How the Standards Changed My Life

G. I. Williamson

New Horizons: February 2013

Why Christians Need Confessions

Also in this issue

Why Christians Need Confessions

Our Church: Looking Back and Ahead

When the editor of New Horizons invited me to write this article, I knew I had to do it. Why? Because of what the Westminster Standards did for me. So let me tell you my story.

I begin with an event that took place in my fortieth year as a pastor. My father died at the age of 93 in 1993, and I was honored to officiate at his funeral. Before returning home to North Dakota, my wife and I paid a final visit to my 95-year-old mother, who was living in a care center in Seguin, Texas. We were quietly talking about spiritual things when she said something that prompted me to blurt out these words: “But Mother, what is the chief end of man, anyway?”

She immediately replied, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

I was astounded. I couldn’t remember ever hearing her say those words before! So I immediately asked the next two or three questions from the Shorter Catechism, and she came back again with flawless answers. I never knew, before that last visit with her (she died ten days later), that my mother had memorized the Shorter Catechism in the old United Presbyterian church in Pawnee City, Nebraska, where she had grown up.

Her five children were never catechized. Memorizing the Shorter Catechism was no longer part of the Sunday school training when we grew up in the United Presbyterian Church. We did hear some sound Bible preaching, though. And through it I felt called to the ministry after U.S. Army service in World War II. So off I went in 1949, with my wife and daughter, to Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary.

How I Discovered the Westminster Standards

Right away I felt myself to be immersed in a babel of confusion. Among my professors were two or three men who were orthodox to various degrees, but another teacher was neo-orthodox, and one was liberal enough to hold an honorary office in the modernistic National Council of Churches. I vividly remember the day when, as a result of the conflicting instruction, I had serious doubts about the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. And then, when funds provided by the G.I. Bill ran out, I accepted an invitation to serve a country church as a student-pastor.

It was while serving in that capacity that I first discovered the Westminster Standards. One Saturday, when some of the members were cleaning the church, the treasurer came to tell me that they had found some old books in a dusty closet and were about to throw them away. If I wanted any of those books, she said, I was free to take them. So I went to have a look, and one that caught my eye was an edition of the 1858 Subordinate Standards of the United Presbyterian Church of North America. That was the first time that I had ever laid eyes on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

From that moment on, my life was radically changed. I began to study the Confession and Catechisms, paying close attention to the proof texts printed out below the text of these documents to support their statements. And within a few weeks, as I continued commuting to and from the seminary and diligently studying that book, I was delivered once and for all from my confusion. Next to the Bible itself, no other book even comes close to the importance of this one in my life as a Christian and a pastor.

And now, after sixty years as an ordained minister of the Word of God, I am more convinced than ever that no creed that has yet been written even equals (let alone surpasses) the Westminster Standards for stating the system of truth revealed in the Bible in such a succinct, yet adequate, way. I also came to love the Three Forms of Unity, to which I gladly subscribed when I served as a pastor in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. I also have sincere respect for the historic ecumenical creeds that mark the progressive fulfillment of the promise of Jesus, who said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (John 14:26).

The Value of These Confessional Documents

There is much to learn from all of these confessional documents, which express the truth of the Bible in uniquely different ways. As an Orthodox Presbyterian called to serve a church holding to the Three Forms of Unity, I came to the conclusion that they and the Westminster Standards are fully compatible with each other, but also that there is much to learn from each. I believe that people in churches holding to the Three Forms of Unity would benefit by getting acquainted with the Westminster Standards, as I have benefited from their standards. I will even add that there are some issues I wouldn’t know how to handle without help from both quarters.

Let me give you an example. The church of Jesus Christ at the present time is splintered and fragmented. (This is also true of us who are Presbyterian and Reformed.) No wonder so many people are confused! What I need, therefore, in order to navigate for myself and to help those I’m privileged to teach, is the understanding of the teaching of the Bible that is provided by both the Westminster and the Belgic Confessions! The Belgic Confession (article 29) states with incomparable simplicity what the difference is between the true church and the false church. The true church is the church in which “all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, (and) all things contrary thereto rejected.” In other words, there is an absolute standard! The standard we find the apostles upholding in all of their epistles, supported by their actions as recorded in the book of Acts, is that of the Belgic Confession. Any church that did not then, and does not now, strive to live up to that standard does not qualify as a true church.

But, at the same time, we all know that there is no perfect church here on earth. That was also true in the time of the apostles. Therefore, keeping the absolute standard in mind—and never compromising it or forsaking it—I also find that I can’t do without the equally clear statement in the Westminster Confession (25:5) that “the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error,” while “some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.” As I read my Bible, I see that this was just as true in the time of the apostles as it is today. So both of these historic Reformed Confessions define precious aspects of the truth.

The apostles never settled for error or immorality in churches they founded and cared for, yet most (if not all) of the churches we encounter in the New Testament were afflicted with “mixture and error.” And all of the “true” churches, though imperfect even in the apostolic age, were keenly conscious of “the falling away” (1 Thess. 2:3 NKJV) which had brought the old church of the Jewish nation to become “a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9).

Sharing the Westminster Standards with Others

When I began my labor as a home missionary of the OPC in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1955, I determined that my people—however few or many there might be under my ministry—were not going to be deprived (as I had been) of their confessional and catechetical heritage. So I began writing lessons on the Westminster Confession that were handed out weekly to be studied and discussed at the midweek prayer meeting. As I wrote those lessons, I never had any notion that I was writing a book! But Dr. William Young, who was then teaching philosophy at the University of Rhode Island, often came to worship with us on Sunday evenings. When he saw a few of those lessons, he began to urge me to send them in to Mr. Charles Craig of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company to see if he would publish them. He said he was pretty sure he would, because I quoted Van Til and Murray! And to my amazement, he was right.

So in 1964 my lessons on the Westmister Confession were published in book form. And now, nearly half a century later, they are still teaching many people—not only in the English language, but also in Spanish and Korean. My positive experience with my first book encouraged me to write a study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, in collaboration with the Rev. Thomas Tyson. This book is now available in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and, most recently, Japanese. Many people who have used my books have written to thank me for them because they too have found more edification in these long-neglected forms of sound words than in many of the popular books that are being written today. They have found, as I did, that a careful study of the Westminster Standards has given them a new, exciting, and clear understanding of what the Bible really teaches. I have been surprised and even overwhelmed at times by the e-mails that I have received from around the world, expressing the joy of discovering (with the help of these studies) these wonderful doctrinal summaries of our Reformation faith.

Let me conclude by urging the readers of New Horizons to buy a copy of the OPC Confession of Faith and Catechisms with proof texts, if you don’t already have one. I think it deserves to be your favorite book, next to the Bible.

The author is a retired OP minister, living in Iowa. New Horizons, Feb. 2013.

New Horizons: February 2013

Why Christians Need Confessions

Also in this issue

Why Christians Need Confessions

Our Church: Looking Back and Ahead

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