Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
One of the most joyful occasions in the church is the public confession of faith of the young people. For the pastor and elders there is no more joyful occasion than when young people come to the consistory room to make confession of faith before the consistory, when that confession is approved, and when young men and young women stand up in the congregation publicly to acknowledge faith in Jesus Christ. This joy is shared by the parents of the young people, and by the whole congregation, who witness the confession.
Joy over the confession of faith of our young people is due to the fact that their confession of faith is an outstanding evidence of positive fruit on the labors of the church. Many prayers have been offered on behalf of these youths. Much labor has been bestowed in their instruction, by parents, by Christian school teachers, by pastor and elders. Confession of faith is tangible evidence that these labors have not been in vain, but have been blessed by the Lord.
In the next several articles in this rubric, it is our intention to discuss confession of faith. The first couple of articles will be of an introductory nature. In subsequent articles it is our intention to discuss the significance of confession of faith by examining the three questions in the back of The Psalter, which are asked at the time of public confession of faith.
A common misconception in connection with confession of faith is that by public confession one “joins the church.” Public confession is viewed as the act of being “received into the church.” As long as one has not made confession of faith, he is essentially not a member of the church.
There have been serious results in churches which have fostered this conception of confession of faith. This view has been carried out to excuse the living of a blatantly wicked life on the part of those who have not yet made confession of faith because, after all, they are not yet really members of the church. These young people go to movies, attend dances, take part in wild parties, become drunken, and make public spectacles of themselves, but the elders do nothing because these young people have not yet become members of the church. Since they have not yet made confession of faith, and probably not yet had the “experience” that precedes confession of faith, they need not be expected to live the holy life of a member of the church in full communion.
The view that confession of faith is essentially a matter of “joining the church” is seriously mistaken. It is a view that is fundamentally Baptistic and ought not to be the way confession of faith is viewed in a Reformed church. The fact is that by virtue of their baptism the infants of believers are already members of the church. That is brought out very clearly in the first question that is asked parents at the time they present their child for baptism: “Whether you acknowledge, that although our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized?” The Heidelberg Catechism, in Q.A. 74 teaches that baptism is a sign of the truth that the infants of believers are “also admitted into the Christian church . . . .”
Confession of faith is emphatically not to be viewed as an act of joining the church. Instead, the significance of public confession of faith is that those who are already members of the church publicly acknowledge that membership and publicly assume the duties and privileges involved in that membership. A baptized member of the church is an undeveloped and immature member. During his childhood and youth he matures, not only physically and psychologically, but also spiritually. At the time when he arrives at spiritual maturity, the time when he understands the privileges and obligations of church membership and is ready willingly to assume these, he ought to make confession of faith.
We may draw on an analogy to make our point clear. Our children are members of our country. They are as much citizens of the United States (or Canada, Singapore, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, or whatever other country) as we are. No one would deny that my three-year-old daughter is a citizen of the United States, as much a citizen as I am. But children are immature citizens, citizens who because of their immaturity do not enjoy the rights and privileges, nor have the same obligations, as mature citizens. Although fully members of our country, our children may not vote, hold office, obtain a driver’s license, and it is not expected of them that they pay taxes. This analogy may be applied to the church, which is the kingdom of God. There is a difference in the kingdom of God between those citizens who are young and immature and those citizens who have arrived at years of discretion and may be considered to be mature members of the church.
For those young people who have arrived at years of discretion, public confession of faith is both a sacred privilege and a solemn responsibility.
The young person who makes confession of faith ought to count it a great privilege that he may make confession of faith. What a privilege of grace that God in His goodness caused him to be born to believing parents and brought up in a covenant home! What a privilege of grace that he should for many years come under the means of grace, hear the preaching of the gospel, and receive instruction in the truth! What a privilege that he should be able to identify himself with the cause of God and of Jesus Christ in the world! What a privilege that he should be able to confess the name of Christ with the mouth! We don’t deserve these blessings! We have no right to have faith or any of the blessings of salvation which are ours through faith! Confession of faith is a privilege of the highest order, a privilege of grace.
Besides being a privilege, confession of faith is also a responsibility. It is not only an honor to be able to confess our faith publicly, but it is also our duty before God.
There are those who question or deny this responsibility of making public confession of faith in the church. There are many denominations which maintain that the church does not have the right to require such a confession. This is the position of those who are advocating paedocommunion today, that is, child communion, that children ought to be granted the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper. A few centuries ago, the Arminians in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands denied that the church had the authority to insist on a public confession of faith in the congregation prior to admittance to the Lord’s Supper. These people point out that nowhere does Scripture explicitly require this confession of the young people when they arrive at years of discretion and before they are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper. How can this practice in our churches be maintained, therefore? And on what grounds do we base the responsibility to make public confession of faith?
The basis for public confession of faith, although not explicit in Scripture, is certainly implicit. Public confession of faith is one of those things which, to use the language of The Westminster Confession Of Faith, “. . . by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture . . . .”
The responsibility to make public confession is based, first of all, on the general calling that the Scriptures place upon God’s people to confess His name in the world. Many passages of Scripture could be cited which bring out this calling. Christ Himself says inMatthew 10:32, 33: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” In Romans 10:9, 10 the Apostle writes, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
There certainly is nothing strange or un-Biblical in the fact that the church should require of adult members a confession of faith. This is something to which the Word of God everywhere calls us. Confession of our faith is simply part of the Christian life.
A second reason why Reformed churches have always insisted on a public confession of faith by the young people has to do specifically with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The question whether the church has the authority to demand a confession of faith is closely bound up with our view of the sacrament. Those in the past who denied this right to the church maintained what is called “open” or “free” admission to the Lord’s table. They maintained that attendance at the Lord’s Supper is exclusively a matter of the personal conscience of the individual attending. Whether or not he would partake was his private decision. Those who maintained the right of the church to require a public confession of faith of those who would come to the Lord’s Supper did so because they maintained that attendance at the Lord’s table, besides being a personal matter, was also subject to the jurisdiction of the church. They emphasized the duty of the consistory to “fence”, that is, to supervise the administration of the sacrament.
Next time we will discuss this matter of the supervision of the Lord’s Supper by the consistory, and the implications of this for public confession of faith.