(This article is taken from an address given at the “Growing Reformational Churches” conference held December 7–9, 1995 at First Christian Reformed Church in Chino, CA and jointly sponsored by that church and Westminster Theological Seminary in California.)
Americans are forward-looking. Their interests are in the future and in progress. They tend to agree with Henry Ford who said, “History is bunk.”
Futurologists are fashionable, serving as scientific prophets for the contemporary world. Technology fascinates us as it makes vast amounts of information available in a matter of seconds.
The great danger that this American tendency poses is that we will lose a proper working relationship with the wisdom of the past. We run the risk of being overwhelmed with the new and losing the venerable.
This character of American life affects Christian churches. Churches can get so excited about the latest fads derived from expert sociologists that they can fail to analyze those fads carefully. They can become so involved in preparing “vision statements” that they forget their confessions. We may fail to evaluate strategies and methodologies in a thoughtful theological and pastoral way.
The great danger of many American churches is that they will lose the center of faith. They risk getting caught up in something peripheral and missing the essential. For example, some seem to dedicate all their energies to evangelism but do not show that they know the Gospel.
The great Reformed confessions contain for us the center that we need. They are the summary of Biblical religion prepared by some of the church’s best minds and most pious hearts. These confessions—especially the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort—are full and rich. They must not be seen as an irrelevant or optional periphery to the life of the church. Even less should they be an ignored foundation. Rather we must return to them again and again as the heart and core of the life and teaching of the church.
The Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 1:8–14 wrote of the character of the message that he bore as apostle, herald and teacher. He spoke of the Christian religion as “pattern” (v.13), as “deposit” (v. 14), and as “sound teaching” (v. 13). While clearly recognizing that our Reformed confessions are not inspired, these concepts that Paul applied to his own preaching can help us think about the meaning of our confessions.
THE CONFESSIONS—A PATTERN
Our confessions show us the pattern of Biblical revelation. They are a pattern in the sense of an example or, even better, a standard. They show us something of the coherence and interconnectedness of God’s truth. They help us to see the system of doctrine that God has revealed in his Word.
Many Christians know a variety of Bible stories or have a measure of insight into particular doctrines of the faith. But too often these stories or doctrines are left fragmented. The real meaning of the stories and doctrines may be missed because their relations to the whole of the Bible are misunderstood.
The pattern of the confessions reminds us that the truth of God is not only coherent, but also broad and deep. The confessions remind us that God does not call us to an abbreviated or shrunken Gospel.
We can see that clearly by the way in which Paul himself briefly summarizes his message in 2 Timothy 1. He gives no barebones Gospel. Rather he speaks of the Gospel that brings the power of God for salvation and holy living. He speaks of this salvation as resting on the grace of God alone—a grace planned and purposed in eternity. This grace is brought to us by Jesus who destroyed the death that was our life and who sovereignly and effectively has enlightened and enlivened us. This Jesus will protect and preserve His own until the day of His appearing. (Notice that in just five verses Paul speaks of or at least implies all five points of Calvinism!) His teaching is rich.
That same richness is in our confessional heritage. In a church that is shrinking because of starvation, we must bring out in fresh and clear ways the feast of truth that is ours in our confessions.
THE CONFESSIONS—A DEPOSIT
Our confessions are also a deposit. By deposit, Paul meant a property that had been entrusted from one to another to be guarded. It referred to a treasure that had to be valued and protected. Clearly the Scripture is such a deposit: God’s Word given to us. But in a secondary sense our confessions are also our treasure.
They were written by men who were heroic preachers, wise theologians and faithful martyrs. They were written in an age of unusual devotion, learning and zeal. They have been defended for centuries by the best of our theologians.
Perhaps most remarkably our confessions have received an amazing level of support through the centuries. Often they were adopted in the first place by the unanimous action of church assemblies. Year by year they have been subscribed by the ministers and elders of Christ’s church. When we think how hard it is today to get a church assembly to do anything unanimously, the support these confessions have received is a marvel.
Because such a remarkable consensus surrounds them, the confessions can and must serve as ballast for the church. They provide continuity and stability for the church as it sails through storms. They connect the church to its own history and enable the church to share in the wisdom of past generations. They pull us together and help us overcome the corrosive individualism of our time. As we cherish and preserve our confessions, they will help protect us from the fads and novelties that beset the church today.
THE CONFESSIONS—SOUND TEACHING
The Reformed confessions are also—like the Gospel sound teaching. Sound teaching is a recurring concern of Paul in the pastoral epistles. He mentions it in 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; and Tit. 1:9; 1:13; 2:1; 2:2. By sound teaching he means healthy teaching, teaching that is not sick or poisonous. Paul knew that the church was often attacked by the evil one who sought to destroy the church with false teaching. In the face of such attacks the church needs healthy, useful teaching. Such teaching it has in its confessions.
Think for a moment about some of the problems the church faces. Christians today live in a radically relativistic culture. The confessions teach clearly about the unique revelation of God’s Word found in the Bible as completely trustworthy, transcendent truth. Christians may confront many cults. The confessions teach the Trinity and the person of Christ clearly. The church recognizes its evangelistic responsibility. The confessions summarize the doctrine of salvation. The confessions may not say all that needs to he said today to face all of these problems, but they do give us a solid foundation from which to build and minister.
Look more specifically at the helpful teaching found in some of the more neglected confessional statements. First, from the Canons of Dort:
Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation (III–IV, 3).
This article reminds us that men are utterly lost in sin. They do not seek God. No clever methodology can move their wills. Only the Spirit of God can enliven them. So every method of evangelism and church growth must be examined to see if it really takes seriously the complete deadness of the lost.
Or think of this article of Canons of Dort: As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what is acceptable to Him, namely that those who are called should come unto Him. He also seriously promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe (III–IV; 8).
This section of the Canons guards all of us from any form of hyper-Calvinism that would make us passive in relation to our responsibility to make Christ known. We must preach Christ and passionately call people to believe in Christ. We must promise all who believe that they will certainly find salvation in Him. What a wonderful encouragement!
Consider Westminster Larger Catechism, question 109:
What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, or all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.
This very long answer can be so daunting that a Christian may not even try to read or understand it. Yet it is not complex or difficult if read section by section. It speaks very much to the many questions about worship in the church today. It reminds us that God takes His worship very seriously. It emphasizes that we must do in worship only what God commands—neither adding to it nor taking away from it. It warns that neither tradition nor sincerity justify any practice in worship. Most importantly it should force all Reformed Christians as they talk about worship to go back to the Bible to see what it teaches.
The Reformed confessions are the pattern, deposit and sound teaching for us. In order for them truly to function in that way we must become more familiar with them. We should commit ourselves to read them at least once a year. (It would be very interesting to survey ministers and elders to see how often they read through their church’s confessions.) We should read not only our own denomination’s, but also others. We need to read them carefully. Where we do not understand them, we should study further. Where we may not agree, we should reexamine the issue—and especially ourselves! We should read them devotionally, letting their wisdom soak into us.
Our confessions really will enrich us and fit us for service to Christ’s church. They will help us experience the blessing expressed by Paul: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy life…What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
Dr. Godfrey, contributing editor of this magazine, is President of Westminster Seminary in CA and Professor of Church History.