The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Belgic Confession – Article 5 (The Authority of Scripture)

We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled. (Belgic Confession, Article 5)

bible-808633_1280The Authority of Scripture

Article 5 deals with the Authority of Holy Scripture. Only the canonical books (see Belgic Confession Article 4) are the final standard & authority “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise also affirms this, saying that only the canonical books of Scripture “are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (1.2).

The ancient ecumenical creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed) and Reformed confessions (such as the Belgic Confession) are not our final or ultimate authority for faith and practice. Rather, they are what we would call “subordinate standards.” That is, they are subordinate to Scripture. And that is because the Scriptures alone are the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

The Source of the Authority of Scripture

The authority of Scripture is often called the “formative principle” of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in distinction from its “material principle,” which was justification by faith alone. The surface issue (so to speak) that was debated was justification, while the foundational concern underlying that debate was the issue of the authority of Scripture.

Where does Scripture derive its authority from, and why does it matter? Another way of framing this question would be to ask, which comes first, the church or the canon of Scripture? Does the church create or decide the canon of Scripture, or does the canon of Scripture create the church? The official Roman Catholic position is that the church decided or determined the canon of Scripture. In stark contrast to that, the Reformed faith has instead taught that the church is founded upon the Scriptures, rather than vice-versa.

The Scriptures themselves teach this very thing:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21, ESV, Italics added)

That is why article 5 (above) states that we receive and believe the Scriptures to be holy, canonical, and authoritative, “not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such” (the Roman Catholic position), but rather because she recognizes them as the Word of God.

Of this subject John Calvin writes,

“Many people commit the fatal error of believing that Scripture has only such value as the church agrees to accord it, as if God’s eternal and inviolable truth depended on men’s good pleasure!”1

And again:

“So when the church receives and assents to Scripture, it does not confer authenticity on what was before doubtful or uncertain. Because it acknowledges it to be its Lord’s truth, it at once reveres it, as indeed it should.”2

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (1.4)

We must reject any teaching that implies, affirms, or otherwise states that it is somehow the church that confers authority upon the Scriptures. This is to get things quite backward.

The Proof of the Authority of the Scriptures

The Belgic Confession specifies two (2) reasons3 or proofs as to why we receive and believe the Scriptures as being the authoritative Word of God:

“ . . . but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

The first reason given here is the inner witness or testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself. It is the Spirit of God (the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures – 2 Peter 1:20-21) who “witnesses in our hearts that they are from God,” leading us to recognize the voice of God in the Scriptures.

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“ . . . yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. ” (1.5)

Ultimately we believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and receive them as such precisely because that is what they, in fact, are, and because the Author of the Scriptures attests to them as being His Word. The Apostle Paul says this very thing in one of his epistles to the church at Thessalonica:

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV, italics added)

The second reason given here is the self-evidencing nature of the Scriptures. The Confession adds that we also receive and believe the Scriptures as the Word of God, not only because of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, but “because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith again likewise states:

“And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God . . . .”

The Scriptures themselves are their own best evidence and self-authentication. The fulfillment of prophecy, the truthfulness of the Scriptures, the “consent of all the parts” – how the Bible not only does not contradict itself, but rather speaks with a united voice, despite being comprised of 66 different books, having been written over a period of over 1,500 years by approximately 40 human authors, in different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), on different continents, and in varying circumstances and cultural settings.

The Bible has been described as ‘an anvil that has worn out many hammers.’ It has withstood the constant attacks of skeptics and atheists alike down through the centuries. God has supernaturally preserved His Word to this very day, and that will never change.

The message of the Bible, primarily being centered on the promise of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27) has saved and transformed an untold multitude of sinners, and will no doubt continue to do so (Revelation 7:9). And that is because it is the Word of God and the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), which never returns to God void, but always accomplishes His will (Isaiah 55:8-11).

The best cure for doubt or skepticism regarding the Bible is to read the Bible. If someone persists in unbelief or skepticism, it is not for a lack of evidence to the truthfulness of Scripture, as the Belgic Confession puts it, “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

1 Institutes of the Christian Religion (Translated from the first French edition of 1541), p.18

2 Ibid., p.19

3 Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth, p.84

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What Is Repentance Unto Life? (Shorter Catechism Q.87)

The Westminster Confession of Faith contains an entire chapter on the subject of “repentance unto life.” (That alone might be surprising to some!) There it starts off by stating that this doctrine “is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (15.1).

It is rare enough to hear the biblical doctrine of faith in Christ being clearly preached in our day; but perhaps even rarer still is the preaching of the doctrine of repentance. And if it is “to to be preached by every minister of the gospel,” it would seem that a great many are derelict in their duty.

The Lord Jesus Himself certainly preached repentance. Mark 1:14-15 says,

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (ESV)

And so our Lord Jesus proclaimed “the gospel of God” (v.14). And what did that gospel message include? The call to “repent and believe.” Some might think that the call to repentance somehow goes against grace, but that can hardly be the case if Christ Himself preached repentance! As Thomas Watson puts it,

“By some Antinomian spirits it [i.e. repentance] is cried down as a legal doctrine; but Christ himself preached it.” (The Ten Commandments, p.205)

Not only that, but the Apostles preached repentance as well. On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, and what did he say to them? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (ESV, Italics added). He called upon them to repent.

In Acts 20:21 the Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he testified both to Jews and to Greeks “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again – faith and repentance.

So what does it mean to repent? The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides us with a helpful definition:

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

What does such repentance involve? First, it involves a true grasp or understanding of two (2) things:

  1. Your Sin
  2. The Mercy of God in Christ

First, repentance unto life involves having a true sense of your own sin. In other words, you come to understand your need for the Savior. The Lord Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Part of being saved involves understanding just what it is that you are being saved from in the first place!

Much preaching today seems to exclude this entirely. Often the appeal is made solely on the basis of felt needs instead of the need for forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Some preaching practically gives one the impression that the sinner himself is the victim, rather than the guilty party or perpetrator.

The second thing that we must grasp is the mercy of God in Christ. A true sense of our sin does us no good unless we also then understand and believe that there is abundant mercy to be found from God through faith in Jesus Christ. Notice that salvation from sin is the result of God’s mercy and grace alone.

That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly teaches us that repentance does not earn forgiveness:

“Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.” (15.3)

We are not to rest upon (i.e. trust in) our repentance, rather than upon Christ for salvation.  No one is saved by repentance (as if it were the meritorious grounds for forgiveness), but no one will be saved without it either.

Having a true sense of one’s own sin, and a grasp of the mercy of God that is to be found in Christ, repentance then involves the sinner, “with grief and hatred of his sin,” turning from his sin unto God. It is a spiritual “about-face” of sorts. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10,

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (ESV)

The Thessalonians turned to God from idols. (It is quite impossible to truly serve God and idols – Matthew 6:24.) And in doing so they came to “serve the living and true God” (v.9). And that is really the essence of what the last part of the answer to Q.87 speaks of when it tells us that repentance unto life involves the sinner turning to God “with full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”

It is a popular notion to define “repentance” by the etymology of the most common New Testament Greek term, which would then suggest that it is simply a “change of mind.” While repentance certainly does involve a change of mind (about one’s sin and about the mercy of God in Christ!), it does not stop there, does it? No, it involves a turning from our sins unto God, with the “full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”

Any sense of one’s sin that does not lead to a hatred of and a turning from those sins unto God, is something far less than what could rightly be called a “true sense” of one’s sin in the first place.

Last but not least, notice that the first thing that the answer to Q.87 mentions about repentance unto life is that it is a “saving grace.” So it too is a part of the salvation that God graciously gives to us in Christ. That is why the Scriptures speak of God being the One who alone grants repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).

Justification (The Westminster Confession of Faith – Chapter 11)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter dealing with the doctrine of justification. It starts of with something of a definition:

“Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1)

So justification is not a matter of “infusing” righteousness into a believer, and so making him or her to be righteous (which is the Roman Catholic position on justification), but rather a matter of: 1.) “pardoning their sins” (i.e. forgiveness), and 2.) “accounting and accepting their persons as righteous.” This is forensic or court room language. In justification, God both forgives all of our sins and views or accounts us as righteous in His sight (not just as if we had never sinned, but also as if we had always obeyed His will in all things).

How does He do this? How can God then (to use Paul’s phrase) “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV)? How can a holy and just God justify the wicked? The Confession goes on to say that it is “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.” So it is not on the basis of anything that we are or even that we become (i.e. infused righteousness), nor is it on the basis of anything that we do. Rather it is “for Christ’s sake alone,” on the basis of who He is and what He has done for us.

Notice also that while justification is through faith alone, that faith itself is in no way meritorious. Faith in and of itself does not justify; faith in and of itself is not accounted to us as righteousness. Rather, it is through faith alone that “the obedience and satisfaction of Christ” are imputed to us as our righteousness.

Notice also what the Confession explicitly excludes as the basis or grounds of our justification – “the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience.” The good works of obedience to God’s law  may be “the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith” (WCF 16.2), but they play no part in our justification. We are not counted righteous in God’s sight on the basis of them.

The justification of believers is a matter of God “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”  Even our faith itself is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)!

The Confession’s chapter on justification continues by stating:

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” (11.2)

So while faith alone is the only “instrument of justification” (cf. Belgic Confession Article 22), that faith is never alone in the one who has been justified. As the old saying (attributed to Martin Luther) goes, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Rather, the saving grace of faith is “ever [i.e. always] accompanied with all other saving graces.”

That means that all of the other benefits of Christ’s redemption (not just justification) are also communicated to us in Him, things such as adoption, sanctification, and even (in the life to come) glorification. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 8:29-30, where we read:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (ESV)

Everything that is commonly considered as part of the ordo salutis (or order or salvation) is assured to everyone who is in Christ Jesus. And so if someone presumes to be justified by faith in Christ, but the other saving graces (such as sanctification) are yet absent, that person’s faith is nothing but “dead faith.” True saving faith “works by love.” Justification and sanctification must always be distinguished from each other, but never separated.

This chapter in the Confession goes on to speaking of the nature of Christ’s work of atonement:

“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” (11.3)

In other words, Christ’s death really did make satisfaction or propitiation for our sins. The justice of God was satisfied by His obedience and death (the active and passive obedience of Christ). And so our justification is a matter of justice toward Christ and His work, but grace alone toward us. Christ alone earned or merited our salvation by His work, which we receive all of the benefits of by the sheer grace of God! In this way both the justice and the grace of God are glorified!

The next thing that this chapter deals with is the idea of eternal justification or justification from eternity. It says:

“God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” (11.4)

God’s decree of justification (i.e. His decision and plan to justify His elect) was from all eternity, and so cannot fail to come to pass in His appointed time. But we are not then to suppose that the elect were justified from all eternity. Not only that, but here the Confession also rules out the idea that the elect were justified when Christ died and rose again. We must not confuse the historia salutis (i.e. Christ’s accomplishment of our redemption in time through His death and resurrection) with the ordo salutis (or the application of Christ’s work of redemption to us).

Rather, we are not justified until the Holy Spirit (in our effectual calling – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.29-31) applies Christ and the benefits of His redemption to us. This is simply to affirm what Paul says in Romans 5:1, that we are “justified by faith” (emphasis mine).

This chapter of the Confession then turns our attention to a right understanding of the implications of our justification, saying,

“God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.” (11.5)

Justification can never be intermitted or lost. Believers in Christ “can never fall from the state of justification.” But this does not mean that God literally no longer sees or notices our sins. In fact, we may at times, by means of our sins, “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure” and so experience His chastisement or discipline. God’s fatherly displeasure is in no way inconsistent with the doctrine of justification. As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it:

“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11, ESV)

God’s fatherly displeasure and discipline are not signs of wrath, but of love toward His justified and adopted children in Christ. Justification does not mean that we no longer need to confess our sins, ask for forgiveness for them, and renew our repentance from them.

The last thing that this chapter of the Confession points out to us is that justification has always been this way, both in the Old Testament as well as in the New:

“The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.” (11.6)

Everything that the Confession of Faith states regarding justification (in 11.1-11.5 above) held true for the saints in the Old Testament, just as it does in our day! It cannot be emphasized enough that the way of salvation has always and only been by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Abraham, Moses, David, and the rest of the saints in the Old Testament were justified the exact same way that you and I are today – by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They were justified the exact same way that believers have always been justified – through faith alone. The good news of the gospel has not changed.

The Only Head of the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.6)

1710_largeThe last section of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) deals with a point of doctrine which many readers today might consider as bordering on the irrelevant. It says,

“There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6)

Simply put, we believe and confess that there is only one true head of the church – the Lord Jesus Christ. No one else can rightly claim such authority, not even “the pope of Rome.”

In Ephesians 1:22-23 the Apostle Paul writes the following regarding the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ:

“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (ESV)

Similarly, in Colossians 1:18 Paul writes,

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (ESV)

So the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is the one true head of the church. How then, does He exercise His supreme authority in the church? In his commentary on the Confession of Faith A.A. Hodge notes that Christ does so through the following:

  1. His Inspired Word.
  2. His Apostolic Institutions (i.e. the ministry, sacraments, and ordinances).
  3. His Own Spiritual Presence. (p.318-319)

And so even though the Lord Jesus Christ is not now physically present on earth, He nevertheless rules over all things for His church from the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He needs no earthly vicar (a title often ascribed to the pope) to act as head in His place.

David Dickson notes that for the church to have any other head alongside Christ Himself would not be unlike thinking of her as a “monster” with two heads (Truth’s Victory Over Error, p.202).

The seven letters to the seven churches (found in Revelation chapters 2-3) portray the Lord Jesus as the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1, ESV). The lampstands are the churches (1:20). And so Jesus is clearly portrayed, not as an absentee ruler, but as a very present King, walking among His churches and watching over them.

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ needs no vicar, no pope, no other head to help rule over His church in His place. He is with us always, even to the end of the age, even as He Himself has promised (Matthew 28:20).

 

Flawed Church or False Church? (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.5)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4 basically deals with is often referred to as “the marks of the true church.” Those “marks” (although the Confession does not use the term there) are the things by which we are to distinguish or recognize whether or not a particular local church is truly a Christian church. (See here.)

Having dealt with the question of the true church in some detail (25.4), the Confession then goes on to speak of the false church:

“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5)

The first thing that we should take note of there is that there is no such thing as a perfect church this side of heaven. The Confession plainly states there that “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error . . . .” So in seeking to recognize the marks of the true church, we must be careful not to expect to find a perfect church. Even the very best of churches (like the godliest Christians) have faults, failures, shortcomings, and sins.

Mixture and error. That means that we can in this life expect to find false professors and hypocrites in the church. There is really no such thing as a church that always has a perfectly pure membership (i.e. that they are all genuine believers in Christ). And the membership of even the purest of churches consists entirely of sinners. Every last member. Saved sinners? Certainly. Justified sinners? Absolutely? Sanctified (and in the process of being sanctified)? Without a doubt. But sinners nonetheless.

Not only that, but that the best of churches are subject to “mixture and error” means that there is no such thing as a pastor or a church with perfect doctrine in all things (!). As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12,

“[9] For we know in part and we prophesy in part, [10] but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. [11] When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. [12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (ESV)

And so we must learn to tell the difference between, not just a true church and a false church, but also between a flawed church (which is a description of every true church under heaven) and a false church. Imperfection does not a false church make. The flawed church may be far from perfect, but it will still exhibit (even if imperfectly) the true preaching of the Word of God (“the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced” – 25.4), the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline (“ordinances administered – 25.4).

Some churches, however, “have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (25.5). In other words, sometimes true churches go beyond just being flawed (which all are) to the point of actually becoming false churches. When this happens (to use the words of the Confession), such churches “become no churches of Christ” at all. They may retain the name of “Christian,” but it is really in name only, rather than in any meaningful or true sense.

Sadly, this can be demonstrated over and over again in the history of the church. Churches and entire denominations that once started out so strong, can and do at times “degenerate” even to the point of blatant unbelief and wickedness.

Such things are spoken of (and warned against) in the book of Revelation. In what is often referred to as the seven letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) we read of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the church in Ephesus:

“[2] I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. [3] I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. [4] But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. [5] Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5, ESV, italics added)

There the Lord warns them that if they do not repent, He would come to them and remove their “lampstand” (v.5). Removing their lampstand is another way of saying that their light has been put out, and that they (the church at Ephesus) are no longer truly a member of Christ’s visible church. (In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he describes it as Christ unchurching that church!)

Thankfully, this section of the Confession’s chapter on the church ends on a much more encouraging note than that, when it says, “Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” The church will not fail. Some churches may become false churches, but the Lord Jesus Christ will always have His church on this earth. As He Himself has said, “. . . I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).

Ultimately, the church cannot fail, because the risen, ascended, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ Himself is her owner and her builder. That is why even the very gates of hell can never hope to prevail against it!

The Marks of The True Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.4)

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What kinds of things should believers in Christ look for when choosing a church? How do you know when you ought to remain at your current church? Conversely, how do you know when you may need to leave your church and find a new church home? To quote The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Many in our day seem to make such decisions based largely upon what might be considered peripheral issues, such as the style of music, children’s programs, the personality of the pastor, etc.. Those are not necessarily unimportant things to consider, but are they really the right standard by which we should measure a particular church?

This is where the concept of the “marks of the true church” often proves helpful. The Westminster Confession of Faith (25.4) deals with this subject (although it does not use the phrase “marks of the church), when it says,

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

Keeping in mind that the word “catholic” here (as in the Apostles’ Creed) simply means universal, not Roman Catholic, it is helpful to see that no particular (i.e. local) church or denomination is to be considered as coextensive or coterminous with the catholic/universal church. Frankly, that is how cults tend to view & present themselves (i.e. as the only true church, while all other churches are false, apostate, etc.). Rather, we are to consider particular/local churches in relation to the catholic/universal church.

And so when we are considering a particular church, our primary question must be whether or not it is truly a member of the one catholic, visible church. And how is that to be determined? By considering it in light of what is known as the marks of the true church.

The Confession’s statement above (25.4) states that the standard by which a church is to be measured, the things that we are to consider in order to determine whether or not a particular church is either “more or less pure” are as follows:

  1. “The doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced.” This must come first. If the gospel of Christ is not truly taught and embraced, then a particular church is a Christian church in name only. A false gospel equals a false church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5 speaks of such churches as “no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.”) And so our first and primary concern when deciding on a church must be that the Word of God is truly preached and taught.
  2. The proper administration of the “ordinances.” This is refers primarily to the sacraments, but most likely includes such things as church discipline, the maintaining of the offices of the church, etc. Sadly, the proper administration of the sacraments is probably an afterthought to many sincere believers, but it has been commonly held to be one of the distinguishing marks of the true church. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are vitally important in the lives of believers. The fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes no less than three (3) whole chapters (27-29) to this subject testifies to its importance.
  3. The purity of public worship. Now the public worship of the church is probably one of the first things that many people consider when choosing a particular church. But the purity of the public worship (i.e. that it conforms to what is commanded in Scripture) often does not seem to be the priority, but rather the personal preferences of the individual. In other words, we commonly ask whether or not the public worship of a particular church is pleasing to us, rather than asking whether or not it is pleasing to God. (Or we simply presume that if it is pleasing to us, then it must somehow be pleasing to God as well.)

Now there is obviously a lot of overlap between those three things. And those three things are not exactly the way that the marks of the true church have most commonly been articulated and defined. (The Confession, of course, does not use that term here.) The classic formulation of the marks of the true church is found (for example) in the Belgic Confession. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”

So the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of proper church discipline are stated as being the three (3) marks of the true church. That is not to say that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession are at odds on this issue; they simply articulate the same things somewhat differently. And notice that the Belgic Confession basically summarizes the three marks by saying, “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God.” That is really the standard.

As for the original question – “Should I stay or should I go?” Article 29 of the Belgic Confession sums it up well when it says, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.” If your particular local church does not demonstrate these three simple marks, then you probably need to find yourself a different church. But if it does show itself faithful in these three distinguishing marks (however unimpressive it may be), then (as the Belgic Confession states above), you ought not to be separated from it.

The marks of the true church are as much about knowing when you should stay at a particular church as they are about when you should leave it. Choose your church wisely, measuring all things according to the Word of God. And then faithfully worship, serve, and remain there to the glory of Jesus Christ.

The Means of Grace & the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.3)

This is now the third post in a series of posts going through what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us about the church (chapter 25). Why is the visible church so important? What is it about the visible (and so the local) church that makes it so needful for us as believers?

The answers to those questions are found, at least in part, in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which says,

“Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.”

There are at least five (5) things that this statement teaches us about the means of grace in the church:

The first thing that we should take notice of is the origin or source of the means of grace. The Confession says that these things (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) are things that “Christ has given” to the visible church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 defines the “visible church” – see here.)

This is similar to the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he writes,

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . .” (ESV, italics mine)

He (the Lord Jesus Christ) is the one who gave those gifts/offices/officers to His church for the building up or edification of the body. They were not the invention of man. That being the case, whatever Christ, as the only head of the church (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6) has instituted and ordained for His church (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) ought to be at the heart of every Christian church’s ministry. We in the church do not have the right to disregard or downplay what Christ Himself has ordained and instituted for our good.

The second thing we see in the Confession’s statement above is the identity of the means of grace in the church. What is it that the Confession says was given by Christ to His church? The “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” And what do those things refer to? The “ministry” is the ministry of the gospel, the offices that He has ordained for the church, especially the ordained ministry of the Word and Sacrament (i.e. the pastor or teaching elder).

The “oracles” of God refers to the Scriptures, which are the church’s “infallible oracle and rule of faith and practice” (A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p.313). Now that is not to downplay or ignore the importance of the Scriptures in the daily lives of individual Christians, but there is a sense in which the Scriptures are especially given to the visible church, and not just to individual believers. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says elsewhere,

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (Q.89, italics mine).

Even the New Testament epistles themselves are almost exclusively addressed to churches, and not just to individual believers. And even those epistles of Paul that are written to specific individuals are written concerning the church (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) or at least with the church in view (“To Philemon our beloved fellow worker . . .and the church in your house” – Philemon 1:2, ESV).

Lastly, the “ordinances of God.” This refers to the means of grace (or outward and ordinary means of grace) in particular. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines them as follows:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

So the “ordinances of God” are those “outward and ordinary means” by which Christ Himself communicates or gives to us the benefits of redemption. And those are the Word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. This is speaking of the things found, first and foremost, in the public worship of the church.

The third thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their purpose. Christ has given them to His church “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” In other words, they are given for evangelism and discipleship (not that those two things are entirely mutually exclusive).

The “gathering” of the saints refers to bringing sinners to faith in Christ. As Shorter Catechism Q.89 (cited above) puts it, it is “especially the preaching” of the Word that is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Do we think of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day in the church that way? Do we see it as something that God especially uses in evangelism? We should. And so inviting your unbelieving loved ones, friends, and neighbors to join you for worship on a Sunday should be seen as a key part (even if not the only part) of evangelism.

The “perfecting” of the saints refers to their edification and growth in grace (i.e. “building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” – WSC Q.89). Are you neglecting the gathering together of the saints (Hebrews 10:25)? Then, frankly, it should come as no shock to you if you are not growing in grace. For in neglecting the gathering together of the saints in worship on the Lord’s day, you are also then neglecting the outward and ordinary means of grace – the “ordinances of God” that He has given for your growth in Christ.

The fourth thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their perpetuity – that they are given for the gathering and perfecting of the saints “in this life, to the end of the world.” The outward and ordinary means of grace always seem to be going out of style in the eyes of many, but we must hold to them as Christ ordained them for us. These things are how the Lord Jesus Christ has seen fit to build His church, and it is only through fidelity to Christ in these things that we can be assured of His blessing. We must devote ourselves to doing God’s work God’s way. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, ESV). And what was the result? Their lives and fellowship was transformed, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v.47)!

The fifth and final thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is that their true power or efficacy lies in the presence and Spirit of Christ Himself – that they are made effectual only “by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise.” Word and Spirit must go together. It is the Spirit of Christ which makes the Word effective in us. It is the Spirit who alone causes the Sacraments (baptism & the Lord’s Supper) to be a means of grace. We must not think of the means of grace as if they were a mechanical thing, or as if they worked through a kind of mechanical process. Going through the motions (even the “right” motions) does not guarantee the communication of grace.

I hope that you have found these studies in the Confession of Faith to be helpful. Lord willing, our next post will be on what it has to say (in 25.4) about the marks of the true church.