Confession and Pastoral Theology: An Extraordinary Means of Constant Conversion

Several people have told me they were first truly converted Christians upon becoming Calvinists.  Finally, the Bible made sense when the Spirit enlightened them to see, caress, and smell TULIP’s five lovely petals of God’s sovereign embrace from regeneration to glorification.[1]

Thus, as the Westminster Standards succinctly teach the most mature system of Calvinism (that is, Scriptural Christianity), one man and minister has testified to them for his “second conversion”.

In his article, “My Story”, the Rev. Philip Burley (now a retired pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia)[2] shares how he was confounded with his sin and Scripture while a young Bible school student until being introduced to the Westminster Confession of Faith and experiencing an awakening:

... things changed for me in a rather unusual way. I asked the Principal to please give me a book which would help me sort out the different aspects of the law of God. I was confused.  What applied to my life in the ceremonial, the judicial law and moral law, and what didn’t?  He handed me the Westminster Confession of Faith.  That, he said, might help me sort it out.  It did, most certainly, do that!  It did so much more as well. It introduced me to the historic Reformed Faith.[3]

Faithful ministers often endure ignorantly suspicious criticism for defaulting to the confessions and catechisms in regular pastoral care, but we must remember that they are especially designed and proven rods and staffs that guide the truly longing to lie down in green pastures and beside still waters at the feet of the Good Shepherd.  And just as they comforted us to hear Christ’s voice and fear no evil, so they did for Rev. Burley:

There I was, a teenager with an acute sense of my sinfulness, and I read the chapter on Christ the Mediator!  I read with amazement how He came to seek and save lost sinners, to redeem them, to pay the price for their sin.  All of a sudden the light of truth flooded into my soul. It was not what I must do – it is what Christ Jesus had done for me! ... The next amazing truth that came to me with great force was that of total depravity; the error of free will was thus dealt a fatal blow.[4]

The Westminster Confession of Faith and its supplementary catechisms, directories for worship, and form of church government should be seen not as dead documents but those which the Lord has and does use to breathe dry bones to life, put meat on their frames, and support Christ’s Body with ongoing Scriptural exercise unto stronger godliness.  They are an amazingly important commentary handbook on the whole counsel of God for the Christian’s faith and life.  Thus, Rev. Burley zealously shares:

I clung onto this little book and devoured it.  But then the Principal wanted his book back. So, I hastened into Diprose’s Christian Bookshop in Launceston and purchased a copy of my very own.  I now possessed a treasure trove of truth.  I went through all the scripture references on the statements of doctrine, and shared these with close friends.  Soon there were a number of us who had experienced what we were calling a “second conversion”!  This was a wonderful time in our pilgrimage.[5]

Pastors should hold fast to their time-tested confessions and catechisms as their main shepherding tools so that when it comes time to be entrusted with new Berean spirits such noble students may be nourished on more than milk.  And equally so that we ministers may best continue our own ongoing conversion for we always have plenty to better learn from the masters. 

A seminary professor who has had a big impact on how I take heed unto myself and to the flock once said that while he studied the Westminster Standards throughout his decades of ministry and on occasion thought he disagreed with something, he would habitually defer to the Divines with, “They’re probably right, and I’m probably wrong;” and he said this practice always proved rewardingly true for him and his church.[6]  May all pastors so humbly serve Christ’s sheep in the same way as did the authors of all confessions: relying on the cloud of witnesses that came before them.

Every time I teach our Enquirers/Communicant Membership class, which is a six-month walk through the Westminster Confession of Faith, I personally grow in grace.  And I always enjoy the testimonies of our students who say they have meaningfully matured in their own conversion.


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

[3] Philip Burley, “My Story,” Evangelical Presbyterian (July 2011) : 5.

[4] Ibid.  Note: the Westminster Confession of Faith has an entire chapter acknowledging that man does have free will, but it qualifies such fallen volition as a slave to a sinner’s utterly corrupted nature, incapable of wanting God or His goodness or anything truly good until such time as it is regenerated and enabled by God to will and do of His good pleasure.  This understanding against Arminianism is implicit in Rev. Burley’s comment on “the error of free will”.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rev. Steven F. Miller, retired adjunct Professor of Missions for the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and retired Pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, Pa. He also served the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for many decades, including as a missionary with his wife to communist Eritrea.


Grant Van Leuven