Introducing the Apostle’s Creed

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Introducing the Apostle’s Creed

What do the following historic, evangelical confessions have in common? The Augsburg Confession. Helvetic Confession. Gallican Confession. Belgic Confession. Westminster Confession and Catechism. Second London Baptist Confession. The Canons of Dort. All of these historic Protestant confessions have one thing in common: each of them has its roots in the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed which […]

What do the following historic, evangelical confessions have in common? The Augsburg Confession. Helvetic Confession. Gallican Confession. Belgic Confession. Westminster Confession and Catechism. Second London Baptist Confession. The Canons of Dort. All of these historic Protestant confessions have one thing in common: each of them has its roots in the Apostles’ Creed, the Creed which we are unpacking this semester in chapel. The Apostles’ Creed expresses essential biblical doctrines that have been articulated, defended, and embraced for nearly two thousand years of church history. Many evangelical Christians throughout history have used the Apostles’ Creed as a personal statement of their own faith. Further, all evangelical denominations since the Protestant Reformation have subscribed to the Apostles’ Creed.

In today’s chapel, I have been tasked with introducing the Apostles’ Creed. I will approach this by asking three questions. First, what is the Apostles’ Creed? To answer that question I will locate the Creed within its historical and theological framework. Second, in light of the Creed, I will then reflect upon Hebrews 10:23 and ask this question: What does it mean when the writer exhorts us  to “hold fast to the confession of our hope”? In preparation for that reflection, please open your Bible to Hebrews 10:23. Lastly, how do we hold fast to the confession of our hope? I will offer two points of application regarding the use of creeds and our confession of faith.

Our chapel theme this fall is “Unchanging Truths in a Changing World: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed.” In light of what we have been witnessing in the world around us in the past eight months, it is important and salutary for us as a community of believers to consider the confession of our faith. That is what a creed is. It affirms what one believes. It is a statement of faith. The holy Scriptures are our ultimate basis for our creeds and confessions. Insofar creeds adhere to biblical teaching, we as Christians can and should use them as summations of the essentials of orthodox, biblical doctrine. As we will be discovering in chapel this semester, the articles of the Apostles’ Creed express biblical doctrines and realities, all of which we can and should affirm and embrace without reservation.

What is the Apostles’ Creed?

In introducing the Apostles’ Creed, I want to briefly consider two elements of the Creed: the historical context of the Creed and the overall structure of the Creed. The origin of the Apostles’ Creed is mysterious at best. Though there is no evidence that it is the direct product of the Apostles, the Creed does have roots in the Apostles’ teachings and the generation of disciples that followed the Apostles in the Patristic Era. An abbreviated version of the Creed can be traced back to the second century. It appears to have been first used as a confession at one’s baptism and appears in some martyrdom accounts. By the fifth century, the Apostles’ Creed was formulated as we know it today.

The Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds during the early patristic era, was composed as a direct response to heresy, to defend the gospel and the Christian faith. The Creed, therefore, was intended to be apologetic in nature, that is, to articulate and defend the essentials of the Christian faith against a backdrop of heresy. The immediate heresy in which the Apostles’ Creed was composed in response to was Gnosticism. Among other tenets, Gnosticism denied the divine creation, the incarnation of Christ, the deity of Christ, and salvation by faith in Christ alone.

How is the Apostles’ Creed structured and what is its content? Before I answer that question, I will read the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed. As I read the Creed, I would like you to listen carefully and hone in on what particular doctrines are affirmed:

 

  1. I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
  2. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
  3. Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
  4. suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, He descended into hell,
  5. the third day He rose again from the dead,
  6. He ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
  7. From thence He will come to judge the quick and the dead;
  8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
  9. the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
  10. the forgiveness of sins,
  11. the resurrection of the body,
  12. and the life everlasting.

Amen.

 

What does the Apostles’ Creed affirm? It affirms the cardinal doctrines of the Scriptures, doctrines that form the foundation of our faith and the gospel. We would call these doctrines “first-tier” doctrines. It affirms the existence of God in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In fact, did you notice the Trinitarian structure and progression of the Creed? It affirms that God is the Creator of all things. It affirms the virgin birth of Jesus Christ through the supernatural moving of the Holy Spirit. It affirms the bodily death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It affirms the presence of a universal church, while acknowledging a community of visible saints. It affirms the forgiveness of sins. If affirms the reality of a bodily resurrection and afterlife.

Historically, evangelicals have affirmed the Apostles’ Creed since the early Christian church. The Protestant Reformation affirmed the Apostles’ Creed, also commonly known as the Twelve Articles of Faith. For instance, John Old, an evangelical of the English Reformation, affirmed the Apostles’ Creed, because it “agreed wyth the doctrine of the gospell, and the apostles scripture.”[1] One of the leading French reformers, Pierre Viret, published a massive exposition of the Apostles’ Creed in order to “shewe unto the supersticious christians, and Idolatours, howe they do and beleve all contrarie to the fayth whyche wyth theyr mouthes they confesse, to the ende they may learne to beleve wyth the hert that which they confesse wyth theyr mouthes.”[2] In his treatise, Viret unpacked each of the twelve articles, similarly as will be done in chapel this semester. Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss reformer and pastor of a church in Zurich, preached fifty sermons to his congregation on the “chiefe and principall pointes of Christian religion,” three of which were on the Apostles’ Creed.[3] In other words, what we are doing here in chapel this semester is rooted in historical, Reformation precedence and has spiritual benefit for Christians.

Hebrews 10:23 and Holding Fast to Our Confession

Now let us consider the biblical text in front of you. Hebrews 10:23. The author exhorts, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” There are two simple structural facets of this verse: the exhortation and the reason or ground for the exhortation. But first, what is the larger context of this exhortation? “Therefore” in verse 19 is a literary and logical indicator that we need consider the writer’s flow of argument before the nineteenth verse. From 9:1–10:18, the author demonstrates that Jesus Christ as the great High Priest entered into the Holy Place to offer himself for the sins of His people (9:24, 28). He proves in 10:1–18 that Christ’s blood has sanctified his people once for all, whereas the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins. Christ is both the High Priest and the Sacrifice who is now at the right hand of God and rules as God, waiting for his enemies to be made a footstool for his feet (10:13, Psalm 110:1). Because of Christ’s priestly and sacrificial work, the author in 10:22–25 submits three exhortations to his believing readers: 1) “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” 2) Our text: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” 3) “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” In other words, we are to follow these three exhortations on the basis of Christ’s high priestly and sacrificial work on the cross.

At the core of these three exhortations is a primary theme that weaves its way throughout Hebrews: Christian perseverance and endurance. The second hortatory imperative, which is our text is a call to perseverance, an appeal to “hold fast the confession.” The exhortation to “hold fast the confession of our hope” is not the only one in this epistle. In 3:6, the writer encourages his readers to “hold fast,” the same Greek word in 10:23, to their confidence and faith in Christ. Likewise, in 3:14, believers must “hold (fast)” to their “original confidence firm to the end.” The author uses an argument in 4:14, the same one in our text, to exhort believers to “hold fast” to their confession. Why are they to “hold fast”? Because “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Finally, in 6:18, the author uses a phrase very similar to the one in 10:23: “hold fast to the hope set before us.” Clearly, the author presses upon believers the necessity to hold fast to their faith in Christ, while also believing that Jesus is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). What then does it mean to “hold fast”? Let me illustrate.

Two years ago, our family was visiting family in France. We visited among other historic sites a walled, thirteenth-century medieval town, Aigues-Mortes, in southeastern France. The walls of the town with six towers and ten gates are still intact and circle the perimeter of the town. We were able to walk on the stone walls, thirty-six feet high above the ground. I must say that the view was breathtaking, yet the walk itself was nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing, especially with small children, a three-year-old and a two-year-old, and a ledge that was not very high. A couple of my children, not all of them unfortunately, sensed the potential danger of the situation and came to Johanna and me, holding, rather squeezing and clinging to us as we walked the entire trek of two hours on the wall around the town. I thought my hand was going to be squeezed dry at the end of the perimeter walk. My hand was literally numb after the walk. Similarly, we need to hold fast the confession of our faith and hope with the same tenacious, unshakeable, resolute grip on the gospel. Our very spiritual lives depend upon it. Living in the midst of potential dangers and pits all around us, we must cling to and firmly grasp Christ and the gospel. The writer of Hebrews exhorts believers to hold fast to their confession without wavering. The author could have simply stated his exhortation as “Let us hold fast.” But the inclusion of “without wavering” intensifies the urgency of the exhortation. This reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58, to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.”

The writer then gives the reason or grounds for holding fast to the confession of our hope: “For he who has promised is faithful.” Why should you hold fast to the confession of your hope? Because God is faithful to keep His promises. One of the primary themes of Hebrews is the truth that God always keeps His promises. One of the phrases that my wife and I consistently repeat to our children is this: “God always keeps His promises.” The author refers to “promise” 18 times in this epistle, more than any other New Testament book. In fact, in 6:18, the writer declares that “it is impossible for God to lie.” The author throughout his epistle recounts the promises that God has kept and will keep. Let us consider for a moment how God has always kept His promises throughout redemptive history, including some of the promises the writer of Hebrews underscores.

First, God made a promise to Adam and Eve after they sinned: the Protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” God kept His promise. God made a promise or covenant to Abraham, the Abrahamic Covenant, to bless him and “the families of the earth” as a result (Hebrews 6:13, Genesis 12). God kept His promise. God the Father promised to send His Son – the mighty God, the wonderful counselor, the Prince of peace – to take upon Himself the sins of the world and to become a curse (Isaiah 9:6; Galatians 3:13). God kept His promise. God swore in Psalm 110:4, which is cited in Hebrews 7:21, that Christ will be a priest forever. God has kept His promise. God has given to us the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus in John 14 and 16. God has kept His promise.

History in general, and church history in particular, demonstrates that God always keeps His promises. That is why, in part, I love reading and teaching history. History is a beautiful story, complete with protagonists, antagonists, suspense, drama, climax, and irony. But throughout the plot is the ever-present theme of God keeping His promises. For instance, God has promised to never abandon His own people throughout the narrative of human history. Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90 testifies to God’s preservation of his people throughout history: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps 90:1). Christ promised that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against His Church, and the narrative of history teases out that promise (Matt 16:18). He has also promised to be “with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). God has kept His promises and will always keep His promises.

The harrowing accounts of persecution in the early church, the testimonies of those in chronic pain, or the experiences of bitter disappointment recorded in history, remind us that as God was with his people in their valleys, so is He still with them in their own fragility. God will never forsake His own. The narrative of history validates that reality. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:20 declares, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” God always keeps his promises! With all that is swirling around us these days – be it the global pandemic or social unrest or financial uncertainty – let us bask ourselves in this reality, the reality that our Father is a covenant-keeping God. “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8). God is faithful to keep His promises. Therefore, you and I must hold fast to the confession of our hope.

Points of application: How do we “hold fast”?

What points of application can be made regarding Hebrews 10:23 and the use of historic creeds and confessions in our personal and ecclesiastical contexts? I will offer two.

First, use the historic creeds and confessions doxologically. I am not suggesting that creeds and confessions supersede the Scriptures in authority. In fact, the confessions themselves adamantly insist that the Bible is the ultimate rule of faith for doctrine and practice. The Westminster Confession states the following: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WC, Chapter 1, Article 10). Nevertheless, creeds, confessions, and catechisms are helpful tools and aids for worship and discipleship. Use them apologetically in evangelism. There are so many good, evangelical, orthodox confessions and catechisms to recommend and use. I mentioned several of them at the beginning of this sermon. Many historic, evangelical catechisms have been composed for children and families to use, including those of John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and Benjamin Keach. Pillage our bookstore and locate them. May God use this chapel series on the Apostles’ Creed this semester to stir our hearts for deeper affection for our Triune God ­– Father, Son, and Spirit – whom we confess as Lord.

Second, hold fast to your confession by looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith (12:2). While Hebrews exhorts believers to persevere in their faith through several warning passages, they are still called to ultimately look to Jesus who will perfect their faith. The closing benediction of Hebrews draws our attention to the reality that God will “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:21). The epistle of Jude reminds us, likewise, that it is Christ “who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). Therefore, Bethlehem College & Seminary, look to Christ this semester. Look to Him in His Word. See Christ at work in all facets of your life, including what you deem as “mundane.” God intends for all areas of your life to be doxological, so see the glory of Christ in all things and worship Him in whatever you do. Don’t miss Christ in the ebb and flow of your life, in your daily rhythms, or in the spiritual valleys or mountains. I fear that at times we fail to see Christ when He is right before us working in us for His glory and our good. Let me illustrate.

Last October, a long-lost masterpiece, a painting by the distinguished medieval Italian artist, Cimabue was discovered last year in a house located in a small village in France. The thirteenth-century painting portrays Christ being mocked on the way to His crucifixion. For years, the painting had hung above a hotplate in a kitchen, probably collecting all the oils and juices of French cuisine. The owner of the painting, an elderly woman, thought it was just a religious icon with no significance. She had no clue of its origin or value until an auctioneer observed it in her kitchen and believed it to be something very special. The painting sold for $26.6 million last October at an auction, the highest ever for a medieval painting. The valuable painting was right in front of this woman for all those years, but its true value and presence was never fully appreciated. Likewise, we as Christian sometimes lose spiritual focus and fail to see Christ right before us working His good, perfect will for His glory and our eternal joy. As Patrick, an early church father, prayed and affirmed in the fifth century, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me.”

Hold fast to Christ and his gospel and do not let it go. Whatever happens this semester, this school year, in five years, or in twenty-five years, may your hope and faith be deeply anchored in Christ and in your confession of your faith in him. May the reality that God is good and will always keep His promises to you be a ballast for your soul as it has been for my soul. Do not waver in your confession. Hold fast to your confession, not because of anything you have done, but because of Christ and his high priestly work through his own blood. Persevere. Endure. Hold fast to your confession. He is faithful to bring you safely to a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16). God always keeps His promises.

Prayer

Father, may we hold fast to the confession of our hope, because you are faithful. May we do it with joy and perseverance, relying upon Jesus, the founder and perfecter or our faith. Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip us with everything good that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20–21).

[1] John Old, The acquital or purgation of the moost catholyke Christen Prince, Edwarde the VI (Waterford: E. van der Erve, 1555) STC 18797, sig. F5v.

[2] Pierre Viret, A verie familiare [and] fruiteful exposition of the xii articles of the Christian faieth (London: John Day and William Seres, 1548) STC 24784, sig. A2v.

[3] Heinrich Bullinger, Fiftie godlie and learned sermons (London: Henry Middleton, 1577) STC 4056.