One of the most enduring and influential documents of the Christian faith is the Westminster Confession of Faith. Written over 370 years ago, this confession is a foundational document for dozens of Protestant denominations around the world, guiding tens of thousands of churches in their declarations of faith.
With this article, we’d like to introduce you to the Westminster Confession.
We’ll have to do some historical excavation, first, in order to understand its enduring importance.
The Need for the Westminster Confession
In the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII famously withdrew England from the Roman Catholic Church. He founded a new, Protestant faith known as the Church of England, or Anglicanism. Largely seen as a power move meant to cut off the Pope’s outside influence into English affairs, Anglicanism eventually became hugely influential in global Christianity. The Church of England became the official church of the British Isles.
However, within a few generations of Henry’s move, the Church of England was suffering terrible infighting. While upper-class people tended toward Anglicanism, middle-class folks moved to more extreme forms of Anglicanism. The radical Protestants who wanted to purify Anglicanism, called Puritans, were pitted against Separatists, those who wanted to leave Anglicanism altogether. Eventually, this led to the English Civil War in 1642.
Within several years, the Puritans had gained control of the English government. They desired to have the church turn back to the pure truths of the Bible. They wanted to throw off the formal trappings of Catholicism that still remained in the Anglican Church. In order to do this, they convened a council in 1646 to draft articles that would guide the Church of England into a “re–formed” faith that turned back to God’s Word. These articles came to be known as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Soon thereafter the Puritans lost control of the government and many fled the country. However, they took the Westminster Confession with them, influencing many existing churches while also establishing new ones. Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, and many Baptist churches adopted all or part of Westminster, making it one of the most influential confessions in church history.
The Westminster Confession’s Return to the Bible
The above context is important once we dive into the Confession’s 33 chapters. Because Westminster was written in large part to guide Anglicanism in its church government, it devotes much of its attention to church discipline, the proper order of worship, the sacraments, Sabbath-keeping, and how the church and state relate to each other. All these topics can broadly fall under the category of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. These issues are all mentioned in the second half of the document.
However, how the Confession begins is most important. The Puritans wanted God’s people to return to God’s Word. They saw something within their own Anglicanism that needed to be corrected. While the Church of England was part of the Protestant movement, in their minds it hadn’t gone far enough in removing many Roman Catholic rituals and beliefs that had more to do with church tradition than biblical teaching. They wanted to clean up the church, to purify it—thus their name, Puritans.
The first chapter of the Confession gives a magnificent summation of the importance of the Bible in the life of the church. The chapter touches upon what is commonly known as the “four characteristics of Scripture”: authority, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency. In short, as God’s Word, the Bible authoritatively and clearly teaches all that we need in order to have a right relationship with God. As the Confession states: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Chapter 1, Article 6).
Because of the authors’ reliance upon the authority of the Bible, at the end of every chapter and each article of the Confession, you will find Bible verses included that support the affirmations of the document. With 33 chapters comprised of 171 articles, the Westminster Confession of Faith is loaded with biblical teaching.
The Westminster Confession’s Emphasis on God’s Grace
The subsequent chapters, forming the heart of the Confession, expound upon topics dear to Puritans, what are commonly called the “doctrines of grace.” Some further history is important to explain here.
Puritans followed in the theological footsteps of John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin taught that God made a “covenant of grace” (Westminster: chap. 7, article 3) with sinners, determining to save them according to nothing more than his mercy and good grace. Salvation is a free gift from God. People can’t earn it, work to gain it, or keep it, or even lose it once given this gift.
A reaction against this teaching came from those who believed that Calvin had placed too much emphasis on God’s role in salvation, and not enough on the part humans play in it. Thirty years before the Westminster Confession, a debate within the Dutch Reformed Church resulted in a permanent split between those who followed Calvin’s teaching, and others—known as Arminians—who followed the teaching of Jacobus Arminius.
There were many similarities between what Arminians taught about Christian salvation and what was taught by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Thus, the Puritans believed the Westminster Confession was needed to clearly repudiate the Arminian view.
Thus, the Confession spends seventeen chapters (chapters 2-18) on God’s will and how that relates to the salvation of sinners. Two statements from the Confession crystalize the Puritan perspective:
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace. (Chapter 3, Article 5)
In other words, God elects who he chooses to save, with no regard to anything that would merit this in the sinner. As the Confession later states, it is impossible for sinners to somehow make God favorable toward them, and in any event the sinner’s heart is constantly inclined toward active rebellion against God (Chapter 6).
The second statement explains how this gift of grace works in the sinner’s heart:
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace. (Chapter 10, Article 1)
Salvation is entirely a work of God on behalf of sinners who, left to themselves, would only continue in rebellion against their Creator. God graciously saves them despite themselves.
All of this is possible only because of God’s gracious act in sending his Son, Jesus, to save sinners:
It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only-begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King; the Head and Saviour of his Church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world; unto whom he did, from all eternity, give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. (Chapter 8, Article 1)
Thus the Confession magnifies God’s sovereign will and wonderful kindness to save undeserving sinners.
Why the Westminster Confession Is Still Important
The practicality of the Westminster Confession is striking. The Puritans understood that deep theological truths should affect how we live. If they don’t, they’re just ideas on paper. For the Puritans, right and true theology expresses itself in worshipping God. If what you believe doesn’t affect how you live, then you need to rethink what you really believe!
After nearly four centuries, the Westminster Confession of Faith still influences millions of Christians today because the truths from God’s Word that the Confession re-affirms are life-changing truths.
While the Confession calls forth universal truths from God’s Word, it also serves as an opportunity for introspection. It invites us to judge the beliefs of our hearts and consider the inner-workings of our souls as we consider what we truly believe. It also helps us practically understand how to subject ourselves and our churches to the Word of God.
Why not read a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith and see for yourself? Ask God to help you properly discern what it says. Try looking up the Bible verses provided and ask yourself as you read each article, Do I believe this? Do I live like it?