for it to be administered "in his church until the end of the world" (WCF 28:1), even as Jesus extended his Great Commission "to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20).  This gives us the answer to a number of important questions. Is it necessary for a believer in Jesus to be baptized? The answer is Yes, at Jesus' institution and command. Is baptism necessary for church membership? The answer is Yes, since Jesus linked evangelism to baptism in bringing disciples into his church (Mt. 28:19). Is baptism necessary for admission to the Lord's Table?  The answer is Yes, since the public rite of admission to the church and its privileges, including the Lord's Supper, is baptism. This naturally accords with the uniform example that we see in the New Testament. When Peter preached to the crowd after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, about three thousand believed and "those who received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). During Philip's evangelizing ministry in Samaria, those who believed "were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12). So it goes throughout the book of Acts, including the conversion/baptism of Paul, Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailor, Crispus, and the Ephesian converts (Acts 9:18, 10:48, 16:15, 33, 18:6, and 19:5).

When we speak of the necessity of baptism, however, we do not mean that the rite of water baptism is absolutely necessary as a condition for salvation. The Confession guards against this view, saying that although "it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it" (WCF 28:5). The great example is the thief on the cross who believed in Jesus and was saved, without being baptized by water (Lk. 23:39-43). He was not in a position to be baptized, as it true of others who are soon debilitated or die after trusting in Christ. The point is that baptism is not necessary as a condition of salvation, but rather as a consequence of salvation (either the believer's own salvation or that of his or her parent's, as we will see).  

Baptism is necessary in that it is required of Christians and the Church that they obey Christ's commands and give him glory by faithfully administering the sacraments of his church. This means that new believers who have not been baptized, as was my case when I came to faith in Christ at the age of 30, should feel an obligation to receive baptism, thus joining the church and giving a public testimony to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As we will see in our next study, this manner of public testimony also grants a sealing assurance to the believer that he or she really does belong to Jesus.

*Properly speaking, baptism in the Holy Spirit refers not to the individuals' regeneration at the moment of conversion but rather Christ's outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost. Peter made it very clear in Acts 2:33 that Jesus' baptism in the Spirit took place at Pentecost, and the symbolism of the Spirit descending in tongues of spiritual fire clearly fulfills the expectation established by John the Baptist's teaching: see Luke 3:16 and Acts 2:3.

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 27.5

v. The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

Why end the section on the sacraments with a statement as to the diversity and unity of old and new covenant sacraments? The reason seems to be to underline once more what is stated so clearly in the opening section: the hermeneutical importance of the unity of the covenant of grace. Circumcision is to baptism what the Passover is the Lord's Supper. Circumcision, as Romans 4:11 insists, was "a sign and seal of the righteousness that he [Abraham] had by faith while he was still uncircumcised." Circumcision was not a seal of Abraham's faith, but of the (covenant) righteousness which he received by faith. Similarly, baptism seals the word of promise of the gospel - union with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). Thus circumcision and baptism are considered as functionally equivalent (Col. 4:11-12), as are Passover and the Lord's Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 5:7).

Old covenant sacraments were types and shadows, but they pointed to Christ and his benefits. The hermeneutical importance of this understanding lies in ensuring that the principle espoused in the administration of the sacrament of circumcision carries through into the administration of the sacrament in the new covenant. Thus, Peter on the day of Pentecost delivers a sermon arguing for continuity rather than discontinuity of sacramental administration: "For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39).  

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 27.4

iv. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.

There is something both expected and unexpected about this section. First is the statement as to the number of sacraments. Medieval Rome espoused seven. In addition to baptism and the Supper were Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. Luther, in the Large Catechism (IV:74-75) added "repentance" ("Confession" and "Absolution" are referred to as the "Third Sacrament"). In contrast, the Confession insists that there are only two sacraments. Foot-washing, as Calvin made clear in his Commentary on John 13, is not a sacrament because it was not viewed as such in the on-going life of the early Christian community. 

The "unexpected" aspect is the statement regarding who may lawfully dispense the sacrament. Only a lawfully ordained "minister of the Word" may officiate in the sacraments. Since the Directory for the Public Worship of God, advocates a separate office of elder and minister, this explains the reason why in Presbyterian churches ruling elders may not administer baptism or the Lord's Supper. Congregations without a minister must therefore engage an "interim minister" of some kind in order to administer the sacraments. This, on surface reading, seems to highlight a difference between ruling and teaching elders that cuts across current understandings of the parity of the eldership in some Presbyterian polities. 

Does this statement in the Confession raise the specter of clericalism? However we answer that question, the reason for the statement is clear enough: no sacrament may be dispensed without an adequate explanation of its meaning, i.e. a lawfully ordained minister of the gospel. 

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 27.3

iii. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.

This section deals with the efficacy of the sacraments. Firstly, grace is exhibited in the sacraments. Baptism and the Supper do not function ex opere operato - by virtue of their application alone. Failure to apply the hermeneutical principle advocated in section two - the "sacramental principle" - leads to attribution of the meaning of sacrament to the recipient. In general, the Church Fathers lost sight of the sacraments as signs to stir up faith and seals to confirm believers in possession of the blessings signified, regarding (for example) baptism as actually conveying regeneration to those who did not obstruct its working. Since infants could not do this, all baptized infants were accordingly viewed as regenerate. Similarly, dangers of formalism arise in the Supper.

Of particular interest in our time is the Confession's comment as to the relationship between the efficacy of sacraments and the officiant. In opposition to the idea that baptism and the Supper are only effective if the "minister" (or whoever the presider may be) is a regenerate Christian, the Confession expresses what to some amounts to a very "high" view of the sacraments. They are effective to the faith of the recipient regardless of the lack of it on the part of the officiant. The efficacy of the sacraments lies a) in the work of the Holy Spirit (rather than the sacrament itself or the one who administers it), b) the word of institution (viewed here not simply as a ritual), but as c) containing the promise of the covenant-Lord. The sacraments are effective due to the word and Spirit - both are essential. 

This signals the importance of Scripture and sound interpretation (preaching) whenever the sacraments are observed. Just as the Holy Spirit illuminates the Scriptures and shows us Christ, so mutatis mutandis in the sacraments. Where faith is present (worthy receivers), the sacraments accomplish what they promise - union and communion with Jesus Christ. 

Care should be exercised in not misconstruing the intent behind the expression "worthy receivers." Too often, preparatory exercises can lead to the idea that this makes us worthy - an idea utterly foreign to the grace of the gospel. Baptism and the Supper are for sinners!

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 27.2

ii. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

This section has been called "the sacramental principle" - functioning in a similar way to a synecdoche where the term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something (e.g. referring to the police as "the law"). Similarly, in the Covenant of Grace, the signs and seals signify so closely what is promised by the covenant and received by faith that the one is often attributed to the other. So, for example, in the Abrahamic Covenant, God institutes circumcision, saying: "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised" (Gen. 17:10). Here, circumcision is the covenant. Similarly, the "bread" is Christ's "body" and the "cup" is Christ's "blood of the new covenant" (Matt. 26:26-28). The same is true of the expression "the washing of regeneration" (Tit. 3:5).

Behind this "sacramental principle"/hermeneutic lies memories of the Reformation debates surrounding the meaning of "is" (Lat. est). The Marburg Colloquy in 1529, for example, demonstrated the failure of Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther to agree on the meaning of the expression hoc est corpus meum. Did the bread and wine represent Christ's body and blood or were they (somehow) the actual body and blood of Christ? In order to avoid baptismal regeneration or sacramental transformation (consubstantiation, transubstantiation), the employment of an interpretive principle is essential. It is necessary, therefore, that the next section deal with the issue of the efficacy of the sacraments. If, for example, a baby receives baptism - a sign and seal of regeneration and forgiveness of sins, justification and adoption, perseverance and glorification - how do we avoid the conclusion that the baby is regenerate? The important point to bear in mind is that sacraments say nothing as to the condition of the recipient.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 27.1

i. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

It is interesting in itself that the Confession would provide a separate chapter on the nature of sacraments before dealing specifically with baptism and the Supper. The word "sacrament" is not a biblical word, and, etymologically, its Latin narrative somewhat skews the discussion. In eight of the twenty-seven or twenty-eight occurrences of the Greek musterion (mystery), the Latin Vulgate chose the word sacramentum. (All other occurrences employ the word mysterium). Sacramentum in its Latin context was the sum of money two parties engaged in a legal suit deposited with the tresviri capitales, so-called because the losing party's sum was used for religious purposes. Sacramentum was also used in the military sphere to describe the initiation oath entered into by newly-enlisted troops. It is the latter concept - that of a life-death oath of allegiance - that rose to the surface in sacramental discussions in the Reformation and post-Reformation debates. For some, therefore, Baptism and the Lord's Supper were thus viewed primarily as an oath of allegiance, a responsive promise of loyalty and obedience, "solemnly to engage... to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word" (27:1).

It is therefore important to see that the Westminster Divines did not focus on this aspect of a sacrament but rather employed a robust covenantal understanding of baptism and the Supper as "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Despite the fact that only circumcision is specifically referred to as a "sign and seal" (Rom. 4:11-12), the Confession assigns this understanding of physical markers to all the individual covenants, and the unifying concept of the covenant of grace in particular. Following chapter seven, "Of God's Covenant with Man," the Confession assumes a unified understanding of the Old and New Covenants as dual redemptive-historical administrations of the one covenant of grace. In doing so, they are expressing an understanding that all covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and  the New Covenant) are accompanied by physical signs and seals and that baptism and the Supper employ a similar function in relation to the New Covenant.

Five additional features of a sacrament are specified:

·      Sacraments are immediately instituted by God

·      They signify/represent Christ and his benefits

·      They confirm our interest in Christ

·      Distinguish members of the church from the rest of the world

·      Sacraments serve as expressions of commitment and discipleship

It is crucial to note that the Confession views the sacraments as signs of the covenant of grace and not signs and seals of faith. They do not function as markers of my response to the covenant, but of the covenant itself and the promises of God that accompany it.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 26.3

iii.This communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of His Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor doth their communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety which each man hath in his goods and possessions.
When necessary, the Westminster Confession of Faith protects its doctrines from misunderstanding, or even heresy. Here the Confession clarifies the communion of the saints by considering two inferences that someone might reasonably make from this doctrine and then ruling them out.

The first wrong inference is that the connection the saints have with Christ somehow makes them divine. The Confession's strong doctrine of union with Christ emphasizes the closeness of the connection we have with Christ in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glory. We are his very body.

This might lead some to believe that we ourselves become part of God himself, sharing his deity. Indeed, some branches of Christendom have argued for the divinization of redeemed humanity. But the Confession straightforwardly denies that we participate in the substance of the Godhead or become equal to Christ. Our union with Christ and communion with one another do not erase the proper distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Another inference some may draw from the communion of the saints is that Christians do not have the right to personal property. After all, caring for the material needs of other believers is not an option for us, but a duty. Furthermore, in saying that the saints "have communion in each other's gifts," the Confession says that we have a rightful claim on the goods of other believers.

But this inference, too, is mistaken. The right of personal property is taught throughout the Scriptures. Even in the Jerusalem church, when the followers of Christ shared everything in common (Acts 4:32), the apostles defended the right of individual Christians to hold, sell, or give away their property (Acts 5:4)--a right that preserves the freedom and the joy of generous giving.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.2, part two

ii. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. 
The communion of the saints is not merely local; it is also global. As God gives us the opportunity, the Confession says, our co-union in Christ "is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." 

This statement casts a surprisingly expansive and inclusive vision for the communion of saints, especially when we remember the context in which it was written. Recall that the Westminster Confession was drafted during England's civil war. Remember as well that this was centuries before the missionary work of the gospel became a priority for most reformed and evangelical churches. Nevertheless, the pastors and theologians of the Westminster Assembly believed that they were part of a spiritual communion that was, in principle, as big as the whole wide world.  

The communion of the saints includes every believer--anyone who names Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No distinction of gender, determination of age, or discrimination of ethnicity should set a limit on our love or establish a boundary on the care we offer to the bodies and souls of other believers. The Confession thus establishes--ahead of its time, in many ways--a principle of Christian inclusion that can break down generational barriers, destroy sexism, and defeat racial discrimination. Our co-union with Christ connects us to every other Christian.

To repeat a qualification that has already been made, this does not mean that we have an obligation personally to meet every need. Even if we have communion in Christ with saints in far places, we may not always be aware of their needs or in the best position to meet them. But the Confession rightly calls us to look far beyond our own immediate context and to consider how God may call us to serve any believer anywhere.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.2

ii. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. 
Having firmly grounded our communion as saints in our union with Christ--and having introduced our calling to bless one another both spiritually and materially--the Confession mentions some ways that we can put our communion into practice.

One is by maintaining fellowship in the worship of God. Here the Confession echoes the exhortation of Hebrews "to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Heb. 10:24-25). While regular participation in public worship is a blessing to us, it is every bit as much a blessing to others.  

Another way to practice the communion of the saints is by "performing such other spiritual services as tend to mutual edification." Examples here would include meeting with other Christians for prayer and Bible study, sharing Christian literature, and sending notes or messages of spiritual encouragement.

Next, the Confession encourages the saints to "relieve each other in outward things." This somewhat archaic expression refers to physical needs. "Outward things" are life's material necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter. When we take a hot meal to a family in distress, or welcome a brother or sister who needs a place to stay for a while, or perform a home repair for a widow from our church, we are practicing the communion of the saints. 

None of us can perform all the spiritual services or meet all the outward needs that our fellow saints may require. But as we have the ability and opportunity, we should do what we can.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.1, part two

i. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.

Because we are united to Jesus Christ, we are also united to one another--a communion of love. 

The love we share within the communion of the saints is not a mere emotion. Still less is it a spiritual abstraction. Rather, the love that unites us comes to practical expression as we share our "gifts and graces" with one another.

In referring to "gifts" and "graces," the Confession is not trying to make a careful theological distinction, but to be all inclusive. Whatever we have--natural abilities, spiritual gifts, material resources--is meant to be shared with other believers in Christ. 

God has not given us these "gifts and graces" solely for our own benefit, but for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ. What belongs to one person is meant to be shared with everyone. This is what it means to have communion "in each other's" spiritual and material blessings: what God has given to us is designed to be used for others, so that we can all share in his blessing.

This principle--that the communion of the saints means sharing our gifts and graces--gives every believer the holy duty to do all the good we can for one another. 
We will do some of this good in public, such as the pastor who uses the gift of preaching the spiritual benefit of his congregation. Some of the good we do for one another will be done in private, such as the gift card we leave in the mailbox for a family with financial needs. The communion of the saints calls us to care for the bodies and the souls of our brothers and sisters in the family of God.  

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 26.1

i. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. 
"I believe in the communion of saints."

Although many Christians make this confession when they recite The Apostles' Creed, few have any clear idea what it means. Who are the "saints"? And what kind of "communion" do they share? Westminster Standards is nearly unique among Protestant confessions in devoting a full chapter to the exposition of this vital but little understood doctrine.  

The communion of the saints does not refer to the fellowship that departed believers enjoy in heaven, or to some form of personal communication between the living and the dead. It is not identical with the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or with the church, although those are both places where saints have communion with one another. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts the practical doctrine of the communion of the saints in its proper theological context by beginning with union with Christ. As the Confession has explained elsewhere, every believer is united to Christ. By the Holy Spirit and by faith, we are spiritually connected to everything that Jesus has done for our salvation: his death, his resurrection, and his glorification.  

But if we enjoy a living relationship to Christ, then we must also be joined to one another. We are in co-union--or communion--with everyone else who is united to Christ, whether living or dead.  

So "the communion of saints" is first of all a spiritual reality. The bond that joins us together is love. Our living relationship with all other believers is also a loving relationship. And as we shall see, this has wide-ranging implications for the Christian life.

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and author of Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway 2012).

Chapter 25.6

vi. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

The biblical doctrine of the church revolves around Jesus Christ. He is the head of the church, which is His body, and He must have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). He has supreme authority (Col. 2:10). The church submits to Him as its Lord (Eph. 5:22-24). He is the source of our life (Eph. 4:15-16). When men claim to follow Christ but really follow their own personal notions or traditions and manmade rules and forms of worship, they are not holding the Head (Col. 2:18-23). Christ must always be first, or we have ceased to be the church of Christ.

One of the great heresies of the Roman Catholic Church is their exaltation of a man to the place of Christ. The Pope or Bishop of Rome takes the title "Vicar of Jesus Christ," meaning that he acts as Christ's representative, ruling as the supreme head of the church on earth. He is also called "Pontifex Maximus," meaning supreme or great high priest (Lev. 21:10, Vulgate), but the Bible says our great high priest is Jesus, the Son of God (Heb. 4:14). Invoking the authority of Peter, the Pope claims to speak infallibly on matters of faith or life, placing his own words on the level of the words of Christ.

It may surprise modern readers that the Westminster Confession calls the Pope the Antichrist. Today the Antichrist is popularly conceived to be a great military leader who will rule the world with supernatural powers. But in the Scriptures, the word antichrist is used of false teachers who deny fundamental teachings of the faith. John wrote, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists" (1 John 2:18; cf. 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). 

The Lord Jesus warned that "false Christs, and false prophets" will come (Matt. 24:24). Paul foretold that the coming of the "man of sin, the son of perdition" who would exalt himself to the place of God in the temple (2 Thess. 2:3-4). The Westminster divines believed (and make a good case for their beliefs in their frequent writings on this subject!) that the office of the Papacy (not any one individual Pope) fulfilled these prophecies,  asserting its claim to rule the universal church, which is the New Testament temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16). 

Thus the Westminster Confession closes its chapter on the church with a solemn warning. Christ alone is the head of His church. He who dares to usurp Christ's place becomes an enemy of Christ. The confession of the true church has ever been, "Jesus is Lord!" It was this conviction that led early Christians to choose death rather than to worship the emperor of Rome, and the same conviction strengthens the church in every age. The blessed hope of the church is the return of her King, and her prayer is ever, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.4, 5

iv. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

v.The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.

Where was your church before the Reformation? Roman Catholics have thrown this question at evangelicals over the centuries. Of course, we might quip, "Our church was in the Bible, where yours never was!" We could point out that the Roman papacy was an innovation that arose long after Christ, and in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was split among two or three rival popes. 

However, we might also respond with the Westminster Confession that the church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. This means that the true church passes through times of darkness, weakness, or persecution when it is largely hidden. We think of Elijah crying out, "I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (1 Kings 19:10). The official church of Israel had given itself over to idolatry. Yet God had preserved seven thousand faithful worshipers, a hundred of whom were hiding in a cave (1 Kings 19:18; 18:4).

We should not take Christ's promise to preserve His church (Matt. 16:18) to mean that the visible church will always be faithful or that the true church will always be strong. In the fourth century, godly Athanasius was repeatedly forced into exile because many powerful leaders were Arians, that is, they denied that Christ is the eternal Son of God. But the faithful overcame this heresy and purified the church.

The Confession calls us to a realistic view of local churches. Congregations are more or less pure with respect to what is taught in them, how the sacraments are administered, and how public worship is conducted. One need only read Christ's words to the seven churches (Rev. 2-3) to see that churches often slide into errors of doctrine or practice. When someone says he wishes we could go back to the ways of the first-century church, perhaps we should ask if he means the church in Corinth? They had problems with division, pride, a celebrity mindset, incest, failure to implement church discipline, fornication, people getting drunk at the Lord's Supper, and false teaching about the resurrection. Nevertheless, Paul addressed them as "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2). 

The best of churches are subject both to mixture and error. There may be hypocrites among of the members of a true church and great Christian leaders can make great mistakes, though they are sincere believers. Sadly, some churches and denominations have fallen into such profound errors that they can no longer be called true churches of Christ. Though it is possible that some true believers remain in them, the official teachings and practices of their churches deny fundamental truths of God's law and gospel. Let us watch and pray, lest our churches slip into this terrifying pit.

However, we should not fear that the church will disappear from the earth, for there shall be always a church on earth. The Son of God said, "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). One name for believers is overcomers. The world wages war against Christ and His church, but "the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:14). Though we are called to watchfulness, we are to watch in hope, for the wedding day of Christ is coming, and His bride, the church, will be beautiful on that day (Rev. 19:7-8).

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.3

iii. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

Some people think that true spirituality is so mystical that we really do not need the church with its creeds and confessions, and its forms of worship, so long as we follow what God says to our hearts. A personal relationship with the Lord trumps everything else, even the plain teaching of the Bible. Other people put so much stock in the sacraments that they think receiving baptism, attending church, and taking the Lord's Supper virtually guarantees their salvation unless they do something really bad. Reformed Christianity, in contrast to these extremes, does not separate the life of the visible church and the invisible work of the Spirit, but emphasizes both as crucial to knowing and pleasing God.

We treasure the church because Christ has given to the visible church the means by which He saves His people. First, Christ gives them the ministry, that is, men gifted and called as servants of the Word. Paul taught that the ascended Christ builds up His body by giving ministers of the Word to the church (Eph. 4:10-12). These men are not saviors but only servants of God and stewards of God's truth (1 Cor. 4:1). Still, ministers who are faithful in their lives and teachings are instruments by which God saves the church from sin and brings it to glory (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:10).

Second, Christ gives to the church the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1-2), the Holy Scriptures. I am grateful that in America we live in an age of unprecedented access to the Scriptures (just a click away on the internet). But the church, as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:15), still plays a central role in preserving the Scriptures, guarding their faithful translation and interpretation, promoting education and literacy, reading them as part of public worship, and encouraging the private reading of the Bible in personal devotions and family worship.

Third, Christ gives the ordinances to the church. By "ordinances" the Confession refers to the public means of worship which Christ ordained or commanded, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, public prayer, and singing praise to God (see Confession, 21.5). The holy God inhabits the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3), and many times God's people have experienced His presence dwelling with them as they worship together on the Lord's Day. Indeed, Christ promised His special presence when believers assemble in His name (Ps. 22:22; Matt. 18:20).

Christ commanded His church to preach the Word and to use the ordinances, and promised, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20)--implying that these means of grace will never grow obsolete and we must faithfully use them to the end of the world. Far from despising the means, we should use them with great expectation, for as we use the means, Christ is present with us. And Christ will not let His church fail.

However, we do not turn the means of grace into a surrogate Christ, but instead, as the Confession says, believe that Christ must make them effective by His own presence and Spirit. Mechanical rituals and even the preaching of sermons do not have any inherent power to do spiritual good. Reformed Christianity rejects the ex opere operato ("by the work having been worked") principle of the Roman church where the mere performance of the liturgy confers grace. Instead, we do the work of the church constantly remembering Christ's words, "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.2

ii. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

In this section the Westminster Confession discusses the visible church. In my last post, I considered what the Confession means when it speaks of the invisible church. We make this distinction because the church is a people called together, but the call is twofold. There is an external call through voice of the preacher (Matt. 22:9-10, 14), and an internal, effectual call through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit upon the soul (1 Cor. 1:23-24). We can see the people who have outwardly responded to the preacher's call, but we cannot directly view the inward working of the Spirit. 

Sometimes people find the distinction of visible/invisible to be confusing with regard to the church. Are we talking about two different churches? By no means! Perhaps an analogy would help. An old Dutch divine, Wilhelmus à Brakel, compared it to the soul and body of a man. We recognize that human beings have an invisible aspect and a visible aspect to their lives. The soul is hidden within the body. But we do not divide the soul and body of a living man. We do not expect people to walk around as souls without bodies. Nor do we say that a body without a soul is really a man--it's just a corpse. 

In the same way, we recognize that the church has an invisible aspect and a visible aspect. The invisible church is hidden within the visible. But we do not divide them into two churches. The claim to be part of the invisible church while having nothing to do with the visible church is as plausible as spirits walking around without bodies--and almost as frightening. On the other hand, a church without a vital union with Christ by the Holy Spirit is not a true church. It is an institutional corpse. In reality, the invisible church shows itself on earth in and through the visible church.

The Confession teaches us that the visible church is also universal, adding the explanatory note that it is not confined to one nation. From the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God's visible church consisted of Israel and those few foreigners such as Rahab and Ruth who were joined to Israel. The risen Christ commissioned His servants to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), and this they did by planting churches in many lands (Acts 14:23). 

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have taught that the universal church is visible not only in local churches but also in the order or structure that binds many congregations together into one, such as classes or presbyteries, and synods or general assemblies. This church polity is distinguished from Congregational (and Baptist) polity, in which the visible church has no higher authority than the elders who rule over local congregations, though congregations may consult together and cooperate in missions.

The visible church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion. That is to say, membership of the visible church is defined by those persons who confess the faith, who publicly declare that they believe in Jesus Christ and obey the teachings of Christianity. The New Testament argues that personal trust in Christ will produce a public confession of Him before men (Rom. 10:9-10), and warns that those who refuse to confess Christ will not be owned by Him on Judgment Day (Matt. 10:32-33). A profession of Christ as Lord also includes receiving the sacraments, and walking in obedience to God's laws (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 41; 1 Cor. 11:26). The visible church has a responsibility to exclude from its membership those who embrace serious error or sin and refuse to repent.

In addition to professing believers, the confession declares that the children of those that profess the true religion are also members of the visible church. Here the Confession stands on the pattern of the covenant that is universal in Scripture, whereby promises made to believers are extended to include their children (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). Note that membership in the visible church is no guarantee of membership in the invisible church. Nonetheless, the practice of the visible church must conform to the promise, and so children of believers are to be baptized and received as members of the church. 

Though it is true that some in the visible church are not saved, we should never fail to cherish the visible church. The Confession says that it is the kingdom of Christ and the house and family of God. The exiled Judean poet expressed it well: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Ps. 137:5, 6).  

It may shock modern evangelicals, but the Confession also says that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church. The Book of Acts tells us about many miracles done by the apostles, and visits from angels. But in every case where someone is saved from sin, it is by the ministry of the church. Even when an angel visited Cornelius, the angel proclaimed the gospel to him, but directed him to the apostle Peter, "who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). We do not deny that God may use a gospel tract or well-placed Bible to convert a sinner. But His ordinary means are set forth in Paul's argument for the necessity of preaching: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). Therefore, cherish the visible church, faithfully attend its assemblies, make diligent use of the means of grace it provides, for God is pleased to use the preaching of the Word to save sinners.

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.1

i. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord makes this remarkable pronouncement: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Greek word translated "church" means a number of persons called together in a public assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). When the Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, this word was used for the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10; 9:10), and later assemblies, especially for worship (2 Chron. 6:3, 12, 13; Ps. 22:22, 25; Joel 2:16). 

Christ seized this word with a rich history in Israel and claimed it as His own: My church. He is the Lord of the congregation of God's worshipers, the King of the true Israel (Phil. 3:3). Christ builds the church by His power, and He promises that Satan will never overthrow it.

This church transcends each local congregation of worshipers. A local church can die spiritually (Rev. 3:1). Christ Himself may remove its light (Rev. 2:5). There are many sad sights of empty buildings where a church once met, or where formerly faithful churches have fallen into heresy. But Christ said that His church cannot fail.

Therefore Christ spoke of what the Westminster Confession calls "the catholic or universal church," both the church worldwide and the church in heaven and on earth. The word "catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church's members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24). The Confession has a number of things to say about the universal church.

First, this church is invisible. That does not mean its members are ghosts that meet in phantom buildings. It means that the universal church is defined in ways that are spiritually discerned and not physically seen. The church is not a building, but a people who worship in spirit and truth, a temple built with living, personal stones (John 4:20-24; 1 Peter 2:5). It is not a particular denomination and cannot be defined by allegiance to any mere man such as the Pope of Rome (1 Cor. 1:12-13). At certain times and places, the true church may exist as hidden gatherings of believers fiercely persecuted by leaders of the visible church (Rev. 13:11-15). 

We cannot produce a complete list of the church's members, for some whom we thought to be saved fall away and show that they never really belonged (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is known to Him or saved by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). The church's membership is not defined by participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper, for some who receive the sacraments are not in Christ (Acts 8:13, 18-24; 1 Cor. 10:1-8), and some true believers do not have the opportunity to receive them (Luke 23:39-43). 

The true church is defined by invisible factors. The qualifications for membership are the secret election of God and the internal work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith. We can see evidence of these divine operations in the fruit of the Spirit, but the true identity of the church is invisible. Yet it is visible or known to God: "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim. 2:19).

Second, the church consists of the elect. God elected or chose individuals in order to save them from their sins, adopt them as His children and heirs, and make them holy by union with Christ (Eph. 1:4). The church is "a chosen generation," joined to Christ who is Himself "chosen of God, and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, 9). The Bible says, "Christ died for the church" (Eph. 5:25), that is, He decreed to redeem the elect long before any of them were born. Their names were "written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," and when they believe in the Lamb they overcome the world because by God's grace they are "called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:8, 14).

Third, the church is in union with Christ as the bride or spouse of the Lord. The church was promised to Christ in God's eternal counsels (2 Tim. 1:9), and is betrothed to Christ by the Spirit in effectual calling (1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17). As Christ's spouse, the church is the object of Christ's redeeming love and His nourishing and cherishing affection (Eph. 5:25, 28-29). 

Fourth, the members of the church are joined to Christ in a living, organic, and personal union, knit to Him as closely as the members or parts of a man's body (Eph. 5:30-31). Since Christ is the church's head, he rules over it as Lord and the true members of the church submit to His Word as it washes them clean (Eph. 5:23, 24, 26). 

This unspeakable privilege of union with Christ makes the church the recipient of the fullness of Christ's graces, "his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). There is no station in life higher or more privileged than to be a member of the true church!

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 24

i. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.

ii. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.

iii. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.

iv. Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word. Nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and wife.

v. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

vi. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

Chapter twenty-four of the Westminster Confession of Faith addresses one of the most controversial subjects at the present day. As various countries around the world consider the legality and morality of same sex unions, the Confession speaks with refreshing and bracing clarity about marriage and divorce. The Confession is, to be honest, building on a foundation of careful study of God's Word. The divines were not interested in fads and fashions which come and go with breakneck speed. They were concerned with permanent things.

This chapter is comprised of six paragraphs. While the Westminster divines could not have known about the debates concerning same sex marriage that capture our attention today, their teaching could not be more relevant. The first paragraph begins with a definition of what marriage is: "Marriage is to be between one man and one woman..."  Reflecting the teaching of Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:4-6, this brief statement makes it clear that marriage is not a mere social convention, nor is it the result of years of cultural evolution. It is a relationship instituted by God. 

But there is more. It is only lawful for a marriage to involve one man and one woman at the same time. While it is lawful for a man or a woman to remarry upon the death of a spouse, polygamy (many wives) and polyandry (many husbands) are off limits. This is no pedantic concern. Missionaries will tell you that one of the most significant practical matters faced when planting churches on the mission field is the biblical prohibition of multiple wives. An elder or a deacon, if married, is to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12).

The Confession continues in its second paragraph to offer four reasons for the institution of marriage. First, marriage was ordained for the mutual benefit of husband and wife. As Genesis 2:18 has it, "And the Lord God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper suitable for him." God made Adam and Eve for each other. Both would reflect the image of God. Second, marriage was ordained to propagate the human race. God commanded our first parents to be fruitful and to multiply (Genesis 1:28). Third, marriage provides a "holy seed" or covenant children for the church. Fourth, God instituted marriage to prevent uncleanness or sexual promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9).

Paragraphs three and four address who should marry and to whom one should be married. The Confession notes that "it is lawful for all sorts of people to marry..." and that such people must be able to give their consent to the marriage. There are, of course, limitations too. Christians should only marry Christians. "...Such as profess the true reformed religion" ought not to marry non-believers, Roman Catholics, or idolaters of other sorts. Further, the godly should not be unequally yoked by marrying those who are known to be flagrantly sinful or those who maintain false religious beliefs. Moreover, marriage ought not to be within the bounds of consanguinity (relations by blood) or affinity (relations by marriage) which are condemned in Scripture (Lev. 18:6-17, 24-30; 20:19; 1 Corinthians 5:1; and Amos 2:7). Brothers can't marry sisters nor sons their mothers and the like. 

The Westminster divines may have had a specific historical instances in mind here. Henry VIII married his brother's widow (Catherine of Aragon) and a special dispensation from the Pope had to be obtained for the new marriage. Later when Henry wanted a divorce from Catherine he had to obtain a special dispensation for divorce. When he could not obtain the desired divorce, he broke with Rome and he himself became the head of the church of England.

The Confession in paragraph five addresses circumstances which might lead to the breaking off of an engagement or divorce. At the time of the Westminster Assembly, engagement was more legally binding than in our day in the West. Specifically, adultery and fornication discovered after a couple had entered into engagement made it lawful for the offended party to dissolve the betrothal. The same thing discovered after marriage could lead to the lawful dissolution of the marriage and the offended spouse may marry again as if the offending spouse was dead.

The divines had a realistic view of sinful human nature and realized that many will diligently search for and weigh arguments which will release them from their marital vows. However, while many will look under every rock to find a useful argument to end a marriage, there are legitimate biblical grounds for divorce. 

In particular, the Confession in paragraph six stipulates that divorce is lawful for "...adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate..." The Confession is clear that divorce is to follow an orderly procedure and ought never to occur at the mere whim of one or both marriage partners. The Lord only allowed for divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts. Marriage was for life until at least one of the spouses had died.  Marriage, the apostle Paul tells us, is meant to reflect the reality of the relationship of Christ to his church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Dr. Jeffrey Waddington is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and currently serves as stated supply at Knox OPC in Lansdowne, PA and as communications director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He is co-editor, along with Dr. Lane Tipton, of Resurrection and Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (P&R, 2008).

Chapter 23

i. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers.

ii. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

iii. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

iv. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less hath the pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

Chapter twenty-three of the Westminster Confession of Faith is entitled "Of the Civil Magistrates." This chapter addresses the important relation between God, Christians, and civil governments and rulers. The first paragraph begins with the bold statement that God is "the supreme Lord and King of all the world." Our world today is filled with diverse political structures, which are often in competition and even conflict. There are Democracies, dictators, Communist states, Muslim nations, etc., yet the Confession teaches us that God is Lord over the entire world and in fact is the one who has ordained civil rulers to govern over us. God also has given certain responsibilities to these rulers. They are to encourage good and punish evil (23:1) and maintain piety, justice, and peace (23:2). 

Chapter 23:3, however, demonstrates a significant historical difference between Presbyterianism in seventeenth-century Britain, and American Presbyterian in the twenty-first century. The Confession was written during a time when mostly monarchs ruled over Europe under the broad canopy of Christendom. These monarchs, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, believed that God had appointed them and given them authority to rule over the nations entrusted to them.  Part of their responsibility was to insure that Christianity was protected and promulgated within their borders; and other false religions were refuted and driven out. Reflecting this, the original seventeen-century version of WCF 23:3 reads:
The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.
In the course of history, Presbyterianism formally began in the new world (North America) in 1706 with the establishment of the first presbytery in Philadelphia. By the end of the century America was formed as a new nation and various denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, separated from the ecclesiastical authorities in Europe. In 1789 the first General Assembly convened in Philadelphia and formed the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. At this assembly chapter twenty-three of the Westminster Confession of Faith was revised, reflecting now the new religious politics that intended to keep distinct the role of the state and the church. WCF 23:3 was revised to read:
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.
This revision reflects the principles of an early American nation established without an official state church, like the Church of England. Instead, this paragraph charges the civil magistrates to not give any preference to any Christian denomination. Furthermore, the responsibility of the civil magistrate is to protect all their citizens regardless of their religious affiliation. This is quite different then the seventeenth-century version that instructs civil magistrates to suppress all blasphemies, heresies, abuses, and corruptions against Christianity. While monumental historical events no doubt contributed to this revision, there are sound Biblical reasons as well, which space does not allow us to explore in this space.

Finally, 23:4 instructs us to pray for and submit to our civil magistrates. This is necessary for our society's well being. Again, God ordains our civil magistrates and we are to obey them as they carry out the responsibilities given to them. 

Dr. Jeffrey Jue is Associate Professor of Church History and the Stephen Tong Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Chapter 22

"Of Lawful Oaths and Vows"

i. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth or promiseth; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth. 

ii. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence; therefore, to swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and dreadful name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.

iii. Whosoever taketh an oath, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he fully persuaded is the truth. Neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

iv. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man's own hurt; nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics or infidels.

v. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

vi. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want; whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties, or to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto. 

vii. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

Chapter twenty-three of the Confession addresses a subject that may seem irrelevant, if not trivial, in today's society. Why would a Christian confession of faith include a seven-paragraph chapter regarding oaths and vows? While the question is not objectionable, the very fact that so many ask it reveals how far we as a society have fallen in our understanding of oaths and vows.

First, we need to define our terms. An oath involves both men and God, usually when a person makes a promise to another and invokes God as a witness. A vow is a promise made to God.  This is why we promise before God to keep our wedding vows; they are first and foremost promises made to God that we will treat our spouses in a godly manner. Thus, as you can see, the two are closely related but slightly different. 

In the opening paragraphs, the Confession teaches us that vows are exceedingly solemn affairs. The reasoning is simple. The triune God alone is the true and living God. Therefore, this God is the only one by whom we should swear or to whom we should make vows. This is why the Divines encourage us to consider carefully what we take an oath to do or what we vow to perform. God will not hold guiltless those who profane his name by swearing oaths and vows falsely.  

As I said at the beginning, the reason the words of the Confession strike us as strange is precisely because we see so few people faithfully keeping either oaths or vows. Consider the public official who takes an oath on the Bible to perform certain duties. Unfortunately, few people are surprised when that same official, a few months into his term, utterly violates his oath. Yet God will hold him accountable, for he swore on God's holy word, which is his divine self-revelation.

More pervasive than dishonest public officials, however, is the criminal way in which so many people--even many Christians--break their marital vows. The sorry state of our marriages is pictured by the fact that many people today do not prefer to say traditional vows; instead, they write their own vows. As is to be expected, these vows almost never take God into account and are generally unbiblical. Where traditional vows are taken, the two people getting married seem to have no trouble heading straight for the divorce attorney when "irreconcilable differences" rear their ugly head. Such a trivializing of vows ought to cause us great sadness. God certainly does not treat our vows, or our breaking of them, lightly. This is why David, in Psalm 15:4, holds up the man "who swears to his own hurt and does not change." 

Now, at this point, someone might object. "Didn't Jesus tell us not to swear at all but simply let our 'yes' be 'yes' and our 'no' be 'no'"? We find our Lord's words along these lines in Matthew 5:33-37. The answer to the question is fairly simple. Since the Bible gives us examples of people taking lawful oaths and vows (e.g., Isaiah 65:16, 2 Cor 1:23) and since Jesus never contradicts his own word, he cannot be speaking about all oaths and vows. Rather, he is forbidding exactly what the third commandment forbids: the taking of God's name in vain by the swearing of trivial oaths and vows. Put simply, Jesus tells us we can't swear by our dead mother's grave or swear by all that is holy, to use some common examples. These are blasphemous false vows and God will punish those who unrepentantly make them.

The Confession goes on to set forth different aspects of lawful and unlawful oaths and vows. All vows are binding, whether made to believers or unbelievers. This seems to be a direct refutation of the Roman Catholic practice of allowing a person to break vows to "infidels and heretics." No, the Bible says that when we make an oath or vow, as long as it does not contradict God's word, we must keep it, whether to believer or unbeliever.

The Confession not only tells us we must keep our lawful oaths and vows, it also tells us that we must never take unlawful vows. The example it gives is that of monastic vows. Why does the Confession forbid the practice of these kinds of vows? Simply because they are not Biblical. To vow perpetual singleness, as many monks did then and do today, is not a Scriptural vow. Therefore, it is a false vow and no Christian should enter into such a vow.

This chapter is a summons to be a truth-telling and truth-loving people. Indeed, our salvation is based on an oath, as it were. Because there is no one higher than he, God swears by none other than himself that we will be saved (cf. Heb 6:17-18). Indeed, Jesus was the man of Psalm 15:4 whom David spoke of. Unlike us, Jesus swore to his own hurt--his massive suffering--and did not change, keeping his promise of salvation all the way up Calvary's bloody hill. Now, in resurrection glory, he call us, his beloved bride, to be a people whose word can be trusted. He calls us to be a people who faithfully keep our lawful oaths and vows. We can only do so in union with him and by doing so, we show the world a faithful Savior who always keeps his word of salvation to all those who trust him.

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 21.8

viii. This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

How is the Lord's Day (equal in principle to the Old Testament Sabbath) to be kept/observed? It is interesting to note that discussions took place in the Assembly itself as to whether an actual period of 24 hours is in view in the observance. The answer of 21:8 is that all common affairs are to be "set in order" so that the day itself is to be a holy rest from all our works and thoughts about our worldly occupations. And, in a statement that has caused much discussion, the Confession insists that we are to be "taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy."

Criticisms of the Confession as engaging in a nature-grace dichotomy are wide of the mark. More pertinent are concerns for trade and commerce. "Worldly employments and recreations" involve the issue of sport on the Lord's Day - a vital concern in puritan England. But less may be implied by this phrase than is often thought to be the case.

Matthew Henry said that the Sabbath was made a day of rest so that it might be made a day of holy work. If too much stress has been given to the ban on recreation, too little stress has been given the insistence upon works of mercy. Visiting the sick, taking care of widows and orphans - altruistic displays of the love of Jesus - these are proper displays of Jesus' own approach to the Sabbath  (Luke 4:16; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). 

The point is that our time belongs to Jesus, not to ourselves. We are stewards of the time God gives us and he asks for a day that is set apart for him, punctuated by the rhythm of pubic worship. Satan wants every minute of our time and secular society squeezes every last minute of our energy for little lasting reward. Make no mistake about it, a world without a Sabbath is tyrannical and unforgiving. It has no gospel.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 21.7

vii. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

The final two sections of chapter twenty-one refer to the principle of the Sabbath. Although no significance is now afforded to place, a significance still attaches itself to time. 21:7 assert explicitly a principle of Sabbath continuity from Old Covenant into New Covenant. The Sabbath principle is a moral and perpetual commandment of God, written into the fabric of creation itself and therefore binding upon society as a whole. Before it adopted specific Mosaic (and therefore temporal considerations relating to that period of redemptive history when the people of God were "under age" and a theocracy), the Sabbath reflected God's rest from labor in creation itself. At the resurrection of Christ, the day was changed to the first day of the week. The Confession does not address the issue as to whether this change is merely "recorded" (description) or specifically "mandated" (prescription). Technically, under the New Covenant, there is an observance of the Lord's Day - the first day of the week rather than the last day of the week (reflecting a gospel logic: rest followed by work rather than work followed by rest). This is to be observed to the end of the world.

The Divines approbation of a "law of nature" might be viewed as a step beyond merely attributing the fact that the Sabbath was a law of creation - therefore observed in principle before the Mosaic Decalogue (note the word "remember" in Exodus 20:8 and the non-provision of manna on the seventh day because it was given as a Sabbath (Exod. 16:22-30)0. That the Westminster Divines (following in the wake of the Reformers and mainstream medieval thought in general) believed in the existence of natural law is beyond refute. There is insufficient evidence here to answer how natural law relates to Scripture (if at all). 

What is clear is that the Sabbath is viewed as beneficial for man qua man - in what we might call "secular" society (and therefore civil enforcement) as well as the church. The Confession sees no change in principle as to applicability of the Sabbath principle in secular society (all men" and "all ages"). The change of day notwithstanding - with Aquinas, the Confession views it as merely a different way of counting six-and-one.  There seems no room for Seventh Adventist views of the consecration of a Saturday Sabbath and even less for the "antinomian" (utilitarian) argument that "any" day (or part of a day) will do since we clearly have a need to gather together at some point on time. Mere tradition is inadequate. There exists a "positive, moral and perpetual commandment" for the continuation of the Sabbath principle in the New Covenant economy. Positive addresses the issue of the regulative principle - it is something for which a prescription exists.  Moral suggests that sanctions apply.  There is an "oughtness" to the keeping of the Sabbath Day. And perpetual suggests that any dispensational argument confining the Sabbath to the Mosaic economy is ruled incorrect.  

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 21.3, 4, 5

iii. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

iv. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

v. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession provide a list of the "elements" of true worship in accord with the regulative principle as defined in 21:1. New Testament (corporate) worship is characterized by five things: prayer (for the living but not for the dead), reading of Scripture, sound preaching and conscionable hearing, singing psalms, sacraments ("instituted by Christ," limiting these to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper), and occasionally, oaths, vows and thanksgivings. 

This list tells us immediately that biblical corporate worship is essentially simple. In the background lay Roman Catholic worship, providing religious significance to rites and ceremonies that had no place in any biblical understanding of true worship. Also in the background lay Protestant claims that so long as the Bible did not expressly forbid a certain practice, it could be viewed as legitimate. Thus article 20 of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles stated: "The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and[hath] authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written..." This is a very different point of view from the regulative principle which insisted on specific biblical prescription. The Anglican formulation allowed practices not expressly forbidden. Examples forbidden by the Westminster Confession but allowed by the Thirty Nine Articles would be, when an officiating priest dips his finger in water and marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child after baptizing, investing such a rite with religious significance. 

Not every issue is easily solved by alluding to a list of the biblical elements of worship. Should the singing be of psalms only, or does the term include other portions of Scripture and humanly composed "hymns"? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the term "psalms" was inclusive of what we might call "spiritual songs" and "hymns." (See, Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (ed. Duncan), 2:223-306). Should they be accompanied by musical instruments (organ, guitar or human choirs)? Should preaching follow a definite form (textual, lectio continua, topical)? To these questions, the Confession has already intimated an answer in Chapter 1 (section 6) when it insists that "there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God... which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Common sense should guide us in addressing certain questions bearing in mind that a circumstance of worship does not constitute a constituent act of worship. 

There are certain principles of common sense that apply to all human societies (secular as well as religious). It is a principle (as we shall see in the next section) that the people of God gather for worship on the Lord's Day; it is not, however stipulated in Scripture at what time, how frequently, or for how long such gathered worship should entail. These latter consideration will vary from one society to another.

In light of these principles, the Westminster Assembly did not produce a Book of Common Prayer, but rather, a Directory which contains principles rather than stipulations. It contains no liturgies, for example, viewing the matter as a violation of the very principle that Scripture demands no one liturgy to be imposed upon a congregation. The Puritans had, after all, rejected the Elizabethan settlement's attempt to impose such a thing despite the threats of fines and imprisonment. 

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 21.1, 2

i. The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

ii. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

Chapter 21 focuses upon two related items: worship and the Sabbath. It begins with a statement that distinguishes between religious truths that can be discerned from (a) "the light of nature" and (b) God's "revealed will" - in other words, general and special revelation. Interestingly, the section begins with a reaffirmation of general revelation and "the light of nature" (see, Chapter 1, sections 1 and 6). God reveals himself to everyone, everywhere: externally, in creation and common grace; internally, in reason and conscience. "Light of nature" may well refer to the latter more than the former in seventeenth century thought. Every human being knows more of God and of a moral and spiritual obligation to worship than he is prepared to admit (see, Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:19-32). Thus, general revelation informs us that we ought to worship and pray - God is "to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served." We are created beings who owe our existence (creation and providence) to the governance of an almighty God.

But general revelation does not tell us how to worship. It is here that the Confession elaborates on a principle already affirmed in the opening chapter - the regulative principle. Few issues were more pertinent in the Puritan era than the issue of conscience - who has the right to impose upon conscience what may or may not be done? Thus the pivotal statement in the previous chapter of the Confession: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship" (20:2). The interference of the State and/or the hierarchical church, insisting on the use of prescribed liturgies, a Prayer Book, kneeling, genuflecting, etc., violated this principle. Far from being viewed as legalistic and restrictive, the regulative principle - that only a prescribed revelation of God may govern my conscience - was seen as liberating. Scripture, rightly interpreted, provides principles and specifics, that inform us as to how God is to be worshipped. We are not at liberty to worship any way we please - whatever works for me, whatever seems fashionable. This would be to put ourselves under the tyranny of the power-hungry and ambitious, or even Satan himself. It is a measure of the importance given to the regulative principle that the Confession suggests that anything less leaves us at the mercy of the devil!

One particular issue is highlighted: we may not employ any "visible representation" of God in worship. The second commandment, which prohibits idolatry generally, specifically forbids making a visible representation of God. For the Divines, it was the crucifix that was the focus of this prohibition. A visible representation of Christ on the cross can easily become an object of worship in itself. It is but one example, of Calvin's warning, that the mind of man is a perpetual factory of idols (Institutes 1.11.8). 

True worship is always Trinitarian (21:2), and with Roman Catholic abuses in view, the Confession rejects a Mariolatry and the veneration of saints , insisting on the sole Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Solo Christo and sola Scriptura characterize the Protestant understanding of true religious worship.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 20.2, 3, 4

ii. 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, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

iii. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

iv. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church.

In section two of this chapter we confess that God has given his people "liberty of conscience." What does this mean? The Westminster Confession states that God has freed us from "doctrines and commandments of men" which are in anyway contrary to Scripture or go beyond Scripture in matters of faith and worship. There are many possible examples. Undoubtedly the Westminster divines had in view both Roman Catholicism and high Anglicanism, with their many innovations and additions to worship and life, which bring about bondage to doctrines and commandments of men. 

Evangelical, Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not immune from the same kind of bondage, perhaps in subtler forms. In some circles it occurs when ministerial vestments become requirements, or when more than modesty and respect are required in congregational attire for worship. It may be requiring particular forms of schooling for the children of church leaders, or in expecting extra-biblical forms of address in prayer as a more reverent expressions of faith. Violation of liberty of conscience may be manifest in criticizing someone for not taking part in the church's annual strawberry social, or by the minister who pressures his congregation to vote for a candidate or party in a manner which downplays scriptural alternatives. Bondage to the rules of men occurs when traditions or personal convictions, even if not inherently contrary, but simply additional to God's Word, become doctrines and commandments in matters of faith and worship.

The Confession continues by placing a sober and God-glorifying responsibility on both individual believers and the church to protect God-given liberty of conscience: "to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." The children of God have been freed to live according to his Word by the blood of Christ; their liberty of conscience is a subset of their Christian liberty. Our Savior calls us to be marked by a loving care that preserves the liberty of our fellow believers from unbiblical constraints of our own or others' making. (Gal. 2:4-5; Col. 2:20-23).

The final two sections of this chapter of the Confession turn to warn and guard against illegitimate and destructive claims to Christian liberty. We are to beware of using claims to Christian liberty as a cloak for the pursuit of sin or lust--a reality which can play out in many forms, including viewing movies that violate God's good law while stating we are "redeeming culture." Some might claim a Sunday at the beach under the umbrella of Christian liberty, while forsaking the assembling together with the saints in worship. There are a multitude of ways in which we can pretend or presume Christian liberty, while at the same time destroying the goal of Christian liberty: that being "delivered [from]... our enemies we might serve the Lord with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life."

The same is true in our relation to lawful civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and their lawful exercise of that authority. Christian liberty, including liberty of conscience, stands in harmony with humble and cheerful submission to both church and civil governance, as they pursue the peace and order of their respective spheres. (Rom. 13)

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

Chapter 20.1

i. The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily take part of.

Many evangelicals today claim "Christian liberty" in a way that can mean anything from Enlightenment ideals of individual rights and freedoms to the post-modern ideal of pluralistic relativism. Sadly, this means that "Christian liberty" all too easily becomes a buzz-word for living how I please, according to the way I interpret or apply Scripture--if there is even an effort to attempt at scriptural justification. This is radically different from the "Christian liberty" and "liberty of conscience" expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith in its summary of historic, biblical Christianity.

The first part of chapter 20 of the Confession directs the believer to understand that Christian liberty is "the liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the gospel." Christian liberty consists of freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, and the curse of the moral law. We receive this liberty because of Christ's penal substitutionary atonement. But there is much more to the gracious reality of Christian liberty through salvation in Christ: it is being delivered from this present evil world, from bondage to Satan and the rule of sin in our lives. Christ sets us free. In and through Christ we are also freed from the evil of afflictions (our afflictions will now work together for our good!), from the sting of death, from the victory of the grave, and from eternity in hell. Our vast and precious Christian liberty, as purchased by Christ for us, is an impelling motive to worship, and to holy thankfulness!

The Confession points out that there is still far more to the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21) In Christ, we are blessed with free access to God. We are now freed from our bondage to sin to enter a new and delightful obedience, "not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind." We are freed from captivity to sin and misery to a new life of the pursuit of what is good and lovely, pure and noble, holy and happy. The Confession notes that this freedom was true for Old Testament believers, as it is for us in the New Testament era--but even more so for us as we are freed "from the yoke of the ceremonial law." Christ is our perfect and eternal high priest, who has offered the once for all sacrifice. In him we have a "greater boldness of access to the throne of grace", and also experience the person and work of the Holy Spirit in a more full way than Old Testament believers typically did. These are the things that make for authentic Christian liberty! 

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

Chapter 19

Chapter nineteen of the Westminster Confession addresses the law of God. This is an important topic that teaches us about the character of God and how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. WCF 19:1 begins with the first law given in the Covenant of Works. This was the first covenant that God made with Adam, offering the reward of eternal life for perfect obedience to this law, or the judgment of eternal condemnation for failure. The Covenant of Works is an essential doctrine for understanding how sin came into the world and how God chose to accomplish redemption. First, it is important to point out that, in the Covenant of Works, Adam stood as a representative for the entire human race. His action had consequences for all of us. Second, Adam was created with the ability to keep this law. Yet he chose to disobey. His failure to keep God's law in the Covenant of Works brought condemnation and death to all human beings.

Chapter nineteen goes on to give what some may describe as a redemptive historical outline of the function of God's law after the Fall. In other words we can see how the law of God was revealed and functioned during different periods of redemptive history, as recorded in Scripture. WCF 19:2 describes the law of God given to the people of Israel in the form of the Ten Commandments received on Mount Sinai. This law addressed directly the duty of the people of Israel to God, and also their duty to other individuals. Perfect obedience was again required, as the law reflects God's perfect holy and righteous character. 

However, unlike Adam, perfect obedience was no longer possible in a post-Fall world. The people of Israel inherited a sinful nature, thus God's law was, in one sense, a reminder of His impending judgment. WCF 19:3 continues by distinguishing God's moral law (the Ten Commandments) from the ceremonial laws given to Israel in the Old Testament. The ceremonial laws instructed Israel in how they were to worship God, including the specifics of the sacrificial system in which they could atone for their sins as a nation. This was important for two reasons. First, it demonstrated God's provision for Israel under the law in the Old Testament.  Second, as WCF 19:3 explains, it points us to Christ by "prefiguring" the grace that would be given in the final suffering and sacrifice of Christ, which would ultimately satisfy the condemnation required by God's law. 

In addition to the moral and ceremonial laws, the nation of Israel was also given judicial laws. These laws governed the nation as a political body. The Confession is clear that the ceremonial and judicial laws ended with conclusion of the old covenant made with Israel. In the course of redemptive history, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the writing of the New Testament, would move God's redemptive plan to a new stage of fulfillment.

For the Christian in the New Testament era, the moral law is still binding. Jesus Christ did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). What this means is that God's law is still in place, but our relationship to that His law has changed. Jesus Christ has fulfilled the requirement of perfect obedience to God's law on behalf of those who put their faith in Him. In other words, as Romans 5:12-21 teaches, Adam failed to obey God as our representative, but Jesus Christ accomplishes perfect obedience for those whom he represents (those united to him by faith). 

This blessing should not encourage the Christian to believe that they can now ignore God's law, since Jesus has fulfilled it on his or her behalf. WCF 19:6 teaches us that the law is of "great use" to the Christian. The law reveals to us God's will for how we should live and conduct ourselves according to His standards. Likewise, the law shows us our own sinfulness, as we continue to struggle in our sanctification. Such reflection on our own sinfulness should produce in us an attitude of humility and hatred for sin, along with a greater and clearer understanding of our dependence on the work of Jesus Christ. It is also part of the Christian's experience to struggle deeply with temptation and sin, to the point where the Christian may not be immediately repentant. The law reminds us that there are consequences to our disobedience.

Finally, WCF 19:7 addresses the important point that the law of God is not contrary to the Gospel. For those who embrace the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ will enable them to love God and His law, and to live more and more in obedience to that law. 

Dr. Jeffrey Jue is Associate Professor of Church History and the Stephen Tong Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Chapter 18.4, part two

iv. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it; by falling into some special sin, which woundeth the conscience, and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation; by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may in due time be revived, and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. 
Most (or maybe all) Christians have their doubts. Suddenly the message of the gospel seems quite implausible. Or painful suffering causes us to question the goodness of God. Or an awareness of our sin leads us to doubt whether God could ever love someone like us. Our faith is shaken--or, more accurately, the assurance of our faith is shaken, at least for a season.

The Westminster Confession is honest enough about the difficulties of life to admit that doubt can play a large role in Christian experience. True believers sometimes walk in such great darkness that they cannot see the light.

Yet our faith will prevail. God has put his seed within us--the seed of faith. Thus, even in our doubts we still have at least some small measure of faith in the gospel, some trust in Christ, some love for the church, and some sense of our duty. In time, this seed will sprout again, and grow, so that our lives may flower with the fruit of the assurance of faith.

Ultimately, what renews our assurance is the Holy Spirit, who is always working within us to call us to Christ. Once again, the Confession showcases the Third Person of the Trinity--this time by showing us the work of God the Holy Spirit in reviving the assurance of our faith. 

Knowing the power of God's Spirit to grant assurance to our faith guards our hearts against absolute despair. When our faith starts to feel shaky, we should not give in to our doubts and fears, but believe that the Holy Spirit has the power to restore the full assurance of our faith. 

Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway, 2012).

Chapter 18.3

iii.This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; 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. 

The opening line of this section refers to an ongoing debate within post-Reformation Christianity. Is assurance of the very essence of faith? In other words, does faith always come with some measure of assurance? Or is it possible at times for a genuine believer to lack any certainty that he or she is saved?

The Confession answers this difficult question with typical balance. Ultimately, faith has at least some assurance of salvation, but this may not come right away. This in itself is reassuring, because it delivers a doubting believer from despair. It is normal for Christians to go through seasons of spiritual discouragement that include serious doubts about their salvation.

What should Christians do when they experience such doubts? When we have our spiritual struggles, it is tempting to neglect our relationship with God. But the wise pastors who wrote the Confession of Faith tell us to do exactly the opposite. God has promised to meet us is in the "ordinary means" of prayer, the sacraments, and the Word of God. So we should continue to read our Bibles, talk with God through prayer, and participate in the worship of the local church--even when we don't particularly feel like doing any of these things. 

This is not simply good advice; it is the believer's duty. The Scripture says, "Be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10). If we do this, then in his own good time and by the work of the Holy Spirit, God will restore us to peace, joy, love, and all the other good fruit that come with the assurance of faith.  
Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway, 2012).

Chapter 18.2

ii. This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption. 
The Confession employs both affirmation and negation to characterize the assurance of faith. Assurance is not a matter of guesswork or probability--a hope that may turn out to be disappointed. On the contrary, the certainty of our salvation is "an infallible assurance."  

Rather obviously, such a high degree of confidence cannot be based on something we find solely in ourselves. We are prone to doubt, and our propensity to sin sometimes makes it hard for us to be totally sure that we are saved. 

Providentially, the assurance of faith is based on God and not on us. Our certainty of salvation is founded securely on divine promises of salvation, as we read them in the gospel.

To be sure, we do find "inward evidence" that we are true recipients of the promises of God. But this evidence is not merely subjective; it is not based on any virtues that we produce in and of ourselves. Rather, it is produced by the Holy Spirit, who is an objective presence in our lives.
This is one of many places where the Confession highlights the work of the Third Person of the Trinity. Although the Holy Spirit is not given a chapter unto himself, his presence is pervasive. Here the sanctified graces that he produces in us--together with his constant testimony that each of us is a true son or daughter of God--convince us that God will save us. 

This section closes by affirming the biblical metaphor (found in Ephesians 1 and elsewhere) that the Holy Spirit is God's down payment on eternity. The same Holy Spirit who lives in us today will transform us tomorrow--at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Spirit's presence in our lives thus gives us strong confidence that one day we will inherit the new heavens and the new earth.

Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway, 2012).

Chapter 18.1

i. Although hypocrites, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions: of being in the favor of God and estate of salvation; which hope of theirs shall perish: yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in a state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God: which hope shall never make them ashamed.
There is such a thing as false assurance of Christian faith. We know this because Jesus warned that not everyone who says to him, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21). In the end, some people who think they are saved will turn out to be lost forever.  

Yet we should not let this sad reality keep us from knowing that there is also such a thing as the true assurance of faith. It is possible (as well as desirable) for believers to know that they are believers--for Christians to be sure of their relationship to Christ, and thus to be certain of their salvation.

The Confession offers two clear indicators of saving faith. One is sincere love for Christ. It is characteristic of true Christians to have genuine affection for Jesus.This love may be expressed through heartfelt worship, active service, or in other ways. But however it is expressed, the believer's love testifies to the believer's faith.

A second mark of saving faith is a good conscience before God. A clear conscience comes from leading a holy life. Such holiness, in turn, is produced by genuine trust in Christ, because good works always come from true faith. Genuine saving faith, makes itself evident in a sincere love for Jesus and a clear conscience before God. 

This is not to say that every believer always has full assurance of God's saving grace, The word "may" (in the phrase "may in this life be certainly assured") holds out the hope of assurance without guaranteeing its constant presence in the Christian life. Some believers--we may infer--are sometimes also doubters.  
Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway, 2012). 

Chapter 17.3

iii. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
When John Bunyan took the readers of his allegory into the House of the Interpreter, he gave them two vivid pictures of perseverance. One was a picture of sovereign grace. A man stood by a fire, pouring water upon it as the devil pours temptations on our faith--but the fire burned hotter and higher. Hidden behind the wall, another person stood pouring oil into the fire, as Christ works secretly by the Spirit to preserve the Christian's faith. 

However, Bunyan's other picture depicted personal combat. Many people stood outside a beautiful palace, wanting to go in but unwilling to face the fierce soldiers who stood in their way. One brave man put on armor and attacked them. They hurt him with many wounds, but he fought his way through them and was welcomed into the palace with the words, "Come in, come in; eternal glory thou shalt win." Grace-empowered perseverance is war.

In the first two sections of the seventeenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we have seen the promise and the grounds of perseverance. The third section of WCF 17 cautions us to maintain the watchfulness of perseverance. Believers must fight a war on three fronts: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Soldiers on the frontline must always be alert, and how much more soldiers with invisible enemies! 

The Confession warns believers against "the neglect of the means of their preservation." God works through means, and failing to use the means will have serious consequences. Disdaining the means of grace over the long term reveals an unconverted heart. Hebrews 3:12 warns, "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." As for the true saints of God, they will repent and persevere, but careless walking may lead them into sad and horrible sins that will cost them dearly before they reach heaven. Therefore, the Scriptures call us to watch and pray (Matt. 26:41; Eph. 6:18).
The Westminster divines list seven weighty consequences that may fall upon believers if they backslide into spiritual lethargy and disobedience.

First, they may experience God's fatherly anger. God will not come against believers in holy wrath and fury, for they have a heavenly Advocate (1 John 2:1). But the Father has not ceased to be holy. His children should fear to displease Him more than they fear anything else (1 Peter 1:15-17). They should fear His frown and rebuke, and seek His smile and reward (Matt. 6:1). 

Second, they may grieve the Holy Spirit. Everywhere a believer goes, he carries in his heart a holy Guest. The Lord within our souls is gracious and loving, but He hates the least sin. Let the Christian not grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30), but entertain Him as a good host entertains a welcome and beloved friend. 

Third, they may lose the blessings of the Spirit to some degree. The Spirit produces all their love, joy, peace, patience, and other good fruit (Gal. 5:22-24). Should they grieve this Spirit and risk Him withdrawing some of His gracious influences? 

Fourth, they may harden their hearts. Even believers need regular exhortation or the deceitfulness of sin begins to harden them (Heb. 3:13). They do not benefit as much from the Word because they become foolish and slow to believe all that God has promised (Mark 6:52; Luke 24:25). They may even become instruments of Satan discouraging God's servants and opposing the kingdom of God in some respects (Matt. 16:22-23).

Fifth, they may injure their consciences. Unrepentant sin makes a healthy conscience cry out in protest. Until David confessed his sins, his soul was "roaring all the day long" and God's hand was heavy upon him (Ps. 32:3-5). A good conscience before God and men is a great blessing (Acts 23:1; 24:16).

Sixth, they may do spiritual harm to other people. David's double sin of adultery and murder gave the enemies of God a reason to blaspheme His holy name (2 Sam. 12:14). A faithful life makes the gospel look beautiful, but impurity and rebellion among God's people provokes the world to mock at the Bible (Titus 2:5, 10). 

Seventh, they may suffer the judgments of God upon their earthly life. God forgave David, but He disciplined him by taking away one of his sons and allowing his family to be torn apart with strife (2 Sam. 12:11-14). The Lord sometimes visits sinning Christians with sickness and even death to discipline them (1 Cor. 11:30-34). 
All seven of these considerations call believers to watch against sin and pray for daily grace so that they may persevere in faithfulness. They give us sober reminders that we dare not wave the banner of "once saved, always saved" over a life of rebellion against God. Rather, they call us to a life of faith, repentance, and new obedience, for that is the essence of perseverance.

The perseverance of the saints is a promise to runners in the race of holiness. It is not meant to cradle sleepy sinners in spiritual La-Z-Boy recliners. Therefore, get up out of your sin, fix your eyes upon Jesus, and begin again to run the race set before you with the promise of glory in your hand. 

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 17.2

ii. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
The Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not feed the complacency of the proud and hypocritical.It fosters the hope of the humble and dependent. John Newton wrote of the believer, "He believes and feels his own weakness and unworthiness, and lives upon the grace and pardoning love of his Lord. This gives him a habitual tenderness and gentleness of spirit." David captures true Christian experience when he sings:
      Afflictions on the good must fall, but God will bring them safe through all;
      From harmful stroke He will defend, and sure and full deliv'rance send.
      The Lord redemption will provide for all who in His grace confide;
      From condemnation they are clear who trust in Him with holy fear.(1)
The perseverance of saints is rooted and grounded in God's grace and faithfulness.

Whereas the first section of WCF 17 tells us the promise of perseverance, the second section tells us its ground or basis. This is solid ground, giving believers "certainty and infallibility" in their hope. The Lord does not desire for His children to live in constant doubt about their future, but in assurance of eternal life with Him in glory (1 John 2:28-3:3; 5:13).

The Confession begins with what perseverance of the saints does not depend on, namely, "their own free will." Do not misunderstand this; the Confession does not deny that perseverance involves many acts of our will. Christians persevere not as robots but as willing believers, and perseverance is a duty as well as a grace (Heb. 12:1). Believers daily choose between faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, Spirit and flesh, life and death (Deut. 30:19; Gal. 6:8). Having been justified, they must "work out" the implications of salvation with an eye on the coming day of the Lord (Phil. 2:11-12). However, their willing and working comes from God working in them according to His will (Phil. 2:13). Their faithfulness is a gift from God's faithfulness (1 Thess. 5:23-24). Therefore, believers must persevere, but their perseverance does not depend on them but on the grace of the Lord.

The Confession now proceeds to tell us the four-fold basis of Christian perseverance, reflecting the work of the three persons of the Trinity who have promised complete salvation in the covenant of grace. First, the perseverance of the saints cannot fail because of the unchanging love of God the Father for those whom He has chosen. Out of the rich generosity of His fatherly heart, He selected people to make them holy and blameless as His adopted children (Eph. 1:3-5). He knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19). He has loved them with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3). His plans do not change and His purposes cannot fail (Ps. 33:11). He will discipline His children (Heb. 12:4-11), but He will not condemn them (Rom. 8:1), for even His most severe chastening is intended to save them from being condemned with the world (1 Cor. 11:32).

Second, the perseverance of the saints cannot fail because of the perfect sacrifice and continual intercession of God the Son. Our great High Priest by a single sacrifice "hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" by His blood (Heb. 10:14). His propitiation has satisfied God's justice (Rom. 3:24-26), and justice cannot demand double payment for sin. Risen from the dead, Christ "ever liveth to make intercession" so that His sacrifice will be applied and His people will be saved "to the uttermost" (Heb. 7:25). Christ prays that God would keep His people from the devil's power so that their faith will not fail (Luke 22:32; John 17:15). Who then can condemn the elect for any charge brought against them? Christ died for them, Christ rose again for them, and Christ intercedes for them. Nothing in the present or future can separate them from His love (Rom. 8:34, 38-39).

Third, the perseverance of the saints cannot fail because of the almighty and ever active presence of God the Holy Spirit in the believer's soul. The Spirit dwells in them to sanctify them as God's holy temple (1 Cor. 6:19). The Spirit is not an inert substance they must stir up, but the sovereign Lord who rouses them from sleep and leads them to glory (2 Cor. 3:17-18). He plants, germinates, and fructifies a seed of sovereign grace in them such that they can never be the same again (1 John 3:9). The Spirit will not give up until His work is done. Paul was "confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). God has "sealed" believers and given the Spirit as the down payment until their redemption is fully applied (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Cor. 1:22). If God were to fail to bring believers to their inheritance, He would violate His word of promise and have to forfeit His down payment--His Spirit!

Fourth, the perseverance of the saints cannot fail because of the solemn oath of the triune God in the covenant of grace. Before time began, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit promised to give grace and eternal life to the elect (Titus 1:1-2; 2 Tim. 1:9). The Father gave this people to His Son in a covenant, and now the Father holds them in His hands and nothing can snatch them away from His covenant faithfulness (John 10:29). The Lord swore a solemn oath so that all who take refuge in Jesus Christ can have a solid hope that His purpose to save them can never change (Heb. 6:16-20). He has promised that His covenant of peace will not be withdrawn from them (Isa. 54:9-10). He promised to so deeply plant His fear in them that they will never leave Him (Jer. 32:40). For unlike the covenant that Israel broke, God has promised to write His law upon the hearts of His people so that they will desire to do His will (Jer. 31:31-34; Ps. 40:8). They will persevere, and not fall away. 

Believers have solid grounds for confidence that they will make it to glory. They have every right to rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2). May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing His promises, so that by the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit you will abound in hope!

Does this doctrine give Christians an excuse for lazy and careless spiritual living? God forbid. Every one of the reasons for perseverance is a declaration of God's love for us. Though the wicked may abuse God's promises to their own destruction, God's people respond to love with love. Furthermore, as we will see in the last section of this chapter in the confession, the fear of the Lord and desire to please their Father offer strong motives to avoid sin.

Dr. Joel Beeke is president and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

1.  The Psalter, No. 91, Stanzas 3 and 5 (Psalm 34;19, 20, 22).

Chapter 17.1

i. They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally, nor finally, fall away from the state of grace: but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
Someone has said that a half-truth is often a great lie. Someone else quipped that you should beware of a half-truth, because you may have gotten ahold of the wrong half. Such is the case with the statement, "Once saved, always saved." 

Often people say "once saved, always saved" in the context of making a decision for Christ. They mean that if you ask Jesus into your heart or pray to accept Christ as your personal Savior, then no matter what you do, you are going to heaven. Famously, one advocate of this view has said publicly that all one needs is thirty seconds of saving faith! Many people concerned for the health and holiness of the church object to such an idea. They are right to do so because it is not biblical truth. It is also not the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. 

Reformed Christianity teaches that God preserves His people so that they continue to follow Christ in faith and obedience all the way to glory. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the promise, grounds, and necessary watchfulness of perseverance in its seventeenth chapter. The first paragraph of WCF 17 states the promise of perseverance. Those in "the state of grace . . . shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved." To persevere is to persistently and patiently pursue Christ through pain and persecution, in spite of assaults, temptation, lapses into sin, and struggles with unbelief.

This promise is precious because you must persevere in order to be saved (Heb. 3:6, 14). Christ warned His disciples that they will face persecution. "He that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matt. 10:22; cf. 24:13). He said, "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (John 15:4). To abide is to continue in a vital relationship to Christ as your source of life. The apostle Paul wrote that you are reconciled to God and will be presented as blameless in His sight, "if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel" (Col. 1:23). Perseverance is not optional to salvation. Rather, it is one of the surest marks of true faith.

God's love therefore secures the perseverance of His people so they will enter the joys of His glory. As a term of the new covenant in Christ, He promises: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me" (Jer. 32:40). Everyone born again by God's grace overcomes the world by faith (1 John 5:3-4). Even as his faith is tested by painful trials, God keeps him safe by using His power to preserve and purify his faith (1 Peter 1:5-7).

God's grace creates a people who willingly persevere in faith. He does not drag people kicking and screaming into the kingdom or save anyone against his will: "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). Rather, He draws them to come to Christ in faith, and Christ will never cast them out or lose even one of them, but will raise every one of them up to glory on the last day (John 6:37-40). Even when many who have professed to be Christ's disciples turn back from Him, and some treacherously betray Him, true believers will not leave Him because they know only He can give them eternal life (John 6:66-71). They have a God-given appetite that only Christ can satisfy, and they will cling to Him forever.

Someone might object that both the Bible and experience show that some Christians do fall away from Christ. Yes, it is a sad fact that they do. The Confession wisely speaks of the perseverance of only those "whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit." This is not everyone who comes to church or responds positively to the gospel. Christ Himself teaches that some "receive the word with joy" and "for a while believe," but trouble or temptation cause them to fall away (Luke 8:13). However, they were not true believers, for in the same Scripture the Lord said that they "have no root"--the gospel never pierced their stony heart to create saving faith. They experienced God's truth and Holy Spirit as soil that receives the rain but produces thorns and not good fruit, and so they ultimately fall away (Heb. 6:4-8). Apostasy among professing Christians should grieve us but not shock us. The promise of perseverance belongs to those whom God has called, justified, and sanctified, in the outworking of His sovereign election in love (Rom. 8:29-30).

Another person might object that true believers still fall into sin. Again, we must agree. However, the Confession says that God's children cannot "totally, nor finally" fall from grace. Yet they may experience partial and temporary falls. David fell into adultery and murder until the Lord broke his heart with repentance (Ps. 51). Peter denied his Lord when Satan was sifting  him as wheat. How frail we are! But we also remember Christ's words to Peter, "But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:32). Christ guaranteed that Peter's faith would not totally or finally fail, but would turn back in repentance (which is what "converted" means in this context). The intercession of our Mediator guarantees that not one of His people will be finally lost. We will discuss the rock-solid grounds for the perseverance of the saints in more detail when we consider the second section of this seventeenth chapter.

Dr. Joel Beeke is pres­i­dent and Pro­fes­sor of Sys­tem­atic The­ol­ogy and Homilet­ics at Puri­tan Reformed The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and pas­tor of the Her­itage Nether­lands Reformed Con­gre­ga­tion in Grand Rapids, Michi­gan.

Chapter 16.3

iii. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.  And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.

One of today's pressing questions is whether or not Christians are able to do good works.  In their zeal to emphasize the free grace of salvation, some writers and preachers teach such a potent doctrine of man's fallen nature that they urge believers not even to try to do good. "We are all of sin," they emphasize, "so Christ alone can do good works." This approach fails to realize the radical change effected in a Christian's regeneration. Moreover, it forgets that God's grace not only justifies Christians but also empowers us for good works. When Paul commands us to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," he is not downplaying God's grace, since he adds, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13).

The Westminster divines' approach this same issue by pointing out that believers' "ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ." As we will see in the following paragraphs, this is one of the reasons why our good works bring us no merit before God, since it is God's Spirit who has wrought the good works in and through us. Believers are able to do good works, the Confession says, because they are "enabled" to do so. This enabling takes two forms: first, in our regeneration, which grants us new and spiritual able natures; and, second, through the present "actual influence" of the Spirit who works in us for good works. 

In emphasizing the Spirit's sovereign role in our good works, there is the danger that Christians would justify a complacency in their Christian duties. The divines combat this by adding that Christians "are not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit." Knowing that we can only do good as the Spirit enables us, we are not to blame him for our failures! Christians may not argue, "The Spirit must not have been with me!" We are not to justify spiritual sloth or moral turpitude by an evident absence of the Spirit from giving us the help we need. Rather, we are to live with an awareness of the Spirit's willingness and ability to empower us to good works. Our attitude should be, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). It is true that I could not do good without the Spirit, but how blessed I am in that the Spirit is eager to work in and through my faith for a new life of good works! From this spiritual posture, the divines urge that believers "ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them."

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 16.2

ii. These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

According to the Bible, good works are necessary to salvation. This may come as a shock in a Reformed world so deeply devoted to justification by faith apart from works. Yet the Bible could not be clearer about the necessity of good works. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruits.  "Every tree that does not bear good fruit," he said, "is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits" (Mt. 7:19-20). He amplified this teaching by adding that the only kind of person who will enter heaven is "the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 7:21). Paul agreed with this teaching, saying that believers "are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). These verses, to which many could be added, show that good works are necessary to salvation.

In saying this, however, we must point out exactly what we mean. Some will think this means that good works are necessary as a condition of salvation, which is certainly false. Thank God that we are saved on the condition of faith in Christ and his works. Instead, good works are necessary as a consequence of salvation: we are saved from sin and to good works. The Westminster divines pointed this out by stated that good works "are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith." This was James' emphasis when he contrasted a dead faith without works, which cannot save, and a living faith which both saves and bears good fruit. He wrote: "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (Ja. 2:18).

Good works are of enormous value to the Christians, not to mention their value to others and to God. It is by godly actions that we say "thank you" to God for his grace in Christ. The Confession lists other important benefits: good works bless other people, adorn our profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of those who oppose Christ, and generally bring glory to God.   Jesus exhorted us: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 5:16). 

We live in a day when an emphasis on biblical obedience or the necessity of good works is derided by many as legalism. One reason for this negative stance toward good works is a desire to promote assurance of salvation among struggling believers. "If we tell them they have to obey the Bible this will threaten their assurance," it is argued. The Confession, together with Scripture, takes the opposite approach. One of the principle benefits of good works is precisely the assurance of salvation we long for believers to experience. By good works, Christians "strengthen their assurance," the divines state. Peter took this very approach in his second epistle, urging the believers to "supplement" their faith with "virtue,... knowledge,... self-control,... steadfastness,... godliness,... brotherly affection,... [and] love" (2 Pet. 1:5-7). Through these good works we "make [our] calling and election sure," and by practicing these qualities we "will never fall" (2 Pet. 1:10).

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 16.1

i. Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.

With their typical pastoral wisdom, the Westminster divines realized that legalism works in both negative and positive directions. The problem is not only with going beyond Scripture to forbid, but also to go beyond Scripture to command and to bless. With this in mind, the first thing to know about good works is that they consist only of what "God has commanded in His holy Word," and not  things "devised by men" without biblical warrant. The proof texts supplied for this teaching show how the divines were thinking. Micah 6:8 says that "God has shown you, O man, what is good." Romans 12:2 says that we learn "what is good" by being "transformed by the renewal of your mind." Here is yet another instance in the Confession where the Reformed faith tells us not to trust what seems right in our own wisdom, but to walk carefully by the teaching of God's Word. How easy it is for us to err in "blind zeal" or with the "pretence of good intention," when by following carefully the Bible's teaching we will be led in true good works.

Many Christians today may think that erroneously defining good works is at best a small issue.  Yet how many believers have had duties laid upon their consciences contrary to biblical teaching or wisdom? This is especially true in American evangelicalism, where well-meant initiatives like teenage purity rings or the "Prayer of Jabez" become cottage industries fueled by false promises and unbalanced zeal. The Confession therefore especially speaks to pastors and other spiritual leaders, warning us to constrain our teaching and our sermon applications to the commands and instructions of God's Word. 

We are especially warned not to take up works that are good for others but are forbidden to us, either by the commands or the wisdom of Scripture. The divines cite the example of King Saul, in his impetuous but self-justified disobedience to the Lord. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul offered a sacrifice to the Lord - certainly this is a good work, he argued - when this sacrifice was permitted only to priests. The point is that a good work often requires that it be done by the person, or kind of person, God has ordained. Many argue today that preaching God's Word is such a good work that it matters little who does it. The Bible says, however, that God's Word should only be preached in the church by men, so that a woman who preaches is violating God's Word (1 Tim. 2:12). To give another example, the Bible says that parents are to discipline their children: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). Notice, however, that the corporal punishment of children is given to loving parents, not to others in authority. The Bible commands both the action and the context for it. 

How much wisdom the divines provide to us from the Bible when it comes to defining good works! The point is that God alone is good: God alone can define goodness, including the actions, the attitude, the relationship, and the context in which certain things are good versus bad. Once when Jesus was being praised, he replied, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone" (Mk. 10:8).  Being God, Jesus is good. His point was to urge us to renounce ourselves as judges of good, relying only on the Word of the only true and good God.

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 15.5,6, part two

v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Public and private repentance

Having explained the difference between general and particular repentance, the Confession goes on to remind us of the Bible's teaching about private and public repentance. We must always confess our sin to God, privately (at least) and perhaps sometimes publicly. We see confession of sin again and again in Psalm 51. David cannot help but to cry out to God, for it is against God first that he has sinned. It is his cry to his Lord that he would be cleansed and that the sins that haunted him would be hidden away (Ps. 51:4-5, 7, 9, 14). We see the same in Psalm 32, where the king acknowledges his sin to God, covering nothing. He confesses his 'transgressions to the LORD' and urges 'everyone who is godly' to pray to God while he may be found (Ps. 32:5-6).

The good news is that when we forsake our sin, we will find mercy. It is a sound proverb that 'he who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy' (Prov. 28:13). As the Apostle John once wrote, and as Christians have often recalled, 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9).

A private confession to God is a necessity. In his presence believers will always find mercy. But there are some cases, particularly when we have scandalized or hurt a brother or sister, when we ought to be willing to confess the sin to other people. A truly repentant person will not shrink from a true repentance before the one that has been wounded. A husband must be ready to confess his sin to his wife, a mother to her daughter. There is no need to publish our sins, especially some sins, for all to hear. But there is good reason to repent of our particular sins before those whom we have personally wounded. It is James who writes, 'confess your sins to each other and pray for each other' (James 5:16). The principle of meeting with people to discuss our sin is raised in the gospel of Luke as well (Lk. 17:3-4). So this is instruction we cannot afford to ignore. 

Nonetheless, what if we have sinned publicly? During dinner with friends witnessing our rude comments? In front of the family when we lose self control? What if our behaviour has led the name of Christ to be tarnished in the whole community, or in his church. In such a case we are in Achan's situation. Everyone already knows what we've done, so we had better confess the act ourselves, as sin - no matter what the consequences. In Achan's case, the confession did not help him to escape his penalty. But he was assured that in his public death-row confession, he was giving glory to God (Josh. 17:9). Maybe it is that sort of public confession we see in one of David's Psalms, where the very title of his Psalm publicly announces that he had committed adultery with his neighbour's wife (Ps. 51:1).

However, we cannot end here. Just as we were reminded that God will forgive those who repent of their sins to him, we are told that we need to forgive those who repent of their sins to us - whether privately or publicly. When a brother or sister or neighbour repents of their sin, we must be reconciled. More than that, we must receive them in love. We need to be ready to forgive and comfort, as Paul urged the Corinthians to do, lest anyone be 'overwhelmed by excessive sorrow'. We need to reaffirm our love to those who repent (2 Cor. 2:7-8). And in doing so, we will be showing the same mercy to others that our Father in heaven has shown to us in Christ.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 15.5, 6, part one

v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

General and particular repentance

So far we have reflected on what repentance is and why it is important. These final paragraphs discuss the details of how repentance ought to look. Indeed, the need for details is the first thing mentioned in section five: we ought not to be content with a general confession of sin. 

Almost everyone will acknowledge that they are not perfect, and all Christians will confess that they are sinners. But sweeping admissions of sin should never content us. Many readers will have met people who have made general confessions of sin a science, or one of the fine arts. Listen to them pray and they can confess sin in general eloquently, seemingly without end.

The problem is not with their general repentance. The problem is that their repentance is always general. They will never be heard confessing a particular sin. They will not admit that they are wrong, either to their family, their friends, their co-workers, or their elders; nor are they much more particular on their knees. That is why the Confession goes on to remind us that 'it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly'. We should consider this instruction in our own prayers, in the prayers of our children, and in the prayers of our leaders, such as parents and elders and deacons. Those who piously content themselves with general confessions of their sinfulness often prove to be the most stubborn sinners. 

The first step to repenting of particular sins is to realize that we commit individual sins. David prayed that the Lord would keep him from 'willful sins'; assumed in this prayer request is a confession that as a sinner, David could consciously commit acts of sin (Ps 19:13). 

The second aspect of particular repentance is actually naming sin. Even while stating that ignorance and unbelief contributed to his sin, the Apostle Paul was willing to confess that he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man. A particular confession did not require him to repeat his blasphemies, to recall the details of his persecutions or to retell violent stories. No one needed to hear all of that. But it would not have been enough if Paul had piously asserted that he was the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15). 

Finally, particular repentance is evidenced in turning away from particular sin. That is one of the evils of contenting oneself with a general repentance - no particular sin is ever identified, so no particular sin is left behind, and no Christian grace is embraced. How different this is from the case of Zacchaeus the tax collector. He did not simply announce that he was a sinner. He said, 'I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount' (Lk. 19:8). There was nothing vague about that!

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 15.3, 4, part two

iii. Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

iv. 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.

The necessity of repentance

Though repentance is not the cause of God's pardon, we must also be clear that there is no pardon without repentance. Ponder the parallel, even if it is not a perfect one: God requires faith in Christ, but faith does not save us. In a similar way, God requires repentance, but repentance does not save us. However that does not mean that either faith or repentance remain unimportant to God. On the contrary, 'it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it'. 
Jesus said this on more than one occasion, and once he said it twice in a row: 'unless you repent', he told a crowd, 'you too will all perish' (Luke 13:3-5). This is as true for people on the streets of Jerusalem as it is for the philosophers on the Acropolis: as Paul explained, God 'commands all people everywhere to repent' (Acts 17:31; c.f., 30-31).

Comfort for sinners

Everyone is commanded to repent because 'all have sinned' (Rom. 5:12). Everyone is commanded to repent, even the people who commit small sins, because 'there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation'. Paul did not suggest that the wages of really major sin is death. He said that 'the wages of sin is death', without any qualification (Rom. 6:23). Who will leave the bar of heaven breathing a sigh of relief that God did not care about the little sins? Who can sincerely say that the Word of God is not including us and our sins in these sweeping declarations about humanity and human sin? 

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was he who said 'that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless [or idle] word they have spoken' (Mt. 12:36). When we recall these words, some of us will find great comfort in this divine truth expressed in human words: 'there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent'. Is that not near the very heart of God's message in Isaiah? 'Let the wicked forsake his way', he says, 'and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon' (Isa. 55:7). Or as Paul put it to the church in Rome, 'there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (Rom. 8:1). 

That is good news for sinners. Perhaps that is why this comfort is placed up front in the opening paragraphs of Isaiah's long prophecy: 'take your evil deeds out of my sight!' the Lord commands, 'Stop doing wrong'. And what does the Lord promise to those who heed this call? He promises that 'though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool' (Isa. 1:16, 18). Have you wounded others with your careless words? Are you stained with sin that you cannot wash away? Then look to the grace of God in Christ, and repent of your sins. If you do, you will surely find a gracious redemption that is full and free.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 15.3, 4, part one

iii. Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

iv. 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. 

Repentance as 'self-satisfaction' or the 'cause' of pardon?

The first two paragraphs of chapter fifteen tell us what repentance is. It is a work of God's grace that sees us climbing out of the swamp of our sin and despair and walking instead down the straight and narrow path that leads to God and eternal life. But how essential is our repentance to our salvation? These central two paragraphs set out to answer this question.

In the first place, we should not exaggerate the importance of our repentance in salvation. God forgives us when we turn from our sin to him in Christ, but he does not forgive us because he considers our repentance a deed that deserves an award. Nor does he forgive us because he thinks that in repenting of our sin we are atoning for our own wrongs. Our repentance does not earn God's pardon; that was the late medieval view of penance in its crassest form. Penance came to be understood as the sinner's self-satisfaction - the sinner paying the price for his own sin by pious deeds before God. This mind-set is something that we slip into effortlessly, on our own, without lessons in medieval church history.

Here the basic point is that we ought not to think that our change in attitude and action impresses the Lord - a message which the Lord passed on more than once through his prophet Ezekiel. The covenant Lord declared through the prophet that he was going to show mercy to his wayward people. He was going to give them a new heart and cause them to walk in his statutes, and keep his laws. These people were going to be transformed, but they needed to remember that God was not doing it for their sakes; that is, not for anything that they had done or were about to do. He was helping them in spite of them, and only because he is merciful. Their only appropriate stance was shame for sinful ways and gratefulness for the Lord's mercy. Pride for their recent transformations was not to even register on their spiritual radar (Ezek. 36:31-32; Ezek. 16:61-63). 

God's free grace in Christ

We do not rely on repentance as the grounds of our pardon. No, we rely on 'God's free grace in Christ'. It is free grace that God emphasized through the life and teaching of the prophet Hosea. 'I will heal their waywardness', God promised, speaking of those who had come to rely on human helpers and false religion. I will 'love them freely', he went on to say, 'for my anger has turned away from them' (Hosea 14:4; c.f., 14:2-4). 
God justifies penitent people 'freely by his grace' and he does so in Christ, or, as Paul says in Romans 3, 'through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus' (Rom. 3:24). We find this teaching in more than one place in Paul's writing. It is not our new walk of life that saves us; instead, our redemption is through Jesus' blood only. Stated differently, 'the forgiveness of sins' is not in accordance with the quality of our repentance, but 'in accordance with the riches of God's grace' (Eph. 1:7).

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 15.1, 2

i. Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.

ii. By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.

Repentance that leads to life

The previous chapter in the Confession stressed the importance of faith in Christ for all of life and for the life that is to come. But when the Scriptures speak of life, they also speak of the repentance that leads to life, or 'repentance unto life' (Acts 11:18).

Repentance is a gospel grace or an evangelical grace because it is needed for salvation. Repentance is also a gospel grace because it teaches us to reflect on Jesus Christ. That seems to be the point the authors of the Confession may be making when they point readers to an ancient prophecy. Every Christian knows that true repentance involves a serious consideration of his own sin. But the prophet Zechariah explained that when the Holy Spirit would be poured out in a special measure, God's people would especially consider the cost of their sin as it was accounted on the cross of the Saviour. We mourn what sin required of the Son of God - indeed, Zechariah says, we 'mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son' (Zech. 12:10). As we look on Christ, the one who was pierced for our transgressions, we begin to see the full measure of our sin. 

Preaching repentance

Repentance is important for our salvation, and this fact 'is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as' the need for 'faith in Christ'. We see the importance of preaching repentance in the Bible. At the beginning of his ministry John the Baptist preached that the time had come for sinners to 'repent and believe the gospel' (Mark 1:15). At the end of his earthly ministry, our Lord himself sounded a similar note. He told his disciples that not only 'the forgiveness of sins' but also 'repentance' would 'be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem' (Luke 24:47). The Apostle Paul, too, testified 'both to the Jews and also to the Greeks' that they had need for 'repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21).

Turning from sin and turning to God

So repentance considers our sin; and it considers the cost of our sin to the Saviour. We could add to this that repentance and faith need to walk together. But we can also say more. As paragraph two reminds us, people being led to repentance should really see and sense the danger of their sin. The Lord God himself urges his people to see their peril through the prophet Ezekiel. 'Repent!' he says, 'Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die' (Ezek. 18:30-31)? 

Here is a call that Christians wish every sinner would hear and heed. But we should not only see the danger, but also the filthiness and repulsiveness of our sins. That too was preached by Ezekiel. He spoke of remembering 'evil ways and wicked deeds'; he went on to say that there is place for us to 'loathe' ourselves for our 'sins and detestable practices' (Ezek. 36:31). These are strong words, but sin is a strong poison. Indeed, Isaiah compares the disposal of our cherished idols with the disposal of a menstrual cloth (Isa. 30:22). We must never forget that sin is a dirty affair because it is absolutely 'contrary to the holy nature' of God.
Sin is also a personal affair, for sin is set against God himself, the one to whom we ought to have been faithful. Is that not why King David was so stricken with grief when he was confronted by Nathan the prophet? 'Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight', he cried to the Lord. It was to God that he spoke when he confessed that his Maker was 'proved right' when he spoke, and 'justified' when he judged (Psa. 51:4; c.f., Jer. 31:18-19). All sin is to be judged, for it breaks the 'righteous law of God'. It is because we consider God's precepts to be right, that we come to 'hate every wrong path' (Psa. 119:128).
Sinners can sink to great depths of sorrow over sin, but not all remorse is real repentance. There must be what Paul calls a 'godly sorrow' that produces a God-ward change (2 Cor. 7:11). True repentance not only comes to hate sin, but also to see the Saviour. This is really very important for us to understand. As we consider what God thinks of sin, we must also consider his mercy to sinners. After all, he is the one who spoke through the prophet Joel, urging his people to 'Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity' (Joel 2:12-13). We can treasure the powerful understatement of Amos, who told his hearer to repent, for 'perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy' (Amos 5:15). And as we consider God's mercy, we need to so grieve for and hate our sins, as to turn from them all unto God.
Is this not the most basic need that each one of us has? We were made to be with God, to fellowship with him. We want to be in a situation where we are no longer 'put to shame' when we consider our Creator's commands. We want to consider our ways, and turn our steps to walk according to God's statutes. Indeed, we want simply to follow God's righteous laws (Psa. 119:6, 59, 106). That is our purpose, our endeavour; to be upright in God's sight (Luke 1:6), and to turn to the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, in all the ways of His commandments (2 Kings 23:25).
Let us pray that this would be the main purpose of our repentance. Let us not only cease our foolish wanderings, but by God's grace follow in the footsteps of our Saviour, until one day we find him in his glory, and sin will be no more.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 14.3

iii. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and in many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
What does faith look like in the Christian life? What is its character? Section three tells us that saving faith "is different in degrees, weak or strong." We can see these contrasts both between Christians, and in any individual Christian. Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were both courageous in faith during the English Reformation, yet at the point of martyrdom, at the stake to be burned, Ridley was struggling, weak in faith, very much in need of the  encouragement of Latimer, his brother in Christ: "Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out." The apostle Peter was so weak in faith as to flat out deny Christ to the servant girl; weeks later, by grace, he was strong in faith, fearlessly "street preaching" in the public square in Jerusalem, in the heart of the city that had crucified Jesus.

Our confession pastorally summarizes Scripture's teaching about the life of faith. Faith can range from weak to strong in individual Christians. It may, in many different ways, be attacked and weakened. It is weakened if we are negligent in the means of grace; it is weakened when we fall into sin; it is weakened by temptations; it may be weakened by God's "withdrawing the light of His countenance." Our confession carefully presents the biblically revealed realities of the life of faith: struggles in faith may often be realities, but are not necessarily the case for every believer.

What is always the case, however, is that saving faith "gets the victory." Why is this always the true for each believer? Because Christ is the captain of our salvation. (Heb. 2:10) It is the Triune God who is at work in us "to will and to do his good pleasure." (Phil. 2:13) Saving faith is a gracious gift of God, worked by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, uniting us to Christ our Savior. "He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it." (Phil. 1:6) Not only does saving faith always get the victory in the end, but our confession notes that in many cases faith "grows up... to the attainment of full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith." Ursinus states:
The man who truly believes... believes that every thing which the Scriptures contain is true and from God. He... believes and embraces these things...  applies particularly, to himself, the promise of grace, or the free remission of sins, righteousness and eternal life, by and for the sake of Christ... having this confidence, he trusts and rejoices in the present grace of God, and from this he thus concludes in reference to future good: since God now loves me, and grants unto me such great blessings, he will also preserve me unto eternal life; because he is unchangeable, and his gifts are without repentance. Joy arises in the heart, in view of such benefits, which joy is accompanied with a peace of conscience that passes all understanding.(1)
By God's grace, growth in faith brings with it the blessing of this confident trust and sweet assurance. (2 Thess. 1:3-10)


1. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 111.

Chapter 14.2

ii. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatening, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
What does faith do? Or to put it another way, what does the Christian do by faith? By faith, the Christian believes and acts.

Our confession is that "by faith a Christian believes to be true whatever is revealed in the Word." This believing is because of the "authority of God himself speaking therein." God's Word is the Word of divine authority--and the grace of faith both realizes this and believes all that God reveals by his Word.

However, saving faith does not stop at believing. It also acts in response to whatever is revealed in the Word. The Confession notes that genuine faith responds differently in response to, or according to, what each passage of God's Word contains. Where God gives commands, faith yields obedience. Where God's Word threatens, faith trembles. Where God's Word holds out promises for our present life, faith receives them. Where God's Word gives promises for the life to come, faith embraces them.

Robert Shaw states that where "the general object of divine faith is the whole Word of God... the special and personal object of faith is the Lord Jesus Christ"--the Word made flesh.(1) This is what our confession turns to in the last part of this section. The "principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace." Shaw states: "saving faith is a believing on the person of Christ, or an appropriating [taking hold of] Christ himself, with all the benefits and blessings included in him." (2)

Saving faith is more than intellectual assent to truth; "the gospel is not a mere statement of historical facts, or of abstract doctrines respecting the Savior." (3) As such, saving faith accepts, receives and "rests on" Christ as he freely offers himself to us in the gospel.  Saving faith receives and rests on Christ alone for salvation because he alone can save and he is fully sufficient, freely delighting to save. He is fully sufficient for your justification. He is fully sufficient to deliver you from the pollution and power of sin, fully sufficient for your sanctification, fully sufficient for your eternal life. By establishing the covenant of grace, he has secured these blessings; by declaration of the covenant of grace, he welcomes everyone to come and take hold of these rich promises. Saving faith believes him and acts on his Word. "Because of the steadfast love of the Lord, we are not cut off; his mercies do not fail; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I hope in him!'" (Lamentations 3:22-24)

1. Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), 202.

2. Shaw, 203.

3. Shaw, 203.

Chapter 14.1

i. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

God's grace is profound, beautiful, and marvelously given. In chapter fourteen, the Confession turns to summarize the reality of what saving faith is (14.1), what saving faith does (14.2), and what saving faith looks like in the Christian life (14.3). Our confession opens by declaring to us that faith is a gift of grace: our faith has been obtained "by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ."(1) Thomas Boston describes our receiving the grace of faith this way: "We are born spiritually blind, and cannot be restored without a miracle of grace... There is, in the unrenewed will, an utter inability for what is truly good and acceptable in God's sight." (2) Even elect souls attempt to resist "when the Spirit of the Lord is at work, to bring them from the power of Satan unto God." (3) The reality that man is "unable to recover himself" testifies that saving faith is the direct fruit of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. "Saving faith is the faith of God's elect; the special gift of God to them." (4)

Saving faith, this special gift of God's grace, worked by the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of the elect, enables us to believe the gospel to the saving of our souls. Saving faith is the instrument for our justification by God. It is an integral aspect of union with Christ--a union initiated and sustained by the Spirit's work on Christ's behalf. Boston states that by his Spirit Christ "apprehends, takes, and keeps hold of us" and the subsequent faith on the believer's part is that by which "the believer apprehends, takes, and keeps hold of Christ." (5) Saving faith is active: it "actually believes and receives Christ, putting forth the hand of the soul to embrace him," or as James Fisher put it, "it is the hand that receives Christ and his righteousness as the all of our salvation." (6) 

What means does God, by His Spirit, use to give this gracious gift of faith? Scripture teaches us that it is normally worked through the ministry of the Word--especially through preaching, as we see testified in Acts 8:34-38, 20:32 and Romans 10:14-17. By the public ministry of the Word, preached and read, along with the sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and prayer our faith "is increased and strengthened." Do you desire a stronger faith and  closer communion with God? Public worship is vital, as is private devotion. Delight in hearing preaching, reading the Word, receiving the sacraments, and prayer--the "means of grace" given by God for your good. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing!" (Eph. 1:3)

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

1. 2 Peter 1:1, ESV.

2. Thomas Boston, The Fourfold State of Man (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 44, 56.

3. Boston, 60.

4. Boston, 130-131.

5. Boston, "Of the Application of Redemption" in The Complete Works of the Late Reverend Thomas Boston, ed. Samuel M'Millan (London: William Tegg and Co., 1853), 546-547.

6. James Fisher, Ralph Erskine and Ebenezer Erskine, The Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism Explained (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 2:148.

Chapter 13.3

iii. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. 

The Confession has more to say about our struggle for sanctification, the war within our soul.  By telling us that we were in for the fight of our lives, the previous section warned against triumphalism. We will never be perfectly holy in the present life; the Spirit will have to battle against sin for every square inch of our souls.

In this section we are warned against defeatism. We struggle so hard with particular sins that it is tempting to give up. When we will ever be holy?

With their typical pastoral wisdom, the Westminster Divines assure us that these feelings are normal. Sometimes we seem to be losing, not winning, the fight against sin. There are seasons when "the remaining corruption may much prevail." As a result, we may not feel as if we are making very much progress in sanctification.   

But these setbacks are only temporary. Even if we lose some skirmishes, we are actually winning the war. Because of the Spirit's work within us, what the Confession calls "the regenerate part" of us eventually will overcome sin. The word "overcome" echoes the early chapters of Revelation, where we are called to victory in our lifelong struggle against the world's evil.  

Ultimate victory is promised by God, and therefore guaranteed. This is not because of anything in us, of course, but only "through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ." Sanctification is a work of God's Spirit, who never fails to win the fight. 

Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 13.2

ii. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. 

The first section of Chapter 13 makes strong claims about the efficacy of the Spirit's sanctifying work. Believers "are sanctified," the Confession says, "really and personally." The dominion of sin "is destroyed;" the lusts of the flesh "are more and more weakened and mortified;" and so on.  Thus we can have absolute confidence that God will do his sanctifying work in our lives.  

Similarly, the second section begins with the bold assertion that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the whole person. When God's indwelling Spirit makes us more and more holy, this affects every aspect of life: body and soul, heart and mind. Because the Spirit is holy, the believer's whole life is transformed and purified. 

Left by themselves, without any further qualification, these confident claims might give the wrong impression that believers always make constant progress in holiness, or that we never experience any spiritual setbacks. Few things could be farther from the truth. Ever realistic about the real struggles of the Christian life--and careful to provide sound pastoral guidance--the Westminster Divines are honest about the life and death struggle that sanctification requires.

Sanctification is never perfect in this life, but always imperfect. Here the Confession takes a clear and obvious stand against the perfectionism of some evangelical traditions. We cannot completely escape the corruption of sin. Not even one single area of life will ever be totally free from sin.

As a result, we are engaged in constant spiritual warfare. As Paul explains in Romans 8, the flesh is always fighting against the Spirit, and the Spirit is perpetually waging war against the flesh.  

All of this helps us to have the right expectations for our spiritual experience. God has promised that over time we will make progress in holiness. But sin will be a struggle for us right to the end of our lives. 

Chapter 13.1,part three

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

Sanctification is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ - his death and resurrection. It is produced by the Holy Spirit, who uses the Word of God to make us holy. But what effect does this have in the believer's life?  Simply put, sanctification kills and brings back to life.

The Westminster Divines believed that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit produces two effects in the Christian life. One is to put sin to death--what the Puritans and Presbyterians called the mortification of sin.

In order for us to make real, personal progress in holiness, the dominion of sin must be destroyed within us. The lusts which tempt us to sin must shrivel up and die. Thus sanctification involves the long slow death of sin in the life of the believer.  

At the same time, in our sanctification the Holy Spirit brings us to spiritual life--what theologians call vivification. The word "quickened" simply means to come to life. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit gradually makes us more and more alive to the grace of God.  He strengthens our commitment to personal holiness.

This is not merely a theory, but something that makes a real difference in daily life. This section of the Confession ends by speaking of the "practice of true holiness." This means keeping all of God's commandments. It means serving other people, putting them first. It means loving our family, our friends, and even our enemies. It means making a strong commitment to sexual and other forms of purity. These are the things that come to life as sin dies a long slow death over the course of a believer's life.

Chapter 13.1, part two

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

In telling us how sanctification happens--really and personally--the Confession identifies a double agency: God's Word and God's Spirit.

The Spirit's role in sanctification should be evident from what has been said already about regeneration. In regeneration, the Holy Spirit penetrates a sinner's life and creates a new heart--a heart for holiness. 

This new heart is a dwelling place for God's Spirit, who enables the process of sanctification to continue. The Spirit constantly exudes holiness, sanctifying whatever he touches. In this case, because the heart is the control center of a person's life, the indwelling Spirit is able to spread holiness out from the heart into every dimension of a believer's life. 

The main thing the Holy Spirit uses to produce holiness is the Word of God. In fact, the Bible has such a central role in this process that the Confession virtually treats it as a second agent of sanctification.

The vital connection between God's Word and our holiness is something that experience readily confirms. Believers who neglect God's Word in their daily or weekly routine quickly lose ground in their struggle with sin. By contrast, Christians who prioritize reading the Bible and listening to sermons always make progress in holiness.  

Knowing this helps us to take proper responsibility for our personal sanctification. Holiness can only come from the Holy Spirit. But God has told us what the Spirit uses to help us make progress in holiness. The Spirit uses the Word, which God invites us to take and read.

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 13.1, part one

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

It is characteristic of the Westminster Confession to present biblical doctrines in proper relationship to one another. So here the doctrine of sanctification is introduced with reference to calling and regeneration, as another link in the "golden chain" that stretches from election to glorification.

The phrase "further sanctified" indicates that holiness is intrinsic to regeneration. God's Spirit is a Holy Spirit, after all. So sanctification begins the very moment the Spirit enters a person's life. We are set apart for holiness already in our conversion, when we are given a new heart by the Holy Spirit.

But this is only the beginning. Further sanctification must and does take place, as a progressive work of God the Holy Spirit. The whole Christian life is marked therefore by growth in holiness. Unlike justification and adoption, which as legal declarations take place in a single moment, sanctification gradually unfolds over the course of a believer's pilgrimage. 

The Confession is careful to ground our progressive sanctification in the gospel. On what basis is the believer sanctified? On the basis of the cross and the empty tomb. Progress in holiness is a consequence of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (which is simply the gospel). 

This reality serves to remind us of our ongoing need for the gospel. Our sanctification--no less than our justification--is one result of our Savior's death and resurrection. So hearing the gospel every day does something more than give us the assurance of our faith; it also helps us grow in personal godliness.

Chapter 12, part five

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth [or graciously grants], in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption:  by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for,  and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

Father and children

When you have fellowship with other believers, you are with those who have been adopted by the living God as his own children. For as we think of God the Father, we must also think of God's family. 

Our most basic alignment in this world is toward our Father which is in heaven. He is the one we adore and worship; it is in him that we trust, and we owe him the loyalty of our hearts. Our second most important relationship is with his children. We are not, most basically, people of one country or another, one race or another denomination. We are God's family, one family, with one elder brother, and one Spirit of adoption. For that reason we ought to do all that we can to foster love and unity in this family, seeking its good, and holding back from criticism of brothers and sisters. 

As we think about our place in God's family, the last line in the first chapter of the book of Hebrews proves to be particularly significant. There we are told that 'all angels' are actually 'ministering spirits'. And incredibly, one of their main tasks is to give themselves to help God's family on earth. They are 'sent' by our Father 'to serve those who will inherit salvation' (Heb. 1:14). If this is the case, if the angels of God that stand before his throne are sent to serve God's people here on earth, how much more ought we to do the same! Surely such service is appropriate thanks for the great salvation that we will inherit. Certainly it is an approved way to praise our Father and live to his glory, when we do all that we can to help our brothers and sisters on their way to our heavenly home.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 12, Part Four

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth [or graciously grants], in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption:  by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for,  and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.


It is just because the Father cares for us that he also sometimes finds need to discipline us. After all, as the writer to the Hebrews says so clearly, it is precisely those that the Lord loves that he disciplines, and it is those who are accepted as Sons that are wisely punished (12:6). Yet it is worth saying, as here it is said, that the Father is never vengeful or vindictive. He does not respond in wrath. Rather, we are chastened by Him as by a Father. Sometimes we may need a severe mercy to bring us back to that straight and narrow road that our Father has prepared for us. But God's discipline is always a mercy - by no means does it indicate that God has deserted us. It is worth remembering that it is right in the middle of Jeremiah's book of Lamentations that we are given the sweet promise that men and women 'are not cast off by the Lord forever' (Lam. 3:31).

On the contrary, one reason why we are given the Spirit of adoption is that the Spirit is God's seal 'to the day of redemption' (Eph. 4:30). God has a plan for his people, and all that he does for us, to us, and with us, is designed to ready us for that day. He is teaching us how to hold heavenly treasures in earthen vessels, because he intends for us, 'through faith and patience' (Heb. 6:12), to inherit all of his promises. God's plan is that we will be 'heirs of everlasting salvation', and that we will be granted 'an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you' and for me (1 Pet. 1:4). 

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 12, Part Three

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth [or graciously grants], in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption:  by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for,  and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

Called by the Father's name

Consider what it means to be called by God's name - to have the Lord God almighty give us his family name (Jer. 14:9; 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 3:12). Just think of what it means for us to receive the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), the one who through faith (Rom. 5:2) gives us 'access to the throne of grace with boldness' and 'confidence', as Paul reminded the Ephesians (3:12). Indeed, even sinners as wayward and weak as the Galatians were reminded that they too were enabled by the Spirit to cry out in simple trust, 'Abba', or in our language, 'Father' (Gal. 4:6).

The focus so far has been on what we receive, but the story can be told just as clearly from the perspective of what God gives. The Psalmist reminds us that when we are pathetic, the Father pities the children who fear him (103:13). The writer of Proverbs tells us that when we need refuge, God's children are protected (14:26). The Lord Jesus tells us that we have no need to worry about our food or drink or clothes for he knows how to provide for us (Matt. 6:30-32). In short, we can cast all our cares on him, for he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 12, Part Two

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth [or graciously grants], in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption:  by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for,  and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

The uniqueness of adoption

Every gift from God is a wonder of grace, but many Christians feel this gift of adoption into God's family most keenly, and treasure it most deeply. Admittedly, there are few greater joys than knowing that one is justified before God, to hear the verdict that we are forgiven and as righteous in the sight of our judge as any man could ever be. Likewise, it is a great thing to be sanctified. To know that the Great Physician is at work, to know that our wounds are healing, the disease is leaving, the mortal illness of sin is mortal no longer. But neither of these pieces of news is fully realized and enjoyed outside the context of adoption.

You see, there is a very different sort of happiness that we can find in a family, than what we find in the courtroom or doctor's office. Those who have been blessed with good parents can testify that there is a qualitative difference between leaving the judge and courtroom without fear, and going home to a father with great joy. There is really nothing like being a child of God, and enjoying all the liberties and privileges of God's own family. What a freedom it is to be able to address God as our Father, even though he is in heaven, and we on earth. What a privilege it is to have brothers and sisters in every corner of the globe. What an honour it is to even have the power to be joint heirs with God's own Son (Rom. 8:17; John 1:12).

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 12, Part One

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth [or graciously grants], in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption:  by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for,  and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

Blessings as a package

The most noteworthy fact about this chapter on adoption is that there is a chapter at all. Biblical sonship is the Cinderella of Christian theology and has only recently been recognized as the royal topic that it really is.

Nonetheless, the second most striking aspect of the chapter is its brevity. This twelfth chapter is the Confession's briefest for at least three reasons. First, there was a limited pool of theological reflection on this subject from which the assembly could draw. Prior to the Westminster assembly, the history of theology had little to say about adoption. Second, and related, the assembly could offer a crisp statement on the doctrine of adoption because it could state the truth without correction of error. Unlike the chapter on justification, for example, chapter twelve tackles no dissent and treats no heterodoxy, for orthodoxy on this subject had no serious competitors. Third, there is considerable thematic overlap between the doctrine of adoption and the doctrine of assurance of faith and salvation, and some aspects of the experience of God's children are related in chapter eighteen, on assurance. This allows the Confession to state a large doctrine in a little space.

This chapter begins by reminding us that the saving blessings and graces that come from Jesus Christ always come as a package. Just as we were justified in Christ, so too, God graciously grants that we will be adopted in Christ. Adoption has always been part of God's plan. In fact, 'God sent forth his Son', as Paul explains in Galatians 4, so that those who 'were under the law . . . might receive the adoption of sons' (Gal 4:4-5). This grace comes to us only in Christ and for Christ, since it was 'the good pleasure' of God's eternal will (Eph. 1:5) that our Saviour should bring many Sons to glory.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of
The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 11.3

iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.  Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

The doctrine expressed in the Westminster Confession's third paragraph on justification is one of the most excellent and beautiful theological statements ever penned. The burden of this paragraph is to insist that justification is by grace alone. Yet, in making this point, the divines gather up all that they have previously said about justification in order to show how fully this doctrine glorifies God. There are three things for us to emphasize: the work of Christ in obedience and satisfaction; the substitutionary nature of Christ's work; and the free grace of God that is glorified in the justification together with his justice.

First, a right understanding of Christ's saving work is so essential to the Westminster divines that they cannot miss another opportunity of stating it. Christ accomplished two great saving works in his first coming. First, he made a "proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice" for those who believe. This refers to Christ's sacrificial offering of his life to pay the just penalty of sin. The divines were convinced that penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of Christian salvation. This is a truth that needs to be emphasized today, as postmodern-leaning evangelicals find themselves embarrassed by the cleansing blood of Christ. The effect of Christ's satisfaction was to "fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified." Thus to be justified means, first, to have your sins forgiven and your penalty forever paid by Jesus.  

Moreover, Jesus positively fulfilled the demands of God's law so as to secure the verdict of "righteous" for his people. Not only was his "satisfaction," but also "his obedience... accepted" by God so as to justify his people. With this in mind, we see that the aphorism is partly true which says justification means "just as if I'd never sinned." Yet justification is actually more than this.  It goes further actually to say that in Christ I am "just as if I'd always obeyed." 

Second, this third paragraph emphasizes the substitutionary nature of Christ's work as being key to the operation of justification. How can I be forgiven when I have sinned and how can I be justified when I have not been righteous? The answer is found in the vital words, "in their stead."  I am forgiven because Jesus stood in my stead to pay the penalty my sins deserved. I am justified because Jesus fulfilled the law in my stead so as to attain all righteousness. Thus was John the Baptist's query answered, when he marveled that Jesus would submit to the baptism of repentance. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John asked. Jesus answered, "Let it be so now, of thus it is fitting for to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:14-15). By this act, Jesus was standing under God's law for his people, "in their stead," in order to achieve a perfect righteousness on behalf of those who sins disqualified them from eternal life. One theologian who understood this key matter, despite his other failings, was Karl Barth. When once asked what is the most important word in the Bible, Barth answered with the Greek preposition huper, which means "on behalf of." At the heart of the gospel is the substitutionary work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. "Christ died for us," Paul insisted (Rom. 5:8).

Third, the divines emphasized that justification is by God's free grace alone. Paul wrote, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24). With this teaching in mind, the divines state that Christ justified sinners "freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace." The Christian thus declares that he or she is justified apart from any merit or virtue in himself but only for the grace of God in Christ.  It is the free gift of God's grace so that all the glory belongs to him. 

This glory pertains not only to God's grace, however, but also to his justice. We must not believe that mercy sets aside justice in our justification, as if one attribute of God could be set against another. Rather, God's mercy fulfills God's justice perfectly through the satisfaction and obedience of Christ. The believer in Jesus may therefore point not only to God's grace in his justification, but may also look to the justice of God that once we so dreaded and say, "God's justice demands my justification!"  How is this? How may a sinner be admitted by the sword of God's perfect, holy justice - not only admitted but demanded admittance? The answer is the grace of God in Christ, which fully and forever satisfies the justice of God. Thus "both the exact justice and rich grace" of God are "glorified in the justification of sinners." 

How shall we reply to the glorious drama of the doctrine of justification? James Boice put it this way: "All merit, boasting set aside, by faith alone I'm justified / Before the throne I take my place and rest in God's amazing grace."

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina and chairs the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 11.2, Part Two

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

One of the familiar complaints against justification through faith alone is that it makes no allowance for the necessity of works. In one sense this is true, since the Confession teaches that justification is by faith apart from works, the sinner relying on Christ's works instead of his or her own. In another, sense, however, the Confession is keen to join faith and works. As the divines taught it, it is true that justification does not involve our works. But it is also true that faith is inseparable from works. We are justified through faith alone, yet that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces." Roman Catholicism teaches that faith + works = justification. The Confession teaches instead, with the Bible, that faith = justification + works. Through faith alone the sinner is justified, so that our works are not a condition of justification. Yet that very faith involves the sinner in a life of increasing godliness and good works, so that works are very much a consequence of justification. In this proper sense, works are quite necessary to salvation: as the Confession states, justifying faith "is no dead faith, but worketh by love."

This approach is the key to understanding how Paul's teaching on faith and justification agrees with James's teaching on the same subject. Many Christians want to pit Paul and James against one another, as Martin Luther was purported to have done. But this is mistaken.  Whereas Paul was providing doctrinal teaching on justification in passages like Galatians 2:16-17 and Romans 3:23-25; 4:4-5, James was writing to correct the error of claiming faith while having no works. "Someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works,'" James says, complaining against the idea of fundamentally separating the two. "Show me your faith apart from works," he counters, "and I will show you my faith by my works" (Ja. 2:18). Notice James's point: he is not giving a doctrinal definition of justification but rather showing how faith is proved.  Whereas Paul says that sinners are justified by faith alone, James asserts that justifying faith is justified by works. This is the very point made by the Confession in saying that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied" by works.   

Roman Catholic apologists make much of James' statement in 2:24: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." They point out that whereas the Bible never says that justification is by faith alone, it states explicitly that justification is "not by faith alone." The Bible says the exact opposite of the Westminster Confession, they exclaim! Our answer to this is two-fold. First, while the words "justification by faith alone" are not in the Bible, Paul clearly makes this very point in Galatians 2:16, "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." Second, we point out that what James means is that justifying faith must be proved by good works. In this we heartily agree, with the Westminster Confession.  Using the example of Abraham, James pointed out that Abraham's justification was justified by his good works. This is precisely in keeping with the Confession's teaching (or rather, the Confession is in keeping with James, along with Paul). James agrees that the Scripture says that Abraham was justified by faith: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Ja. 2:23).  But how do we know that Abraham believed and thus was justified?  We know this, we prove his faith, only by works.

This emphasis on the works that accompany justifying faith is important today. Many Christians grew up in legalistic settings and feel set free from a life of works when they encounter the Reformed doctrine of justification. In one vital sense, they are right! They are freed from the vanity of our works in justification. They are delivered from a "performance religion" that is filled with pride and crippled by fear. God justifies the ungodly through faith in Christ alone! Yet these brothers and sisters need to remember that faith joins us to a Christ who is holy. True faith, by its very nature, leads to good works and all other Christian graces. The claim of faith without corresponding works is a dead claim. To be sure, works are no longer a condition of our justification - praise God for that! But works remain a consequence of our justification. Thus Jesus says to those whose claim to faith is devoid of good works: "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Mt. 7:23).

Chapter 11.2

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.

The Westminster Confession unabashedly declares justification through faith alone. It defines faith as "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness," calling faith "the alone instrument of justification." In our next study, we will see how the faith that justifies is joined to good works. But first we must emphasize that works are not part of justification itself. We are justified by trusting in Christ's work; our own works contributing nothing to justification. Paul stated this clearly in Galatians 2:16, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ."

While "faith alone" is stressed in paragraph two of the chapter eleven, this emphasis also plays an important part of paragraph one's teaching of the nature of justification. We have noted that justification is by imputation, not infusion. So how is Christ's righteousness imputed to Christians? Paragraph one states, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone." This means that when we trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ - both his sin atoning death and his perfect law keeping life - we are justified on the basis of his works and not our own. I like to stress that justification is most certainly by works - indeed, in an important sense, sinners are justified only on the basis of works. But the glory of the gospel is that we are justified by Christ's works, which we receive through faith alone.  

This is our answer to the Roman Catholic charge that justification through faith alone involves a "legal fiction" that disgraces God. They argue that, under our doctrine, God justifies those who have no legal basis for righteousness. In reality, however, our doctrine teaches that sinners are justified by a perfect legal fulfillment under God's justice. Christ's works have perfectly fulfilled God's law and his atoning death has perfectly paid the penalty of our sins demanded by the law.  Therefore, we are justified through faith alone, apart from our works, by the righteous works of Jesus Christ. On a pastoral level, this reminds Christians that in justification it is not merely God's mercy that declares our salvation. Justification more directly involves God's justice demanding our acceptance because all of its requirements have been satisfied by the perfect work of Jesus Christ for us.

The Confession is careful to avoid another error, this time coming not from Roman Catholicism but from Protestant Arminianism. This is the teaching that we are justified by faith as a substitute for works. Under this view, recently championed by Robert Gundry, since sinners cannot be justified by the law (which we have broken) we are instead justified by that act of faith, which is our righteousness. The Confession answers by specifying that we are justified not "by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness." Faith is not a substitute for law keeping in justification. Rather, through faith the sinner receives Christ's law fulfilling work on our behalf: God imputes "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith."  The Arminians claim the proof text of Genesis 15:6, where Abraham "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." We should admit, they say, that this teaches that faith is our righteousness before God. In Romans 4:4-5, however, where Paul exegetes that text, the apostle insists that justification is by imputation and that we are justified while remaining "ungodly." So it is not the case that believing makes us righteousness, since in justification we remain ungodly while Christ's righteousness is "credited" to us.

According to the Confession, then, faith is "the alone instrument of justification," as the means by which we receive Christ's righteousness by imputation. Finally, the Confession stresses that the very faith by which we are justified is "not of themselves, it is the gift of God." This stems from Paul's vitally important statement: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). According to the Bible, Christians are personally involved in our justification through faith. Yet justification remains by grace, since that faith is God's gift to us and God's work in us.  Expressing the genius of the Gospel, Paul explains: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:16).

Chapter 11.1

i.Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not or anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as 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.
The Westminster Confession's treatment of justification brilliantly sets forth the teaching of Scripture on this most pivotal doctrine. Moreover, this definition is clearly rooted in the Calvinistic divines' conflict with both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. As such, paragraph one not only sets forth clearly the nature of justification but it also combats prominent errors associated with this doctrinal heading. Justification is placed after effectual calingl in the ordo salutis: the call is logically prior because it is the source of faith, and faith is the instrument of the Christian's justification. Justification is the free gift of God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is notable that this paragraph emphasizes the dual nature of what justification accomplishes.  Negatively, it removes the guilt of the believers' sin: "pardoning their sins". Positively, justification bestows a righteous standing with God: "accounting and accepting their persons as righteous." This two-part construction is essential to the Reformed doctrine of justification. Like Joshua the high priest in the vision of Zechariah 3:1-5, Esther in her approach to the Persian king in Esther 5:1, and the guest without a garment in Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Mt. 22:12), we must not only be forgiven but positively clothed in righteousness in order to be justified before God. 

This construction has raised a question about the necessity of teaching Christ's "active obedience."  The distinction is made between Christ's obedience to the Father in in dying for our sins (passive obedience) and Christ's obedience to the Father in fulfilling all righteousness by his perfect law-keeping life (active obedience). While this language is not found in the Confession, the ideas are clearly important to the divines' teaching. In justifying sinners, Jesus both died for our forgiveness and fulfilled in his life the law-keeping righteousness that God's justice requires.

How, then, does Christ's righteousness become ours, so that we as sinners are justified?  Paragraph one answers by clearly distinguishing between the infusing of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness. The Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that sinners are made righteousness as God's grace changes them. Only when God's grace has perfectly made us righteous by infusion - a change of our nature - can we be justified. The Westminster Divines insisted instead that sinners are declared righteous by the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  This is a change of status apart from a change in our nature. As Paul put it, God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5): while our nature is still sinful, our status before God is changed by the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness.

Imputation is an accounting term, involving the granting of credit. Just as our sins were transferred to Jesus by imputation - Jesus did not become a sinner by infusion, but he bore our sins that were reckoned to him - his righteousness is imputed to sinners through faith. This doctrine has been newly brought into controversy by N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul."  Wright has argued that righteousness is not a substance that can be passed across a court room. He errs badly in this, however, since status is often conveyed by declaration. Children are adopted when the status of son is passed to them or declared of them.  In Christian justification, sinners are declared righteous by the reckoning of Christ's perfect righteousness to their record. This was Paul's meaning in Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."  The verb for counted is logizomai, which means a legal reckoning. 

Thank God for the imputation of Christ's righteousness!  As J. Gresham Machen said on his deathbed about Christ's active obedience, there truly would be "no hope without it."

Chapter 10.4

iv. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.
The Lord Jesus said, "Enter ye in at the strait [narrow] gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matt. 7:13-14). Christ's teaching about the narrow way does not sit well with modern religious relativism, but the Son of God speaks with divine authority and we must listen to Him.

The Westminster Confession addresses two cases of people who are not in the narrow way to life. In the first case, they go to church and hear the gospel preached. They may experience some work of the Holy Spirit upon their souls, such as conviction of sin (John 16:8), happiness at the message of God's love (Matt. 13:20-21), and insight into the meaning of the Bible (Heb. 6:4). Perhaps they even exercise some spiritual gifts for ministry (Matt. 7:22). They may even for a time joyfully profess to be followers of Christ (Matt. 13:20-22). But they are not saved. Why not?

The Confession declares that "they never truly come to Christ." Coming to Christ does not mean going up front in a meeting or reciting a prayer. Coming to Christ means trusting in Christ alone for eternal life and joy (John 6:35). Whatever else they do, these people do not repent of sin and believe on the Lord Jesus as their only Savior. They are guilty of the great sin of unbelief, and therefore God's wrath abides on them (John 3:36). Their good works and religious duties are done in vain, because they do not proceed from a true faith, and "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6).

Yet the Confession probes deeper. Why didn't they come to Christ? Someone might answer that it was their own free choice not to believe. This view only raises the question, "Why then did they choose not to believe?" The Confession has the answer. They were called by the ministry of the Word, but they were not effectually called by God. And why didn't God effectually call them? He did not call them because they were "not elected," not chosen by God and "ordained to eternal life" (Acts 13:48). This is what Jesus said, "Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14). Many hear the gospel invitation to come to Christ, but few are elected by God. Therefore, they refuse to come to Christ and perish forever.

The second case is persons "not professing the Christian religion." They may profess another religion, or profess to have no religion at all. They may try to live a good life according to their conscience ("the light of nature"). They may fervently follow their own religion. They may be very noble and even sacrifice themselves for their god or their country. But they are not saved. Why not? Again, it is because they do not come to Christ. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Christ is the only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). All other ways are excluded. No other way has been provided.

This exclusiveness may make God seem very harsh and unfair, but in fact it is necessary because God is very holy and just. Are you offended at the thought that God must effectually call a person through the gospel in order for him to saved? If so, you should ask yourself why we need to be saved. And saved from what? The answer is that people are not innocent or basically good. They are sinners, and they deserve to be condemned and punished.

Sinners don't deserve God. Sinners don't desire God. Citing many passages from the Old Testament, Paul writes in Romans 3:10-12 "There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." When Christ sends His Word and Spirit to a sinner, His love compels Him to seek after someone who hates Him. He embraces someone who spits in His face. He pursues someone who is running away from Him.

Far be it from us to accuse God of injustice. Rather, let us marvel and be amazed that God effectually calls anyone out of the band of rebels that our race has become. Why would He do it? Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us, "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)." Abundant mercy!  Boundless love! Triumphant life! Glorious grace! The inspired Psalmist paints this picture of saving grace at work:
      Rebels who had dared to show
      Proud contempt for God Most High,
      Bound in iron and in woe,
      Humbled low with toil and pain,
      Fell, and looked for help in vain.
      To Jehovah then they cried
      In their trouble, and He saved,
      Threw the prison open wide
      Where they lay to death enslaved,
      Bade the gloomy shadows flee,
      Broke their bonds and set them free.
      --Psalm 107:10-14 (The Psalter, No. 293:1, 2)
Finally, the Confession confronts our modern tendency to modify the claims of Christ to accommodate the claims of those who profess some other religion. "To assert and maintain" that such persons can be saved in some other way than the way of Christ is "very pernicious," that is, destructive, ruinous, even fatal, since we are encouraging a vain hope in these people, one that will lead ultimately to their being "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9); and therefore, this view is "to be detested," that is, abhorred and rejected.

Chapter 10.3

iii. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
God has wrapped some things in a cloud of mystery. We dare not venture into the darkness of such mysteries with the feeble light of our speculations, but must rest content in the beams of light shining from the Word. One such mystery is God's purpose in the death of those mentally incapable of understanding the gospel, whether infants or adults.

We cannot say that such persons are sinless. David confessed that he was in sin from the moment of his conception in his mother's womb (Ps. 51:5). Sinners go astray from their infancy, showing their inward corruption even in early childhood by speaking lies (Ps. 58:3). Nor can we say that they are free from guilt, for their death shows that they are bound up in Adam's fall and condemnation, even before they commit any willful act of transgression against the law of God (Rom. 5:14, 18). Children and mentally impaired adults, "descending from [Adam and Eve] by ordinary generation" (WCF 4:3), are included in the "all" who sinned in Adam and fell with him in his transgression. 

How can they be saved? God's ordinary way of saving sinners is to call them effectually through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14). In fact, though there are many religions in the world, there is no other name but Jesus by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Those who follow other religions have no relationship with the true God and have no hope (Eph. 2:12). 

But the Bible sheds a beam of light when it reveals that God can save infants. John the Baptist was leaping for joy in Elizabeth's womb when he heard the voice of Mary, the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:41-44). The unborn child was already filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15). There is much we don't understand, but clearly God had saved the infant in the womb and moved him to rejoice in Christ. Therefore, we know that God is able to save sinners with underdeveloped or impaired mental capacities.

The Confession declares this comforting truth, but does so cautiously, saying that God saves "elect infants" and "elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word." God will have mercy on those whom He will have mercy (Ex. 33:19). The Confession does not say whether all persons in the world dying in infancy are elect, or only some. The Westminster divines evidently felt that we should not rush in to dogmatize where Scripture is silent. 

However, we can hope in the character of God. "Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations" (Deut. 7:9). He is our covenant God, whose blessings overflow to us and to our children. After David's infant son perished because of the consequences of David's sin, he had the faith to say, "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (2 Sam. 12:24). Certainly the covenant people of God may entrust their children and childlike ones into the hands of a faithful God. David celebrates God's covenant faithfulness and reminds us that behind the promise stands the unchanging love of God:
      Unchanging is the love of God,
      From age to age the same,
      Displayed to all who do His will
      And reverence His Name.
      Those who His gracious covenant keep
      The Lord will ever bless;
      Their children's children shall rejoice
      To see His righteousness.
      --Psalm 103:17, 18 (The Psalter, No. 278:4, 5)
Thus, we affirm that, based on God's character and His covenant commitments to His own, that it is His normal way to save children of believers whom it pleases Him to take away in infancy. That's why the Canons of Dort say, "Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy" (1.17). This principle is also applicable to the mentally impaired, so that we believe that God's normal way is sovereignly and mysteriously to call them to life eternal in Christ by placing the seed of regeneration in their souls.  

Chapter 10.2

ii. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.
Charles Spurgeon once sat listening to a boring sermon, and his mind began to wander. He asked himself how he had become converted. It was because I prayed. But then it occurred to him, why did he pray? I was moved to pray by reading the Scriptures. But the questions persisted; why had he read the Bible? And suddenly, Spurgeon realized that God was at the bottom of it all, and He is the author of saving faith.

We often want to claim something for ourselves in our conversion. One way of doing this is to say that God looked ahead into history and foresaw that you would trust in Christ, given the opportunity to do so. God therefore chose you, in this scheme, because He knew you would choose Him. But why would you choose Him? No one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11). In reality, we only choose Him because He first chose us.

The Westminster Confession reminds us that God did not choose or call you because He knew that you would respond positively. God announced the destiny of Esau and Jacob when they were "not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth" (Rom. 9:11). 

God did not save you because you were better or more worthy than anybody else. He did not succeed in converting you because you cooperated more than other sinners do. Salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). You were dead in sin, utterly unable to move towards God and horribly offensive to His holiness (Eph. 2:1-3). You played no more role in your effectual calling than a corpse plays in its being raised from the dead (Eph. 2:5).

This is what the Confession means when it says that mankind "is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit." We contribute nothing to our salvation except our desperate need. That is not to say that unconverted people can do nothing at all. The same legs that take them to a bar can carry them to a church service. They can read, listen to, and think about the Word of God (Acts 17:10-11). They may even fear God's wrath. Like the blind man, they can cry out for Christ to have mercy upon them until He gives them sight. Sadly, most fallen human beings are not willing to do even what they can.

Most importantly, lost sinners cannot stir up the least drop of saving faith, hope, or love in themselves. Man is perishing in spiritual inability. Without the Holy Spirit, they are unable to receive the truths of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14), unable to submit to God's law (Rom. 8:7-8), and unable to come to Christ (John 6:44). They cannot bow before the Lord Jesus, and confess Him unto salvation (1 Cor. 12:3).

Grace alone makes us alive and enables us to repent, and to believe, love, obey, and hope in Christ. Whoever believes in Christ has been born of God--the perfect tense of "has been born" showing that our faith comes from God's regenerating work within us (1 John 5:1). We do not love God by nature, but by grace, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19).

This is why Paul erupted into praise to God whenever he heard that someone had been converted (1 Thess. 1:2-4; 2:13). Why else would he thank God for the faith, hope, and love of converts, unless all the glory or credit for them must go to God? Let us therefore praise God fervently for our effectual calling, and rejoice whenever a sinner repents! As the psalmist teaches us to sing:
      Lord, if Thou shouldst mark transgressions,
      In Thy presence who shall stand?
      But with Thee there is forgiveness,
      That Thy Name may fear command.
      Hope in God, ye waiting people;
      Mercies great with Him abound;
      With the Lord a full redemption
      From the guilt of sin is found.
      --Psalm 130:3, 4, 7, 8 (The Psalter, No. 363:2, 5)

Chapter 10.1

i. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
Why am I a Christian, when so many other people are not? Many godly people have asked this question. They realize that they are no better than other sinners. Yet now they rejoice in the riches of Christ, while others go on living in sin and misery. Isaac Watts expressed it well when he wrote,
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
"Lord, why was I a guest?
"Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"
Ultimately, the answer must be the Lord. Christ is the great evangelist. Whenever the gospel is preached, it is Christ who preaches even if the hearers belong to nations far off that never heard the physical voice of Jesus of Nazareth (Eph. 2:17). Unlike mere human evangelists, this great Evangelist has the power to call sinners effectually; that is, to cause them to hear His Word, to understand it, to believe it, and to obey its command to come to Him for salvation and life. 

The Shepherd calls to sinners by the Word, and His sheep know His voice, follow Him, and are enfolded with His people (John 10:3, 16). He laid down His life for His sheep, and though others will not believe Him, yet His sheep hear and recognize His voice and follow Him all the way to glory (John 10:11, 26-28). Christ's voice has the power to raise the dead (John 11:43-44), and He is raising the spiritually dead to believe in Him and live (John 5:24-25). 

The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes and explains this reality in this chapter on effectual calling. Webster's defines "effectual" as "characterized by adequate power to produce an intended effect." In terms of the gospel as preached by Christ (Mark 1:14, 15), effectual calling is extending a call that has power to produce the intended response of repentance and faith. Note that "effectual" goes one step beyond the more common word "effective" by including the idea of purpose. An effectual call is one that can produce not just any result but the intended result. It effects or works the result designed by the one who issues the call. Such a call is said to "answer to its purpose." 

Effectual calling must therefore be the work of God and not man. It is an exercise of the sovereignty that belongs only to God. So Paul can describe God's sovereignty at work for our salvation in the "golden chain" of Romans 8:30: "Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." We are justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). God's call is the outworking of His eternal decree of predestination, and it results in justification. So it must have power to produce the faith that justifies the sinner. It is more than the gospel call, invitation to salvation, and offer of Christ (Matt. 22:14). It is the outworking of God's eternal purpose and grace in a person's life and experience (2 Tim. 1:9). For the same people are predestined in Christ to eternal life, called to faith in Christ, justified by their faith in Him, and ultimately glorified with Him.

It should also be noted that these terms "effectual calling" are unique to the Westminster Confession. The Westminster divines were attempting to clarify the ambiguity that often surrounds the word regeneration. The term can refer to one's initial experience of saving grace; it can also refer to the ongoing and progressive work of sanctification, or the daily renewing of our lives. By coining the term "effectual calling," the divines made it clear that they had in mind the initial quickening of the sinner, enabling him to believe and be saved, as distinct from the further regeneration or renewal of his life as a believer.

The Confession rightly highlights God's sovereignty over the persons who hear, and the timing of God's effectual call. The Lord is so utterly in control of this call and our resulting faith that He often calls precisely those people whom we would least expect--the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised people of this world (1 Cor. 1:26, 27), while passing by many others. While the wise and powerful of this world sneer at the gospel, "unto them which are called" the gospel shines with the glory of "Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24). God turns on the light in their hearts, and they are captivated by the divine beauty of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Have you experienced this? 

God effectually calls sinners on His own timetable. The Lord converted Saul, the great persecutor of the church, "when it pleased God" to do so (Gal. 1:15). We cannot manipulate conversion, for our times are in His hand and God wrote all the days of our lives in His book before we were born (Ps. 31:15; 139:16, marginal note 7). Yet the ministers of the Word must be faithful to preach and to pray, for God calls by His Word and Spirit (John 6:63), and in answer to our prayers. And if we are not saved, then we must diligently listen to the preaching of that Word with the cry that God would open our eyes to behold its truth, and our hearts to receive it.

The Westminster divines explained God's work in the soul with biblical metaphors. First, it is a transforming light: "enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God." To be sure, there is a degree of illumination that only convicts and may bring moral reformation but does not save (Heb. 6:4). Wicked Felix trembled at Paul's preaching, but he did not repent of his covetous ways (Acts 24:25, 26). In effectual calling, this light dawning in the heart is nothing less than a quickening or resurrection of the inner man (Eph. 2:1-7), previously dead in sin. It produces an experiential knowledge of God in Christ that is in its essence a new life born in the soul (John 17:3).  "Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (Eph. 5:14).

Second, effectual calling is a heart transplant: "taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh." Here the divines alluded to Ezekiel 36:25-27, "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." In place of a "whorish heart" that rejects God and runs to idols (Ezek. 6:9), the Lord promised to give His people a tender, responsive, believing heart towards Him.

Third, effectual calling is a sovereign persuasion: "renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ." To be sure, sinners resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). But He sweetly conquers them with God's love. God does not draw people to Christ against their will. The Lord works upon their wills to make them willing to obey Christ (Ps. 110:3; Phil. 2:12-13). He draws them to Christ in such a way that "they come most freely, being made willing by His grace." Yet this is an "effectual drawing" that always results in their coming to Christ and being saved (John 6:37, 44). God works upon our hearts so that we love Him (Deut. 30:6). Thus we say with Watts,
'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

And then we can sing with David:
      Thou bidst me seek Thy face, and I,
      O Lord, with willing heart reply,
      Thy face, Lord, will I seek.
      Hide not thy face afar from me,
      For Thou alone canst help afford;
      O cast me not away from Thee
      Nor let my soul forsaken be,
      My Saviour and my Lord.
       --Psalm 27:8, 9 (The Psalter, No. 73:2b, 3)

Chapter 9.5

v.The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.

According to the Augustinian/Bostonian grammar of sin and grace, heaven is a condition of non posse peccare (not able to sin). Unlike Eden, a condition of probation, in which it was possible to sin and not to sin (posse peccare and posse non peccare), heaven alone finds the regenerate Christian in a condition where sin will be impossible. Nor will this condition be one of constraint: the will in heaven only desires the good and never the evil. Heaven is a condition from which the people of God cannot fall. There is an immutability to this condition. 

It is difficult to fully imagine a condition in which there exists no inclination whatsoever to do anything wicked or evil but the Scriptures hold this out as a reality for God's children - "we shall sin no more" for nothing impure can enter (Rev. 21:27); sin and everything that defiles lies "outside" (Rev. 22:15). 

It is not a biblical world-view to imagine that true freedom must involve the ability to choose the evil inclination. In heaven, we shall be wholly free, but unable to sin. Our wills will voluntarily choose the good. 

Chapter 9.4

iv. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.

Following the Augustinian/Bostonian grammar of sin and grace, the Confession teaches that if the natural man is in a condition whereby he cannot not sin (non posse non peccare), the Christian is in a condition whereby he is free to sin (posse peccare) and free to obey (posse non peccare). Although now in a "state of grace," there remains a constraining tension between the urge to sin and the urge to live in holiness. The Adamic instinct, though dethroned, is not yet destroyed and occasionally gets the mastery. To employ an Augustinain understanding of Romans 7, the good and the evil fight for mastery (Rom. 7:14-25), the "flesh" and the "spirit" are in opposition (Gal. 5:17) and when either sin or holiness is the path, it is a chosen path. 

We sin voluntarily even as Christians. At no time can we say, "the Devil made me do it." We remain morally and spiritually culpable. Whether we choose the good or choose the evil, the choice is voluntary on our part. The will determines according to our nature and is not constrained to operate against it. 

Chapter 9.3

iii. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

Can the natural man choose Christ apart from the enabling of the Holy Spirit? Putting the question in a different way, which comes first, faith or regeneration? Is the will of man capable of believing the gospel, capable of inclining itself to choose to come to Jesus Christ? The Divines, following Augustine, Luther, and Calvin answered in the negative. More provocatively, we could suggest that they were simply yielding to what Jesus said in John 6:65: "No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father," or 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me  draws him." 

Arminians agree with this practically - after all, no one ever says to God, "I am thanking myself for salvation; after all, I made a free and good choice." Even Arminius himself agreed that God makes us able and added that the natural man needs to cooperate with this enabling of God. But in the end, human ability is not wholly lost in this way of thinking. 

Reformed theology insists that the natural man, while free to determine choices according to his fallen nature, he is not free to choose all possible moral choices. His nature predisposes him to choose in accord with his idol-producing mind. Not only is the natural man unable to convert himself, he is not able to "prepare" himself for conversion. In the 1570's, some were advocating that an unregenerate sinner could prepare himself for the grace of regeneration by considering his sins in the light of God's law. By careful self-examination, the sinner could and ought to stir himself up to loathe his own sinfulness and to desire mercy and, by a judicious use of means (especially attendance upon the preaching of the gospel), he could put himself in the position of being a likely candidate for the new birth. This view undermines the gospel and the Divines insistently excluded any such possibility. 

Chapter 9.2

ii. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it. 

Along with the trivial sense of free will - what today we term free agency - Adam also possessed free will in the important sense, what since the second century has been understood as the ability to make all the moral choices that any given situation suggests. This understanding of free will was lost by Adam at the Fall. In the Latin grammar of Thomas Boston: Adam before the Fall was posse peccare (able to sin) and posse non peccare (able not to sin); after the Fall, Adam was non posse non peccare (not able not to sin). He lost the ability not to sin. Adam (and, along with him, his seed) found himself in a state of moral inability. He lost free will in this carefully defined way. 

God created Adam with a mutable (changeable) free will. Adam's Fall plunged all his progeny into this state of misery. Genesis 3:6 carefully describes Adam and Eve's choice to eat of the forbidden fruit: "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate." God created them "upright" (Ecc. 7:29), but placed them in a probationary state. 

Chapter 9.1

i. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil

There is something of interest about the location of this chapter within the Confession. It falls immediately after a chapter describing all that Christ has achieved for us by way of atonement and immediately before a series of chapters answering the question, How is that which Christ has achieved made effectual in the life of an individual believer? Before issues of the ordo salutis can be discussed, the Confession must first address the problem of man's will. Employing an older faculty psychology (something which Jonathan Edwards readdressed in the following century), section one insists that the will is not constrained by any external factors or by the will itself. 

What the Divines (and before them Calvin) called free will in a trivial sense, and what today is better termed free agency, this section posits that free agency is a mark of what it means to be human. We are not robots, forced by an act of creation to respond in a given way. Rather, every human being makes decision based on what he thinks is right and wrong (though this moral compass may be entirely misled). Choices made are real (voluntary not deterministic) choices and for which there is moral responsibility/culpability. This understanding of free agency (the "natural liberty" of the will) is true of Adam before and after he sinned. 

Chapter 8.6,7,8

VI. Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein He was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent's head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever.

VII. Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.

VIII. To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.

The final sections of chapter eight continue in their summary of Scripture's teaching on Christ as mediator, particularly in relation to the application of redemption to His people. In section six we confess that while Christ's work of redemption was not actually done until after his incarnation, "the virtue, efficacy, and benefits" of it were "communicated to the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world." Adam, Eve, and Abel were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, just as Noah was, and Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, the apostles--all believers through church history to the present. Our confession here is of the unity of God's covenant of grace, through its old and new testament administrations. Christ was revealed in the Old Testament era, and his virtue, efficacy, and benefits communicated to the elect "in and by those promises, types, sacrifices" in which "he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman" who would "bruise the serpent's head... the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world... the same yesterday, today and forever." (Gen. 3:15, Rev. 13:8, Heb. 13:8) 

Christ's work of mediation involves his whole person--we confess that he "acts according to both natures." The Westminster divines judiciously summarized Scripture's teaching and advised a careful hermeneutic regarding the revelation of the person of Christ, his natures, and his work. All of this was in response to Roman Catholics who argued that Christ is mediator only as man. 

The chapter concludes by turning to the application of redemption. That is, the divines are summarizing the Bible's teaching on redemption in relation to the individual believer. Christ saves all those for whom he "has purchased redemption." Not one will be lost. He certainly and effectually applies and communicates his purchased redemption to each one. He makes intercession for them. He reveals to them in and by the Word the mysteries of salvation, and effectually persuades them to believe and obey. He governs their hearts by his Word and Spirit--overcoming all his and our enemies--in exactly the ways that are best. 

The reality that it is God's sovereign grace towards those he has chosen does not negate the sincere and free offer of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all; nor does it negate his complete sufficiency to save any. Rather, our confession of Scripture is that while he proclaims "Come, everyone who thirsts... listen diligently to me... come to me, hear, that your soul may live" (Isaiah 55:1-3), all by nature willfully reject His gracious call--unless by the Spirit he regenerates and transforms our hard hearts and minds. This is a truth both profoundly humbling, in revealing our utterly fallen natural condition, and profoundly comforting. Our responsibility is to come, to run to him as he welcomes us to do! As we run to him, we look back and see it is the Father who has given us to the Son--the Son who is our Mediator--and the Holy Spirit is working in us to will and to do his good pleasure. Realizing this Triune love, what can we do but sing in worship and adoration? "What shall separate us from the love of Christ? ... nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:35, 39).

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Chapter 8.4, 5

iv. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.

v. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

With chapter eight we confess that Christ our Mediator, in willing humility, pursued all that was necessary for our salvation. Section four succinctly outlines God's gracious revelation of the cost, the weight, and the glory of redemption in Christ. The eternal Son was made flesh, made under the law, and perfectly fulfilled it where we had railed and rebelled against it. In the place of his people he not only perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, but also endured the full weight of its penalty against them. He "endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death..." 

Christ the Mediator finished his earthly service and cross-work victoriously. In the grave his body "saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered... he ascended into heaven." The King of glory, the LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle (Psalm 24:8), conqueror of Satan, sin, and death, ascended to heaven, was seated, and "there sits at the right hand of His Father." 

What is our Lord Jesus Christ doing in heaven? He is making intercession, mediating between our Holy God and the sinful men drawn to him in faith and repentance by his Word and Spirit. He is interceding, reconciling men to God as the perfect high priest who has completed the once for all sacrifice. While we live in the era of gospel proclamation, the final day of this present world is steadily approaching, "when he will return in glory to this earth, to judge men and angels, at the end the world."

Section five focuses on the ends or purpose of Christ's accomplishment of redemption for all who trust in him--with great anticipation of what is to come. Jesus, "by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself", offered up in full completion through the Spirit to God, "fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given him." He drank down the cup of wrath, suffering the agony of thirst, so that we could have the water of life freely; instead of being barren and cursed, through him we become fruitful trees by rivers of water. 

Christ's work as Mediator is "for those whom the Father has given unto Him." Have you been given by the Father to Christ? How can you know? Jesus said, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst... All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out." (John 6:35,37) If you are looking to him for reconciliation and restoration to God, for cleansing, grace and new life, you have come to Jesus. Then this confession is your confession of faith. Christ is your Mediator, his Father is your Father, and His Father is the one who has given you to him. And he, Jesus, has purchased this reconciliation, and inheritance for you.

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Chapter 8.2, 3

ii. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

iii.The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a Mediator and Surety. Which office He took not unto Himself, but was thereunto called by His Father, who put all power and judgment into His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same.

Who is Jesus Christ, the Mediator? In section two of this chapter we confess first of all that He is fully God: "the Son of God", the "second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father." The language used in articulating the full divinity of Christ the Mediator reflects the early church's scriptural definition and defense of these truths. This is the confession of the Christian church of all ages and places; those who deny the full divinity of Christ preach "a different gospel" contrary to that of the Word of God. (Gal. 1:6-9) 

The glorious mystery of the gospel is intimately wrapped up in the reality that "when the fullness of time was come" this same Son of God became fully man "taking upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin." Jesus Christ is just as fully human as you and me in every way except sin! Echoing the language of the Apostles' Creed, the Confession describes the Son's incarnation: "being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance." The incarnation was no negation of, or abandonment of His divinity; nor was it a temporary reality. Rather in Christ, "two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion." As such, the Confession reiterates that Christ in his person is "very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."

In his incarnation, our Lord Jesus Christ was and is completely, perfectly constituted and prepared, "thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a Mediator and Surety." He is fully equipped in himself, fully sufficient for the great work of redemption to be done. Yet, while Christ is Mediator, the work of redemption is also that of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The confession describes this: "the Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell... being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth." In taking up the "office of Mediator and Surety" by his incarnation the Son was not doing his own will "but the will of him who sent me." (John 6:38) The Father's eternal love, authority, and power stands behind our Mediator and our redemption in him. Praise our Triune God for his grace in Christ, the perfect, willing Savior!

Dr. WIlliam VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Chapter 8.1

i. It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of His Church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom He did from all eternity give a people, to be His seed, and to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

The eighth chapter of the Confession of Faith summarizes and explains one of the greatest mysteries revealed to us by God in Scripture: the Lord Jesus Christ as our Mediator, the ground of our salvation (Eph. 1:9; Rom. 16:25-26). At the beginning of the first section of this chapter we as the church confess with wonder God's eternal love towards sinners: "it pleased God". It was and is his good  pleasure, his joyful, wise purpose, that his eternal Son--his only begotten Son--was chosen, called, and ordained to be the Mediator between God and man from all eternity. To speak in human terms, in his work the Son delights the eternally blessed God. 

The authors of the Confession undoubtedly had in mind what Matthew, by the Spirit recorded the Father saying: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." The Father "so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (Jn. 3:16), who is his heart's delight from eternity past to eternity future (Isa. 42:1). There is a strong emphasis on the Father's love in giving  Jesus to be the unilaterally sent go-between, the Mediator, between Holy God and fallen, rebel man. Our confession of this should be saturated with worship and adoration to the Triune God for His mercy, grace, and love.

The first section further reminds us of the offices of Christ in his Mediatorial role: He is the Prophet, the Priest, and the King. His Word is the final and sufficient Word. His sacrifice is the once for all sacrifice, to which all others pointed; His Priesthood the only and all-sufficient Priesthood. He is the Sovereign, the all-powerful King of kings, seated on the throne of glory. He lives and reigns forever, till all nations are made His footstool; till all his and our enemies are defeated. He is the Head and Savior of his Church; we are his body, and he will complete the good work he has begun in us. He--not America, nor China, or any other earthly power, nor Satan or demons--he, Christ the Mediator, is heir of all things. 

Jesus is the One who will return in glory and majesty to complete His role as Judge of the world. In the great wonder of His love, God the Father has, from all eternity, given a people out of the rebel human race to Christ, to be his children, and "to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified and glorified." If God is for us, with His own Son, Christ the Mediator, as our Lord and Savior, who can stand against us? Though all hell may rage, though evildoers and our own sin may dog our heels (Ps. 49), nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8)

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Chapter 7.3

iii. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

The rest of this chapter on the covenant is focused on the covenant that God established with man because of, and after, the fall of man into sin. That covenant is "commonly called the covenant of grace."

On a first reading, one might think that the covenant of grace is confined strictly to the New Testament. The Confession says that, once Adam disobeyed and "made himself incapable of life," the Lord established the covenant of grace "wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ." Since life is offered "by Jesus Christ," surely this can refer only to that time when and after Christ became flesh and dwelt among us.

The beauty of covenant theology, however, is that it has its focus in Christ from Genesis 3:15 into eternity future. As the Confession goes on to say: "This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament." (section 5)

That is, while it is recognized that the covenant of grace was administered differently in redemptive history, there is no need or biblical burden to turn the recognition of different dispensations into an "-ism." All of the dispensations have the promised Messiah as their central focus, in recognition that the promised Messiah would himself come, finally and fully, to redeem. So, the promises, prophecies, sacrifices, etc. under the Old Covenant foresignify Christ; they were meant to turn the spiritual eyes and hearts of the Lord's people to Him and His gracious provision of a Redeemer (cf. Job 19:25). The Old Covenant was not "Plan A," to which another "Plan" needed to be amended, given Israel's failure. The continuity of redemptive history, set in bold relief in the Old Covenant, is seen in the continual indications and signs, which were a part of daily Old Covenant existence, which themselves were meant and designed to point beyond themselves to a need for and promise of One who would redeem (cf. Heb. 9:7-18).

In and since the era of the New Testament, "when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper..." (section 6). That is, the plan of God for the people of God is the church of Jesus Christ and its new covenant administration. So, says the Confession, "There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations." Note, there is no difference "in substance" between the Old and New Covenants, because the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ Himself.

One of the most significant and potentially life-changing applications of this latter truth is that, when we read, teach or preach the Scriptures, we ought to see Christ there. We ought to see that the one plan of God, since the fall, was to redeem a people and to defeat His enemies, and that the entirety of redemptive history is caught up with that plan, and all to His glory. The announcement of Genesis 3:15 sets the terms of the rest of history, and everything revealed to the Lord's people after that is pointing to the glory of the One who came, and who dwelt among us, who defeated Satan, and the last enemy, death, at the cross, and who now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Westminster Confession Chapter 7 will change the life of anyone who has ears to hear. It begins and it ends with God's gracious condescension. That condescension is on display now and into eternity future as, now by faith but then by sight, we see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the substance of the covenant.

Chapter 7.2

ii. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

The reason we needed to spend the time that we did on the first section of this chapter on the covenant is twofold. First, we need to emphasize, as does the Confession, that the focus of any relationship that man has to God is in God's free, merciful and good condescension. God did not have to create. In deciding to create, he did not have to reveal Himself; He did not have to create someone(s) in His image. He was not bound to enter into a relationship with His creatures at all. This was all a matter of His mercy and grace. But He determined to create and to reveal. And He determined to initiate a relationship with creatures made in His image. He did that because He is good.

The phrase "covenant of works" in paragraph two carries with it some ambiguities that could serve to confuse. It is worth noting that in the Westminster Larger Catechism as well as the Shorter Catechism the divines chose to use the term "covenant of life" rather than "covenant of works" (see WLC Q/A20 and WSC Q/A12). The phrase "covenant of life" is preferable in that it focuses on the reward graciously offered by God, rather than on its means.

With respect to the means of this reward of life, the Confession (as well as the Catechisms) are clear that life is offered to Adam "upon condition of perfect and personal obedience." About this there is no dispute, biblically speaking. But there is some dispute with respect to what we might call the ground of Adam's reward, according to those means. In other words, must we confess that this particular covenant, and its reward, had its ground and foundation in the justice of God with respect to the  "works" of Adam themselves, such that the basis of the reward of life, were it given, would be based on God's justice, according to Adam's merit?

The answer to that question is disputed presently. The Confession's answer to that question, however, is consistent with Reformed theology historically, and can be structured this way: Any covenant that God initiates with man depends, for its initiation, its conditions and its maintenance, on the "voluntary condescension" of God (thus, section one). That is, because God did not have to initiate any covenant at all, because it was a free decision of his that was in no way provoked by anything in creation or in us, the ground and foundation of any and every covenant is God's unmerited favor. For that reason, it is not improper to denominate that favor as "gracious." The graciousness that grounds the covenant of life is not a graciousness defined in terms of sin and the fall, obviously, but it is grace that issues in certain conditions, the obtaining of which will bring forth the merciful reward of eternal life. God did not have to create; He did not have to condescend; He did not have to offer life. But He did, and He did so based strictly on His underserved favor.

This is what Herman Bavinck has in mind: 
There is no such thing as merit in the existence of a creature before God, nor can there be since the relation between the Creator and a creature radically and once-and-for-all eliminates any notion of merit. This is true after the fall but no less before the fall. Then too, human beings were creatures, without entitlements, without rights, without merit. When we have done everything we have been instructed to do, we are still unworthy servants (Luke 17:10). Now, however, the religion of Holy Scripture is such that in it human beings can nevertheless, as it were, assert certain rights before God. For they have the freedom to come to him with prayer and thanksgiving, to address him as "Father," to take refuge in him in all circumstances of distress and death, to desire all good things from him, even to expect salvation and eternal life from him. All this is possible solely because God in his condescending goodness gives rights to his creature. Every creaturely right is a given benefit, a gift of grace, undeserved and nonobligatory. All reward from the side of God originates in grace; no merit, either of condignity or of congruity, is possible. True religion, accordingly, cannot be anything other than a covenant: it has its origin in the condescending goodness and grace of God. It has that character before as well as after the fall.(1)
Bavinck makes plain that his negation of the ground of merit (not the means) is in the context of God's "condescending goodness." Because this condescension is a free determination of God's, it can have no conditions placed upon it from the outside, nor can it be anything other than the ground of any and every covenant relation that God determines to have with man.

As it turns out, Bavinck is echoing the consistent refrain from the Reformed. In a section discussing the Reformed orthodox notions of the love and grace of God, Muller argues that, historically, God's condescension, even before the fall, was seen to be an act of his grace. 
Divine grace, as indicated both in the doctrine of the divine attributes and in the developing Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, is not merely the outward favor of God toward the elect, evident only in the post-lapsarian dispensation of  salvation; rather is it one of the perfections of the divine nature. It is a characteristic of God's relations to the finite order apart from sin, in the act of divine condescension to relate to finite creatures...There is, both in the orthodox Reformed doctrine of God and in the orthodox Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, a consistent identification of grace as fundamental to all of God's relationships with the world and especially with human beings, to the point of the consistent assertion that the covenant of nature or works is itself gracious.(2)
This is clearly what the Confession is affirming.

One more historic source might bolster these points. In his clear and helpful presentation on the notion of merit (the total of which would be read with great profit), Turretin argues that 
there now can be no merit in man with God by works whatsoever... They are not undue, but due; for whatever we are and can do, all this we owe to God, whose debtors we are on this account called. ...Hence it appears that there is no merit properly so called of man before God, in whatever state he is placed. Thus Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension [synchatabasin]) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience (which is called meritorious from that covenant in a broader sense). (3)
God's Covenant of Life has its initiation, ground and foundation in his eternal decision to condescend and to commit himself to finite creatures such as us. In that commitment, he requires obedience, and when it was possible for man to obey, had he done so, in due time he would have gained eternal life. But that life, "upon condition of perfect and personal obedience," would be obtained only against the background of God's eternal, unmerited favor to man.

1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, trans. John Vriend, vol. 2, ed. John Bolt, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 570, my emphases.

2. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics : The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725: The Divine Essence and Attributes, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 570, my emphases.

3. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), 713, my emphases.

Chapter 7.1, Part Three

i. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

Point 3. We have seen, in the last two posts, that the Confession rightly begins its discussion of covenant with the incomprehensibility and aseity of the Triune God. That must be affirmed before anything else can be understood, especially with respect to God's relationship to creation and to His creatures. We have also seen that the initiation of the relationship of God to His creatures was a "voluntary" initiation. It was a free determination of God, and it was a free determination that took place "before the foundation of the world," i.e., in eternity. This free determination included an agreement between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, an agreement sometimes called the pactum salutis, or covenant of salvation. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit agreed, before the foundation of the world, to create and to redeem a people. They committed themselves to a certain relationship in, with and for creation. This in itself was a free decision, and it was a decision of "condescension."

We said last time that we needed to think carefully about those two wonderful words contained in section one of this chapter of the Confession - "voluntary condescension." We can now focus on this latter term. What meaning is the word "condescension" meant to have in this context?

The word itself means "to come down," and as with the word "distance" that we looked at in our first post, this word, too, is a spatial word. As it was with the word "distance," "condescension is used metaphorically to communicate something that is much deeper and more glorious than might initially be realized. Just as there is no spatial distance between God and His creatures, so also can there be no "coming down" or "condescension" of God such that He begins to occupy a space that He did not otherwise occupy. In other words, because God is everywhere, there is nowhere where He is not, and thus no place that He begins to occupy by coming down. He always and everywhere occupies all places, fully and completely.

So, what does this "condescension" mean? The best way to understand this, I think, is to look to that supreme and ultimate example of condescension in Holy Scripture - the incarnation of the Son of God. In the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity "comes down" in order to live an obedient life and die an obedient death in behalf of His people. What did this "condescension" entail for Him? It did not mean that He began to occupy a place that He did not otherwise occupy. As the Son of God, thus fully and completely God, He was and is omnipresent. What it meant was that He took on a human nature so that He might fulfill the plan of redemption that was decreed before the foundation of the world. He took on, in other words, characteristics, properties and attributes - call them covenantal characteristics - in order that He might relate to us in a way that He did not otherwise. His "condescension" just was His taking on a human nature in order properly, according to what the Triune God had decreed, to relate Himself to creation generally and to His people more specifically.

When the Confession affirms God's voluntary "condescension," then, this is, in the main, what is meant. It means that God took on characteristics, properties and attributes that He did not have to take on (remember this condescension is voluntary) in order that He might relate Himself to the creation, and to His creatures. His commitment to that which is other than Himself - His creation - included, by definition, a condescension. He freely bound Himself to His creation, including His creatures, such that there would, from then to eternity, be characteristics, attributes and properties that He would take on, and all by the sheer freedom of His will. These characteristics are such that He could walk in the garden with Adam and Eve, meet and negotiate with Abraham concerning Sodom, meet with Moses on the mountain and the in tent of meeting, wrestle with Jacob, as the Divine Warrior confront and rebuke Joshua, etc. And, preeminently, come to save a people for Himself.

This "voluntary condescension," therefore, just is the gospel. It is the "coming down" of God Himself; it is God with us in the Person of Emmanuel, Jesus Christ.

This section on the covenant is our doorway into the awe-inspiring truth that just is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without this doorway, any view of God will be either too anemic, such that the wonder of His majestic plan is diminished by man-centeredness, or too aloof, such that God's character is only confessed and understood in non-relational terms. This section of the Confession marvelously, because biblically, avoids both of these dangerous extremes.

Chapter 7.1, Part Two

i. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

Point 2. It is worth noting, as we saw yesterday, and it is a master-stroke of theological genius, that the Confession begins its section on covenant, as it must, with the majestic and incomprehensible character of God. This must be the starting place for all thinking about God and his relationship to creation. Any theology that goes wrong in its assessment of God inevitably goes wrong because it begins its theologizing with "God-in-relationship" rather than with the a se and immutable Triune God. One might have thought that since the Confession already  affirmed these things about God in chapter two, there would be no need to introduce such things again. But the genius of this chapter is that it was recognized that unless the "distance" between God and his creatures is first affirmed, any notion of covenant would be anemic, because it would be tied to a dependent God. This, of course, has proven to be the case in a vast swath of past and current theology.

Once we recognize the ontological "distance" between God and creatures, which includes the fact, as section one says, that even though we owe obedience to him, we could have no "fruition of him as our blessedness and reward," we are then in a position to affirm just what it is that brought about God's relationship to his creatures.

Two monumentally pregnant words - "voluntary condescension" - serve to affirm the initiation of God's relationship to His creatures, and we need to focus on each of them. What does the Confession mean by "voluntary" with respect to God? In theology proper (which is the doctrine of God), we make a distinction between God's necessary knowledge/will and His free knowledge/will. This distinction is not tangential to our understanding of God; it is crucial to a proper grasp of His incomprehensible character. It is natural to affirm that God's knowledge and will are necessary. As One who cannot but exist, and who is independent, we recognize that God knows all things, just by virtue of who He is, and whatever He wills with respect to Himself is, like Him, necessary. Why, then, do we need to confess that God's knowledge and will are, with respect to some things, free?

We confess this, in part, because the contrary is impossible, given who God is. Since He is independent and in need of nothing, there was no necessity that He create anything at all. If creation were necessary, then God would be dependent on it in order to be who He is. But, pace Barth and his followers, there is no such dependence in God. So, God's determination to create, and to relate Himself to that creation, is a free decision. Two things are important to keep in mind about God's free knowledge and will.

First, the free knowledge and will of God have their focus in what God determines. That which God determines is surely something that he knows (for how could God determine that which was unknown; and what, in God, could be unknown?). That which God knows and determines is that which he carries out. In other words, to put it simply, there is no free knowledge of God that is not also a free determination, or will, of God. The two are inextricably linked.

God's knowledge is a directing knowledge; it has an object in view. His will enjoins (some of) that which he knows, and his power executes that which his will enjoins. When discussing God's free will, therefore, what he freely knows just is what he freely wills. We can see now that with the notion of "voluntary condescension" we have moved from a discussion of God's essential nature, that is His ontological distance, to an affirmation of his free determination to create, and to condescend. This is something that God did not have to do; so, we move from a discussion of God's essential nature, to a discussion of his free activity.

Secondly, the free will of God is tied to his eternal decree. This is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it reminds us that God's free will does not simply and only coincide with his activity of creation, but is itself eternal. His free will includes the activity in and through creation, but is not limited to that activity. God's free determination is an activity of the Triune God, even before the foundation of the world.

Chapter 7.1, Part One

i. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

What the Confession asserts in section one of Chapter 7 has massive and profound implications, first, for theology proper, then for our understanding of God's activity in history, and the order of these two is crucial. This first section deserves the meditative attention of every serious Christian, and it seems, for the most part, not to have gotten the attention it deserves.

There are three things worth noting in this majestic entree to the Covenant:

Point 1. In a chapter devoted to a summary of God's covenant with man, the first thing that the divines determined to express was the infinite distance between God and man. But just what is this distance? Surely the notion of "distance" must be a metaphor, since, in reality, there never was nor will there ever be a spatial distance between God and man. God is repletively present; he is present, fully and completely, in all places at all times, and into eternity, both in the new heaven and new earth and in hell. So the distance cannot be a spatial distance.

What is it then? It is a distance that has its focus in the being of God in comparison to the being of his creatures. That is, it is an ontological distance. God is, as the Confession has already affirmed, "infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible..." As infinite in being, as immutable, immense and eternal, God is wholly other; he is beyond anything that mere creatures can think or experience. We cannot conceive of what God's infinity is; our minds cannot grasp or contain what God's eternity is. He is limited by nothing, not by space and not by time. So, there is a "distance," a separation of being between God and his creatures. God, and He alone, is independent (a se). Everything else is dependent on Him.

This is no philosophical idea or human speculation. It is rather a necessary implication of the first words of the Bible - "In the beginning, God..." These words affirm that at the beginning of creation (including of time), God was. Given that truth, we confess that God alone is independent; what could God have needed when there was nothing existing but Him alone? He existed before creation and nothing else did. His existence was not dependent on anyone or anything else; it could not be dependent. Before there was creation, there was only God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was no time and there was no space; there was no "when" of God's existence, nor was there a "where." There was only the Triune God.

It is incumbent on the Christian to recognize this before, and in the context of, our thinking about God's covenantal relation to creation. This is why the Confession begins where it does. The problem with any theology that will not confess the absolute independence and sovereignty of God is that it does not begin to think about God's existence and independence prior to his act of creation and of covenant. A theology that begins with "God-in-relationship" is a theology that will inevitably veer from the truth of Scripture, and from a true confession of God's character, as well as His covenant with man

Chapter 6

i. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

ii. By this sin, they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

iii. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation.

iv. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

v. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.

vi. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. 

The Confession begins the sixth chapter with a succinct description of the Fall committed by Adam and Eve as recorded in Genesis three. It considers this a historical event, and not a mythical tale constructed by people living in an ancient culture. Adam and Eve were real individuals, and they were faced with a real temptation orchestrated by Satan.   

Why is it important for the Confession to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve, as well as the events in the Garden of Eden? It is important because this is precisely how Adam and Eve sinned, and consequently why God punished them. The punishment for sin is terrifying and real. The act that brought punishment is equally real.

The first paragraph of this chapter concludes with an extremely difficult theological statement. According to God's "wise and holy counsel," he permitted Adam and Eve to fall and to sin. This is a theological point that is often very hard for some to grasp and even accept. Chapter three addresses God's decrees, which are eternal and unchangeable. Chapter four explains God's providence over all things. Why then does a wise and holy God decree and providentially govern the Fall and sin? 

The Confession teaches us that God was "pleased" to permit the Fall and sin because it would manifest His glory. The answer the Confession gives maybe hard to accept, but that may say something more about us and our view of God. God does everything to magnify His own glory because He is perfect, most pure, and most holy. If we believe this about who God is, then we also must acknowledge that in His infinite wisdom He permitted the Fall and sin because it would bring Him glory. 

In paragraph two of this chapter we have a more detailed statement about the consequences of Adam and Eve's fall. Immediately following the Fall, Adam and Eve were no longer in communion with God.  A. A. Hodge writes, "By this sin man must have instantly been cut off from this loving communion of the Divine Spirit." In other words, the relationship with God was broken; and the consequences extended to both the moral and spiritual abilities, and the entire body. Adam and Ever were now "dead in sin", and this was a state of total depravity (more on total depravity in paragraph four).

Paragraph three introduces the crucial doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin. Adam and Eve's sin was imputed to all "their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation." What does it mean for the sin of Adam to be imputed to all his descendants? It means that everyone is included in the "guilty" verdict of Adam's first sin. To some this sounds absolutely unfair. Why should everyone be condemned for Adam's action? Shouldn't individuals be judged for their own specific actions? The Bible and the Confession teach us that Adam was appointed as our covenant or federal head. He stood as a representative, chosen by God, to be given the probationary test that would impact all of humankind. Again, it is important to remember that this was also according to God's decree established by His holy and wise counsel. Moreover, Adam was created in state of holiness and righteousness, unlike the sinful state in which we find ourselves.

This leads to the next point in paragraph four. It is not only the guilt of Adam's first sin that is imputed, but all of Adam and Eve's descendants likewise inherit a corrupt sinful nature. As a result, all humans now have a nature that desires sin and is in rebellion against God. This is total depravity. There is no part of a men or women that is not corrupted by sin; everyone refuses to obey God. Ephesians 2:1 describes the unconverted as "dead in trespasses and sins". Physical death is a state of complete inability. Spiritual death, being dead in sins, results in the same complete spiritual inability, which is an inability to obey God. 

The fifth paragraph changes the focus from the unconverted to the Christian. While Christians, because of the redeeming work of Christ, are pardoned from the guilt of sin, and their nature is renewed, they still sin, and sometimes sin grievously. This often leads Christians to either doubt that they are truly saved or believe in an unbiblical doctrine like perfectionism. We must not fall into either misunderstanding. Christians are justified and declared righteous, regenerated, and yet still in need of the process of sanctification to put death the sinful nature. 

Finally, the sixth paragraph explains clearly that every sin, no matter how great or small, is a violation of God's righteous law and deserves God's just punishment. The punishment for sin includes not only death, but also other consequences both in this temporal world and the eternal age to come. This may sound very cruel, but God's holiness demands perfect obedience. Thankfully, the Confession will go on to explain how the demand for perfect obedience was satisfied in the redemptive work of Christ. 

Dr. Jeffrey K. Jue is the Stephen Tong associate professor of Reformed Theology and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Chapter 5.6, 7

vi. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.

vii. As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of His Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof.

The Confession concludes its teaching on divine providence by distinguishing between the ways in which God governs the unrighteous and the loving care that he constantly gives to his people.

With regard to the ungodly, there are certain things that God does to confirm them in their ungodliness, such as blinding their eyes to the truth of his word. This is what God sometimes did to Israel (see Isa. 6:9-10; Rom. 11:7-8). Part of God's righteous judgment against sin is the hardening of the sinner's heart.

But when the Confession talks about the ways in which God's providence affects unbelievers, most of the things it mentions are things that God does not do for them. He does not give them his saving grace. He does not persuade their minds of the truth of his Word, or open their hearts to his love. He does not protect the gifts that he has given to them, whether spiritual or otherwise. He does not deliver them from temptation or protect them from the power of Satan.

In short, God abandons the wicked to their wickedness, which is only just. As a result of this hard providence, the ungodly are unable to profit from the means of grace, such as prayer or the preaching of God's Word. God becomes so hateful to them that such divine gifts harden their hearts instead of softening them.

All of this stands in absolute contrast to the loving care that God provides for his own people. While it is true that his providence rules over all, he shows special grace to the true followers of Christ, or the church. Indeed, he promises to work everything for our good (Romans 8:28). 

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 5.5

v. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends. 

When Christians think about providence, we often think first of God's generous provision for our daily needs. But there are also darker dimensions of God's work in our lives, the experiences that led the hymn writer William Cowper to write about "a frowning providence."

As we have seen, evil and sin do not fall outside the governance of God. Here the Confession makes this truth personal as it addresses the temptations we face and the sin that we see within our hearts. God does not always deliver us from temptation; nor does he sanctify us perfectly in this life. Rather, in his wise providence, he frequently exposes us to temptation and reveals in various ways the deep depravity of our hearts.

God's purposes for doing this are entirely beneficial. Sometimes temptations come as a form of fatherly correction for our former sins. Sometimes God uncovers our ungodliness so that we can see our sin and turn to him for grace. Sometimes he uses trials and temptations to teach us to rely more completely on his love and mercy. These are some of the wise, righteous, and ultimately gracious purposes that God may have in allowing us to struggle with sin.

This is one of the many places where we are reminded that the men who wrote the Westminster Confession were pastors who had a heart for the people of God. They wanted us to have the comfort of knowing that God is not against us but has good purposes for us, even when we are struggling with sin and temptation. When life does not seem to be going well for us, we should not doubt the providence of God, but wait patiently to see its good work revealed in our lives.

Chapter 5.4

iv. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

Here we encounter a great mystery--as great as any mystery in time or thought. We have said that nothing falls outside the providence of God, which extends to all creatures and all actions.  This is evident from the very Godness of God, as well as from many statements that Scripture makes about his sovereignty. Yet this raises a difficult and obvious question: If God governs everything that happens, does this make him the author of evil and the approver of sin?

The Confession begins its answer by asserting that sinful actions--everything from Adam's first rebellion to the "little" sins of omission and commission that I commit every day--are inside (not outside) the providence of God. Otherwise, God could not really be in control.

Nor does God simply permit these sins. On the contrary, in his wise providence he sets limits on the destructive power of sin and uses our misdeeds to accomplish his holy purposes. When considered from the perspective of eternity, what Joseph said about the ungodly actions of his older brothers may rightly be said of all human sins: "You meant evil . . . but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20).

This does not mean, however, that God is implicated in humanity's sin. God does not commit any sin; the guilt belongs only to the sinner. Here it helps to remember a distinction that was made in section two--the distinction between God as the First Cause and all the other causes that operate within his world. The will of the sinner is one of the "second causes" that accomplishes God's purposes. We cannot blame God for what we do. In choosing to sin, each of us bears moral responsibility for our own actions.

None of this completely resolves the mystery, of course.  God foreknows and foreordains everything, including evil; nevertheless, he is not the author of sin. The Westminster Confession refuses to give ground on either of these truths because both are taught in Holy Scripture. 

Chapter 5.1

i. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. 

Having created the universe, God did not simply leave it behind or let it run down. On the contrary, he continues to care for, sustain, and superintend the things that he has made. This is the doctrine of the providence of God.

As is characteristic of Calvinism, the Westminster Confession is all-encompassing in its description of the scope of God's providence. If we ask what stands outside his sovereign oversight, the answer is nothing. God's ongoing governance of his creation includes every created thing and every action or interaction that takes place throughout the entire span of the universe.  

This maximal definition of providence immediately raises all kinds of questions. What about human freedom? Is there any meaningful place left for personal decision-making? And what about the problem of evil? If God directs and disposes everything, doesn't that make him the author of sin--everything from the Fall of Adam itself to the latest school shooting?

The Confession will get to these and other thorny questions in due course, but its starting point is a definition of providence that lets God be God. We will never resolve the mysteries that come with divine providence by admitting that some things are out of his control. 

In taking this view, the Westminster Divines were on solid ground biblically, for the Bible makes the strongest possible claims about the power of God to make everything happen according to the purposes of his eternal will. They were also on solid ground pastorally. The words they chose to describe this doctrine-- words like wisdom, goodness, and mercy--make it perfectly clear that God's providence is praiseworthy.

Dr. Philip Ryken, formerly pastor of Philadelphia's historic Tenth Presbyterian Church, is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 4.2, Part Two

ii. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change.  Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.

As we conclude our study of the Confession's teaching on creation, we should note how focused the divines were on the redemptive message of the Bible. We rightly distinguish between the Bible's teaching on creation and redemption, but the Confession reminds us how they are related.  

In this respect, the Confession first reminds us of Adam's spiritual and moral ability prior to the Fall. He was "endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness." What a fitting covenant head Adam was for the human race! Adam and Eve had "the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it." Our first parents were able to obey God and to live without sin. Reading these words, we are reminded of all that we have lost through the calamity of sin! The Fall was possible because Adam and Eve had "a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change." 

Reformed theology strongly rejects the Arminian doctrine of free will, except when it comes to Adam. Prior to the Fall, Adam was created with a truly free will, since he had the ability both to honor God through obedience and to rebel against God in transgression. After the Fall, man in sin possesses only the latter (see Eph. 2:1-3). In Adam, we also see the relationship between righteousness and happiness. While Adam and Eve kept God's law, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures." So it is for God's people today, that having been restored to spiritual ability by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, we now find happiness through lifestyles that are obedient to God's Word and experience at least a partial restoration of the dominion which Adam lost (see 2 Cor. 3:18).

The Confession particularly wants to emphasize that Adam was not in covenant with God only in a general sense but also in a specific covenant. While God's Covenant with Man falls under the heading of chapter 7, it is impossible fully to treat man's created state without noting the Covenant of Works: "Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (see Gen. 2:16-17)  All of history was shaped by Adam's disobedience of this command, with the subsequent Fall of the human race into the condemnation and corruption of sin. Between mankind today and the blessings Adam and Eve once enjoyed in the Garden stands the historical reality of the Fall.  

All the rest of the Bible presents God's grand redemptive plan to overcome the Fall into sin and its consequences. To undo what Adam did in sin, mankind will need a new covenant head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who did not break God's commands and who perfectly fulfilled God's covenant of works, so that through union with Christ in faith believers may be saved from Adam's sin and our own (see Rom. 5:18-19). In this life, believers in Christ receive a righteousness gained by Christ and a partial, though increasing, restoration of our natures in knowledge and true holiness. When Christ's covenant of grace has fully achieved its harvest work, Adam's offspring will experience in Christ the fullness of the blessing that God intended through Creation as we enjoy the new heavens and the new earth in the return of the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus.  

As we consider all that Adam lost through sin - "knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness" after God's own image - we are reminded of the glorious restoration that we are now experiencing through faith, and we are motivated to enter more fully now into the blessings appointed by God for those who are in Christ.

Chapter 4.2

ii. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change.  Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.

The Westminster Confession's second paragraph on Creation fittingly centers on mankind. An important emphasis is on the distinctiveness of mankind versus the other creatures. One of the great problems with the evolutionary dogma so dominant in our culture today is that it strips mankind of the special dignity that comes with being made in God's image. It is interesting that the Confession itself does not deal directly with the details of Genesis 2:7, "the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature."  The Larger Catechism is very clear, however, that "God formed the body of the man of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of the man" (WLC 17), which clearly rules out any theory of evolutionary processes involved in the creation of Adam and Eve.

Whereas the secular humanist would have mankind look downward to the beasts for his identity, the Bible would have man look upwards to God. Psalm 8:5-8, for instance, places Adam in a mediating position between the angels and the lower created order: "you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea." Notice that while Adam is placed between the heavenly beings and the earthly beasts, his identity is found above rather than below. He was made "a little lower than the heavenly beings" rather than a little above the beasts. Moreover, Adam was invested with authority on God's behalf to rule the creatures of the earth. This doctrine makes a world of difference in how we think about ourselves. We are special among all the other beings of the earth, "crowned with glory and honor," and have special obligations to God as his vicegerents in the world.

The Bible's teaching on creation further assails the secularist mindset in the clear ordering of the beings that God made. Neo-pagan culture is determined to eradicate all biblical distinctions: the distinction between God and man, male and female, humankind and the beasts, good and evil, etc.  But the Bible's teaching establishes a clear order. What a mistake it is, therefore, when Christians think it helps our witness by downplaying the Bible's distinctions, especially when it comes to gender. Instead, we bear testimony to God the Creator by wholesomely emphasizing the gender pattern which is essential to God's good design in Creation. Christians should therefore not accommodate the cultural demand that men and women be treated as if they are the same. At the same time, the Bible does clearly show the fundamental unity and shared dignity of men and women within humanity. Similarly, the Confession emphasizes that man was made with a God-given awareness of moral truth. There is good and evil and mankind was made to know them, "having the law of God written in their hearts."

The Confession presents a strong doctrine of mankind as bearing the image of God. By stating that men and women were created "with reasonable and immortal souls," the divines point out that mankind was made to understand and know God.  We were created to worship and were obliged by our creation to obey and glorify God.  

Chapter 3

i. God from all eternity did, by the most wise (Rom. 11:33) and holy counsel of His own will, freely (Rom. 9:15, 18), and unchangeably (Heb. 6:17) ordain whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11): yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (Matt. 17:12; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28); nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (John 19:11; Prov. 16:33).
Nowadays we hear much of a God who tries His best but can't be blamed if things don't work out very well. All manner of obstacles frustrate God, we are told. Natural laws tie His hands from intervening. Random accidents make a mess of things. The devil runs loose. Worst of all, God's pleadings with humanity often fall upon deaf ears and He can do nothing about it. How frustrated this God must be!

Nevertheless, it is said, as God watches from a distance He hopes that men and women will exercise their free wills to discover His love and their own self-worth. Such is the "kinder and gentler" deity of our day. It is no wonder that some label the religion of the age as "moralistic therapeutic deism."

The Bible knows nothing of a frustrated God. Psalm 115:3 sets God apart from all idols by declaring, "But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased." God works out His will in all things: He "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph. 1:11). The word "counsel" means a wise plan including goals and ways of getting them done.
God has a plan. Every intelligent person makes plans; only a fool sets goals but gives no thought to the means by which he will accomplish them. A good and wise God would never have created the world without a plan for what He desired to see take place in it. His counsel is eternal, a purpose formed in His mind before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2; Rev. 13:8; 17:8).

God's plan is perfect and unchanging. Many of our plans are frustrated despite all our intelligence and effort. We must shift to plan B, or C, or Z. It is not so with God; His plans never fail. "The LORD bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: he maketh the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the LORD standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations" (Ps. 33:10-11). Therefore, those whom God has chosen to bless are truly blessed (v.12)! His sovereign will guarantees our ultimate and perfect happiness.

The Holy Scriptures call God's plan "the decree of the most High" (Dan. 4:24) because it is the authoritative command of the supreme King. The Confession is entirely biblical then in speaking of God's "decree" by which He did "ordain" events. For example, the Bible says that God's "decree" established the properties of creation (Ps. 148:6; Prov. 8:29; Jer. 5:22), the destruction of sinners (Isa. 10:22; Zeph. 2:2), and the triumphant kingdom of His Son (Ps. 2:7). He "ordained" or appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet before he was born (Jer. 1:5).

God's decree is all-comprehensive. God has decreed when the rain will fall and where the lightning will strike (Job 28:26). Regardless of what men may decide, no good thing and no bad thing can take place apart from God's decree (Lam. 3:37-38). God's counsel was formed long ago and includes all that will take place to the very end, including the rise and fall of kings and nations--and His counsel will stand (Isa. 14:24-27; 46:10-11).  

It is not just the big things that God has decreed. Whether you will live to see tomorrow depends on His will (James 4:15). The condition of every little bird and every hair on our heads is wrapped up in His plan (Matt. 10:29-30). For this reason, our Lord Jesus said that God's children need not fear men (Matt. 10:31). The Confession's theology is a doctrine of hope and confidence.

The Westminster divines were careful however to fence off the doctrine of God's eternal decree from any kind of fatalism. First, they insisted that God is holy and righteous while decreeing sin. He cannot sin, nor does He entice anyone to sin (James 1:13). God uses sinners as tools in His sovereign hand to accomplish His good and righteous purposes (Isa. 10:5-7, 15). They plan evil but His plan overrules theirs for good (Gen. 50:20). God knows how to draw straight lines with crooked sticks.

Second, they taught that God's decree does not nullify the reality of man's will. God predetermines events but people are still responsible for their choices (Luke 22:22). Men's choices flow from their own hearts (Prov. 4:23; Mark 7:21). But God's will rules over men's hearts so that their choices fulfill His purposes. "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Prov. 21:1). People dream and scheme, but God's plan will stand (Prov. 19:21).

Third, they taught that though God's decree is the primary cause why all things happen, there are still "second causes" which God uses as means to His ends. God decreed that His Son would die, yet He did it by the hands of wicked men (John 19:11; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Some events like the rolling of dice are truly random or contingent on a human level, although God still controls exactly how they land (Prov. 16:33)--perhaps to judge greedy gamblers! 

Therefore God's eternal decree does not encourage us to be lazy and careless in our use of proper means to do good. If God intends to prosper you, ordinarily He does so by moving you to work hard at your vocation, for "the hand of the diligent maketh rich" (Prov. 10:4). If God plans to save your soul, often He begins by motivating you to attend the preaching of the Word, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom.10:17).

What God's eternal decree does encourage is humility. Let us never think or speak boastfully about what we intend to accomplish. Apart from His will we can do nothing. Let us never proudly say, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Let us rather proclaim, "Jesus is Lord!"

Chapter 2.3, Part Two

iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

To limit the Confession's commitment to Trinitarianism to the two sentences that conclude Chapter two would be a serious mistake. Though simplistic revisionists have seen fit to add a chapter on the Holy Spirit, the entire Confession is viewed from a Trinitarian perspective, including the Confession's robust portrayal of the work of the Spirit in the Application of Redemption that comprises the bulk of the central sections of the Confession. 

Of practical import, to neglect the Father will make us soft and lazy, folk of dull consciences inclined to antinomianism and prone to complain at what we view as a lack of parental care for our most urgent needs. Ignoring the Son will lead us to make little of our need for a blood-bought redemption or of giving praise and glory to another, encouraging us in the default of every Adamic heir - a treadmill of works righteousness as we endeavor to make idols of ourselves. Neglecting the Spirit will encourage worldliness of the worst kind, ignoring what he provides in on-going transformational holiness in fruit-bearing, Christ-like lives. 

To get a grasp of how Trinitarianly robust seventeenth century Reformed theology can be, read John Owen's, Of Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saint's Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded (1658), otherwise known as Volume 2 of the 16-volumed set of Owen's Works. He will make us appear as theological Lilliputians.