Although the term “Presbyterian” refers to the system of church government adopted by these churches, the essence of Presbyterianism, which is one of the two church traditions stemming from Calvin’s Geneva reformation, is the belief in the sovereign, independent, triune God who has entered into a covenant to save a people for his own glory.
Presbyterian theology is a comprehensive system of doctrine, which is rooted in the Westminster Standards. Presbyterian churches share much doctrine in common with other true churches: God as the independent, triune God who made the heavens and earth; the Bible as the infallible word of God; all people as sinners; justification not by works, but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; the second coming of Christ in glory; the final judgment to glory or damnation. Presbyterians also hold to doctrines that are shared with other traditions stemming from the Reformation: the absolute sovereignty of God in election; the duty of the Christian to live a life of piety in accordance with God’s moral law, including the Ten Commandments; participation in the two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; the theological existence of both the invisible and visible church. The distinguishing mark of Presbyterian churches, however, is the system of church government that these chuches have adopted, with the elders of individual churches belonging to a Presbytery, and multiple Presbyteries belonging to a General Assembly.
When most people hear the term “Presbyterian,” they immediately think, “Those are the people who believe in predestination.” Although that definition is true, it is grossly inadequate. Technically, the name refers to the form of government under which Presbyterian churches are organized. In this sense, the name defines us in contrast to Congregationalists, Independents, and Episcopalians (as we will see below).
However, the essence of Presbyterianism is belief in the sovereign, independent, triune God who has entered into a covenant to save a people for his own glory. Presbyterianism is one of two great streams that have flowed out of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva. The Continental (Dutch and German) stream that developed in Germany and the Netherlands has the same type of government and doctrinal commitment, defined by the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.
The Presbyterian stream developed in Scotland and its doctrinal standards are the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Although there are different emphases in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards, essentially, they embody the same doctrinal commitment.
Hence, for the sake of being concise, I will define Presbyterianism through the lens of the Westminster Standards. The goal of Presbyterianism is the glory of God (1 Cor. 1:31). The Westminster Confession begins with the formal principle of Presbyterianism: the inspired, infallible word of God, which is to be the Christian’s only rule of faith and practice (2Tim 3:16, 17). The Larger Catechism (Q&A 5) gives the two-fold division of the Westminster Standards: what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. Closely connected to our high view of the Bible is a commitment to preaching as the primary means used by God for gathering and sanctifying his people.
What Presbyterians Believe about God
The Confession teaches three things about God: what God is, the persons in the Godhead, his decrees and the execution of his decrees (LC6). The holy, triune God is independent and sovereign. He has foreordained all that comes to pass (Ps. 33:11). Here is where the doctrines of election and of reprobation are introduced. Having decreed the fall, God eternally chose in Christ Jesus all those whom he would save and eternally determined to leave the rest in their sinful state and condemn them to hell for their sins (Eph. 1:4–6; 1 Pet 2:8). He chose to deal with men in this way for the sake of his own glory (Rom 11:33–36).
Historically, Presbyterians have believed that God created all things by the word of his power in the space of six days and that he governs and preserves all things by his holy providence (Gen. 1; Heb. 11:3). God’s special acts of providence deal with redemption, the great theme of the Bible.
What Presbyterians Believe about Covenant Theology
The Confession works out this theology of redemption through a robust commitment to Covenant Theology, the system that teaches that God has always dealt with mankind by way of a covenant head (Rom. 5:1–14; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). The first covenant was with Adam in the garden of Eden, called the covenant of works or life. In this covenant, Adam represented the human race; if he had kept the probationary commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would have attained eternal life for himself and all those descending from him by ordinary generation. In violating the covenant probation, he and all those descending from him by ordinary generation would die not only physically but spiritually, and be under God’s wrath and condemnation. The reality of this fall is the doctrine of total depravity: all of Adam’s descendants are born dead in their sins and trespasses, hate God, and are unwilling and unable to come to him (Rom. 8:5–8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1–3).
When Adam broke that covenant, God administered the second covenant, the covenant of grace. The second-covenant head is the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate who was born of a virgin and, as the God-man, he obeyed the law of God perfectly and then offered his perfect life for the redemption of all those chosen in him (1 Tim. 3:16; Ps. 40:6–8; Rev. 5:9, 11).
Because all people are dead in sin and unwilling to repent and believe, God sovereignly, through the work of the Holy Spirit, effectually calls his people to himself (John 3:1–8; 6:44). All who are called will most assuredly repent and trust in Christ. Repentance is a wholehearted turning from sin to the Lord Jesus Christ (Zech. 12:10; Ps. 119:5–6, 59, 128; 2 Kgs. 23:25). Faith entails the understanding and assenting to the basic facts revealed in the Bible about God, man, Christ, and salvation, and then resting on Christ alone for justification (John 1:12; Rom. 3:21–26).
Those who embrace Christ as he is offered in the gospel are justified: their sins are forgiven, and they are legally constituted righteous in God’s sight (Rom. 4:6–8). Justification is received only through faith; a sinner contributes nothing to his acceptance with God. God adopts those whom he justifies, bringing them into his family and granting them all the rights and privileges of the children of God (Gal. 4:4–7; Rom. 8:16–17). Furthermore, God sanctifies all who come to Christ so that, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, they are enabled to die to sin and grow in conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 6:4–6; Heb. 12:14; 2 Thess. 2:13).
Because salvation is a work of sovereign grace, all those whom God chose, Christ redeemed, and the Spirit converts will never lose their salvation. Rather, by the grace of God, they will endure and persevere to the end. Therefore, it is possible for Christians to have full assurance of their salvation, although not all possess it equally at all times (2 Tim. 2:19; 1:8–12).
What Presbyterians Believe about the Duty of Man
Presbyterianism, however, is not only a system of doctrine focusing on God’s sovereignty in the salvation of his people, but also a system that embraces a piety. So, as noted above, the second main part of what Scripture teaches is what duty man owes God.
The revelation of this duty is summarized in God’s moral law, recorded in the Ten Commandments. We believe that the Ten Commandments, God’s Law, have three main purposes: to show people their need of the Savior; to function as a restraint in society; and to direct the believer in his behavior. Hence they continue to be God’s will for the behavior of his people (John 14:15; Matt. 22:34–40).
Because of this high view of God and the law, we believe that God has left men’s consciences free from the tyranny of men and that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Therefore, we are directed by God’s law and not man-made traditions.
Through his law, God directs all of life and particularly our worship of him. Hence we believe that we are only to offer to God in worship that which he has revealed either directly in his word or by good and necessary consequence or inference (Exod. 20:4–6; Matt. 15:8–9). This commitment is called the Regulative Principle of worship. The elements of worship are reading and preaching the word, prayer, singing, the sacraments, the offering, and the occasional use of vows and days of fasting and thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2; Matt. 6:8–13; Ps. 98:1; Matt. 28:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; 16:1–4; Matt. 6:16–18; Ps. 107; Esth. 9:22). We are also committed to keeping the sabbath day holy, devoting the day to God’s public and private worship, and to deeds of necessity and mercy (Exod. 20:8–11; Isa. 58:13–14; Rev. 1:10).
What Presbyterians Believe about the Church
An important doctrine in the Presbyterian view of piety is the doctrine of the church. We believe that the church may be seen in two aspects: the invisible church and the visible church (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 1:2; 12:12–13). These are not two different churches, but two ways of looking at the church. The church invisible refers to the church as all the elect chosen in Christ: his body and bride. The church visible is the public manifestation of the church made evident in particular congregations and denominations. The visible church consists of professors and their children, and states that all who profess Christ have an obligation to be members of a particular congregation. Not all members of the visible church are converted and only at the end of the age will the two meld into one.
Our churches are governed by elders, elected by the congregation. Multiple congregations are part of a Presbytery and most often Presbyteries are part of a larger structure called a Synod or General Assembly (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 4:14). The elders exercise spiritual care for the members of the church and, when necessary, will exercise church discipline, ultimately removing from the membership of the church those who persist in sinful doctrines or practices (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1–4; Matt. 18:15–18; 1 Cor. 5:13). Our churches also have deacons, men who are ordained to minister to the material needs of the congregation.
The visible church, however, is also universal. Any congregation or denomination that manifests the marks of the church—the true preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and proper church discipline—is a true church (Matt. 28:19–20; Rev. 2–3). As Presbyterians, we follow Paul’s instruction that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and so accept the baptism of anyone baptized in a true church. We confess our distinctive doctrines in humility and recognize that we hold many doctrines in common with all true churches: that the Bible is the infallible word of God; God is the independent, triune God who made the heavens and earth; that all people are sinners; and that justification is not by works, but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We also are united in believing the personal, visible return of the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal bliss of Christians in heaven, and the eternal damnation of the wicked.
We believe that there are two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26). Both are signs and seals of the benefits of the covenant of grace. As such, Christ, through the Holy Spirit, communicates strength and grace to all who are in Christ by conversion.
What Presbyterians Believe about Last Things
We believe that the souls of believers who die go immediately to be with the Lord while their bodies rest in the grave awaiting the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1–5; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; Matt. 7:21). The souls of unbelievers are cast into hell (Matt. 7:22–23). At the return of Christ, the dead will be raised, those believers who are alive will meet the Lord, and there will a judgment of wicked angels and men, and of the righteous. The righteous will then be with the triune God in fully glorified bodies and souls on the new earth. The wicked will be cast into hell to suffer eternal punishment (1 Cor. 15:42–44; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; John 5:28–29).
Historical Overview of Presbyterianism
- James Edward McGoldrick, et al., Presbyterian and Reformed Churches: A Global History
Doctrines of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms
- Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith
- G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes
- Johannes Geerhardus Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary
- Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith
God’s Glory in Presbyterianism
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.