The role which our Confessions have played in the history of the church of Christ can hardly be overemphasized. These Confessions have served as powerful weapons in the defense of the faith; they have functioned as the basis for church Reformation over the centuries; they have preserved the unity of the church in her walk in the world of sin; they have been teachers to lead thousands to the knowledge of the truth. It is not an exaggeration to say that our Confessions have served as the strength of the church without which, humanly speaking, it would not have survived.
Because of this, confessional unfaithfulness, in whatever form it appears, is a form of ecclesiastical suicide. This unfaithfulness has taken on many different forms, not the least of which are blatant and open attacks against the Confessions and the doctrines contained in them, and gross confessional indifference. It is therefore not without purpose that I speak to you tonight on the place of our Confessions in the life of the church of Christ. \
The Origin of the Confessions
In the most basic sense of the word, our Confessions have their origin in the work of the Spirit of Christ in the church. This is true not only of our own three forms of unity which serve as our confessional basis, but of all the historic creeds of Christendom which mark the line of the development of the church throughout the New Dispensational period.
The promise of the Spirit of Christ as the Spirit of Truth runs like a golden thread through that last discourse of our Lord on the eve of His crucifixion. This discourse is recorded for us in John 14-16.
You will recall that the disciples of the Lord were saddened and disheartened by the clear and unmistakable words of the Lord that He was going to leave them. Although He had told them this before, their ears were closed to these words, for they had built all their hopes and dreams upon Christ’s continual presence with them upon earth. But now they could no longer escape from the fact that their Lord was going away.
In His words of comfort to them Jesus made it very clear that, although it was indeed true that He was going to the Father, nevertheless He would come to them and come in a way in which He would abide with them forever. This coming was in the Spirit of Truth. By this Spirit Christ Himself would be with them and remain with them forever. In fact, the essential point which the Lord makes is that He would, by His Spirit, be with them in a far more blessed and wonderful way than He had ever been with them upon earth in His state of humiliation. His presence through the Spirit would indeed culminate in the day when He would take all His church unto Himself in everlasting glory.
It is this presence of Christ with the church through the Spirit of truth which has special significance and meaning.
Christ is, in His own person, the full revelation of the triune God as the God of the salvation of His people. He is this in all the work which He did and does, from the moment of His incarnation, through His suffering and death and resurrection from the dead, on into the glory of His exaltation at God’s right hand. By all His great work, He fully reveals to us the Father in all the riches of the truth as it is in God. His presence, therefore, with the disciples and with the whole church of this Dispensation is the presence of the Christ Who reveals all the truth of God.
Because this presence of Christ is through the Spirit which is given Him at His exaltation and which He pours out upon the church, the Spirit Who brings Christ to us is the Spirit of Truth.
There is an objective and a subjective aspect to this. Objectively, the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of inspiration by Whose work the Scriptures are given by infallible guidance. By this work of the Spirit of Christ we have the objective record of the revelation of God in Christ. But this same Spirit dwells also in the hearts of the people of God as the enlightening Spirit Who reveals subjectively the riches of the truth as they are in Christ Jesus. This subjective work of the Spirit is also absolutely indispensable for the appropriation and understanding of the truth. “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (I Cor. 2:12, 13).
Given this work of the Spirit of Truth, the formation of creeds has a certain inevitability about it.
On the one hand, they are inevitable because of the nature of Scripture itself. Scripture, as we all know, is not a systematic setting forth of the truth. It is not a theological textbook or a Reformed Dogmatics. It is the infallible record of God’s revelation through Christin history—where the decisive words are, “in history.” All the history of this world is the sovereign realization of the eternal and unchangeable counsel and will of God. At the very center of that counsel stands Christ so that all the counsel revolves around Him and has meaning and significance only in Him. As history unfolds according to the counsel and under God’s sovereign direction, Christ is revealed historically. Christ stands straddling all history. He is at its center. He is its alpha and omega, its beginning and its end. He is the line running through all history, giving to history its meaning, its significance. He was spoken of by the prophets, revealed in the fullness of time, taken to glory where He is given sovereign rule over all, and He comes again upon the clouds to make a new heaven and a new earth when history reaches its grand finale, its glorious climax, its determined telos. Scripture records this. Scripture is the record of sacred history.
Within those Scriptures, therefore, Christ stands as the fullness of God’s revelation. All the truth is in Christ. Nowhere else can you find it.
As the same Spirit of truth Who inspired the Scriptures works in the hearts of the elect people of God, that Spirit leads the church into all the truth so that the church appropriates that truth and makes that truth her own.
Secondly, there is something inevitable about the writing of creeds because the church which appropriates that truth speaks it. She must and does give expression to her faith. She must and does speak what she believes to be the truth of Scripture. “I believed; therefore have I spoken” (Psalm 116:10). “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is the word of faith, which we preach: 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” (Romans 10:8-10).
But this appropriation of the truth and this confession of Christ as the fullness of the truth is a systematic confession. The church searches the Scriptures to find what every part of Scripture teaches concerning every individual doctrine and concerning the unity of all doctrine in Christ. And this she confesses. This we believe! This is the truth of Scripture.
And so you have confessions, from the very beginning of the history of the church. Confessions which are a glorious heritage of the Spirit of Christ within the church. Confessions which are truly creeds, which give to us what the church believes.
The Function of the Confessions
Because this is the nature of our confessions, the creeds are authoritative.
It is well that we underscore this tonight, for this is frequently and spiritedly denied. There are many who openly and fiercely attack the creeds and their doctrines within the church and do so with impunity. No ecclesiastical penalty is required of them. This can only come about in a climate of disrespect for the authority of the creeds of the church. But the same authoritative character of the creeds is denied when a confessional indifference enters the church so that the creeds are no longer known and the creeds cease to function as the confession of the church as a whole or the confession of the members of the church. The creeds have become irrelevant to faith and life and the life of the church goes on without the controlling power of the creeds. But they are authoritative. Conformity to the confessions is essential to membership in the church. The exercise of discipline is required against all who militate against them. They are set as the bounds of the believer’s faith. By them doctrine in preaching and confession is judged. Within their limitations the officebearers are required to do all their work. The confessional life of the saints is regulated by their statements.
This authority, however, is derived. The creeds do not have an authority which comes from within themselves. They are not self-authenticating—as the Scriptures are. Nor do they derive their authority from the church. This is the error of Rome rooted in intolerable pride. It is true that the church establishes creeds and declares them to be authoritative; but this is not because their authority comes from the church. They are not authoritative because the church declares them to be such. The church declares them to be authoritative because their authority comes from Scripture itself. They must be considered as authoritative only insofar as they express what Scripture teaches. Their authority is only because they state what is first of all found in God’s Word. Because they state what God has Himself spoken through Christ, do they possess an authority which is, therefore, not their own, but Scripture’s. But when they express what Scripture teaches, they bind the faith of the child of God and of the church of which he is a member.
But this binding character of the creeds is not an unendurable yoke, a theological straight-jacket, a curb on theological reflection, a barrier to the development of the truth, an impossible obstacle to making the truth relevant to our generation. On the contrary, they arise out of the organic life of the church as the church is impelled by the Spirit of truth to confess her faith. They are the freedom of the gospel. They express forthrightly what our Lord says, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They are what the church joyfully, willingly, and freely confesses as her faith, her life, her very salvation.
Because this is the nature of the creeds, the Reformed approach to Scripture is a creedal approach.
There is room here too for much emphasis. A non-creedal church, if indeed there can be such a thing, is a different approach to Scripture from that of a creedal church. A non-creedal church or a confessionally indifferent church goes directly to Scripture. And it is this approach which is always characteristic of the heretic. He appeals to isolated passages of Scripture in support of his own pet doctrine or special theological hobbyhorse. Luther already pungently and scornfully observed that this method of heretics, if followed, could be used by him to prove easily from Scripture that beer was preferable to wine. It is a method contrary to the Reformed faith.
The Reformers without exception spoke of the “analogy of faith.” While mistakenly they got this expression from Romans 12:6, the idea which they meant to set forth is a sound one. And Reformed churches throughout history have followed this rule.
The point here is clear. Scripture is a unity, with the principle of its unity the revelation of God our God in Jesus Christ our Savior. Into this truth, with all its parts, the Spirit of truth leads the church. It is not, therefore, a question of what an isolated text may say, taken out of its own context and out of the context of the whole of Scripture. Anything can be proved if this method is followed. But it is a question of what Scripture teaches from Genesis 1:1 up to and including the last verse ofRevelation 22. Scripture is its own interpreter. And this must be recognized and clearly maintained. Not the church; not the individual believer; not the decrees and councils of men; Scripture interprets itself. And it is in this way that the “analogy of faith” is discovered and set forth by the church and stated in her creeds.
It is, therefore, in the best tradition of the Reformation to go to Scripture via the creeds. They lead us into the “analogy of faith.” They show us the “current” teaching of the Word of God. They lead us into an understanding of the unity of the truth as found in Scripture as a whole. The creeds are not superior to Scripture. Their authority and dignity is not greater. They are the means, the way, the path, by which we go to the Word of God. For it is in that Word that we find our hiding place, our rest, our peace, the joy of our salvation. But going via the creeds, we recognize the work of the Spirit of truth, the unity of God’s Word, the one faith of the church of all ages.
It is for this reason that preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism is so important. Not preaching on a text with occasional references to the Catechism, but Catechism preaching is essential—Catechism preaching which gives to the people of God the analogy of faith and leads them into the riches of the truth in Christ.
The Importance of the Creeds
The creeds make us who live today one with the church of the past and give us a place in the company of just men made perfect. The unity of the whole church is a unity of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. As this same truth is confessed throughout all time, it is this truth which binds the church of all ages together into the one body of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a great comfort in this. The truth may be despised and rejected. The company of the faithful may grow smaller. The believer may wonder sometimes if he does not in fact stand alone. But our Confessions assure us that we stand in a noble company of mighty warriors and of faithful men and women and of those who loved not their lives unto death. The company of Augustine and Athanasius, of Gottshalk and Luther, of Calvin and Knox, of Hoeksema and Ophoff is far to be preferred to that of the insipid theologians of our theologically degenerate times.
These same creeds serve as a basis for further development. In our day, as Johannes Vos has expressed it, we do not need less of the truth, but more. It is theologically stupid and spiritually irresponsible to turn our backs upon the truth, and to seek out new inventions which deny the creedal heritage which our God has given us. Development of the truth is ever the calling and privilege of the church. But that is the development of the great truths of the Confessions. They are given to us as a gift of grace. On their basis we stand. On the heights of their confessional integrity we gaze ever deeper into the riches of the knowledge of the truth of Scripture. Development is truly possible only when we have both feet firmly planted in our creedal heritage.
Our creeds are reason for deep gratitude to God. They are the testimony of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ to be with us always, even unto the end of the world. For in this truth as given by the Spirit, Christ Himself abides with us. They were written in blood and in the heat of the mighty age-old battle for the faith. Shall we spurn the blood of the martyrs which still cries before the throne? Shall we spit out venom upon those who loved not their lives unto death? Shall we retreat from the battle which they, by grace, so courageously fought? God forbid. They are a precious and glorious heritage of the faith of our fathers.
But these Confessions must be the living confession of the church of Christ. It will not do to have a confessional basis as churches if these same Confessions lie unnoticed and inactive on the dusty shelves of a Consistory room closet. They are Confessions in the fullest sense of the word when they are in the hearts and on the lips of the people of God.
They must be preached from our pulpits. Consciously, explicitly, and continuously they must be brought to the attention of God’s people. They must be taught in the Catechism rooms. They must be a part of our educational enterprise. There is a movement which wants to strike the Confessions from the theological basis of Christian schools. We must have none of this. Our teachers must in all their contacts with the students, consciously and forthrightly bring our confessional heritage to the attention of our covenant children. They must be studied in our homes. Our parents must lead our children to the Confessions so that our children know them and love them and learn to be thankful for them. And they must be a living part of all the life of the people of God in all their calling.
They still stand today as the defense of the truth against all the attacks which Satan and his cohorts can bring to bear against us. How heretics hate the Confessions! No wonder. They are an impregnable bulwark. They must be taken down brick by brick if the truth is to be reached and destroyed. They preserve our unity—a unity with all the saints and among ourselves. They are a glorious means of transmitting that heritage of the truth to the generations following. With these creeds in our hearts and mouths we can say to these generations yet to rise, “This God (the God of our Confessions), is our God, forever and ever. He will be our Guide, even unto death.”