The Word of God—Rule of Faith & Obedience: Westminster Larger Catechism Question 3.
By Richard Bacon.
Copyright 1997 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

We have reached question number three in the Westminster Larger Catechism which is, "What is the Word of God?" The answer that the Larger Catechism gives is, "The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience."

In Scripture we see several names given to the Word of God. Scripture is called law, statutes, precepts, commandments, ordinances, etc. All of these imply authority. Just as law has authority; statutes, precepts, commandments, and ordinances all have authority. We, therefore, maintain that the Word of God has an authority over us that is equivalent to the authority of the lawgiver. In the same way that God's authority is absolute, the Word of God's authority is absolute as well. We refer to it therefore as a rule. Scripture is the only rule of faith and obedience.

Scripture also refers to itself as God's judgments. This calls to mind that God alone is the judge of the conscience and of all the earth. In Scripture we find his judgments. Once again, the authority of God and of his Word as judge is the same. It is the authority of God in his Word.

Sometimes Scripture is called his "righteousness." This reminds us that his judgments are not only authoritative, they are also just, good and right judgments. Scripture is also called his "testimonies:" testimonies of both God's person (his attributes) and his works. It is primarily through his works that he makes himself known. The testimonies of Scripture are testimonies to who God is: to his perfections and attributes.

In Romans 3:2, the Scriptures are called God's oracles. They must be revealed. We are not born knowing God's Word. We do not simply derive what we need to know about God from creation or from the light of nature within us; but we must go to his oracles; his special revelation in Scripture.

In the Westminster Larger Catechism answer, Scripture is called the Old and New Testament. A testament is a legal document. It contains an account of what the testator, the person who drew it up, the one who is attesting, has freely given — in this case in his covenant of grace to fallen man. In general, a testament speaks of the dispersal of that which belonged to the testator upon his death. That is just what we have in Scripture: an Old and New Testament, or if you will, an old administration of the covenant of God and a new administration of the covenant of God.

One of the things that Scripture has in common with a testament — one of the things that makes us refer to Scripture as a testament — is that it contains several valuable legacies. God has given certain things to us because we bear his name; because we are his people; because we are his children.

For example, in Psalms 73:24 we read, "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me up to glory." Also in Psalm 84:11, "The Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: and no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly." We have a promise or legacy. God will give a legacy to his people. He will give grace. He will give glory. He will not withhold any good thing from his people; from those who walk uprightly. We see from Scripture that there is a valuable legacy from Christ, the Testator.

A testament must also describe, or name, the testator. Scripture does that for us. Scripture names or describes the testator. In II Corinthians 1:20, Paul stated, "For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us. Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God." The author of Hebrews 9:16-20 tells us, "For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined to you." Then in verse 23, "It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us."

In the Old Testament the sprinkling of blood was by the testator, Moses. In the New Testament the sprinkling of blood was by the testator, Jesus Christ. Christ is the testator of the New Testament. When we refer to the New Testament, or new covenant, the covenant maker is Christ himself! It was not the blood of goats and bulls but his own blood that he sprinkled. We are told that the testator is Christ, himself, and the legacies we received, we received as a result of his death. The testament only comes into force upon the death of the testator.

A testament should also reveal to us who the heirs of the testament are. We need to know who the testator is, but we also need to know who will receive the legacy. Scripture tells us that as well. The Bible says that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life. The legacy of eternal life, the promises of God, the inheritance goes to those for whom God has prepared it, to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Read John 3:16-18, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Those who receive the legacy are those who believe in the name of the Son.

Finally, a testament has seals attached. This was done by placing wax on it and then impressing it with a signet ring. What are the seals of this testament, the new covenant? In the Old Testament, of course, there were several seals which were the various ordinances of the ceremonial law: the Passover, circumcision. Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the sacraments of the New Testament, are the seals of the new testament. That is why it is so important that we receive the name of the Lord upon our foreheads in baptism. That is why it is so important that we celebrate the Lord's supper. That is why it is so important that we come to the Lord through the means that he has appointed. These are the seals. These are the ways that God has impressed his name, his seal, upon his testament. These are the signs of authenticity.

We can see, then, that God's manner of dealing with us through his Word does fit the basic outline of what a testament is. That is the reason it is referred to as the Old and New Testaments. While we have a single covenant of grace, the Old Testament and the New Testament are separate administrations; an old administration and a new administration.

In Luke 16:29, the Old Testament is called "Moses and the Prophets." In Luke 24:44, it is called "Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms." There are divisions in the Old Testament that we recognize and that Christ himself recognized.

In the New Testament, some of the books are historical. The Book of Acts and the gospels are primarily historical books. The epistles are written as exhortations, either to particular churches or particular people or as general epistles. There is one book of prophecy in the New Testament, which is the Book of Revelation.

We now have a finished canon. We believe that everything that God intends for man to write down as his Word has now been written. It has been written in the canon of the Old and New Testaments. However, there was a time before which there was a written Word. How did God communicate his will at that time?

Sometimes the Son of God appeared to men. Specifically, Jehovah, the Lord, appeared to men. For example, he appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18. Abraham called him Yahweh. He appeared to him in three forms at once and Abraham referred to all three of them collectively as Yahweh, and subsequently, he referred to the One who stayed behind as Lord, as Yahweh.

There was also the ministry of angels. For example, in Exodus chapter 3 as the words were coming from the burning bush, the author refers to the angel of the Lord. In Hebrews chapter 1, we see that God made his angels as ministering spirits.

There were unwritten prophets. Prophets who prophesied to their generation, but what they spoke was not written down. For an example, Jude refers to Enoch as a prophet in his generation, yet nothing that Enoch wrote down was canonical.

We should note that during that period of time — the time before the flood and until the time of Moses — when the Word of God was not written, the world was moving away from God. The world was apostatizing. This is an important point for us to understand. Without the Word of God the world moves away from God.

Is the Old Testament sufficient? If so, why, then do we need a New Testament? Yes, the Old Testament was sufficient for its day. The reason that we need the New Testament is to inform us as to the extent that the administration of the covenant has changed.

First, notice that the Old Testament saints expressed a great deal of faith. The Old Testament saints did not believe that they were going to earn their salvation by keeping the law. Some people present that view today, but if we read what the Old Testament saints said about themselves, we see that they did not have that belief at all. For example, Jeremiah 23:5-6, "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS."

They were not trusting their ability to keep the moral or ceremonial law; they were looking forward to a coming Messiah.

In Zechariah 13:7-8, Zechariah pointed to a day when the Old Testament shadows and types would be revealed in full. "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the Lord, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein." The prophet foresaw a day in which the coming Shepherd would be smitten and the sheep scattered; yet we know they looked to Christ, not just some shepherd of their own devising. They were not looking to their own law-keeping ability, but to Son of God coming and being smitten on their behalf.

Isaiah 53 is one of the most outstanding examples in all of the Old Testament of what the Old Testament prophets knew and understood about the coming Messiah. Jesus Christ would bare the sins of his people. Although they did not referred to him as Jesus, they did refer to him in the Hebrew tongue as Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. They knew when he came that the sins of God's people would be laid upon him.

In Psalm 33:1-5 the psalmist says, "Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright. Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise. For the Word of the Lord is right; and all his works are done in truth. He loveth righteousness and judgment: the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord."

The praise of the Old Testament saint was not significantly different from the praise of the New Testament saint. He does not praise himself for his law-keeping, but praises the Lord for who he is. His praise of the Lord is praise of the Lord in his attributes of righteousness, judgment and goodness.

In John 8:56 and 58, we see Christ telling the Jews of his day, "Before Abraham was, I am," and that Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Abraham rejoiced to see his day by believing in Christ; by looking forward to the coming Messiah.

Secondly, the ceremonial law had a spiritual meaning. The very point of the ceremonial law was that it did no permanent good. It was ineffectual in and of itself. It pointed to something and Someone beyond itself.

Third, it is reasonable to suppose that the ceremonial law would be understood by those to whom it was given. We understand it today and as we can interpret it in light of the Book of Hebrews, we can look back on the ceremonial law and understand that it points to Christ. It is, therefore, also reasonable to suppose that the people to whom it was given would also understand it.

Finally, the Old Testament saints were given many helps for understanding the law. They had extraordinary revelation, particularly as the tabernacle was built under Moses. God gave a particular pattern and said, "Worship me in this way." There were Levites in every generation to know, understand and explain the law to the people. Finally, there were the schools of the prophets that were raised up from time to time by God to further explain his Word and how it applied to a particular social setting. Basically, the prophets brought God's law to bear on specific historical circumstances.

If we say that the Old Testament is in fact God's Word, is in fact a rule of faith and obedience at least to those people, then how far is the Old Testament a rule of faith and obedience for us? Some maintain that the Old Testament has no bearing on us whatsoever. That it is not at all a rule of faith and obedience to us. Yet I would maintain that is exactly opposite of the case; that in fact the substance of the Old Testament is for perpetual obedience.

First of all, there is very little between the Old and New Testaments that is different in form, function or thought. Augustine first brought out the fact that the New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament. There is not a contradiction. There is not one set of laws in the Old Testament and a different set of laws in the New Testament. Most of the Old Testament is of perpetual obligation. However, there are some things that are not of perpetual obligation. In John chapter 4, the woman asked whether they should worship on the mountain in Samaria or in Jerusalem. Jesus answered that the hour was coming in which it would be neither there nor at Jerusalem. The Temple worship; coming to God through priests and Levites; through various washings and sacrifices has been abolished. They have been, as our confession says, "abrogated."

There were other Old Testament laws having to do with clothing and division of the land that would be very difficult to apply today, except insofar as what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls "general equity" causes them to apply. For example, when we read in the book of Joshua, that the people were commanded to subdue all the kings of that land, that does not apply to us. However, the general idea of having righteous wars instead of unrighteous wars does apply. The general equity does apply to us as the equity agrees with the present dispensation.

Now that we have both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we can see examples of how the Old Testament applies to us. For instance, although we may not own an ox, the law prohibiting the muzzling of an ox while he treads out the grain still applies to us. The law has no bearing on our oxen because we have none. But the general equity of that law does come to bear in that "a laborer is worthy of his hire." When we hire someone we should pay him an honest wage for honest labor. The law does apply, but not in exactly the same way. The general equity, or basic moral kernel, applies.

What do the words of the catechism mean when they say that we have a "perfect" rule, a full rule, for everything we need to know? It does not mean that we have an account of everything that God has done. Scripture specifically states that if we had an account of everything Jesus did, the world would not be able to contain all the books. Nor is it an account of God's secret counsels. Scripture informs us that there are some things that God has kept secret — things he is not going to tell us. That which is revealed belongs to us, but that which is secret belongs only to him. Nor do we mean that the divine attributes can be described exhaustively. When we say that God is just, we cannot put into words all there is about God's justice. Nor do we mean that every doctrine in Scripture is explicit. There are some doctrines that we must derive from Scripture by comparing passage with passage and by coming to good and necessary conclusions. For instance, there is no verse that says, "Thou shalt baptize thy children." Nor is there a verse that says, "God is a Trinity." Those doctrines must be drawn out from Scripture, yet, they are part of God's Word. Nor do we mean that any one part of Scripture is equal to the whole of Scripture. As Scripture develops through time, God gives more and more light regarding who he is and his works toward men. While Abraham did see Jesus' day and rejoiced in it; while the righteousness of Christ was imputed to Abraham; we have a greater revelation in Scripture today of the imputation of Christ's righteousness than Abraham did. Over time God shed more and more light upon his person and upon his works.

Finally, if we say that Scripture is a rule, it is important that we understand what a rule is. First, a rule must have the sanction of authority. It is not merely a good idea. It is not simply a suggestion. When we say that it is a rule we mean that it is an absolute rule; an authoritative rule.

Second, in order for Scripture to judge everything, the Scripture must itself be infallible. The infallibility of the rule is an important part of our understanding. The rule must be impartial. That is to say, it must express God's will and nothing but God's will. All appeals must be made to Scripture as the judge of all controversy. If a controversy arises between Christians as to what is the right thing to believe or what is the right thing to do, if it is not indifferent, then it must be in God's Word. The Scripture is the final court of appeal where we bring all of our controversies. All matters of faith and obedience, of life and godliness, must be determined by Scripture and Scripture alone.

An implication of such a rule is that the Scripture must not have opposition or competition. When there are some who maintain that a particular tradition is equally authoritative as Scripture, we must oppose that doctrine. Our foundational doctrine is that the Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament is the only rule for faith and obedience.

It is important that we maintain the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It is not enough to say, "our traditions say this." Our traditions are fallible. Our traditions could be wrong. It is not enough for us to appeal to a great theologian, although theologians may help shed light on the Word of God for us. Ultimately all controversy must be settled by the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture; not the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our hearts; not the Holy Spirit speaking through providence; but the Holy Spirit speaking through the words of Scripture.

What sorts of applications should we make? It is not enough for us to say the Scripture is God's only rule for faith and obedience and then ignore it. So the first application is know the book. The first application is to become immersed in God's will by knowing his Word; by studying his Word; by memorizing and meditating on his Word; by making his Word the central focus of our devotions. The objection might be raised that we are to follow Christ, not some words. Everything you know with certainty of Jesus Christ you learned from Scripture. So we do follow Christ — in the Book. We are upheld by his right hand, by his Word being our only rule of faith and obedience.

If there were those who impose on our consciences those things that they can not derive from God's Word, then the application would be that we need not obey. In fact, we ought not obey when people present it in such a way that it would bind our conscience.

One final application: we need to understand that God has set aside a place for us to hear his Word. The place is where his people gather. It is his Mount Zion. We should be gathering together. It is important for us to understand that we are not doing what we are doing simply because we want to, but because it is important for us do it. It is required by God that we know and hear his Word preached to us on a weekly basis on each Lord's day.