By the Rev. Benjamin P. Glaser
Over the past couple of weeks I have had the privilege of leading a new member’s class for a family interested in joining our church. One of the things I do in that class for every prospective member is begin with Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter One. I do this for a few reasons, but mainly because what you understand about the Bible is going to color everything else you intend to do in the class for the sessions to come. For example, in covering the Doctrine of Salvation there has to be some common understanding of what the Bible teaches concerning the place of a real historical Adam in Romans 5. Likewise when we begin to talk about church membership itself and the role of the officers of the Church it is helpful to be on the same page about who wrote the Pastoral Epistles and what weight we give to the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor 14 in examining the role of women in the body of Christ. I could go on with a myriad instances that come to mind on why a new member needs to have an understanding of what our local church believes concerning the authority of Scripture. Suffice to say our hermeneutic and our doctrine of the Bible has a primary place in undergirding everything we do as a community of believers. However, this comes into even more focus when we think about something to which a particular section of Chapter One of the Confession speaks and that is what we are going to look at in this short article.
In the midst of our study last evening as we were going through WCF Ch. 1 we came to section 7, which says:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Now I did not really think about the last sentence very much when we were talking about this part. Nonetheless, later as I was driving home listening to a CD of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and thinking about how crazy it was that I was able to hear this wonderful opera in a car, when a century ago I would have had to hope my local company would put this performance on its schedule so that I could hear the mesmerizingly beautiful aria of the Queen of the Night it drew me to think about what the Confession is saying here a little bit more concerning the use of the ordinary means to attain a “sufficient understanding” of the salvation that is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What are the “ordinary means” and how are we to use them to learn about the most important thing in the life of any human?
The first question is why does the WCF use the monikers “learned” and “unlearned” in the phrase prior to “ordinary means”? What it is not talking about are the literate and the illiterate. What they intend to say is that both the clergy and the laity (to use those terms) can clearly use the Scriptures to learn of the things of salvation. The basic point of this section is made clear by A.A. Hodge in his commentary on the Confession, he notes:
Protestants affirm, and Romanists deny – (1.) That every essential article of faith and rule of practice may be clearly learned from Scripture; and (2.) That private and unlearned Christians may be safely allowed to interpret Scripture for themselves. (WCF: A Commentary, pg. 40).
In other words the believer is free to search the Scriptures, using the ordinary means, and is in no need of a professional class of prelates to tell them what the Bible says concerning how one is to be saved. The Word of God is perspicuous and clear on this point.
The second question, and perhaps more pertinent, is what do the divines intend by the phrase “ordinary means”? When the Confession uses this phrase it has in mind the basic way a Christian receives understanding of the things of God, that is through prayer, preaching, singing of God’s Word, the reading of God’s Word in private, family, and public worship, and holy conversation with fellow believers. The common denominator here is of course Holy Scripture. In its plain usage it tells us what a holy and righteous God requires of a broken sinner, where that same broken sinner can find salvation, and finally how they come to be declared righteous in the eyes of that same Holy God, and receive the full measure of salvation from Jesus Christ. The words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 could not be clearer, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” likewise as he says with Silas in Acts 16:31 to the jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”. When we make use of the ordinary means we are using the instruments that God has granted to the people for their benefit.
In closing, it is one of the special blessings of living in this day of the Christian Faith that each and every one of us has direct access to the very Word of God given to men and through them can know how it is we are saved from death and Hell by the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb. It would be a wise thing if we did not neglect such a great gift. We cannot allow the matters of this world and the temptations of our flesh get in between us and the due use of the ordinary means. Likewise it can never be spoken loudly enough. We do not need extraordinary measures, like extra-biblical revelation or supposed miracles to rest and trust in the revelation of God. For we have the testimony of the Word itself, through the inward work of the Holy Spirit, which shows us the wonderful and incomprehensible grace of God given in Christ Jesus. The truth of our salvation is neither mediated to us through a clerical class nor do we need special glasses to recognize it, but through the ordinary faculties God has provided us we can know the things necessary for our salvation.