The Apostles’ Creed
If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Romans 4, as we begin a series of studies in the Apostles’ Creed. As many of you know, the Apostles’ Creed is an elaboration of a very old creed which had been circulating in various areas of early Christianity. In fact, you can find almost all of the component parts in the writings of some of the second century church fathers, Justin, Iraeneus, and Tertullian. But this creed, in the main, came together over the course of the second through sixth centuries, and it is the most important, universally employed confessional statement in Christendom, except for what call The Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed first began to come together at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and then a slight modification in 381 AD at Constantinople.
The Apostles’ Creed, unlike the Nicene Creed, and some of the other formulations of early church councils, was used for multiple purposes. It was used for catechism training, for teaching Christians the basics of the Christian faith. It was also used as a baptismal confession. When believers came before the church to profess their faith in Christ, not having previously been baptized, they would be schooled in the Apostles’ Creed and then the minister would ask them each of the phrases of the Apostles’ Creed and ask them to affirm this as their faith, before they were baptized, not unlike the way we ask the five questions of membership, to adults who come to the church now to receive baptism and profess faith in Jesus Christ.
But the Apostles’ Creed was also used in worship. Unlike the other creedal formulations of the Church, especially in the Western Church, the Apostles’ Creed was incorporated and said as part of worship in the gathered services of the Church. And so, for hundreds of years the Apostles’ Creed has both served as an instrument for instructing Christians in the basics of the Christian faith, and as an instrument for Christians to express, in worship, their common confession in the one true God.
We recite it often in our worship services, we're going to sing a part of it at the end of this service, and that presses upon us a very significant question: and that is, “What does it mean?” What do we mean by the various phrases and stanzas of the Apostles’ Creed, and how do these biblical truths relate to our daily lives? Well, we're going to try and answer some of those questions as we study through this ancient confession of faith phrase by phrase.
And I have several goals in mind as we do this. First of all, it is my desire to anchor the specific assertions of the Apostles’ Creed in the text of Scripture. We don't receive the creed simply because it is the tradition of the church; we receive the creed because we believe it is faithful to Scripture and that the tradition of the church, which has embraced it and perpetuated it is simply being faithful to Scripture in doing so. So, we want to see clearly that the Bible teaches these truths.
Secondly, we also want to address contemporary deterrents to belief. We live in an unusual age. Now faith has always had its challenges. There has never been a time when believers were not challenged in some way in their faith, but we live in a strange time when the very concept of belief is under fire. If you believe something to be absolutely true, you are suspect, and you may well be the root problem of all the problems in the modern world. And so, we as Christians need to respond to the cultural forces currently arrayed against historic Christian teaching. And I hope to do some of that as we work through this creed together.
Thirdly, and alongside of that, I want to affirm your confidence in historic Christian understanding of biblical truth. We want to encourage Christians to whole heartedly embrace the teaching of Scripture in these areas despite the fact that we are being very counter cultural when we do it.
Fourthly, it is my hope to arrest Christian defection from biblical truth. We have many Christians today who are working harder than some non-Christians to make Christians doubt these truths and we need to respond to that and I hope to do something along the way of doing that as we work through some of the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed.
And then finally, we want to apply these biblical truths to the specific situations of our daily lives. We want to see how good theology serves the good life. And so we want to see how the faith informs the Christian life, how doctrine informs practice, how those things are tied together. That will be among some of our goals as we pursue this study.
Now if you’d turn with me in your Bibles to Romans 4, we're going to read a passage about a great believer, and we're doing that because today we're only going to focus on the first two words of the Apostles’ Creed. We’re not even going to get into the stuff or the substance of the specific assertions today, we're just going to address the issue of what does it mean to believe? And what better place to go to than the place where the Apostle Paul says we have the example par excellence of a believer in God–Abraham. And here we hear his story beginning in Romans 4:18:
In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also reckoned to him as righteousness.
Amen. This is God's holy word. May we look to Him in prayer.
Our Lord and our God, this is Your Word. Grant us understanding and grant us the understanding of what it means to believe on you, to trust in you, to embrace you by faith for the saving of our souls. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Have you ever thought about it? It's a very counter-cultural thing to do in twenty-first century America, in fact, twenty-first century anywhere in the western world, it is a very counter cultural thing to do to stand up and confess the Apostles’ Creed. Our age is uncomfortable with absolutes. In fact, there is a postulate in our age which says that “The root source of all problems is people who think that they've found absolute truth. And if we could just get rid of people who think they've found absolute truth, the world would be a much nicer place.” And so Christians standing up and saying, “We don't simply believe this to be true for us, but we believe this to be the truth–the truth about God, the truth about Christ, the truth about the Holy Spirit, the truth about the Church, the truth about reality–that's a very threatening thing to a world that likes to live in the relative and in the subjective.
Our world likes to talk about values, not about morals. Our world likes to talk about opinions and perspectives rather than faith and facts and belief. It likes the subjective rather than the objective. And for this reason and more, it is very important for us to understand what we are doing when we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed. And so, we are undertaking this study and we are looking at this formulary phrase by phrase seeking to ground and explain each of these phrases its teaching in and by the Scripture.
Today I simply want to look with you at the first two words of the Creed: “I believe.” I want to do that for a specific reason. When you say, “I believe,” when you start off a conversation with a friend today and you say, “I believe,” they don't hear you as I hope you mean that phrase. When you start off with, “I believe,” the average mortal thinks that you are about to express what is your subjective, personal and private opinion with absolutely no weight or bearing of what objective reality is. It's, “This is my tenuous, temporary opinion on ‘x.’” But when we stand up and say, “I believe,” we don't mean that when we're saying The Apostles Creed. So, we need to pause for a few moments and think about what we mean by “I believe,” and there are four things I want to bring out. First, I want to bring out the importance of Christian belief. Secondly, I want to address obstacles that we face today, unique obstacles perhaps, with regard to Christian belief. Third, I want to look at the content of Christian faith, I want to look at the nature of Christian faith. What is it to believe? What is it to have faith? And then finally, I want to look at the importance of Christian faith, it's vital, indispensable importance.
I. The importance of Christian belief.
First, looking at Romans 4:18-22, and looking at this whole issue of Christians as believers. Christians believe and are believers, and Paul takes Abraham as a paradigm of faith, as a paradigm of belief for Christians. And I want you to notice three components of Abraham's faith, because we're going to come to these again. The first component of Abraham's faith is his response to God's revelation. In other words, God takes the first step, God comes to Abraham, and God makes a promise. Look at Romans 4, “He believed, in hope against hope.” What did he believe? “According to the word which was spoken, so shall your descendants be.” In other words, Abraham's faith was first and foremost a response to what God had already said to him. It wasn't blind faith, it wasn't contentless faith, it wasn't faith in faith; it was faith in what God had said to him–His promise. He believed. He heard the promise of God and he responded to that promise of God.
How did he respond? First, he responded by believing it. He embraced what God had said. “Yes, God, what You have said to me is true. I believe it.” So, there is response to what God has said, there is belief in what God has said, and then there is trust in God. Abraham believed the word that was spoken, and he trusted God to fulfill His promises. So, in Abraham's faith there was both belief in the things that God had said to him – in other words, he believed the propositions that God had made to him – and there was a belief in a person. You often hear people today say, “We believe in a person, not in propositions.” That's a false dichotomy. We believe in a person, and we believe all the propositions God has made about that person. So, we believe God and we believe what God has said. And any time someone tries to set those things against one another, let the alarm bells go off, because something is about to get slipped under your door. So Abraham responds to God's word, he believes what God has said, and he trusts in God, and there we see the components of Abraham's faith.
Now, have you noticed how many times Christians are called believers in the New Testament? Sometimes they’re called disciples, sometimes they’re called followers of Christ, sometimes they’re called followers of the Way; sometimes they’re called Christians. Actually, fairly rarely, first in Antioch Luke tells us about that, but at least a dozen times they are called believers. (Acts 5:14) “All the more believers in the Lord were constantly added to their number.” Acts 10:45, Luke records those who were Jewish believers by calling them “circumcised believers” that came with Peter and were amazed. 2 Corinthians 6:15, “What harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” In Galatians 3:9, Paul calls Abraham “the believer.” He's the believer par excellence. I Thessalonians 1:7: “So that you will become an example to all the believers in Macedonia an Achaia.” Even Peter speaks of believers, “Believers in God,” I Peter 1:21.
Over and over, at least a dozen times in the New Testament, Christians are called believers. And there's a good reason for that, because belief is at the very heart of what Christians are and do. We believe and we are believers. Have you ever noticed how many times in the New Testament we are called to believe? Think of Paul, speaking to the Philippian jailer, Acts 16:31, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” Think of what he says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him again from the dead, you will be saved.” In the creed we confess with our mouth what we believe from the very depths of our being, from our heart. Christians believe and are believers, and so confessing our faith is a natural part of being a Christian. We don't just confess our faith because it's a nice thing to do and it's received by tradition. It's the very essence of what we are; we are confessors, we are believers, we are testifiers, we are witnesses to the faith which God has granted us in His grace. That's the first thing.
II. Obstacles to Christian belief.
The second thing is this. We live in a really weird time when it comes to belief. Christians must now believe in a very challenging time for belief. I'm not talking about the specific beliefs. There have always been people who have quibbled with the beliefs of Christians. I'm talking about this is a weird time for the belief of Christians.
You are suspect if you believe something to be absolutely true in our day and age. Now that may have been true in the day and age of the time of the Apostles. So this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Roman world understood relativism and pluralism so I don't want to go overboard and say that post-modern times are like nothing that has ever happened before. But it is a little strange, isn't it? In times past, people argued with you about what you believe. Now they argue with you that you believe. Or that you believe something is absolutely true. And so Christians have to believe and they confess in a very challenging time for belief.
There are many misconceptions about faith amongst Christians out there. Many Christians view faith as merely personal opinion. When you ask a person to describe their faith or to express their faith or to explain their faith, what they hear you saying very often is, “Well, I’ll share with you my personal opinion about ‘x.’”
So the lady on the talk show stands up and says to the host, “I'm a deeply spiritual person. I'm a Christian and I believe in reincarnation, and I'd like to ask you a question.” And your head is shaking. You’re a Christian and you believe in reincarnation? Hm-m-m, Christians don't believe in that and you do–strange.
Do you remember Casey Kasem on ‘American Top Forty’? OK, I know that's the dark ages. It's like 25 years ago, but I’ll never forget the day I heard a guy from India call up Casey and say, “I'm a Christian. I'm from India and I met this girl in New York when I was there last summer. I haven't seen her since. I want to send out a song to her.” What song? “Imagine” by John Lennon. Now folks, have you listened to the lyrics to “Imagine”? It's like a Marxist manifesto, and I'm going–“Ok, you’re a Christian, you’re from India and you want to send a message to your girl friend–this is not the song that I would send. “Imagine there's no heaven?” That's the way it starts and it goes down hill from there. Christians put weird stuff together today. It's cognitive dissonance, people call it–two things that don't go together and they throw it out, and that's what they think that “x” is.
Do you remember the song that Don Williams sang another 25 year or so ago? It was a thing called “I Believe in You.” It goes like this…“I don't believe in super stars….” You remember the second verse of that song? “I don't believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate. I like to think of God as love. He's down below, He's up above, He's watching people everywhere. He knows who dies and doesn't care.” Well, how comforting is that in the first place?
But in the second place, that is a typical post-modern view of faith. Faith is just whatever I happen to believe right now about this. That's not what we mean when we say, “I believe.” This is not just sort of what we came up with yesterday. We’re not making this up as we go along, folks. So there are misconceptions about faith. But there are also barriers to faith in our day and time. There are people who believe that faith is an opiate; it's a narcotic. It's something to anesthetize you from all the pain of life. You really can't handle it; you need a little crutch. And so faith is there to sort of help you through. Marx thought that, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Tell that to a monarch overthrown by a Calvinist, and we’ll talk about that later. But at any rate, that is what he thought.
There are some people who think that faith is dangerous. People who believe they've found truth are dangerous. You've heard the saying that there are two types of people in the world–those who believe there are two types of people in the world and those who don't. And this is the view of the post-modern. He thinks that those people who think that there are two types of people in the world, the right and the wrong–they’re the problem. They think that you are dangerous if you believe in absolute truth. If you divide the world into people who are right and people who are wrong, you’re a problem. You are a social threat.
There are people who think that faith is arrogant. That extremely humble talk show host, Phil Donahue, thinks that Christian faith is arrogant. Al Mohler stands up to say what Christians have believed for two thousand years and you would have thought that he had just shot the president. Donahue said, “You believe that's true for everybody? That people who don't believe that are going to hell? That's arrogant!” There are people who think that faith is ignorant. It's been over 80 years since Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “I never met an intelligent Christian who believed in the virgin birth.” You know, believing something that Christians have always believed is arrogant and it's ignorant too.
Then there are people who think that faith is relative. When you say “I believe” all you’re saying is, “Oh, I believe that for me, but for you it may be different.” We are saying none of that when we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We’re saying something for more than that and far other than that. And Christians must be graciously, but self consciously, counter cultural when we say, “I believe.”
III. The content of Christian faith.
And there is a third thing. Let me ask you to turn to Luke 24. When Christians say, “I believe,” we are stating the content of our faith about the object of our trust. When we start to give you The Apostles’ Creed, we are telling you the what of what we believe and the whom of what we believe. We’re telling you about our belief in God and the content of that belief in God and we're telling you about the God in whom we believe.
In other words, our belief is both personal and propositional. We believe in a person and we believe specific things or propositions or sentences or proposals about that person which that person has told to us himself. And we've already seen that in Abraham. Abraham's faith is not a blind faith. God comes to him first and makes a promise to him. Abraham responds to that promise and lives for years upon God's providence, believes God's promise, trusts in God. His faith is both personal and propositional.
I can't think of a better New Testament passage to illustrate that than Luke 24. Now allow your eyes to fall across the whole passage. You know the story. It's the story of Jesus after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus with the disciples who are doubting. Their hopes have been crushed; Jesus has been crucified. They are wandering back home on their way to Emmaus and who comes along but Jesus? Now this is beautiful. Friends, if the existentialists are right, this is the perfect opportunity for a wordless encounter. This is the perfect opportunity for an “I”- “thou” moment that has nothing to do with propositions. And look what happens. These discouraged disciples are on their way back to Emmaus and Jesus comes up. Look at verses 44 and 45 particularly. Jesus comes up and say, “Oh foolish men and slow of heart to believe Me.” No, that's not a variant text. “Oh foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” This is beautiful. The person Jesus Christ, who is the focus of saving faith is saying, “You know what your problem is–you don't believe the Bible; let's do a quick study.” And He walks them through the Scriptures so that they might learn what the Scriptures testify of Him.
If what you think about Jesus and what you think about the Bible doesn't matter, this was Jesus’ perfect opportunity to express that. And He doesn't. He says that the problem with the failure of your faith, friends, is that you didn't believe the Bible. Let me explain it to you. And at the end of verse 45 we are told, “He opened their minds to the Scriptures.” And when they get back home and He is departed, do you remember what they report? And it says that “their hearts were burning within them as He taught them the Scriptures about Himself.” A beautiful combination of Christ coming to them–taking the initiative–opening to them the Word, grounding their faith in the Word and then pointing them by the Word to His person.
Faith is belief in the propositions of Scripture and trust believing into the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is three things: it is a response to revelation, it is embrace of truth, and it is trust in a person. Biblical faith is not blind faith. Get the scene from Indiana Jones going after the Holy Grail out of your mind. This is not a leap of faith. You’re not putting your feet out onto the chasm in front of you. This is not what God is asking you to do.
If I could give you an illustration it would be like this: You and your friend are climbing a mountain. Maybe you are in the Swiss Alps and a fog has come in and cut you off from one another and there is no visible contact between you. You are chained together by a rope and your friend is already down on a ledge below. But the fog has now cut you off from visible sight. Your friend is standing there and he says, “The only was you are getting down is to jump.” You say, “I can't see the ledge.” Your friend says, “I'm standing on it. Jump or you’ll freeze to death.” Now it is not blind faith for you to trust your friend to jump down there. You cant’ see it. Faith is not sight, but it's also not blind, and it's also not foolish. You trust your friend. That's your best friend and he's saying, “Jump. I’ll get you. The ledge is here. Jump down.” You can't see it but it is a very logical thing to do to trust your friend.
And biblical faith is a response to God's revelation. It's not asking you to contradict all known laws of rationality. It's asking you to trust in a God who has proven Himself over and over in His Word and in His providence and in His Son. New Testament faith involves knowledge and belief and trust. Now one last thing.
IV. The importance of Christian faith.
Here's my fourth thing. Faith is vitally and indispensably important for both salvation and growth. Turn over to Hebrews 11:6. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” It is impossible to please God without faith. The author is saying there that faith is indispensable for salvation. Paul has said that in Roman 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and if you believe that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.”
Faith is indispensable; it's the means, it's the instrument, the tool of the Holy Spirit to unite us to Christ. It's absolutely indispensable. Most of us are evangelicals who have been in Bible believing churches all of our lives. Most of us know that and believe that, but we need to pause to remember as well that faith is also indispensable for Christian growth. It's a root grace in our hearts and it's productive of other graces. Go back to Romans 4 and look at verse 20. “With respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but he grew strong in faith.” Over a course of a life of having to trust and believe, Abraham grew. Faith was a root grace in his life. That is why the author of Hebrews 1 says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” We are saved by grace through the instrument of faith and we grow in grace through the instrument of faith.
Faith, as the gift of grace, is the source of every part of the spiritual life. It's the holy energy and activity of the whole soul exerting itself towards God in Christ. It's the means by which we're united by the Spirit to Christ; it's the means by which we grow. It is vitally important. So when we say, “I believe” we are saying something of no mean consequences. May God grant us to know better what we believe, and to believe more firmly what we believe. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank you for Your Word and we thank you for the gift of faith. Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. In Jesus' name. Amen