We’ve heard and read them often enough to be familiar with their contents. In our churches those who intend to, make public confession of their faith are asked to reply to the following questions:
“1. Do you acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testament and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian Church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?
2. Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto and to lead a new, godly life?
3. Will you submit to church government, and in case you should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid) to church discipline?”
In simplicity of language and style as well as clarity of purpose and thought these questions leave little to be desired; there is nothing ambiguous about them. The simplest child of God knows what he is being asked. “The doctrine contained in the Old and New Testament” is simply the whole truth of the Word of God, particularly as it applies to the salvation of the child of God. This points to the only and eternal source whence all doctrine of salvation is drawn. “The Articles of the Christian faith” is the Apostolicum, the creed of all churches. Here the questions become more specific and speak of this same doctrine as it is believed and confessed by the church of all ages, The apostolic creed is the summation of what the Holy Catholic Church confesses concerning the basic truths of Holy Writ. “This Christian Church” is just that; the denomination and even particular congregation whereof the confessor is member and wherein the confession of faith is being made. Here reference is made to the doctrine as expressed in our Reformed confessions. The rest speaks for itself. Those making the public confession are asked whether they acknowledge this doctrine to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, whether they have resolved by God’s grace to adhere to this doctrine and reject all heresies repugnant thereto, whether they are minded to lead a new and godly life, and finally, whether they will submit to church government and in event of delinquency to, church discipline. The language and general contents, therefore, offer little in the way of difficulty.
A bit more should be said at this time about the phrase “here in this Christian Church.” This phrase has made history and in the past has been a bone of much contention, primarily as part of our baptismal form from which it appears to have been taken. The original edition spoke of “this doctrine here taught.” Later this was changed and the “here taught” was made to read: “taught in the Christian Church.” Hence, the “here” was elided and “this Christian Church” became “the Christian Church.” This change had its reason, of course. At first it was customary to baptize only children of parents who were members of the Reformed Church and therefore adhered to the Reformed confession. Later parents of other confessions and beliefs were admitted as well. Naturally, these parents had objections to the phrase “taught here in thisChristian Church.” Especially the Arminians objected vigorously; they could not in good conscience reply in the affirmative to the question in that form. We cannot be surprised about that. Consequently, the change. Many Reformed preachers, however, refused to go along with this change and remained loyal to the original reading. They insisted on reading “here in this Christian Church.” A controversy arose which led eventually to an overture from the Synod of Noord-Holland to the great Synod of Dordt begging for the reinsertation of the word “here.” The Synod acquiesced and again it became “here in this Christian Church.” Thus it remained ever since that early date, and never must this be changed. Only in this way can the conscience of the church remain free. We must have nothing that can and will open the gates for every and all kinds of winds of doctrine. In the light of this history it will be clear that this phrase “here in this Christian Church” will have to refer to the official position of the church or churches wherein the questions are asked. One making confession of faith in the Christian Reformed Churches, e.g., will have to construe this part of the question as including the “Three Points of 1924.” For our young people the meaning will have to be: the doctrine taught here in this Protestant Reformed Church.”
These questions as used in our churches and as found in the liturgical portion of our Psalter, immediately preceding the form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, will have to be evaluated in the light of some important considerations. There is the question, What is really the purpose of confession of faith? The answer to this has much to do with our approach to these “public confession questions.” If you regard confession of faith as an entering into the covenant of God, a receiving of Christ, a joining of the Christian Church, these questions may have to be regarded as quite inadequate and poor. Such is the case with them who come to confession and baptism as adults. Therefore the form used in their case is quite different. However, if confession of faith is this, that God’s minor children come to the years of discretion, cross the threshold of maturity and majority and thus seek admittance to the table of the Lord, these questions appear far more pertinent and adequate. This is the case with them, who are placed before these particular questions. There is certainly a basic difference between unbelievers, who come to faith and thus are received into the covenant and church of God by way of the questions found in the form for the baptism of Adults, and the seed of the covenant, who advance as it were from baptism to holy communion. Reformed people, following in the footsteps of Calvin, have always judged that confession of faith is for the purpose of opening the way to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The former is with a view to the latter. This is also the purpose of all catechetical instruction, namely, to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Catechism, Confession of Faith and the Lord’s Supper are inseparable. That this was also the position of the great Synod of Dordt is evident from what we read in Article 61 of our Church Order: “None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who according to the usage of the Church with which they unite themselves have made a confession of the Reformed Religion, besides being reputed to be of a godly walk, without which those who come from other Churches shall not be admitted.” Clearly, therefore, confession of faith has in view the celebration of Holy Communion.
In connection with the preceding, it should also be borne in mind, that the covenant seed aremembers of the Church of Christ and as such they make their confession of faith. These public confession questions can be properly evaluated only in that light. In some circles you find rather deeply rooted the false notion that confession of faith makes one a member of the Church of Christ. The Church is really a religious society, whereof you become a member by voluntary choice, and confession of faith is the formal joining of that church. These people do not seem to understand that the baptized are members of Christ’s Church and as such come to seek access to the table of holy communion. Yet, such is very really the case. All that talk about “joining the church” and “becoming a member” that one often hears in connection with confession of faith is sheer nonsense and founded on serious misconception. Confession has to do with those who are children of God and have been- so regarded since birth and baptism. For long years already they bore on their foreheads the sign and seal of God’s covenant. Unto them God the Father witnessed and sealed “that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs.” Unto them God the Son witnessed and sealed “that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating. us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection.” Unto them God the Holy Spirit witnessed and sealed in baptism “that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ.” Concerning them, the true covenant seed, it was said at baptism, that “as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.” Therefore the first baptism question reads as it does: “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.” Now these members of His Church come to make confession of their faith. Certainly, this does not gainsay all the foregoing. It only means that the seed of the covenant, the members of the church of Christ have now come to the age of discretion and as such seek access to the table of the Lord. And the Church, thru its office, has the calling to ascertain whether they are prepared to share in this privilege. All this, in connection with the preceding, tells us how we must view confession of faith. The principle question is not, whether he who comes to make confession is elect or reprobate, wheat or chaff, believer or unbeliever, although that is surely not excluded. The main issue is whether the seed of the covenant is ready for the table of the Lord. That basic purpose is reflected in these questions.
Not should it be forgotten in evaluating these questions, that the person making public confession has already made a broad and detailed confession of the same before the consistory. All this need not be repeated when they make their appearance in the midst of the congregation.
In view of all the preceding, what shall be our conclusion? These questions even as they stand certainly serve their purpose. They ask, first of all, concerning the doctrine of the Word of God and His Church. This reveals a healthy position. Knowledge of the doctrine is surely an indispensable requirement for confession of faith. The aspirant must know Christ to confess Him. This does not mean that confession is only a confessing of the doctrine of the church in a purely formal sense of the word, without believing with the heart what Scripture teaches and desiring to serve Christ as one’s personal Savior. There is no spiritual profit in cold dogma-worship. True confession is heartfelt, conscious, spiritual acquiescence to doctrine. Only he who believes with the heart and thus confesses with the tongue is and shall be saved. Even so, confession of faith is basically confession of doctrine. The questions also ask about one’s walk and purpose to live “a new and holy life.” Finally, they elicit the promise, that, if need be, the confessing Christian will submit to church discipline. There can be no principle objections to our public confession questions even in their present form.
All this, however, does not mean that this portion of our Protestant Reformed liturgy leaves no room whatever for improvement. Apart from the fact, that this form strikes us as being more or less scholastic in contents, it is also briefer and stiffer than the occasion would seem to warrant. There are only the three questions, nothing more. There is no introduction of any kind; nothing to indicate in any way what confession of faith really signifies; nothing in the way of a fitting conclusion. All in all, the form seems to make too little of a truly auspicious occasion. Usually, it is true, our ministers add a word of exhortation and admonition; this, however, is not part of the official form. Besides, all that pertains to the walk of the confessing Christian is contained in one brief phrase: “Have you resolved . . . to lead a new, godly life?” The whole thing leaves a rather cold and matter of fact impression.
It is a bit difficult to see why the Reformed Churches of the past never composed a form for Confession of Faith. The occasion, certainly, is important enough. We have a form for most everything: a form for baptism, a form for the Lord’s Supper, a form for excommunication, a form for readmitting excommunicated persons, a form for the ordination of ministers, elders, deacons, professors of theology, a form for marriage. Why not for this? Such a form, as Dr. A. Kuyper points out, could include: 1. A brief statement concerning the significance of Confession. 2. Questions to be asked of them who make such confession. These could deal with three matters: a. The baptism which the confessor once received. b. Agreement with the confession of the churches. c. The promise of a Christian life. 3. A declaration in name of the churches, that such a person henceforth has access to the table of the Lord.
Obviously, the churches in the Netherlands felt this lack. The General Synod of the Reformed Churches across the sea, covered at Utrecht in 1923, composed and recommended a definite Form under the heading: “Vragen te stellen aan hen, die wenschen te worden toegelaten tot het Heilig Avondmaal.” With a few changes, one of them fundamental to my mind, the Christian Reformed Churches in our country adopted this “form for the Public Profession of Faith.” As a sample of what could be done in the Way of improvement I quote this form as contained on p. 87 of the Psalter Hymnal:
“Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
We thank Our God concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that you were made desirous of Professing your faith publicly? here in the presence of God and His holy church, and of obtaining the privileges of full communion with the people of God. YOU are now requested to answer sincerely the following questions:
First: Do you heartily believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian Church, to be ‘the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
Second: Do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed unto you in your baptism, and do you confess that you abhor and humble yourselves before God because of your sins, and that you seek your life not in yourselves, but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
Third: Do you declare that you love the Lord, and that it is your heartfelt desire to serve Him according to His Word, to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
Fourth: Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?
N__________, what is your answer?
Answer: I do (to be given by each individually).
I charge you, then, beloved, that you, by the diligent use of the means of grace and with the assistance of your God, continue in the profession which you have just made. In the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, I now welcome you to full communion with the people of God. Rest assured that all the privileges of such communion are now yours. And the God of all grace, who called you unto this eternal glory in Christ, after that ye have suffered a little while, shall himself perfect, establish, strengthen you. To Him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
This does not say that we agree with this form in every detail. We certainly do not subscribe to the first part of the second question: “Do you openly accept God’s covenant promise.” Nor was this in the form composed by the Synod of Utrecht. The latter, translated, reads as follows: “Second: Do you believe God’s covenant promise.” Why was this changed by the Christian Reformed Churches if not to leave room for the false doctrine, that the promise of the covenant is to all the baptized, which promise we ratify and accept when we come to years of discretion? We would reject such a formulation. However, on the whole we consider this form a decided improvement over what we have. It contains a statement concerning the significance of public confessions as such. It is simple and warm and comprehensive. It contains all that need be asked about doctrine and life and discipline. It makes a bit more of what is certainly an auspicious occasion for the seed of God’s covenant.