Confessing the Faith: The Place of Confessions in Church Life
“We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Our young church recites these words from the Nicene Creed when we gather in Vienna, Austria. For many evangelicals, such ancient traditions may seem either obvious or archaic, but our church recites creeds, confessions, and catechisms (henceforth just confessions) nearly every Lord’s Day.
So in 2021, in a largely unchurched and post-Christian European country, why make confessions a regular rhythm in church life?
Most of us have heard a few different takes on what the “regulative principle” means. As a church, we are convinced that the elements of corporate worship are regulated by Scripture. At the same time, we also see a tremendous freedom regarding the forms that those elements take. Generally, our worship services follow the same pattern week after week: we exalt the triune God, recognize our need of a Savior, celebrate God’s provision in Christ, and, finally, consider his instructions for our new life in Him. We use confessions, themselves brief summaries of Scripture, as components of any one of these sections.
When we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” we are also saying that about our church. Our church is holy—set apart from the world. It is catholic—part of the larger, universal church. And it is apostolic—in line with the teaching of the apostles. By our use of confessions, we seek to shape the thinking of our people, and thereby we pray that these historic confessions become a part of our congregation's confession. We would even go so far as to say that integrating confessions of faith into the lives of churches in Europe and beyond helps preserve the holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of these congregations.
A HOLY CHURCH—SET APART FROM THE WORLD
When evangelicals hear holiness, we tend to think of progressive sanctification. But holiness is also a distinctive characteristic of the church. The church is unlike the world; it’s set apart. That’s true both universally and locally.
Devoted to God in a Time of Godlessness
Christians are a strange people in an even stranger place. The Lord has called us out of this world, away from the worship of idols, to be his holy people (1 Peter 1:13–21; 1.Thess 1:9–10).
Here in Europe, Christian principles and virtues are no longer the norm; rather, they are viewed as an aberration. According to our wider culture, believing that a man rose from the dead is the height of idiocy, worshipping a triune God is a contradiction, and acknowledging that we live in a created world is wishful thinking. All the more reason to confess the reality of these things each Lord’s Day! Confessions serve as expressions of Christianity throughout space and time that testify to the normalcy of being non-normal.
Therefore, when we engage in corporate worship of our Covenant Lord, we testify to him that we are siding with his truth rather than succumbing to the world’s temptation. While the world certainly beholds our testimony with some disgust, it also views it with some degree of fascination.
Certain in the Midst of Deception
Uncle Screwtape, that despicable archdemon, wrote to his protégé, “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” Due to our lust for man’s praise, human beings put on masks to suit their environment, and eventually we can no longer tell the difference between the mask and our face. The world tempts us in many ways, but peer pressure is a giant among worldly wiles.
So how better to combat the world’s normalization of evil in our hearts than by confessing our fundamental truths together? When our members go out into the world, they are being catechized to think that they will live forever, and the dead have no remorse. However, when we stand in a crowd of 10, 20, 50, or 500 people who all say, “[Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead,” we participate in an overwhelming testimony to the contrary. We aren’t quite “faking it until we make it”; rather, we’re testifying to the truth so that we unify in it.
United Together in the Face of Disunity
In the world, people are divided over opinions and sentiments about various topics such as COVID-19 and politics, but we have pledged in our church covenant to strive to maintain unity. By confessing our faith with one voice each Lord’s Day, we make this unity palpable. The confession of central truths of the Christian faith reminds us of our uniqueness as the Lord’s kingdom of priests in the midst of a predominantly anti-Christian society.
We mark the difference with those that are outside of the church, and by the same token we show charity and unity on the inside. However, this raises the question: Can we also be “one” with a Christian who is outside of our local church?
A CATHOLIC CHURCH—UNITED WITH GOD’S PEOPLE
Confessions also instruct our members in catholicity, that is, our oneness with the whole Bride of Christ.
The term, “catholic church” (ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία), is first recorded in the works of Ignatius of Antioch in about 107 AD. Since then, two millennia of Christian history have seen the term fall out of favor. We tend to distinguish ourselves from Roman Catholicism as Protestants by preferring the term “universal,” but this compromise is somewhat lamentable. “Catholic” in its historic usage does mean universal, but it also conveys a sense of wholeness, of togetherness.
Even in those cases where we disagree on important matters, there is a sense in which we still have unity with those who do not share our entire confessional identity. Soteriologically, we are united in Christ across all time and space with the entire host of the redeemed.
Committed to Humility
Our regular confession of the fundamentals of the faith is partly an endeavor to humble ourselves. In a global city like Vienna, we aren’t usually the first true church that one of our new members has encountered. We’re also not the only church plant in town. We know the other pastors and church planters, and we might have sincere disagreements with them. But we regularly pray for their success. Indeed, we confess our unity with them in the gospel, that is, for instance, expressed in the Apostle’s Creed.
So much of church life would be easier if we believed that we were the only true church in existence. We would never have to ask someone about their baptism, because all baptisms would be invalid unless they were performed by us. We would not have to discern other churches because they would all be false churches. Churches and church plants, especially in post-Christian settings, must recognize that we are entering into the labors of those who came before us. If the Lord buried Moses, then his purposes are bigger than just one man or just one church.
Rooted in History
As part of the catholic Church, we also have the benefit of 2,000 years of church history to inform our doctrine. Fortunately, many of the fruits of that history are expressed in confessions. Lest we succumb to the errors of the past, we need to catechize our churches in the hard-fought battles of the catholic church so that we can defend the gospel (Gal 1:8–9). Simply put, churches do not educate their people well, when they leave their members vulnerable to the dangers of ancient, repackaged heresies.
In one sense, confessions simply distill the wisdom of Spirit-indwelled Bible interpreters such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, the Westminster Divines, Andrew Fuller, John Broadus, and countless more. While a twenty-first century credobaptist might find points of disagreement with each of these men, together with them we confess biblical truths that have stood the test of time.
The use of historic confessions also builds our credibility as a Christian witness in our culture. As a young church plant in Vienna, we enjoy tremendous freedoms that our worldwide brothers and sisters in Christ may not have. At the same time, we find ourselves in a setting that does not have the same degree of religious freedom and separation of church and state as in other parts of the world. For instance, cults and sects are actually illegal in Austria, and this reflects a broader cultural antagonism against religious innovation. Free churches—not part of the state church system—were only recently recognized as religious entities (2013), but the broader Austrian population often still views these religious fellowships either as innovative or cultish. But can that really be said of a church whose faith goes back to a confession from the 17th century? This is a prime reason that our church plant currently uses and publicly confesses the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.
Encouraged by the Communion of Saints
When we gather each Lord’s Day here in Vienna, we may be a small crowd of believers. And there may not be many Bible-believing and confessional Christians in this city. But when we confess our faith together, we confess it side-by-side with brothers and sisters from all around the world and with believers of all times.
In our worship services, when we come to the point of reciting our faith, we often use these introductory words: “Let us now together with believers from all over the world and with believers of all times confess that: ‘We believe . . .’” We find great encouragement in these words, even though we are just a small and seemingly insignificant group.
AN APOSTOLIC CHURCH—GROUNDED IN THE BIBLE
Confessing our faith with historic confessions and reciting and learning answers to catechism questions is anchored in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, Moses commands Israel to teach the next generation (Deut 6:4–9). In the New Testament, the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). By incorporating historic confessions into our church life, we express our belief that the Church receives, defends, and continues to hand down the gospel of Jesus Christ as it was taught by him and by his apostles.
Obedient to Convey the Truth
We believe that by confessing our faith through historic traditions, we make sure that God’s truths are “on our hearts” (Deut 6:5), and that we “diligently teach [ourselves and] our children” (Deut 6:7), thereby abiding in the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We may add here that, as Ephesians 4:11–14 points out, the “shepherd-teachers” of each church have a special responsibility to convey spiritual truths to the members—their “children.”
Discipled in the Fundamentals
Someone may object that continually confessing the “same old confession” might lose its meaning and eventually become mechanical. But we are convinced through our own experience that it is a blessing to remind ourselves Sunday by Sunday of what we do indeed believe. We examine ourselves: “Yes, that is what I believe, isn’t it?” Or we might suddenly be challenged to ask ourselves: “Do I really believe this? Do my life and conduct really show what I just confessed?” When we ask together the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism—“What is the chief end of man?”—we then have the opportunity to answer together: “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” What a magnificent truth! Can we ever be reminded of or challenged enough by this?
Or consider the second line of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in . . . Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.” These words confront me with the thought: have I adored Christ this week as the only Son of God and lived under his lordship?
Submitted to Authority
We live in a time that has largely forgotten what the children of the Reformation called “ministerial authorities,” or what the early church called the “rule of faith.” Contrasted with the “magisterial authority” of the Holy Scriptures, ministerial authorities provide insight, summarization, or interpretive keys to understanding Scripture. These are, of course, rightly derived from the Scriptures themselves, but every theology must eventually create categories in order to systematize and synthesize biblical truth. Otherwise, why speak of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, or federal headship? Confessions are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they are authoritative insofar as they accurately represent God’s revelation. This reality should help us to dispel the common notion that confessions are extra-biblical superfluities. Rather, many confessions are profoundly biblical even though they are not on par with the Bible.
Reinforced in the Truth
We often seek to find good and succinct formulations of the truths we will teach in the sermon on the Lord’s Day. This coming Sunday, for example, the church will hear a sermon on Ephesians 4:11–16. The preacher will explain how our members are called upon to “build each other up in love” so that one day a mature body of believers might be presented to him in glory. We will supplement this teaching with an almost 300-year-old answer to the question: “What is the visible church?” “The visible church is the organized society of professing believers, in all ages and places, wherein the Gospel is truly preached and the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly administered.” (This is question and answer #105 of Benjamin Keach's Catechism, published in 1693.)
Every local church ought to be a holy city on a hill, united with the saints across time and space, and grounded in the teaching of Christ and his apostles. Historic confessions, creeds, and catechisms ward off the gangrenes of undefined confessional identity, narrow biblicism, and chronological snobbery. While they may be only one means for a church to safeguard its confessional identity, we are convinced they are crucial.