What Is the Chief End of Man? (WSC Q. 1)

FPCNorwayAll Life for God's Glory, Lessons

The single most important, life-shaping driver in your life is something that most people never think about. There is actually something very powerful in you that drives virtually every decision that you make. Your preferences, your tastes, your life-choices are totally informed and defined by it. And for most people, this driver is completely subconscious. So what is it?

What Is the Chief End of Man?

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
January 26, 2020

Tonight, we begin an exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Before we begin, I should say a word about what it is. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of three documents that make up the Westminster Standards. They are the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These Standards form the statement of faith for most Presbyterians. 

These standards were published in 1646 and 1647, with a few revisions in 1648. They are the product of the English Reformation. In those days, what is known as the Long Parliament in England commissioned over a hundred theologians (called “divines”) from England and Scotland to assemble at Westminster to reform the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles. But what came out of that assembly was a brand-new confession.

For the English-speaking world, the Westminster Standards represent the full bloom of the Protestant Reformation. It would become the most widely influential theological statement to come out the English Reformation. For example, both the Baptists and the Congregationalists used the Westminster Confession of Faith as the foundation for their own confessions. 

The Second London Baptist Confession and the Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration are the Westminster Confession of Faith with a few tweaks to suit their own doctrinal distinctions on baptism and church government. But both the Baptist and Congregationalists from this era stand lock step with the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition on the doctrine of God and salvation. 

On a personal note, the Westminster Shorter Catechism represents my own introduction to Presbyterianism. I came across the Standards as a seminary student in Chicago. Long before I myself became a Presbyterian, my wife and I were already using the Shorter Catechism to teach our children. We found ourselves growing by leaps and bounds as we memorized it too.

Until modern times, when modern men thought they knew better, children learned new ideas through rote memorization. That knowledge equipped young people with the building blocks for understanding logic and how to implement that knowledge in practical ways when they became adults. Without those basic building blocks, modern man becomes enslaved to ‘specialists.’

Thus, modern man, as people like C. S. Lewis have noted, is enslaved to the conditioners that rule them.[1] Education becomes about telling you what to know, rather than about how to learn. Without those basic building blocks, we become mentally weak and flimsy. We don’t have buckets or categories for understanding great ideas.

This same problem has happened to the church. Theology tends to become watered down and minimized. Rather than be stretched to grow in your knowledge of God and redemption, you hear the same old tropes and clichés bandied about at church. If you raise serious theological ideas or questions, you are treated as a troublemaker, or worse, divisive. 

The Westminster Standards give you a basic framework for understanding God and his Word. The Shorter Catechism is particularly helpful as a starting point. Commit yourself to a careful study of its teachings (and the Bible references that ground its statements), and you will find that you have been given tools and categories for understanding God, and his universe, in ways that you never thought possible. It certainly did for me.

But in the final analysis, the power and usefulness of the Westminster Standards is not rooted in its well-documented history or tradition, but it is rooted in the Word of God. In fact, in my opinion, it is the most robust and articulate expression of biblical theology that has ever been penned by the hand of man. That is a really big statement, but I believe that it is true.

Leaving that statement aside, regardless of what you think, if you want to know what a Presbyterian believes—at least an evangelical Presbyterian—the Shorter Catechism is the place to start. And tonight, we get right to the heart of it with question one: What is the chief end of man?

The Heartbeat of Presbyterianism

The single most important, life-shaping driver in your life is something that most people never think about. There is actually something very powerful in you that drives virtually every decision that you make. Your preferences, your tastes, your life-choices are totally informed and defined by it. And for most people, this driver is completely subconscious. So what is it?

The most powerful driver in your life is what you believe about the meaning of your existence. What is the good life? What gives meaning to your life? What could you never live without? What must you do or have to be most happy? Your answer to these questions directs your life. It’s the foundation of what you might call your core beliefs. It’s the heartbeat that drives you.

If you want to know the heartbeat of the Presbyterianism—that is, the theological distinctive that drives our mission and shapes the way that we think about everything, you would be hard-pressed to find a better summary than question one of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Question one defines the heartbeat of the Presbyterian faith and the Christian life as we know it.

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1

The heartbeat of Presbyterianism is the indissoluble link between the glory of God and the joy of his people. And we see this link most clearly in question one of the Shorter Catechism. When we do all things for God’s glory, we also find that glorifying God becomes our greatest joy

Man’s Chief End Is to Glorify God

God is the chief and highest being—not man. The Bible is very clear on this point. The phrase “I am the LORD” echoes 184 times in the Old Testament. God is the great “I AM.” He reigns supreme over all princes and powers. He reigns supreme over all false gods and idols. He says in Isaiah, 

I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other” —Isaiah 42:8

God is supreme over creation and providence. “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:22). “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isa. 45:4). All things were made through him and for him (Col. 1:16).

God is supreme over Salvation. He says, “I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11). God is the one who gives us a heart to know him (Jer. 24:7). When we were spiritually dead, he made us alive (Eph. 2:1, 5). Disciples do not choose him; he chooses his disciples (John 15:16). And he chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5, 11). 

So, when we open the Bible and read it from Genesis to Revelation, the dominant theme is the supremacy of God over all things. He is Lord of creation and providence, and he is Lord of salvation. In summary fashion, we can say with the apostle Paul that, “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Beloved, we were created for God’s glory and pleasure. In the book of Revelation, the elders cry out, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). He made us and redeemed us so that we would glorify his name (Ps. 86:9; cf. Isa. 60:21). The chief mark of our lives is stated in Paul’s letter to Corinth,

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. —1 Corinthians 10:31

Man’s Chief End is Not Man

The Bible is clear. The entire creation exists for the pleasure and glory of God. All things were made through him and for him. We exist for God’s pleasure! And therefore, the chief end of man is not man. God is the main thing. He is the main thing in life, and he must be the main thing in ministry. Put anything else at the center and spiritual disaster will follow. Let me explain. 

The late British missiologist, Leslie Newbigin, returning to England, observed that the whole emphasis of the evangelical faith in his country was starting to slip. Ask evangelicals today: What is the most important mission of the church? The vast majority would tell you: the salvation of man. That emphasis is a huge problem, and this is exactly what he saw.

I suddenly saw that…someone could use all the language of evangelical Christianity, and yet the center was fundamentally the self, my need of salvation. And God is auxiliary to that… I also saw that quite a lot of evangelical Christianity can easily slip, can become centered in me and my need of salvation, and not…in the glory of God. —Leslie Newbigin[2]

The most significant problem that plagues the evangelical church today is not cultural hostility to biblical morality. It is not secularism. It is not even materialism. The most significant problem facing the evangelical church today is the almost exclusive focus on man’s need of salvation and not the glory of God.

When man becomes the center, everything changes. The Bible becomes a self-help manual. The church becomes a therapy center. Worship becomes entertainment. Pastors become CEOs and customer service representatives. Doctrine is minimized to offend as little as possible. Leaders makes decisions based on what is pragmatic. The chief goal is to get as many people into church as you can, and by any means necessary, not what will bring most glory to God.

When man becomes the center, the church becomes an idol factory. Man is at the center. God is at the periphery. The relevancy of God, the relevancy of the whole Bible, the subject of sermons and the mission of the church, are all judged by what is deemed to be culturally relevant or helpful to a person’s felt needs. Biblical Christianity is out. Pop-culture religion is in.

As a pastor, I have seen too many people come into church, thinking they are Christian, and leave just as quickly when their needs aren’t met. They came not to glorify God. They came not to serve the body of Christ. They wanted church to be about them. And unfortunately, too many churches enable this kind of self-centered version of the faith that is deceiving and spiritually lethal. 

In some cases, entire churches are filled with people who are there because the pastor promises to build their own kingdom—‘this pastor will help me make more money,’ ‘this pastor will help me be more successful in business,’ ‘this pastor makes me feel better about myself,’ ‘this pastor will fix my marriage,’ ‘this pastor will heal me.’  

Worldly churches give the world what it wants. The whole focus is man getting what man wants. And it is as deadly as poison and it is leading millions astray from true, biblical faith. 

So, whatever tradition you identify with, we must stick a dagger in man-centered Christianity—for that is not true Christianity at all. Yes, man’s needs, and certainly man’s salvation is important to God, and he will save and provide for his people, but his glory he will not give to another (cf. Isa. 42:8; 48:11). 

But hear this beloved, when we live for God’s glory, we also find our greatest joy.

God’s Glory Is Our Greatest Joy

Man’s obsession is the pursuit of happiness. It’s the search for the good life. Human culture is hell-bent on finding pleasure. You hear phrases tossed around like, ‘as long as it makes you happy,’ ‘whatever floats your boat,’ ‘to each his own.’ The supreme cultural moral value is that if it makes you feel good, it is good.

Now, the pursuit of happiness is not bad in itself. But the pursuit of earthly pleasure is a fool’s quest. No earthly thing—whether that be health, wealth, toys, relationships, experiences or achievements—will ever bring you lasting joy. They will fail you every time. The relationship loses its flame. The toy no longer satisfies. The movie gets tired. 

And ever and anon, man looks for more joy, more pleasure, more happiness. The house becomes bigger, the car faster, the vacations more exotic. But it never works. And the wise man discovers like the preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? All is vanity and a striving after the wind’ (Eccles. 1:2-3, 14).

Earthly pleasures do not last. They will always leave you wanting more. Like Citizen Kane, the Xanadu, which you devote your whole life to building, becomes an empty memorial to your own unhappiness. The man who has everything soon finds the meaninglessness of it all. And the reason why, is that man has mistaken the gift for the Giver. 

God is the source of all joy, and only in the presence of his glory do we find lasting pleasure. The psalmist writes,

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. —Psalm 16:11

The pleasure we get from food and nature and relationships and experiences and things are all calling us to look beyond themselves to the one who gives them to us. This earth is wonderful because God made it. But it is folly to think that we can enjoy the earth, without enjoying the one who made it.

And so, tragically, mankind wastes its life away making mud pies in the sand, when a holiday at sea awaits them. We need to search for greater pleasure than what the world can offer. The world’s desires for pleasure are not too strong, they are actually too weak. The promises of God are so much greater than that. C. S. Lewis writes,

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.—C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory[3]

The world’s desire for pleasure is not too strong, but too weak. If you want real, lasting pleasure, you will find it in living your life for the glory of God. God is our greatest joy, and only in his presence do we find the fulness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

How Do We Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever?

God is the main thing, and only God can bring you lasting pleasure. I sincerely hope that you weigh your current core beliefs with the testimony of Scripture and think carefully about what really matters in your life. If you want to have real pleasure, you will only find it in the glory of God. If you want to live for what truly matters, live for the glory of God. I hope that you can learn to say with the psalmist,

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. —Psalm 73:25-26

We exist to glorify God, and it is in glorifying God that we find our greatest pleasure—that is the heartbeat of the Presbyterian faith. 

The question then becomes, how do we glorify God and enjoy him forever? How is that possible? What does glorifying God look like? That is a great question, and one for which we will turn to next week when we unpack question two of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

[1] Read, for example, C. S. Lewis, Abolition of Man. Another great resource is Dorothy Sayer’s essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

[2] Tim Stafford, “God’s Missionary to Us,” Christianity Today, Vol. 40, No. 14 (1996).

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 26.