Westminster Confession
Chris Knepp


Westminster Confession : The Text

The PCUSA’S Book of Confessions:
The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1647)

Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms

Creeds: from the Latin credo (“I believe”); brief statements of faith, such as The Apostles’ Creed. The earliest creeds can be found in Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Creeds met the early church’s need for instruction in the faith and for authoritative statements of belief (contra false teachings).

Confession: expansions of creeds, usually to address particular issues at  particular times. A public declaration of what a community of Christians believes; an officially adopted statement. An example is The Confession of 1967, arising from the civil rights movement in the USA, which recognized a “peculiar need of reconciliation in Christ.” Confessions are based upon, but subordinate to, Scripture.

Catechisms: teachings of Christian principles in question and answer format. Used for instruction.

The Westminster Confession: Why Was It Written?

Commissioned by “Long Parliament” (1640-1660) as means of articulating Protestant viewpoint against Catholic King Charles

Ratified by Parliament without ever having been granted Church of England approval; was recognized by Church of Scotland, however

The Westminster Confession of Faith: Background

1531: Henry VIII, denied a divorce by the Pope, unilaterally creates the Church of England; England now has a national church without a prior reformation (as on the Continent)

Edward VI (1547-1553): Son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour; first English monarch raised as a Protestant; England becomes markedly Protestant

The Westminster Confession of Faith: Background

1531: Henry VIII, denied a divorce by the Pope, unilaterally creates the Church of England; England now has a national church without a prior reformation (as on the Continent)

Edward VI (1547-1553): Son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour; first English monarch raised as a Protestant; England becomes markedly Protestant

The Westminster Confession of Faith: Background

“Bloody Mary” Tudor (1553-1558): Daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon; restores Roman Catholicism and reverses Protestant reforms; burns over 280 dissenters

Elizabeth I (1558-1603): Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; Elizabethan Religious Settlement re-establishes Church of England’s independence form Rome; re-introduces Book of Common Prayer from Edward’s reign

1603: James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, ascends throne of England as James I

Puritanism: distinctive English form of Protestantism; sought to “purify” Church of England from within by eliminating remnants of “popery”

Puritans, initially elated when James (from Calvinist Scotland) comes to the throne, present him with Millenary Petition (claiming to be signed by 1000 ministers) stating Puritan grievances. Demand Presbyterian form of church government and more reformed theology

But James believed Calvinism and monarchy weren’t a good fit. “If people could decide for themselves about religion, they might also decide for themselves about politics.” Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guidebook to the Book of Confessions

“No Bishop, no King”: England remains Episcopal in its church governance

Charles I (1625-1649): Son of James I

Has little use for Parliament; acts on principle of divine right of kings

Marries Catholic daughter of Marie de ’Medici of France, worrying Protestants

Levies taxes without consent of Parliament; Parliament responds by removing all bishops from House of Lords

1629: Charles disbands Parliament; governs without it for 11 years

The Westminster Confession: Background

1637: Charles decides spiritual conditions in Scotland too Presbyterian; Scots must adopt English Book of Common Prayer

Scots revolt and rout English army sent to quash rebellion; resulting treaty requires Charles to again call a Parliament

1640: “Long Parliament” convenes with 11 years of accumulated Puritan and Presbyterian grievances

1641: Parliament presents Charles with Grand Remonstrance, including a petition to call a synod to purify Church of England

For some members of Parliament, Grand Remonstrance not enough; wanted each individual and congregation to be free to worship according to conscience

The Westminster Confession: Background

Presbyterian Puritans seek middle ground; want king and Parliament to work together to reform church and country

Majority of Parliament calls an assembly to convene at Westminster Abbey to reform Church of England by making it more Presbyterian in government and more reformed in theology; put into effect without Charles’ consent

July 1643: Westminster Assembly first meets

Assembly composed of 121 Puritan ministers of Church of England, most with Presbyterian sentiments; 30 lay members of Parliament and 6 Scottish advisers

When drafting was finished in 1647, Assembly had produced Westminster Confession of Faith as guide to doctrine, Shorter Catechism for teaching youth, Larger Catechism as aid to preaching, a Directory for Public Worship, a form for Presbyterian church government, and a Psalter to provide psalms to be sung in worship

December 1648: Cromwell’s army takes over House of commons; Charles I beheaded in 1649; no political force left in Parliament to implement Confession of Faith

May 1660: Monarchy restored to Charles II; Act of Uniformity passed demanding complete conformity to pre-1640s version of Episcopacy, with all ecclesiastical and theological aspects to which Puritans had objected

The Westminster Confession of Faith in America

Adopting Act of 1729: Synod of Philadelphia makes the Westminster Standards, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith, the official confessional statements for Presbyterian churches in colonial America. Presbyterian ministers required to believe or "subscribe" to the "essential and necessary" parts of the standards but defining what was essential and necessary was left to individual presbyteries to determine.

The Westminster Confession: Structure

35 Chapters

Ch. 1: Scripture (source from which other truths derived)

Chs. 2-5: Sovereignty of God (God’s plans, purposes displayed in creation of the world and in providential care of God’s people)

Chs. 6-20: Working out of God’s purposes in human history (fall and redemption)

Chs. 21-26: Ethical dimensions of Christian life

Chs. 27-35: The church, sacrament, and last things

The Westminster Confession: Focus and Themes

Scripture: The written Word of God reveals the living Word of God

Sovereignty of God: Human beings are in relationship to living God every moment of our lives; we glorify God by living lives of obedient activity

Election and Predestination: We are saved by grace alone. God chooses us before we do anything to deserve that choice. We cannot slip out of God’s care.

Willing to Be Reformed: “According to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit”

Presbyterian Polity: A representative democracy that guarantees both individual freedom and liberty of conscience, as well as order and responsibility.

The Westminster Confession: Ch. 1, Of the Holy Scripture

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

The Westminster Confession: Ch. 1, Of the Holy Scripture

Lists 66 books given by inspiration of God, “to be the rule of faith and of life”

Apocrypha not of divine inspiration, not part of the canon, of no authority in the church

Assurance of scripture’s infallible truth is work of the Spirit

Nothing to be added, “whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men”

Not all things are plain or clear to all, but those things necessary for salvation may be understood by “not only the learned but the unlearned”

Infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is scripture itself

Holy Spirit speaking in scripture is “Supreme Judge” of all religious controversies, decrees, doctrines, and “private spirits”

The Westminster Confession: Ch. 2, Of God and the Holy Trinity

Three persons of one substance: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

1. There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory, most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal most just and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty. 

The Westminster Confession: Ch.3, Of God’s Eternal Decrees

1. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

The Westminster Confession: Ch.3, Of God’s Eternal Decrees

4. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

The Westminster Confession: Ch.3, Of God’s Eternal Decrees

7. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.

8. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Excursus: Predestination and Free Will - Parallel Lines Converging in Eternity

I  am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that “it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure.

Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.

That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

Westminster Confession of Faith: Declaratory Statement of 1903

While the ordination vow of ministers, ruling elders, and deacons, as set forth in the Form of Government, requires the reception and adoption of the Confession of Faith only as containing the System of Doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, nevertheless, seeing that the desire has been formally expressed for a disavowal by the Church of certain inferences drawn from statements in the Confession of Faith, and also for a declaration of certain aspects of revealed truth which appear at the present time to call for more explicit statement, therefore the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America does authoritatively declare as follows:

First, … that concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God's eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of His love to all mankind, His gift of His Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and His readiness to bestow His saving grace on all who seek it. That concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God's eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the Gospel to all; that men are fully responsible for their treatment of God's gracious offer; that His decree hinders no man from accepting that offer; and that no man is condemned except on the ground of his sin.

Second, … that it is not to be regarded as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost. We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how He pleases.

The Westminster Confession: Ch.4, Of Creation

1. It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

2. 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. Besides 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 were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.

The Westminster Confession: Ch.5, Of Providence

1. 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.

The Westminster Confession: Chs. 6-20

The working out of God’s purposes in human history:

The fall of humanity into sin – imputed guilt of Adam and Eve; ‘wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body”

God’s covenant to redeem them – covenant of works with Adam upon condition of perfect obedience; after the fall, a second covenant of grace requiring faith for salvation; Holy Spirit “to make them willing and able to believe”

Jesus Christ, the mediator of God’s covenant – “very God and very man,” the pinnacle of God’s purposeful work on behalf of humanity

The way of salvation in Christ and how it becomes effective in the lives of believers – Holy Spirit “regenerates men by his grace, convicts them of sin, moves them to repentance, and persuades and enables them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith”

The Westminster Confession: Chs. 21-26

Ethical dimensions of the Christian life:

The law of God – God gave moral law, ceremonial laws (“now abrogated under the New Testament”), and judicial laws (“expired together with the state of that people”); “moral law doth forever bind all”

Liberty of conscience – “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”

Church and state – “they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it … resist the ordinance of God”

Marriage and divorce – “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ”; “remarriage after a divorce granted on grounds explicitly stated in Scripture or implicit in the gospel of Christ may be sanctioned in keeping with this redemptive gospel when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident”

The Westminster Confession: Chs. 27-35

The church – “consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one”

The sacraments – “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace”; only two ordained by Christ: baptism and Lord’s Supper

Last things – “God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ”; “the righteous go into everlasting life, … but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments”

Conclusion, from The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Westminster Confession

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