What Do the Scriptures Principally Teach? (WSC Q. 3)

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Without a theological framework, we have no coherent Christian worldview… We are like the person who had on their bookshelf, John Piper’s, Desiring God, and Joel Osteen’s, Your Best Life Now, seeing no theological problems.

What Do the Scriptures Principally Teach?

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
February 9, 2020

Without bones, you are just a bag of skin. Just a floppy mass of flesh piled up on the floor. Now, what is my point? My point is that if your body has no structure, then you really don’t have anything. You have no beauty. You have no strength. You have no ability to move or function. For your body to work, you need a skeleton structure.[1]

The same is true for theology. I believe it was R. C. Sproul who said that everyone is a theologian. His point is that we all have thoughts about God, man and the nature of life in this world. But most people have never been given an adequate framework for understanding any of it. As I reflect upon my own experience, and the broad evangelical landscape, I have found the same problem is far too often the case.

Without a theological framework, we have no coherent Christian worldview. We simply take a little bit of theology that we like from over here, and a little bit of theology that we like from over there, and so we become a disparate collection of soundbites trying to make one song from competing melodies. We are like the person who had on their bookshelf, John Piper’s, Desiring God, and Joel Osteen’s, Your Best Life Now, seeing no theological problems.

If you don’t have a coherent theological system, you will become, what I call, a ‘Christian pluralist.’ Without even knowing it, you will be part mystic, part charismatic, part Calvinist, part Arminian, etc. To use myself as an example, before the age of twenty-one, I was a ‘Calviminian’ (another self-created label). I wanted a sovereign God and total human free will—even though you can’t have both, as I later came to see.

Because I had an insufficient theological framework, I did not have the ability to see the logical inconsistency of my own theology. I had a major case of cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, too many Christians suffer the same malady. Even your average Christian who says that they are a Calvinist—or even that they are Reformed—quite possibly suffers from this affliction to one degree or another.

The average evangelical in the west likes a little bit of Reformed theology in their preaching, a little bit of Baptist theology in their sacraments, a little bit of charismatic theology in their worship, a little bit of Arminian theology in their outreach, and a little bit of prosperity theology in how they live throughout the week. Now, add to that a little mystic theology in how to hear from God and a little pragmatism in how to run the church and you pretty much nailed the picture of your average western Christian.

As I intimated already, such a person likes to listen to this online preacher here and that online preacher there, and they too often have little or no awareness that the two theological systems from which these guys preach from are worlds apart and sometimes even completely incompatible—as would be the case with the person who listens both to Joel Osteen and John Piper.

Without a coherent Christian worldview, we will suffer many problems. Let me give you a few examples.

First, you will lack the ability to discern sound from unsound doctrine. Thus, you will also be much more susceptible to being led astray from false teaching. You will lack the ability to stand for truth. It will also be very difficult to discern truth and error when what you hear is almost true but lacking the right emphasis or balance.

Second, and somewhat related, you will be overly dependent on spiritual authority figures. Your beliefs about the Bible and theology will become more shaped by personalities than by the Bible itself. You may even find yourself being further confused by authority figures who may be pulling you in completely different directions, whether you are aware of it or not. 

Third, you will most likely be living in a way that is inconsistent with the gospel—maybe even in a way that is incompatible with it. This is something that your peers, and your children (if you have them) will see. It is a sad fact that too many children have walked away from the faith because of the hypocrisy of ‘Christians’ who profess the gospel, but who live like the world.

Sadly, too many people are ineffective in their spiritual life because they lack a sufficient theological structure. They are like the bag of flesh lying on the floor without any bones. Indeed, we need to understand that the beauty of the Christian life comes from a coherent worldview where Monday to Saturday matches your corporate worship life on Sunday, for the Lord is not just Lord of the Lord’s Day, he is the Lord of every day.

Fourth and finally, without a coherent Christian worldview it will be very difficult to parent your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If you don’t have a coherent Christian worldview, there is certainly no way that you can give one to your kids. Furthermore, without such a worldview, you may very well be training your children more for the devil and the world than for God. Thomas Manton writes,

They offer their children to God in baptism, and there they promise to teach them the doctrine of the gospel, and bring them up in the nurture of the Lord; but they easily promise, and easily break it; and educate their children for the world and the flesh, although they have renounced these, and dedicated them to God. This covenant-breaking with God and betraying the souls of their children to the devil, must lie heavy on them here or hereafter. They beget children, and keep families, merely for the world and the flesh; but little consider what a charge is committed to them, and what it is to bring up a child for God, and govern a family as a sanctified society.—Thomas Manton, Epistle to the Reader[2]

Therefore, by way of this long introduction, if you want to live out of a coherent Christian worldview, you need to have a sound and consistent theological structure. The Bible is not illogical. The Bible is not incoherent or inconsistent. Therefore, we need a theological system that is also logical, coherent and consistent. We have such a system in the Westminster Standards.

Along with Thomas Manton in his letter commending the Westminster Standards for training children and families in sound doctrine, I would whole-heartedly commend it to you. I commend it to you for your own sake, for your church’s sake, and for the life of future generations—and not the least of which, for your own children.

As we unpack question three of the Shorter Catechism, we find the structure for the Christian worldview. What we are going to look at tonight is how question three serves as the megastructure for the entire catechism. Question three divides the catechism into two parts. As we look at those two parts, I am also going to give you a structural overview of each section.

My prayer is that by a careful study of the Shorter Catechism, you will not only see that it is a faithful and systematic summary of biblical theology, but that you will also, thereby, receive the beginnings of a much broader and more coherent and consistent Christian worldview

This theological framework will give you a structure on which to hang what you learn, and to discern what you hear. It will give you greater discernment as you hear preachers preach and teachers teach. Your ability to retain information will improve. Moreover, you will be equipped to live out of your worldview in the church and in the world with greater intentionality and consistency.

So, we come to question three:

Q. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 3

Question three is all about what the Bible primarily teaches. The rest of the catechism unpacks that message. Throughout the catechism we are going to see answers that formulate the structure of a section or subsection. As I have already stated, question three formulates the catechism’s two-fold structure. We will spend the rest of our time looking at this broad structure

What Man Is to Believe Concerning God (Questions 4-38)

The Shorter Catechism has 107 questions and answers. Without a structural road map, the catechism can easily feel overwhelming. So, I’m going to give you a road map. Questions 1-3 serve as a theological introduction to the whole work. This is ground that we have covered. Question 1 deals with man’s chief end, and questions 2-3 deal with the doctrine of Scripture. You can reference the Confession of faith and Larger Catechism if you want to dig deeper in these areas.

Questions 4-38 is where your mind might be blown. This section unpacks what Man is to believe concerning God. I would wager a guess that while you will certainly find some familiar topics, you probably have never thought of them quite like this before. If you study it carefully, it will change the way you see everything—even when your wife talks to you about political drama in Iowa! 

In other words, there is nothing that happens in this universe that does not fit within the theological structure of the Shorter Catechism. That is not to say that it addresses every detail of life or the church (you can look to the Confession and Larger Catechism for more detailed statements). But, if you think theologically, you will see how there is nothing in the universe that is outside of the theological scope of the Shorter Catechism, and that is what I mean when I say that it will change the way that you see everything!

I have given you a handout with the structural map of the catechism (see appendix). Questions 4-38 cover the doctrine of God. It covers all that the Bible principally teaches about God. The person and work of the all three members of the Trinity are found here. Here you will find that everything in your life and, indeed, in the universe flows from the glorious fountainhead of God.

The doctrine of God is divided into two sections. Questions 4-6 cover his nature, and questions 7-38 cover his work or what the catechism calls his “decrees.” If you carefully look at the structure of this section, you will note the powerful truth that everything in the universe flows from God. Everything! This is a theological masterstroke from the pens of the Westminster divines.[3]

This section includes the usual systematic theology subjects like the doctrines of God, creation, man, sin and salvation. But what makes the Westminster theology unique is the manner in which they organize these doctrines. First, as I have already stated, the structure shows that they view all of these theological subjects as subcategories to the doctrine of God. It all flows from him.

I will give you another example of the uniqueness of Westminster theology. Look at the doctrine of providence. When you get what I am going to show you, you will find comfort in your trials and failures like you never have before. You will also be more sober in your outlook of your successes and triumphs, because it all comes by God’s grace! 

The doctrine of providence covers questions 11-38. This section shows how everything from the chirping bird, to the fall of man, to the miseries of this life to our redemption from the curse all fall under God’s providential care. 

Take this up a notch, note that the doctrine of God’s decrees covers questions 7-38. Again, everything that happens, we will see, happens by the decree of God. That excludes nothing. No exceptions. 

Now, it is true that you are going to need to wrestle with this idea. You need to see what the Bible says. But when you come to see God’s loving and purposeful providence in everything, you will find comfort, security, and, I hope, humility, like you never have before. You will find rest for your weary souls in the loving and all-pervasive providence of God.

Here is one more example. Take a look at the section on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. You might say, ‘I don’t see it!’ Questions 4-6 deal with the nature of the Spirit (as the Spirit is a person in the Godhead). But questions 29-38 deal with his work. This section is called the application of redemption. Here you will come to see the principle work of the Holy Spirit.

Occasionally, Reformed theology has been accused of having no doctrine of the Spirit. But I would argue, that there is no more complete and robust articulation of the work of the Spirit in the Christian heritage. The Shorter Catechism, as well as the broader Westminster theology reflected in the Standards, shows how the Holy Spirit is behind every part of your salvation. 

The parts of salvation that are too often labeled as the part that man plays in salvation, are shown in the catechism to be truly, and biblically, the work of the Holy Spirit. If you want to see the Spirit work in power, come and see how he works in your life to apply every part of your redemption. You will see that, from your ability to have faith to your ability to persevere and be raised up in glory, every part of your salvation happens by the Holy Spirit’s work in the application of your redemption.

So, from the nature of God to the doctrine of the application of redemption, this is what the Shorter Catechism shows to be the Bible’s principle teaching concerning God.

What Duty God Requires of Man (Questions 39-107)

The Bible is God’s revelation to man about God. We just saw that. But the Bible is also God’s revelation to man about man. We are made by God, and God has us for a purpose. There is a duty to which we are called. This duty was given before the fall. We are redeemed from the curse that came from our failure to do that duty. But we still have a duty to God as the redeemed.

The Shorter Catechism divides this section into two parts. Questions 39-84 deal with the topic of the moral law. Questions 85-107 deal with the means of grace. 

Another masterstroke of the Westminster divines is their articulation and application of the moral law. They are not pulling this out of thin air. They are getting this from the Bible. They load this section with proof texts from Scripture showing what the Bible actually says about the subject. And what they show is that the moral law is man’s eternal duty—though we need to be redeemed from our failure to do that duty.

Nevertheless, the moral law is the duty that God requires of man. Paul tells us in Romans 2:15 that the law of God is written on every heart—even the Gentiles who did not have the law of Moses. That means that all the way back to Adam, the moral law was there. It was on his heart. It was in his conscience.

The catechism goes on to show how the Ten Commandments are the summary form of the moral law. We do not have time to go into it, but if you scan the prooftexts under each commandment, you will see how the catechism shows from both the Old and New Testaments that the Ten Commandments summarize the entire moral law for God’s people before and after the cross.

But now comes the gospel. In both sections of the catechism, it is crystal clear that man is a hopeless sinner and that, by his failure to perfectly obey the moral law, he stands condemned to suffer the wrath of God. But the catechism is equally clear that Christ is our Redeemer. 

If you want to know the duty that God requires of you as a redeemed sinner, study what the catechism teaches about the means of grace. This section concludes the catechism and covers questions 85-107. It begins by showing that we are saved from God’s wrath by repentant faith (85-87). 

Then we see another helpful contribution from the Westminster divines. The catechism shows, from the Bible, that the outward and ordinary means of grace that God uses to redeem his people are the Word, the sacraments and prayer. In all of this, it is God alone who saves us.

In this way, while the Shorter Catechism uniquely categorizes and labels these biblical doctrines, it is nevertheless historic Protestant theology in summary form. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. And in this grace-alone theology, God uses the primary means of the Word, the sacraments and prayer to save and sanctify his people.

As we move forward in our study, I pray that you are here to learn how to see and savor God’s glory. And I pray that you are here to learn how to live more faithfully, and to walk more worthily of the calling of the gospel. I pray that you would come to cherish these things in your study of the catechism.

What I personally cherish the most about the Shorter Catechism is that it teaches us, from the Bible, that God is big, we are small, and the glory of God in the gospel of Christ Jesus is at the heart of it all. Here we find a faithful and systematic summary of biblical theology. Study the catechism and you will receive the beginnings of a much broader and more coherent and consistent Christian worldviewIndeed, I pray that it will bring more beauty to your lives, to your families, to your church and to your witness in this world. All glory be to God.

To the degree that the Shorter Catechism is biblically faithful—and I believe that it is—may it lead us, by example, to read the Bible with a greater zeal to see God’s glory and grace in everything. And may it lead us, by example, to live more worthily of the gospel as recipients of grace. The Westminster Standards are so good at leading us in that. 

In the spirit of Hebrews 13, let us follow these Westminster men who lead us still today by the theological heritage that they gave to us,

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. —Hebrews 13:7

Appendix: The Structure of the Westminster Shorter Catechism

  1. Introduction
    1. Of man’s chief end (1)
    1. Of the Holy Scriptures (2-3)
      1. Of the Word of God (2)
      1. Of its principle message (3)
  2. What man is to believe concerning God (4-38)
    1. Of God’s nature (4-6)
      1. Of his being and attributes (4)
      1. Of his uniqueness (5)
      1. Of his persons (6)
    1. Of God’s decrees (work) (7-38)
      1. Of his decrees (7-8)
        1. Of their nature (7)
        1. Of their execution (8)
      1. Of his work of creation (9-10)
        1. Of its nature (9)
        1. Of man (10)
      1. Of his works of providence (11-38)
        1. Of their nature (11)
        1. Of the covenant of life (12-19)
          1. Of its nature (12)
          1. Of man’s fall (13-16)
            1. Of man’s fall (13)
            1. Of sin (14)
            1. Of the first sin (15)
            1. Of the extent of the first sin (16)
          1. Of the estate of sin and misery (17-19)
            1. Of man’s estate after the fall (17)
            1. Of the sinfulness of that estate (18)
            1. Of the misery of that estate (19)
        1. Of the covenant of grace (20-38)
          1. Of its nature (20)
          1. Of the Redeemer (21-38)
            1. Of his identity and nature (21)
            1. Of his incarnation (22)
            1. Of his offices and estates (23-28)
              1. Of their nature (23)
              1. Of his offices (24-26)
                1. Of his office as prophet (24)
                1. Of his office as priest (25)
                1. Of his office as king (26)
              1. Of his estates (27-28)
                1. Of his humiliation (27)
                1. Of his exaltation (28)
          1. Of the application of redemption (29-38)
            1. Of its nature (29-30)
              1. Of our participation (29)
              1. Of effectual application (30)
            1. Of effectual calling (31-38)
              1. Of its nature (31)
              1. Of its benefits in this life (32-36)
                1. Of its benefits (32)
                1. Of justification (33)
                1. Of adoption (34)
                1. Of sanctification (35)
                1. Of other benefits (36)
              1. Of its benefits at death (37)
              1. Of its benefits at the resurrection (38)
  3. What duty God requires of man (39-107)
    1. Of the moral law (39-84)
      1. Of man’s duty (39)
      1. Of its nature (40)
      1. Of its summarized location (41-81)
        1. Of the Ten Commandments (41)
        1. Of its sum (42)
        1. Of its preface (43-44)
          1. Of what it is (43)
          1. Of its teaching (44)
        1. Of the first commandment (45-48)
          1. Of what it is (45)
          1. Of what it requires (46)
          1. Of what it forbids (47)
          1. Of what is specially taught (48)
        1. Of the second commandment (49-52)
          1. Of what it is (49)
          1. Of what it requires (50)
          1. Of what it forbids (51)
          1. Of its annexed reasons (52)
        1. Of the third commandment (53-56)
          1. Of what it is (53)
          1. Of what it requires (54)
          1. Of what it forbids (55)
          1. Of its annexed reasons (56)
        1. Of the fourth commandment (57-62)
          1. Of what it is (57)
          1. Of what it requires (58)
          1. Of the weekly Sabbath (59)
          1. Of how the sabbath is sanctified (60)
          1. Of what it forbids (61)
          1. Of its annexed reasons (62)
        1. Of the fifth commandment (63-66)
          1. Of what it is (63)
          1. Of what it requires (64)
          1. Of what it forbids (65)
          1. Of its annexed reasons (66)
        1. Of the sixth commandment (67-69)
          1. Of what it is (67)
          1. Of what it requires (68)
          1. Of what it forbids (69)
        1. Of the seventh commandment (70-72)
          1. Of what it is (70)
          1. Of what it requires (71)
          1. Of what it forbids (72)
        1. Of the eight commandments (73-75)
          1. Of what it is (73)
          1. Of what it requires (74)
          1. Of what it forbids (75)
        1. Of the ninth commandment (76-78)
          1. Of what it is (76)
          1. Of what it requires (77)
          1. Of what it forbids (78)
        1. Of the tenth commandment (79-81)
          1. Of what it is (79)
          1. Of what it requires (80)
          1. Of what it forbids (81)
      1. Of man’s failure and God’s judgment (82-84)
        1. Of man’s ability to keep the commandments of God (82)
        1. Of the several aggravations of the law (83)
        1. Of what sin deserves (84)
    1. Of the means of grace (85-107)
      1. Of what is required to escape God’s wrath and curse (85)
      1. Of faith (86)
      1. Of repentance (87)
      1. Of the outward and ordinary means of grace (88-)
        1. Of their kind and nature (88)
        1. Of the Word (89-90)
          1. Of how it is made effectual to salvation (89)
          1. Of how it is to be read and heard (90)
        1. Of the Sacraments (91-97)
          1. Of how they are made effectual to salvation (91)
          1. Of its nature (92)
          1. Of what they are (93)
          1. Of baptism (94-95)
            1. Of its nature (94)
            1. Of its recipients (95)
          1. Of the Lord’s Supper (96-97)
            1. Of its nature (96)
            1. Of what is required (97)
        1. Of prayer (98-107)
          1. Of its nature (98)
          1. Of its rule (99)
          1. Of the Lord’s Prayer (100-107)
            1. Of the preface (100)
            1. Of the first petition (101)
            1. Of the second petition (102)
            1. Of the third petition (103)
            1. Of the fourth petition (104)
            1. Of the fifth petition (105)
            1. Of the sixth petition (106)
            1. Of the seventh petition (107)

[1] For this imagery, I am indebted to David Helm of the Charles Simeon Trust.

[2] Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 6.

[3] The historical designation for the men of the Westminster Assembly is the “Westminster divines.” “Divine” is 17th century word for theologian.