The Thistle

Insights From the Westminster Standards for Today’s Preachers

Insights From the Westminster Standards For Today’s Preachers
by Dr. Bryan Chapell

For many years a statue of John Knox stood outside St. Giles Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. From the pulpit of St. Giles, the man known as “The Trumpeter of God” heralded the truth of the Gospel, braved death to oppose a Catholic monarchy, and led the Reformation whose fruit we are. Yet, soot and pollution were allowed to dark-streak the statue, and now the figure appears not only stained but also neglected. While gazing on the statue (now more a site for tourists than one of national pride), one cannot help but question how the Reformation that the forsaken statue represents could have any lasting significance.

The answer to such a question yet trumpets not from the mute figure’s lips but from his fingertips. Long ago the sculptor determined to depict Knox with the finger of one hand curled into the core of the pages of his Bible, while the finger of the other hand points to the Bible itself. The sculptor portrays what Knox can no longer say, yet what we still believe: “This Word of God is the foundation of our faith, the source of truth that will never fail and the fount of hope that does not stain, rust, or fade away.”

The statue of Knox trumpets for us the message that the Westminster Standards still echo regarding our preaching: the necessity of the primacy of the Word. Webster’s Dictionary describes primacy as “the state of being first in importance.” For the pastors and teachers of the Westminster Assembly, the primacy of the Word meant that the Bible was the first and final judge of all spiritual matters. The Bible rules over tradition, experience, and reason. While each of these human factors can contribute to our understanding of what the Bible means and how it may apply, Scripture’s inherent meaning is God-given, inerrant, unchanging, and supremely authoritative.

Competing Primacies

For the Reformers, the primacy of the Word stood in contrast to two other primacies of their era: papal primacy and intellectual primacy.

The primacy of the pope was, in general terms, the principle that the authority of the Roman prelate not only governed the church, but also was the means by which to interpret Scripture. The other challenge to the primacy of the Word was the pre-Enlightenment advocacy of the primacy of reason. In Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the weight of medieval papal authority was being challenged not only by ecclesiastical Reformers, but also by secular philosophers who dismissed the need of revelation and the Spirit in order for truth to be known. Reason was sufficient. And for the Empiricists who followed, reason—combined with the  revelations of experience and observation—would not only unlock truth, but also throw off the shackles of church authority that had kept truth unattainable.

The Reformers’ stand for the primacy of the Word was an implicit rejection of both papal and intellectual primacy. The Reformation standard of sola Scriptura was both derivative of, and twin of, the battle for the primacy of the Word.

The Primacy of the Word’s Authority

For the Westminster divines the Word’s primacy (i.e., supreme status) as a spiritual authority rests on the understanding that the Bible is simply and unequivocally the Word of God. This understanding had profound implications on their view of preaching—implications which still have power and meaning for us today.

Inherent Authority

Chapter 1 of the Confession (note the priority order) lists the many “incomparable excellencies” by which the Bible “doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] I.5). The divines also write, “The authority of the Holy Scripture . . . dependeth not on the testimony of any man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof . . .” (WCF I.4).

Since the Bible has no peer authority, it must be interpreted in light of its own statements. While acknowledging that all matters are not equally clear (WCF I.7), the Confession says, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…” (WCF I.9). Then, lest any make the argument that the Bible is true but does not adequately address all the spiritual challenges we face, the divines add, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture . . .” (WCF I.6).

Final Authority

This has a foundational implication for our preaching—and for all other aspects of our lives as Christians. We must go to God’s Word to discern what we must say to God’s people. The Bible is the source of our sermons. No other source has sufficient authority or scope to ground our message—not church tradition or human reason.

So concerned were the divines to protect the unique authority of the Scriptures that they were careful to guard against their own words being used as a final authority. They write, “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (XXXI.3; cf. XXV.5 and XXXI.2). Even where there is controversy, we are required to resort to Scripture to settle the matter. The Confession says, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (I.10; cf. I.8, XX.2 and Westminster Larger Catechism [WLC] #3).

Preaching Authority

When we preach from the Bible, we preach with its unique authority; when we do not preach from the Bible, we preach without authority. The Larger and Shorter Catechisms identify “the word, sacraments and prayer” as the “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption” (Westminster Shorter Catechism [WSC] #88; WLC #154; cf. WCF XIV.1). With these statements the divines remind us that the  presentation of the Word has so much authority that our God and his benefits become as present to the Church in preaching as He is in sacrament and prayer. Thus, when we preach apart from his Word, we deny his people his presence in their midst. But, when we preach the truth of his Word, his voice yet resounds in the church. Thus, we are able to be very bold because we speak the oracles of God, not the traditions or opinions of men.

Spiritual Authority

The Word is not made effectual by our gifts or arguments, even though reverence for God and His Word requires us to prepare “as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The divines emphasize the inherently spiritual nature of the preaching task. Though they say the Word displays its truth by its “many incomparable excellencies,” nonetheless “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WCF I.5; cf. WCF VIII.8 and WLC #4). The Word works only as the Spirit that inspired it impresses the truthfulness of the Word upon the heart of the hearer. Thus, the Confession refuses to allow us to consider the preaching of the Word merely a task of sufficient eloquence or of the mechanics of research and recital. Instead, we are urged to “preach sound doctrine, diligently . . . [and] plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power . . .” (WLC #159).

The Primacy of the Word’s Message

By following the lead of Scripture in pointing away from human giftedness as the true source of pulpit power, the Westminster divines force us to consider the power of the Word itself. But we need to be careful to understand how power accompanies the preaching of the Word. The divines were not simply advocating the primacy of the Word’s authority; they were advocating the primacy of the Word’s message.

Worship prior to the Reformation was characterized by the primacy of the mass rather than the message. The understanding that grace was communicated ex opere operato through the Eucharist made the preaching of the Word secondary and, in common experience, superfluous. Grace was conferred by the sacrament; and the sermon—when it was delivered—was most often in Latin, a language the common people did not understand. Such theology and practice starved the people for the Word and substituted an almost superstitious sacramental practice for the Spirit working by and with the Word.

By placing emphasis on the primacy of the Word, the Westminster divines necessarily placed a renewed primacy on preaching. But, if you convince a man that he can present the very Word of God that communicates the benefits of redemption, the danger is bibliolatry—the assumption that the paper and ink or the order of the words on the page somehow have spiritual power.

The Westminster divines sought to guard against this problem by emphasizing that “The Spirit of God maketh the reading but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing and humbling sinners…” (WLC #155; cf. WSC #89). The point is that the meaning of the Word, not merely the presentation of the words of the Bible (or the hearing of the verses), is the means of the Spirit’s blessing.

The divines taught that “They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine . . . making known the whole counsel of God” (WLC #159). The whole counsel of God included all the matters of salvation and sanctification.

They also said that preaching should focus on the Incarnate Word as the unifying theme of all Scripture (WCF VII.5; VIII.6; WLC #34 and 43) and on the love of God that alone can be our true motivation for obedience to Him and service to others (WCF XX.I).

What implication does this have for our preaching? Christ’s grace always anchors our message. If that sounds strangely un-Reformed, it is only because our Standards are categorized according to theological topics rather than according to a homiletical method. However, when the subject of preaching arises, the grace threaded throughout Scripture becomes the superstructure undergirding all subjects and texts addressed. All Scripture rightly understood and contextualized beacons the necessity and hope of God’s grace.

The Primacy of the Word’s Ministry

The Westminster divines also valued and elevated preaching because it was seen as the primary means by which God ministered to his people in the church.

The Primacy of the People’s “Necessities and Capacities”

This idea may jar us a bit. Almost cliché in our circles is the notion that we preach for the glory of God—that while we preach to people, God is the audience; and while the people’s obedience is our concern, his glory is our goal. The Standards are somewhat less idealistic but more biblical. They refuse to allow the glory of God to be the sole, chief end of preaching. “They that are called to labour in the ministry of the word, are to preach . . . with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at the glory of God and their conversion, edification, and salvation” (WLC #159, emphasis added). We are not allowed to forget God’s people when we preach of God. Their good and his glory constitute the chief end of preaching.

The Westminster divines capture this dual obligation in a phrase of pastoral genius and heart. The divines say that pastors should preach “wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers” (WLC #159; emphasis added). Yes, we must consider what people need to hear, but we must also consider what they are capable of hearing, as Jesus did when he said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12).

Pastoral concern for the “necessities and capacities” of hearers surfaced in numerous aspects of the divines’ homiletical instruction, as presented in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God that accompanied the Standards. The divines clearly wanted to advocate an expository method that focused on the Scriptures themselves but was guided by a pastoral heart. As ministerial tasks make him aware of the most pressing needs of his congregation, the pastor is to concentrate his message on “those doctrines chiefly intended [by the biblical writer], and make most for the edification of hearers” (emphasis added).

The Primacy of the People’s Edification

Westminster sermons are to be characterized by “sparingly citing sentences from ecclesiastical writers or other human writers, ancient or modern, be they never so elegant.” The goal is the hearers’ understanding of, and growth in, the Word of God, not the display of the preacher’s eloquence or erudition. At least a dozen times the Directory urges plainness or clarity of expression in preaching in order that “the meanest [humblest] may understand.” What is most true to the Word and needful to the hearers drives the Westminster homiletic.

Distinguishing their preaching from some in their time (and from some in our time), the Westminster preachers advocate three components for the sermon.

  • Doctrinal division of the text (i.e., explanation)
  • Illustration
  • Application

In this, the Westminster tradition not only reclaims the expository method advocated by John Calvin, it also maintains the homiletical method that is most ancient and consistent in the history of preaching.

For explanation, the preacher is “to regard more the order of the matter than of words [of the scriptural text].” The sermon is to be structured and expressed in such a way “that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it [i.e., the truth] from thence [i.e., the text].” “The arguments or reasons are to be solid,” but also the “illustrations . . . ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth to the hearers’ heart with spiritual delight.” I confess a special appreciation for this last phrase, which speaks so clearly of the pastoral concern of our Standards and so soundly answers those who believe that really Reformed preaching allows no content but propositional argument.

Receiving almost as much discussion in the Directory as doctrinal development is the preacher’s obligation to apply the Word of God. The divines say of the preacher, “He is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers.” The Directory will not allow us simply to describe duties but says the preacher must “teach also the means that help in the performance of them.” In other words, not only does application require the preacher to tell God’s people what to do based on the Word; he also needs to explain how to do what the Word requires.

Because God is glorified in the obedience of his people, the proclamation of their duty is as integral to Scripture’s message as the proclamation of God’s glory. The Westminster divines knew that we preach faithfully when the glory of God and the good of His people remain inseparable in our sermons and have joint primacy in our hearts.

The Primacy of the Pastor’s Heart

What may show the heart of the pastors and teachers of the Westminster Assembly more than these specific suggestions about preaching are the adverbs they used to describe the preaching task:

They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently . . ., faithfully . . ., wisely . . ., zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation. (WLC #159)

Great power of intellect and grasp of doctrine were theirs, and yet, when the divines wrote of preaching, their words were remarkably trusting in God’s Word and Spirit and remarkably loving of God’s people. This is a very simple and compassionate faith that remains ours to treasure and to proclaim.

Dr. Chapell is chancellor and professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary, where he also served as president from 1994 to 2012. He is a renowned preacher and a recognized authority on the teaching of homiletics. This article is adapted and abridged from a talk originally given at The Westminster Confession Into the Twenty-first Century, an international conference held in Pennsylvania in 2004. This version appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Covenant magazine.