The Westminster Shorter Catechism.
An Introduction To Confessions And Catechisms.
Confessions catechisms are simply the systematic expression of the faith of the church and her members. Many theological wars have been fought to preserve the true faith. Several things should be kept in mind however, when looking at confessions and catechisms.
- Confessions and catechisms are not infallible. Scripture alone is inerrant, inspired by God, and the final arbiter and standard of truth.
- Following upon the first point, confessions are often incomplete-this is why more confessions are written. If our forefathers were completely satisfied with the 39 Articles, or for that matter the Nicene or Chalcedon creeds etc., they would not have written the Westminster or Three Forms.
- Confessions sometimes require clarity and updating in the light of church history and historical theology. As an example, many in the liberal, neo-orthodox, and neo-evangelical communities who were called upon to subscribe to the Westminster Standards appealed to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q and A #2, for instance, in support of their idea that the scriptures merely “contained” the word of God, and were not the word of God inerrant-word for word, jot and tittle. Personally, I believe we should simply eliminate the words ‘contained in’ in this case.
- Sometimes confessions and catechisms owe their existence along side others simply as a matter of culture and history. In my opinion, there is very little to separate the content of the Westminster Standards from that of the Three Forms, even though they may express the same truths slightly differently or with differing emphasis.
- Finally, and this is the most difficult for some to admit, there may be cases where the confessions in fact fall short of the biblical witness, or in fact are in error. The fact is, some later confessions were written to correct those of the former. Certainly, this would be the thought of those who hold to the Baptist Confession of 1689. I happen to disagree with the former, but I do think that the Westminster made some valuable correctives to the 39 Articles, for example-so the principle is the same.
In the end, the confessions and catechisms have a treasured place in the church and should have among all true believers. Disagree if you must, but those who have come before us laboured and risked much to preserve the faith. We need to continue to carry the torch.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism-Division I: The Scriptures.
The Basis Of Belief, And Man’s Chief End: Q & A 1-3.
Q and A 1.
Q. 1 What is the chief end of man?
A. 1 Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.
“For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:20). Paul brings to the fore in a succinct fashion two important truths here. We are to glorify God because we are “bought at a price.” We are God’s, we are not our own. This acknowledges our need for ransom and the consequent grounds for our chief end. Further, it is not in our spirit only. There is no dualism here. Body and soul, the whole person, is to glorify Him. Note well, we are body and soul-this is an important biblical truth. Not only does it involve the whole person, body and soul, but it involves the whole of life. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Cor. 10: 31) “Whatever you do,” covers it all! Confining this service to “spiritual” matters is not to understand what is spiritual. In the bible all things are spiritual when done in the power of God’s Spirit. One does not give God more glory in Sunday morning worship than they do in their calling otherwise. All things are to be done to His glory.
G.I. Williamson stated it well. “The true view is that when a person seeks to glorify God, he seeks at all times and in all activities alike to do that which is well pleasing in God’s sight. Faithful work, and wholesome recreation, are just as much a part of glorifying God as is worship of God on the Sabbath, or witnessing to an unbeliever.” (‘The Shorter Catechism,’ p. 3) There is also two parts to this Q and A, and sadly many forget or omit the second. See, for example Williamson above. The first part receives a great deal of attention, as well it should. However, there is an important second part-“to enjoy Him forever.” Many passages combine the two-see for example Psalm 21. Enjoying God’s presence should be every bit a mark of the people of God as giving Him glory. In fact, enjoying His presence forever, is one way of giving Him glory! In fact, even the vessels of wrath will give God glory, but they certainly do not and will not enjoy His presence-quite the opposite (cf. Rom. 9:21-23).
The sin of our first parents led them to flee from God’s presence (Gen. 3:8), and the ultimate consequence of Cain’s sin was to depart from God’s presence (Gen. 4:16). But the goal of the covenant of grace is to live in God’s presence. “And He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’” (Ex. 33:14). There can be no doubt that the Westminster divines had such a salvation presence and rest in view. The Psalmist, in reflecting on Messiah’s victory to come, in Psalm 16, understood this well. “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). This is a passage which Peter and the apostles saw as fulfilled in the greater Son of David, the Christ (Acts 2:25-28). “Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (I Jn. 1:3) “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence” (Ps. 140:13). He is our portion forever (Ps. 73:26).
Q and A 2.
Q. 2 What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
A. 2 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.
Note: The English of the catechism has been updated, much like the NKJV, in order to modernize but still retain the force of the original. Also, there are occasions where I have chosen to add what I believe are necessary correctives, for which I will provide an explanation. I have in this Q and A omitted the words “contained in” in the answer, for the reason I explain in the introduction on ‘Confessions’. One can imagine that by “contained in” the authors meant to emphasize what they say further when they add-“the only rule.” The emphasis certainly is that only in the scriptures do we find God’s rule. However, for the reason given in the intro, I think it best to omit the words “contained in.”
At first blush, it may come as a surprise that the catechism does not begin where the Confession begins-namely, with the Holy Scriptures. However, although this comes as our second Q and A here in the Catechism, it nevertheless comes as the logical first order of the divines, for we would have no knowledge of our chief end or that we should in fact have one, apart from holy scripture. “The word of God,-which is the scriptures of the old and New Testaments,-is the only rule.’ Note well, not God’s word contained in the scriptures, but the scriptures themselves are the word of God, and not just the New but both Old and New. Many affirm both but in practice drive a wedge between the two and make the consequent misuse and disuse of both a serious departure from the biblical witness concerning itself.
Paul, in speaking of both, and certainly of the scriptures from which he preached, stated the following. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16-17). Thankfully the Westminster divines did not fall into the trap of confining the purpose of scripture or special revelation, simply to the knowledge of salvation. Just as we are to glorify and enjoy God in body and soul and in all of life, even so do the holy scriptures speak authoritatively to all this. Besides the fact that they never viewed “salvation” in the often narrow terms envisioned in later ages. They had piety, but it was biblical piety, not pietism.
Furthermore, the holy scriptures are “the only rule.” Tradition, whether of Rome, or indeed of their own, had no rule over the only rule-the holy scriptures. By the same token, the idea of a charismatic tradition of a continuing revelation of tongues or prophecy, is also ruled out of court. The historic protestant interpretation that these gifts were revelatory and therefore ceased with the close of the canon, has never had an adequate refutation. (For more upon this, see my future posts on I Corinthians etc). The apostles and prophets built upon the scriptures of the Old Testament. “Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). This canon is our only rule. “But He answered and said, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” Mt. 4:4 (Dt. 8:3).
Q and A 3.
Q. 3 What do the scriptures principally teach?
A. 3 The scriptures principally teach-what man is to believe concerning God-and what duty God requires of man.
This third and final Q and A of the catechism establishes a fundamental biblical principle-orthodoxy cannot be separated from orthopraxis. Two things are required-belief and duty. However, it is also important to note that sincerity in one’s faith is not enough. It matters what one believes, and for this reason God has given us His word. There are right beliefs and there are wrong beliefs, and it is only fidelity to the scriptures as our rule that we are guarded against error. Jesus said, “we know what we worship…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:22-24). There is a principle which stands on its own. “We know what we worship.” “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39 cf. Lk. 24:44-45).
Division I concerns what we are to believe-questions 1-38. Division II concerns what we are to do-questions 39-107. It is equally important that we practice what we believe. “Faith without works is dead” (Js. 2:26, cf 2:14,17). Jesus made the point that a tree is known by the fruit it bears (Mt. 7:28). The scriptures concern more than what we believe, and they concern more in that belief than simply what is needed for the salvation of the soul. Body and soul and all of life is to be lived to God’s glory. It is concerning this duty to which the scriptures also speak. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccl. 12:13). From the scriptures we know whom to fear and what is our duty.
The Shorter Catechism-Division II: What We Are To Believe.
I. The Shorter Catechism-What God Is: Q & A 4-6.
Q and A 4.
Q. 4 What is God?
A. 4 God is a Spirit,-infinite, eternal, and unchangeable,-in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
I once was at the examination of a candidate for the ministry in the Reformed Presbyterian tradition of the Westminster Standards, but the candidate was from the tradition which used the Three Forms Of Unity. He was asked, “What is God?” I remember the puzzled look on his face and his response. “Don’t you mean, “Who is God?” The fact is, the Westminster divines were every bit as much concerned with Who God is, as much as those who follow the Three Forms are with What God is. They are both valid questions. In the case of Q and A #4, it is important to know what the scriptures want us to know about the One with whom we have to do. We need to know something about the God with whom we are called to have this personal relationship.
As noted in the last Q and A, Jesus said, “we know what we worship…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:22-24). Jesus said this in the context of those who thought that they could have their own understanding of God-sincerity and devotion itself was enough. In the study of religion from the secular perspective, such study is simply a matter or subdivision of anthropology and sociology-an activity of man. It is only as such that it receives any legitimacy. Jesus and the scriptures speak otherwise. “We know what we worship.”
Rev. Roderick Lawson has the following comment in ‘The Shorter Catechism,’ The Knox Press (Free Church Of Scotland). “The first thing we are here told concerning God is, that He has no body as we have. The second thing is, that He is not limited like us by want of power, affected by time, or subject to change. And the third thing is, that in character He is wise, and holy, and just, and good, and true. This is our God-the greatest of all beings, and the best.” P.9 (This particular publication of the Catechism also contains many helpful proof texts. The Banner Of Truth also published the Catechism with many helpful scripture proofs).
There is a fundamental Creator-creature distinction here. As Spirit God is infinite. “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty” (Job 11:7)? God is also eternal. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Ps. 90:2). “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
God is also unchangeable. “The Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Js. 1:17). “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands, they will perish but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old as a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and Your years will have no end” (Ps. 102:25-27). Note well that the writer to the Hebrews also applies this to Christ-1:10-12!
“In His being,”- “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14). “Wisdom,”-“To God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen” (Rom. 16:27). “Power,”- “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5 cf. Rev.4:8). “Holiness,”-“Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy” (Rev. 15:4, cf. Rev. 4:8).
“Justice, goodness, and truth,”-“The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty” (Ex. 34:6-7). “Justice,”-“He is just and having salvation” (Zech. 9:9). “The Holy One and the Just.” (Acts 3:14) “He is faithful and just to forgive.” (I Jn. 1:9) “That He might be just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
“Goodness,”-“Oh, how great is Your goodness.” (Ps. 31:19) “The goodness of God endures continually.” (Ps. 52:1) “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God.” (Rom. 11:22, cf 2:4) “Why do you call me good? No one is good but One” (John 19:17). “Truth,”-“He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Dt. 32:4). “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) “He, the Spirit of truth, has come.” (John 16:13) “The Spirit is truth” (I Jn. 5:6).
Q and A 5.
Q. 5 Are there more Gods than one?
A. 5 There is but One Only, the living and true God.
The tendency of many seems to be to rush through this question or even see it simply as a subdivision of one’s treatment of the trinity. That would be a huge mistake. Short though it is, and vitally related to the doctrine of the trinity, this Q and A establishes some very important truths. There is a simple answer to the question-“are there more gods than one?” The answer is ‘No!” This they answer by way of assumption in the answer. At once we have established at least two things. 1. We are against any kind of polytheism. 2. We reject the notion that there can be multiple expressions of true religion. If our God is the only one, then all other claims are false. “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt. 6:4).
Furthermore there are two very significant theological truths also stated here about this one only God-He is living and true. Again, if He is true and the only one, then all other claims of existence or truth are false. And He is living. This one and only God is not a mere figment or fabrication of the mind of man-this God is living. Note well, in Moses’ words above he refers to the covenant making and covenant keeping LORD. This is the God who moved in history to redeem a people for His own, and He is also God the Creator and sustainer of all that is, the sovereign Lord of history! “To you it was shown, that you might know, that the LORD Himself is God; there is none other besides Him” (Dt. 4:35). “I am the LORD, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me” (Is. 45:5).
This is also a repudiation of idolatry. “A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine. But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jer. 10:8-10). Idols are more than dead, they never had life to begin with. Our God is living. Furthermore, as the living God He is the source of life itself. “God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” (Rom. 4: 17) “God who gives life to all things” (I Tim. 6:13). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). “The Son gives life to whom He wills. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself (John 5: 21, 26). He who has the Son has life” (I Jn. 5:12).
Q and A #6.
Q. 6 How many persons are in the Godhead?
A. 6 There are three persons in the godhead,-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
From the very beginning words of the bible we find the plural form of God-Elohim, as the Creator of all things, and yet the Spirit of Elohim hovered over the face of the waters, and it was the Word of Elohim which brought things into being (Genesis 1). “In the beginning God” (v. 1), finds some differentiation when we read that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (v. 2). Just as God could have performed all this work in an instant, we could also read that this was done without the mention of the Spirit. Furthermore we also read, “then God said” (v. 3), when one assumes that creation could have also happened without the word being spoken. However, by this very revelation we understand that it was in fact through His Word that the whole of creation came into existence, a point which John in his gospel account echoes (1:1-3 Cf. Ps. 33:6, 9). As we proceed in the Genesis account we also find a reiteration of what we have already learned about God when He said, “Let Us make man in Our image” (Gen. 1:26).
God, His Spirit, and the Word, counseled together to create man in their image. From the very beginning words of scripture, we see that God is One in essence, but three in persons, equally engaged in the work of creation, but taking on their respective roles, nevertheless they together as “Us” and “Our” making humanity, male and female, in their image and likeness. Words like Deuteronomy 6:4; also from Moses, must therefore be understood as speaking to the shared substance of God, with all three persons having equal authority for us. For this reason the disciples did not question the baptismal formula of Jesus when He gave the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19). The apostle John brought these two key points together. “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one” (I Jn. 5:7). At Jesus baptism we read that “the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22).
II. The Shorter Catechism-What God Has Decreed: Q & A 7-8.
Q and A 7.
Q. 7 What are the decrees of God?
A. 7 The decrees of God are His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He has fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass.
The answer to this question begins first with a reiteration of the purpose of all things-the glory of God. God’s decrees are “His eternal purpose.” That is, He is not bound by time or history, since He created these. Before time and history ever came into being He ‘fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” There is no room for any other contingencies. He did not decree His eternal purpose by what man might or might not do. Time and history existed before man came into being (Cf. Gen. 1). In fact, the actions of men are included in “whatsoever comes to pass.” His decrees are simply what He has determined to do from all eternity according to His sovereign will. Nothing happens by chance, or by humanity’s direct determination.
This is also foundational to the biblical philosophy of history. Nothing is random. God has a purpose and plan for all that comes to pass (Cf. Is. 11:13; Mt. 10:29). Moreover, with God all points of knowledge and all events are before Him equally. For this reason Paul could say that “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This is all to His glory. “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:11-12).
Q and A 8.
Q. 8 How does God execute His decrees?
A. 8 God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence.
God’s decrees are executed in His both creating and sustaining all things. History is both His creation, and the story of His sovereign will and purpose. He decrees everything that comes to be, according to a purpose-His own glory and pleasure. This is but one reason among many why He is worthy of praise. This is the subject of the very songs of heaven itself. “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11). Thus, from all eternity this was and is the case. Even the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar had to acknowledge who was the Lord over all. “For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done’” (Dan. 4:34b-35)?
III. The Shorter Catechism-Creation: Q & A 9-10.
Q and A 9.
Q. 9 What is the work of creation?
A. 9 The work of creation is God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of His power, in the space of six days, and all very good.
First in order is the declaration that God created from nothing. God did not create from anything which existed apart from His creative activity. There was nothing outside of God that He was subject to when He created all things. He created man from the dust and woman from man, but He also created the dust before He created man, and that from nothing else. Secondly, the catechism affirms the testimony of scripture that creation was a work of the Holy Trinity. “In the beginning God” (v. 1), finds some differentiation when we read that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (v. 2). Just as God could have performed all this work in an instant, we could also read that this was done without the mention of the Spirit. Furthermore we also read, “then God said” (v. 3), when one assumes that creation could have also happened without the word being spoken. However, by this very revelation we understand that it was in fact through His Word that the whole of creation came into existence, a point which John in his gospel account echoes (1:1-3 Cf. Ps. 33:6, 9).
Thirdly, all things were created in the space or span of six days. These were not days of indefinite duration, for they were marked out by day and night (Gen. 1). There is no indication that this day and night are anything different than our own day and night in time. Furthermore, in creating day and night He created time and history. History no more stands over and above God as any other part of His created order. Finally, He looked upon all He had made and declared it to be very good. “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1:31 Cf. 1:1). One might ask two things here, in these beginning words. Why would God take six days, and why create from nothing that which was without form and covered in darkness? Whatever else may be said this much seems evident-God had more than the end in view. God could have went straight to the finished form without delay. However, like an artist with a blank canvas or sculpturer with a lump of clay, God seems to have enjoyed the process as much as the finished product.
Q and A 10.
Q. 10 How did God create man?
A. 10 God created man,-male and female,-after His own image,-in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness,-with dominion over the creatures.
There is a lot of truth packed into this short answer. First of all, the catechism affirms that God created both male and female (Gen. 1:27). This was necessary for several reasons. Firstly, like the rest of creation, man was to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Secondly, Adam needed a helper comparable to him to fulfill the dominion mandate which was also a reason for the first point. Thirdly, it was not good for man to be alone (2:18). The companionship that humans share is reflective of the fellowship of the Trinity and part of our image bearing. The second main point which the catechism affirms is that humanity, male and female, are made in God’s image. As noted, this is the image bearing of the only God who is one in substance but three in persons, for we read that God said, “let Us make man in Our image” (Gen. 1:26). The dominion mandate is directly related to and reflective of our uniqueness as the creature who has been created in God’s image. Our understanding of all that is meant by this image, can be seen in the mandate given.
The catechism, to this end, seeks to delineate three things which connect this image to the mandate given. Firstly, there is knowledge. This is absolutely crucial. The catechism, like the scriptures themselves, begin with epistemology-the study of knowledge (Q & A 1-3). Both our ability to know and what we know are equally dependent on our Creator. Our epistemological activity is part of our image bearing. Furthermore, the catechism rightly places this as the first in order of priority. It is part and parcel of the work of redemption to renew this most fundamental aspect of our image. The new man is “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:10). Secondly, the catechism affirms that man is also a moral agent. Ethics cannot be separated from epistemology, for we were created in “righteousness, and holiness.” This also is what is involved in redemption of the image of God in us, for the new man was “created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).
IV. The Shorter Catechism-Providence: Q & A 11-12.
Q and A 11.
Q. 11 What are God’s works of providence?
A. 11 God’s works of providence are, His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions.
God’s person is inseparable from His actions. There are some things which God cannot do. God can only act consistent with His own character. Q & A 4 seeks to answer the question as to God’s being and character. Here we are simply to understand that God acts in harmony with that character. The first thing we should note is that providence consists of both preserving and governing all that He has made. Firstly, without His preserving all things they would not continue to exist. All that exists is every bit as much dependent on His preservation, as much as on His creating. All philosophies like Deism, which suggest that God somehow created the whole universe like a clock and then left it to its own internal devices are false. Secondly, He not only preserves all things, but He also governs all things. Nothing is static. All things were created with a place and purpose in His sovereign plan and decree. There is nothing in all creation that escapes our heavenly Father’s preservation and governance (Mt. 6:25-34; 10:29-31).
The second major point which the catechism emphasizes is that God does this preserving and governing based on three things. Firstly, as was noted above, it is inseparable from His holy, that is separate and pure, character (Ps. 145:17). Secondly, His preserving and governing of all things is based on His wisdom. Nothing that happens is generic. Everything happens because God’s wisdom determined it to happen (Is. 28:29). Finally, this preserving and governing is made possible because God is all-powerful. God is one, with nothing in Himself which is hidden from any other attribute of His character. When He exercises His power, which is always, He does so as He who is holy and wise. Furthermore, He alone is the standard of what is holy and wise. Man may devise something in his core or heart, but this does not always find fruition in his actions. This is not the case with God. In fact, man does indeed devise things in his heart, but it is God who ultimately determines his course (Pr. 16:9). “His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19b).
Q and A 12.
Q. 12 What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?
A. 12 When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.
Many have objected to the designation ‘covenant of works’ for a number of reasons. Firstly, the most obvious objection is the fact that the word for ‘covenant’ does not occur in the Genesis account of creation. In fact, the first occurrence of the word is with Noah (6:18). However, the word ‘Trinity’ nowhere occurs in the scriptures, but no orthodox believer would suggest that the proof is not present for the doctrine. Secondly, the covenant with David, as we find it in II Samuel 7 and I chronicles 17, also does not include the word, but other scriptures do speak of it as being a covenant relationship (Cf. II Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3). In the same way, other scriptures, either directly or indirectly, refer to God’s relationship with Adam as a covenantal one (Hos. 6:7). Jeremiah draws a connection somewhat indirectly by referring to the “covenant for the day, and My covenant for the night” (33:20-21, 25-26). This might refer to Noah (8:22), but just a few verses earlier, Jeremiah also refers to sun and moon as light-bearers with another word used for covenant, namely ‘statute’, and this further aspect of light-bearing does not occur with Noah (Cf. I Kgs. 11:11; II Kgs. 17:15; Ps. 50:16; 105:10).
Thirdly, and directly related to the first point, if all the elements of a covenant are present then this is all that is required to make the point. Of chief importance is the second point above-that all the elements of a covenant relationship are indeed present in this relationship between God and Adam. O. Palmer Robertson did a seminal job of demonstrating a truly biblical definition of God’s covenants with humanity, both before and after the fall, as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered” (‘The Christ Of The Covenants’, pp. 3-15). The relationship with Adam was clearly a bond of life and death (2:15-17), and one which was also clearly sovereignly administered. It was not a contractual relationship which they negotiated as equals. God initiated the relationship from the moment man was created as his vice regent, and the promises and conditions were given by Him. The commands given to humanity were to exercise dominion as His stewards, and to that end to be fruitful and multiply (vv. 26-27; 2:5, 15, 18). God blessed this relationship. He also gave the promise that that earth would also be fruitful and multiply to fulfill this covenant (vv. 29-30).
Humanity was also given a specific probationary test, a prohibition to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To this end Robertson also makes a very important point, that this covenant relationship wasn’t just about the probation test, but it was also a relationship which included the promise of life, which spelled out humanity’s place in the universe. Whereas the Westminster Confession calls this relationship “a covenant of works” (Ch. VII.), this has the danger of only focusing on the probation test. The catechisms speak of a covenant of life, which does also speak to the positive outcome of this covenant of works, but also to the other aspect of the life present from the beginning of this covenant relationship. Robertson prefers the designation of ‘Covenant of Creation’ (Ibid. pp. 67ff.). However, such a designation might very well serve the opposite problem of not capturing the idea of the probation test as clearly being a matter of works. There is also a danger in the contrast with the subsequent covenants being called various administrations of the covenant of grace, that this first covenant did not stem from grace, something which Dr. Murray pointed out, and Robertson also reiterated (Cf. Murray, ‘The Covenant Of Grace,’ Robertson, pp. 56-57).
The first covenant was also an expression of God’s unmerited favour. God did not need to create the world or humanity, and He didn’t need to establish a relationship. Furthermore the promises which this covenant contains were promises which He in no way was required to give. By the same token, Robertson refers to the subsequent covenants as administrations of the one covenant of redemption, for in these covenants God expressed His grace in redemption of a portion of fallen humanity. Whatever the designation, it is certainly the case that there were these two aspects to this covenant relationship. As Robertson points out, the Larger Catechism, even more so than the Shorter, elaborates on what constituted this covenant of life, namely, dominion, marriage, and the Sabbath (Cf. Robertson, pp. 56-57, 67ff.; WLC. Q & A 20; WSC. Q & A 12). Furthermore, the Westminster Shorter Catechism makes the important point that this covenant of life is a “special act of providence” which God exercised “toward man in the estate wherein he was created” (Q. 12). In other words, this was part of His governance of all His creatures (Q. 11). In making this statement, we declare that God’s providence is inseparable from His covenant.
V. The Shorter Catechism-How Man Sinned: Q & A 13-15.
Q. 13 Did our first parents continue in the estate wherein they were created?
A. 13 Our first parents,-being left to the freedom of their own will,-fell from the estate wherein they were created,-by sinning against God.
Q. 14 What is sin?
A. 14 Sin is any wont of conformity unto,-or transgression of,-the law of God.
Q. 15 What was the sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created?
A. 15 The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit.
In Q & A 13 the catechism highlights three key points. One, our first parents had the freedom of will to choose life or death with the probation test in the garden. Adam and Eve were created in an estate of innocence, knowing no shame (Gen. 2:25). Two, death was the promised penalty for choosing to disobey God, and the tree of life could have equally been chosen (Gen. 3:6 Cf. Gen. 2:9; Eccl. 7:29). Part of this fallen condition is that humanity was no longer in a position to freely choose life (Gen. 3:22-23). Third, the cause of this fall is due completely to the will of humanity to choose death over life, to disobey the clear command of God (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve were given a law of prohibition, the penalty for disobeying which was death (Gen. 2:17).
John gave a perfect commentary on what took place by our first parents in the garden. “Sin is lawlessness” (I Jn. 3:4). This is what sin is. It is not simply the transgression of a law, as though somehow it is a failure just to live by one’s own code of conduct. It is the transgression of God the Creator’s law. Furthermore, it is not just the transgression of a law of His, but the failure also to conform to it in its entirety. “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Js. 2:10 Cf. Rom. 7:7-12). Ignorance is also no excuse, because law by its very nature is a revelation from God, so that even those who do not have the law of Moses are nevertheless “a law to themselves” (Rom. 2:14). It is also not simply what one does, but also what one fails to do, as the law requires.
VI. The Shorter Catechism-Consequences Of Man’s sin: Q & A 16-19.
Q. 16 Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?
A. 16 The covenant made with Adam, not only for himself, but for all his posterity; all mankind,-descending from him by ordinary generation,-sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.
By the phrase “by ordinary generation” the catechism seeks to differentiate Christ from the rest of humanity, since His was no ordinary generation. However, this does not mean that the sinful condition of all humankind is as a result of “ordinary generation”. It is clear God chose to have all humanity represented in Adam by way of a covenant. All humanity fell at the very moment that Adam fell. His decision was our decision. Even though Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, He was still born of her flesh, and she most certainly was a sinner in need of the Savior the same as the rest of us. Furthermore, Paul’s argument for federal headship also finds its counterpart in Christ, and it is certainly the case that one is not born a Christian, but one is a Christian if He is in covenantal union with Christ. “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-18). Condemnation and justification are declarative acts via covenantal representation. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (I Cor. 15:22).
Q. 17 Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. 17 The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.
All humanity begins life in a sinful state. We die, and experience all the miseries associated with this dying, because in Adam we all sinned. “Just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
Q. 18 Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. 18 The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.
The catechism makes four key points here. The first was made in the previous two questions. We fell because in Adam we actually sinned. Secondly, whereas in Adam humanity had an original righteousness, this is no longer the case. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10; Ps. 51:5). In Adam, original righteousness was lost. Thirdly, this sinful state has affected every area (Cf. Eph. 2:1). There is no part of a person that has not been affected, including the human will. Finally, from this sinful nature or estate, we all commit our own individual “actual” sins (Cf. Mt. 15:19-20). “Original sin springs directly from our connexion (sic) with Adam. Actual sin springs directly from our own evil hearts; but then these hearts were made evil first through our connexion (sic) with Adam, so that all sin is really to be traced to the first one” (Lawson, p. 16).
Q. 19 What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. 19 All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.
The catechism also makes four key points here. Firstly, humanity has lost communion with God (Cf. Gen. 3:8, 24; Is. 59:2). Secondly, we are under His wrath and curse. Wrath speaks to God’s judgment on our sinful condition, and curse to the reality that it is as a result on our covenantal connection to Adam (Cf. Gal. 3:10). Thirdly, through our federal relationship with Adam, we all are “made liable to all the miseries in this life, to death itself.” “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:10a Cf. Ezek. 18:4). Finally, apart from the covenant of grace which is to follow, in this state all men are rightly destined for hell for ever (Cf. Ps. 9:17; Mt. 25:41).
VII. The Shorter Catechism-Salvation: Q & A 20-22
Q & A 20 Election And The Covenant Of Grace.
Q. 20 Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. 20 God having, out of His mere good pleasure,-from all eternity,-elected some to everlasting life,-did enter into a covenant of grace,-to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.
This question introduces us to two important truths-election and the covenant of grace. It is important to bear some key points in mind. Firstly, election and the covenant of grace are not synonymous terms. Secondly, and directly related to the first point, there is an external as well as an internal element to the covenant, that which is visible and that which is invisible. Thirdly, all the elect are in both the invisible and visible aspects of the covenant, but those who are only in the outward administration of the covenant are not necessarily elect. All the covenants after the fall were administrations of the one covenant of grace, but not all those who were members in its outward administration were elect. Paul made this point quite succinctly when he wrote that, “there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). “Out of His mere good pleasure,-from all eternity,” God “elected some to everlasting life.”
Election is an expression of grace. Election springs forth from nothing in man, for it took place before any human being ever came into existence-“from all eternity.” As the catechism states it, election flows from God’s “mere good pleasure.” “Just as He hath chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). However, because of the fall, it is an election which is effected through our covenant with Christ. This purpose and grace “was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Tim. 1:9). As our fall happened via our covenant representation in Adam, even so our election finds fulfillment through our covenantal union with Christ. It was a condescension on God’s part to create man and then to enter into that first covenant with humanity, but this covenant of redemption is even more a covenant of grace in that it is entered into on behalf of those who were His enemies, whom He, out of His mercy alone, makes His friends.
However, having noted the above distinction, it is nevertheless the case that this election finds expression in this covenant of grace. The fact that some persons partake in the outward benefits of the administrations of the covenant of grace, does not nullify that for the elect these outward elements express a true inward reality. The heart of the covenant of grace is that the LORD would be our God and we His people. This ‘Immanuel principle’, as Robertson calls it, finds its ultimate expression in the new covenant in Christ, but it was always there as the core of the covenant relationship-God with us. “By his being clothed in human flesh, the Immanuel principle of the covenant achieved its fullest realization” (‘The Christ Of The Covenants’ p. 30 Cf. pp. 45-52). The saints under the old covenant administrations of this one covenant, looked ahead to what we look back to. Christ is the centre of the covenants-both old and new.
The covenant of grace is all about redemption and deliverance. Through this covenant we are delivered from the condemnation deserved under the covenant of works, and transferred to “an estate of salvation” through our Redeemer. It is also true that God did not elect all, only some. There have always been some persons who participate in the outward aspects of the various administrations of the one covenant of grace, but like the rest of humanity they stand under the condemnation of the covenant of works if they do not know the Redeemer. God’s grace finds expression through the Redeemer. By stating that this election finds fulfillment in the covenant of grace to everlasting life, is to say that for the elect this is an everlasting covenant (Jer. 32:40). It is a covenant of peace (Is. 54), “an everlasting covenant” (Is. 55:3; 61:8). “‘With everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says the LORD, your Redeemer” (Is. 54:8b).
Q & A 21: The Redeemer.
Q. 21 Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. 21 The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.
As answer 20 previously noted, the covenant of grace involves salvation through the Redeemer-it required a mediator. As a mediator must mediate between two parties, it was important that the Redeemer be both God and man in one person. “Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one” (Gal. 3:20). “Inasmuch as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same” (Heb. 2:14a Cf. Rom. 9:5). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14a). “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:5-6a Cf. Heb. 7:24). A Redeemer was necessary because there was a ransom that had to be paid for humanity’s violation of the first covenant, which we broke. This clearly was and is a position which only Jesus Christ, “the eternal Son of God,” could fulfill. No one else qualifies as being such a mediator. “Nor is there salvation in any other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These two natures-human and Divine, are not two persons. Both natures are distinct, and this makes up the person of our Redeemer, which personhood He possesses for ever. By this truth we are to also learn that there never is any admixture of the human and Divine, even in the person of the Son. Human and Divine have been brought together only in the unique personage of the eternal son of God. Furthermore, the only way that fellowship can be restored between God and humanity is through this Mediator, who is the Mediator on behalf of the elect only.
Q & A 22 The Incarnation.
Q. 22 How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. 22 Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy spirit, in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.
As the last answer affirmed, the Son is from everlasting. Therefore, He took on the human nature-body and soul, through the miracle of the virgin birth. Indirectly this answer also affirms a biblical anthropology-humans are body and soul. Soul is more than just life in the body, as some assume. Our souls are reasonable. Jesus said that His soul was “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Mt. 26:38). He, and we, are also not tripartite, for there is no mention of a separate spirit. Another thing we learn is that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. This was in fulfillment of the prophetic witness (Cf. Is. 6:14; Lk. 1:31-35). However, Jesus still was born of Mary’s flesh (Cf. Gal. 4:4). Therefore, as was seen earlier in regard to the fall and human depravity, this condition did not pass to all humanity through being born flesh and blood, but via our covenantal representation in Adam, for Jesus was without sin (Cf. II Cor. 5:21).
VIII. Christ’s Work In Salvation-Christ As Prophet, Priest, And King: Q & A 23-28.
Q. 23 What offices does Christ execute as our Redeemer?
A. 23 Christ, as our Redeemer, executes the offices of a Prophet, of a Priest, and of a King, both in His estate of humiliation and exaltation.
Up to this point we learned that God willed to save some from a just condemnation, through a mediator, a Redeemer. We further learned that this Redeemer is none other than the second person of the Trinity incarnate-two natures but one person, both body and soul, born of the virgin Mary, and yet without sin. We now are to learn how the Redeemer of God’s elect effected this redemption. Throughout the old testament we read of three offices which served a mediatorial function between God and the people-prophets, priests, and kings. We also know that no man ever occupied all three of these offices in their one person, except the Son-this would be a sure sign of the Messiah’s authenticity, that He would occupy all three in His one person. His is a kingly reign which flows first from the prophetic word, and also through a priestly ministry.
Lawson writes, “by discharging the duties of a prophet, a priest, and a king,” He delivers us “from our threefold misery of ignorance, guilt, and bondage” (p. 20). He not only performed the duties of these offices while on earth, but He continues to perform these duties in heaven. Moses predicted the coming of this Prophet (Dt. 18:15, 18-19; Acts 3:22). The prophet, King David, predicted His priesthood (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21). David also predicted Messiah’s kingship (Ps. 2:6). It is also not coincidental that just prior to Jesus public earthly ministry, that the Devil would tempt Jesus with regard to all three of these offices. First he tested Him in regard to the prophetic word (Mt. 4:1-4), then the priestly ministry (vv. 5-7), then His kingly rule (vv. 8-11). It is important to note, as when Satan tempted Eve in the garden, he first challenges God’s word.
We should also learn that even as the prophetic office took precedence for our Lord, even so this must be our first axiom of all thought and existence. This is yet another reason why they began the catechism with the introductory axiom of the word. We can readily see therefore, that the Westminster divines did not come up with their questions in some arbitrary fashion. These questions and answers focus directly on the truths of scripture as they have been revealed to us. In fact, the addition in this answer, along with the threefold office of our Mediator, of His estates of humiliation and exaltation, come together wonderfully in the first two chapters of the epistle to the Hebrews. The Son as Prophet (Heb. 1:1-3a), Priest (v. 3b), and King (vv. 3c-4), was anointed to these offices which He exercised in both His estates of exaltation and humiliation (1:5-2:18).
Q. 24 How does Christ execute the office of a prophet?
A. 24 Christ executes the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by His word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.
The catechism acknowledges that there are two things we need if we are to know “the will of God for our salvation.” The first is we need the word. There is no true knowledge apart from God’s revelation, and this revelation has been perfected or made complete, in Christ (Cf. Heb. 1:1-4; Jn. 1:18; 20:21). The second thing we need, and which all true believers possess, is the work of the Holy Spirit to make the word effectual for us. The Roman church-state continues to teach that we need a papal mediator to understand the word, but the word itself teaches us that if we have the Spirit, that He will guide us into all truth (Cf. Jn. 14:26; 16:13).
Q. 25 How does Christ execute the office of a priest?
A. 25 Christ executes the office of a priest, in His once offering up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.
Christ only had to offer Himself up once (Heb. 9:28). Again, this is a direct repudiation of the Roman doctrine of the mass, whereby Christ is said to be offered up continually. We are further taught as to why He thus offered up Himself, that He might satisfy Divine justice. God set forth Christ as a propitiation (Cf. Rom. 3:25), that is, a sacrifice to satisfy His just wrath and condemnation of sin. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17* Cf. I Jn. 2:2). He did this even while we had no love for Him (Cf. I Jn. 4:10; Rom. 5:10).
The satisfaction of divine wrath was also necessary to achieve the second goal of His sacrifice, that we should be thus reconciled to God through Him. God’s wrath must first be satisfied before we could draw near to him. Peace had to be established first. “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of the cross” (Col. 1:20). This is akin to the enmity which has been removed between Jew and Gentile by Christ, that reconciliation would also take place within the body of His church (Cf. Eph. 2:14-16).
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb. 4:14). Having provided the satisfaction for Divine wrath, and reconciling us to God, Jesus remains in a position of making continual intercession for His people. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). To this end, He also opens up the way for us to come to the throne of grace to make intercession in our time of need (Cf. Heb. 4:15-16). It is good to remember that Jesus continually makes intercession for us.
* One should note the mistranslation of the KJV on Hebrews 2:17, where it uses ‘reconciliation’. It is the same Greek word which it translates as ‘propitiation’ in the other places where it occurs (Rom. 3:25; I Jn. 2:2; 4:10). Reconciliation and propitiation are not synonymous terms-the latter is necessary for the former to occur.
Q. 26 How does Christ execute the office of a king?
A. 26 Christ executes the office of a king, in subduing us to Himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all His and our enemies.
The catechism notes three things which fall under the office of Christ as King. First in order is that we as His enemies are subdued to Himself. This is in fulfillment of prophetic promise (Cf. Ps. 110:3). He also rules us. Our part is to bring every thought captive to Christ (II Cor. 10:5). His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Mt. 11:29). Finally, He defends us and defeats our enemies. “For the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our Lawgiver, the LORD is our King; He will save us” (Is. 33:22 Cf. II Tim. 4:18). “For He must reign, till He has put all enemies under His feet” (I Cor. 15:25).
Q & A 27-28: Christ’s Humiliation And Exaltation.
Q. 27 Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?
A. 27 Christ’s humiliation consisted in His being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.
It was a form of humiliation for the Son, the second person of the Trinity, to be born a man. Added to this was the lowly condition of His birth and life (Lk. 2:7), and being made under the law (Gal. 4:4). Williamson put it this way: “Even though our Lord Jesus Christ as God was the giver of the law, or, in other words, the one who stood above that law which He had given, yet when He became man He Himself was subject to that law. When He became man it was His duty to keep the commandments of God perfectly” (p. 106). This was followed by the miseries associated with being despised and rejected (Is. 53:3).
Ultimately, He took upon Himself this human nature, that He might act as the only Redeemer and Mediator for the elect, enduring in the process God’s just wrath for sin (Mt. 27:46). He suffered covenantal cursing for our breaking of the first covenant in Adam, through the accursed death of the cross (Dt. 21:23; Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:6-8). This He suffered even though He Himself kept the law perfectly (Heb. 4:15). In fact, it was His perfect keeping of the law that qualified Him to be our substitute (II Cor. 5:21). Finally, He was buried and continued “under the power of death for a time” (Mt. 12:40). We must remember that He did all this voluntarily (Ps. 40:7).
Q. 27 Wherein consists Christ’s exaltation?
A. 27 Christ’s exaltation consists in His rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven, in sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and coming to judge the world at the last day.
Christ’s exaltation is fourfold-resurrection, ascension, session, and second coming. His resurrection, and all that follows, was as Paul indicated “according to the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:4 Cf. Pss. 16:9-11; 68:18; 110:1; Mt. 28:6). His resurrection was proof of His victory over death and acceptance by the Father of His work of redemption. His disciples witnessed His ascension up through the Glory-cloud (Acts 1:9), to sit at the Father’s right hand, to reign until the last enemy, death, was finally brought to His feet (Mk. 16:19; I Cor. 15:25-26). On that day He will come a second time in judgment. His resurrection was the assurance of the end in view (Acts 17:31 Cf. Mt. 25:31-32). However, prior to the second coming He continues His work, reigning from heaven as the Prophet-Priest-King. It is with this resurrection authority that He gave the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). We therefore pray and labour that His kingdom would come, and His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2).
IX. The Spirit’s Work In Salvation: Q & A 29-31.
Q. 29 How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. 29 We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by His Holy Spirit.
Here we learn that the redemption which Christ purchased for us is effectually applied by His Holy Spirit. That is, one of the activities of the Holy Spirit is to effectually apply our redemption. Only those thus led by the Spirit are true sons of God (Jn. 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14). It is important to note that this work of the Spirit only occurred in its fullness when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father in the reign of His Messianic kingdom. The coming and activity of the Spirit in this fashion, was a sign of Christ’s heavenly reign, and it also speaks to the nature and power of that reign. Furthermore, the Spirit accomplishes this work through guiding us into all truth (Jn. 16:13). It is a work which is inseparable from the word Cf. I Pet. 1:22-23).
This inseparable activity of the Spirit and the word stems from Christ’s office as Prophet, as was seen in Q & A 24. Through regeneration and renewal this work is made effectual (Titus 3:5). We should also note that with this question and answer, we are reminded that just as the work of the original creation involved all three persons of the Trinity (Gen. 1-2), even so the work of redemption, the new creation, involves all three persons. “We must understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is basic to an understanding of the doctrine of salvation. God the Father has given His Son to be the redeemer of His elect. Christ the Son has purchased redemption by His active and passive obedience. The Holy Spirit applies redemption in the experience of the elect” (G. I. Williamson, ‘The Shorter Catechism’ p. 115).
Q. 30 How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. 30 The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased in Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31 What is effectual calling?
A. 31 Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby,-convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills,-He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
It is no coincidence that the catechism places regeneration as the first in order of priority in the ordo salutis or order of salvation. Fallen humanity can do absolutely nothing with regard to being saved unless the Spirit first works in us the new birth (I Cor. 2:14). “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3b). We must be born again to enter the kingdom (Jn. 3:4-7; Eph. 2:5-6, 10). Our stony hearts must be replaced with hearts of flesh (Ez. 11:19; 36:26). Faith must be worked in us, for as Paul made clear, it is by grace we “have been saved through faith, and not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9 Cf. 3:17). Faith is a gift, it is not work. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (Jn. 6:63).
It is because of this necessity of regeneration that our calling is called “effectual” (Cf. I Th. 2:13). A general call, freely offered, goes out to all, but it is effectual only for those who are regenerated by the Spirit (I Cor. 1:9). It is thus a “holy calling” (II Tim. 1:8-9). Necessary to this calling is , first of all, a conscious awareness and convincing of our sinful condition (Acts 2:37). Secondly, our minds must also be enlightened “in the knowledge of Christ” (Cf. Acts 26:18; Eph. 1:17). Thirdly, our wills are not exempt from our dead sinful condition. Our wills must be renewed (Jn. 6:44-45). Only then are we able to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered us in the gospel” (Cf. Rom. 10:13). All of this may be summarized in the two acts of repentance and faith.
X. The Benefits Of Salvation In This Life: Q & A 32-36.
Q. 32 What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. 32 They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which, in this life, do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33 What is justification?
A. 33 Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Through the regeneration that is involved in being “effectually” called, one is brought into union with the Mediator, the Redeemer of God’s elect, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit who works faith in us. Faith is every bit as much a gift from God as all other aspects of our salvation (Cf. Eph. 2:8-9). It is now taught that there are further benefits which flow to those who are effectually called, and that these are experienced in the here and now of this present life. These forever are established in the heavenly courtroom, but we also experience them now. Q & A 33 also reminds us that there are many other benefits that flow to us, but these either accompany or flow from these three (Cf. Rom. 8:30; I Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:5-7).
The first of these to consider is justification. It “is an act of God’s free grace” (Cf. Rom. 3:23-24). “Justification means pronouncing a person righteous; it is the opposite of condemnation. It is said to be an act because it is done at once, and an act of God’s free grace, because we can do nothing of ourselves to deserve it. It consists of two parts-pardon and acceptance; and we are taught also that the cause of it is not our own goodness, but Christ’s and that Christ’s righteousness becomes ours through faith” (Lawson, p. 26). Justification is based on nothing more nor less than the free grace of God. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Ga. 2:14).
Justification is a declarative act on God’s part, whereby He regards us as righteous because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us via covenantal federal representation, and our sin, which would have justified a declaration of condemnation, is imputed to Christ (Rom. 5:19; II Cor. 5:21). Imputation is something which flows from the covenant relation. The guilt and condemnation of Adam’s sin was imputed to us. “However, in the case of Jesus Christ and His elect people, there is a double imputation. (1) There is, first, the imputation of our guilt and condemnation to the Lord Jesus Christ. (2) Then there is, secondly, the imputation of His righteousness to us (II Cor. 5:21)” (Williamson, p. 132).
Q. 34 What is adoption?
A. 34 Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.
Due to our sinful condition, because of our covenant relation with Adam, no one is born a child of God. God is indeed the creator of all humanity, but only by adoption is one made a child, and no longer a stranger to God’s family. Like justification, this is also an act of God’s free grace-no one can earn it, and it is a declarative act. From this position there flows all that which we thus inherit in our union with Christ, our elder brother (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:17; I Jn. 3:1). However, even though adoption is a declarative act, it is also something we are made conscious of. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16 Cf. Gal. 4:6). This is what the elect have been predestined to (Eph. 1:5). Adoption is also permanent (Jn. 10:29).
“Even now we are completely delivered from the bondage to fear, because we are accepted in Christ (Rom. 8:15). We are led by the Holy Spirit in pathways of truth and righteousness (8:14). We are enabled to come boldly to the throne of grace in prayer (Heb. 4:16) to find help in the time of need. We have God’s unfailing care in all that befalls us (Ps. 103:13; 125; Rom. 8:29-35). And even though we are subject to His corrective discipline, it is only in love that the Father chastens us (Heb. 12:6-11). And best of all, our Father promises that He will never leave or forsake us (Lam. 3:31-32), because He has sealed us unto the day of redemption by the Holy Spirit of Christ (Eph. 4:30). So it is not possible that those who have been adopted shall fail of the grace of God (I Pet. 1:3-4).” (Williamson, ‘The Shorter Catechism’ p. 138)
Q. 35 What is sanctification?
A. 35 Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die to sin, and live unto righteousness.
There are two aspects to sanctification which must be noted. First of all, there is that aspect of sanctification which is past tense. This is called ‘definitive’ sanctification. John Murray stated this clearly. “We properly think of calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption as acts of God effected once for all and not requiring or admitting of repetition. It is of their nature to be definitive. But a considerable part of New Testament teaching places sanctification in this category. When Paul, for example, addresses the believers at Corinth as the church of God “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (I Cor. 1:2) and later in the same epistle reminds them that they were washed, sanctified, and justified (I Cor. 6:11), it is apparent that he coordinated their sanctification with effectual calling, with their identity as saints, with regeneration, and with justification. Again, when in II Timothy 2:21 we read, “If a man purge himself from these, he will be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, meet for the master’s use, prepared unto every good work,” there need be no question but the term “sanctified” is used in the same sense.” (‘Definitive Sanctification’ Calvin theological Journal, 1967)
The second, more commonly understood aspect of sanctification is ongoing, or what may be called ‘progressive’ sanctification. It is often stated that progressive sanctification flows from justification, when in fact progressive sanctification flows from definitive sanctification. In Hebrews 10 we see the intersection of the death of Christ, the law, and both definitive and progressive sanctification. Previously there were sacrifices made for sin, for failure to keep God’s will. When Christ came, because He kept God’s will perfectly, he brought the sacrificial system to an end, because in His once and for all sacrifice for sin He makes it possible for the people of God to do God’s will. In Christ we have been sanctified (v. 10), and are being sanctified (v. 14). It is this being set apart in Christ, once for all, which is the basis for the gradual conformity into His image (Rom. 6:4-6; Eph. 4:23-24; Phil. 3:13; II Th. 2:13). “The path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Pr. 4:18).
Q. 36 What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A. 36 The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification are assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.
Firstly, there is assurance of our salvation. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16 Cf. Gal. 4:6). “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us” (I Jn. 4:16 Cf. I Jn. 5:13). Secondly, we receive “peace of conscience.” “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Thirdly, there is “joy in the Holy Spirit.” “I am exceedingly joyful” (II Cor. 7:4 Cf. Ps. 35:9; Is. 56:7). This is through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13). Fourthly, there is “an increase of grace.” “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (Jn. 1:16). “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (II Pet. 3:18). Finally, we receive the benefit of “perseverance therein to the end.” “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 Cf. Pr. 4:18; II Pet. 1:10).
XI. The Benefits Of Salvation After This Life: Q & A 37-38.
Q. 37 What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. 37 The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
The Q & A assumes what has come before-human beings are body and soul. Here we learn that at death the soul and the body are temporarily separated. Obviously this is not our normal condition, but at death there are things which take place with respect to both. Firstly, our souls are perfected in holiness. The progressive sanctification of the previous Q & A finally meets the definitive. The writer to the Hebrews wrote about those who had already died as being part of the church in heaven, “the spirits of just men made perfect” (12:23). Secondly, at death our souls “do immediately pass into glory.” Jesus said to the thief on the cross that that day he would be with Him in paradise (Lk. 23:43). It was also Paul’s desire to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23).
Finally, our bodies are not discarded. Even in the grave our bodies remain united with Christ, awaiting the resurrection. Paul indicated that those whose bodies rested in their graves were asleep in Jesus-sleep here being a synonym for death (I Th. 4:14). Secondly, as Paul also indicated above, our bodies are at rest until the resurrection (Cf. Is. 57:2). Finally, our bodies will one day be resurrected anew, along with the unregenerate (Jn. 5:28-29). This Paul also alludes to above. It was also something which the saints of the Old Testament also hoped for (Job 19:26). Paul did not ultimately hope for this intermediate state, even if being absent from the body meant being present with the Lord (I Cor. 5:1-8). The resurrection of the body is something which flows from our adoption (Rom. 8:23).
Q. 38 What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
A. 38 At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.
The catechism highlights three benefits which we receive in the resurrection. Firstly, our bodies will be raised in glory (I Cor. 15:43). There is no room in the Christian faith for a depreciation of the body. We, along with the Lord, will forever exist with body and soul. Secondly, He will openly acknowledge and acquit us on the day of judgment. This will be part of our inheritance (Mt. 25:34 Cf. Mt. 10:32). Finally, we will be “made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” This brings the first part of the catechism back full circle to the beginning. It is our chief end to both glorify God and fully to enjoy Him forever (Cf. Ps. 16:11; I Th. 4:17). “We shall be like Him,” and in this way we shall be made perfectly blessed” (I Jn. 3:2).
The Shorter Catechism-Division III-What We Are To Do.
I. The Moral Law: Q & A 39-44
Q. 39 What is the duty which God requires of man?
A. 39 The duty which God requires of man is obedience to His revealed will.
This section, and this question in particular, takes us back to the start of the Catechism, where we are to understand that the first axiom of all thought and existence is the word of God. What we do is based upon and is made possible, only because of what God has done for us. “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccl. 12:13 Cf. Mic. 6:8).
Q. 40 What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
A. 40 The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.
Q. 41 Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A. 41 The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.
Q. 42 What is the sum of the ten commandments?
A. 42 The sum of the ten commandments is, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbour as ourselves.
Q. 43 What is the preface to the ten commandments?
A. 43 The preface to the ten commandments is in these words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Q. 44 What does the preface to the ten commandments teach us?
A. 44 The preface to the ten commandments teaches us, that God is the LORD, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.
This moral law is a law which is revealed to all humanity (Rom. 2:14-15). However, it finds its fullest and clearest expression in the ten commandments (Dt. 10:4 Cf. Mt. 19:17). Jesus reiterated the Old Testament emphasis first on God then on one’s neighbour, summarizing not only the ten commandments, but the whole of the scriptures as “the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). This is also what it means to love (Rom. 13:10). The preface to the ten commandments shows us that this duty is in response to the redemption which God has procured for us (Ex. 20:2). As God’s people, we have been delivered from the bondage of sin to walk in newness of life, and the law and the prophets are our standard toward both God and our fellow humanity. The preface also teaches us that God is due this duty because He is the only sovereign covenant making and covenant keeping LORD, our redeemer (Cf. Dt. 24:18; II Cor. 5:15).
II. The First Commandment: Q & A 45-48
Q. 45 Which is the first commandment?
A. 45 The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
“This first commandment teaches us the only proper object of worship. It is God,-and beside Him there is no other. This is the simple meaning of the commandment, but in the Shorter Catechism each commandment is explained and expanded, by showing first what it bids us do, then what it forbids us to do, and lastly, what special reasons or motives there may be for its observance.” (Lawson, p. 33 Cf. Ex. 20:3)
Q 46 What is required in the first commandment?
A. 46 The first commandment requires us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify Him accordingly.
Several points are made in this answer, and first among them is that we must know God. Knowledge, which comes by revelation, is the first in importance. The bible does not speak of some kind of generic God. The very beginning words of Genesis presuppose the God of scripture, not just some generic supreme being. It is our duty to know God. Everyone is called to be a theologian. Secondly, it is not then enough simply to have some information about who God is, we must also acknowledge Him “to be the only true God.” There must be a public testimony on our part of God and who He is-it can never remain a strictly private matter. Silence is not an option (I Kgs. 18:21). Thirdly, God must be our God. There must be this personal relationship with God. This is the heart of the covenant relationship-He is our God and we are His people (Cf. Josh. 24:18; I Cor. 6:20). Finally, all these points come together in the act of worship whereby we glorify Him not only as God, but as our God. This commandment involves the whole person (Dt. 26:17; I Chr. 28:9; Pr. 3:6; Mt. 4:10).
Q. 47 What is forbidden in the first commandment?
A. 47 The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshipping and glorifying the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship to any other, which is due to Him alone.
The scriptures teach us that all men know the true God, but many do not acknowledge Him as the true God, or their God in a personal way (Rom. 1:20). This knowledge that all possess makes this commandment applicable to all humanity. There is no neutrality here. Either one acknowledges God or one repudiates this knowledge. Even those who are in the visible church and have experienced the outward administration of the covenant, must be careful to heed the word of the LORD (Ps. 81:11). It is foolish to deny this truth (Ps. 14:1). This denial is both spiritual and moral (Rom. 1:24-25). The only alternative to the worship of the true God is idolatry-worshipping the creature, rather than the Creator.
Q. 48 What are we specially taught by these words ‘before me’ in the first commandment?
A. 48 These words ‘before me’ in the first commandment teach us that God, who sees all things, takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other God.
“The special reason here given why we should observe this commandment is, that God who sees all things, keeps an eye more especially on the breaking of this commandment, and punishes the offence with His sorest displeasure” (Lawson, p. 34). Forgetting God always involves idolatry. People will always turn to a substitute. This occurs before Him-God sees and God knows (Ps. 44:20-21).
Something needs to be noted here about the scope of the commandments and the law as a whole, and this first commandment in particular. G. I Williamson rightly notes that this command rules out all neutrality and religious syncretism, not only in public worship specifically, but in every area of life. “The first commandment requires us to acknowledge the true God and to glorify Him, in the whole of life. Those who have come to see what this first commandment means will no longer think of life as a two-compartment affair-with religion in one compartment and the rest of life in the other” (WSC, 2003, pp. 196-197) However, Williamson shows a common inconsistency when he denies the continuing validity of the so-called ‘civil law’ which was intended as nothing more nor less than an application of the ten commandments to all of life. He writes, “the civil laws…have been cancelled by the passing away of the state of affairs in which they could be applied” (Ibid. p. 185). The irony is that in the very same paragraph he appeals to Mt. 5:17 wherein Jesus made abundantly clear that He did not abrogate any of the law or the prophets.
Williamson not only contradicts Jesus, he says not only that the law is abrogated but that it can’t be fulfilled today, for we no longer have a state of affairs where the whole law “could be applied.” The catechism itself repudiates this common position of Reformed Evangelicals, such as is expressed by Williamson. Many have taken the commendable step of realizing that the faith is more than a strictly private religious matter. In the last 40 years there have been many who have seen the need to develop and Christian world and life view. Discipleship involves the whole of life. Every sphere is to be brought under the domain of the scriptures. However, the catechism does not say that only the ten commandments are what teaches us what we are “to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (A. 3). It is rather the whole of the scriptures which are “the only rule to direct us” (A. 2). One God means one law. “One absolute, unchanging God means one absolute, unchanging law. To abandon the Biblical law for another law system is to change gods” (Rushdoony, ‘The Institutes’ p. 20).
III. The Second Commandment: Q & A 49-52
Q. 49 Which is the second commandment?
A. 49 The second commandment is, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image-any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).
Q. 50 What is required in the second commandment?
A. 50 The second commandment requires the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed in His word.
This Q & A emphasizes what has come to be called ‘the regulative principle’ as it applies to worship-doing only what God, in the scriptures, commands. There are differences of opinion as to what is commanded, but the basic principle is one thing which this command emphasizes. Adding to or taking away from what the scriptures teach is what is called “will-worship”. It is important to remember however, that the regulative principle is something that applies to the whole of life (Cf. Dt. 12:32; 32:46; Mt. 28:20). The scriptures themselves teach that God gave Moses and the people a pattern for the tabernacle and temple, their place of worship (Cf. Ex. 25-31; 35:4-39:43) The writer to the Hebrews reiterated this point (8:5; 9:23). Those who follow the tradition of psalms only without musical accompaniment appeal to the synagogue, and thereby they violate the very principle they claim to adhere to.
Q. 51 What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. 51 The second commandment forbids the worship of God by images,-or any other way not appointed in His word. The LORD reminded the people of God that they saw no image of Him when He spoke to them at Horeb in the midst of the fire (Dt. 4:15-16). Worship which follows the commandments of men is vain (Mt. 15:9). False worship is idolatry which is vanity (Col. 2:18). Since the Father and the Son are one, this commandment also forbids making images of Jesus (Jn. 5:23). Since we have no image of Jesus, any such attempts are necessarily false (Cf. Is. 40:18; Jer. 10:14-15; 51:17-18). Paul said, “we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:29).
Q. 52 What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. 52 The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, His propriety in us, and the zeal He has to His own worship.
“The special reasons added why we should observe this commandment are-1. God is our sovereign (I, the LORD); 2. God is our owner (your God); 3. God is jealous for His own worship (am a jealous God)” (Lawson, p. 36). When it says that God is our LORD, it also means that He is our covenant making and covenant keeping LORD. True worship is covenantal worship. The LORD, according to His sovereign will, claims us as His own via covenant. He is both a great King above all gods, and specifically our God, jealous of the covenant relationship (Pss. 95:2-3; 45:11; Ex. 34:14).