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.
Scripture shows the need and benefit of creeds and confessions. Creedal statements are found in Scripture, shown to be beneficial, and even demanded to be passed on to the next generation. There are many Scripture passages that could be addressed; the following will be a sampling.
And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, 'What is this?' then you shall say to him, 'With a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 'It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.'
This is talking about Passover. There is a biblical mandate to tradition and to pass it down. It is also an affirmation of personal faith.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.
This is Israel’s doctrinal Magna Carta, their chief confession. It is to reflect the heart and is not merely intellectual.
1 Timothy 1:15
There are five Trustworthy sayings that are repetition or a reiteration of something about Christ or Scripture, similar to Deuteronomy 6, in the NT.
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.
This is a faithful restatement, not a quote. Homer Kent translates the phrase as “faithful is the word.” He goes on to say the formula ‘faithful is the word,’ occurs five times in the New Testament, all of them in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 1:55; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim 2:11; Tit 3:8). A similar expression, ‘these words are faithful and true,’ occurs twice (Rev 21:5; 22:6). Apparently during the latter half of the first century, this formula was quite generally used to emphasize important truths. Here the reference almost certainly is to the statement of Jesus, uttered on several occasions (cf Mt 9:13; Lk 19:10). Such truths as these probably were often repeated in the Christian assemblies, and were thus well known.
Likewise another commentator says “In the present context, he seems to be citing, in rhythmical form, a statement current in the churches and acknowledged as a ‘sure word.’” MacArthur agrees saying
These statements were familiar, recognized summaries of key doctrines. That they were common in the church by the time of the writing of the Pastoral Epistles indicates that a well-articulated theology had developed. Paul indeed quotes them as if they were common knowledge.
In another place he recognizes this may have been part of an early creed. Hiebert recognizes it as a way to “introduce the quotation of some pity utterance of evangelical truth current in Christian circles” and further that it is a summary of the essence of the Christian message. It is in effect a condensed summary of the gospel.
2 Timothy 2:11–15
It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
This statement is understood to come from Matthew 10 and Romans 6:8. Again Paul is giving a quick summary of major doctrine.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.
Guthrie thinks this is a Christian hymn. Many believe this is a creedal formula in a baptismal setting. Confession and piety are brought together over a wide range of subjects.
1 Timothy 3:16
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.
To say the same thing, everyone agrees on this truth. It was probably an early hymn or early creedal confession that summarizes the gospel in six stanzas. Hiebert says it is “the content of the truth which the church upholds, supports, and confesses”…and is “generally regarded as a quotation from a Christian hymn.”
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
They are to cling to, hold firm and are not let go of this confession. The confession is connected to Jesus having the title ‘the Son of God’
As a specific formulation of faith, apparently it had been accepted and openly acknowledged by the community. Now they are urged to remain committed to Jesus, holding fast to their public confession of him as the majestic divine Son.
In Hebrews 10:23 the same commentator notes this is probably not related to a baptismal confession as some think and ‘confession’ “is probably not a technical term for an objective, traditional confession of faith (as in Heb 4:14), but a more general profession of the hope that is set before us (see Heb 6:18).” Holding fast to our confidence and holding fast to our confession seem to be closely related.
1 John 4:2, 3, 15
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world… Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
“Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh” would be a confession Cerinthus, an early docetist, and his disciples could not express. It would quickly draw out the heretics. Cross referencing to 1 John 2:18–23 shows clearly that if we do not have the Son we do not have the Spirit or the Father, instead they are antichrists. Verse 15 does not seem to refer to a present or ongoing confession, but to a single decisive public confession.
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
There is an objective message to protect and hand down (cf 2 Tm 1:13–14; 1 Tm 6:19–20). It was received, not discarded. This looks back and forward. As many have recognized, we cannot hand down what we do not own. It is the living faith of dead people.
Our confession should not just be about “shibboleths”, but should also have heart felt vigor, inflamed to contend for what we confess. As Charles Briggs writes “Jude’s language about the Faith is highly dogmatic, highly orthodox, highly zealous…Men who used such phrases believed passionately in a creed.” This was not dead orthodoxy for Jude, it was lively, and he is full of passion about what he believes. Theological pacifism is not an option for Jude. There is an objective body of Christian truth that must be defended. To accept a false gospel is to be accursed (Gal 1:9). Jude does not tell us exactly what this body of truth is. There is clearly implied substantive teaching that had been given to the church. It nourishes and if rejected they are starved.
Paradidonai, ‘to entrust’, is the word used for handing down authorized tradition in Israel (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1–3; 2 Thess. 3:6), and Jude is therefore saying that the Christian apostolic tradition is normative for the people of God. Apostolic teaching, not whatever is the current theological fashion, is the hallmark of authentic Christianity. The once-for-allness of the apostolic ‘faith’ is inescapably bound up with the particularity of the incarnation, in which God spoke to men through Jesus once and for all. And simply because Christianity is a historical religion, the witness of the original hearers and their circle, the apostles, is determinative of what we can know about Jesus. We cannot get behind the New Testament teaching, nor can we get beyond it, though we must interpret it to each successive generation. Jude would agree with 2 John 9–10 that the man whose doctrine outruns the New Testament witness is to be rejected. The test of progress is, for him, faithfulness to the apostolic teaching about Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:13–14).
It seems clear from these many examples that the truth of Scripture is often expressed in a creedal form. Why would we not continue the pattern of the biblical writers? Expressing the truth of God’s Word in summary form is obviously legitimate and helpful. More so, faithfulness demands it, as does Scripture itself. It is no surprise that after the canon was completed creeds were written as errors came forth, and the creeds grew into confessions. The early church had summary statements that were to be protected, promoted and passed on, and so should we.
Jay Wipf is a former student of Coalt Robinson and attended Grace University where he earned his degree in Christian Education. Jay is currently studying at Reformed Baptist Seminary in the comfort of his home in Huron, SD. By grace and at Grace he met his beautiful wife Rachel, and they now have three young children. Jay and his family live in Huron where he works in facilities at a local credit union and serves within the local church.
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