Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set.” -Proverbs 22:28
Around western Pennsylvania where I live, it is common to see yards and farmlands with stone walls taken from the the abundant flagstone found in this region. As you walk or drive by one of these walls, they convey a sense of boundary, antiquity, and definition. The walls almost seem to give off an aura of peace and permanence.
In recent weeks the Lord has given me a number of experiences where I have had that same feeling when it comes to the historic confessions and creeds of the church.
At the beginning of the academic year our seminary faculty treated the subject of providence from the Westminster Confession of Faith, and there was a sense of security in standing with these men reviewing and rediscovering the beautiful and comforting truths of this doctrine.
In a class on preaching I teach, we are discussing each week a portion of the statement on preaching found in the Westminster Directory of Publick Worship.
During the recent internet firestorm regarding the errant teaching on the eternal submission of the Son, it has been comforting to read again from the rich heritage of the fourth century creeds and then the Reformed fathers who used them.
Lately at seminary and church I have been hearing children and adults quoting the questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
I am currently guest preaching at a nearby church, and have delighted in sitting in their Bible class after worship as my former professor, Dr. Wayne Spear, leads us with his customary dignity and insight through the Heidelberg Catechism.
Each of these occasions makes me thankful for these ancient confessional boundaries that our fathers have set for us, often at the price of their own livelihood and blood. Like cattle or sheep grazing contentedly in a stone-wall bordered pasture, the Lord has given the church these confessions to protect us and feed us from his green pastures.
For consider further these ways that the historic confessions that have endured through centuries can bring peace and prosperity to the church.
Confessions highlight for us essential teaching. If we are wondering what subjects are most necessary for being a Christian, or establishing a church, or focusing the church’s instruction, then we need not look further than the ancient creeds and especially the Reformed confessions. They demonstrate what the Spirit of God, who has been working in the church for centuries, has highlighted and preserved for our benefit. Those in certain ecclesiastical settings who would argue we do not need written creeds or confessions will offer their motto “No creed but Christ.” However, they are inconsistent, for that in itself is a creed and as soon as you enter their congregation you will start hearing what is truly important to them. It may be unwritten, but they have a creed. Why not go with one that’s clearly laid out and historically proven?
Confessions connect us with the historic church. One of the great problems in American Christianity is we often act as if the church began in our lifetime. Yet the Lord promised there would always be a church on earth that he founded with the apostles (Matt 21:42; Eph. 2:20), would prevail against hell itself (Matt. 16:18-19), be built through the ages into a glorious temple (I Peter 2:4-10), and would be guided by his Spirit into all the truth it needs (John 16:13-14). When we read, study, and hold to confessions, we see Christ’s sovereign hand over the church and learn from the life of his people throughout the generations.
Confessions give us proper balance. So many of the confessions were works that took place with many men hammering out the truth over significant periods of time. For instance, the Westminster Assembly, called by the British Parliament, met primarily from 1643-1648 during the English Civil War. In the press of these times, these men focused on essential doctrines, and you get a sense of truths being given their proper weight or sense of importance in their treatment. In contrast, I once read a confession written by a congregation that a friend of mine was attending. This four page document gave more ink to the clothing the congregants would wear than the Trinity, Scriptures, or gospel! We need the level-headedness the confessions give to us.
Confessions provide the church a source of doctrinal instruction. A great tradition in the church is to teach classes on the catechism or have the ministers use the evening service to preach on topics from the church’s confession or catechism. These practices ensure the church is getting its systematic doctrine taught to it in a consistent and timely way. Every congregation should know clearly what their church believes and be able to be conversant about it.
Confessions keep us from repeating mistakes. Many of the creeds of the church arise out of controversy. Erroneous preachers, heretics, and popes have declared teachings that simply are not true and, in response, the faithful met together to articulate truth to bring greater light to the gospel. So often theological controversies that arise in our day are just rehashes of battles that were fought long ago. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses who show up at your door are just repeating the Arian heresy of the fourth century that is soundly refuted in the Nicene Creed. As the old saying goes, “Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” Knowing our confessions helps us to know the church’s history and avoid this.
Confessions protect our liberty of conscience. Teachers of God’s Word, knowing they will face a stricter judgement (Jas. 3:1), are to be quite careful what they teach the people of God. They are to know that only God is to be the Lord of people’s conscience. Thus, they should be guarded in their teaching not to impose anything contrary to God’s Word. One safety measure in this regard is to make sure their teaching is consistent with the church’s confession. And one way the people in the pews can judge whether the preaching and teaching of the church is protecting their conscience is to measure its compliance with the confessions.
Confessions promote the peace of the church. Having people make a covenant with the Lord by vowing their allegiance to a clearly identified set of teaching helps encourage like-mindedness among the people of God. They have a system, a standard of weights and measures so to speak, where they can evaluate together truth and righteousness and, when needed, exercise discipline in an orchestrated way. When these truths are taught and believed together by God’s people, they can walk together more faithfully for they are agreed (Amos 3:3).
Stay within the ancient boundaries, friend. There is so much life to be had there.