Martin Luther once said, “Although I’m indeed an old doctor, I never move on from the childish doctrine of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. I still daily learn and pray them with my little Hans and my little Lena.”
For the next thirteen weeks, we will be studying the Apostles’ Creed, which we will then follow with studies of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. These three texts have long been used to disciple new believers into the basics of the Christian faith and to keep mature believers rooted in the essentials. Addressing the head, heart, and hands, these texts direct how we are to believe, pray, and obey. May we, like Luther, never move on past these core truths.
WHAT IS THE APOSTLES’ CREED?
The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest formal confessional statement to become widely used and affirmed by the church through history. Despite its name, the creed is almost certainly not written by the apostles; instead, we call it the Apostles’ Creed since it is a summary of their teachings.
Based on its first appearance in the writing of Hippolytus, the creed began as a baptismal confession. Before immersing the confessor in the water, he or she would be asked, “Do you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth?” When they responded, “I believe”, they were dunked into the water. The process then repeated through the next two articles of the creed. Through use in this setting, the Apostles’ Creed came to be seen as a time-tested, helpful, and concise synopsis of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
It is also worth addressing, if anyone is concerned why we are preaching through a text that is outside of Scripture, I will give attention to that question very soon. I will assure you, however, from the very beginning that these sermons are intended to be very much expository messages. The exposition, though, will look a bit different than usual. Typically, I preach through a particular book or section of Scripture drawing out and explaining the message therein. These sermons will focus instead upon the large doctrines of the Bible. The goal is still to be expositional, just from a 30,000-foot view. From this altitude, my aim is nevertheless in agreement with Simeon’s, who said:
My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.
WHY SHOULD WE AFFIRM THE APOSTLES’ CREED?
The main reason that we should affirm the Apostles’ Creed is that it is a faithful summary of essential Christian doctrine; it is a snapshot of the core teachings of Christianity. This is crucial because the Bible repeatedly commands us to stand firm in sound doctrine. Acts 2:42, for example, tells us that the fledgling church devoted (or immersed and saturated) themselves in the apostles’ teaching, which is revealed in the Scriptures. Through the prophets in the Old Testament and apostles in the New Testament, God has made Himself known to humanity. The Scriptures alone, therefore, define the basics of our belief. They teach us the faith for which we must be ready to contend.
The Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds and confessions, is not Scripture. It does, however, provide us with a lens for understanding the overall message of the Bible. Creeds, therefore, are not ends unto themselves; rather, they are a means by which we are able to better know God’s Word.
But if the Bible itself is the only authoritative revelation of God, wouldn’t creeds and confessions just distract from the Bible itself? Or to put it another way, should we believe in “no creed but the Bible?” The problem with rejecting all creeds, confessions, and statements of faith as undermining the authority of the Bible is that the idea is almost entirely fallacious in logic. Because creeds are statements of belief, the phrase “no creed but the Bible” is itself a creed, which means that its meaning falls apart as quickly as arguing that there are absolutely no absolutes. The very premise is self-defeating as even summarizing and paraphrasing the message of the Bible would necessarily be a kind of informal creedal statement.
In fact, creeds are helpful and even necessary for understanding the Bible. Christians, furthermore, have long looked to the Apostles’ Creed as a guide for understanding the essential doctrines of the faith. The Bible certainly contains many issues and topics but not all of them are essential, and we don’t have to agree exactly about interpreting these things. For example, many believers disagree on whether the supernatural gifts of the Spirit continue today or have ceased. Both cases can be reasonably made from Scripture, and since it is a secondary issue, we don’t lob heresy grenade at one another. We disagree and remain united around the core truths that make us disciples of Christ.
The Apostles’ Creed is a great tool for reminding ourselves what exactly those essentials are. Albert Mohler states, “All Christians believe more than is contained in the Apostles’ Creed, but none can believe less” (xvi). If our beliefs and convictions do not go beyond the creed then we don’t have any familiarity with the Bible, so we must go further than the creed in our walk with Christ. But also, each statement of the creed represents an essential doctrine that if denied removes a person from the historical stream of orthodoxy.
As I stated a few sermons ago, we must be vigilant to guard these essentials from two threats: liberalism, which seeks to make the essentials into nonessentials, and fundamentalism, which seeks to make nonessentials into essentials. The Apostles’ Creed is an easy to memorize guide for guarding against those pulling tendencies. When we use it as a guide, it helps us to realize that far more is at stake when speaking with someone who denies that church is necessary for following Christ or that there will be a physical resurrection to come than with someone who holds a different slant on complementarianism. As our society continues to become more and more polarized, we are tempted into thinking that every argument is the next Arian Controversy or Diet of Worms, but not every hill is worth dying on. Or perhaps more accurately, not every disagreement is worth a fight. Let us, rather, firmly dwell upon the essential doctrines so that when the next great heresy arises, like Athanasius and Luther before us, we would be ready to stand against the world for what we believe.
We should also note that two key doctrines are implied by the creed even though they are not mentioned explicitly. First is the doctrine of the Trinity. While the creed does not use the Trinity, it clearly affirms the triune nature of God. In fact, the very structure of the creed is trinitarian, just as the foundation of our faith is our God, who is three in one.
Second is the authority of Scripture. In fact, the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t even mention Scripture at all. Critically, this doesn’t mean that the creed denies the supreme authority of Scripture; instead, it just assumes it. One of the practical benefits of warding off heretical teachings is that they force God’s people to clarify what we believe. For instance, Paul would have never written his opus against adding works to the gospel if the Galatians hadn’t fallen under the sway of the Judaizers. Nor would the deity of Christ have been so explicitly affirmed as it is in the Nicene Creed without the threat of Arianism. In the same way, the Apostles’ Creed assumes the authority of the Scriptures since it is simply aiming to explain their most important teachings.
WHY DOES EACH ARTICLE BEGIN WITH I BELIEVE?
The words I believe, which begin each article of the Apostles’ Creed, are written as credo in Latin. The English word creed and the Spanish verb creer both come from this Latin root. It might be helpful, therefore, to think of the creed as the Apostles’ Belief. When we declare the teaching of the creed as our own belief, we are asserting our place among the apostolic lineage, the universal church that began with twelve men of Galilee. We declare that we are among the family of God, the body and bride of Christ throughout the ages.
Doing this is critical because the Bible is full of creedal statements for uniting God’s people. Deuteronomy 6:4 (the Shema) is the most significant of the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This simple confession united Israel together in worship of the one true God.
1 Corinthians 15:3-7 establishes the core section of the Apostles’ Creed:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Then we have the Christ-hymns from Colossians 1 and Philippians 2, which also have a notable creedal feel to them.
Philippians 2:5-11 | Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Colossians 1:15-20 | He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Notice that each of these New Testament “creeds” centers upon Jesus Christ and, particularly, His death on the cross for our sins. They do so because the death and resurrection of Christ is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Those events form the core of the gospel, which Jesus Himself commanded us to believe. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, the message of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry is summarized by Jesus declaring: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15).
The very structure of the Apostles’ Creed reflects the structure of the gospel. It begins with God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. He built the cosmos out of nothing, giving to humanity the distinct privilege of reflecting His image. But we rebelled. Discontented with being like God, we tried to become gods, and, as a result, our sin broke us and the world under our dominion, ushering in death. But God did not leave us to perish in our sin; instead, He sent His only Son, who is the eternal Word by whom and through whom the world was made. So God’s Son, Jesus Christ, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, entering our world as one of us. The God-man, fully human and fully divine, lived a life of perfection and rejection that culminated in His willing crucifixion as a substitute for us. Upon that cross, the only person to never deserve death died, and His body was placed in a grave for three days. On the third day, He rose to life, becoming the firstborn of the resurrection. He then ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand until the day that He will return to judge every soul that has ever lived with righteousness and equity. Until then, He has poured upon His people the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, who dwells within us so that we are empowered to continue Jesus’ earthly ministry. As such, we join every disciple of Jesus the mission of calling upon all people to repent and believe the good news, to become disciples of Jesus as well. As they do, they too join the fellowship of God’s people, rejoice in the forgiveness of their sins, and fix their hope upon our eternal life with Christ in resurrected bodies like His.
It is fitting that the Apostles’ Creed ends with Amen because those who believe these things can scarcely say anything else. The remainder of this good news should elicit a joyous declaration of “May it be so!” from our lips! These must be living truths within our breasts, not dead pieces of knowledge or trivia.
Indeed, to believe is to exercise our faith in these truths. The analogy of sitting in a chair is always fitting. We might cognitively understand that the chair will support our weight when we sit down, but that belief can only truly be seen whenever we actually sit in the chair. To simply affirm that we could sit down in the chair without sitting in it does us no good. In the same way, many will gladly affirm the truths presented in the Apostles’ Creed, but they aren’t sitting in the chair, their lives don’t reflect what they claim to believe.
For example, you say that you believe in God the Father almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, yet you rarely take God’s design and will for all things and you specifically into account. Intellectually, you exalt God as supreme, but practically you do what seems right in your own eyes.
Or perhaps you claim to believe in the forgiveness of sins, but in reality, you’ve established your own penitential system for working off your guilt. If you do one sin, you ask God for forgiveness the following day when it’s not so fresh and you don’t feel so dirty. Or if you do another one, you start looking for something good to do to offset the scales.
Or maybe you affirm that you believe in life everlasting after the dead have been resurrected, yet you have no real longing for the world to come. Worse yet, those who are around you on a daily basis see no evidence that your great hope is to be with Christ for eternity. Really, they don’t see much of a difference between you and them at all.
May these examples never be true of us! To believe and affirm these doctrines means conforming our lives to their truth. To believe that God is almighty and the creator of all things can only result in us actively and persistently trying to unite ourselves to His pattern and design for reality. To do anything else would utterly foolish and reflect unbelief. To believe that God became a man, suffered, and died for my sins would make attempting to pay for my own sin an act of total irrationality.
Brothers and sisters, we must not simply affirm these doctrines as factual; rather, let us examine over these next twelve weeks how believing their truth transforms each day of our lives. What does it truly look like to believe whole-heartedly that God died for me? Or that God now dwells within me? Or that Jesus will come back in judgment over everyone, alive or dead?
In all likelihood, we will each find ourselves at some points of these studies praying the prayer of the man in Mark 12:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Indeed, let us affirm these doctrines with all our heart, soul, and might, while remembering that we will fail entirely without being attached to the grace of Jesus like a branch to the vine.
So, do you believe?