Confession of faith—what is it?
Our young people are expected to confess their faith when they reach the age of discretion. This is an obligation that rests upon them. This confession is the purpose of all their catechetical instruction. This catechetical instruction usually begins with the seed of covenant at the age of six, although in some of our churches it begins at the age of five.The catechism books which have been adopted by our churches designate the age of six as the age when this instruction begins. The child attends kindergarten at the age of five. We believe that a child has his “hands full” when attending kindergarten. To this we may add that this five-year old also attends Sunday School. We believe that it is better for a child to begin his catechetical instruction at the age of six. Our catechetical books, entitled “For Beginners,” are for children of six through eight years of age.
This catechetical instruction has for its purpose the child’s confession of faith. Our Christian schools prepare the seed of the covenant for their place in the midst of the world. Sometimes we hear of three agencies of instruction: the home, the school, and the church. There are really only two agencies of instruction: the home and the church. The school is really an extension of the home. If our parents were able to instruct their children we would have no schools. Our parents, however, lack the time and the ability to furnish them with this instruction. The result is that our parents organize into school societies, hire teachers, and delegate to these teachers their authority to teach their children in their name. Now these schools prepare our children for their place in the midst of the world, that they may conduct themselves as the people of God’s covenant in the midst of that world. This is the purpose and function of the Christian school. In the church, however, that same child is prepared to assume his (or her) place in the sphere of the church, and this means that that child is prepared to partake of the means of grace (including the sacraments) and reveal himself (or herself) as a member of the body of Christ. This is the purpose of all catechetical instruction.
Confession of faith—what is it? What is its importance? What must be stressed and emphasized when our young people appear to make confession of faith before our church councils and consistories and publicly in the presence of the congregation? Incidentally, as I write this I had no knowledge of the report of the committee that advised our synod in regards to our form for public confession of faith. I have that report now and will presently comment on it. We do well, in this connection, to read the questions that are asked at this public confession of faith—see page 59 in the back of our Psalters. It can also be profitable to read the questions asked at the sacrament of baptism, whether of infants or adults. Is the purpose of their confession of faith that our children confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus? Does this confession center in their confession of personal salvation? Does the emphasis fall upon this, that they know that they are children of God, that they love God and believe in Jesus as their personal Saviour? Of course, they must know that they are children of God. The undersigned always asked them this question. We certainly would not admit to the table of the Lord young people who do not love the Lord. Doing so, we would profane the table of the Lord. And this is surely a heinous sin, condemned all through Scripture, and also in Lord’s Day 31 of our Heidelberg Catechism.
Are there those in our churches who are of the opinion that this knowledge of their personal salvation is really the heart and thrust of our children’s confession of faith? I sometimes wonder. Is it possible that our council and consistory members are satisfied when the seed of the covenant appear and confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus? Do our young people understand what it means to make confession of faith in a Protestant Reformed Church? Do they think that they can make confession of faith in any other church? Has it not happened, when our young confessing believers join another church, that they say that they can also confess their faith in the Lord Jesus in that other church? Do they understand what it means to make a Protestant Reformed confession of faith? Or, is it possible that this is after all not the important thing? Is this the matter of the greatest importance: confession of personal faith in Jesus?
I referred in this article to the questions that are asked at Public Confession of Faith. I also referred to the questions asked at the sacrament of baptism, whether of infants or adults. Have we ever read these questions carefully? These forms were drawn up, I am sure, very carefully and deliberately by our fathers many, many years ago. What is striking about these questions? Is it not striking that in our Public Confession of Faith there is nothing asked about the young person’s personal knowledge of salvation, although, as we shall observe later, the subjective and spiritual element is not lacking in these questions? They are not asked whether they believe in God or in Christ. Why is this? Is this an error on the part of our fathers? I think not. Should we change our form for the public confession of faith, incorporate into these questions a question concerning one’s personal salvation, as the committee proposed with their revised form to be submitted to this year’s synod? I fear that this would be a step in the wrong direction, that it would reveal a failure on our part to understand our fathers and the form we have had these many, many years. Do not misunderstand me. I do not claim that our fathers were infallible. But, if we wish to change things, we surely had better know what we are doing. I do not favor change simply for the sake of change. And, let us by all means attempt to understand our fathers and the form we have. I have already called attention to the striking character of our present form for the public confession of faith. I again ask: why is this?
What, for example, shall we say in connection with our forms for the administration of baptism? Notice, please, that the same emphasis is laid upon the doctrinal instruction of the child. This must not escape our attention. But this is not all. Does not the first question asked of the parents include the statement that these children are sanctified in Christ? Do not misunderstand this expression. This does not mean that they are sanctified in Christ merely in a formal sense, that in some vague manner they are separated from the world and formally consecrated to Christ. This means that they are sanctified in Christ actually and spiritually. They are holy, spiritually. To be sure, this does not refer to every baptized child. All is not Israel that is called Israel. There is spiritual Israel and there is also a carnal Israel, an elect Israel and a reprobate Israel. The believers bring forth an elect seed but also a reprobate seed. These “sanctified in Christ” are the elect seed. All is not Israel but it is called Israel. The entire organism bears the name of the elect kernel. What does this imply and indicate? This, that our fathers were very keenly conscious and aware of the scriptural truth that God realizes His covenant in the line of successive generations and that the Lord usually regenerates His people, the children of believers, in their infancy. It is this truth that we must ever bear in mind.
What bearing, now, does this have on our public confession of faith and the form we have had these many, many years? Why is it that there is nothing in these questions that refers to one’s personal knowledge of salvation, at least in the sense that they who are making confession of faith are not asked whether they love God and believe in Christ? Why? The answer is obvious. God usually regenerates His people in their infancy. Confession of faith does not mean that they then become conscious of the fact that they are children of God, although there may be such exceptional cases (God can and does regenerate a sinner at any moment of his life, also when he has become old). Usually, however, they are regenerated in their infancy. A child of 5 to 10 years of age, to use this age as an example, may very well know himself to be a child of God. But this does not necessarily mean that that child can make public confession of faith, can assume, responsibly, his or her place in the ranks of the people of God, can consciously fulfill his covenant obligations.
Confession of faith means that a church council or consistory has given one the right and privilege to make public confession of faith in the midst of the congregation. It means that we are ready and able to assume, consciously, our covenant obligations, to stand and fight in the ranks of the people of God, as soldiers of the cross. This explains why these questions are asked at our public confession of faith. This explains why those making confession are asked whether they believe the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian Church (I underscore) to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation. This explains why they are asked whether they have resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine and to reject all heresies repugnant thereto. And, indeed; they are also asked whether they are resolved to lead a new, godly life. Of course, their confession must be spiritual. However, our young people must understand what it means to confess their faith in a Protestant Reformed Church, that they could never confess their faith in any other church. This is the reason why the undersigned always was in favor of a doctrinal review class, using a book which the late Rev. H. Hoeksema had written for this very purpose, in which all the emphasis was laid upon the distinctive character of this confession. This review class did not mean that young people were pressured into making confession of faith. There is absolutely no truth in this. Yes, it is easy for our councils or consistories to ask young people: do you believe in Jesus? But it is imperative that they know in what church they confess their faith. In this we must ever continue to be vigilant. Let us never relax. Let us never lower the bars. May we ever remain doctrinal, distinctively doctrinal, and this means: let us ever remain Protestant Reformed. This requires effort, much effort and study. But we cannot afford to be satisfied with less. May the Lord always give us grace to hold fast, the Word of truth, to know what we believe, never relaxing in this instruction of our children.
Do we need a revised form for Public Confession of Faith? Must we revise our form to call attention to the obligation to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Is there anyone, among those who make confession of faith and throughout the entire congregation, who does not know fully that this confession of faith gives the right and privilege and also the solemn obligation to partake of the sacraments, including the Lord’s Supper, to those who confess their faith in the midst of the congregation? Is a revised form necessary, to replace the one that has been used these many, many years? Hardly! Moreover, must we revise our form so that we may add the subjective, personal, spiritual element, lest our public confessions become mere attestations to the truth in the intellectual sense of the word? The committee which proposed this revised form for adoption at this year’s synod writes, and I quote (page 91 of the Agenda): “2/We fear that the absence of the subjective element of public confession of faith might lead to the situation in which confessors of faith in the church will not realize their public confession requires of them to be confident of their personal salvation. This in turn might lead to the situation in which confessors of faith do not even come to the Lord’s Table, as is true in at least one denomination at the present time.” The undersigned does not share this fear. When did this phenomenon ever reveal itself in the history of our churches? Does not this personal, subjective, and spiritual element come to expression in our present form? Do we not read in the second question: “to reject all heresies repugnant thereto and to lead a new, godly life?” (I underscore) Do we not inculcate this subjective and personal element in all our catechetical instruction? Are not the sacraments taught our children in our Heidelberg Catechism for Juniors and in our Essentials? I do not share this fear. This is my concern: let us hold fast what we have that no man may take our crown. I am afraid of: Nieuwigheid en Dwaling. Do we need a revised form? Let us please understand our present form and maintain it to the utmost of our power.