Why Do We Need Creeds and Confessions?

The life and history of the church is a very interesting business, filled with a variety of personalities and opinions. This is especially true when it comes to the areas of theology and doctrine. This is why in a country that has always prided itself on individualism we have seen a massive growth of Denominationalism and “Non-denominationalism.” In each camp there is something that is rallied around as supreme, and rarely is it the reality of the gospel, but usually a secondary issue. However we may have come to these distinctive division they do exist and to some degree that is not bad as long as it is not hindering the advancement of the gospel and the truth of the work of Christ. For the most part this is where Creedal and confessional unity has found its niche and revitalization, it would seem, in the church landscape.

Now what is this Creedal and Confessional idea? This is the basic tenant that we as a church local (or believer individually) agree to and uphold a set of Christian teachings and interpretation of the scriptures that are binding on our life and practice. The earliest forms of our modern confessions were the Creeds of the church which originated as early as Paul with the writing of Philippians 2:6-11 and developed over time as the church grew and wrestled with the apostle’s teachings. Eventually there developed two majority creeds; the Apostles Creed and the Nicaean Creed, and after the reformation we say the growth of confessions; two predominant ones are: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession of Faith 1689. Today I want to take a moment and go over the benefits of Creeds and Confessions to the Modern Church.

They Bring Clarity

The Creeds and Confessions of the Faith helped to set the foundation for how we understand the scriptures. They in no way have replaced the scriptures, but rather in a succinct manner explained the basic tenants of the faith as reveled in the scriptures. Even to this day we still recite these statements in our churches. The Early creeds helped us to understand the scriptural teachings on the Trinity, gave clarity to the work and means of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of the communion of the saints. They helped us to know what we believed as Christians. In the midst of much confusion they helped new believers to see the basic teachings of the Scriptures.

They Connect Us to our History

The church where I currently pastor recites the Apostles creed following Communion to remind ourselves of the joyous banquet that awaits all the saints for all time that have trusted in the sacrificial death of Christ and await us at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The creeds and later the Confessions helped us to see that we are not alone in the Christian journey; our faith is not a 21st century invention but rather a historic and beautiful faith that has stood the test of time, through war, persecution, and even times of peace Christ has maintained and grown the church. The Confessions help us to see that. The early church creeds arose out times of great persecution, and the confessions of London and Westminster arose out of the freedoms granted following the painful persecution that plagued the English reformation. In these writing we are reminded that God has been at work building is church for two millennia, lead by the Spirit and His Word.

They Connect Us to One Another

In the Creeds and Confessions we see an underlying interpretation and understanding of the Gospel. As such they help us to bridge denominational lines, they help us to see where we have commonality and not only our difference. Our blog is a good example of this. We are a confessional blog, not a denominational one. We feature guys from a variety of backgrounds but we unify around two important (and yet distinct) confession: Westminster and London. The key distinction in each is their interpretation of baptism, but every other tenant is almost exactly the same with a few variations. As such our writers must agree with one of these two historic documents of the reformed Christian faith. These documents help us to see our great commonality around the truth of scripture rather than our one disagreement on the application of it.

They Point Us Back to the Scripture.

I saved this one for last, because it is the most important. The confessions are not an end in and of themselves and are never meant to be, they are a tool by which we see and go back to the scriptures. If someone calls themselves confessional and yet the bible is not where they have found these truths then they are far from it. To be confessional is to see the truths of these confessions in scripture not in the confessions. If I hold to salvation by Grace alone because the London Baptist Faith says it is biblical but have not examined the scriptures and seen it to be true, than I am relying solely on the word of man and this is the furthest thing from the point of the confessions and creeds. They help us to see the scriptures more clearly not to replace them. Unfortunately, many in the “confessional” camp at times seem to miss this point. When we ascribe to a confession of faith we must be ascribing to the fact that it most clearly represents the truth as revealed in Scripture, not because it is trendy or cool. 

The Word that Sparked the Reformation

I’ve heard it said that one spark from a campfire can travel over a mile before burning out. But there is one spark that has managed to travel thousands of miles, even across oceans, and through five centuries of time and has spread a blaze across the world; this spark is the reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The word that sparked this Reformation is the word ‘sola’ or ‘alone’ in English.

In his book Faith Alone:The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul remarks, “It was the sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute…Martin Luther and the Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone. Rome affirms that justification is “by faith,” but not “by faith alone”’ (page 36, 122).

How could such a small word carry so much weight and cause so much controversy? Because the word sola differentiated not between two different ways of understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, but two totally different gospels altogether: the true gospel and a false gospel. In the Roman Catholic view, which hasn’t changed since, our good works contribute to our salvation. In the Reformers’ view, which also hasn’t changed since, we are totally depraved sinners who cannot contribute anything to our salvation except the sin that reveals its necessity.

When you really boil it down, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification is a false gospel that teaches we are not as sinful as the Scriptures reveals us to be, God is not as holy as the Scriptures reveal Him to be, and the cross is not as essential as the Scriptures reveal them to be.

The current leaders of the Church of England have called for Protestants to “repent of the sins of the Reformation.” Some may agree with them and see the Reformation as an unnecessary division in the one body of Christ. Many in our Western age of tolerance consider any divisions, whether doctrinal or anything else, to be from a lack of love. But it would be foolish for us to repent of the sins of the Reformation not only because we weren’t there to do them, but also because it wasn’t a division of the one body of Christ at all. Rather, the Reformation marked a differentiation between those in the true body of Christ and those in a heretical body claiming Christ. As far as the unloving claim, it was love and unity for the protection and preservation of the true body of Christ that drove the Reformers to take the stand they did. Rather than repent of the Reformation, we ought to rejoice in it. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and their fellow Reformers fought for the purity of the gospel and for the purity of the church and we owe them a great debt.

Some have argued that the Reformers held to a view of justification that allowed for sin. They claim that the constant use of the word alone or sola actually implies a salvation that doesn’t have any connection to good works or righteous living. The Reformers were not teaching, however, the unbiblical notion that our justification and our sanctification are not related. Rather, they were teaching that our sanctification flows out of our justification, not vice versa. John Calvin himself noted that while we are saved by faith alone, it is not by a faith that is alone. Justification produces the fruit of sanctification. Where Rome went wrong was that they confused the fruit with the root. If, according to Rome, our salvation is through faith and works, then we have something to boast about and this would turn heaven into a big merit party (“Look at how much I did with my life”). But, aligning themselves with Scripture, the Reformers taught the full and free gospel of God’s grace to guilty sinners who would repent and believe. This is the salvation that consumes the attention of the worship of heaven.

We have so much to be thankful for when we think of the Reformers. They refused to offer to the world a checklist and say, “Here is how to get saved.” Instead they heralded the true gospel of grace and so extended to the world a crucified and resurrected Savior who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

May we never cave to the voices around us that call for an end to our resolve to stand on the gospel of grace. These voices are more than five hundred years old, going back to the garden of Eden where the serpent questioned, “Did God really say?”

May we stand with the Reformers in our own day, no matter what the culture thinks of us and say, “Yes, God did say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Then, may we extend the only true gospel to all types of sinners, while calling them to repent and believe in Christ.

The Reformation is Over? Ummm…No.

Today is the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

To give attention to this anniversary NPR news ran an article today on Pope Francis’ efforts to heal the divide between Catholics and Lutherans caused by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. They quote Gerard O’Connell who says, “Perhaps, both sides missed something at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church missed ways of reforming itself. Luther and those around him pressed in a way that just couldn’t be taken on board, so, in a way, both sides misspoke.”

Jens-Martin Kruse, pastor of a Lutheran Church in Rome, says the approach Pope Francis is taking is “walking ecumenism.” Kruse continued, “We are moving together, this is a new experience that we are together on this walk. Walking together, we find that we have lots of things more in common than we thought before.”

The effort to reconcile Catholics and Protestants has been on the rise over the past generation. Many well known Protestants and Catholics in America signed a petition in the 90’s called ECT ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together‘ to move toward unity. More so on this day in 1999 a group of Catholics and Lutherans issued a joint statement on the doctrine of justification in Augsburg, Germany stating that “a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics.”

To all of this I want to say…ummm, no.

Perhaps I want to say hogwash because I tend to have a contrary personality, perhaps I want to say hogwash because people have said I can be too stubborn, or perhaps I want to hogwash because I think too many Catholics and Protestants are committing the heresy of being indifferent to doctrine. It is my opinion that someone needs to call this nonsense what it is, foolish. The differences between Catholics and Protestants on the doctrine of Justification, and many other matters, are not just differences of opinion, they’re not just mere disagreements that we can agree to disagree about. Our differences of opinion are too vast to ignore, too deep to sweep under the rug, and too large to push behind us.

Peace is not what is needed, repentance, clarity, and courage is what is needed.

Regardless what Pope Francis says, regardless what a Lutheran pastor in Rome says, and regardless what almost all mainstream Christians are saying today, the reason Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on this day in 1517 was to call into question the vague and erroneous teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. For doing this, Pope Leo X excommunicated and condemned Luther. And as a response to Luther and the rest of rising Protestantism the Roman Catholic Church had a council in Trento, Italy from 1545-1563 to address the concerns raised by the Protestants.

The result of the Council of Trent was another reformation. The Catholics saw that many of Luther’s concerns were correct and that there were indeed many abuses within the church. But doctrinally, they continued their condemnation of all things Protestant. Look at the following statements from Trent:

-Canon 9, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

-Canon 12, “If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified…let him be accursed.”

-Canon 14, “If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.”

-Canon 24, “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

-Canon 30, “If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”

-Canon 33, “If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.

Clearly, in the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed their previous teaching on the doctrine of the justification and condemned anyone who disagrees with them. In all the efforts towards peace and unity between Catholics and Protestants today why is no one talking about Trent? It has never been revoked by any other Roman Catholic council or creedal statement to date. In fact, because of the affirmations made in Trent numerous Protestants were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church afterwards. Conclusion?As long as the Council of Trent stands, there can never be unity. As long as the Council of Trent stands, Catholics teach that all Protestants are damned. As long as the Council of Trent stands, we must continue to proclaim the truth, that we are not saved by our works, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

So on the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation many are asking, is it over? Can’t we just get along? Shouldn’t we move forward and push our history behind us? The clear is answer is no. As long as the Roman Catholic Church continue to propagate false teaching and do not repent for such teaching by turning towards the truth revealed by Luther and others, the reformation will not be over. More so, because the human heart naturally moves towards a works based gospel and away from a grace based gospel – the reformation will never be over.

The gospel that was re-discovered under the tyranny and oppression of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century must continue to be proclaimed today with the boldness, clarity, and courage.

Stephen Nichols reminds us:

What is Reformation Day? It is the day the light of the gospel broke forth out of darkness. It was the day that began the Protestant Reformation. It was a day that led to Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and may other Reformers helping the church find its way back to God’s Word as the only authority for faith and life and leading the church back to the glorious doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It kindled the fires of missionary endeavors, it led to hymn writing and congregational singing, and it led to the centrality of the sermon and preaching for the people of God. It is the celebration of a theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural transformation.

Today: stand and celebrate the 499th anniversary of the reformation.

How We Ought to Define the Reformation

Carl Trueman defines the Reformation like this:

The Reformation represents a move to place God as He has revealed Himself in Christ at the centre of the Church’s life and thought. (Reformation, Carl Trueman, page 17)

He also says this in the same lecture later:

When one surveys the mass of books printed, sermons preached, commentaries and pamphlets written during the Reformation, it is quite clear that it was a movement of words – written words, printed words, and spoken words.  No, it was above all a movement of the Word – incarnate in Christ and written down in the Scriptures. (Reformation, Carl Trueman, page 71)

I find this definition of the Reformation to be the best one I’ve read or heard.  Because it defines a historical movement in terms which makes its application and relevance toward other historical times smoother and easier.  If we define the Reformation as a time when “God changed the world through Luther and Calvin” we will rarely apply its principles to our time and rarely learn from the reformers what they intend us to – namely, to continue reforming as they did.  How did they do this?  They were used of God to bring the center back to where the center should be – God revealed through Christ.  And they did this through the Word.

Now the question comes, how can we do this today?  In our churches and in our hearts what can we do to center back upon God in Christ?  Everything in our hearts, and everything in our churches should serve the purpose of the Word.  The answer to this question should shake some things up, re-orient to proper direction, and soak the soul in God Himself.