The Logic of Westminster's Confession

Have you ever wondered about the topical and logical order of the Westminster Confession of Faith?  Not all of it; just the ordo salutis.  After chapter nine lays out man’s fourfold state chapter ten begins with what we might think of as a typical ordering of those blessings which accompany a Spirit wrought faith union with Christ.  Chapter ten spells out God’s effectual call which leads to chapter eleven and an admirably described doctrine of justification.  This is followed by adoption in chapter twelve, which is that other legal benefit, with sanctification coming on its heels in chapter thirteen.  But even one with rudimentary theological skills and a good knowledge of the Bible’s basic content will be brought up short by the placement of chapters fourteen and fifteen.  These cover faith and repentance or what is typically called conversion.

Do you see the problem?  One fine and well used commentary on the Confession expresses the difficulty in his comments on chapters fourteen and fifteen,

At this point we depart from the order of the Confession of Faith so that we may discuss conversion in its logical relationship to effectual calling.  Calling becomes effectual when conversion ensues.  Only as conversion takes place is there effected justification, adoption, sanction and perseverance.[1]

This commentator is not looking to find fault with the Confession but instead considers the order of salvation from a logical perspective.  Thus, his method requires him to “move” chapters fourteen and fifteen so that he can deal with their content between chapters ten and eleven. 

He even hints at the reason behind the Confession’s ordering of these topics.  He supposes that the Westminster theologians wanted to first consider God’s acts followed by man’s response.  He was on the right track.  However, Benjamin B. Warfield is even clearer.  He writes, “The architectonic principle of the Westminster Confession is supplied by the schematization of the Federal theology, which had obtained by this time in Britain…”[2]  Or to put it another way, the Westminster divines dealt with “the order first of the benefits conferred under the covenant (Vocation, Justification, Adoption, Sanctification) and then of the duties required under the Covenant (Faith, Repentance, Good works, Perseverance, Assurance).”[3]  If I may summarize Warfield’s point the idea would be akin to the Biblical and covenantal expression used by God to describe His relationship to His people, “I will be your God and you will be My people” (II Corinthians 6:16); benefits first and duties second.

That this is the method of the Confession seems obvious not only on the surface of the document but is also supported by the similar methodology of Westminster’s Shorter Catechism.  In Question 3 we are asked, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?”  Answer, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” 

That the architectonic principle of these documents mirrors covenantal language is hardly debatable when put in light of Scripture’s own covenantal statements.  What is more, to lose this basic context and methodology is to lose something of the richness of the theology itself.  Today we are indebted to those who are calling us back to the roots of our Confession of Faith, which Warfield so aptly described as the “ablest and ripest product of that Great Reformation, which was so fruitful in symbolic literature.”[4]  May we continue to delight ourselves in the Confession of Faith, which is indeed the ripest of Reformation fruit.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.


[1] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1964), 96-97.

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. VI, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 56.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 9, Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 121, 148.