A Faith We Can Confess – The Westminster Confession According to J. V. Fesko
The Westminster Confession is arguably the most important Reformed confession. Written by some of the most outstanding Puritans, this summary of doctrine still speaks today! Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, talked with J. V. Fesko, academic dean and professor of systematic theology and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California, and author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards, in order to understand just how important this confessional statement is for the church today.
Here is the start of the interview:
John, you’ve been studying The Westminster Confession for years, but for some of our readers this may be the first time they have ever heard of it. Briefly, can you tell us who wrote this confession and why?
In the middle of the seventeenth-century, the political situation in England was quite volatile. The English king, Charles I, wanted to bring all worship in his kingdom into conformity with The Book of Common Prayer (TBCP). He unsuccessfully tried to impose TBCP upon the Scottish churches. Initially the Scots created their national covenant in 1638 by which they sought to establish their churches in the Reformed faith. This covenant was essentially a declaration of war against King Charles. The king was the head of the church and to reject his authority in the church’s affairs was to reject his authority as king. The king unsuccessfully tried to approach Parliament to raise money and an army to fight the Scots.
Long story short, Charles and Parliament went to war. At the outbreak of the civil war, the English and the Scots made an agreement, the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), by which they sought to promote and establish the Reformed faith in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Part of their efforts included having Parliament call an assembly of theologians to write a new confession of faith and catechisms to propagate the Reformed faith and unify the three countries under the same doctrine and practice. In one sense, the Westminster Assembly was a failure—Presbyterianism failed to gain a strong foothold in England or Ireland; although, it was firmly established in Scotland. But from another vantage point, the Assembly’s success was far greater than they could have ever imagined. Although the Westminster Standards never took hold in England and Ireland, many churches throughout the world now use them as their confessional standards.
The Westminster Confession has much to say about the doctrine of justification. How is Westminster’s statement on justification distinctively Reformed in contrast to, say, Roman Catholicism and Arminianism?
By the time the Westminster divines wrote the Confession, much theological water had passed under the bridge—there had been a number of significant debates over the doctrine of justification, as well as debates contemporary with the Assembly’s work on the confession. Right off the bat, the Confession makes several important qualifications about justification. Justification is not by “infusing righteousness into” the elect and “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them” (WCF XI.i). Both of these statements present objections to two different theological errors—views promoted by the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander (1498-1552). Rome taught that God infused his grace into a person by means of his baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit. On the basis of God’s grace wrought by Christ, the believer then sought to maintain and secure his justification. The Council of Trent famously promoted the idea that believers would seek their initial justification by baptism and their second or final justification by their Spirit-wrought works. The divines reject both of these ideas by objecting to infused righteousness and arguing that justification is not based upon anything done by the believer. Another error they rejected was the view of Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian who taught that believers share in the divine righteousness of Christ. In other words, we are not justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness but by being in union with Christ and sharing in his own personal divine essential righteousness. The divines reject this by stating that justification does not rest upon anything “wrought in” the believer.
In addition to rejecting these errors, the divines also state that believers are not justified by God “imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness” (WCF XI.i). They do not mention him by name, but the divines reject the views of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius believed that God looked upon the faith of believers as if it were righteousness. The Reformed, by contrast, taught that faith was instrumental and laid hold of Christ’s righteousness. For Arminius, justification rests upon faith, whereas for the divines, justification rests solely upon the obedience and satisfaction of Christ.
Rome and Arminius were certainly key errors the divines wanted to avoid and proscribe, but there were other doctrines they also sought to exclude. On the one hand, they wanted to address the concerns of antinomians—those who believed that the moral law was completely eliminated for believers. The divines, therefore, taught that God expected good works from believers, but these good works were not the ground of their justification but instead its fruit. Faith does indeed work by love, but not for justification (WCF XI.ii). In justification, the principal acts of saving faith are receiving, resting, and accepting Christ’s work—these are all passive elements (WCF XIV.i). Related to this is the rejection of justification from eternity. The moderator of the Assembly, William Twisse (1578-1646), was part of a small minority of Reformed theologians who believed that God justified the elect in eternity. When a person made his profession of faith he merely discovered his already justified status. The divines rejected justification from eternity and instead distinguished between God’s decree to justify the elect and their actual justification in time (WCF XI.iv).
On the other hand, the divines were also keen to reject errors of Neonomianism, the idea that God lowered the demands of the law through Christ’s work. The new standard was sincere obedience. Richard Baxter (1615-91) later famously taught a twofold justification, one where a person was initially justified by faith, which was then followed by a second justification at the final judgment. A person could, in theory, fail to be justified at the final judgment because of his lack of piety and good works. In contrast to the views of Baxter, the divines assert that the elect can never truly fall away, though they can and do fall under his fatherly displeasure (WCF XI.v).
The last two errors they address are worth noting. Again, the divines being ever so polite do not mention anyone by name. Nevertheless, they affirm the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ when they say that God imputes his “obedience and satisfaction” to believers (WCF XI.iii). When we read the Confession, we might be tempted to look for these doctrines under contemporary labels, such as the imputed active obedience of Christ. Yet, we must read the Confession in its seventeenth-century context and recognize that the divines use phrases and terms common to their own period. The “obedience and satisfaction” is a common seventeenth-century phrase that refers to the active and passive obedience of Christ.
Last, the divines address a common Anabaptist error, namely, that Old Testament believers were saved in a different manner from those in the New Testament. In concert with some of the earliest covenant theology of the Reformation from Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), the divines affirm that salvation was the same for both Old and New Testament believers—they were all justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
To say the least, one should be familiar with the various debates that were common to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to have a richer appreciation for the intricate manner in which the divines explain what justification is and what it is not. …
Read the rest of this interview today!
Church history matters. We are not the first generation to read the Bible. So looking to the help of those who have come before us is incredibly valuable. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many godly individuals have preceded us and more often than not their insights into God’s Word tend to be far more valuable than what you will find on the best seller rack of a Christian bookstore. By looking to those giants of the faith in the history of the church, not only do we avoid falling prey to the heresies of the past, but we also stand firmly on the shoulders of others so that we persevere in sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
One set of broad shoulders belongs to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen. It is hard to exaggerate the importance and influence of Owen’s life and writings. His books were and still are some of the best works in theology that we have, standing alongside those of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and many others. The Christian today will benefit in countless ways from works like On Communion with God, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, On the Mortification of Sin, and Of Indwelling Sin in Believers.
What is so remarkable about Owen, however, is not merely the robust, biblical theology nature of his writings, but his insistence that theology affects the Christian life. In other words, Owen refused to separate head and heart. Doctrine must lead to doxology every time, otherwise we have not truly understood its purpose. Therefore, Owen is the Doctor who looks into the human soul in order to diagnose our spiritual disease and offer us a cure in Jesus Christ. If read carefully, it is hard not to finish a book by Owen without feeling a desire to know God more.
The upcoming year, 2016, will be the four hundredth anniversary of Owen’s birth. So what better timing for an issue of Credo Magazine that aims to introduce some of Owen’s theology and writings. But as much as we love you reading Credo Magazine, this issue would be a failure if you did not study and read this Prince of Puritans for yourself.
Contributors include: J. V. Fesko, Ryan M. McGraw, Geoff Thomas, Daniel R. Hyde, Joel Beeke, Leonardo De Chirico, Kelly M. Kapic, Michael Haykin, and many others.