Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: I Believe

The Creed does not open with the declaration, “I know,” “I feel,” or “I think.” It opens with the declaration, “I believe” (Pisteuo, Credo). This is significant. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Faith is the context in which we attain a saving knowledge of God (i.e. “that he exists and that he rewards”) and fellowship with God (i.e. “draw near to God”). We find this same idea expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament teaching that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 2:5; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). The Hebrew word that is translated “fear” connotes the idea of faith. This faith is independent of seeing. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” And 1 Peter 1:8b says, “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him.” So why is faith the context of a saving understanding of God?

Our lack of understanding is due to sin. Romans 1:21-22 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” And Romans 3:11 quotes Psalm 14 to describe the estate of sin, saying, “No one understands; no one seeks for God.” One aspect of our salvation is having our understandings enlightened to a true knowledge of God. This is what Hebrews 11:6 means when it says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.” But if faith only involves knowledge of God, then it is insufficient to save. James 2:19 is clear: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” While saving faith never involves less than a true knowledge of God, it always involves more.

Historically, saving faith has been defined by Protestants as having three essential aspects:

1.      Knowledge
2.      Assent
3.      Trust

The knowledge of faith includes all that God has revealed in his word for our salvation, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the Apostle has in mind when he says in Romans 10:14-15, 17, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Saving faith requires knowledge of the word of Christ. Thus WCF 14.1a says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.” In order to believe in Jesus we must know about him. But if we only have knowledge, we haven’t yet believed. After all, the Apostle says in verse 16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’”

Many people are aware of the basic teachings of Christianity but reject them as nothing more than cleverly constructed myths. Faith also involves assenting to the truthfulness of the Bible’s teaching as the word of God. The Apostle commends the Thessalonians for this in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. The text says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.” But if we know the gospel and assent to its truthfulness we still have not believed unto salvation. After all, the demons assent to the truthfulness that God is one (cf. James 2:19).

Faith also includes personal trust. The illustration of a chair is sometimes used to make this point. I may know that a chair is in the room. I may assent to the truth that the chair would hold my weight if I were to sit upon it. But until I actually sit upon it, I have not put my personal trust in the chair. Putting this in terms of the gospel, I may know the Bible’s teaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I may even assent to the truthfulness of it. But until I trust that Jesus’ did his redemptive work for meon my behalf, I do not have a saving faith in him. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Therefore WCF 14.2b says, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

This faith is given to us as a gift of God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is never perfect in this life but needs to be nourished and strengthened by regular engagement with the means of grace. WCF 14.1 says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.” This faith also changes the way we live our lives. WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular [Bible] passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.” And this faith overcomes the world by persevering to the end. 1 John 5:4-5 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” WCF 14.3 says, “This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

What we believe—our creed—should be precious to us. To believe the material of The Apostles’ Creed is a supernatural work of God that transforms our lives and gives us final victory over the curse of sin and misery. It marks the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. It is the foundation of our love to God and neighbor. It is a basic philosophy of life, providing a stable foundation from which to answer the most important questions. The Apostles’ Creed gets to the heart of Christian identity. As the Declaration of Independence contains the basic principles of the United States, so the Creed contains the basic principles of the visible church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth. To profess the Creed is to claim citizenship in the new creation. Good men and women, our brothers and sisters, gave their lives to remain faithful to the teaching of the Creed. Whenever we recite it we join our voices with them, carrying on the same mission under the same banner to the glory of King Jesus. 

Review Questions

1.      What is the significance of the Creed’s opening declaration “I believe”?
2.      What are the three essential aspects of saving faith?
3.      What must we know to be saved? How do we acquire that knowledge?
4.      What does it mean to assent to the truthfulness of Holy Scripture?
5.      What does it mean to personally trust in the gospel of Jesus?

The Apostles' Creed: Overview

The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of The Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24 AD. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

What are the characteristics of this creed?

Trinitarian

The Apostles’ Creed has a trinitarian structure. It begins with a focus on the Father, continues with a focus on the Son, and ends with focus on the Holy Spirit. While there is no precise formulation concerning persons and substance as with The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, there is, nonetheless, an implicit recognition of the trinitarian nature of God. We see an ordering within the trinity, the Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third. The Father is the Father due to his eternal begetting of the Son, and he is our Father due to the Son's redemptive work for us. The Son is the Son due to his being eternally begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit due to his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. These are their distinct personal properties (Larger Catechism, Q. 10). They are assumed here and made explicit later in church history. We also see particular operations ascribed to each person. The Father is the almighty creator. That’s not to say that the Son and Spirit are any less mighty or any less creator. It is simply to say that in the works of God ad extra (i.e. creation and providence), certain operations are attributed to the Father, certain operations to the Son, and certain operations to the Spirit. The Father creates and redeems through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an intra-trinitarian order of operations that is fundamentally indivisible and thus, properly speaking, one operation of the divine will. Yet each person performs a different action in the execution of that will.

Historical

The Apostles’ Creed is also intensely historical. Christianity, at its most fundamental level, is not a set of abstract philosophical axioms. It is an account of concrete historical events. To be sure, these events have immense philosophical import, but they come first. The infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God has revealed himself through time and space. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Thus time and space began. In the course of time and in a particular place the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. The incarnate Son suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead. These are all historical events.

Among these events the past is emphasized. The creed mostly covers what the triune God has already done for us. He created us. He provided all that was needed for our salvation. But we also see the present. The incarnate Son is presently seated at the right hand of the Father where he continually intercedes for us as our priest and rules over us as our king. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, presently indwells and sanctifies the church, binding its members together as one body, and applying to us the forgiveness of sins. We see the future as well. The Son will eventually return for the final judgment, and at that time the Holy Spirit will raise our bodies from the dead, thus fitting us for life everlasting. Whether looking to the past, the present, or the future, the creed teaches us the basics about what God is doing in and through history. It is quite literally his-story.

Redemptive

The Apostles’ Creed is redemptive. The history through which the triune God has been revealing himself is not chaotic but purposeful. It’s purpose is the good news of the accomplishment and application of our salvation. This should be the main focus of the church of Jesus Christ, which is why she is properly called evangelical.

The accomplishment of our salvation is the special work of the the Father’s only begotten Son, our Lord. It began with his incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born to die, suffering under Pontius Pilate so that he would be crucified, die, and be buried. In this way he descended into Hell for us, suffering the full penalty we were owed for our sins. He was raised from dead for our justification, ascended into heaven, and sat at Father’s right hand to continually intercede for us and rule over us. On the last day he will come again for the final judgment, openly acquitting his saints and condemning his enemies.


The application of our salvation is the special work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who sanctifies the church universal, making it holy. He is the one who binds us together as one communion. He is the one who seals to us the forgiveness of sins and fits us for his future resurrection work that we might live in glory forever.