Are There Doctrinal Errors in the Westminster Confession?




The strongest reason presented for the revision of the Westminster Confession is the allegation that the phraseology of some of its sections contains serious error, or is liable to be understood as containing it. Is this true? In order to answer this question, we shall examine a few of the principal sections which are asserted to be erroneous either in their direct teaching or in their implication.

1. Confession iii. 3 asserts that " By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death." It is contended that this section teaches, or is liable to be understood as teaching, that the decree of God in election and reprobation has no connection with sin and the fall of man, but that God by an arbitrary decree, wholly irrespective of sin, creates some men in order to save them, and some men in order to damn them. To correct this alleged error, or liability of interpretation, several advocates, of revision propose to insert the clause, "On account of their sins," to qualify the clause, "Foreordained to everlasting death ;" and one advocate of revision proposes to strike out the entire section concerning election and reprobation.

We maintain that the Confession neither teaches the

1 Philadelphia Presbyterian, October 19, 1889.

error aforesaid, nor is fairly liable to be understood to teach it. According to Confession iii. 6, both the elect and non-elect are "fallen in Adam," and are thereby in a common guilty state of sin. The former are delivered out of sin by regenerating grace, and the latter are left in sin. Why are the latter left in sin? Because " God so pleased," is the reason given by the Confession. "On account of their sins," is the reason which the reviser would insert into the Confession. But this, surely, cannot be the reason why God leaves a sinner in his sin. I see two suicides who have flung themselves into the Water. I rescue one of them, and the other I let drown. They are both alike in the water, and by their own free agency. But his being in the water, is not the reason why I do not rescue the one whom I let drown. I have some other reason. It may be a good one or a bad one. But whatever it be, it certainly is not because the man is in the water. Similarly God does not leave a sinner in his own voluntary and loved sin because he is in sin. He has some other reason why he makes this discrimination between two persons, both of whom are in sin, neither of whom has any claim upon his mercy, and neither of whom is more deserving of election and regeneration than the other. God's reason, in this case, we know must be a good one. But it is a secret with himself. The only answer to the inquiry, "'Why didst thou elect and regenerate Saul of Tarsus, and didst not elect and regenerate Judas Iscariot?" is, "Because it seemed good in my sight."

The allegation that there is error iii this section of the Confession arises from misunderstanding the meaning of the clause, "Foreordained to everlasting death." It is the omission to regenerate, not the punishment of sin, that is intended by it. When God "foreordains" a sinner "to everlasting death," he decides to leave him in the sin which deserves everlasting death and results in it. The non-elect sinner has experienced the operation of common grace. It is an error to say that God shows no kind or degree of mercy to the non-elect. But he has resisted and defeated it. God decides to proceed no further with him by the bestowment of that special grace which regenerates, and " makes willing in the day of God's power." The elect sinner has also experienced, resisted, and defeated common grace. God decides to proceed further with him, by effectual calling and regeneration. The particular question, therefore, in this paragraph of the Confession is, " Why does God leave a sinner to his own wilful free agency?" and not, " Why does God punish him for it?" The answer to the first question is, "Because of his sovereign good pleasure." The answer to the second is, " Because of the ill-desert of sin." The reason why God omits to take the second step, and exert a yet higher degree of grace after his first step in exerting a lower degree has been thwarted by the resistance of the sinner, is entirely different from the reason why he inflicts retribution upon the sinner's sin. This is more fully explained in the seventh section of the third chapter, which should always be read in connection with the third. Here, the reason for God's "passing by," or omitting to regenerate a sinner, is found in " the unsearchable counsel of his own will whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth." This first negative part of reprobation, which is properly called "pretention," is not qualified by the clause, "for their sin," as the correct punctuation in the Board's edition shows. This latter clause qualifies only the sentence, "And to ordain them to dishonor and wrath." Sinners are punished "for their sin," but sin is not the reason why God docs not regenerate them. If sin were the reason for non-election, holiness, logically, would be the reason for election. If some men are not regenerated because they are unbelieving, others would be re-' generated because they are believing. This is the Arminian doctrine, not the Calvinistic; and this is the reason why the Westminster Assembly did not qualify the words, "pass by," by the proposed clause, "for their sins," but left "passing by" or "foreordination to everlasting death," to be a purely sovereign act according to "the good pleasure " of God.

2. Confession iii. i teaches that " the angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished." One advocate of revision proposes that this whole section be struck out of the Standards, because it "is not a scriptural form of expression; it is misleading."

What is the meaning of this section ?" Increased or diminished" by whom? What is the ellipsis intended to be supplied by the framers of the statement? Plainly they meant that the number of the elect and non-elect cannot be increased or diminished by the "angels and men " spoken of in the connection: that is, by any finite power. Neither the human will, nor the angelic, can determine the number of God's elect and non-elect, because this depends wholly upon "the counsel of his own will." Of course, the Assembly did not mean to say that God could not have made the number of his elect larger or smaller, if "the counsel of his own will" had so determined. Probably no advocate of revision understands the Confession to teach this. But will any advocate of it say that the number of the regenerate and saved can be made greater or less by the decision and action of either the unregenerate world, or the regenerate church? This would contradict the statement of St. John, that the elect "sons of God are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." It would also contradict the corresponding statement in the Confession which teaches that "in effectual calling man is altogether passive, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer the call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed by it" (Confession x. 2). This fourth section of the third chapter is simply another way of teaching the common doctrine, running all through the Standards, that the sinful will is in bondage to sin, and cannot regenerate itself, and that consequently the number of the regenerate depends wholly upon the will and decision of God.

3. Confession x. 4 asserts that " men not professing the Christian religion cannot be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion they do profess." This is alleged to be erroneous by an advocate of revision, because "every promise and every warning of God is addressed to man as a free agent, and not as one who cannot be saved."

Who are the persons "not professing the Christian religion?" They are those who reject it, either formally, or in their spirit and disposition. The class here spoken of are the legalists of every variety, who repudiate salvation through Christ's blood and righteousness, and rely upon "diligently framing their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion which they do profess"—which is some other than "the Christian religion," which they do not "profess," but contemn. The Christian religion is evangelical religion, and this they dislike. They expect to be saved by morality and personal virtue, and not by faith in the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ.

The doctrine then, in this section is, in brief, that no man can be saved by good works; by any endeavors however " diligent " to obey the written law of the decalogue, as the Christian legalist does, or the unwritten law of conscience, as the heathen legalist does. Now concerning this class of persons St. Paul explicitly says that "they cannot be saved." "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified." St. Peter says the same. "There is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved."

There is nothing in this section that denies the possibility of the salvation of any sinner on earth who feels his sin, and trusts in the sacrifice of Christ in case he has heard of it, or would trust in it if he should hear of it. It does not teach that no heathen is or can be saved. This fourth section, so often misunderstood and misrepresented, is aimed at the self-righteous moralist, whether in Christendom or Heathendom, who has no sorrow for sin, feels no need of God's mercy as manifested in Christ, and has no disposition to cast himself upon it, but claims the rewards of eternity on the ground of personal character and obedience to "the light of nature " and the maxims of morality. It is only a bold and strong assertion of the great truth, that no sinner can be saved by his most strenuous endeavors to keep the moral law. It is not strange, therefore, that this section closes with the affirmation that "to assert and maintain the contrary is very pernicious and to be detested."

If this is the correct explanation of these three sections of the Confession, it is evident that they neither teach nor imply error, and therefore do not need any revision.