A Missing Question in the Westminster Catechisms?

The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms have been effectively employed by churches around the world for nearly four centuries. Yet, strange to say, these well-loved documents may be missing a question.

I’ll use the Shorter Catechism to demonstrate what I mean. WSC 85 asks, “What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” This is a hugely important question! The answer comes in three parts:

  1. Faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Repentance unto life. 
  3. An answer that may make any self-respecting, sola gratia & sola fide holding Protestant spit out their coffee: The diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.

There are things and our use of things that God requires for us to escape his wrath and curse. These things and our use of them is how Jesus gives us the benefits of redemption. In other words, this is how Jesus gives us salvation.

Now, the Westminster Catechisms are still thoroughly Protestant and Reformed and have not lost sight of the free grace of God in Christ. In fact, all three parts of the answer to WSC 85 prize the grace of God. After explaining the first two parts of this answer—faith in Christ in WSC 86, and repentance unto life in WSC 87—WSC 88 asks “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?”

What are the things that we are to use by which Jesus gives us the benefits of redemption? They are Christ’s “ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” Christ uses his word, his sacraments, and prayer to make salvation effective for his people. These are the three things we are to use to escape God’s wrath and curse and by which Jesus gives us salvation.

This obviously prompts questions and challenges. How are these things effective for salvation? Who makes them effective? What happened to grace? Don’t we need the Holy Spirit? What are these ordinances, anyways? And the Westminster Catechisms are ready to answer.

The First Two Means

WSC 89 asks “How is the word of God made effectual to salvation?”  There is a scene in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where an illiterate sailor is pretending to read the Bible. It’s pointed out to him that he can’t read, and he responds “It’s the Bible: you get credit for trying.” This is most certainly not how the word of God is made effectual for salvation. God does not look at our efforts to read and understand the Bible and give us salvation credits. Rather,

“The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

God has established and provided his word as a means of converting sinners and building up saints, and so God by his Holy Spirit uses his word to accomplish exactly that. The thing that needs to be used by us is diligent reading and listening to God’s word. But God the Spirit does not reward our effort for our effort’s sake; the word is not effective for salvation without faith.

God gives us his word for us to respond to it in faith. He applies it to us by his Spirit. It is in this way that we receive the salvation and redemption of Jesus, because by his word through his Spirit he graciously gives us Jesus.

The Catechism goes on in WSC 90 to explain how we are to use God’s word to this end (attend to it diligently, with preparation and prayer, receiving it with faith and love, laying it up in our hearts, and practicing it in our lives) and then repeats this pattern with the sacraments in WSC 91-97. How are the sacraments made effectual for salvation? Not by our effort, but by Christ’s institution, the work of the Holy Spirit, as we receive them in faith. God gives us his sacraments for us to respond to in faith, and applies them to us by his Spirit. It is in this way that we receive the salvation and redemption of Jesus. The Catechisms specify that these sacraments are Baptism and the Lord’s supper, which are to be used according to Christ’s scriptural appointment, received in faith and love.

The Third Means and the Missing Question

And so we arrive at the third ordinance, the third and final means whereby Christ applies to us the benefits of his redemption. The third thing we are to use to escape the wrath and curse of God. The third means by which Christ makes salvation effectual for the election. We come to prayer.

But WSC 98 only asks, “What is prayer?”

The pattern has been disrupted. Nowhere in the catechisms are we provided with the answer to our question, “How is prayer made effectual for salvation?” This is the missing question of the Westminster Catechisms. How is this thing, prayer, to be used by us so that we may escape the wrath and curse of God and receive the benefits of Christ’s redemption?

Fools rush in where angels, and the Westminster divines, feared to tread. But what I have observed as a pastor teaching through the catechisms is that this gap (i.e. how prayer is made effectual for salvation) is something noticed by students. An answer to the missing question could be helpful.

Arriving at an Answer

We can arrive at fitting biblical answer through comparing the catechisms’ definition of what prayer is to how God makes the word and sacraments effectual for salvation:

“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

This is the answer of WSC 98. The Larger Catechism (178) is almost identical in its answer, only adding “by the help of his [Christ’s] Spirit.”

What is true for the word and sacraments as means of applying the benefits of Christ’s redemption is true for prayer. For the former, we see that the Son institutes and directs, that the Spirit effects and applies, and the object is our sanctification and communion with God. All of this is by unmerited action of God (grace) to be received by faith.

The wrath and curse of God are first and foremost loss of communion and joy with him (WSC 19, cf. WLC 20, 27). The benefits of Christ’s redemption include the restoration of this joyous communion with him (WLC 65-86). Salvation being made effectual includes then, a growth in joyous communion with God. The Larger Catechism 83 says that the communion that the elect enjoy with Christ in his glory, now, includes a sense of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, and hope of glory. This is distinguished from the sense of God’s wrath and curse that we otherwise possess, which reflects that state of loss of communion.

In prayer, we come to God on the basis of our union with Christ and in his name, and do so as God’s children, in reconciled relationship and joyous communion with him. Moreover, in prayer we speak to God according to the guidance of his word (WSC 99). Specifically, prayer is a means of coming to God, guided by his word, empowered by his Spirit, to receive all the benefits of communion that WLC 83 lists. Prayer is a means of growing in our assurance of God’s grace and favor towards us as his children on the basis of our union with Christ.

This is what we see in Scripture. We are to pray to God in Christ’s name (John 16:23-24), guided by the Holy Spirit who helps us pray as we should (Romans 8:26-27) because we have received the Spirit of the Son who helps us pray to our Father and understand our communion with God as his adopted children (Romans 8:14-17). And this communion with God by the Son through the Spirit is exactly what Jesus prayers for on our behalf: to joyfully know God in his glory by his Son (John 17:21-24).

This allows us to answer our question, "How is prayer made effectual for salvation?"

Answer: "The Spirit of God helps us by faith to lift up our hearts, minds, and souls to God our Father; coming to him in the name of Christ, and thereby effectually growing us in our communion with him."

Prayer is a means of deepening our communion with Christ in his glory, whereby we enjoy a growth in assurance, sense of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, and hope of glory. This is what salvation is aimed at: God’s glory and our enjoyment of him. Prayer is the means by which God freely (by grace!) provides a deepening of that joyous communion with him in faith.

Cameron Shaffer (M.Div, Redeemer Seminary; M.Th, University of Glasgow) is the pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and children. He can be found online at cameronshaffer.com

Related Links

Podcast: "I Feel the Need..."

The Westminster Larger Catechism: a Commentary by J. G. Vos

"The Simplicity and Profundity of Prayer" by Mark Johnston

"Keeping with Catechizing" by Joel Beeke

Persistent Prayer by Guy Richard

Thoughts on Public Prayer by Samuel Miller