In my blog a few weeks ago about being Presbyterian, I mentioned that a distinguishing mark of our tradition is that we adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) (the Heidelberg Catechism is good too). As a follow-up to that idea, I thought it might be helpful to take this a step further and consider some good reasons why a church should be “confessional” — that is, why it should hold to an established confession of faith.
Christians sometimes get nervous when you talk about creeds or confessions of faith. In their commitment to the Bible as the word of God, they worry that adherence to creeds might lead to an over-reliance on a man-made document. “Isn’t the Bible sufficient?” they might say. “Why do we need anything else?” It’s actually a good question and deserves a good answer.
Below I offer eight reasons why a church would benefit from being confessional:
1) Confessions articulate what we believe the Bible teaches. There are an endless number of denominations, traditions, associations, groups, factions, sects and cults that all claim to “believe the Bible.” When someone makes this claim, it means next to nothing until we know what that person believes the Bible actually says about Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell, etc. That’s what a confession does.
2) Confessions help clarify difficult doctrinal points. Does the Bible teach that God is three or one? What is a covenant? How does God’s sovereignty relate to the exercise of free will? The Scriptures definitely have a position on such questions, but in the Bible, it is not always presented in a concise, easy-to-understand statement. Confessions help to bring clarification to such matters. Is repentance necessary for salvation? WCF 15.3 explains: “Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.” Well said.
3) Confessions help unify a church’s leadership. It is sometimes said that members of a congregation will only be as spiritually strong as their leaders, so if a church’s leaders are doctrinally divided, the congregation might be the same. Paul commands us in Phil. 2:2: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
4) Confessions are included in the Bible. Passages such as Phil. 2:6-11, 1 Tim. 3:16, 1 Cor. 15:3-7 and 1 Cor. 12:3 are understood to be brief confessions of faith used by the early church. So, while man-made confessions are not equal to the Bible in authority, the authority of the Bible does give us warrant to use confessions.
5) Confessions were recited by the early Christians. This is slightly different than point #4. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Tim. 6:12 to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Apparently Timothy recited some kind of basic confession of his faith, and not merely privately, but in the presence of witnesses — likely before a local Christian congregation. It’s a way for Christians to acknowledge Jesus before men (Mat. 10:32-33).
6) Confessions help prevent the almost inevitable sway toward liberalism. One problem with “evangelicalism” as a movement is that it is largely undefined and lacks a theological center. When there are no fences, it’s difficult to know when you’ve strayed off the property. Confessions are effective in setting up boundary markers that make it easier to tell when someone starts to stray off path. Charles Spurgeon said, “When men use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy, when the Word of truth is perverted to serve error, nothing less than a confession of faith will serve publicly to draw the lines between truth and error.”
7) Confessions are a way to resist rampant individualism in our culture. There is an unhealthy tendency among Christians to think that the most important criteria in Biblical interpretation is “what it means to me,” without any regard for what it has meant to anyone else. By adhering to a confession of faith, we humbly acknowledge that we are not the first people to read the Bible, that we can’t actually understand the Bible correctly in isolation from others, and that we can greatly benefit from the sanctified work of godly Christians in ages past.
8) Confessions are an expression of honesty. As Carl Trueman writes, “If you don’t write your creeds, no one can critique them.” By holding to a confession, a church declares, “We are not hiding what we believe. You might disagree with us, but at least you know where we stand on major doctrinal issues.”