The value of a confession has already touched on its proper use. It is used to promote and defend the truth of Scripture. More specifically in the local church it can be used to evaluate teachers and pastors as well as provide boundaries for ministry.
Churches use, for example, the LBC of 1689 to teach systematic theology. It can be a quick reference guide to defend the faith. It can be used for new member’s classes, family devotions and more. Many churches do not require new members to affirm this. It would be too much for new believers to understand. They have a shorter statement for that, desiring them to know what they are signing. The church wants to keep out enemies, not the weak. They use the confession for elders and deacons and those involved in teaching in the church. This provides greater unity amongst those teaching, something for the immature to work toward, and a set standard to evaluate ministries, and ministers supported by the church. If you want to teach here, or get money from us, we need to know what you believe. There is freedom of use.
The confession is not an end all. It does not solve all problems or mean the church can check out because it has a confession. It is meant to be an aid to the church and her members. This is to be a public confession as indicated in the Scriptures (Matt 10:32–33; Rom 10:9–10).
Some have written as many as nine different levels of subscription. This seems much too complicated. Whatever the subscription level, unending exceptions makes it meaningless, but not allowing any exceptions is unreasonable. Discernment is required. An exemption on matters of orthodoxy, for example the Trinity, should not be allowed, but perhaps on the order of church government, an exemption might be permitted. The individual taking the exemption needs to be willing to submit to the church on that issue and not make issue about it or stir up descent or cause disunity. He may be asked not to teach about the topic. Some doctrines in the confession are essential for salvation and others are for the health of the church. They are not all of the same importance.
There are objections or dangers to confessions. Three are common.
1) The main objection is that Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture. The LBC of 1689 explicitly and at the beginning denies this, giving an excellent statement as to the authority of Scripture. The problem here is the attitude given to the confession. The Roman Catholics give the claim of infallibility to several creeds and some orthodox may be guilty of some sort of hyper-confessionalism as well. This seems to be rather rare in church history and less of a problem with Protestants. This hyper-confessionalism actually goes against the confession! The Confession never trumps Scripture, it is normed by Scripture. Some think that if you quote the confession more than Scripture you are guilty of this as well. One wonders who is counting, but if every time a pastor is asked a question he quotes a confession and not Scripture there may be a problem in his own mind.
2) The sufficiency of Scripture is undermined. 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 say we have everything we need. Again the confession affirms the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is not sufficient for every task. If your pastor only read the Bible and never explained anything, you would complain he is not doing his job and you would be right. If you only allowed the pastor to preach using biblical words, his vocabulary would be very limited in trying to communicate. Explaining doctrine in extra biblical words does not deny the sufficiency of Scripture.
3) Confessions take away liberty of conscience. This goes back to the proper use of a confession. They are not meant to be strait jackets. Over one hundred ministers wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Rest assured they did not agree on every jot and tittle of doctrine and they made room for themselves within the confession. There is places where we can disagree with each other and both still be confessional and there are places where exemptions can be considered. A problem with the confession though may reveal a problem in one’s own heart or mind.
Other potential problems with a confession are along the same lines. Like all things in life a confession can be misused. These potentials for misuse are not the fault of the confession, but of sinful and imperfect humans. These dangers do not out way the benefits nor does it negate the biblical evidence and necessity of having a confession.
A church in having a historic confession has a great commonality within the immediate body and with believers all over the world past and present. Confessions are a useful tool for the church in training up its members and defending the faith once for all handed down. Confessions are biblical and necessary. May our churches be full of and training up theological contenders who are passionate about what they confess. May the church have a tradition that is normed by Scripture.
If confessions are so biblical and valuable, why have confessions gone away? A couple of ideas to mention would be:
1) With the rise of rationalism and skepticism the Bible itself has been down played. If the Bible isn’t the Word of God than I certainly don’t need a confession about it.
Last time we looked at the biblical basis and now we will look at the historical use.
What is a confession of faith? Is it not the same as our church’s doctrinal statement? Why do we need one? Even if we have a confession, how do we use it and does it not present some dangers? These are somewhat common and good questions when some are learning of historical confessions of faith for the first time.
A creed or a confession is a restatement of biblical truth. It explains what Scripture says. To confess means to agree with. A confession is as an agreed upon understanding of the Christian faith. Confessions seek to answer basic core doctrines. If we do not know who God is we are committing idolatry. A confession states clearly and concisely who God is.
This paper will show primarily the biblical basis for a confession. An example of how a confession was used will show great value to having a historic confession of faith. Proper use, subscription, and dangers will be briefly addressed.
The biggest ill use of Scripture (in my limited perspective) is by far and above legalism. This may well be the biggest danger to our churches. It is a failure to understand the right use of the law. The gospel is distorted and we often do not even notice! This happens when our sermons are all “do this” and there is no mention of what Christ has “done”. This happens when the gospel is relegated to the end of the sermon every week when every head is bowed and eye closed. This happens when we forget that we as believers need the gospel to. There is a misuse of the law and a mismanagement of the gospel!
There are some more ways we mishandle Scripture. Sometimes looking at the negative helps to make the positive more clear. These are generalizations as we are not taking time to look in depth at each of these categories.
Elevating one portion of Scripture above another mishandles Scripture. One example of this is those that teach repentance is not a necessary response to the gospel along with faith. They take the gospel according to John and say that since John wrote so that we may believe (20:31) and John does not use the Greek word for repentance, therefore repentance is not a necessary response to our sin. They elevate the gospel of John above the rest of Scripture. Other passages do speak about repentance and just because one particular word is missing does not mean the idea is not present. They do not handle well the Word of God.
We live in a time of unparalleled resources and yet we seem to know less. Here are some places that may be helpful for you.
Scripture is a story. We are beginning to see the story. God created everything good. Adam and Eve then made a bad mistake. We call this the fall. They were kicked out of the Garden and life got much harder. The bulk of Scripture is then the story of redemption. How is God going to restore us to a right relationship with Him? When will the promise of Genesis 3:15 come true? Of course it comes true in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. He came to earth, rightly handled the Word of God, satisfied the just wrath of God, put an end to death and crushed the head of the Snake.
In Numbers 21 after the LORD gives them victory over their enemies the people of Israel become impatient and complain. We read:
5 The people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." 6 The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Num. 21:5-9 NAU).
Here is Introduction: Mishandling Snakes and Scripture Part 1.
The pastor that got bit by the snake in the story last post lived, but the doctors said it was almost too late. He is a fourth generation snake handling pastor. His dad died four years earlier when he got bit on the hand. It only took ten minutes. You would think this would have caused him to doubt this supposed promise of God. He would either doubt God or reinterpret the text! He did neither. Now that it has happened to him, he is reportedly reevaluating his life.