The Westminster Confession through Jesus spectacles

A recent edition of Joy! Magazine published the Short Catechism of the Westminster Confession.

The introduction stated that the Confession ‘has been described as the finest, most Biblical description and definition of Christian life, faith and practice.’ It also stated that ‘it is the duty of the Church to clearly define, defend, proclaim, and teach the whole counsel of God to a world of doubt and confusion.’ The context of this last statement makes it clear that the author believes the Westminster Confession to be the recommended way of presenting the ‘whole counsel of God’.

Bible and glassesThe Westminster Confession (WC) is a Calvinist statement of faith. I realise that statistics can be treacherously misleading, but the best estimates I have read indicate that the Calvinist/Reformed version of the Christian Faith is held by about 30% of the North American church and 15% of the church across the whole world. While less than a quarter of the church believes in the tenets of Calvinism, surely all of the church, Reformed included, believes in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, I thought that it would be beneficial to readers to consider how Jesus answered the first three questions of the Shorter WC and to provide some brief personal comment concerning these questions.

  1. What is the chief end of man? The WC answers; ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. As ‘proof texts’ for the first part of that statement it cites Psalm 86, Isaiah 60:21, Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31, and Revelation 4:11. No mention of what Jesus said, yet Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) and the ‘exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3). Surely what He said should be taken as definitive?

The closest Jesus came to answering the question as phrased in the WC was when a Pharisee asked him what He believed to be the greatest commandment in The Law. Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’   All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). Simply put, the chief end of man, his primary purpose, is to love God with all that he is and to love others as himself. This is very different to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’.

A prominent Calvinist author, John Piper, argues that man’s purpose to glorify God is prescribed by God’s own purpose to glorify himself. In his message ‘Is God for us, or for himself’ Dr. Piper qualifies this by stating that ‘God’s aim and effort to glorify himself is wholly good and without fault of any kind and is very different from human self-exaltation because it is an expression of love’. I would argue that scripture defines God in terms of love, and not glory (1 John 4:8), and that God’s glory is best displayed in His compassion and self-giving concern for an undeserving humanity.

As to the second part of the WC answer, ‘to enjoy him forever’, this can only be true for those who accept the Calvinist teaching on election and believe that they have been preordained to be saved: those who are destined to be eternally separated from God certainly cannot enjoy Him forever!

I have long held that the primary purpose of all people is to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise; in this way we love God and others.

  1. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? The WC answers; ‘The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.’ Now, if by ‘Word of God’ they mean ‘The Bible’, then the answer to the third question amplifies what is meant here. However, while I agree that the Bible is the written ‘Word of God’, it itself defines the term more specifically for us in John 1:14 where it states that ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’. The WC teaches that the Word of God is contained in the scriptures’ and I believe that this is true in that Jesus, THE Word of God, is revealed and encountered in and through the Bible. The focus should be on Jesus, the Living Word, as revealed in and through the Bible, the written word.

and question 3:

  1. What do the Scriptures principally teach? The WC answers; ‘The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.’ Jesus, on the other hand, answered the question very directly when He said to the Pharisees; ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

There is an eternity of difference between the Bible as a rule book and the Bible as a Relational book. Old Testament believers could be excused for thinking that the sacred texts were all about rules, regulations and God’s requirements. New Testament believers, on the other hand, can look with clarity into the life of Jesus, as revealed in scripture, and understand that the Bible’s primary purpose is to reveal Jesus so that we might relate to Him both now and forever.

So, there certainly is another way at looking at human purpose as revealed in the scriptures, and I prefer looking at this important matter through Jesus-centred lenses rather than WC glasses.

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