Studying the Confession: The Doctrine of Assurance
The Westminster Confession of Faith …
What is it?
Is it a document that presents cold intellectual faith? Dead Orthodoxy as it seems to some…
Is it a historical artifact that has no relevancy to the pastor or the people of God?
Is it an idol that reformed Christians elevate to a higher standard of authority than the Scriptures?
Or could it be something more? Much more?
The Westminster Confession of Faith has stood the test of time as an example of mature and sober reflection upon the teachings of scripture (and their application to life and culture). For generations “the heads” of systematic theology have followed the outline and teaching of the Confession. It stands as one of the best, if not the best, representation/summation of Christian Doctrine ever produced by the church. As such, it is a fence preserving orthodoxy and thus saving faith. If you, dear reader, are new to the confession, I would exhort you do dive into its riches and be blessed by its thoughtful, lucid, and consistent presentation of the faith.
But perhaps I am preaching to the choir? If that is the case, let me encourage you to look at the Confession with new eyes. With eyes that are looking for the power of this document to serve as the basis by which pastors shepherd the people of God, by which the people of God teach and admonish one another.
Paul writes to the church in Rome:
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.[i]
Paul writes this to believers in general, not to those who are “properly” ordained. Yet so many believers today haven’t been taught this, much less do they believe it! Yet, believers have the tools they need. They have the Spirit of God and they have the Word of God. The Word of God is “living and active”, it discerns the “thoughts and intents of the heart”[ii] If, the Westminster Confession of Faith is a superb summation of the teachings of the Word of God (and I firmly believe that it is!) then it becomes a handbook for believers (ESPECIALLY PASTORS!) to use when they are counseling God’s people. There isn’t a chapter that fails to bring the teaching of the scriptures to bear on the thinking and the behavior of God’s people.
Consider chapter 27 “Of the Sacraments”. Paragraph two states:
There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.[iii]
Picking up on such scriptures as Gen 17:10, Matthew 26:27-28, and Titus 3:5, the confession calls Baptism and Communion “signs”. Think about a sign for a moment…
As I write, it is a little over two weeks until Thanksgiving. Many of us will be traveling “home” for the holidays. Perhaps you are flying. Imagine, however, that you are driving and that you are leaving from Minneapolis, Minnesota and traveling to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, easily a 20 hour (plus?) trip. As you cross Ohio, coming east, you grow weary. You finally come to Cleveland and you know you are within a couple of hours. Soon you see a sign – Pittsburgh 83 miles. You rejoice! Why? The sign is not the end of your journey. It is, however, pointing you to the reality of your destination. It shares in the reality that is Pittsburgh! Now, and hour an 45 minutes later (I gave you a rest stop – so you need to include that in your calculations!) you see a sign: “Pittsburgh city limits”. This sign is different, it not only points to the reality of the city, but it is part of the city. It participates in the reality. Now you are excited, and you have reason to be, you are home!
So, pastorally, we counsel our people who are struggling with assurance, who are struggling with sin, who have been beat up by the world: “do not neglect the sacraments”, they are means of grace. They are signs and symbols that not only point to Christ; they participate in, the work of Christ. Calvin said that God condescends to our weaknesses by giving us “sensible” symbols, that is, symbols that we can touch, taste, see, smell, and hear; symbols that not only point us to the realities, but actually participate in the realities. The “Pittsburgh City Limits” sign was not the fully reality, it was not “the city” but it did participate in the city, it is a real part of the real city. So, when the bread is broken, or the cup is poured out, the believer not only sees Christ’s body broken in payment of his sin or His blood shed for the remission or their sin he is not only pointed to the reality of what Christ has done for him, he participates in the reality. So, the struggling believer can come and grace, encouragement, strength and victory!
Martin B. Blocki has served since 2003 as the Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North Hills in Pittsburgh, PA since 2002. He is a counselor at the Biblical Counseling Institute in Pittsburgh. Rev. Blocki graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington (BME), Arizona State University (MM), and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (MDiv). Martin and his wife, Kathy, have two married sons, one daughter, and 2 grand children.