In Pleading for a Reformation Vision, David Calhoun recounts a story about the late Dr. William Childs Robinson’s high esteem for the Westminster Standards. “Occasionally,” writes Calhoun, “a student was bold enough to ask Dr Robinson if he thought the Westminster Standards were perfect. He would reply, ‘No, but their exposition of the faith is better than yours, and you can improve yours by studying theirs.’” One can just as rightly note that the Westminster Standards—while not a perfect guide of Christian discipleship—are a better guide for Christian discipleship than any a minister could devise on his own; and we can improve ours by studying theirs.
While engaged in the work of church planting in the PCA, I led a men’s theology group every other week for nearly seven years. We worked through the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC), and the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC)—followed by the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. While we delved deeply into the Christian theology taught in the Standards, we also worked through the implications of that theology for aspects of everyday life. During those meetings, I came to realize how valuable the Westminster Standards were for discipleship and not simply as a guide for denominational worship and discipline. I came to understand that they provide a better framework for discipleship than any I could have ever come up with on my own. Over the years, many have expressed how formative those times were for their spiritual growth as believers, church members, husbands, and fathers—as well as in their particular callings.
It is my desire to now encourage other pastors to make use of our confessional documents for Christian discipleship in the context of the local church. To that end, I want to highlight the usefulness of the Westminster Standards as a tool for discipleship, and then offer a few practical suggestions and recommended books that assist pastors in using the Standards as a tool of discipleship.
A Biblical Foundation
Significantly, the WCF does not start with a statement about the importance of creeds and confessions; rather, it begins with statements about the nature and importance of Scripture. As WCF 1.6 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: unto which nothing at any times is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
This is paramount to our understanding of the role that the Westminster Standards can play in Christian discipleship. The members of the Assembly were first and foremost men of the Word of God. From the outset, they advanced the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura. In so doing, they were defending the sufficiency of Scripture as the solid foundation of Christian worship, witness, and discipleship. Edmund Clowney explained the significance of the opening chapter of the Confession, when he wrote,
The whole Westminster Confession depends upon its teaching about the Bible itself. . .That teaching has vast practical as well as theological consequences. Indeed, the recovery of the teaching of the Bible about itself was the key to the liberation brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Does the final authority rest in the church or in the Bible? The first chapter of the Westminster Confession presents its clear witness to the authority of Scripture out of a sense to answer that question biblically. The chapter is the Magna Carta of Christian liberty, sweeping away every claim of men to rule over the consciences of other men. At the same time, it is an act of devotion, rendering full submission to the immediate authority of God.
The divines proceeded to explain how Scripture is the final authority in all controversies of religion. The last paragraph in chapter 1 states,
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
This is vital for discipleship in a day of heated theological and societal controversy and debate. An aspect of making Christian disciples involves training other believers how to test all things by the God-breathed Scriptures. God calls Christian disciples to scrutinize every statement of councils, theologians, movements, or individuals by the authoritative voice of the Spirit of God in all the Scriptures.
Additionally, the Confession gives interpretive principles for training disciples how to read the Scriptures. It is not enough for ministers to teach congregants that they need to read their Bibles—they also need to teach them how to read their Bible. We find one such principle in chapter 1, where we read,
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and when, therefore, there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
This is the principle of the analogia fidei (the analogy of faith). Since the Holy Spirit is the interpreter of His own word, Scripture is the interpreter of Scripture. This plays an important role in discipleship insomuch as pastors are called to teach congregants the means by which they can understand and resolve difficult passages they stumble across in Scripture.
While the Westminster Standards teach so much more about the nature and meaning of Scripture, these principles are a few of the more foundational principles for Christian discipleship.
A Theological Foundation
In addition to laying a biblical foundation, the Standards lay the theological foundation for Christian discipleship. Although the Westminster Standards are not a systematic theology per se, they do contain the essential systematic-theological categories of essential Christian doctrines. Since discipleship is built on the foundation of Scripture, a working knowledge of the essential doctrines of Scripture is vital to our growth as disciples. To that end, the WCF and WLC supply a rich doctrinal exposition of the following essential theological doctrines:
- The triune God (WCF ch. 2; WLC 7–11)
- The decree of God (WCF ch. 3; WC 12–14)
- Creation (WCF ch. 4; WLC 15–17)
- Providence (WCF ch. 5; WLC 18–20)
- The Fall, sin, and punishment (WCF ch. 6; WLC 21–29)
- God’s covenant (WCF ch. 7; WLC 30–36)
- Christ the Mediator (WCF ch. 8; WLC 36–57)
- The will of man (WCF ch. 9; WLC 21)
- The benefits of redemption (WCF chs. 10–13; WLC 66–75, 77–79)
- Faith and repentance (WCF chs. 14–15; WLC 72–76)
- Good works (WCF ch. 16; WLC 73, 78)
- Perseverance (WCF ch. 17; WLC 79–80)
- Worship (WCF ch. 21; WLC 104, 105, 108, 109, 117, 151, 179)
- The sacraments (WCF chs. 27–29; WLC 35, 161–177)
- Church discipline (WCF ch. 30)
- The last things (WCF ch. 32; WLC 84–90)
The chapter “Of Christ the Mediator”—together with Larger Catechism questions 36–57—offers one of the richest Christological formulations in church history. While embracing Chalcedonian Christology, the divines set down a Reformed exposition of the offices, states, person, natures, work, and reward of Christ. It summarizes the biblical teaching about redemption accomplished and applied. There is no more important subject with which the mind of a Christian disciple can be occupied.
A Practical Foundation
Among the many topics of practical consideration addressed in detail in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism are the following:
- Christian liberty (WCF 20)
- Worship (WCF 21; LC 105, 108–110, 117)
- Assurance of salvation (WCF 14.3; 16.2; 18; WLC 87, 167, 191, 194, 196)
- Prayer (WLC 178–196)
- Giving (WLC 141)
- Work (WLC 115, 117, 138, 142)
- Rest (WLC 117, 120)
- Sexuality (WLC 138–139)
- Marriage and divorce (WCF 24; WLC 139)
- Parenting (WLC 125)
- Material and financial ethics (WLC 141–142)
As ministers work through these and other important subjects with congregants, dozens of interrelated questions will necessarily arise. Though we may not have all the answers for every question of situational ethics, of this much we can be sure: The Westminster Standards address many of the significant theological and practical matters for Christian discipleship better than we could on our own.
The Practice of Discipling
Pastors need a robust and secure theological foundation. But they also need the skill to best to teach those truths to the people of God in a Christian discipleship context. For this reason, we now need to turn our attention to some practical approaches to carrying out confessional discipleship and offer some recommended resources that will help pastors along the way.
A Long-Term Approach
As has been noted above, I had the privilege of leading a men’s discipleship group for six or seven years while laboring as a PCA church planter. Without desiring to draw attention to the length of time we met for any self-aggrandizing purpose, I merely wish to encourage pastors to think about playing the long game. As the well-known and oft-repeated maxim goes, “People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year, and underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.” We live in a culture of “bigger, faster, stronger.” On the contrary, much of what has a lasting impact is that which took the longest to accomplish. I have a mentor who often reminds me, “It’s hard to derail a slowly moving train.” Those ministers who move patiently and intentionally often have the greatest lasting influence. We should enter in on the work of Chrstian discipleship with a view to laying a solid foundation for a building that will last.
If we adopt the long–term approach to discipleship, we will be less compelled to rush through the content of what we are teaching. At the outset of a discipleship group, a pastor may simply take the first section of the opening chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, or he may work through the first three or four questions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I discovered that when I was teaching through the Westminster Confession or Catechisms at a slow pace, the men in the group raised many thoughtful questions. Over a period of about a year, this pattern developed week by week. A slow approach allows a pastor to answer questions regarding personal devotions, family dynamics, parenting, apologetics, evangelism, worship, and much more. The men in the group will begin to see that the truths of God’s Word have a bearing on every aspect of their lives. A slow and steady approach to discipleship gives a pastor more time to bring biblical and theological truth to bear on the everyday aspects of lives of those in the group. A rushed approach will demand a more surface application.
At the end of each meeting, the men in the group spent time in prayer together. These were special times of opening our hearts to one another. We learned to bear one another’s burdens, we knew better how to pray according to the truths we had just considered, and we were encouraged to pray for one another throughout the week. If the end of Christian discipleship is knowing God and serving one another, then spending time praying with and for one another is a vital yet practical act toward that end.
The Service Effect
Christian service will also flow out of Christian discipleship. If we merely program service in the local church, we will end up creating a church full of Martha’s (Luke 10:38–42)—men and women who are torn in every direction and overwhelmed by the desire to serve others. As Burk Parsons has helpfully explained, “Many churches have programmed the life out of people that they barely have time left for their own families, let alone widows and orphans.” One of the practical benefits of a confessional discipleship group is that the pastor can encourage service among the members of the group at the right time and in the right way. In almost every meeting we had, the needs of the church plant arose. One or more of the men in the group would either volunteer to serve in a needed capacity or would offer suggestions about who might be a good fit for meeting a particular service need in the church. The biblical and confessional truths we considered in our meetings helped us identify and prioritize actual needs and areas of service in the church. This, in turn, will provide a platform for pastors to encourage service—in a non-programmatic or guilt-driven way—in the local church.
A pastor may find himself overwhelmed when thinking about starting a confessional discipleship group for a number of reasons. First, the Westminster Standards cover massive amounts of theological ground. Then there is the issue of language. Some of the language in the Standards (particularly in the Larger Catechism) is archaic. Finally, there is the challenge of the historical context. The historical context of the debates around particular doctrinal formulations taught in the Standards is not always evident. These three things pose a challenge for any pastor. I recently had a fellow PCA pastor reach out and ask if I could recommend a book on the historical background of the Standards because he was discouraged over how many young men were coming into his Presbytery who showed little-to-no knowledge about the basic historical background of the Assembly. While many books cover the historical background and exposition of the Westminster Standards, the following are some of the helpful works available:
- Thomas Vincent, An Explanation of the Assemblies Shorter Catechism
- Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith
- G.I. Williamson, Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes
- Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith
- Emily Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith Study Guide
- R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith
- J.G. Vos, Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary
- John Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction
- Joseph Pipa, The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book
A pastor doesn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to lead a group through the Westminster Standards. Choosing one or two of the resources above should suffice in being prepared to lead a discussion on a small section or a few catechism questions.
As we plan for confessional discipleship in the life of the local church, may the Lord grant us wisdom and grace to do so patiently, prayerfully, and purposefully for the long-term and lasting fruitfulness of all those involved. If we are to equip congregants to be sound in the faith, fruitful in every good word and work, and to be prepared for potentially difficult days ahead, we should consider using the Westminster Standards as a guide in Christian discipleship.
*This post is the combination of a series of posts originally published at the Gospel Reformation Network.