Religious skeptics such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins often simplistically boil down Christianity to thought and behavior control. The critique, more or less says that we want people to act and think a certain way, so we make rules and say they came from a powerful god who is going to get mad if we do not do what he says. Essentially, all religions are lumped together as legalistic – follow the rules and it will work out for you. At times, Christians such as John Lennox have attempted to debate these men and explain where they have gone wrong in their boil-all-religions-down-to-a-common-denominator approach. However, it is as if the explanations of the gospel fall on deaf ears. Perhaps a greater problem is the debate the rages on within the ranks of those who would call themselves Christian. Are people saved by faith alone or by faith plus works, or by faith or works, or by works alone? As a quick answer, consider Ephesians 2.8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV).
The Presbyterian Church in America is in a long line of protestant churches that teach that God saves people by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and the PCA has worked hard to protect that doctrine from heresy. One avenue of protection is having a set of doctrinal standards, the Westminster Standards, to which the elders in the denomination must subscribe. The Westminster Standards, as used by the PCA, consist of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism.
Westminster Shorter Catechism #3 asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” The answer that the Westminster Divines, the cool name for the guys who wrote the standards, gave is, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” On the surface, the answer to WSC #3 seems a bit out of place in a document that churches committed to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone have long held up as one of the most biblically faithful doctrinal summaries. WSC #3 seems to be affirming all that people already misunderstand about Christianity. God is this way and he says you have to do such and such. However, there is good reason to think through this a bit more.
There are two parts to the answer given by the divines. First, the Scriptures teach what we are to believe about God. Second, the Scriptures teach what God requires of us. In the Bible Belt, our tendency is to think in terms of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), the Golden Rule (Matthew 7.12), or the Great Commandment (Matthew 22.34-40) first. Our thought process goes like this, “The Bible is our Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth, our owners manual. So, if we look inside and see what it says to do, then all this is left is to do it.” We too often start with the rule(s) and define the god behind the rules accordingly.
When the Westminster Divines made these two statements, they were summarizing the gospel. The Shorter Catechism is organized as follows:
- Introduction – questions 1-3
- What man is to believe concerning God – questions 4-38
- What duty God requires of man – questions 39-107
If we read the Shorter Catechism with this intentional structure in mind we quickly find, in questions 4-38, God defined not only as lawgiver and judge but also as the author of redemption at the cost of his only Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, part of what man is to believe concerning God is that God has sovereignly worked out a salvation for his people that is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. When we continue reading questions 39-107, we find truths that are equally as precious. While God does have an exacting standard for all people, he also came in the flesh as the God-man, Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the law on behalf of his people and died in the place of his people. Salvation comes to the people of God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Therefore, WSC #3 in no way teaches legalism but summarizes gospel in two loaded statements. What is man to believer concerning God? God is the Lawgiver, and God secured redemption for his people. What duty does God require of man? God requires perfect obedience to his law from every person, and God came in the flesh to satisfy every demand of the law for his people.