Creeds and confessions of faith are carefully written summaries of the main doctrines of Scripture. They set forth the Church’s understanding of what the Bible teaches. The word “Creed” comes from the Latin word, “Credo” which means, “I believe.” In the early Church, Christians, as part of professing their faith, would publicly recite the main doctrines which they believed the Bible to teach. Since these recitations would begin with the word, “Credo” or “I believe”, they became known as Creeds. Creeds are also called confessions, because through them the Church confesses with the mouth the truths which must be believed in the heart (see Romans 10:9).
Some creeds and confessions are very brief. They contain little more than the doctrines we must know to be saved. Others contain more detailed explanations of these fundamental doctrines, as well as doctrines that are necessary for the health, peace, and purity of the Church. A catechism explains many of the doctrines of a Confession of Faith in a question and answer format.
Before we examine the reasons why we need Confessions of Faith, we should consider the importance and relevance of this subject.
1. Why is this subject so important?
Some churches claim to have no creed or confession at all. They claim that the Bible is their only creed and their only confession. They even criticize Churches who faithfully adhere to a confession of faith, saying that they are adding to Scripture and giving human writings an authority that belongs to Scripture alone.
At first, it sounds like these churches have a high regard for God’s Word. However, they do not realize that they too have a creed or confession – they too understand the Bible in a particular way. They simply haven’t written down their creed. As we will see, an unwritten creed is difficult to understand and more difficult to defend. Moreover, churches that reject creeds may not realize that they are influenced by modern attitudes to history and authority. The world today points to advancements in science and technology as proof that modern man is far more enlightened than anyone in the past. Consequently, they claim that history is irrelevant and may be ignored. Many people have the same attitude towards old laws, such as the law that only a Protestant can succeed to the throne of Britain. Therefore, the modern mind approves of a church that discards creeds and confessions written hundreds of years ago.
Others argue that Confessions of Faith cause needless divisions about doctrine. They emphasize that Christians should not waste so much time debating doctrine and focus on living more like Christ. This suggestion sounds pious, but the question arises, “Which Christ should we imitate?” The Lord Jesus Himself warns of false Christs: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24.24). And how do we imitate Christ? Can we do so simply by Bible reading, attending Church, making resolutions, and avoiding temptation? “No,” you say, “We must also trust in Christ.” But is trusting in Christ something that we can do or something that God must enable us to do?
All these questions are doctrinal. All of them have been answered in different ways by churches who all claim to be Biblical. Confessions of faith, as we will see, are very helpful in determining which Churches teach Biblical doctrine.
2. How is this subject relevant today?
may surprise the reader that very few Reformed denominations are completely
committed to everything in the Confession of Faith which they profess to
believe. In fact, it was a lack of commitment to the Westminster Confession of
Faith that led to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in
1893. Since then, our Church has found herself unable to unite with other
reformed Churches, because they do not have the same commitment to sound
doctrine, pure worship, and holy living. Indeed, the Christian Church
throughout the world is sadly divided into many denominations. One reason for
these divisions is disagreement over the authority that a confession of faith
We should therefore investigate this subject which has such an impact on the peace and purity of the Church. In particular, we should consider the biblical, historical, and practical reasons for being fully committed to a confession of faith.
Biblical Reasons for Confessions of Faith
Our Church has an unreserved commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Just read these parts of a solemn vow that every Free Presbyterian minister, elder, and deacon must make at his ordination.
“I do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith…to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith…and I promise that, through the grace of God, I shall firmly and constantly adhere to the same, and to the utmost of my power shall…assert, maintain and defend the said doctrine, worship, discipline and government of this Church…and I promise that I shall follow no divisive course from the doctrine, worship, discipline, government, and exclusive jurisdiction of this Church, renouncing all doctrines, tenets, and opinions whatsoever, contrary to…the said doctrine, worship, discipline, government or jurisdiction of the same.”
The language of this vow shows that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is strongly committed to a confession of faith. We must, then, be able to prove that the Word of God authorizes such a commitment.
1. The Apostle describes the church of the living God as the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). In other words, the church exists to proclaim and defend every truth in the Word of God. This proclamation and defense of the truth is done chiefly through preaching. "Preach the Word," said the Apostle to Timothy, "Be instant in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke and exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4.1).
2. Preaching involves explaining and applying the Scriptures. These explanations are not divinely inspired as the Scriptures are. But they are still authoritative, because they draw out the truth revealed in the Scriptures. Paul tells Titus (who was not an inspired apostle), "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee" (Titus 2.15). Here Paul makes clear that while the preacher's oral explanations are not inspired, they still bear an authority that must not be despised. In fact, church members who refuse to submit to Biblical preaching must be disciplined: "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself" (Tit. 3.10-11).
Few churches today will deny that Biblical preaching is authoritative. But some fail to realize that if the Church (through preaching) can give authoritative, oral explanations of Scripture, then she can also give authoritative, written explanations of Scripture. This is exactly what a creed or confession is - a carefully written explanation of the main doctrines of the Bible.
So, if a church claims to have no creed, and yet has preaching, she has an unwritten creed instead of a written one. The problem with an unwritten creed is that it is difficult to examine whether it is Biblical or even consistent. Further, such a church is not being forthright in stating exactly what it believes. And if a minister begins to teach error, it is difficult to discipline him, because there is no written standard available to evaluate his teaching.
We see then that it is Biblical for the Church to make creeds and confessions and require her office-bearers to adhere to them. In fact, when Paul exhorted Timothy, “Hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), he assumed that the Church would have a binding creed.
Historically, the Church was forced to write creeds and confessions because Scripture was often misunderstood and even slandered. This problem was not new. The Lord Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, was constantly misunderstood and slandered during His earthly ministry. The Pharisees considered Him a Sabbath breaker and blasphemer (Jn. 10:33). Others said, “He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?” (John 10:20). Christians ever since have endured similar treatment. Over and over again, the world has twisted and slandered their beliefs and practices. For example, some men in Philippi accused Paul and his friends of being troublemakers: “These men, being Jews do exceedingly trouble our city” (Acts 16:20). Christians in Thessalonica were similarly accused: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” (Acts 17:6). In fact, the general opinion everywhere was that Christianity was divisive. The Jews in Rome informed Paul that Christianity was seen as a “sect” that was everywhere “spoken against” (Acts 28:22).
Ever since, the Word of God has been repeatedly misinterpreted by unbelievers outside the church and by false or erring believers within the church. For example, when pagans in the Roman Empire heard about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, they accused Christians of cannibalism. At the Reformation, some people accused the Reformers (who rejected the authority of the Pope) of rejecting all authority whatsoever. Today, the world is enraged to hear that the Bible allows only men to teach and rule in the Church, claiming that it encourages oppression of women. They forget that whenever true Christianity comes to a heathen land, the treatment of women improves.
Sadly, the most subtle misinterpretations of Scripture have been made by false or erring believers within the Church. Men are always looking for a religion that quiets their conscience and allows them to gratify their corruptions. Many people know that the Bible sets forth the true religion, but they do not like how it exposes their secret sins and requires them to depend on Christ alone for all things. They then “wrest the scriptures unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). For example, the Dutch theologian Arminius (1560-1609) claimed to believe everything in the Bible but taught that man has been given some ability to save himself. He explained away the truth that by nature we are dead in trespasses and in sins (Eph. 2:1). Many people today follow his teachings because they are attractive to the proud heart.
Satan, moreover, does all he can to encourage misinterpretation of Scripture. He knows that the truth has such a beauty and simplicity that even the ungodly find it difficult to resist. For example, after hearing Paul speak about the truth concerning Jesus, King Agrippa said to him, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Therefore, to halt the spread of the gospel, Satan repeatedly uses the weapon of misrepresentation.
How does the Church deal with these perversions of the truth? She makes creeds and confessions – public, written statements that clarify what the Bible actually teaches. This does not mean that the Bible is unclear. The problem is that man’s understanding is darkened and his carnal mind is enmity against God. He willfully twists and misrepresents the very words of Holy Scripture.
Finally, churches have written confessions of faith to establish a basis for unity and cooperation. This was especially common during the Reformation. It was a church’s way of saying to other churches, “We understand the Bible just as you do. We are suffering for the same truths that you are suffering for.”
Practical reasons for Confessions
Creeds and Confessions help us in a variety of practical ways.
1. They help us understand the main doctrines of Scripture.
We must know at least some truth to be saved. Of course, we need more than just a head knowledge of the truth – the Holy Spirit must put the truth into our hearts in regeneration. But saving truth enters the heart through the understanding. If truth is not understood, it will not have a lasting effect. Christ says, “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart” (Matt. 13:19).
The Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 53 but did not understand it. Then he heard Philip’s explanation, which was blessed to his soul, and he went on his way rejoicing. Similarly, creeds and confessions provide explanations of important doctrines, which, by the blessing of the Spirit, regenerate, sanctify, and comfort our souls.
2. Creeds and confessions help us identify and refute error.
A young man once met two Mormons who claimed that their leader (Joseph Smith) had been sent by God to show us what true Christianity was. They claimed that the great apostasy predicted by the Apostles occurred soon after their death, and the true Church went extinct for centuries.
This didn’t sound right to the young man, but he couldn’t think of a Bible verse to refute them. He decided to look up what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about the Church. In chapter 25, he read that “…there shall always be a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will”. One of the proof texts for this statement was Matthew 16:18 “…upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Examining the Confession made him think of another text: “My righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (Isaiah 51:8). In every generation, souls will be saved – no matter how dark the day is. The young man saw that the Confession of Faith was like a map to help him get quickly to the Scriptures he needed to refute false teaching.
3. Confessions show us the unity and harmony of the truths of Scripture. They show how one doctrine relates to another. For example, the doctrines of total depravity and effectual calling are related to one another. If we are totally depraved – dead in trespasses and in sins – then the Holy Spirit must quicken us with that same power which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead (Rom. 8:11, Eph. 1:19-20). This quickening takes place in effectual calling.
One solemn lesson arises from the fact that all truths relate to one another. If one truth is denied, it will lead to the denial of another truth. Therefore, we cannot afford to be indifferent to any truth in the Word of God.
4. Creeds and confessions help ensure that the same teaching is heard in all the pulpits of the Church. The Apostle Paul commands us by the authority of Christ, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). Here Paul makes clear that the Church must “speak the same thing” by teaching the same doctrine and by worshipping and serving God in the same way. Only churches that are fully committed to a Confession of Faith will come close to this standard. A church that chooses not to be fully committed to a Confession of Faith is not even trying to obey this divine command.
5. Creeds and confessions help ensure that the same Biblical teaching will be declared to succeeding generations (with God’s care and keeping). Time passes quickly, and soon an entire generation of faithful ministers will be removed from the earth. Who will replace them? The Church with an unreserved commitment to a confession of faith answers, “Only those men who will preach the same unchanging truths that our fathers did.”
Too often, churches with a loose connection to a confession of faith change dramatically when a new minister arrives. He claims that he preaches the same gospel – only in a different way. But the more discerning hearers see that he is preaching a different gospel altogether. Great upheaval follows. The conservative members find that they cannot stop the disturbing doctrine from being taught, because the Church has no fixed standard of doctrine. Their only option is to leave the Church and go elsewhere.
Objections to Creeds and Confessions
Throughout the centuries, there have been a few professing Christians who have strongly objected to creeds and confessions. Some are concerned that creeds are given a place that belongs to Scripture alone. Others protest against creeds, because they so effectively expose the false teaching that they are trying to spread. An old writer observed, “People are seldom against creeds, except when the creeds are against them.” We will state and answer four main objections that are made time and time again.
1. Some people claim that it is arrogant for the Church to declare how others should understand the Scriptures. They argue that every person has the right to interpret the Scriptures for himself, and that creeds and confessions interfere with this right.
This objection is easily answered. Every time a minister preaches, he is showing his hearers how to understand the Scriptures. Creeds and Confessions also show us how to understand the Scriptures. If creeds are wrong, then so are sermons. The minister should do nothing more than read the Scriptures to the congregation. And he should read them in the original Hebrew and Greek, since translations are the work of fallible men and not inspired.
Furthermore, sermons and creeds have authority because they are rooted in Scripture. The minister says, “These are the doctrines you must believe, and these are the duties you must do, because this is what the Word of God says.” Similarly, the Church says in her creeds and confessions, “You must believe the following doctrines, because this is what the Word of God says. Just study the proof texts that we have appended to every doctrinal statement.” In no part of a Creed does the Church appeal to her own authority, or to the authority of learned theologians. In every statement of a Confession of Faith, the Church appeals to the Word of God alone.
2. Another common objection is as follows: “It is lawful for the Church to write Confessions in order to help us understand the Scriptures correctly. But it is not lawful for the Church to require men to subscribe to a Confession before they can take office. This requirement destroys liberty of conscience. The Church has no right to dictate what office-bearers may believe.”
This objection is answered in two steps. First, liberty of conscience does not mean liberty to believe unscriptural doctrine, or liberty to do anything that is sinful. Second, no one is forced to subscribe to a confession of faith. It is a voluntary act, in which the man solemnly declares before God, “I have read the Confession of Faith, and my conscience testifies that it is just what the Bible teaches. Therefore, I freely sign the Confession as the confession of my faith.”
3. Others object that confessions have not succeeded in keeping churches unified and Biblical. They point to churches that once had sound confessions and yet became filled with division and error.
This observation is sadly true. But it does not mean that creeds and confessions are useless. Public laws do not get rid of crime, but they are still valuable and necessary. Much more crime would occur without them. Similarly, if a church were to have no confession of faith, she would be troubled with far more error and division.
4. The last objection to consider is very common today, even in reformed circles. It is as follows: “Confessions should only include the doctrines that people need to know to be saved. Including other doctrines only causes needless division. Therefore, we should require office-bearers to subscribe only to fundamental doctrines and not let minor doctrinal differences divide us.”
This objection deserves a full answer.
4.1. In the Great Commission, Christ commands His Church not only to preach the gospel to every creature but also to teach them to observe all things whatsoever He has commanded. Clearly, Christ expected His Apostles to believe, teach, and enforce everything in His Word – not just the key doctrines of the gospel. He demands no less of His Church today.
4.2. It is true that people who believe only a few important truths of Scripture may go to heaven. However, that does not mean the other truths of Scripture are unimportant. At the very least, they are necessary for the comfort, stability, and usefulness of the Christian. James Bannerman draws a useful distinction between truths that are necessary for the being of the Church and truths that are necessary for her well-being. Truths that are necessary for the being (or existence) of the Church include the doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. A church that does not believe in the Trinity believes in a god of its imagination and is therefore not the Church of Christ at all, but a synagogue of Satan. Truths that are necessary for the well-being of the Church include the regulative principle of worship, which teaches that only the things God has commanded can be brought into His worship.
To illustrate Bannerman’s point, imagine two healthy people who have different diets of food. The first person is on a diet containing basic nutrients that give him energy for the day, but nothing else. The other person has a diet that includes a full array of nutrients, including vitamins. At first, the two people may both seem to be well. But when viruses infect the air, the first person’s health will likely break down due to a lack of vitamins, while the second person will likely continue to be healthy or recover more quickly (with God’s blessing). Similarly, a Church that holds only to fundamental doctrines of Scripture may appear to be well at first, but will weaken and eventually break down when Satan attacks. On the other hand, the Church that holds firmly to all truth will be far better equipped to resist his attacks.
4.3. Christ specifically warns the teachers of His Church not to ignore any truth and commends those who both teach and practice all Scriptural principles. “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.19). Therefore, the Church must resolve to assert, maintain, and defend every truth in the Word of God.
4.4. Christ declares, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). This adage teaches that those who are ready to compromise “small” Biblical principles will be ready to compromise “great” Biblical principles as well. An old writer put it well when he said, “He that despiseth small things, shall fall by little and little.” The Church, therefore, ought to demand that her office-bearers subscribe whole-heartedly to a confession that contains much more than just the doctrines that people must know to be saved.
Our Bibles, church history, and experience show how important it is for our Church to hold unreservedly to the Westminster Confession of Faith. We should be thankful that there was never a time when our Church’s commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith was in doubt. Never, for example, did our Church have a Declaratory Act that loosened its commitment to the Confession. Most Presbyterian denominations today either have, or used to have, a Declaratory Act in force. Of course, we must give the Lord all the glory for keeping the Church committed to sound doctrine for more than 125 years. “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Finally, the Lord in His goodness has placed us in a Church with a thoroughly Biblical confession of faith. Only a small fraction of the world’s population today enjoys such a privilege. His favour toward us should stir us to study the Confession of Faith and seek grace to make it the confession of our own faith. And we should be stirred to pray that our Church would be kept faithful to sound doctrine, pure worship, and holy practice. For “except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen watch in vain” (Ps. 127:1).