This is a continuation of Rev. Stewart’s article in the Special Reformation Issue, October 15, 2010, p. 42.

The Westminster Confession on the Church

In keeping with the directives of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the Westminster divines fervently sought a thoroughly biblical and doctrinal church unity for the Reformed churches of the British Isles.

The Westminster Confession’s opening chapter, “Of the Holy Scripture,” is, in my opinion, the greatest creedal statement anywhere on the truth of God’s inspired Word. Philip Schaff states, “No other Protestant symbol has such a clear, judicious, concise, and exhaustive statement of this fundamental article of Protestantism.”¹

The other chapters, broadly speaking, treat God and man (ch. 2-6), Christ and salvation (ch. 7-20), and the church and the last things (ch. 21-33).

In chapter 25, “Of the Church,” the Westminster Confession affirms the unity of the invisible, catholic, or universal church, as consisting “of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof” (25:1). The next article states that the unity of the visible, catholic, or universal church embraces “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25:2).

To the visible, catholic 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” (25:3). It is in the degree of faithfulness or unfaithfulness in exercising or administering these things (“the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) that “particular churches…are more or less pure” (25:4). The following three marks or notes of the true church are listed: “according as [1] the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, [2] ordinances administered, and [3] public worship performed more or less purely in them” (25:4).

The next article makes the following evaluation based upon the marks: “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” (25:5). The chapter concludes with a condemnation of the pontiff of Roman Catholicism: “Nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head [of the church]; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God” (25:6).

The next chapter, “Of the Communion of Saints,” stresses the spiritual union and communion of believers with Christ and, therefore, with each other. This communion among the saints includes fellowship in “love,” “gifts,” “graces,” “duties,” “worship,” etc. (26:1-2). “Which communion, as God offereth opportunity,” the Confession continues, “is to be extended unto all those who in every place [including saints throughout the British Isles and in the continental Reformed churches] call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (26:2).

This Christian unity and communion of saints in profession, worship, and love is not only intensely spiritual and truly catholic; it is also costly. Believers “are obliged to the performance of such duties, publick and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man” (26:1) and “are bound” to perform “such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities” (26:2). But this is not, Westminster affirms, to fall into communism (26:3)!

The next three chapters of the Westminster Confession succinctly present the Presbyterian and Reformed doctrine of the two sacraments (ch. 27): baptism (ch. 28) and the Lord’s Supper (ch. 29). Obviously, these three chapters are contrary to Romanism (especially 27:3-4; 28:5-6; 29:2-8), like all the chapters of the Confession. Lutheran baptismal regeneration (28:5-6) and consubstantiation (29:7) are also opposed. Contra the Baptists, “the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized” (28:4) and immersion is “not necessary,” for “baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person” (28:3).

The religious uniformity in the British Isles proposed by the Westminster Confession is rooted in the truth not only of the church and its fellowship (ch. 25-26) and the Christian sacraments (ch. 27-29), but it is also preserved and maintained by godly church discipline (ch. 30) and authoritative broader assemblies (ch. 31).

Notice how the following two articles on faithful church discipline and broader church assemblies, respectively, present biblical church authority as serving true church unity:

Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; for deterring of others from the like offences; for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders (30:3). 

It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the publick worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word (31:3).

The Westminster Confession on God’s Absolute Sovereignty

The unity proposed by the Westminster Confession is especially rooted in the truth of Jehovah’s gracious and sovereign choosing of the “elect” and “invisible” church (25:1) and His “gathering and perfecting” of the saints in faithful, “visible” churches (25:3).

The Confession summarizes the Bible’s teaching concerning the triune God:

[He] is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory, in, by, unto, and upon them: he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth (2:2).

This includes God’s unconditional, double predestination, consisting of eternal election and reprobation (3:3-8), as well as Jehovah’s all-embracing providence, which “extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends” (5:4).

“Christ’s one only sacrifice [is] the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect” (29:2), for His “perfect obedience,” “sacrifice,” and “reconciliation” are “for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (8:5). “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them” (8:8).

“All those” and “those only” who are “predestinated unto life” are effectually called (10:1), and these alone are justified (11:1), adopted (12:1), sanctified (13:1), and preserved by God (17:1-2). “The elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls” (14:1), are given by the Lord the “evangelical grace” of “repentance unto life” (15:1), and so do good works as those “created in Christ Jesus thereunto” (16:2).

The Westminster Confession itself summarizes,

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so has he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ; are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation (3:6).

The next sentence presents the truth negatively: “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only” (3:6). As the Confession explains, fallen man has no “free will” (9:3), and so those “not elected” can “never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved” (10:4).

The judgment day is for the vindication of the absolutely sovereign God: “The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect, and of his justice in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient” (33:2).

A Bastion Against “Many Dangerous Errors and Heresies”

The Westminster Confession’s superb statement of scriptural truth—and all I have given above is a mere summary—also established it as a great bastion against false doctrine. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (27 August, 1647) rightly recognized the “Confession of Faith,” required “by the Solemn League and Covenant,” as the “principal part of the intended uniformity in religion [in the British Isles]” and “a special means for the more effectual suppressing of the many dangerous errors and heresies of these times.”²

Scottish Commissioner George Gillespie declared,

The Confession of Faith is framed, so as it is of great use against the floods of heresies and errors that overflow that land; nay their intention of framing it was to meet with all the considerable Errors of the present time, the Socinian, Arminian, Popish, Antinomian, Anabaptistian [Anabaptist], Independent errors, etc. The Confession of Faith sets them out, and refutes them, so far as belongs to a Confession.³

Clearly, the Westminster Confession was and is a great Reformed creed, serving Christ’s church and its unity. But how was it implemented in the British Isles in the years after its formulation? Was its lofty vision of religious uniformity realized in established Presbyterian churches in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland? And have the churches in the British Isles since then maintained the truth of the Westminster Confession? These things we shall consider next time (DV).

¹ Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1 (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1877), p. 767; cf. B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), pp. 155-156. 

² The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1985), pp. 14, 15. 

³ Quoted in Warfield, op. cit., p. 58, n. 99. To Gillespie’s list, David Dickson, in the first commentary written on the Westminster Confession (1684), would add many others: Greeks (i.e., Eastern Orthodox), Lutherans, Erastians, Libertines, Quakers, Enthusiasts, Judaisers, etc.—to name just some of them (Truth’s Victory Over Error [Burnie, Tasmania: Presbyterian’s Armoury Publication, 2002]).