Why use a confession of faith?

What is a confession of faith?

Before we get into the details it may be worth establishing what we mean when we talk about a ‘confession of faith.’ A confession of faith is simply a public declaration of a person’s Christian faith, a pronouncement of what they actually believe.

This is an essential part of what it means to follow biblical Christianity. In other words, a Christian is required to declare their faith in Christ to the watching world. This is one of the important aspects of baptism – a statement to the world that you belong to Jesus.

We see how important the confession of our faith becomes when we examine certain key texts of the New Testament:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Here the public confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is linked directly in Paul’s thought to salvation: ‘you will be saved.’

Likewise John teaches:

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15)

Again, the believer’s confession of faith is linked directly to God’s presence in him or her – the very thing that saves us!

Just to be clear, these verses are not teaching that a simple confession of a set of statements saves anyone. They just demonstrate the central importance of confessing the faith in the life of believers in Christ.

The bible doesn’t stop with these simple phrases however. In his letters to the young pastors Timothy and Titus, Paul speaks of the importance of being clear on what they believe, that is, the entire message of salvation in Christ. Paul refers to this core teaching as ‘the faith’ (1 Tim 4:6), ‘the good deposit’ (2 Tim 1:14), ‘the testimony’ (2 Tim 1:8), ‘the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15), ‘the word’ (2 Tim 4:2), ‘sound teaching’ (2 Tim 4:3), ‘the trustworthy word’ (Titus 1:9), ‘sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1), ‘the doctrine of God our Saviour’ (Titus 2:10).

All of these terms point to an established, commonly agreed upon and relatively settled body of truth or set of doctrines that comprise the Christian gospel message.

As history progressed it quickly transpired that there was a great need for clarity on the truths of the Christian faith. Even in the apostolic era, local churches were coming under threat from false presentations of the message (Gal 1:6; 1 Tim 1:3-7; Rev 2:2 for example).

After the apostolic era, various church councils had to be formed in order to nail down the biblical truth and distinguish it from error. These councils often resulted in foundational creedal statements that established Christian truth for millennia.

The use of confessional documents rose to crucial importance during the period known as the Reformation where again it became necessary for the Protestant reformers to clearly delineate their differences from the Roman Catholic church, and indeed from fellow Protestants.

In our current modern period, the use of a Confession of Faith has largely fallen out of favour, particularly among evangelicals, even those who are formally known as ‘confessional’ churches – those who possess an official confession of faith. We’ll look at some of the reasons why later.

 

Why we should use a Confession of Faith

Clarity

A Confession of Faith aims to make clear the central doctrines of the Christian faith in a tidy and succinct way. It should be crystal clear on themes such as justification, sin, redemption, incarnation and the second coming of Christ.

Some writers have likened a Confession of Faith to an atlas, giving the big picture of the core teachings of the bible. In this way a Confession helps to plot the journey we make when we come to read the bible and hear it preached, showing us the boundary markers, pathways and connections that the bible itself makes but in summary form.

Unity

Christian faith is a community faith. The church consists of people who are united together by their faith in Christ, declaring together ‘Jesus is Lord!’ Our unity flows out of the clarity of what we believe and so these two points are linked.

It is not sufficient for deep unity among the members of a local church to declare ‘we all believe the bible’ as good as this sounds on the surface. Of course, a general belief in the trustworthiness of the bible is a basic starting block, but it is not enough for the kind of deep unity we must drive towards.

A Confession of Faith allows a local church to declare with one voice, ‘This is what we believe about Jesus!’ ‘This is what we believe the bible teaches about Adoption!’

Protection

Flowing from clarity and unity, a Confession of Faith also provides protection. It is by definition exclusive. By declaring what the bible does teach about the core doctrine of the faith we therefore declare what it does not teach about the faith.

It therefore provides us with a measuring guide to which we may assess the teaching ministry of the church. If we voluntarily bind ourselves to a Confession of Faith, we have a clearly delineated framework upon which our teaching is to be set. A Confession helps us to question and challenge teaching that falls outside of what the bible teaches. This is not of course impossible without a confessional document, but it certainly would become a lot more difficult.

The gospel message is the most important message in the universe! This is no overstatement. Nothing less than the renewal of the cosmos and more specifically the eternal salvation of humankind is at stake. Therefore we must be as clear as we possibly can about the contents of that message.

Accountability

Next, a Confession of Faith provides accountability for the spiritual leadership of a church (the elders). They are the men who are primarily charged with maintaining and protecting the ‘trustworthy word as taught’ (Titus 1:9). The congregation are entitled to hold their spiritual leadership to account based on a commonly affirmed Confession.

Likewise the local church members are also held to account by one another and their leaders for their beliefs when they subscribe to a Confession.

Ministry Cohesion

From the teaching ministry, to children’s Sunday school, youth fellowships and music teams, a Confession of Faith provides a valuable yard-stick to ensure that we are all teaching the same doctrine, singing the right words and bringing the next generation on to understand rightly the core aspects of the Christian faith.

Transparency 

Every church possesses a set of beliefs of some sort. However not all of them are publicly and clearly stated and celebrated. A church with no public statement of faith or longer Confession of Faith is simply avoiding transparency. They avoid accountability and threaten deep unity among their congregation.

Who decides what the church believes and teaches about baptism? Or the second coming of Christ? Or what about justification by faith? Church history throughout the centuries teaches that Christians have differed greatly on such key themes. It is insufficient to say ‘we just believe the bible’ or ‘the only creed is Christ’. Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals all ‘just believe the bible’ and yet their practices and teachings differ widely in many areas.

 

Why we don’t like confessions of faith

There are two general reasons why Confessions of Faith have fallen out of favour in the modern church – we think they teach wrong doctrine and we don’t like to be told what to believe.

Wrong doctrine

Confessions of Faith are known by many as the church’s ‘subordinate standards’. A Confession of Faith does not stand above the bible – the bible is supreme in all matters of faith and practice. However, where a Confession of Faith accurately summarises the teachings found in the bible, it may be relied upon as a helpful guide.

The 1689 Baptist Confession makes this clear from the start:

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. (1.10)

The Confession here itself states that the bible stands above every doctrine of man (that is, our attempt to understand and present the bible’s teaching on a particular issue).

Where a Confession of Faith goes against the biblical teaching – abandon that Confession! But where it faithfully presents the biblical teaching, receive it. This is why many Confessions (like the 1689) contain bible references to show the places where the bible speaks authoritatively.

However we must not be too hasty to reject a Confession of Faith because we do not like what it says. There are numerous places where the truth of the bible is difficult to accept (John 6:60, 61, 66) but it is exactly at these points that we need to hear it loud and clear.

We don’t like being told what to believe

The rest of the reasons commonly given for a rejection of a Confession of Faith can all be grouped under this heading. We don’t like to be told what to believe. We prefer to believe what we wish, what the Holy Spirit reveals to us, rather than what some ancient council or creed dictates to us.

These attitudes are more often an expression of our aggressive western individualism rather than anything vaguely spiritual:

  • Dogmatism

People hang on the old adage ‘doctrine divides but love unites.’ Too many squabbles are caused (they say) by doctrinal statements. Just choose love! However as discussed above, it is clarity on things believed that brings deep unity, not obscurity.

  • Too restrictive

Inasmuch as a Confession summarises the teaching of the bible, then yes, they can be restrictive. But isn’t that the point? By definition a Confession declares what the bible does or doesn’t say. Rather than being a negative, the restrictive character of a Confession should provide comfort and protection.

  • Freedom

Some prefer to confess their own faith, which is to be encouraged! We just need to ensure we are confessing the right faith. Confessing the Christian faith by using a time honoured and widely adopted formal Confession brings great comfort and security to the believer.

One may chose to confess one’s own faith, or stand alongside thousands of others across the centuries in confessing a faith tried and tested by the churches.

  • Decentralisation of doctrine

Finally Confessions are not used as commonly because doctrine is simply not a big deal to many of our modern evangelical churches. ‘Leave that stuff to the theologians’ they say. ‘I’m no theologian, I just wanna love Jesus.’

This may have the semblance of spirituality but it is an attitude that is alien to the bible itself. As Paul ends his letter to the young Timothy, we see the importance of doctrine to the Christian faith:

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge”, for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. (1 Tim 6:20-21)

 

Further Resources

The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is available here.

A popular exposition on the 1689 Confession by Sam Waldron is worth a look. Better still is this work by Robert Letham The Westminster Assembly, the Presbyterian work upon which the Baptist Confession is based.

Carl Trueman writes a compelling and accessible book on the use of confessions of faith in the local church called, The Creedal Imperative.