August, 2015

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

For nearly 2000 years the Church has gathered together to answer the question, “Christian, what do you believe?” And for nearly 2000 years they have answered by affirming the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is a brief Trinitarian summary of the basics of Christian belief. And it begins by affirming the most fundamental of all Christian beliefs; I believe in God.

The 17th century theologian Hermann Witsius wrote one of the best expositions on the Apostles’ Creed. He began his commentary on the clause, “I believe in God” with these words:

God is at once the principal and the ultimate object of faith; “Ye believe in God,” said our Lord to his disciples. Believers consider God as the self-existent, uncreated truth, on whom they may rely with the greatest safety; and as the supreme felicity, united to whom by faith, they may become inexpressibly happy. The Creed, accordingly, begins with these words, I believe in God.[1]

Apart from a miniscule segment of the population which actually claims to be atheistic, the phrase, “I believe in God” is not considered a radical phrase. This belief is common to most religions and cultures and peoples. The Scriptures tell us that the general idea of God is self-evident to all (cf. Ps 14:1; Rom 1:19). But apart from the clear revelation of Scripture, the opinions about the nature and character of God lead in many different directions.

Affirmation of a belief in God is a good starting point. But it is insufficient to simply state, “I believe in God,” and leave it at that. In our pluralistic society it is increasingly common for someone to assert, “all religions are just different paths to God.” This statement assumes that all religious views about God refer to the same God; namely, the Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist are all speaking about the same Deity. But a quick glance at the beliefs of these faith traditions reveals that their definitions about God are mutually exclusive. For example, the Allah professed by the Muslim is not the same God of the Christian. This leaves us three options: 1) the Muslim is right and the Christian is wrong, 2) the Christian is right and the Muslim is wrong, or 3) they are both wrong. Because their definitions of who God is drastically differ, it is illogical to believe the Christian and the Muslim are both right. All paths cannot lead to God. The pluralist, who is likely trying to be humble and generous in asserting that all religions are equally true, has unwittingly taken the most arrogant position. He acts as if he stands above the fray, and he alone is able to see what is actually true.

The Apostle Paul confronted a similar inadequate knowledge of God when he addressed the people of the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). He took their altar to “the unknown god” and began to make known to them what was previously “unknown.” As Paul demonstrated, a generic view of God is not enough. Witsius echoes this by quoting the theologian Gerardus Vossius, “The knowledge of God, then, is of two kinds; the one, simple, by which it is understood, in general, that there is a God…the other, determinate, and applied to a certain object, namely, the God of Israel.”[2] If God is the Creator and Sustainer of all life and if God rules as Almighty over all the universe, then belief in him warrants clarity about his character and nature. It is only right that we think rightly about God.

To really believe in God we must know God rightly. We must draw near to him. And to draw near to him means that we must know him as he has revealed himself in Scripture. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Again, Witsius helps us here, “When God communicates himself to the soul, he not only makes it happy, but also holy.”[3] The more we know who God really is, the more God imparts the fullness of life to us (Gal 2:20). Witsius concludes this section by noting that if we faithfully say we believe in God, then it means much more than just a generic acknowledge of a higher power. Rather, it is a life-transforming faith. And when “captivated with its beauty and excellence, we may cultivate, with all possible zeal and activity, the small beginnings which we have, till we gradually reach that full assurance of faith, which produces so many excellent fruits. Lord, we believe, help thou our unbelief. Amen.”[4]

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations: On What Is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed (Khull, Blackie, 1823), 69, http://archive.org/details/sacreddissertat02witsgoog.

[2] Ibid., 97.

[3] Ibid., 107.

[4] Ibid., 119–120.

The Apostles’ Creed: ‘I Believe’

The Apostles’ Creed is a 2,000 year old confession of the basic contours of the Christian faith. From the earliest beginnings of the New Testament Church, the Church began articulating in a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13) what it is that a Christian believes. Often when I lead our congregation in the affirmation of this faith, I will ask the question, “Christian, what do you believe?” And the congregational response begins with the opening words of the Creed, “I believe.” Have we ever really thought about the importance of these words?

The first word is a very personal word, “I.” The Apostles’ Creed is a personal declaration of faith. This is something that must be held at the first-person singular level. It is not enough to merely be near faith. It is something that must be comprehended and affirmed as an individual. And yet with this very personal and individualistic declaration of faith, the one affirming his faith is joining in with the Communion of Saints which stretches across millennia and continents and cultures. We say “I believe” but we are also acknowledging that our personal and individual belief is but a part of the faith of the catholic (i.e. universal) Church. One letter into the Creed and we have already made the profound declaration that the faith is both something intimately personal and inherently communal. “I” believe means that we must own our own faith but never see it simply as our own.

The Christian begins the Creed by confessing, “I believe.” What follows is a verbal description of the broad shape of that belief. This belief has a content. It includes certain propositions and excludes others. R.C. Sproul says, “The Holy Spirit does not call us to faith in general, but to faith in particular.”[1] The Scriptures are clear that we are saved by faith (Rom 3:20-28) but they are also clear that we are not saved by faith in just anything. We are saved by “faith in Jesus” (v.28). The Creed’s opening words declare that we do not accept a relativistic or universal faith but our faith has a definite and specific content. We believe in just anything but in the triune God whose glories are declared from Genesis to Revelation.

When we speak about “belief” in the opening of the Apostles’ Creed we’re actually talking about three aspects of belief: knowledge, assent, and trust. The first component of belief is knowledge. We can only believe in that which we know. Note, this doesn’t mean a comprehensive or exhaustive knowledge. I believe in airplanes even though my knowledge of aerodynamics is inadequate. But I do know the basics of how planes fly and that knowledge allows me to believe in them in a way that prevents me from believing in time machines. Peter encourages the Christian that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his glory and excellence…” (2 Pet 1:3, emphasis mine). We have to have a knowledge of God in order to believe in God.

But knowledge alone is not sufficient for belief. Belief also requires assent. Assent means that you not only know something to be true but you agree with that truth. The person who is afraid to fly probably knows that airplanes can fly. They would likely let friends and family members fly. But they cannot give their personal assent to flying. The mind must not only know the content of faith but it must also give an intellectual assent to the truth of that content in order to say, “I believe.”

Thirdly, belief requires trust. It is not enough to have a knowledge and acknowledgment of what is true. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Capernaum, a man with an unclean demon cried out, “Ha, what have you do with us…I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” This demon certain had a knowledge and intellectual assent to the reality of Jesus Christ. But the demon could not say, “I believe” because he did not trust. Trust is not only knowing an airplane will fly and giving intellectual assent to that truth. Trust is buckling yourself into the seat and flying.

Each of these components is crucial when we say the words, “I believe.” And when knowledge, assent, and trust are increasing there is an emotional reaction in the heart. Our affections will deepen and our love will grow. True belief is more than persuasion, but it is a love and delight in the object of that belief. True belief in the Triune God of the Creed, that is, affirming “I believe,” means loving and delighting in the Triune God of the Creed.

[1] R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 19.

Affirming Our Faith: The Apostles’ Creed

What is the importance of the Apostles’ Creed for us today? Are creeds, as some evangelicals assert, an unbiblical and an unnecessary distraction to Scripture? The historian Mark Noll notes that in 19th century American Christianity, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura was modified into a distinctively American motto, “no creed but the Bible.”[1] But this was never what the Reformers meant by “Scripture alone.” In fact, the Church has historically used creeds and confession to profess the faith once handed down and to teach the generations what it means to believe. Creeds and confessions are a valuable part of the ministry of the Church.

A creed is a statement or summary of belief. There are some creeds and confessions that are internal to Scripture. Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the She’ma, is an example. Another would be the apostle Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Sometimes Scripture speaks in this summary statements of belief.

Other creeds are external to God’s Word. Though these creeds are “extra-biblical” they are not “unbiblical” because Scripture actually calls for their use. Paul instructs Timothy to “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Tim 1:13). What Paul means is that as Timothy shepherds the people of God, he ought to use biblically accurate summations of the faith, that is, extra-biblical creeds and confessions. Now these creeds have no inherent authority (unlike those which are internal to Scripture). The creed must state the truth of God’s Word in a logical pattern or form using extra-biblical language. Its authority, therefore, is tied directly to its faithfulness in restating Scripture’s truth. It is authoritative only because it clearly communicates God’s authoritative Word.

One of the oldest and most basic creeds in the Church’s history is the Apostles’ Creed. It was not, in fact, written by the apostles, but rather was formulated in the very earliest years of the New Testament Church as a summary of apostolic teaching. Philip Schaff notes, “As the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue the Law of laws, so the Apostles’ Creed is the Creed of creeds. It contains all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation, in the form of facts, in simple Scripture language, and in the most natural order—the order of revelation—from God and the creation down to the resurrection and life everlasting.”[2]

The Creed is Trinitarian in structure. It begins by affirming the truth of God as Father and Creator. It then expresses belief in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord and Savior. In its most developed section it affirms Christ’s miraculous birth, his suffering, death, and resurrection. The Creed then directs our attention to the Holy Spirit and his on-going work in the Church. In a brilliant economy of language, the Creed touches upon the entire warp and woof of Christian belief from Creation to final consummation. R.C. Sproul comments that, “it boldly declares that there is truth that is foundational to life, a truth that cannot be compromised without the peril of falling into the abyss of meaninglessness.”[3]

At this point it would be good to highlight an important distinction in our use of the Apostles’ Creed. You may notice in our worship that we weekly make some “Affirmation of Faith” using a historic creed or confession (usually from the Westminster Standards). We never merely “recite” or “say” a creed or confession. Anyone can do that. Anyone can verbally affirm a creed or confession with their lips. But only those who believe with faith can actually “affirm” it with their heart and mind. We should remember this as we weekly affirm our faith.

Over the next several weeks I will take this space to walk through the various clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. My hope and prayer is to unpack the rich doctrines of this historic creed so that we would have more than just a familiarity with this great Creed, but rather a great understanding of our faith. I want us to “follow the pattern of sound words” that we have seen in Scripture in order to love more deeply and understand more clearly our glorious God.

[1] Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), 151.

[2]  Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The History of Creeds (vol. 1; New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1878), 14–15.

[3] R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 10.

Let Love Be Genuine: A Christian Response to Abortion

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Romans 12:9

The Center for Medical Progress has released and will continue to release undercover videos of officials at Planned Parenthood involved in the buying and selling of baby body parts for profit. It has rightly alarmed and shocked the public and led to a vocal outcry against the ghastly realities of abortion industry. In the midst of this uproar, what should be the church’s response? How should the Christian respond to these videos? There are many ways we can and ought to respond to this grim situation, but one way to biblically respond to the wholesale slaughter and trafficking of baby body parts in the marketplace is to “let love be genuine.”

The apostle Paul uses these words in Romans 12:9 after he has laid out a thorough explanation of the doctrine of the Christian faith. After 11 chapters of unpacking doctrine, Paul begins to lay out the “so what” of the Christian life. This is the application of the Christian life. Believe this and because you believe this do this. Paul instructs Christians to “let love be genuine” and by this he means, “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Genuine love, therefore, is hating what is evil and clinging to what is good.

Our response to the evils of abortion must be marked by genuine love. There must be a genuine love for all those who reflect the image of a God who is infinitely and perfectly good. We must, therefore, have genuine love for the unborn. These little ones are every bit as human as you and me. They bear the image of the eternal and almighty God every bit as you and me. Their life ought to be preserved and protected every bit as you and me. To deny this is to deny the clear scientific, philosophical, and theological facts in favor of expediency. To destroy this image bearer of God is nothing but evil. John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Exodus 21:20, “If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.” We must abhor the evil of abortion. The most loving thing we can do is to speak plainly and clearly about evil. The death of the unborn is evil and whatever platform is given to us should and ought to be used to declare our abhorrence of this evil.

We must also have a genuine love for the parents of the unborn, particularly the mothers. I would never presume to understand the emotional chaos of a mother who chooses to terminate the life of her child through an abortion. Only the most calloused or misled would commit such an act without some amount of anguish and turmoil. Those who would choose death for their child must believe there is no other option. They have to believe that the cost of having this child outweighs the benefits. How might the scared mother feel if she experienced the consistent and genuine love of God through the people of God? In explaining the “how” of genuine love, Paul calls Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). What if we entered into the real and messy lives of the women who contemplate killing their child because they don’t see any other way? What if we loved them by opening our homes to them? Equipping them for motherhood? Assisting them in every way? Praying with and for them? Assuring them of the love and support of the family of God? The Church must show its unwavering resolve to cling to what is good by enabling women to choose life. And we must reject the false narrative that the Church only cares for children in the womb and not for the pregnant mother or the child born into abject poverty. Anyone who has spent time with a Crisis Pregnancy Center knows this is an evil lie used to justify the abortion industry.

And we ought to have genuine love for the abortion provider. This is a class of person that might be easy to overlook. They are the ones who have chosen to make of their vocation the destruction of the weakest and most vulnerable of all people. They look upon the human being in the womb and declare, “You’re not a person. You do not deserve to live.” They prey upon those who are most fearful: the teenager scared of what a child will do to her future, the woman who doesn’t believe she can support another child, the adulterer who wants to cover up a “mistake.” The abortion provider waits with open arms to clinically extract the inconvenient child who unsuspectingly rests in the safety of a mother’s womb and if one can make a profit in the process, then so be it. The videos which sparked this uproar showed administrators and abortionists coolly discussing dismemberment, “less crunchy” techniques, specimens, line items, and profits with no regard for the life which had been so easily crushed by their hands. And all of this under the deceitful guise of “Parenthood.” The easy, but sinful, path would be to return evil for evil by wishing harm or misfortune upon the person who performs abortions. But Paul is once again a step ahead of us, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Rom 12:17). Let me be clear, any desire for vengeance is sin. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19). The Lord, and the Lord alone, will vindicate his righteousness. Instead, we should “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). And part of that good is acknowledging that the abortion advocate bears the image of God every bit as you and me. We should have compassion for the abortionist and pray for his or her salvation. If God saved you from your sin, then he could save this person from his sin. In this we hold fast to what is good.

But we are also to abhor what is evil. And make no mistake; abortion is evil. Give no quarter to the evil of our generation. Let your love be genuine. Love those who bear the image of God. Do good for the parents of the unborn. And pray for the purveyors of abortion, that they would repent of their sin. But never equivocate on the evil of abortion. These video jar our sensibilities because they expose the absurdity and atrocity of abortion. We must never become numb to gross immorality that is inherent to abortion. In this crisis, if our love is to be genuine we must abhor the evil of abortion.