Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Historical Context of the Westminster Assembly

I have recently started teaching a series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. You can find the recordings at this link. In the first lesson, I gave an overview of the confession and its historical context. 

In 1560, the Church of Scotland had been reestablished on the Genevan model as a Presbyterian church through the influence of John Knox and others. Further to the south, the Church of England (the Anglican Church) had gone back and forth under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tutor, settling down in the reign of Elizabeth I with the Calvinist theology of the 39 Articles and Book of Homilies, government by bishops appointed by the monarch, and worship directed by the Book of Common Prayer. 

James I introduced a few Anglican practices in the Church of Scotland and came into conflict with Presbyterian protest. His son, Charles I, became more aggressive against Presbyterians and Puritans. Under his archbishop, William Laud, the Puritans were persecuted and some who embraced Arminianism and “high church” practices were promoted. 

The tipping point was reached when Charles I sought to impose a new Book of Common Prayer on the Church of Scotland in 1637. This led to widespread protest, a firm stand for Presbyterianism by the Scottish church, and successful armed resistance by the Scottish authorities and nation, which caused Charles I to relent. Because this left the king in a poor financial condition, he was forced to assemble the English Parliament to ask for taxes. But since Charles I had ruled without Parliament for eleven years, Parliament had many grievances and desired reforms it sought to act upon once it was called into existence. 

Because of a growing desire for the reformation of the church, the English Parliament called the Westminster Assembly “for the settling of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and clearing of the Doctrine of said Church from false aspersions and interpretations.” The assembly was composed of about 120 “divines” (ministers of the word) representing all the counties of England and Wales, along with 30 representatives from the English parliament (the members of the assembly are listed here). The assembly began with the work of revising the 39 Articles, with the chief aim of making the Calvinist theology of the articles unmistakably clear. 

A couple months after the assembly began, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed between England and Scotland. This gave the assembly the task of creating new Reformed standards for doctrine, government, and worship for the churches in the three kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Scotland sent commissioners to assist the assembly, including Alexander Henderson, George Gillespie, and Samuel Rutherford. The English Civil War had begun between the forces of the king and the forces of the English Parliament, and so the English Parliament allied itself with Scotland by this covenant. 

In The Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the kingdoms pledged,
“I. That we shall sincerely, really, and constantly, through the grace of GOD, endeavor, in our several places and callings, the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, against our common enemies; the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of GOD, and the example of the best reformed Churches; and shall endeavour to bring the Churches of GOD in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, Confession of Faith, Form of Church Government, Directory for Worship and Catechising; that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us. 
“II. That we shall, in like manner, without respect of persons, endeavour the extirpation of Popery, Prelacy (that is, Church government by archbishops, bishops, their chancellors and commissioners, deans, deans and chapters, archdeacons, and all other ecclesiastical officers depending on that hierarchy), superstition, heresy, schism, profaneness, and whatsoever shall be found contrary to sound doctrine and the power of Godliness; lest we partake in other men’s sins, and thereby be in danger to receive of their plagues; and that the Lord may be one, and his name one, in the three kingdoms. 
“III. We shall, with the same sincerity, reality, and constancy, in our several vocations, endeavour, with our estates and lives, mutually to preserve the rights and privileges of the Parliaments, and the liberties of the kingdoms; and to preserve and defend the king’s majesty’s person and authority, in the preservation and defence of the true religion and liberties of the kingdoms; that the world may bear witness with our consciences of our loyalty, and that we have no thoughts or intentions to diminish his majesty’s just power and greatness.” (The full text is available here.)
The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) accordingly went on to produce the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Directory of Public Worship, and Form of Presbyterial Church Government. The established churches of Ireland and England did not hold to these standards for long, since Charles II rejected them after he became king in 1660. Nevertheless, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms endured as the standards of the Church of Scotland and of confessional Presbyterian churches throughout the world. 

In America, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were adopted by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 and by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1789 with a few minor revisions regarding church-state relations. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church adopted them in 1936, with a few more minor revisions that had taken place in the meantime. 

Even though the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) did not bring about the lasting uniformity of religion between Scotland, Ireland, and England that was its goal, it did lay important groundwork for unity among the Scots, Scot-Irish, and English who came to America.

Because of the Solemn League and Covenant between Scotland and England and how it shaped the task of the Westminster Assembly, Presbyterians from the three kingdoms of the British Isles were prepared to form one Presbyterian church in America. They had already gone through the work of agreeing to shared standards for doctrine, worship, and church government. This also united them as they sent missionaries throughout the world. 

The Congregationalists in New England also used the confession and catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, sometimes with modifications, which helped them to work with the Presbyterians in various ways over the years, including the Plan of Union (1803). The Westminster Shorter Catechism was often included in the popular New England Primer. Early Baptists in America also based their confessional documents on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the modifications Congregationalists had made to it.

Today, there are more Presbyterians in Mexico than there are in the USA, more Presbyterians in Brazil than there are in Scotland, and more Presbyterians in South Korea than there are in all these other four countries combined. The legacy of the Westminster Assembly endures. These documents continue to serve as a rich statement of biblical truth and a time-tested summary of the Christian faith.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Judicial Laws, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession

The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) addressed the judicial laws of the Old Testament in 19.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. To understand its statement, it is helpful to compare it to what the 39 Articles had said previously. The 39 Articles had served as the confession of faith for the Church of England since 1571. In its chapter on the Old Testament, the 39 Articles said, 
“Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth…”
In their initial revision of the 39 Articles (available in The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 5:326), the Westminster Assembly specified which judicial laws are no longer binding on nations: 
“Although the Law Given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christians, nor the civill precepts given by Moses, such as were peculiarly fitted to the commonwealth of the Jews, are of necessity to be received in any Commonwealth...” (emphasis added)
This helps us understand the distinction made in it the final product of the assembly. In its confession of faith, the Westminster Assembly made the same distinction in a different way, specifying which laws continue to be binding rather than specifying which ones do not. 
"To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require." (WCF 19.4) 
This is to say that the judicial laws of the Old Testament are binding on states today as far as they are of universal equity and not peculiarly fitted to Israel, a distinction that was commonly made at the time. 

For example, Johannes Piscator’s appendix to his commentary on Exodus was quoted favorably in the writings of men at the Westminster Assembly (George Gillespie, Francis Cheynell, and Samuel Rutherford). In that appendix, Johannes Piscator (1546—1625) argued that
“the magistrate is obliged to those judicial laws which teach concerning matters which are immutable and universally applicable to all nations, but not to those which teach concerning matters which are mutable and peculiar to the Jewish or Israelite nations for the times when those governments remained in existence.” (Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses, Braselton, GA: American Vision, 2015 [1605], 4-5)
While a member of the Westminster Assembly, Samuel Bolton published The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (1645). In this book, he said “in respect of the ceremonial and the judicial law we find few dissenters.” Here is how he explained this common view of the judicial law:
“As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil, and it served three purposes: it gave the people a rule of common and public equity, it distinguished them from other peoples, and it gave them a type of the government of Christ. That part of the judicial law which was typical of Christ's government has ceased, but that part which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a common maxim: those judgements which are common and natural are moral and perpetual.” (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964 [1645], 56)
This concept and terminology was also found at this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Thomas Shepherd, minister in Massachusetts, cited and affirmed Piscator's view. The New Haven Colony affirmed in 1642, 
“that the judicial law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as it is a hedge and a fence to the moral law, and neither ceremonial nor typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in it, and should be the rule of their proceedings.” (Charles Hoadly, ed. Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven from 1638 to 1649, Hartford: for the Editor, 1857, 69)
I believe that most "theonomists" who seek to be confessional are in agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I would also encourage theonomists to benefit from the clear thinking and hard work that has been done in the Reformed tradition concerning the application of God's law to society. For more on this topic, you can listen to my lesson on this portion of the Westminster Confession, available at this link.

Monday, January 23, 2023

For Thine Is the Kingdom

Question 107: What doth the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer teach us?
Answer: The conclusion of the Lord's Prayer, which is, For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, Amen. teacheth us to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen. (WSC)
If you open your Bible to Matthew 6:13, you may or might not see this conclusion to the prayer in the text depending on what translation you are using. This conclusion is not in some early Greek manuscripts of the Bible, some of the church fathers do not include it when discussing the Lord’s Prayer, and Jerome did not include it in his Latin translation of the Bible. But it is in most of the Greek manuscripts as well as the Didache (an early church manual from around AD 90) and it is an expected end to a prayer. I think either (1) it is original but accidentally got dropped from a few manuscripts, or (2) the prayer was designed with the expectation that a doxology would be used at the end, and this one was adapted from Scripture (1 Chron. 29:11-12, 2 Tim. 4:18) and put to the prayer very early on, and that it was included in biblical manuscripts because due to its widespread use it was thought to be original. In either case, it is fitting and biblical in content.

This conclusion is a doxology, an expression of praise to God. It declares that he reigns, he is all-powerful, and he is glorious, eternally. Therefore he deserves to be reverenced and obeyed, and therefore he is able to help and deliver us.

This conclusion teaches us to rest upon God alone in prayer. He is our confidence. We make our petitions resting upon his power and goodness. It also teaches us to praise him in our prayers. Not only are we to confess our sins and make our requests known to God, but we are also to give him glory. We are to thank him for all his benefits. We are to praise him for all his excellencies. “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (Psalm 150:2)

God is sovereign over all and deserves praise and service from his creation. He is also our Father who cares for us. Therefore we we draw near to him, that we might glorify God and enjoy him, both now and forever. And to commit to the words of our prayer, witnessing to our sincere desire to be heard and our assurance that we will be heard, we say, “Amen.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Deliver Us From Evil

Question 106: What do we pray for in the sixth petition?
Answer: In the sixth petition, which is, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, we pray, that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted. (WSC)
Not only do we pray for forgiveness - we also pray for a renewal of righteousness within us. Both of these are gifts we receive from God in Christ.

We need to be delivered from evil. The evil one seeks your destruction (1 Peter 5:8). Sinful desires seek to destroy your soul (1 Peter 2:11). The fallen world pressures you to live in immorality (1 Peter 4:3-4). Apart from Christ, we are evil in heart, spurred on by the evil of others around us, and in bondage to the evil one. Even in Christ, we are subject to assaults from these evil forces which seek to destroy us through deceitful temptation. You can resist them only as God strengthens you. Therefore, we are to watch and pray that we may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41). We are to pray that God would keep us back from sins and would prevent them from having dominion over us (Ps. 19:13).

Pray that God would keep you from temptation by restraining the world and Satan and especially by subduing your evil desires, so that you view the world with purity and uprightness rather than with corrupt imaginations and thoughts. Pray that when you are tempted by the arguments of tempters, by external occasions for sin, and by your inner desire for sin, that you would be enabled to stand firm against such temptation. Pray that God would give you quick and whole-hearted repentance when you do fall into sin. Pray this not only for yourself, but for your brothers and sisters in Christ (“us”), that we all might be delivered from error, sin, and the snares of Satan.

Having prayed this prayer, do not act foolishly and think you are invincible, walking into temptation. Pray for God’s help, and then fight! Be on your guard against temptation. Mortify bad thoughts, cutting them off before they develop. Replace them with good thoughts, good habits, and good words and works.

Pray with hope, knowing that Christ does help his people overcome sin more and more. This prayer will be answered in this age and fully answered in eternity, when all God’s children shall be fully freed from sin, temptation, and all evil, forever.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Forgive Us Our Debts

Question 105: What do we pray for in the fifth petition?
Answer: In the fifth petition, which is, And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we pray that God, for Christ's sake, would freely pardon all our sins; which we are the rather encouraged to ask, because by his grace we are enabled from the heart to forgive others. (WSC)
Our trespasses against God’s law are called debts. A debt is created when you do not pay what you owe. We owe to God complete and precise obedience. When we disobey him, justice demands satisfaction.

You are unable to pay your debts. Apart from grace, you only add to your debt. As the song goes, you are “another day older and deeper in debt.” You deserve to loose all you have and undergo eternal judgment.

But Jesus teaches his disciples that they have access to forgiveness. Jesus has paid their debts through his death, so that they might receive forgiveness through faith in him (Col. 2:12-14). God’s forgiveness is described as the forgiving of a debt. This means that when you are forgiven, you are no longer guilty and no longer liable to punishment. You are free from that burden! You are no longer in bondage to your sins.

This is a daily prayer, which implies that we sin daily. Just as we are constantly dependent for our "daily bread," so we are also constantly dependent upon God’s forgiveness. This request is an implicit confession of sins. It admits that one has debts to be forgiven. It means you should regularly confess your sins and seek God’s mercy (1 John 1:7-10).

This request also makes a connection between God’s forgiveness of your debts and your forgiveness of the debts of others. People become indebted to you when they do not fulfill their obligations to you, when they treat you wrongly and unjustly. Jesus teaches that God will not forgive the trespasses of those who do not forgive the trespasses committed against them. Jesus implies as much in the prayer and he says so in Matthew 6:14-15 (see also Matthew 18:21-35). We do not earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others, but it is a sign that God’s grace is at work in us when we practice this love. If you do not forgive the one who confesses his sin against you, then do not expect God to forgive you when you confess your sin to him. This prayer reminds us to not be hypocritical, asking God for what we will not give others. But if you do forgive the sins of others against you, this is an encouraging sign to you that you are a disciple of Christ and recipient of divine forgiveness.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Our Daily Bread

Question 104: What do we pray for in the fourth petition?
Answer: In the fourth petition, which is, Give us this day our daily bread, we pray that of God’s free gift we may receive a competent portion of the good things of this life, and enjoy his blessing with them. (WSC
In this petition, Jesus directs us away from self-sufficiency, anxiety, false asceticism, and greed. He teaches us to ask our heavenly Father to provide for our physical needs. This petition builds on several truths of Scripture.
  1. Food is a gift from God, to be received with thanksgiving and joy (1 Tim. 4:1-5, 6:17). We need food and drink and clothing, and he provides good things that are useful and pleasant. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart” (Psalm 104:14–15). 
  2. God cares for his children. Christ’s disciples are not orphans in this world. We have a heavenly Father who responds to the prayers and needs of his children. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31, 33). 
  3. Our daily bread should be received as a gift, with gratitude, contentment, and love. This is the way to joy. And this ability to receive and appreciate his provision is itself a gift of God for which we should ask. “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).
Jesus makes this request very practical and concrete by saying “this day our daily bread.” Do you get up in the morning and ask God for that day’s food? Or at night, do you pray for the food and shelter for the following day? Jesus teaches us to be like Israel in the wilderness who collected a new batch of manna from God every day. He teaches us to be dependent on God, not merely in a general way, but for today’s bread.

Jesus also directs us to make a modest request. He does not say, “make us rich,” “help me win the lottery,” “make me invincible against all weakness and need.” He does not encourage that approach. Rather, he teaches us to ask for daily bread, for a competent portion of the good things of this life. If God’s gifts come with God’s favor and are received as gifts with contentment, then they can provide great joy and gladness, even if they are small and simple.