Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ. Jesus responded that His church in all ages would be built upon that realization. The paramount thing confessed was Christ, who is the unique Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16), the cornerstone of the church. However, the means to that end—confessing—is also a very important activity.
- The way to forgiveness of our sins (James 5:16);
- How the saved are identified (Rom. 10:10);
- The signature that the Spirit is already working in a person (1 Cor. 12:3);
- The advertisement of our hope (Heb. 10:23);
- Accompanied by obedience (2 Cor. 9:13); and
- What Christ Himself did (1 Tim. 6:13).
As Christians, we must embrace a mature biblical norm of confessing our faith. Let me offer briefly five reasons why a written confession is helpful:
First, written confessions represent maturity. A confessional communion is more than fly-by-night. It is relatively easy to produce a personal statement of faith or a position paper on a narrow subject. However, only those confessions that are tested by many generations endure. Just as yesterday’s pop music hardly inspires anymore, so a transient confession is slightly embarrassing. But classic creeds, produced by seasoned Christians, stand the test of time. A confession is a mature, proven set of beliefs. Wouldn’t you rather be guided by such a statement than by an ill-defined set of beliefs or an immature statement of faith?
Second, written confessions keep believers from having to reinvent the wheel. Creeds and confessions can put the student at the head of the class in a hurry. If one need not formulate every bit of doctrine himself, that is, if he is humble enough to listen quickly to other saints (James 1:19), he can spare himself considerable time and countless dead ends. He will avoid paths that are “useless to further reconnoiter,” as theologian Abraham Kuyper recognized.
Third, written confessions are a non-prejudicial way of telling outsiders what we believe. In an age that craves authenticity and transparency, many people get fed up with vague “trust me” statements or calls to give money blindly. A confession is an unashamedly public act; it means that what we believe is neither secret nor windblown for individual taste. It enables any visitors to find out what we believe.
Fourth, it protects against idiosyncrasy and “movementism.” Sadly, there are more Christians who follow celebrity leaders than ever before, and those movements based on unbiblical, idiosyncratic leaders seldom end well. Pining for “movementism” or following a hero often yields chaos, will-worship, self-promoting cults, confusion, or continual flux. A confession is ready-made for all those who want to participate in Christian discipleship that is bigger than their own time.
Fifth, it requires us to repent and give up some of our own wrong notions. One of the reasons that confessions are distasteful to some is their unbending quality. Yet a faith that is twisted to each of my preferences is vacuous. The nonnegotiable ethos of a confession may actually force a slacker generation to return to Scripture and steer through some difficult issues. Such may actually help us mature.
As long as a confession is thoroughly biblical (thus timeless) and not provincial, it can aid; a confession in the hands of pastoral and spiritual leaders can vitally serve unity and clarity.
A confession, if a faithful echo of what God already says, can guide us and shelter us from the disabilities of an age or locale. Confessions that parrot and lightly amplify the soundings of Scripture endure, while also equipping God’s family with strength and perspective to avoid the ditches of every fad or heresy. Confessions that stand on the shoulders of previous saintly exegetes are the advanced courses that settle certain matters and yield a head start.
A confession is also simultaneously shorthand and proven wisdom; it is orthodoxy and orthopraxy at once. Unless one’s life span is infinite, when we pray for God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), confessions will often help us in the stewardship of time as well as protect us from crippling idiosyncratism.
The purpose of a confession is to bolster both unity and clarity. Many of us learn the hard way that the most damning standards are the unwritten ones. Pharisees, ancient and modern, are masters of using unwritten standards to club the uninitiated into a coma. A biblical confession, however, frees the believing community from these secret laws. It liberates us from self-imposed standards and also makes the church open to all under the same standards.
Kuyper was right to counsel against diverging from fixed confessions until compelled to do so by the Bible. Far from being forbidden, holding to sound confessions is little more than following the New Testament pattern. Rather than contradicting sola Scriptura, a confession is actually a sound guide to it.