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Truth Divides...and Unites

The necessity of clarity in stating the primary, essential doctrines of the Scriptures in order to avoid error and heresy.

Matthew 3:13-17, Matthew 16:13-17, John 1:14, 2 John 1:7, 1 Corinthians 11:19, 2 Timothy 3:14-17, 2 Peter 1:21, Romans 12:2, 2 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 5:25-27, John 14:26, John 16:13-14, 1 Corinthians 2:11-16, Ephesians 4:11-15

May 20, 2012 11:00 AM

MP3 audio icon Truth-Divides-and-Unites_05-20-2012.mp3 — MP3 audio, 11959 kB (12246968 bytes)

I was asked to speak today on the subject of confessions of faith, and I am glad to do so; as this is an important subject that does not receive a lot of attention. So, what I intend to do is to give a brief introduction to the subject, particularly with a view to answering the following questions: What is a confession of faith? Why would a Christian want to hold to a written confession? Is it true, as some claim, that for a church to hold to a written confession means that they have abandoned the principle of sola scripture? By holding to a confession, are we not implying that the Bible is insufficient to define the doctrine and practice of our faith?

By the way, all Scripture citations will be from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted. And we will be jumping around quite a bit from one Bible passage to another. It's probably best to just listen and follow along rather than trying to turn to each passage I cite in your Bible. The lecture will be up on the church website. You can look up each passage later if you like.

Let's begin by looking at an example of a confession of faith from the Bible itself. We'll start by considering Jesus' baptism.

Matthew records Jesus' baptism:

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying,I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?But Jesus answered him,Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said,This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.

Much later, after teaching, gathering disciples to himself and ministering to the needs of the people, Jesus asks his disciples a question. Notice how Peter answers by stating His agreement with what God revealed by speaking from heaven at Jesus' baptism:

Matthew 16:13-17

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,Who do people say that the Son of Man is?And they said,Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.He said to them,But who do you say that I am?Simon Peter replied,You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.And Jesus answered him,Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

In acknowledging what God has declared, and agreeing with those words, Peter makes his confession of who he believes that Jesus is.

So then when we confess our faith we too answer the question, “Who do say that Jesus is?” finding the answer in the Word of God, in the entirety of the word of God, for it is all about Him.

What is a confession? A confession of faith is a summary of what a person or a group of persons, such as a church, believes the Bible to teach about the most important matters. These may include:

  • Who God is.

  • How God has communicated with mankind through prophets.

  • How God has preserved His word in written form in the Scriptures.

  • That God has created and now sustains all things.

  • That man was made in God's image and fell into sin.

  • That God, in His mercy, entered into covenants with men, and, through the relationships established by these covenants, formed a people to be His own possession, through which He gave His revelation to the world, and from whom came the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

  • Jesus Christ's eternal Deity and true humanity.

  • How Christ fulfilled the law of God.

  • Jesus' atoning death on the cross for His people.

  • His resurrection.

  • Justification by faith alone.

  • The establishment of the church and institution of the ordinances.

  • The coming return of Christ to the Earth, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.

  • Among other important matters.

The word “creed” is derived from the Latin term “Credo,” meaning “I believe.” A creedal statement is typically a short, positive summary of what one believes about a particular issue or a small number of related issues.

The word “confession” is derived from the Latin term “confitērī,” meaning “to admit or acknowledge.” A Confession of faith is typically a longer statement than a creed, containing positive affirmations of beliefs, as well as polemical statements, that is, negative statements denying opposing beliefs.

Some famous creeds of the early centuries of Christianity are the Didache, the Nicene Creed; the Apostles' Creed and the Definition of Calcedon. A fascinating Medieval (and non-Roman Catholic) confession is The Noble Lesson of the Waldensians. Roman Catholic confessions include the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council and the Canons of the Council of Trent. Confessions from Reformation churches would include the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of Faith, the Anabaptist Schleitheim Articles, the Anglican 39 Articles, the Dutch Reformed Canons of Dordt, the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689; which Grace Fellowship Church holds “in substantial agreement,” and the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message.

Generally, creeds and confessions were written in response to the rise of false teachings. The Nicene, creed, for example, resulted from the work of the Council of Nicaea to combat the heresy known as Arianism.

Arianism is the doctrine that was taught by a man named Arius, who was an elder in the church of Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century. Accounts of the man tell us that he was tall, handsome, and popular, with a charismatic personality. A highly intelligent man, he was known for being very moral, a man of integrity. Arius was a singer and a songwriter whose songs became very popular, especially among sailors and those who rowed for ships, interestingly enough.

Large fragments of a song by Arius, titled “Thalia” survive to this day. “Thalia” is a Greek word that can be translated “The Banquet.” This song, which was apparently quite long, was chock full of theological content, mostly concerning the relationship between God the Father and His Son.

Now, since the fragments of the Thalia we have are rather long and convoluted in the language they use, and since English translations of them do not sound anything like a song or a poem; I have taken snippets from them, and written some rhyming lyrics that I think summarize the message of The Banquet well, to give you a flavor of the song and an idea of the teaching that Arius' song was promoting and how he was promoting it through songs.

So, I present “Was a Time” (Inspired by Arius' “Thalia”)

There was a time when he was not.
From nothing was the son begot.
He was created. He was made.
Not all-wise God, but lowly slave.
Our God was not a Father till,
The son and spirit, made at his will.
He alone knows all that is.
The son knows not his Father's biz.
All alone, the single Self,
Begat a son unlike Himself;
Created first, beneath His wings,
The son then made all other things.


Does this view of Christ remind you of the teachings of a major cult we deal with today? You probably know who I mean. Anyway, Arius' teaching that God was a unipersonal “Monad”, as Arius called Him, and that Jesus was the 1st and greatest created being, had a tremendous influence on the churches. For hundreds of years Arius' followers thrived, claiming to represent the true Christianity.

Arius himself was brought before a local council of bishops, where he was questioned as to his beliefs and teachings. Now, some previous heresies had been dealt with very effectively by simply appealing to passages of Scripture which clearly debunked them.

For example, in the first two centuries, a religious movement known as Docetism or Docetic Gnosticism arose. (the term derives from the Greek term “dokein,” meaning “to seem”.) The Docetics denied the incarnation of Jesus. They taught that He was a divine being who only seemed to have a physical body. He only seemed to suffer on the cross. Far be it from such an exalted being to actually share in our humanity or actually die for our sins.

Now, for those Christians who held to the authority of the Scriptures of the OT, and the writings of what we now know as the NT, which was being written even as the Docetic movement was forming, refuting the Docetists was relatively simple. Appeal to Scripture passages such as

John 1:14

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.


2nd John 1:7

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

Of course, the Docetics and other gnostic groups produced their own “scriptures” so-called, which taught their doctrines. You can look at translations of some of these by googling “Nag Hamadi Library.” But for those who affirmed essentially the same canon that we affirm today, Docetism was easily dispatched.

It was not so easy with Arianism. By the time of Arius, all the books of our Bible had been written and widely circulated and there was practical agreement among Christian churches of the books that were canonical. And Arius affirmed them as the inspired and authoritative Word of God. He claimed to derive his doctrine from them. Questioned as to whether he affirmed this passage or that, he never failed to answer, “Yes, I do. I believe that. It is the word of God.” Finally, Arius was excommunicated, however, on the basis that what he understood the Scriptures to teach about God was contrary to what God meant to communicate about himself in those Scriptures.

Well, Arius went on to develop a broad following in many other churches; although he was opposed by the leadership of the church at Alexandria, and in particular, by a man named Athanasius, a deacon, and later bishop of that church, who wrote many volumes, reasoning relentlessly from the Scriptures that Jesus is Almighty, Eternal God, of the same essence, and one in being with the Father. To distinguish the correct, or orthodox, understanding of those passages of Scripture which speak of the Son's deity and relationship with the Father, from Arius' incorrect, or heretical understanding of those same passages, Athanasius chose to use precise language from greek philosophy, language which is not found in Scripture, to describe the Father and the Son as being of the same “essense.” Now, the use of this language was not in any way meant to correct Scripture, or to make up for any deficiency in Scripture, but merely to explain as clearly and precisely as possible what orthodox Christians believe is the meaning of the relevant passages of Scripture that touch on these subjects; in distinction from what the Arians believe that they mean.

When Arius read “the word was with God and the word was God” from the gospel of John, he understood it to mean that the Word, as a sort of subordinate, created god, was with the uncreated God, two very different beings. Two different types of “gods”. When Athanasius read the same words he understood them to mean the Word was with God the Father, sharing the same uncreated, eternal essence, together as the one God. Arius' view implies a form of polytheism. But Athenasius, conforming his thinking to the doctrine of monotheism as it is explicitly taught throughout Scripture, reasoned that the Word, who was God, and the God that He was with must, together, be the one and only God. As Athanasius has said, “Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God.

The council of Nicaea used the reasoning of Athanasius to condemn the Arian heresy. Nevertheless, the battle raged on for centuries in the religious as well as political realms.

And this incident is not untypical in the history of the Science of Theology.

It is, to a great extent, through wrestling with heretical views, through pouring over the text of Scripture; comparing Scripture with Scripture; seeking to bring out the often very fine distinctions that the word of God makes between truth and error—in order to fight heresy—that Christian theology has moved forward and our understanding of the meaning of Scripture has become more precise.

It is God's expressed will that heresies, factions, and disputations occur in the churches, that those who hold the truth of God in earnest may be revealed and approved by God's people.

As Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 11:19

for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

or as the KJV puts it:

1 Corinthians 11:19 (KJV)

For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

John Calvin explains this passage in his Commentaries in this way:

“But observe what Paul says — there must be, for he intimates by this expression, that this state of matters does not happen by chance, but by the sure providence of God, because he has it in view to try his people, as gold in the furnace, and if it is agreeable to the mind of God, it is, consequently, expedient...We know that Satan, in his activity, leaves no stone unturned with the view of breaking up the unity of the Church. From this — not from fate — comes that necessity of which Paul makes mention. We know, also, that the Lord, by his admirable wisdom, turns Satan’s deadly machinations so as to promote the salvation of believers. Hence comes that design of which he speaks — that the good may shine forth more conspicuously; for we ought not to ascribe this advantage to heresies, which, being evil, can produce nothing but what is evil, but to God, who, by his infinite goodness, changes the nature of things, so that those things are salutary to the elect, which Satan had contrived for their ruin.”

And so, it is largely in response to heresies that have arisen that formal creeds and confessions have been written.

Why should a church hold to a confession of faith? Should a church hold to a confession of faith? Doesn't Paul tell Timothy that the Scriptures are sufficient to bring us to a saving knowledge of Christ Jesus and to equip us for every good work?

2 Timothy 3:14-17

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Yes. And we, in this church, agree and confess the truth this passage reveals. We do believe that the books of the bible constitute the infallible, inerrant, perfect, and finally authoritative Word of God; which is sufficient to teach us everything we need for salvation and godly living. We believe and we proclaim that this collection of 66 books is foundational to our faith.

But consider this: The Scripture is God's communication with His people. It is God speaking. Communication involves two parties. In this case, the first party, the speaker, is God, speaking through the prophets, apostles, and His Son. As Peter says in

2nd Peter 1:21

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The second party, the hearer is you, me, everyone who reads or comes under the hearing of the Word read or preached. How do we, the hearers, understand the words of God? Are we all in agreement as to their meaning? Certainly not. And to acknowledge that we differ from one another in the way in which we understand or interpret various passages, is not to attack the authority or sufficiency of Scripture. As God is unable to lie or to err, any discrepancy between one man's understanding of a passage and another's; or between the understanding of the hearer, and the meaning God intends to communicate, must be attributed to "human error". It is not because God has failed to speak plainly; it is not because God's word is inadequate for the purpose for which God gave it to us. No; it is because we, as creatures with limited minds, and as sinners, whose hearts and minds are marred and twisted by the fall, do have a tenancy to see and hear what we want to see and hear; and so we misinterpret God's word.

This tenancy will finally be overcome (although not completely in this life) as our minds are renewed through the study of God's Word.

Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

2nd Timothy 2:15

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

The KJV says “Study to shew thyself approved.”

Ephesians 5:25-27

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So, we see that the result of the renewing of our minds, by the washing of the word, through the study of the word, through learning to handle it rightly, will be a church clothed in splendor, holy and without blemish.

But isn't there a problem here: Didn't I just say that we have a tenancy to misinterpret the meaning of the Word due to our creaturely limitations and our fallenness? Doesn't the vast diversity of contradictory beliefs among those who profess to be Christians prove this point? Yes. But, praise be to God, when Jesus returned to the Father's side in heaven, He did not leave us as orphans. He has sent another Comforter, One who would lead us into all truth, as Jesus promised in the Gospel according to John, chapter 14.

John 14:26

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

Later Jesus says:

John 16:13-14

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Paul adds:

1st Corinthians 2:11-16

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?But we have the mind of Christ.

Given the Word of God, together with the working of the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts, we, Christ's redeemed people, have "the mind of Christ", the very mind of the one who inspired the Scriptures. Again, in this life, we will not achieve completeness nor perfection of understanding, due to our previously mentioned limitations. Even true believers disagree on some important matters; however, we are being made like Christ, and we shall certainly come to a much fuller understanding of spiritual truths in the ages to come.

But in this life, we have work to do, to read, cherish, and study the Word of God, to pray that we may lay aside our prejudices, and preconceived notions and trust the Holy Spirit to teach us, from the Word of God. But this is not something anyone can do alone. It's not me, the Lone Ranger Christian, and my bible under a tree; casting aside all that has gone before, and coming to a full and accurate knowledge of the meaning of God's Words for the first time in history, without the benefit of the knowledge of anyone who have come before me, without the local church, without my fellow Christians, without the pastors and teachers that God has given us to as means that the Holy Spirit uses to teach us.

Ephesians 4:11-15

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

Just as the Triune God is not 'an individual' but a community of three divine persons, Christianity is not an individualistic religion. It is a community of redeemed persons who have been given a sacred trust of knowledge and wisdom from God in the form of a record of God's dealings with mankind. And we were meant to share, discuss, even argue; iron sharpening iron, as a part of the process of growing in the faith and even of growing the faith.

But, not everyone agrees that holding to a confession of faith is a good idea.

There are those who have asked, “Doesn't the adoption of a confession imply the insufficiency of the Scriptures to define Christian belief and practice?” “Don't written confessions undermine the sole supreme authority of scripture?” “Doesn't requiring church members to affirm confessions undermine Christian liberty?”

The first question I have already dealt with. The second and third are good questions; concerning real problems that can arise in the churches, but which do betray the ignorance of the person asking them with regard to how confessions have been used in a way that is subordinate to scripture, and without compromising Christian liberty, and with regard to the fact that all Christians do use confessions.

The churches of the Campbellite movement, usually calling themselves simply “Churches of ChristorChristian Churchesare notoriously critical of the idea of holding to written confessions of faith, as are some independent Baptist churches. The claim is made thatWe have no creed but Christ;orOur only confession of faith is the Holy Bible.However, these statements are, themselves, creeds; they are confessions of faith. Furthermore, they are not found in the Bible. They are, therefore, self-refuting. Every Christian has a creed.

And one might very well ask those who make such statements,Who is this 'Christ' of whom you speak?orWhat does the Bible teach about salvation? About the Trinity?The answers to these questions would constitute a further expounding of the anti-creedalist's creed! Of course they could just throw a Bible down on the table and sayRead this. It will answer all your questions about what I believe.But, in fact, it will answer none of them.

And while it is true that men can and, in some cases, do elevate confessions to a level of authority on a par with, or above scripture, this need not be the case. For example, in the Roman Catholic Church, it is taught that, in the mass, the priest speaks the words of consecration,This is my body. This is my blood.transforming the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This doctrine was elevated, by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD to the status of a dogma of the faith which must be received and believed by all Christians, anyone rejecting it being damned to hell. Before 1215 it was not necessary to believe this in order to be saved. After 1215 it is. This is because the Roman Catholic Religion does not consider Scripture to be the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. The writings of early church fathers (that is, some writings of certain fathers), along with the pronouncements of church councils (some of them, not all) and of popes (some of them, not all) are of equal authority with the Scriptures. And, in practice, the highest authority of all iswhat did the Pope say today?

Well, this has never been the view of reformation churches. Creeds, confessions, councils, early church writersall are subordinate to the Scriptures. As the 1689 LBC puts it in its very first sentence,The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.And later in the first section,The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.

Furthermore, many of the reformation confessions state explicitly that they are and ought to be subject to review and revision, in light of further study of the word of God. And many of them have been revised somewhat.

And, again, it is possible to abuse confessions by attempting to force them on people. Nations that have had state churches have often forced their citizens to become members, and to participate, and to pledge allegiance to the doctrinal standards of the state church. Non-conformity was seen as unpatriotic, even treasonous and could be punished severely. Pope Innocent III, for example, the same pope who presided over the Fourth Lateran Council, called for a crusade against the Waldensians, a movement of pious and peaceful Christians living in southern France and northern Italy, for their rejection of the dogma of transubstantiation, among other things. The princes, and nobles, desiring the spoils of plunder now, and the promise of heavenly rewards later, were quick to answer the call. Thousands were butchered.

But again, this is not the view of the best of the confessions, nor the practice of those who hold them. As the Westminster Confession states (which is taken verbatim into the 1689):

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscienceand reason also.”

And particularly among Baptists, liberty of conscience has long been a cherished principle. We do not force anyone by means of the state, or any other means to pledge allegiance to a creed. On the contrary, subscription to the 1689, and any other creed is entirely voluntary.

So, why is all of this important? It's important because we must do as Peter did. Peter confessed the real Jesus Christ. The one the Father sent. The one the Holy Spirit rested upon. The only Jesus who can save. It's important because the false Christs cannot save anyone. And confessing a false Jesus is like offering an aspirin to treat the severed, blood-spurting artery of a stabbing victim.

The late great apologist Walter Martin spoke once about how he used to dialog with JWs, Mormons, and others about Christ and the gospel. Invariably, they would quickly exclaim, "I believe in Jesus!" Walter would respond, "Oh yeah? Well, which one?" They would answer, "What do you mean 'which one'? There's only one." He would come back with, "Oh no. Didn't you know? There's lots of them! Now, have you got the right one?"

We keep the false Jesuses from being preached by keeping Arius out of the pulpit. And by telling his children, when we encounter them, about the real Jesus, so that they may be saved. Yes, even by refusing them the hand of Christian fellowship when they approach us; for they are not our brothers and sisters.

How do we keep Arius out of this pulpit? How do we keep him from joining this church? After all, he will show up proclaiming himself to be a Christian; calling Jesus his Lord and Savior, and professing to believe every word of the Bible. Do we exclude him? If so, on what basis?

We tell him what we believe to be the teaching of the Bible on the most important matters and ask if he is in agreement with us. If he is not, he is excluded from membership and from promoting his views here. Now, while some churches, so-called, will welcome anyone who claims the label “Christian” for himself or herself, or anyone who is merely looking for a club to join, any assembly worthy of being called a “Church” will have a doctrinal standard—whether written or unwritten—whereby they will judge candidates for membership, as well as for teaching positions. Writing down that standard makes everything more transparent and fair.

Finally, I'd like to read a quote from the Scottish theologian Marcus Dods that summarizes well what I have been trying to say.

A man may accept as the rule of his faith the same inspired books as yourself, while he rejects every important article of the faith you find in these books. If, therefore, we are to know who believe as we do and who dissent from our faith, we must state our creed in language explicitly rejecting such interpretations of Scripture as we deem to be false. Papists, Unitarians, Arminians, all profess to find their doctrines in Scripture, but they do not find them in the Westminster Confession. No one calling himself a Christian will deny that Christ died for our sins, but out of these words of Scripture, a Socinian will bring a meaning which is utterly subversive of what we hold as essential to salvation.



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