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Why Confessional?

Updated: Apr 25



"This ancient document is the most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us... It is an excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of those Holy Scriptures by which all confessions are to be measured." -C.H. Spurgeon on the Second London Baptist

Why Not Just Use the Bible?


When people hear that Saint’s Rest is committed to the Christian faith as summarized in a historic document, many will ask the question: “why not just use the Bible?” The truth is, whether it is written down or not, every Christian has a foundational set of beliefs about what the scriptures teach. In other words, every Christian has a confession of faith. That set of beliefs informs the meaning you take from scripture as you read it, and provides the reflex out of which you embrace some teachings and reject others. Your confession of faith impacts the entirety of your faith and practice—what you believe, the way you think, feel, pray, worship, and act. Whether your confession is only present in your mind; informed and reinforced by what is said and emphasized by your pastor, the books you read, or the teachers you listen to; or your confession is written on paper—having a confession is unavoidable. The question is not “Shouldn’t we avoid confessions and just use the Bible?” The question is “Is the confession I inevitably hold to true?” At Saint’s Rest, we are persuaded that step one in answering that question well is to relocate our confession of faith from our minds to paper—where it can be publicly examined against scripture and either proven or falsified. Not to create a substitute for scripture, or something equal with scripture—but to serve as a valuable summary of the most important doctrines of scripture. When a church is growing to be of one mind doctrinally through the help of a written confession, that confession becomes an incredible tool for unity, consistency, freedom, safety, outreach, and joy.


At Saint’s Rest, we see great wisdom in holding a historical, robust, and time-tested confession of faith. All human interpretation of scripture is of course subject to the ongoing scrutiny of scripture. But when Christ promised He would send His Spirit to lead His church into all truth, and that He would build His church—that at least implies we should not think and act as though we are the first to have the Spirit and the scriptures. The fact that the biblical interpretation of our fathers in the faith is indeed subject to scriptural scrutiny, and has been erroneous at times, does not and cannot mean that we therefore come to scripture as though we were the first to understand it. Jesus promised that He would be at work by His Spirit to teach, grow, defend, and sustain His church. Whatever else that means, it certainly implies there is value in paying attention to the church that has come before us.


The Source of the Confession


The word of God is eternal and unchanging, but the church’s understanding of the word is something God has seen fit to clarify and refine over time. In the wisdom of God, that clarity has almost always come through theological conflict. Emulating the pattern of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the historical church has often responded to doctrinal controversy by depending on God in prayer, searching the scriptures, and writing down the resulting clarity of biblical interpretation for the benefit of the church as a whole. Among other issues, the early church faced internal conflict over the divinity and nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Following the apostolic pattern, the early church encountered these disputes, prayed, studied, and wrote down the resulting biblical clarity in the creeds of the early church. By God’s grace, those creedal guardrails have been an instrumental reason that basic orthodoxy in those areas is generally taken for granted in churches today; nearly 2,000 years later.


While the visible church did eventually subject scripture to the supposed authority of their doctrinal innovations—an ugly hubris that reached an unprecedented peak in the corruption and doctrinal error of the late Medieval church—Christ did not allow the gates of hell to prevail against His church. Following the apostolic pattern, the Reformers prayerfully returned to scripture concerning the nature of salvation and the assurance of faith—the doctrines most under attack in that dark time. Through this remarkable controversy, God recovered the purity and simplicity of the biblical gospel, the assurance of faith, and an understanding of the Bible’s covenantal framework which undergirds, gives rise to, and protects the clarity of the gospel. And as the controversy continued across the next few generations, the truths recovered in the Reformation were further digested, clarified, proven, defended, and finally written down as the great confessions of the Reformed faith—confessions that have been used, tested, proven, and withstood biblical scrutiny ever since.


The Shape of the Confession


Saint’s Rest Reformed Church believes that the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 represents the fullest development of biblical clarity from the Reformation and Post-Reformation era. The covenants of scripture are the bedrock upon which the clarity of the gospel rests, and it is that bedrock that our confession seeks to define and protect. Understanding the covenants as scripture’s own interpretive scaffolding is essential to the Biblical gospel as recovered in the Reformation. To sum it up succinctly—the eternal glory Adam stood to gain for us but forfeited through disobedience; Jesus, the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45), gained for us through His obedience (Rom 5:12-21). Just as all flesh is guilty under Adam’s headship, so all who believe are counted righteous under Christ’s headship. All relating to God in Adam do so based on his broken covenant and will be judged without partiality according to their very imperfect works. Anyone relating to God in Christ does so through His perfect works and atonement based on the new covenant in His blood. In Christ’s covenant, everything He earned is given freely as a gift—received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The covenant of works in Adam and the covenant of grace in Christ are the two overarching covenants of scripture. These two covenants speak to us from every page of scripture. They are the voice of the law and the voice of the gospel.


The law was set in stone through the mediation of Moses as God’s standard for righteousness for mankind; but as the reflection of the moral nature of God Himself, the righteousness the law reflects eternally predates Moses. Anyone who meets the standard—personally, perfectly, and perpetually loving God and neighbor, in thought, word, and deed; both doing the good it demands and refraining from the evil it forbids—will certainly receive God’s approval and eternal life (Rom 2:5-11). Because God is good and just, He must approve of any who meet that standard in that perfect way. But by the same principle, He must condemn all who fall short. The law itself is very good (Rom 7:12), but for the fallen descendants of Adam, it proclaims very bad news (Rom 7:10-11).


But the holy severity of God revealed in the law does not give us the whole picture. The voice of the gospel reveals that the same impartial Judge is also patient and longsuffering; full of mercy, compassion, and kindness. God is a Savior by nature. His plan of salvation is first promised in Genesis 3:14-15, where God curses the Serpent who tempted Eve and promises that her Seed would crush his head, even as His heel was bruised in the act. The righteousness God requires (law), and the promise of redemption for the unrighteous (gospel), culminating in the coming, living, dying, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of Christ are the central themes of the entire Bible, from Genesis 3:15 on. The law reveals our need for Christ, while the gospel presents us Christ in all His perfect sufficiency—from the Old Testament, where He is understood through promises, types, and shadows; to the New, where the promise is fulfilled in His coming and the mystery of Christ and His redemption is revealed. The gospel is the good news of the person and finished work of Christ—where all that was lost in Adam, and more, is gained by Christ and given as a gift to the wicked. The gospel is not the good news that God makes us better people, or helps us meet the law’s standard of righteousness, but that God gave His Son so that for everyone united to Him through faith, everything Christ is and everything He earned is counted as ours by grace. On behalf of all who receive the gift, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the demands of the law in our place, took our sin upon Himself as though it were His own, fully satisfied the punishment we deserve in His death on the cross, and rose again—raising us to eternal life in Him. Everything God requires for eternal glory with Himself is completely met in Jesus Christ and freely offered to every law-breaker. Adam fell short of the glory of God, and we fell short in him (Rom 3:23)—but Christ brings many sons to glory (Heb 2:10). The only appropriate response to such a gift—the response scripture calls for—is a personal, empty-handed reception of Christ and His all-sufficient salvation.


Both the law and the gospel must be preached continually, yet always kept strictly separate. There is zero grace in the law. It is all-or-nothing. If you would be righteous by doing, your works must be perfect; otherwise, “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10), and “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). On the other hand, the gospel contains no commands whatsoever. It is a pure gift wherein everything God requires, God provides to all who trust in Christ and His sufficiency. The covenants of works and grace are the Bible’s own interpretive lens that keeps the distinction between law and gospel clear. They are scripture’s key to understanding what the Bible says. Carefully setting in writing a summary of those covenants and what scripture reveals we are to understand by them is the main subject of our confession. Chapters 1-6 contain a summary of foundational principles—the nature and authority of scripture, God, the giving and breaking of Adam’s covenant, and the subsequent fall of creation. Chapters 7-20 contain summaries of various elements of the covenant of grace in Christ—His person and work, how sinners receive Him, and the benefits and results of His covenant for those united to Him. Chapters 21-30 summarize areas of freedom and boundaries that we have within Christ’s kingdom. And Chapters 31 and 32 deal with the last things and the world to come.


There is nothing more important in the Christian life than understanding law and gospel. The church must be reminded week after week of the transcendent holiness of God as revealed in the law; and Christ, His work, and His promises as revealed in the gospel. We must have Christ set before our eyes in all the clarity of scripture and be driven to Him with empty hands to increase our faith week after week. And we must be guided in how God would have us love Him and our neighbor as we abide in Christ through that most holy faith—bearing the fruits of holiness and good works. Where the clarity of Christ and His sufficiency is missing or obscured, Peter says the fruits of the Spirit will dwindle; rendering us useless in the Kingdom of Christ. (2 Pt 1:1-9). Tragically, when teachers do not view scripture through the Bible’s covenants, they end up teaching burdensome and dangerous things, even as they speak using the language of the Bible. Without the Bible’s scaffolding in place, the law and the gospel are confused and mixed. The confession is designed to make sound doctrine plain, protect us from drifting from it, and help keep the most important and life-giving truths fresh in our minds week after week. At Saint’s Rest, we do not trust ourselves to maintain biblical clarity without the help of the church before us.


Calvinism


Any time Reformed theology is discussed, we are aware that many people immediately think of Calvinism or the doctrines of grace. Covenant theology, with the resulting clarity of the law and the gospel, and the objective assurance of faith in Christ are the heart of Reformed theology. But if we imagine confessional doctrine as an onion, the doctrines of grace are arguably the next layer. Within the covenants of scripture, we understand that the foundational covenant is what theologians call the Covenant of Redemption. We hear Jesus speak of this covenant often in the Gospel of John as He relates how He has come to do the will of the Father who sent Him (Jn 4:34, etc.)—and how none of what the Father gave Him would be lost (Jn 6:37-40). In the first 5 verses of John 17, we see Jesus pray to His Father—proclaiming that the work He had given Him to do was now complete and He was ready to be glorified so that to all whom He had given Him, He may give eternal life. That is the essence of the Covenant of Redemption. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit purposed to display the glory of God through the redemption of the church from eternity past. The church is a love gift from the Father to the Son. The Son would take on flesh as the Mediator between His fallen bride and the Father, and the Spirit would bring the plan to completion. The result would be the Son’s love gift being eternally drawn into the trinitarian life of God—those helplessly lost, yet saved and glorified by His grace.


It is a true sadness that those doctrines—some of the most comforting, stabilizing, and assurance-giving truths revealed in scripture, are as misunderstood as they often are. They do not negate the natural freedom of man as they are often misrepresented—the confession affirms the natural freedom of man! What these doctrines affirm is that while man has natural freedom—God is more free. What God determines in His freedom, God certainly brings to pass. Next to the objective person, work, and promises of Christ on our behalf no other doctrines are more comforting. They demand that for all who believe, Christ is eternally effective for their salvation. These doctrines ground our salvation in the eternal decree of God, and thus subject it entirely to His omnipotent power. There is no more solid foundation upon which the certainty of God’s intention to save us could be grounded. We do not delight in the doctrines of grace because we are callous toward the concerns some have with implications they believe they carry. We delight in them because first, we are persuaded God has revealed them in scripture. But second, because we are frail and needy. We are so prone to take our eyes off the Savior and onto the distressing circumstances of this fallen world and our remaining corruption. We need the strength and comfort and stability that comes from understanding that as free as we might be, God is more free. And that in His freedom, He has determined from all eternity to have us forever as His own prized possession—the beloved trophies of His grace, and the promised reward for Christ’s suffering—the Father’s love gift to the Son, sealed now and forever by the grace of the Holy Spirit.


We Are Just Like You


Some reading this may come away with the impression that we think we are better than others. Or that we have everything figured out. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is, we are exactly like you. We too are prone to wander. That is why we need the clarity of the confession to keep the main thing the main thing. We too are tempted to get creative with the word and invent doctrine on a whim. That is why we need time-tested doctrinal guardrails to keep us from novelty in the areas that matter the most. We too find ourselves missing the forest for the trees. That is why we need the sweeping scope of the confession’s covenant theology to make sense of the whole Bible. We have hobby horses just like you. That is why we need weekly reminders that it is Christ’s sufficiency for us that we need, not the cleverness of our preachers and teachers. We too are in danger of being tossed to and fro by the winds of doctrine. That is why we need a confessional ballast to keep us steady amid the relentless waves of doctrinal innovation. We are just like you. It is because of those propensities that we are persuaded that we need the church. We need to stand on the shoulders of men to whom God gave clarity through controversy, who were in turn standing on the shoulders of those before them. We are persuaded that the confession gets the Bible right in the doctrines it summarizes. Countless saints now in glory call to us bearing witness to the clarity of the word as received across the centuries. We see great wisdom in listening to them.


An Invitation


None of this should be taken to mean we don’t want to see you if you’re not quite sure about this issue. You are always welcome to come and benefit from the gospel clarity and focus at Saint’s Rest, even if you are not yet persuaded of confessionalism. Consider this an invitation to learn alongside us. Our doors are open and all of our available time is yours. Come discover what it is the saints before us found worth defending and even dying for. Come grow with us to know what scripture says and what it means by what it says. Come confess the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We are persuaded that you will find rest in Christ for your soul as you do!


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