The Westminster Confession of Faith

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

It’s shocking to hear that for many years, you couldn’t buy a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, even from the Presbyterian Bookshop at 156 Collins Street. I remember Rev. John Mercer telling me that said some of his classmates took their ordination vow “I own the Westminster Confession of Faith” very literally. As long as it was on their shelf, they were okay. One didn’t even go that far, asking if he could borrow a copy of the Confession because he ‘should probably have a read of it’ before his ordination later that day.

Sure, ministers and elders have to agree with the Confession, but why should anyone else bother with it? It’s not like it’s the Bible!

Well, you should read a confession of faith if you want help to see how the Bible’s teaching fits together. That’s what any statement of systematic theology does: it gathers up what the Bible teaches, examines the developments, and states it succinctly.

As Carl Trueman writes, “Ask any Christian what they believe, and, if they are at all thoughtful, they will not simply recite Bible texts to you; they will rather offer a summary account of what they see to be the Bible’s teaching in a form of words which are, to a greater or lesser extent, extra-biblical.”

You should read a confession to check your interpretation of the Bible. As church history teaches us, a new discovery in Biblical interpretation is often an old heresy with a new name.

We are always in danger of what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ because of the inherent blind spots and cultural pressures of our own time. But confessions help us to evaluate and build on the understanding of believers before us, as well as our own.

And if none of that is convincing enough, confessions help us to focus on what is most important. If we emphasize only the aspects of Christian doctrine which matter to us, we risk transmitting an unbalanced, incomplete, and unbiblical Gospel. Confessions provide a ‘form of sound words’ (2 Timothy 1:13), a comprehensive statement of the Christian faith to pass on (2 Timothy 2:2).

You probably won’t be surprised that I think the Westminster Confession of Faith really is the best confession you’ll find. In 12,500 words (or about 45 pages without the Scripture proofs), the Westminster Assembly has given us a hard-fought, carefully drafted, and pastorally helpful statement of the essential doctrines of Christianity, which is valued by Christians well beyond the bubble of Western Evangelicalism.

If you have time to read 2 chapters of Packer’s Knowing God, Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, or Sproul’s The Holiness of God, then you have time to read this helpful summary from start to finish.

So, read a paragraph or two as part of your daily devotions, or set aside time on Sunday afternoon to study a chapter and follow the Scripture references. You might prefer to use a booklet of the Confession on its own, download it from reformed.org, or get one of the many apps like Christian Creeds & Reformed Confessions.

You’ll also be helped by the many commentaries on the Confession. I prefer Chad Van Dixhoorn’s excellent and accessible Confessing the Faith (Banner of Truth: 2014), which includes a modern English version in parallel to the original. The elders and I will be working through this helpful work together.

We should learn from the best of current practice without losing the best of the past. Our personal devotions, discipleship, family worship, corporate worship, and church government would all be enriched if we thoughtfully applied the Scripture-soaked wisdom in the Westminster documents to our present situation.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald