For twenty years, I have considered myself a “confessional Christian.” That means I subscribe to a historic confession of faith that I believe beautifully and accurately summarizes the Christian faith. This doesn’t surprise people who know me. I tend to wear my convictions on my sleeve. Literally. The tattoos that cover my chest and arms speak to the faith I hold dear. The tattoo on my hand reads “1689” for the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.
Because I love God, I love his word. And because I love God and his word, I love theology. And because I love theology, I love confessions of faith. To know God is to believe who he has revealed himself to be in Christ, to rest in his grace, and to obey him in faith. In all of this, we are dependent on the Holy Scripture, and are compelled to affirm and articulate the truths revealed therein. This is where confessions of faith play a vital role in the spiritual health of the Christian and the local church.
No Creed Except the Bible?
A confession of faith is a clearly articulated statement of what a group of Christians believe about God, the gospel, the church, and the Christian life. Presbyterians are well-known for the development and used of their Westminster Confession and Catechisms to great effect.
Of course, Presbyterians are not alone in their confessional heritage. Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Anglicans all have a long history of writing up and using confessional standards in their churches. But today confessionalism is largely absent in evangelical churches. This may be due in part to the rise of independent, non-denominational churches that do not have close ties to denominations or bodies of churches working together. Or in some instances, it may simply be the result of a lack of theological conviction.
Even with the growing interest in Calvinism among evangelicals in recent years, too often the resurging interest in doctrine has not led to a robust understanding of Reformed theology or an embrace of Reformed confessions.
In my own context, I occasionally hear some Baptists say things like, “We need no creed but the Bible.” While I affirm their belief in the supremacy and sufficiency of the Scripture, such a sentiment ignores the purpose and use of confessions. And by the way, such a statement is itself a confession.
Proper confessions of faith, like Westminster, or the 1689 Baptist Confession, serve four purposes: clarity, unity, charity, and safety.
Confessions identify core Christian beliefs in the context of a world that does not believe the truth and popular teaching that does not conform to doctrine that accords with godliness. If we are to know the truth, we must be able to explain it beyond simply quoting the Bible. This is, in part, why God gave the church teachers — to unpack the truths of Scripture.
What do we believe? What matters to us as the people of God? A confession lays this out for all to see. And keep in mind, confessions do not function as an authority on their own, but direct us toward truth and reaffirm the Scripture as God’s perfect and authoritative word for the church.
In identifying core beliefs, confessions provide a basis for doctrinal unity within a church and between like-minded churches. Before there can be a community of faith, there must be a faith to confess. The very basis of our communion and community is the truth of God and his gospel.
It is not enough to want to be together, or to even affirm that “Jesus is Lord.” We must be bound together by the faith once for all delivered to the saints clearly presented in the language of the people. Such unity is not only desirable with modern churches, but the churches that have gone before us. A confessional church does not view itself as an island to itself, but a part of the great continent of the church.
Yes, confessions draw important lines of distinction between various churches or denominations, but even then they will reveal that our differences are either of secondary or essential importance.
For example, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith is the common confession of Reformed Baptist churches. It was written in 1677 during a time of persecution by the Church of England against dissenters, and would not be publicly affirmed and signed until 1689 when the Act of Toleration passed giving freedom to Protestants who differed from the state church.
Baptists built this confession upon the labors of our Presbyterian and Congregational brothers’ work, namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Savoy Declaration. They used these earlier confessions because they believed them to be biblical and well-written expressions of the faith. Baptists edited these confessions to point out their own theological distinctives as Baptists. In doing this, Baptists demonstrated much agreement with these and other groups of believers while remaining faithful to their theological convictions.
Confessions are not only a public affirmation of doctrine, but are also a means of instruction and a help in shielding the church from error. Creeds and confessions have historically developed in the context of theological disagreement or heresy, where the church was forced to clearly demonstrate what the word of God says in matters of great importance. A church without a confession is a church that is under-protected against the assaults of the enemy, who desires to create confusion over, and cast doubt upon, the word of God.
Every church needs a confession. It is popular today to draw up our own, and while this is much better than no confession, too many of these are thin, poorly written, and incomplete, lacking the attention to detail the groups of pastor-theologians have often labored over in earlier generations.
A confessional church is a church that believes the truth is worth knowing and making known. It is a church that unites with the churches that have gone before it. It is a church that desires clarity, unity, charity and safety for the people of God.