February, 2016

The Apostles’ Creed: Forgiveness of Sins

In Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, we are given a horrifying picture of our deep need for forgiveness. Lady Macbeth has orchestrated the murders of King Duncan and Banquo. The guilt of those murders weighs upon her conscience until she is psychologically and spiritually crushed by it. Lady Macbeth wanders the halls at night, vigorously rubbing her hands, attempting to clean the imagined blood of the murdered off of them. “Out, damned spot, out, I say!…will these hands ne’er be clean?…Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (Macbeth V 1:37-55). Nothing will wash the guilt of her sins off of her hands.

The Apostles’ Creed affirms that “forgiveness of sins” is granted to those who have faith in Christ. The forgiveness of sins presupposes guilt. There is a latent assumption in the Creed that we need forgiveness on account of our guilt. Without saying as much, the Creed implicitly affirms that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). That presupposition is grounded in Genesis 3:5 when Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie that by eating of the tree they would “be like God.” Following in Adam’s footsteps, we have all craved autonomy instead of God’s Law. We repeatedly believe the lie that true freedom is found in our own self rule instead of in God. But freedom is found inside the bounds of God’s Law. The man who leaps off the cliff attempting to fly is still bound by the laws of physics. He doesn’t find freedom but death. The man who understands the laws of physics, however, can operate in those laws and empower man to soar through the sky. Freedom is found within God’s Law, but guilt and death are found outside of them.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote frequently of “cheap grace.” By this term he meant a type of forgiveness that was given without cost and received without acknowledgment of that cost. If we think our sin is insignificant, then we’ll see God’s grace and forgiveness as insignificant. This is, in my opinion, one of the great problems in the church today. We have minimized our own sin and need for forgiveness and have consequently minimized the radical power of God’s grace.

The predicament of our situation is that our sin demands God’s wrath. And there is no way we can atone for our own sins. “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice” (Ps 49:7, 8). We are lost and dead in our sins (Lam 3:54, Eph 2:1). In Macbeth, the Doctor replies to Lady Macbeth’s condition by noting, “Foul whisp’rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. More needs she the divine than the physician. God, God forgive us all” (Macbeth V 1:75-79). Our need for forgiveness requires something greater than and from outside of ourselves.

But God in his great mercy and grace has provided for us in our predicament (Eph 2:4). While we cannot ransom ourselves out of our guilt, God has made a way. “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps 49:15). In Christ, God has graciously provided for our greatest need. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited form your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18, 19). Lewis Smedes commented, “The simplest of all remedies for shame [guilt] is the discovery that we are, in spite of everything, accepted by the grace of someone we most need to accept us.”[1]

The great need for man is to have the stain of blood washed from his hands. The spot must be rubbed out. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that through his life, death, and resurrection we can have forgiveness of our sins. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:7). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness is not automatic. It comes through the cross of Christ and is given to us by faith alone. But that forgiveness is complete and pure. We can be cleansed from the stain of our guilt. We can have forgiveness of sin.

[1] Quoted in: R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 199.

The Apostles’ Creed: The Communion of Saints

 

We last looked at the phrase, “holy catholic church” in the Apostles’ Creed. The next phrase is closely related to it. In fact, it has been said that “the communion of saints” is a definition of the “holy catholic church.”[1] The holy catholic church denotes that God has set apart his people as holy and united them together in Christ. They are his people. With that understanding this current phrase speaks to what the church does. The saints, that is, those who are set apart by God and united together in Christ, are to commune together.

The most common way we think about this concept is in the particular local church. But this would be a very limited way to speak about the Church. The Church consists of “the whole number of the elect” that will be gathered together with Christ as her Head (WCF 25.1). Everyone throughout all time whom God has elected and redeemed are the Church. Everyone who will be in heaven with Christ as their Head constitutes the Church. Ultimately, therefore, the Church is not necessarily something we can see with our eyes. The Confession refers to it as being “invisible.”

But there is a visible aspect of the Church. First, while we are not currently able to see the whole number of God’s people, one day we will see. Second, those who profess Christ as Savior and their children are considered to be the visible church (WCF 25.2). This is the Church we can see. The Great Commission calls this church to do visible actions, such as baptism, teaching, and obedience (Mt 28:18-20). These are things that we can see. Acts 2 shows the church gathering together and sharing what they have with one another. The Lord “added” to their numbers (2:47). That has to mean that there was a set, defined, and visible number of people who were considered as “the church.” And it was to that number that new believers were added. This too was visible.

So, while it is critical to be a member of the invisible church, it should be seen as equally necessary for the Christian to be a member of the visible church. The idea of a Christian who exists outside of the visible church is foreign to the pages of Scripture. G.I. Williamson notes, “No doubt that is one reason why Jesus gave sacraments to the church. They were not invisible sacraments, because the church itself is not meant to be invisible.”[2] God has provided for the members of the invisible church by giving his Means of Grace to the visible church. The preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments belong to the visible church. And it is to the visible church that all the saints are called to belong. If a Christian chooses to cut himself off from the visible church, then he has cut himself off from the discipline of God’s Word, the sacraments, and, certainly in this life, from the communion of the saints.

The Creed leaves no room for the “Lone Ranger” Christian. Too often we default to make a cost/benefit analysis with respect to the church, that is, we get caught up thinking, “What’s in this for me?” But if we understand what is meant by the “communion of the saints,” then we will realize that church is really about “one another.” Our salvation is seen in terms of God’s gift to us. The Father gives the Son. The Father and the Son give the Spirit. Why would we ever think the ministry of the church doesn’t reflect this? The “communion of the saints” should be seen in terms of gifts, as well. We are members of one another, and the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit are intended for one another’s benefit.

How might this affect your view of church attendance? Your presence in church on the Lord’s Day is important for you, but it is also important for your brothers and sisters. What if, by God’s grace, we stopped approaching church with a “What’s in it for me?” attitude, and instead thought, “How might I honor Christ by serving his body?” attitude? Again, Williamson summarizes this, “The truth is that when you are not there, the body – as a whole – is weakened. This is true because the holy catholic church is a holy communion of believers.”[3]

 

[1] G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 1994), 98.

[2] Ibid., 100.

[3] Ibid., 101.

The Apostles’ Creed: The Holy Catholic Church

Alienation is one of the many facets of the curse which man brought upon himself at the fall (Gen 3). Immediately after the fall man realized that he was naked. And this brought shame. He sought to hide from God. He also sought to blame his guilt on someone else. That sin brought alienation to his relationship with God and with his wife. Sin and the devil continually attempt to divide and isolate. But the Gospel seeks to reverse all the brokenness of sin. Our union with Christ, therefore, not only redeems our relationship with God but also with other men. James Bannerman explains:

When Christ, through the mighty operation of His Spirit, brings a sinner into reconciliation and communion with Himself, He ushers him also into the fellowship of reconciliation and communion with all other Christians. When the work of grace is done upon the soul of man, and the barriers of separation between him and his Savior are cast down, and the sinner who was afar off is brought near to God, the very same work of grace removes the obstacles that hindered his union with other men; and in the fellowship of one faith and one Lord he discovers a new and mightier bond of attachment and union to his fellow-believers.[1]

Bannerman continues by stating that even if there was no positive command in Scripture for Christians to assemble in corporate fellowship, the very nature of Christianity would force it. The Church is the natural outworking of the Gospel and is necessary for Christians. This is why the early Church pastor Cyprian once stated, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”[2] And the Westminster Confession declares that outside of the Church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). The Apostles’ Creed also affirms the importance and necessity of the Church. It appears that the Church is important for Christians, but what does the phrase “the holy catholic Church” mean?

The term “holy” does refer to the purity and impeccable character of the Church. But even more than that it refers to the church being “set-apart” for the Lord. The word “church” comes from the greek word kyriache which means “those who belong to the Lord.” The people of God are those who have been separated from the profane and set apart as belonging to the Lord (Ex 19:5, Deut 10:15, Is 62:12, Heb 12:22-24, 1 Pet 2:5, Rev 5:10).

The Church is also “catholic.” The word catholic means universal. I believe a brief note is necessary to clarify what we do not mean by the term “catholic.” In our modern usage we often confuse this term with Catholic (capital C), which commonly refers to the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church believes that it (and it alone) is the universal church, and it happens to be centered at Rome. As Protestants, we strongly protest this belief. So, it is better for Protestants to refer to that institution not as “Catholic” but as the “Roman church” (see John Murray, “Tradition: Romish and Protestant”). By using the term catholic we affirm our belief that the Church is universal. The Church encompasses all the elect from every time and place. The catholic Church is the whole family of God. Cyril of Jerusalem said, “She is called catholic because she is diffused over the whole world from the one end of the earth to the other.”[3]

What then, is the criteria for this “holy, catholic Church”? The Reformation of the 16th century sought separation from the Roman Church after repeated attempts to reform the church from within. The Reformers landed on two essential issues that were non-negotiable matters in order for the church to be considered the true church; they were justification by faith alone (solus fide) and the authority of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). The people must trust in Christ alone for their salvation. And they must look to God’s Word alone for the revelation of God’s glory and his plan of salvation. These doctrines are necessary for the church to truly be the Body of Christ.

The grace God has given us through placing his children in his “holy catholic Church” should lead us to avoid anything that might injure the Church (Acts 9:5). Instead, in all things we should look to the good of the Church, working to promote the edification of the Church (Isa 62:1, Ps 122:8, 9). As all in the Church are united to Christ, the good we do for the Church is good done until Christ himself.

[1] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church (vol. 1; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 19.

[2] Cyprian, The Treatises of Cyprian, 1.6 (ANF05 5:421).

[3] Quoted in: Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 360.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

 

The Holy Spirit is often the forgotten member of the Trinity. We think of God the Father regularly as the one who ordains and wills all that happens. We pray to “our Father.” Conceptually, we can conceive of God in a fatherly relationship. And God the Son is an even easier concept to grasp because he was fully man. Had we lived at that time, we literally could have grasped him. But the Holy Spirit is harder to conceptualize. His economic role in the Trinity is subordinate to the Father and Son. He is sent by the Father and the Son. The Spirit “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). There is an ethereal quality about the Spirit. Abraham Kuyper comments:

The Holy Spirit is entirely different. Of him nothing appears in visible form; He never steps out from the intangible void. Hovering, undefined, incomprehensible. He remains a mystery. He is as the wind! We hear its sound, but cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth…. There are, indeed, symbolic signs and appearances: a dove, tongues of fire, the sound of a mighty rushing wind, a breathing from the lips of Jesus, a laying on of hands, a speaking with foreign tongues. But of all this nothing remains; nothing lingers behind, not even the trace of a footprint.[1]

And yet, the Creed clearly affirms the Triune nature of God in that the Holy Spirit IS God.

Perhaps this “spiritual” quality of the Holy Spirit is the reason we tend to give Him less theological analysis. In fact, a criticism of the Westminster Confession of Faith is that there is no chapter on the Holy Spirit. But this isn’t exactly a fair criticism. Robert Letham notes that the Westminster Divines, while not dedicating a single chapter to the Holy Spirit, saw the Spirit as present throughout. “To complain that a chapter on the Holy Spirit is lacking from the Confession is to overlook the way the divines see the Spirit and his work pervading the whole of creation, active at every stage in grace, and undergirding the entire Christian life.”[2] A similar thing could be said about the Apostles’ Creed. We should note while it simply states “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” everything that follows could be seen as a falling under the ministry (in some significant way) of the Holy Spirit. The point being for us, we should not neglect the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives today.

The work God does in the heart of the Christian is done by the Holy Spirit. The application of salvation comes by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God within every believer. He regenerates us, give us new birth, sanctifies us, and puts to death the old self. The Spirit dwells within Christians as his Temple (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Gal 4:6; 5:16-26; Eph 2:11-21). They life of holiness is a life lived in the Holy Spirit. The necessity of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is highlighted by Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit’s power in his life. Jesus’ ministry was empowered by the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:16, Luke 4:1, Jn 1:32). If Jesus needed the Holy Spirit then we certainly need the Holy Spirit.

The Christian life in the here and now is lived out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our union with Christ is accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Our baptism in (1 Co 12:13) and then continual filling of the Spirit. Paul uses the metaphor of drunkenness by way of comparison to how the Holy Spirit operates. “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled (literally, “keep on being filled”) with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). In the same way an excess of alcohol overwhelms and takes over a person’s judgment and actions, the Holy Spirit will take over our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Herman Witsius helps us understand our response to the work of the Holy Spirit. First, we should approach the Scriptures which were inspired by the Holy with reverence and obedience. A rejection of Scripture is a rejection of the Holy Spirit. Second, we should receive the reproof and conviction without resistance. Third, we ought to carefully kindle the fire of the Holy Spirit, that it might not be extinguished in us or other. Fourth, we ought to consecrate ourselves as the Spirit’s Temple and seek purity and holiness in all areas of our lives.[3]

[1] Quoted in: R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 168.

[2] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context, First edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2009), 171–173.

[3] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 345.