WCF 23: The Civil Magistrate

Dear Church Family,

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible teaches in this way, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 5). That last part about “what duty God requires of man” includes what the Bible teaches concerning the duty of earthly governing authorities (the civil magistrate), as well as our duty to civil magistrates as those authorities appointed by God. This is the topic of chapter 23 (“Of the Civil Magistrate”) in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which we studied this past Sunday in the adult Sunday school class.

WCF 23.1 – The Role of Civil Magistrates

Three things are affirmed in this paragraph of the confession – three things that speak to God’s sovereignty over the whole world, and particularly with regard to His sovereignty over all earthly authorities. First, God is Lord and King of all the world. Second, God has ordained civil magistrates to be under Him and over the people for His glory and the public good. Third, God has given the civil magistrates the power of the sword (physical violence and coercion) to protect and encourage people who do good and to punish evil doers.

It should be noted that the main teachings of this paragraph – and for much of the rest of this chapter – is based on two main texts of Scripture: Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. In these passages, the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter speak to the proper divinely ordered role of earthly authorities. And, we should also note that, in contradistinction from the church which bears the spiritual power of the keys of the kingdom, the state bears the physical power of the sword. [More on this when we get to chapter 25, “Of the Church.”]

WCF 23.2 – Christians may serve in the office of a magistrate

Reasoning from the teachings of Romans 13, we may say that if the civil magistrate is ordained by God, then a Christian may serve in this office. So serving, Christians ought to follow and enforce the wholesome laws of that commonwealth or government in which they serve – especially in maintaining piety, justice, and peace (2 Samuel 23:3-4; Proverbs 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

When I was a chaplain in the army, soldiers who were also followers of Christ would sometimes ask if – according to Scripture – they were allowed to serve and go to war. Of course, the Bible explicitly forbids murder or the taking of innocent life (Exodus 20:13); however, the Bible also teaches that those who follow Christ may, in their capacity as magistrates (or in service to those earthly magistrates), wage war or serve in the military (Luke 3:14; Acts 10:1-2; Romans 13:4).

Rooted in the teachings of Augustine, we also have a long tradition of what is known as “the just war theory.” It is too much to go into at this time, but you may find a summary of the seven principles of the just war theory in the appendix of our handout from the Sunday school class (you can download a pdf of that handout in the “notes” section here).

WCF 23.3 – The Church and the State

As we mentioned above, the New Testament teaches that since the coming of Christ, the state is given the power of the sword to promote justice and protect its citizens; the church is given the power of the keys of the kingdom of God to promote the gospel and the glory of God. Thus, civil magistrates have no ecclesiastical (or church) power; nor may they interfere in matters of faith (Matthew 16:19; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; John 18:36). Instead, civil magistrates are to be like “nursing father” – protecting the religious liberties of all peoples (Isaiah 49:23; Acts 16:35-40).

In the church, Christ has appointed a regular government and discipline (Ephesians 2:19-22; Philippians 1:1). Therefore, the magistrate is not to interfere with the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians (Psalm 105:14-15). Of course, some earthly governments have done this better than others, yet the fact remains that God has appointed governing authorities in this world for the purpose of protecting the dignity and person of all the people living in their realm, and to protect all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies regardless of their faith or infidelity (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

On an historical footnote, the original formulation of this paragraph on the relationship between the church and the state was almost entirely replaced by American Presbyterians in 1787. In the original formulation of 1646, the state was said to have authority over the church to preserve the unity, truth, purity in worship, and obedience of her members; and, the state was also said to have the power to call church synods or councils and preside over them. With the separation of church and state in the new world, American Presbyterians rewrote this portion of the confession to be more in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.

Again, if you’d like to learn a little bit more of the historical context and the reasons for which this paragraph was rewritten, you can download a pdf of the handout from the Sunday school class from the “notes” section here. For further reading on this issue, I recommend the book by Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.

WCF 23.4 – The Duty of Subjects to the State

As subjects of the state, the Word of God exhorts the followers of Christ to pray for, honor, pay tribute to, obey the lawful commands of, and submit to the magistrates – regardless of their infidelity or difference of religion (Romans 13:5-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17). This includes all “ecclesiastical persons” (or religious leaders), as well (Acts 25:9-11).


John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In a similar vein, we often ask, “What is the governing authority’s duty toward me?” That’s a legitimate question, but we should also be quick to ask, “What is my duty to the governing authority?” As followers of Christ, it is necessary for us to be in subjection to earthly authorities, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:5). Several years ago, I tried to summarize what the Bible teaches concerning the Christian’s duty to the magistrate which you may read online here.

May we serve our God with a clear conscience as we seek to submit to those earthly authorities that He has appointed over us 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 22: Lawful Oaths and Vows

Dear Church Family,

George Orwell once wrote, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In the ninth commandment forbidding the bearing of false witness (Exodus 20:16). And, Jesus declared, “Let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:37). In a world where deceit and lying is commonplace, God desires that His people be revolutionary truth tellers, men and women of their word.

That’s what chapter 22 (“Of Lawful Oaths and Vows”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is all about. This is the chapter that we studied in our most recent adult Sunday school class. But, before we delve in, it’s helpful to have a basic definition of the difference between an oath and a vow. In our common vernacular, we don’t usually make a distinction between the two – at least as far as I’ve noticed in my own personal experience. However, according to the Westminster Divines, “In an oath man calls upon God to witness and to judge what he says or promises to men. In a vow man makes a solemn promise to God” (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 231). Simply put, an oath is promise which one makes to another person, and a vow is a promise which one makes to God.

WCF 22.1 – The definition of an oath

In keeping with the definition of an oath above, this paragraph of the confession defines an oath as a part of religious worship, wherein God is called to witness what a person promises to do. In example, the Apostle Paul called upon God as witness of his intention for not visiting the church in Corinth at a particular time (2 Corinthians 1:23).

WCF 22.2 – Oaths are to be taken in God’s name only

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had sought to differentiate between different levels of oaths. In their minds, some oaths were more binding than others. For instance, swearing by the temple was less binding than swearing by God’s name (Matthew 23:16-21). But, Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:22). In the Old Testament, the Bible clearly states, “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

WCF 22.3 – The seriousness of an oath

Oaths are serious matters; therefore, we ought to never swear ‘with our fingers crossed.’ That is, if we take an oath, we ought to willing and able to keep it; “you shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Therefore, like Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:2-9), when contemplating taking an oath in God’s name, we ought to thoroughly investigate the details of what we are promising in order to make sure that we are able to perform it.

WCF 22.4 – Honesty in oath-taking

‘Doublespeak’ is not to be employed as an excuse in oath-taking. As the confession puts it, “An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation (Psalm 24:4).

Also, even if an oath is made with unbelievers who have entered into a pact under false pretenses, for the believer who seeks to honor the Lord, it is still binding. This was the case for Joshua and the Israelites when they entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites (a city of the Amorites) pretended to be sojourners in the land, so without asking for the counsel of the LORD (9:14), Joshua and the elders of Israel made a covenant with them. It is not until 3 days later that they learn that the Gibeonites were actually their neighbors and living in the land (Joshua 9:1-17). Yet, the leaders of Israel maintained that Israel had to keep their end of the bargain because they had sworn to them “but he LORD, the God of Israel” (Joshua 9:18-20).


WCF 22.5 – Vows are similar to oaths

Vows – those promises made to God – are similar to oaths which are made to men. Thus, vows ought to be made with similar religious care and kept. In Preacher of Ecclesiastes warns of the serious nature of vows:

Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-5)

WCF 22.6 – The definition of a vow

Vows are to be made to God alone. And, they are to be made voluntarily, out of faith and a good conscience of one’s duty to God. Usually, vows are made for the purpose of giving thanks or for obtaining something which is desired. And, vows are often made when one is in deep distress as a plea for God to help (Psalm 66:13-14; Jonah 2:1-10).

WCF 22.7 – The definition of unlawful vows

Vows may not be made by a person to do anything sinful (forbidden in God’s Word) or that would contradict a life of faithfulness. By way of example of unlawful vows, the confession speaks of “Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience.” That is to say, a life of celibacy is a personal calling, not a prerequisite to ministry (Matthew 19:11-12). Likewise, a vow of poverty obligates a person to give up all claims to personal property and runs against the teaching of Scripture (Acts 5:3-4; Ephesians 4:28). Lastly, vows of regular obedience to a particular hierarchical structure or person, with no regard for liberty of conscience (see WCF 20.2), violates the principle of Scripture which teaches that we ought to obey men to whom we are subject, as long as that obedience does not conflict with our obedience to God (Acts 5:29; 1 Corinthians 7:23).


Today, we may not typically think about the difference between an oath (a promise to men) and vow (a promise to God); however, in the end, our commitment to honesty, truthfulness, and doing what we say will do ought to drive us to be revolutionary truth tellers in a world of universal deceit.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 21: Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day

Dear Church Family,

Years ago, I was having a conversation with a young woman about corporate worship. She was explaining the type of service and worship practices at church she had just visited. In the normal flow the conversation, I explained the worship practices of our Reformed and Presbyterian church. This eventually led to a discussion how a church makes decisions about how they worship. At some point, I mentioned the importance of following the rules of worship that God had given us in His Word, the rules of Christian worship.

You would have thought that I had just blasphemed or cursed her mother. “Rule?” she exclaimed, “There are no rules for Christian worship!” Sadly, if not so directly stated, this is the common thinking of many in the church today. It’s as if we’ve taken the motto of certain marketers (Burger King’s “Have it your way” or Outback Steakhouse’s “No rules. Just right.”) and made them a way of life.

In an effort to explain why we worship the way that we do at PPC, I’ve written a series of essay on the principles and elements of corporate worship; I’ve since put them together into downloadable booklet form which you can find here. In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.” Here is a brief overview of that chapter.

WCF 21.1 – The Regulative Principle of Worship

Right off the bat, this chapter explains that the light of nature (general revelation) shows us that there is a God who is to be worshipped (Romans 2:14-16); however, the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is revealed only in Scripture (special revelation). Thus, what has commonly been referred to as “the regulative principle of worship,” is summarized in these words: “He [God] may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in Holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1, Deuteronomy 12:32; Exodus 20:4-6; Matthew 15:7-9; Colossians 2:18-23).

That last phrase is key. God prescribes how He is to be worshipped. As God, it is His prerogative and He has given us instructions in His Word as to how He is to be worshipped. In contrast to this regulative principle of worship, the “normative principle of worship” says that God may be worshipped in any way not proscribed (or forbidden) in the Holy Scripture. That is, all is allowed unless it is expressly forbidden in God’s Word. For a fuller (yet still brief) explanation of the regulative principle of worship, I recommend this article by Derek Thomas.

WCF 21.2 – Worship is Trinitarian and through One Mediator

Only God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are to be worshipped. The worship of angels, saints, or other creatures is idolatry. And, there is only one mediator between God and men: Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

WCF 21.3 – Who to pray to, and how to pray

Prayer is a special part of worship (Philippians 4:6), and is to be made in the name of the Son (John 14:13), by the help of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26), and only according to God’s will (1 John 5:14).

WCF 21.4 – What to pray for

Prayer is not to made to God for those things that are unlawful. For instance, it is unlawful to pray for those who have died and thus already received judgment (2 Samuel 12:21-23; Hebrews 9:27).

WCF 21.5 – The ordinary and occasional elements of worship

In thinking about worship, it is helpful to differentiate and define certain terms:

In order to sharpen this principle and make it more perspicuous and useful, Reformed theologians speak about the substance of corporate worship (the content of its prescribed parts or elements), the elements of worship (its components or specific parts), the forms of worship (the way in which these elements of worship are carried out), and the circumstances of worship (incidental matters that of necessity demand a decision but that are not specifically commanded in the word). (Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, p 23, emphasis added)


Thus, the ordinary elements of worship (the components or specific parts of worship) are given to us in Scripture as follows: prayer (Philippians 4:6); the reading of Scriptures (Acts 15:21); preaching (2 Timothy 4:2); hearing the Word (Hebrews 4:2); singing Psalms – and we would include other songs in addition to those found explicitly in Scripture (Colossians 3:16); and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Acts 2:42).

In addition, the confession lists several elements of worship which are occasional: religious oaths and vows (Deuteronomy 6:13; Isaiah 19:21); fastings (Joel 2:12); and thanksgivings (Psalm 107).

WCF 21.6 – The Places of Worship

The Bible teaches that no place is more holy than any other place. Rather, God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth (John 4:19-26). That said, there are several proper contexts for the worship of God: amongst our individual families (Deuteronomy 6:6-7); individually and privately (Matthew 6:6; Ephesians 6:18); and publicly or corporately (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:23-25).

WCF 21.7 – The Lord’s Day

God has appointed one day in seven to be kept holy unto Him; this is explicitly commanded in the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). In the old covenant, this day was the last day of the week (Genesis 2:2-3). In the new covenant, as Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1) it was changed to the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1) and is called the Lord’s day (Revelation 1:10) or the Christian Sabbath.

WCF 21.8 – The Lord’s Day

On the Lord’s day, God requires that His day be kept holy by: due preparation, resting from worldly employments and recreations, private and public exercises of worship, and duties of necessity and mercy (Exodus 16:23-30; Isaiah 58:13-14). This Sabbath day is a God’s gift for mankind to remember His lordship of our lives. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).


Of course, from church to church and from culture to culture, the worship of God will look different. That is because the forms and the circumstances will out of necessity vary from place to place and from generation to generation. Yet, the elements of worship (along with the general substance) are prescribed for us by God in His Word. May the Lord bless His people as we seek to worship Him well.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 20: Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

Dear Church Family,

At the core of many of our moral questions concerning authority are two interrelated subjects: liberty and conscience. Moral questions like: To what authority must I ultimately submit? What is the proper role for church and civil authority in the Christian’s life? As a Christian, having been freed from the curse of the God’s Law, does that then mean that I have nothing to do with God’s Law anymore? What should I do if the laws and commands of earthly authorities conflict with Scripture? What about if they don’t conflict? Do I have to obey them?

Having considered the types and uses of God’s Law from chapter 19 in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the next chapter seeks to answer these questions. In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined these issues as they are explained in the next chapter: “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.” Here is a brief review and summary of that study.

WCF 20.1 – The Liberty which Christ has purchased for believers

In defining Christian liberty (the freedom which Christ has purchase for believers), the first paragraph of this chapter of the confession explains that these freedoms fall out in two categories:

(1) Common liberties for believers in the old and new covenant

First, there are those freedoms which Christ has purchased for all believers in all times, in both the old and new covenant. These freedoms include: freedom from the punishment of sin (Galatians 3:13), freedom from the power of sin (John 8:34-36), and freedom from the effects of sin (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Additionally, we have not only been freed from certain things, but we have also been freed for relationship and righteousness, free access to God and loving obedience (Romans 5:1-2; 6:17-18).

(2) Enlarged liberties for believers in the new covenant

Second, there are those freedoms which are peculiar to God’s people in the new covenant era – those which the church has enjoyed since Jesus’ first coming. These freedoms include: freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law (Galatians 5:1; Acts 15:10-11), greater boldness of access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16), and fuller communications of the free Spirit of God (John 7:38-39). In Jesus’ first coming and the advent of the new covenant, the increased freedoms required necessary adjustments for God’s people. As Chad Van Dixhoorn writes in Confessing the Faith, “Many conflicts in the New Testament were caused by men and women who were like freed prisoners who had only known life in jail and who could imagine no other.”

WCF 20.2 – The Liberating Effects of Christ’s Lordship

Even though believers are blessed to receive those freedoms purchased by Christ, it does not mean that they are freed from all authority. The Christian faith is not a religion of anarchy. Rather, God is Lord of the conscience. As we read in the New Testament, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor” (James 4:12). When the truth of God’s word came into conflict with the claims of religious earthly authorities, Peter and the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So, in matters of faith and worship, the believer’s conscience is free from those doctrines and commandments of men that are both contrary to God’s Word and beside (added to) God’s Word. Unfortunately, in conflict with God’s lordship over man’s conscience, man has often sought to create conflicting or additional rules and imposed them on others. But, even though these sorts of things may have the appearance of wisdom, they have no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23). We must always be careful, therefore, to steer clear of the danger of turning the traditions of man into commandments from God (Mark 7:6-8).

This portion of the confession also explains that “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” “Implicit faith” is a medieval and Roman Catholic doctrine that a Christian is required to believe whatever the (Roman Catholic) church believes; it is a requirement to implicitly obey the doctrines and commands of men. For protestants, our danger is in creating a ‘cult of personality’ or implicitly believing and following ‘celebrity pastors’ and spiritual gurus without biblical warrant or reason. Again, Chad Van Dixhoorn gives helpful warning and admonition, “…we have a tendency to rank the advice of men in the same league as the Word of God. It is knowledge of this sinful human tendency that makes the best shepherd wary of manipulating their sheep or lording their position over their people (2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Pet. 5).”

WCF 20.3 – The Limits of Christian Freedom

Jesus was not a revolutionary who declared, “Anything goes!” Christian freedom is not a license to sin. To this point, Paul is emphatic, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). And Peter warned of the same danger, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). In reality, Christian freedom means that believers now have the ability to serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness (Luke 1:73-75).

WCF 20.4 – The Lawfulness of Civil and Ecclesiastical Power

The last paragraph in this chapter reminds us that those Christian liberties which Christ has purchase for us to not stand in opposition of the lawful powers of both the church and the state (the civil magistrate). Even while living under the authority of government that gave license to sin and often persecuted the church, the writers of the New Testament exhorted Christians to submit to the governing authorities – to pay taxes and render custom, fear, and honor to those in civil authority (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-16).

Likewise, just as God has established the governing authorities of this world which bears the sword, He has also established lawful authority in church which wields the power of the keys of the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:17-19; 18:15-20). Indeed, the Scriptures command us to obey our leaders in the church and submit to them, for they will give an account for the souls that have been entrusted to their care; in so doing, they will serve with joy and God’s people will enjoy the blessings of peace and sanctification (Hebrews 13:17).


As those united to Christ by faith, it is right and proper for us to rejoice and bask in those liberties and freedoms which Christ has purchased for us. We have been freed from the curse of the Law and have received eternal life in Him. Yet, at the same time, we must remember not to turn our liberties into license to sin. God alone is Lord of the conscience. And, He has provided the gifts of earthly civil and church authorities for our good; therefore, we must seek to submit and obey them.

Finally, though we may have all sorts of freedoms and liberties in Christ, it is important to also remember the admonitions in the Scriptures to not allow these freedoms to become a stumbling block to our fellow believers (Romans 14:13-23). Because we have been set free to love, let us then learn to use our freedom to love one another, in fulfillment of God’s law (Romans 13:8).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch