The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Thoughts on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Nearly 400 years old and still as relevant & helpful as ever!

Justification (Shorter Catechism Q.33)

1710_largeThe 500th anniversary of what is commonly held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is nearly upon us! For it was on October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s invitation to debate these 95 points of doctrine or contention has been called the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.

With this momentous anniversary almost upon us, I thought it might be helpful to post something on the protestant doctrine of justification. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) is often called the “material cause” of the Reformation. In other words, it was front and center in many of the debates, discussions, and even trials. The “formal cause” of the Reformation – the underlying foundational issue – was the authority of Scripture (or sola Scriptura).

The doctrine of justification has been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (Martin Luther), and the hinge on which the Christian religion turns (John Calvin). So what is it? What is the biblical doctrine of justification?

I believe that the simplest and most helpful definition of justification is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where it says,

“Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

So the first thing we see there in that definition is that justification is “an act of God’s grace.” It is an act of the grace of God, and so it is a gift, freely given to all who are in Christ by faith. It is not earned, nor can it be. In other words, the basis of our justification is not found in anything inherent in us at all.

The second thing we see is that justification is a one-time act, as distinguished from sanctification, which is an ongoing “work of God’s free grace” (Q.35). There are no degrees of justification; there is no growth (or decay) in justification. In fact, as Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77 points out, justification “does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation” (italics added). All genuine believers in Christ are equally, perfectly, and irrevocably (!) justified in Christ and so freed from God’s wrath! That is grace!

The third thing that we see here in this definition of justification is that this act of God’s grace in Christ includes the pardon or forgiveness of all of our sins. What a wonderful blessing (Psalm 103:2-3)! No wonder the Apostle Paul says,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

Forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ! Is there anything that sinners could possibly need more than that? No wonder the gospel of Christ is good news!

But wait, there’s more! The fourth thing that we see in the Shorter Catechism’s definition of justification is that in it God not only pardons all of our sins, but He also “accepts us as righteous in his sight.” Being forgiven is one thing, but then also being accepted by a holy God as if we were righteous in His sight! Justification is much more than a clean slate! It is having a positively righteous slate or standing in the eyes of a holy God!

How is that even possible? How can sinners be accepted by God as righteous in His sight? What is the basis or ground of this new standing before God? The Catechism adds that it is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” When we come to Christ by faith, His perfect, spotless righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account in God’s sight!

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ did not just die in our place, but He lived in our place as well! This is often spoken of as the “active obedience” of Christ (in contrast to His “passive” obedience, wherein He suffered and died in our place). His obedience is reckoned as our obedience when it comes to our standing before God!

And how is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us and received by us? By faith alone. Period. Not by something we do; not by faith in Christ plus something else – faith alone. And it is by faith alone in order to ensure that it is by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:16).

What a wonderfully full and yet concise definition of justification! And what a beautiful and comforting truth! That is certainly something well worth considering, meditating upon, and celebrating.

 

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The Second Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the second commandment, which says,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)

The first thing that you might notice is that this commandment is much longer and more detailed than the first commandment, which simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The very length of this commandment should get your attention.

The simplest way to summarize this commandment is to say that in it God forbids the sin of idolatryBut what is idolatry? In its most literal sense it is the use of images in worship. In the commandment above the Lord forbids us from the making of images, bowing down to them, and serving them. But it also includes worshiping God in any way that he himself has not ordained. That is the basic meaning of this commandment.

The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson (1620-1686), put it this way:

“In the first commandment worshiping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshiping the true God in a false manner [is forbidden].” (The Ten Commandments, p.59)

That is a helpful way to understand the relationship between the first and second commandments. The first forbids the worship of false gods; the second forbids false worship, even of the one true God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism points out that in this commandment the Lord gives us not only a prohibition against a particular form of sin (i.e. the making and serving of images of anything in all of creation), but also gives us several reasons why we should be careful to obey it:

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

The first reason why we should be careful to obey this commandment is because God is sovereign over us – He is the Lord. In other words, we should not commit idolatry because God alone is God. In v.5 he calls himself “the LORD your God.” He alone is worthy of worship and obedience.

The second reason is because of God’s redemption and ownership of his people. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have even more reason to refrain from any form of idolatry. If he is “your God” (v.5), then you simply have no business committing idolatry.

The third reason given here is God’s own zeal for His worship – that the Lord “is a jealous God” (v.5) who will judge the “iniquity” of those who commit idolatry. And what motive does the Lord assign to those who would practice idolatry? Hatred of God. Think about that. Idolatry is essentially an expression of hatred toward God. No wonder God warns of judgment against those who practice it!

If you truly love God you will keep his commandments (v.6), especially his commandments regarding his worship! We are not left to worship the Lord according to our own imagination or preferences. The second commandment shows that God is jealous (or zealous) that he alone be worshiped, and that he be worshiped according to his revealed will in Scripture alone.

 

The First Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn previous posts I dealt with some preliminary concerns about the ten commandments as a whole – things which are helpful for us to understand before going into detail about the individual commandments themselves. (More could certainly be said in that regard.)

But now I would like to spend some time going through each of the ten commandments, one at a time, and in order. That brings us to the first commandment, which simply says,

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, ESV)

Notice that the very first commandment (indeed, the first four commandments!) deals with our relationship with God. It should be instructive for us that this is where the ten commandments begin. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson writes,

“This may well lead the van, and be set in the front of all the commandments, because it is the foundation of all true religion. The sum of this commandment is, that we should sanctify God in our hearts, and give him a precedence above all created beings.” (p.49)

If you were to rank the commandments in the order of their importance, how far up (or down) the list would you rank this one? Perhaps the commandment against murder (6th commandment – Exodus 20:13) comes to mind first, or maybe the commandment against adultery (7th commandment – Exodus 20:14)?

Murder or adultery might strike you as “bigger” sins, so to speak. But what about breaking the first commandment? Does it strike you as a particularly heinous sin and offense? It should. The Lord clearly places this commandment first in order to show us its importance. You could say that breaking the first commandment is just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. That is a pretty startling thought, isn’t it?

That this commandment comes first also shows us that true morality or ethics starts with one’s relationship with God. Doing what is right starts with doing what is right with regard to God himself.

What does it mean to have other gods before God? It means to trust, love, worship, and serve anything else in the place of God – to give something else other than God your first allegiance.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of what is forbidden in the first commandment:

“Q.47. What is forbidden in the first commandment? A. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshiping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.”

How many millions of souls break this first commandment simply by denying God and so failing to worship Him as God! And how many millions more do so by worshiping and serving other (false) gods! Indeed, in the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against such sins (Romans 1:18).

This can be done in a literal way through false religion, or worshiping false gods. In Isaiah 44:6 God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (ESV). If God is the only true god, than to worship anyone or anything else is to have another god (even if a false one) before him. And Isaiah 42:8 likewise says, I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (ESV).

Having other gods before him can also be done in seemingly non-religious ways as well. In Matthew 6:24 the Lord Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV).

Money can be a false god if it takes top priority in your life. In fact, serving money may be the most common form of false religion or idolatry in the history of humanity.

The first commandment teaches us that it is our duty to know the one true God and Creator, and to acknowledge him as such by trusting, loving, worshiping, and serving him above all else.

Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

J.C. Ryle on Sin as the Root of All Sorrow

old-pathsIf you were to ask 100 people at random what lay at the root of all of the world’s problems, what answers do you suppose that you might hear? (You might very well hear nearly 100 different answers.) But how many people in a hundred would point to sin as the culprit?

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle has some pointed words about the evils of sin as the ultimate source of all of the misery that mankind encounters in this fallen world:

“Sin is the cause of all the burdens which now press down mankind. Most men know it not, and weary themselves in vain to explain the state of things around them. But sin is the great root and foundation of all sorrow, whatever proud man may think. How much men ought to hate sin!” (p.338)

And so while all of mankind shares in the miseries of this life since the fall, how few there are who trace those miseries back to their true root – sin.  And apart from that, there really is no right explanation or understanding of the state of the world. But if we understand that sin is “the great root and foundation of all sorrow,” then we will begin to truly hate sin (and not just its effects), especially our own (not merely those of other people).

And how thankful we should be that God in His great mercy and grace did not leave all of mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery, but rather, “out of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.20). Thank God that He gave us His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Redeemer of God’s elect (Q.21)!

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“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.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!