Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
14 Sep, 2018

Some people are inclined to think that confessionalism has a stifling effect on the Church. They assume that adherence to Bible-based creeds and confessions inhibits vitality or freedom. To them the Church is more about relationship and are suspicious of things that are more formal and less subjective. Others want to be as flexible and inclusive as possible for attracting others and play down doctrine. Are these prejudices about confessionalism valid? Are they consistent with Scripture? It is remarkable in fact how often growth in faith is connected with the personal and collective growth of believers in Scripture.

Adopting and using a biblical confession of faith does not guarantee that the life of a particular congregation will be as healthy as it ought to be. It will, however, guard against certain spiritual diseases that come from false teaching. In Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul tells us that the Church is meant to flourish by means of truth. It is meant to be edified in love as we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:13 and 15). We are to “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. But this cannot happen if we are like children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”. By “speaking the truth in love” the Church is to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).

The less of the truth of the Bible we confess the less vitality we have. Christians are to resist error and hold to the truth and so walk in Christ, being rooted, built up, and established in the faith (Colossians 2:6-7). The Bible is not minimalist in the way that it declares the truth and neither should we be. A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfill its commission to make spiritually mature disciples (Matthew 28:20).

 

The Importance of Confessions

God has given us His Word so that we would have the information He wants us to know. A confession of faith is us putting in our own words what we understand God to be saying in His Word. Some people say they have no creed but the Bible. But they still have their own interpretation of what the Bible teaches. They either do or don’t believe in the Trinity, for example, or justification by faith alone. They just haven’t written down their beliefs in a systematic form. They do have a creed, just not a publicly available one.

Meanwhile, all sorts of heretics can quote the Bible. So if we restricted ourselves to using only the words of Scripture this would be an inadequate way of stating the truth. When someone quotes Scripture, it is always legitimate to ask, “What do you mean by that?” To say, “I only believe the Bible” is meaningless unless it is further defined. When a church writes down its understanding of what the Bible teaches, it allows anyone to see what it believes, and it also helps the church achieve clarity in its mission to tell the world what God’s Word says. This is why Jude exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Paul charged Timothy to hold fast the “form of sound words” and to guard “that good thing which was committed” to him (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Anthony Tuckney (1599-1670) played a key role in shaping the Westminster Confession of Faith. He uses these words from 2 Timothy 1:13 to explain the value of confessions. He defines confessions as a way of setting down God’s truth in an orderly way. It is gathering such truths together which are scattered throughout Scripture. He then explains some of the benefits of a confession.

 

1. Confessions Help Us Grow in Truth

Forms of sound words have been used as declarations, not only of what we ourselves believe but also of what we think that everyone should believe.  We also desire and require that all with whom we join in the closest Church fellowship should profess or at least not openly contradict it. This is how it was with the apostles in what they decided in Acts 15 and how it is with Churches and their confessions until this day; and so may it be always. When controversies arise they may be better understood and resolved by the help of such confessions. They may also be a deposit (2 Timothy 1:14) to be given to posterity as legacies or inheritances of their forefathers’ faith.

 

2. Confessions Help Us Grow in Unity

Confessions are not only badges of our Christian Church communion but also great helps and furtherers of it. By this means troublesome divisions may be prevented and the peace of the Church better preserved. This is a benefit when we all profess the same truth, and all “speak the same thing” and are “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

 

3. Confessions Help Us Grow in Peace

Failure to keep more closely to such “forms of sound words” has allowed every one to speak and write the vain fancies of his own heart and spread the foulest heresies and blasphemies with impunity. It has torn us in pieces and divided us. May the Lord in mercy speedily heal these gashes and ruptures. One special means to cure this is holding fast the form of sound and wholesome words (2 Timothy 1:13).

 

4. Confessions Help Us Grow in Strength

The apostles formulated their decisions to help those who were weak (Acts 15:24) and a confession does this also. The truths scattered throughout the whole Scripture are gathered together in a synopsis for them to see more clearly. Where there are things more obscurely expressed they are more familiarly presented to those of weaker understanding.

 

5. Confessions Help Us Grow in Discernment

Confessions help to uncover and repulse seducers and subverters of the souls of God’s people (Acts 15:24). The same fence that keeps the deer in, keeps out the ravenous wild beast. They are a fence to the vineyard and so are of very good use in the Church. Some poison  can hardly be detected at first but as the mouth takes its food, so the sheep of Christ’s pasture discern by a divine instinct what food is wholesome and what is otherwise. It is not just those who have their senses exercised to discern good and evil, even the new-born babe has this taste. As soon as it is made partaker of the divine nature, it can tell when the sincere milk of the Word is adulterated (though perhaps not in what way). A godly Christian (who had a better heart than head) once had his spirit rising against something which he heard in a sermon, but he could not tell why. Afterward it was shown to him to be very corrupt doctrine.

 

6. Confessions Help Us Grow in Health

A form of sound words is especially that by which they recover and gain health and strength and so thrive. The new-born babe fattens and grows by the sincere milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). It is bad soil in which good plants are starved or diseased. Is it likely to be a wholesome diet if men (otherwise well and full of  health) do not thrive on it? A good tree (our Saviour tells us) brings forth good fruit and the same may be said of good doctrine. Although by the corruption of men’s hearts, good doctrine may not always bring forth good fruit in their lives, yet bad doctrine naturally brings forth what is bad and abominable. But let us continually esteem wholesome spiritual food. The man of God lives and thrives by this and does God’s will cheerfully. Like Elijah (who went forty days and nights in the strength of what he ate) the Christian continues in the strength of this food through the wilderness of this world until he comes to the mount of God. A sound heart relishes and thrives by sound doctrine. Since man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God it is not sufficient that these sound words have man’s approval. They must be not only acceptable words but grounded on what God has instituted, they must be words of truth, words of the wise given by one Shepherd.

 

Conclusion

If this is so, be sure to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). As Christ said to the Church of Thyatira “that which you have already, hold fast till I come” (Revelation 2:25). Be sure to hold fast, take heed that you are not robbed of it but are sure you have it. In various passages (Revelation 6:9 and Titus 1:9) to hold fast means that we hold the truth so fast against all opposition that no strength of man or devil may force it from us but that we maintain it against all.

The truth is heaven’s pledge (2 Timothy 1: 14) with which God has entrusted us. Our souls are the pledge (2 Timothy 1:12) with which we trust God. We should be as careful of His pledge as we would have Him be of ours. Be sure that we will be called to an account for this and how solemn it will be if we are like the one described in 1 Kings 20:39-40).

This is the bequest given to us by our godly forefathers, should we not similarly careful to transmit it to our posterity (Psalm 78:3-4)?  The martyrs have sealed it with their blood, will we prove guilty of that through our unfaithfulness? This is the best part of our children’s inheritance, as the law was (Deuteronomy 33:4). Make sure that our forefathers will be not ashamed of us and our posterity at the resurrection for betraying God’s truth and our trust. Hold fast is the charge to many of those churches written to in Revelation 2 and 3, both the best and the worst. Holding fast may cost us in contending but if we are we faithful in the conflict, we may be sure of the conquest.

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7 Reasons to Read the Westminster Standards

7 Reasons to Read the Westminster Standards

7 Reasons to Read the Westminster Standards
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
9 Jan, 2017

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are more than a seres of doctrinal statements. Their deep reflection on Scripture means every Christian can use them in a practical and devotional way. These are documents we can make utterly personal. The benefits of regular and close engagement with these documents are immense. To absorb their truth is to be enriched in spiritual understanding, obedience and experience.

The Standards are also so rich in content that they invite slow reading. This helps to increase our comprehension and appreciation. We often scan text and fail to focus our attention on what we read. It is helpful to have smaller chunks of reading to digest more slowly and reflect upon. The benefits of regular and close engagement with these documents are immense.

1. They are Biblical

Such documents only have authority to the extent that they correspond with the Word of God. They are subordinate to Scripture which is our ultimate authority. The Westminster Standards are accurate statements of what the Bible teaches. The Standards also closely follow Scripture in where it puts the emphasis. They reflect the major themes of Scripture: who God is and what God does – the fall of man into sin and its consequences – how Christ rescues sinners from their sin – and how saved sinners are to live their lives towards God and in their church community. These documents provide us with a Biblical framework as well as statements that are Biblically sound. They help us to think biblically.

The statements made by these documents are based on the principles and gathered teaching of Scripture, not just isolated proof-texts. The Confession and Catechisms do, however, have Scriptural proofs to support their statements.  The Westminster Assembly addressed this matter carefully and took four months to identify and agree the proofs. These Scripture texts themselves invite careful and deep reflection about how they relate to the subject in hand and how they should be understood.

Read these documents for yourself and you will be able to appreciate for yourself how tightly they connect to what Scripture actually says.

2. They are Devotional

Our devotions can only be enhanced as we grow in an accurate knowledge of what God is like and what He has done. Our best devotional responses of praise and adoration spring out of our best grasp of the identity of our Saviour and the nature of the salvation He provides.

It should be our delight to find increasing devotional value and spiritual significance within the Westminster Standards, simply because their doctrines are the doctrines of Scripture. Devotion must be derived from and feed upon the fulness of the truth. This is why many have come to love the Standards. The fact that they have not written the words themselves is irrelevant; it cannot reduce their personal devotion to these truths. They are able to make use of them because it is the same Spirit that has opened their mind and heart to receive them.

“I bless God,” writes the American Presbyterian J. H. Thornwell, “for that glorious summary of Christian doctrine contained in our noble Standards. It has cheered my soul in many a dark hour, and sustained me in many a desponding moment.” He said that he knew “no uninspired production in any language, or of any denomination, that for richness of matter, soundness of doctrine, scriptural expression and edifying tendency can for a moment enter into competition with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.” B.B. Warfield says: “We can ourselves testify from experience to the power of the Westminster Confession to quicken religious emotion and to form and guide a deeply devotional life”.

Warfield calls attention to the personal element invested by the Westminster Assembly. They “wrote these definitions aiming before all things to be saints: is it strange that we see the saint through the theologian and have our hearts warmed by the contact? Certain it is that the Westminster Standards have a spiritual significance to us which falls in no wise short of their historical and scientific significance”. Warfield gives examples of the warmth of the language used in these documents:

Open these standards where you will and you will not fail to feel the throb of an elevated and noble spiritual life pulsing through them. They are not merely a notably exact scientific statement of the elements of the gospel: they are, in the strictest sense of the words, the very embodiment of the gospel. They not only know what God is; they know God: and they make their readers know Him—know Him in His infinite majesty, in His exalted dominion, in His unlimited sovereignty, in the immutability of His purpose and His almighty power and universal providence, but know Him also in that strangest, most incomprehensible of all His perfections, the unfathomableness of His love. Their description of Him transcends the just limits of mere definition and swells into a paean of praise—praise to Him who is “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 how profound their knowledge is of the heart of man—its proneness to evil, its natural aversion to spiritual good, its slowness of response to spiritual influence, the deviousness of its path even under the leading of the Holy Ghost. But, above all, they know, with a fulness of apprehension which startles and instructs and blesses the reader, the ways of God with the errant souls of men—how He has condescended to open the way to them of having fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, how He has redeemed them unto Himself in the blood of His Son, and how He deals with them, as only a loving Father may, in disciplining and fitting them for the heavenly glory.

Where elsewhere may we find more vitally set forth the whole circle of experience in the Christian life—what conversion is and how God operates in bringing the soul to knowledge of Him and faith in its Saviour, what are the joys of justifying grace and of adoption into the family of God, and what the horrors of those temporary lapses that lie in wait for unwary steps, and what the inconceivable tenderness of God’s gracious dealings with the stumbling and trembling spirit until He brings it safely home? Who can read those searching chapters on Perseverance and Assurance without feeling his soul burn within him, or without experience of a new influx of courage land patience for the conflicts of life?

The Westminster Standards, in a word, are notable monuments of the religious life as well as of theological definition, and, speaking from the point of view of vital religion, this is their significance as a creed.

3. They are Practical

The Confession and Catechisms follow a Scriptural pattern (particularly found in Paul’s epistles) of outlining things to be believed before progressing to things to be obeyed. Our practical conduct is informed by what we believe. Grace in salvation leads to obedience to God. The authority of Scripture must be supreme in the practicalities of our daily lives, the life of the nation and the Church.

Today, obedience is largely missing from the lives of many who claim to be Christians. Instead of asking “How can I obey God fully?” they ask “What is the minimum standard of obedience which is consistent with getting into heaven?” In the Larger Catechism the Westminster Assembly explained and applied the Ten Commandments using the whole of the rest of Scripture. It is a manual for living that should be constantly used.

4. They are Precise

Too often popular Christianity is satisfied with vague slogans rather than a precise understanding of Scripture. To read the Westminster Standards is to enter a different world altogether. B.B. Warfield maintained “that even the most cursory reader of the Westminster Standards is impressed with the exquisite precision and balance of their statements, with the clearness and purity with which they bring out just the essence of the gospel, and the drastic thoroughness with which they separate from it every remainder of sacerdotal and humanitarian leaven. To read over a chapter or two of the Westminster Confession gives one fresh from the obscurities and confusions of much modern theological discussion”.

The Westminster Assembly had the advantage of centuries of reflection on the Scriptures. Warfield observes that “historically speaking, they are the final crystallization of the elements of evangelical religion, after the conflicts of sixteen hundred years; scientifically speaking, they are the richest and most precise and best-guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world; and religiously speaking, they are a notable monument of spiritual religion”. During many historical controversies, error had been countered and Scriptural teaching more clearly formulated. The Westminster Assembly benefited from such past struggles in order to hone the truth, as Warfield notes:

In these struggles . . . the gem of the gospel was cut and polished, and it is on this account that the enunciation of the gospel in the Reformed Confessions attains its highest purity; and that among other Reformed Confessions the Westminster Confession, the product of the Puritan conflict, reaches a perfection of statement never elsewhere achieved. . . . All attempts at restatement must either repeat their definitions or fall away from the purity of their conceptions or the justness of their language. . . . The nicety of its balance in conceiving, and the precision of its language in stating, truth will seem to us scholastic only in proportion as our religious life is less developed than theirs. . . . In proportion as our own religious life flows in a deep and broad stream, in that proportion will we find spiritual delight in the Westminster Standards.

5. They are Structured

Many people find that their personal grasp of the many doctrines taught in Scripture and from the pulpit can be quite fuzzy and patchy. The Westminster Standards not only offer precise articulation of the key doctrines of Scripture; they are also expressed in a systematic manner so that you can be clear and orderly about the truth in your own mind. The Catechisms in particular have an intricate logical structure that provides a whole framework of understanding.

The work produced by the Westminster Assembly has lived and will permanently live. The reason is obvious. The work was wrought with superb care, patience, precision, and above all with earnest and intelligent devotion to the Word of God and zeal for His glory. Sanctified theological learning has never been brought to bear with greater effect upon the formulation of the Christian Faith. While it would be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit to accord to these documents a place in any way equal to the Word of God either in principle or in practical effect, yet it would also be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit, who has promised to be with His church to the end, to undervalue or neglect what is the product of His illumination and direction in the hearts and minds of His faithful servants. Other men laboured and we have entered into their labours (John Murray)

6. They are Detailed

Doctrinal statements are often brief and minimalistic; they cover only the basics in bullet-point fashion. The Confession and Catechisms take a detailed approach rather than shying away from areas of controversy. This is an advantage because they offer a comprehensive treatment of the Bible’s teachings. When God reveals something in Scripture Christians do not have the option of ignoring it or acting as though it doesn’t matter. We must seek the clearest possible understanding of what God’s Word is teaching. This demonstrates faithfulness and obedience to God’s Word and takes God’s revelation seriously. It also helps people to see what the Bible really does teach as well as close down the vague generalities which would otherwise be loopholes for error.

It should be conceded, without fear of intelligent contradiction, that the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms are the finest creedal formulations of the Christian Faith that the church of Christ has yet produced. This is not to deny that in certain particulars some other creeds may surpass these Westminster standards, nor does it mean that these standards have attained such a degree of perfection that they could not possibly be improved. But it does mean that they are the most perfect creedal exhibitions that we possess of the truth revealed in Holy Scripture (John Murray)

7. They are Shareable

In a world where sound-bites and quotes go viral, we need to share the truth. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms put concise truth at the tips of our tongues and fingers. These documents may cover profound truths and use precise terminology. Yet they are still accessible to people with no special theological training or particular interest in technical controversies. They help to explain to others what we believe. They give an objective context to testifying to the truth and providing an answer to anyone who asks (1 Peter 3:15).

They are also vital for passing on the truth to a rising generation. You can be confident that you are not simply transmitting some eccentric personal quirks when you pass the contents of the Westminster Standards on to the next generation of believers.

Conclusion

It would be hard to improve on B.B. Warfield’s words as a fitting conclusion:

Surely blessed are the churches which feed upon this meat! [They are] those best furnished for the word and work of the Christian proclamation and the Christian life. May God Almighty infuse their strength into our bones and their beauty into our flesh, and enable us to justify our inheritance by unfolding into life, in all its completeness and richness and divinity, the precious gospel which they have enfolded for us in their protecting envelope of sound words!

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