5 Important Theological Pairs

One of the many wonderful things about the Westminster Shorter Catechism is that it includes several extremely important theological pairs (i.e. joint categories) in the opening questions that help us robustly systematize the biblical truth concerning our relationship to God, God's work in the world, the nature and effects of man's sin and the saving work of the Redeemer. Much of the disagreement in theological matters, in our day, comes from only holding to one of the two truths set out in each of these pairs. As we labor to spiritually grasp both aspects of these pairs we will find that we become better equipped to spot theological error, defend the truth and to minister more effectively to others with theological precision and care. Consider the following:

1. Glorifying and Satisfied - The well-known opening words of the Shorter Catechism give us much upon which to meditate regarding theological pairs. There, we read, "man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." It is, imperative that, above all that we seek to learn intellectually and experientially, we write the first part of this answer indelibly into our minds and hearts. Fallen man is constantly laboring to suppress the truth by steal glory from the infinite, incorruptible, immortal, invisible and all wise God and giving it to created persons or things (Rom. 1:18ff.). The Apostle Paul sums up this all-important aspect of man's chief end when he writes in Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?' 'Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?' For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

John Piper explains some of what the Apostle Paul was getting at in Romans 11, when he writes:

[Paul] expresses a joyful consent to God’s excellent design in all to glorify himself, in saying, “to him be glory for ever;” as much as to say, as all things are so wonderfully ordered for his glory, so let him have the glory of all for evermore.

While the first part of the first answer of the Shorter Catechism is arguably the most important, some have (perhaps by way of unintentional negligence) emphasized the first truth in this pair without placing due emphasis upon the latter. You have probably heard it in the form of a passing spiritual comment such as, "The only thing that matters is that God gets glory." If by this, what is being said is that men are not to get any of the glory for their works, then I agree. However, some times, this sort of comment is made in the larger context of statements condemning a fixation on the personal benefits derived from the Gospel. A dichotomizing of man’s chief end to bring God glory and to be satisfied in Him is inaccurate and ultimately spiritually harmful. Doing such tends to fuel a sort of austere and cold orthodoxy—a stoical Christianity. Rather, the Westminster Divines (the 119 Puritans who were masters of Divinity, not Deities!) understood that these two truths need to be bound inseparably together. Thomas Vincent, one of the members of the Assembly, explained this in his commentary on the Shorter Catechism when he wrote:

God has inseparably joined them together, so that men cannot truly design and seek the one without the other; they which enjoy God most in his house on earth do most glorify and enjoy him. Psalm 86:4, "Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, they will be still praising You." And when God shall be most fully enjoyed by the saints in heaven, He shall be most highly glorified. 2 Thess. 1:10, He shall come to be glorified in his saints.

God wants His people to find deep and lasting satisfaction in Him. Jesus offered the Gospel and all of its benefits to the woman at the well and at the Feast of Tabernacles under the figure of “living water” and said that the One who asked Him for this water (i.e. for the Holy Spirit) would “never thirst again.” This is a crucial part of the end for which we were created. 

2. Creation and Providence – When we come to consider the answer to Shorter Catechism Q. 8 concerning the way in which God's sovereign purposes work from eternity into time, we learn that "God executes His decrees in the works of creation and providence." This means that everything in the universe is ordered and governed by God. There is nothing that exists that He did not call into being and there is nothing that happens that He does not sovereignly superintend. In the words of R.C. Sproul:

If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.

The doctrine of creation has been foremost in the sights of the enemy for the past 150 years in the Western world. This is understandable. If creation is the beginning of God's working out His eternal decree, then it is a supremely important doctrine. The doctrine of creation is supremely important because it is taught clearly in the Scriptures and God is the great subject and object of it (Psalm 19:1-2; Rom. 11:36). Evolution is a great theory…with which to suppress the truth.

While many evangelical Christians embrace the doctrine of creation—in some form or fashion—many of them still fall off into the ditch of rejecting God’s sovereignty in all of His works of providence. To embrace the former and reject the latter makes you susceptible to embrace a functional Deism, Dualism, Open-Theism and/or Semi-Pelagianism. We cannot simply affirm God’s sovereignty over creation, we must also acknowledge that He is sovereign over “all His creatures and all their actions” (WSC Q. 11).

3. Guilt and Corruption - When the members of the Westminster Assembly came to deal with the nature of sin, they did so in very specific ways (see Shorter Catechism Q.s 41-84). However, when the Divines speaks of what all men inherited by virtue of their being in representative union with Adam, they distill the nature of sin down to two things—namely, "the guilt of Adam's first sin...and the corruption of his whole nature" (Q. 18). It is vital for us to get both of these things. To deny the former is to embrace a pagan "blank slate" philosophy. After all, there are not innocent people. We are all born guilty in Adam. The Psalmist declared, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born speaking lies" (Ps. 58:3). He took this truth and applied it to himself personally when he wrote, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity" (Ps. 51:5). 

Yet, there is another danger we face when we embrace only one of these two truths. To merely affirm the former truth of this pair—without placing due emphasis on the latter--can lead to a “justification-only” soteriology. In His death on the cross, Jesus takes the guilt of our sin (for our justification) and breaks the power of our sin, thereby cleansing us from our corruption of our sin nature (for our sanctification).

Then there is the danger of holding to the latter while minizing or rejecting the former. If we only focus on the corruption of our sin being dealt with in the Gospel, we will be in danger of either falling into a hyper-introspective, legally driven pietism (that inevitably encourages man to pursue holiness apart from knowing that the guilt of his sin has been dealt with—once-and-for-all—at the cross), or into something akin to a Roman Catholic doctrine of justification (slipping Spirit-wrought good works into our standing before God). 

4. Sin and Misery - It is vital that we come to understand all that Adam brought into the world by way of his disobedience. Adam not only brought the guilt and corruption of sin--passing it on by imputation to all those who were federally represented by him--he also brought all of the accompanying misery into the world. The Shorter Catechism explains that the “fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.” These two truths must constantly be held together as we seek to understand ourselves, those around us and the world in which we live.

When we only fixate on one or the other of these two evils we will fall off of the theological and pastoral bandwagon. Those who only fixate on sin tend to be harsh, heavy-handed and lack compassion. Those who fixate only on misery tend to lack a sense of justice, to minimize the consequences of sin and fail to emphasize the need for repentance. The picking and choosing of one of these two truths over against the other is seen in the counseling movement. On the one hand, we have those who tend toward a more biblical or nuethetic approach—which rightly tends to focus on sin (nature, not nurture)—while on the other hand, we have more of an integrationist approach—which rightly tends to focus on experiences and environment (nurture, not nature). We need to labor to hold the truth of sin and misery together in analyzing our own lives and the lives of those around us—especially those whom we are seeking to help.

5. Humiliation and Exaltation – One final theological pair rises to the forefront in the Shorter Catechism—namely, that of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. When the Divines ask the question about the nature of the saving work of Christ in His office as Prophet, Priest and King, they explain:

Christ, as our redeemer, executes the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.

The two natures of Christ are, of course, explained by way of humiliation (his human nature) and exaltation (his divine nature). However, here the Divines are speaking of the two stages of Christ’s existence as the Redeemer. He existed in His earthly ministry as God’s Prophet, Priest and King in a state of humiliation. This includes “his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” But, He now exists in a state of exaltation, which includes “his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven, in sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and in coming to judge the world at the last day.”

Some Christians so emphasize the earthly ministry of Jesus that they, inadvertently, lead you to believe that He is still on the cross. They rightly speak of His work as the Savior in His humiliation, while failing to emphasize His ongoing work as the Savior in His state of exaltation. Others, however, will speak of everything from Christ’s resurrection to His coming again to consummate all things while rarely speaking of the central part of His redeeming work in His death on the cross.

A proper understanding of this theological pair helps us keep our eyes on the whole Christ in both His estate of humiliation and exaltation. It allows us to see that “He is altogether lovely” in both of these states as our Prophet, Priest and King.

While there are other theological pairs in the Shorter Catechism, these suffice to show us the richness of the truth of Scripture. As we come to embrace these truths—both intellectually and experientially—we will find that they will serve to deepen our love for Christ, our gratitude to Him for His saving and preserving work and to equip us to minister more effectively and carefully to those around us. May God give us grace to firmly take hold of the truths contained in these pairs! 

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.