Some people are inclined to think that confessionalism has a stifling effect on the Church. They assume that adherence to Bible-based creeds and confessions inhibits vitality or freedom. To them the Church is more about relationship and are suspicious of things that are more formal and less subjective. Others want to be as flexible and inclusive as possible for attracting others and play down doctrine. Are these prejudices about confessionalism valid? Are they consistent with Scripture? It is remarkable in fact how often growth in faith is connected with the personal and collective growth of believers in Scripture.
Adopting and using a biblical confession of faith does not guarantee that the life of a particular congregation will be as healthy as it ought to be. It will, however, guard against certain spiritual diseases that come from false teaching. In Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul tells us that the Church is meant to flourish by means of truth. It is meant to be edified in love as we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:13 and 15). We are to “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. But this cannot happen if we are like children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”. By “speaking the truth in love” the Church is to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).
The less of the truth of the Bible we confess the less vitality we have. Christians are to resist error and hold to the truth and so walk in Christ, being rooted, built up, and established in the faith (Colossians 2:6-7). The Bible is not minimalist in the way that it declares the truth and neither should we be. A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfill its commission to make spiritually mature disciples (Matthew 28:20).
The Importance of Confessions
God has given us His Word so that we would have the information He wants us to know. A confession of faith is us putting in our own words what we understand God to be saying in His Word. Some people say they have no creed but the Bible. But they still have their own interpretation of what the Bible teaches. They either do or don’t believe in the Trinity, for example, or justification by faith alone. They just haven’t written down their beliefs in a systematic form. They do have a creed, just not a publicly available one.
Meanwhile, all sorts of heretics can quote the Bible. So if we restricted ourselves to using only the words of Scripture this would be an inadequate way of stating the truth. When someone quotes Scripture, it is always legitimate to ask, “What do you mean by that?” To say, “I only believe the Bible” is meaningless unless it is further defined. When a church writes down its understanding of what the Bible teaches, it allows anyone to see what it believes, and it also helps the church achieve clarity in its mission to tell the world what God’s Word says. This is why Jude exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Paul charged Timothy to hold fast the “form of sound words” and to guard “that good thing which was committed” to him (2 Timothy 1:13-14).
Anthony Tuckney (1599-1670) played a key role in shaping the Westminster Confession of Faith. He uses these words from 2 Timothy 1:13 to explain the value of confessions. He defines confessions as a way of setting down God’s truth in an orderly way. It is gathering such truths together which are scattered throughout Scripture. He then explains some of the benefits of a confession.
1. Confessions Help Us Grow in Truth
Forms of sound words have been used as declarations, not only of what we ourselves believe but also of what we think that everyone should believe. We also desire and require that all with whom we join in the closest Church fellowship should profess or at least not openly contradict it. This is how it was with the apostles in what they decided in Acts 15 and how it is with Churches and their confessions until this day; and so may it be always. When controversies arise they may be better understood and resolved by the help of such confessions. They may also be a deposit (2 Timothy 1:14) to be given to posterity as legacies or inheritances of their forefathers’ faith.
2. Confessions Help Us Grow in Unity
Confessions are not only badges of our Christian Church communion but also great helps and furtherers of it. By this means troublesome divisions may be prevented and the peace of the Church better preserved. This is a benefit when we all profess the same truth, and all “speak the same thing” and are “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
3. Confessions Help Us Grow in Peace
Failure to keep more closely to such “forms of sound words” has allowed every one to speak and write the vain fancies of his own heart and spread the foulest heresies and blasphemies with impunity. It has torn us in pieces and divided us. May the Lord in mercy speedily heal these gashes and ruptures. One special means to cure this is holding fast the form of sound and wholesome words (2 Timothy 1:13).
4. Confessions Help Us Grow in Strength
The apostles formulated their decisions to help those who were weak (Acts 15:24) and a confession does this also. The truths scattered throughout the whole Scripture are gathered together in a synopsis for them to see more clearly. Where there are things more obscurely expressed they are more familiarly presented to those of weaker understanding.
5. Confessions Help Us Grow in Discernment
Confessions help to uncover and repulse seducers and subverters of the souls of God’s people (Acts 15:24). The same fence that keeps the deer in, keeps out the ravenous wild beast. They are a fence to the vineyard and so are of very good use in the Church. Some poison can hardly be detected at first but as the mouth takes its food, so the sheep of Christ’s pasture discern by a divine instinct what food is wholesome and what is otherwise. It is not just those who have their senses exercised to discern good and evil, even the new-born babe has this taste. As soon as it is made partaker of the divine nature, it can tell when the sincere milk of the Word is adulterated (though perhaps not in what way). A godly Christian (who had a better heart than head) once had his spirit rising against something which he heard in a sermon, but he could not tell why. Afterward it was shown to him to be very corrupt doctrine.
6. Confessions Help Us Grow in Health
A form of sound words is especially that by which they recover and gain health and strength and so thrive. The new-born babe fattens and grows by the sincere milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). It is bad soil in which good plants are starved or diseased. Is it likely to be a wholesome diet if men (otherwise well and full of health) do not thrive on it? A good tree (our Saviour tells us) brings forth good fruit and the same may be said of good doctrine. Although by the corruption of men’s hearts, good doctrine may not always bring forth good fruit in their lives, yet bad doctrine naturally brings forth what is bad and abominable. But let us continually esteem wholesome spiritual food. The man of God lives and thrives by this and does God’s will cheerfully. Like Elijah (who went forty days and nights in the strength of what he ate) the Christian continues in the strength of this food through the wilderness of this world until he comes to the mount of God. A sound heart relishes and thrives by sound doctrine. Since man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God it is not sufficient that these sound words have man’s approval. They must be not only acceptable words but grounded on what God has instituted, they must be words of truth, words of the wise given by one Shepherd.
If this is so, be sure to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). As Christ said to the Church of Thyatira “that which you have already, hold fast till I come” (Revelation 2:25). Be sure to hold fast, take heed that you are not robbed of it but are sure you have it. In various passages (Revelation 6:9 and Titus 1:9) to hold fast means that we hold the truth so fast against all opposition that no strength of man or devil may force it from us but that we maintain it against all.
The truth is heaven’s pledge (2 Timothy 1: 14) with which God has entrusted us. Our souls are the pledge (2 Timothy 1:12) with which we trust God. We should be as careful of His pledge as we would have Him be of ours. Be sure that we will be called to an account for this and how solemn it will be if we are like the one described in 1 Kings 20:39-40).
This is the bequest given to us by our godly forefathers, should we not similarly careful to transmit it to our posterity (Psalm 78:3-4)? The martyrs have sealed it with their blood, will we prove guilty of that through our unfaithfulness? This is the best part of our children’s inheritance, as the law was (Deuteronomy 33:4). Make sure that our forefathers will be not ashamed of us and our posterity at the resurrection for betraying God’s truth and our trust. Hold fast is the charge to many of those churches written to in Revelation 2 and 3, both the best and the worst. Holding fast may cost us in contending but if we are we faithful in the conflict, we may be sure of the conquest.