Why Are We a Confessional Church?
Why does a Christian church need to state what it believes? After all, we have the Bible. Isn’t Jesus enough?
Bluntly, no. Obviously, only a true and living faith in Christ can save a man. Jesus is not only enough but he is the only and fully sufficient way to the Father. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). But we must ask men, as our Savior himself did, “Who do you say I am?” (cf. Mark 8:27 ff.) Jesus was asking for their understanding of who he was. It should be evident that those who do not believe in the full deity of Christ as well as his humanity are not confessing the same faith. So, too, we must confess what we understand and believe Scripture teaches about Christ, about salvation, about the Bible itself, and everything else.
What does “confessing our faith” mean? When we confess our sins, we are saying that God is true, we have broken his law, and acknowledge our guilt. We agree with his evaluation of our thoughts and behavior, that they have broken his commandments and offended his holiness. When we confess our faith together using a symbol of the Church such as the Apostles’ Creed or a portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith or Catechisms, we are declaring that we affirm or agree with those statements as accurately representing what we believe. It is a profession of our understanding of faith. (And to clarify, when we speak of “our understanding” we are not suggesting that the truth of God’s Word is relative or subjective, and that we decide what it means. Rather, we speak of “our understanding” in contrast to other men, but we know that it is God who has revealed the truth and we must ‘understand’ his Word in the light of Scripture. We are not free to attach any meaning we may desire, but must bring our understanding into conformity with Scripture.)
There are good reasons for being a confessional church, reasons drawn from Scripture itself. Here are a few broad reasons and blessings of stating our doctrinal standards. (The OPC has adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as its doctrinal standard.)
First, Scripture must be our first and ultimate standard and guide for faith and life (what we are to believe and how we are to live ). “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps 12:6). “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). Any other doctrinal standard must be in accord with Scripture. However, it takes a good amount of time and effort to read through Scripture, let alone understand and assimilate its teaching. Indeed, a lifetime is not sufficient time to plumb its depths and extract all it has to say concerning who God is and what man’s duty is. A creedal statement is not an adequate substitute for a lifetime of prayerful, humble reading and biblically hearing Scripture. Nevertheless, a faithful summary of the core content of the Bible serves as an aid in introducing and learning what God has revealed in his Word. A summary of Scripture structured as questions and answers (i.e., catechisms) are particularly useful in propagating the faith.
Second, in this world we must face the fact that sin has affected our heads and our hearts. We sometimes misunderstand Scripture; and at other times, sadly, men reject the clear teaching of Scripture. There are thus disagreements among Christians as to what the Bible means and requires. When one denomination or church says, “We believe the Bible is God’s Word,” they may mean something far removed from what we at Grace (or the denomination to which we belong, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) mean when we declare that we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. For us at Grace OPC, Scripture is the very Word of God. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). “No prophecy was every produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). It is inerrant (without error), infallible (unable to lead men into error), and inspired to the very words used as originally given (not simply inspired ‘ideas’ or ‘thoughts’, but the very words). Thus, Scripture is the ultimate and uncontested authority for all we are to think or do. This is very different from what many churches in our day mean when they state that the Bible is inspired or is God’s Word. Thus, a confession of what we believe distinguishes and clarifies what we believe to be the true understanding of God’s Word from less consistent and even false teaching which cannot be reconciled to Scripture. Some portions of creeds or other symbols (confessions, catechisms, etc.) specifically refute heresies that have and sometimes continue to confront Christ’s people.
Third, a confessional statement safeguards the church. The officers of our church (and all church officers serving within the OPC) must subscribe to our doctrinal standards. This helps to safeguard the content of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and is now inscripturated. (Cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:15; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14) Elders and deacons must preach, instruct and serve in conformity to God’s Word as expressed in, and in conformity to, our church’s understanding as set forth in our doctrinal standards. The session of each church must certify any potential candidates for office by ensuring that they understand and submit to our doctrinal standards. This is also a blessed safeguard for all of God’s people in our church. Pastors and elders cannot make up new doctrines and demand compliance to them if those are not in conformity to Scripture first and to our doctrinal standards second. In short, you can know where the leaders of a church ‘stand’ in a confessional church, and they are held accountable to those standards.
“No creed but Christ!” is itself a ‘confession’ of faith of sorts. It is short confession and pretty much useless, but it is a statement of faith. Thus even such a statement, which is meant to diminish the need or importance of confessional statements, demonstrates how such doctrinal statements cannot be avoided. We must explain what we understand Scripture teaches and how other understandings or teachings are not correct. In addition to guarding the truth, we must also propagate it.
So belonging to a confessional church is a great benefit in many ways. We must always be ready to submit our understanding of God’s Word, as expressed in our doctrinal standards, to the scrutiny and judgment of Scripture. We must never elevate a creed or confessional statement to the position of Scripture. But to the extent that it is faithful to God’s Word, a confession of faith is a help for faith and life and ought to be received with reverence and submission.