The Westminster Confession of Faith
By Sean Tong, 09 Jul 2020
There is something in the air. Amongst the clanging of knives and thudding impacts of muskets across the country, a different sort of revolution is underway. But this one is being thrashed out with words, and pen and ink. Whilst the country was at war with itself, secluded at Westminster were 120 theologians working out how to reform the church. We saw in my first article, that Parliament had called them in 1643. Initially given no real direction, by 1646 they have come up with a whole statement of faith which became known as The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).
I urge you to take the time to read The Westminster Confession of Faith. Why do I recommend this? While individual Christians may find in it areas for debate, it is probably one of the most significant statements of what many Christians believe. It is a helpful summary of our redemption history. It is a document that some of the most learned theologians worked hard on to concisely describe the doctrines that are fundamental to our faith. It wonderfully points us back to God’s Word and the wonders of its truths.
What follows is a summary of what the confession contains. I hope it will whet your appetite to go to The Westminster Confession of Faith and read it in full. There are thirty-three chapters in the confession. But don’t let that daunt you, they are very brief and concise. As you go through the chapters you will see that they are grouped together thematically. It begins with who God is, then through man’s fall, our relationship with Christ, and then how we should live the Christian life.
Foundations (Chapters 1-2)
The first chapter explains that both the Old and New Testament of the Bible come from God. And that also God’s Word was written by men under the divine direction of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is the complete revelation of God, without error, being the only clear and sufficient guide to salvation. It is the authoritative standard in all matters of doctrine, faith and practice. Chapter two is about the Trinity – how God is one God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Decrees of God (Chapters 3-5)
These chapters detail the decrees of God. Decrees of God are God’s declarations or pronouncements that he has made in working out his purposes throughout history. These chapters look at God’s sovereignty (how he is in control of everything) and how he has chosen some people for eternal life in Christ. They also look at creation and how God sustains, directs and governs everything that comes to pass.
Sin and the Saviour (Chapters 6-8)
Here the confession takes us through the fall of man and how the guilt and corruption in Adam is then in all his descendants. Humankind is completely hindered from being good and is inclined to evil. Chapter 7 explores God’s covenants (agreements) with mankind. It shows the covenant made with Adam that he should not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then it explains the covenant that God made to redeem his people. In other words, how Christ came to fulfil the requirement of obedience in the first covenant by his perfect obedience, and sacrificial death. Therefore, Christ Jesus offers life and salvation through faith in his finished work.
Salvation (Chapters 9-18)
In these chapters the confession goes through all the implications for believers as a saved people. The Westminster theologians show how our salvation was nothing to do with us but all down to God’s mercy and grace. By this they show that we are justified (made right with God) by grace alone through the saving work of Christ. We are then wonderfully adopted as God’s children and are being sanctified (being made progressively holy) through the work of the Holy Spirit. True believers will never fully or finally fall from grace but will endure to the end. Although we will experience doubts along the way, we can be assured of our salvation.
Law and Liberty (Chapters 19-20)
Here we have God’s law explained throughout the history of his people. From the law given to Adam through the Ten Commandments as well as the ceremonial law given to Israel that is no more after Christ. God’s moral law continues after Christ, but believers are wonderfully helped by it as it reveals God’s will, convicts human sin, drives us to Christ and motivates faithful obedience.
Worship (Chapters 21-22)
That God exists and is to be worshipped is clearly revealed in the created order. In Scripture, God reveals how he is to be worshipped. Worship is restricted to God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and must be mediated by Christ alone. Worship through prayer must be made in Jesus’ name, by the Spirit’s help, according to God’s will and with human understanding. Worship also includes: Bible reading, sound preaching, attentive hearing, spiritual singing and the sacraments (baptism and communion). Under the gospel, there is no holy ground, but God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and in truth as individuals, families and church gatherings.
Civil Government and Family (Chapters 23-24)
Here we see that God has established civil authorities and given them power to promote right and punish wrong for his own glory. Chapter 24 looks at marriage and divorce. It points us to how marriage is to be between one man and one woman. It was ordained by God for the mutual help, bearing of children and moral purity of the husband and wife. Christians should only marry other Christians. Marriage between family members is forbidden. Adultery during marriage is just cause to dissolve the relationship, freeing the innocent party to sue for divorce and afterward remarry.
The Church (Chapters 25-31)
These chapters set out what the marks of a true church are. They look at what the church is, the sacraments (baptism and communion) and how the church is to be governed.
The Last Things (Chapters 32-33)
These final chapters deal with the doctrines concerning what happens when we die and the last judgement when Christ returns.
And that is the Westminster Confession of Faith in a nutshell. I highly recommend that you read it yourselves. I promise you it will be of infinite value to you in your walk with the Lord.
In my next article, I will be looking at why the Westminster Standards (the name for The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Shorter Westminster Catechism and The Longer Westminster Catechism) are important for the church today. I will also be recommending how The Shorter Westminster Catechism is useful in our daily walk with the Lord.