Time and again you hear the remark made that the confession of your church is a comparatively unimportant matter, and that your personal confession ought in no way to be affected by it.
Those who voice such remarks usually talk in this fashion: You belong to Jesus, do you, and the life of God dwells in your heart? Why then be concerned about the confession of a church? Every church of Christ worthy of the name must open its doors to you, and every church that refuses to do so thereby forfeits its right to exist! Why all the learning and theology? As if the kingdom of God depended upon the formulated questions and answers of a Catechism! Confession is the work of the Spirit, and it is nothing else. As though sheer memorization could ever take the place of a heartfelt experience. No, indeed! If you have experienced the work of the Spirit, each and every church must admit you to her celebration of the holy supper; and if you have not experienced the influence of the Spirit, even though you are the best of catechetical students, each and every church must refuse your request for admission.
Sentiments such as those were being expressed by the Montanists soon after the apostles of the Lord had died. Certain delicate, emotionally pious people have spoken in that vein in every epoch. During the time of the Reformation the Anabaptists were saying such things. Today too there are spiritually one-sided individuals who would make the awakening by the Spirit the sole condition for permitting access to the holy supper. Has the “big thing” happened in the life of the person asking for admission? If so, let him come; if not, let him stand outside among the unconverted many. The study of a Catechism is quite irrelevant. All study can safely be ignored. In fact, even that much touted “making confession” represents a mockery of holy things.
But it is remarkable that the holy apostles have judged of the matter also, and that their judgment is the exact opposite of the judgment of these ultra-spiritualists. What? The common confession of the church does not affect one’s personal confession? It most certainly does. Read what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing” (1 Cor. 1:10). This “speaking of the same thing” definitely refers to a common confession, for Paul added: “And that there be no divisions among you; but that ye [as a church] be perfectly joined together in the same mind and judgment. It is the identical plea he addressed to the church at Philippi, when he wrote: “Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Phil. 3:6). The apostle John gives expression to the same thought and as definitely relates it to a confession. Paul had written in Romans 10:10: “With the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” John affirmed with equal decisiveness: “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:3).
You see therefore that the holy apostles, who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to whose word and meaning all people should be subservient, affirm the exact opposite of that of those ultra-spiritualistic people who assert that the common confession of a church is a comparatively unimportant matter. Whereas the latter maintain that the mind’s confession affects that of the heart hardly at all, the holy apostles affirm in the name of the Lord that “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,” that you must be of one mind with the believers, and that you must speak the same thing with them. They boldly add that he who in his confession departs from the true conception of the Son of God is of the antichrist.
Let this testimony of the apostles encourage you when you find that you must study as a part of your preparation for confession. Let it encourage you in insisting that your children be taught. It is obligatory that you teach them. You promised to do so when you proffered them for baptism. Upon that occasion you answered affirmatively to the important question: “Do you promise and intend to see these children, when come to the years of discretion, instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine, or help or cause them to be instructed therein?” Nor was that “aforesaid doctrine” a vague and nebulous one, for the immediately preceding one asked: “Do you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?” Hence your baptism bound you to a specific doctrine, and a doctrine that is well-defined and nicely circumscribed.
That baptismal promise is made by one generation to another. The father promises that he will instruct his child. The child when he has become a father vows it anew. The promise is always the same: to instruct or to cause or help children to be instructed in the “aforesaid doctrine.” In that way the church continues in a common confession. Ecclesiastical life and activity are based upon that baptismal vow. It is encouraging to note that the propagation of the same doctrine is enjoined upon you by the holy apostles also. Their dictates are conclusive and are binding. All must be of the same mind and must speak the same thing. That means that the same doctrine should be confessed by all.
For that reason study is necessary. A church that does not teach her youth can never hope to retain a pure confession, but relinquishes it, cuts off all contact with the past, divorces herself from the fathers, and forms a new group.
Yes, study is obligatory. If you desire to confess, you must learn. You must not learn the interpretation of this or that preacher or instructor, for the opinions of these vary widely, and have always done so. Instead, you must learn what the church has throughout the centuries confessed as the truth revealed by God in his holy scriptures. That confession must be taught in all the churches, to all who are reared within the church, to all who wish to become responsible members of it, whether they are young or old, experienced or inexperienced.
The present generation must reaffirm the confession that the previous generation received from its fathers. Nothing could be more erroneously conceived than to suppose that each new generation should make a new and different confession. The children must reaffirm the confession of their fathers. True education is just that: a reinterpretation and a reaffirmation. Such true education, accordingly, should obtain in the church of Jesus. It should be the holy objective of that church to make the spontaneous voice of the heart identical with the reaffirmation of the lips.
In Psalm 78, Asaph laid down the golden rule in this matter: “Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will utter dark sayings of old: which we have heard of old: which we have heard and known, because our fathers have told us” (vv. 21–3). Asaph tells us concerning these truths that we may not “hide them from our children, from the generation to come” (v. 4). The Lord God has committed the treasure of his truth to the keeping of his church, in order that it may maintain itself from paradise through the generations to the consummation of the world. Asaph sang: “For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (vv. 5–7.
Hence there is no room for doubt about the obligation of study and of instruction. You are duty-bound to do so. The truth of God that he revealed must be transmitted from one generation to another. The confession of the church may not become embedded in the dust of the ages, but must be constantly reaffirmed. Memorization alone is futile, it is true, but without it the links of the chain that bind the church of God into a unity break and fall apart.
It strikes us, at first thought, that it would be a most gratifying situation if the church of God upon earth had a confession now that was the same as that which she had always confessed, and a confession that was most exact and elucidating in every detail. Yet there is an element of unsoundness in the very appeal of this situation. In fact, there is an element of sin in it, because the history of the church proves that exactly the opposite has been God’s will. How plausible too that changes sometimes must occur. Otherwise the confession of one generation would simply be a blind imitation of that of the preceding generation.
We know therefore that there are some virtually deformed or contaminated churches, and some reformed or purged churches, representing contaminated and purged confessions, respectively. It has been your privilege to have been born in one of those reformed churches that has a reformed confession. That privilege should tend to strengthen the yearning within you never to relinquish your hold upon that purged confession, but to “keep that which thou hast.”