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Confessions get a bad rap today. The ancient church and the churches of the Reformation bequeathed to us tried and tested creeds and confessions. In them, the church has found authoritative summaries of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Today, however, there is a widespread and passionately held opinion that churches that outspokenly hold to a confession generally are not fulfilling the mandate of the Great Commission precisely because they are confessional. Their confessional standards, it is assumed, are not helping them evangelize. On the contrary, their standards are positively stymieing any true effort to bring a clear and simple gospel message to the world.
Sadly, there is some truth to that observation. Confessional churches are often not zealously evangelizing the world the way they should. More often than not, debates about their respective confessions look to the outsider as mere intramural debates about the finer, more esoteric points of theology. Thus, many think that the meaty confessional standards of the Reformation are in themselves a hindrance to the true missionary work of the church. As a minister engaged in the work of church planting in post-Christian Germany, I have more than once been told by well-meaning Christians not to use confessions as a tool to bring the gospel, to plant churches, and to catechize new converts.
But does the deplorable fact that confessional churches often do lack evangelistic zeal prove that the problem lies with the confessions themselves? Do the confessions simply “not work” in a missionary context? Quite the contrary. While confessional churches may be, and often are, lax in fulfilling the Great Commission, the problem does not lie with the confessions themselves.
the true intention of confessions
The true calling of the Christian is to take up his cross and to confess Christ. Frequently, in the missionary context in many regions of the world today, they are one and the same. Confessing Christ might and often does entail an immediate threat to the believer’s very life in many places. This puts us in good company. Jesus Himself was the first martyr to be willing to die on account of His confession. His disciples certainly should not expect to be above their Master (John 13:16). He required His disciples to confess who He was and is (Matt. 10:32; 16:15), counting the cost before they did so and being willing to suffer the consequences, possibly even death (10:27–28). A confession is our heartfelt conviction of what the Bible actually teaches, a conviction held so strongly that we would sooner die than compromise on the truth of it. No Christian has ever been willing to be burned at the stake for something he “quite possibly” holds to be true. But Christians have in fact died at the stake on account of a confession that they hold to be absolutely true—without exception or qualification.
We could go through the genesis of almost every single confession of the church and show that they were not written in cozy studies but forged in the fire of persecution and written in blood. They are evidence that the blood of martyrs is in fact the seed of the church. One example must suffice. When Guido de Bres penned the Belgic Confession in 1561, he also submitted a letter to the Spanish ruler Philip II in which he gave the rationale behind the confession. He wrote:
The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures, and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction is not carnal, for we would lead a far easier life if we did not embrace and maintain this doctrine. But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that he shall forsake us before God and his Father if we deny him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.
De Bres and countless others were willing to be martyred, and were in fact martyred, on account of their confession. But why? Because they knew that to deny the truth of the confession is to deny Christ. And to deny Christ is deadly to the soul and takes away the only hope for people to be saved. They were willing to confess and die for no other reason than that the gospel would go forth. To be willing, even constrained, to confess Christ with intelligible words is the heart attitude behind every great and faithful missionary endeavor.
While the first confessions of the church were intended to be statements of orthodoxy—that is, of theological truth—they were never meant for the church alone but were always intended to be an engagement with the false belief systems of the world. There is no dead orthodoxy in the church’s confessions. They always challenge us, and they always challenge the world.
The confessions were also intended to be a guide for the preaching of the gospel. Not any old “gospel preaching” will do for the faithful evangelization of the world but only such that is in agreement with the truth of God’s Word as summarized in the church’s confessions. The confession literally puts words into our mouths—biblical words, words to make sense out of our experience of believing, and words that we can and must use as we go out into the world as witnesses for Christ. The confessions are time-tested tools for catechizing new converts and disciples into the full extent and content of the Christian faith, of all that Christ taught us (Matt. 28:20). They give us the words by which we, young and old alike, can own the content of the faith. But in all this, the most pristine intention of confessions has always been and always will be to be a positive declaration of the true faith and of the gospel in order to win people over to salvation in Christ.
the act of confessing
We often misunderstand the confessions as something archaic, even static. We think of the confessions as documents to be filed under “orthodoxy” and kept in drawers until needed, if they ever are. But in truth, confessing the faith is a very powerful and dynamic event. It is something that happens—to us, to the church, and to the world. As Dorothy Sayers put it, “The dogma is the drama.” A solid, biblical confession recounts the drama of God’s involvement in the world to create and to redeem a people, the church, by His Son through the Spirit. What we confess immediately involves us completely, existentially. When the believer opens his mouth with a heartfelt confession, when the church collectively opens its mouth with a time-tested confession, it is a Spirit-led confrontation of the visible and invisible world with the two-edged sword of God’s truth. It is an event in which God Himself comes to judge and to save the lost. There is no contradiction between the preaching of the gospel and the confession of faith. The former is a function and consequence of the latter. Confessing the faith is the most countercultural act imaginable. It declares war on the unbelieving assumptions of the world that might otherwise go unchallenged.
let us confess
The confession is the megaphone of the church. When the church does not confess her faith, it becomes mute. It has nothing to say to the unbelieving world. But when it does, God uses it mightily in His work of salvation. For the sake of the elect, then, let us hold fast the confession of faith. Let us not engage in mere intramural debates but let us own the confession and use it the way it was always intended to be used: as a megaphone drowning out the lies of the devil and the world, as a guide to and bulwark of the truth, and as a means to convert the lost.
True confessionalism is always outward- looking. It always leads us right into spiritual warfare and quite possibly to martyrdom. That, however, is the soil in which conversions take place and the church grows. That may well be the most important lesson I have learned on the mission field.
To confess Christ with words of truth to an unbelieving world is not a hindrance to the missionary mandate of the church. Rather, it is part of how the church fulfills the Great Commission.