Staying Doctrinally-Settled

“There is a great deal of comfort in skepticism,” writes Gordon H. Clark.  “If truth is impossible of attainment, then one need not suffer the pains of searching for it… Skepticism dispenses with all effort… Skepticism is the position that nothing can be demonstrated.”[1]

Sadly, rather than displaying a Berean spirit in sanctified searching and confirming God’s truths, many Christians express a default “authenticity” in skeptical generalities to excuse themselves from determining and affirming specifics in deference to Scriptural authority. 

Ministerial candidates take flabby, unproven exceptions to the Church’s time-tested confessional standards almost as a rule these days.  Few believers would be compelled by R.C. Sproul’s appeal to engage in strenuous study and show oneself approved: “I think that we should seek to be faithful in small things that we may be prepared to be faithful in many things.”[2] Yet, as comfortable as skeptical non-commitment may feel, Clark warns, “Suspension of judgment… is but a disguised, if dignified, form of unbelief.”[3]

How refreshing to encounter Thomas Watson’s opening chapter to his book, A Body of Divinity, made up of his sermons through the Westminster Shorter Catechism. [4]   In “A Preliminary Discourse to Catechising,” he writes, “Intending next Lord’s day to enter upon the work of catechising, it will not be amiss to give you a preliminary discourse, to show you how needful it is for Christians to be well instructed in the grounds of religion.”[5]

Watson’s text for this opening sermonic discourse is Colossians 1:23: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled …  His emphasis is on being settled in Christianity, and he would have us look not to succor ourselves in suspended reservations but to secure our resolve in the details of what the Scriptures principally teach regarding our belief concerning God and His required duty of us.[6]

Citing 1 Peter 5:10 and Jude 13, Watson writes, “It is the duty of Christians to be settled in the doctrine of faith … that they might not be meteors in the air, but fixed stars”.[7]  He continues:

“To be unsettled in religion argues want of judgment.  If their heads were not giddy, men would not reel so fast from one opinion to another.  It argues lightness.  As feathers will be blown every way, so will feathery Christians.”[8]

Such theological lightweights are the opposite of the church being “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).  Thus, “…unsettled Christians are childish; the truths they embrace at one time, they reject at another.”[9]  And isn’t this constant wavering in fact to be the wayward man James exposes as always unsettled and thus “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8)?

Watson particularly warns would-be preachers and their Presbytery examiners about being unsettled:

“It is the great end of the word preached, to bring us to a settlement in religion … This is the grand design of preaching, not only for the enlightening, but for the establishing of souls; not only to guide them in the right way, but to keep them in it.  Now, if you be not settled, you do not answer God’s end in giving you the ministry.” (He references Eph. 4:11-14 and Jer. 23:29.)[10]

We should seek certainty in God’s revelation of Himself and His will, with the disposition to change when we are shown we need a better understanding, just as Apollos heeded the correction of Priscilla and Aquila.[11]  We should be dedicated to the fact that God intends to be understood and obeyed by us, and that when we do so, we are building our house upon the Rock. 

Watson continues with a list of reasons why Christians should seek to be settled in religion:

“To be settled in religion is both a Christian’s excellence and honour. (Proverbs 16:31.)

Such as are not settled in the faith can never suffer for it.  Sceptics in religion hardly ever prove martyrs … Unsettled Christians do not consult what is best, but what is safest. (Heb. 6:6.)

Not to be settled in the faith is provoking to God. (Psalm 78:57, 59.) 

If ye are not settled in religion, you will never grow … ‘the plant which is continually removing never thrives.’  (Eph. 4:15.)

There is great need to be settled, because there are so many things to unsettle us … A … cheat of seducers is, labouring to vilify and nullify sound orthodox teachers.  They would eclipse those that bring the truth, like black vapours that darken the light of heaven; they would defame others, that they themselves may be more admired. (1 John 2:26; Eph. 4:14.)

By unsettledness, men imitate lapsed angles. (Jude 6; Job 38:7; 1 Tim. 3:6.)”[12]

Continuing with Colossians 1:23, Watson goes on to say that to be settled Christians we must be well grounded, explaining the Greek word intimates the building of a well-laid foundation.  First, we must emphasize the fundamentals: “We can never worship God acceptably, unless we worship him regularly; and how can we do that, if we are ignorant of the rules and elements of religion?”[13]  What’s more,

“The knowledge of principles conduces to the making of a complete Christian [cf. Rom. 12:1; Psalm 9:10; Eph. 3:17-19]. This grounding is the best way to being settled … A tree, that it may be well settled, must be well rooted; so, if you would be well settled in religion, you must be rooted in its principles … Knowledge of principles is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”[14]

This grounding as principled people is vital so that we do not “embrace every novel opinion, and dress … in as many religions as fashions” and thus be “unlearned and unstable.” (2 Pet. 3:16.)[15]

And what is the most sure way to be so firmly fixed? “Catechising is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people.  I fear one reason why there has been no more good done by preaching, has been because the chief heads and articles in religion have not been explained in a catechistical way.  Catechising is laying the foundation.” (Heb. 6:1).[16]

For those dubious of the Scriptural basis of catechisms (wrongly assuming they are a Roman Catholic invention), Watson points out that,

"This way of catechizing is not novel, it is apostolic.  The primitive church had their forms of catechism as those phrases imply, a ‘form of sound words,’ [2 Tim 1:13] and ‘the first principles of the oracles of God,’ [Heb. 5:12].[17]  The church had its catechumenoi, as Grotius and Erasmus observe.  Many ancient fathers have written for it, as Fulgentius, Austin, Theodoret, Lactantius, and others.  God has given great success to it.  By thus laying down the grounds of religion catechistically, Christians have been clearly instructed and wondrously built up in the Christian faith, insomuch that Julian the apostate, seeing the great success of catechising, put down all schools and places of public literature, and instructing of youth.  It is my design, therefore (with the blessing of God), to begin this work of catechising the next Sabbath Day; and I intend every other Sabbath, in the afternoon, to make it my whole work to lay down the grounds and fundamentals of religion in a catechistical way."[18]

Now here is the vital stuff of sound Christian thinking and living.  As Clark put it, “A life without doctrine verges on insanity; at best it would be a desultory life without conviction or purpose.”[19]

I think of my dear seminary professor, Steven F. Miller, now in heaven, who taught us (using his own skillfully drawn diagrams) to think of the Westminster Standards as a tree with roots and fruit.  He shared how he learned in his ministry that any time he had apparent disagreements with the teachings and Scripture references of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms, he deferred to the divines, saying, “They are probably right and I am probably wrong, and this always proved to be true.”

May we similarly follow Watson’s guidance and give ourselves to historic confessional catechizing as a regular church experience in leadership and learning with the heart of Psalm 119:89: For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He also serves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as community engagement coordinator as well as assistant editor for MeetthePuritans.org.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA..


Related Links

"Taking Exception" by Guy Waters

"Holding Fast the Confession" by Carl Trueman and Jonathan Master

"Brothers, Ordain Your Deacons" by Adam Parker

The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman

The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. by David Hall


Notes

[1] Gordon H. Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things: An Introduction to Philosophy, vol. 5 of The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark (Unicoi, Tenn., Trinity Foundation, 2005), 26.  He adds, “Skepticism refutes itself because it is internally self-contradictory.  If skepticism is true, it is false” 27.  And later, “ … probability without knowledge cannot be a guide for a moral life … probability cannot be had unless one has truth first.  The skeptics refer to propositions as false, doubtful, or probable; but these terms would have no meaning unless there is some truth … unless a man knows the truth, he cannot know what is probable.  Accordingly, if truth is not known, there is no reason for acting in one way rather than another.  Life has become meaningless … The skeptics, ancient and modern, do not seem to have paid sufficient attention to logic … the laws of logic … a skeptic cannot propound his skepticism without using them.  It is this that makes skepticism self-contradictory” 206.  And, “Though the existence and nature of God is insusceptible of formal demonstration, yet if Christian theism is true, there is no mystery in the fact that all human minds use the same categories, and there is no suspicion that the objective world or some Ding-an-sich escapes their necessary connections.  Skepticism is ruled out and truth becomes possible” 222.

[2] R.C. Sproul, https://renewingyourmind.org/2021/08/28/to-cover-or-not-to-cover? (audio lecture).

[3] Clark, 28.

[4] “Thomas Watson (ca. 1620-1686) was a[n English Puritan] Presbyterian who was ejected under the Act of Uniformity (1662) but continued to preach privately until he obtained a license to preach again.  His many books show doctrinal depth, strong spirituality, and extensive application and illustrations for the Christian life.” Donald K. McKim, Everyday Prayer with the Puritans (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2021), 131.

[5] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 1.

[6] Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A number 5.

[7] Watson, 1.

[8] Ibid, 1.

[9] Ibid, 1.

[10] Ibid, 2.

[11] Acts 18:24-26.

[12] Watson, 2-3.

[13] Here we see the necessity of insisting on the proper teaching and practicing of the Regulative Principle of Worship.

[14] Ibid, 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.

[16] Ibid, 5.  The author is grateful for the influence he experienced attending the worship of conservative and confessionally committed Dutch Reformed Churches that usually include one sermon per Lord's Day going through the Heidelberg Catechism as it was so designed for use.  Click here for a sermon series by the author through the Westminster Larger Catechism per this earlier influence.  He is inspired to preach through the Westminster Shorter Catechism every so often in the future by this influence and the example and expressions of Thomas Watson in this here examined opening discourse sermon introducing what would follow in subsequent preaching.

[17] Ibid, 5.  See also Carl Trueman’s, The Creedal Imperative.

[18] Ibid, 5. He also said that he hoped, should he not live to complete this catechising, another would take up the baton and finish the race for him.

[19] Clark, 62.