The Crucifixion

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.

 

Bruce Shelley opens his account of church history with this statement: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.” Indeed, it is no small fact that all four Gospels give extensive time and detail to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospels, therefore, provide the very center of the biblical narrative and if the passion of Jesus Christ is the central event of the Gospels, then those dark days must be the most significant in all the Bible (and, thus, all of history). Paul affirms this by calling the word (or message) of the cross the very power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18) and claiming to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST

We must remind ourselves regularly of the death of Christ for our sins, yet we must never glance over the fact that Jesus suffered either. His death via crucifixion was not a pleasant or peaceful one. It was bloody, vicious, and sickening. Jesus suffered. He anguished and agonized.

Rome maintained its vast empire by having roads to quicken travel and by using the cross to discourage rebellion. The cross perfected wholistic torture. The body suspended upon raised planks of wood by nails driven through the person’s hands and feet. The scourging preceding crucifixion would rip skin and flesh to shreds, causing the condemned to lose enough blood to induce hypovolemic shock as their heart strained to provide enough blood to the vital organs, which would begin to ache with the strain of maintaining life. This trauma would cause fluid to build up in the lungs so that breathing could only be done by pushing against the nails in the feet. Between the constant lack of oxygen, the splinters digging into open wounds, and nails grinding against nerves, the cross punished more than the body; it broke the mind, the spirit, and the soul. After being suspended naked for all to see, the dead body would be thrown into the landfill, reminding everyone that this person had become nothing more than garage to be disposed of.

This was the suffering, the passion, of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.

The addition of suffering under Pontius Pilate into the Apostles’ Creed is significant. Pilate was the Roman prefect who governed over the province of Judaea from 26-36 AD. This subtly reminds us of the historical reality of what we believe. Jesus is not a myth. He is not a fanciful tale in line with the work of the Brothers Grimm. Jesus lived. He existed. He walked this earth two thousand years ago. He was executed by the command of Rome, the empire that continues to influence us today. The historical reality of Jesus is clear. The Gospels are themselves historical records of Jesus’ life. This Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Next, the creed tells us that Jesus descended to the dead or, as many translations read, to hell. There are three primary views as to what is described here. First, it can be viewed as adding emphasis to what was already stated, that Jesus really died. He did not swoon or sleep; His body lay in the grave lifeless. Second, we could read it as Jesus descending into the holding place of the dead, a kind of limbo. This is typically coupled with the belief that Jesus went to liberate the Old Testament saints from their place in Abraham’s Bosom and bring them into the presence of the Father. Third, it can be viewed as Jesus descending into hell, the place of torment for our sake.

1 Peter 3:19 is a text that inspires this phrase, which states that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Also Psalm 16:10 reads, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption”, which Peter explicitly applies to Jesus in Acts 2:31. Sheol, it should be noted, is the Hebrew equivalent of Hades, since both can mean the grave in abstract and the holding place of the dead.

Which then is the correct understanding? We can’t say. Such things will remain a mystery to us in this life. While none of the interpretations are heretical[1], I would encourage us to hold to the first. It is crucial to Christian orthodoxy that we believe that Jesus really died, and anything beyond that can too easily dive into dangerous speculation.

THE NECESSITY OF ATONEMENT

Now that we’ve addressed what the creed says about Jesus’ crucifixion and death, we must now ask the question: Why? Was the cross really necessary? Behind this question lies the necessity of atonement, which is the idea of repairing or satisfying a wrong that has been committed. While church history has produced numerous theories for how Christ’s suffering and death atoned for our sins, all Christians must agree that Jesus did atone for our sins by His crucifixion.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3). The death of Jesus as reparation for our sins is of “first importance” to the Christian faith. This truth cannot be negotiated or removed without the entire message of Christianity collapsing into pieces. Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Without faith in the atoning death of Christ, one cannot truly be a Christian.

What then does it mean to believe in the atoning death of Christ?

First, a proper understanding of sin is required. Many branches of Christianity debate the extent of sin’s corruption, yet every Christian must acknowledge that our sin has severed our communion with God beyond repair. Our active choice to disobey the Most High removes us from His presence and eternal life in Him.

Further, we must also affirm our own inability to undo the effects of sin. We reject Christ’s death as being merely an example for pointing us down the path for reuniting with God. Such a stance views Jesus as nothing more than a spiritual guru showing us the way. It forces Christianity to become Western Buddhism. But Jesus did not come to make us enlightened; He came to restore our lost communion with the Father. We were utterly incapable of crossing the chasm between us and God caused by our sin, but Jesus did that very thing for us. Therefore, every Christian must recognize that “Christ died for ours sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

The theory of penal substitution, I believe, gives the most encompassing view of how the Scriptures present Jesus’ payment of sin[2]. For instance, Isaiah 53 is one of the clearest teachings on the crucifixion, even though Isaiah lived 700 years before Christ. Verses 4-6 could almost serve as a definition of penal substitution:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Our sin is an act of cosmic treason against God. Therefore, each sin requires a just retribution by God. To do anything else would make God unjust. Jesus, however, gives Himself in substitution for us. This is what is meant by penal substitution. Jesus took the penalty of our sins upon Himself, satisfying the justice of God.

Or we could simply quote the words of Isaiah once more, “he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Unfortunately, some argue that this view of the atonement is nothing more than divine child abuse. Indeed “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (v. 10), but the Father did not send Jesus as an unwilling sacrifice. As said already, Jesus came to give Himself as a ransom for us. Furthermore, Jesus claimed, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:11; 18). The plan to rescue us from our sins was a deliberate and loving act of the Triune God.

Why then did Jesus suffer the humiliating death on a cross?

To offer Himself as a substitute for us, to save us from our sins.

Second, we must also believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. Multiple times, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus died once for all of our sins, often contrasting the crucifixion with the Levitical sacrifices of the Old Testament. Unlike those sacrifices that needed to be made constantly, Jesus’ blood fully and completely paid the penalty of sin. If you are a follower of Christ, this means that He has already pardoned every sin that you have committed, are committing, or will ever commit. He cleansed it all in one horrific sacrifice upon the cross. This means that our best efforts to work off any guilt over our sin is, in reality, an act of scorning the cross. To attempt covering up sin on our own is effectively a declaration that Jesus’ death was not enough. It reflects a false view of the gospel.

A CALL TO COME AND DIE

How then are we to respond to the crucifixion of Christ?

In Matthew 16, after telling His disciples that He must suffer and die, Jesus then teaches them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v. 24). Notice that this is a blanket proclamation for all of His disciples, even us today. Whoever wants to follow Jesus must deny himself, grab a cross, and follow Him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously summarized this by saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He goes on to explain that while some followers of Christ may be called to a martyr’s death, every Christian is called to die to self. Following Christ means the denial of self, the crucifixion of self. Yet from this death comes new life in Christ. As Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). The Christian life, therefore, is very much a new birth, a death and resurrection. Our new lives are now marked by following Christ.

But how are we to follow Christ? What does being His disciple look like? More than any other factor, I would argue that a disciple of Christ is in love with His Word. Donald Whitney affirms this by stating, “No Spiritual Discipline is more important than the intake of God’s Word. Nothing can substitute for it. There simply is no healthy Christian life apart from a diet of the milk and meat of Scripture” (22). Indeed, this is because Bible is the inspired and collected writings of God Himself to us. It is the Bible that prophesied the coming of Christ and presents Him to us, crucified for our sins. The Bible gives to the teachings and commands of Jesus our Lord. In order to follow Jesus and deny ourselves, we must know what He has commanded of us. We must know the Scriptures. We must be saturated in them. To know and submit to the Word is the context for every step we take as we follow Jesus. We must daily crucify our wisdom and passions in order to abide in the wisdom and passion of Jesus our Redeemer. Many Christians will not suffer as martyrs, yet we are all called to unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ through following Christ instead of self.

Do you, therefore, believe that Jesus died for your sins? Are you following Christ? Are you denying yourself, crucifying yourself with Christ daily? Is your confidence entirely in Jesus’ finished work on the cross?

We believe in Jesus Christ, the God-man, who, suffered, was crucified, died, and buried as a substitute for us, paying the penalty of our sins. We, therefore, can never stop speaking of the wondrous cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Do you believe?


[1] Some may shirk to hear me claim that the view that Jesus descended hell as a place of suffering is not heretical. Word of Faith teachers have recently made this understanding so uncomfortable by explicitly claiming that Jesus needed to suffer in hell for our sins. This, of course, takes the focus away from the cross and is incredibly dangerous. However, the traditional understanding for this view by theologians like John Calvin is that descended into hell to “fight hand to hand the powers of hell and the terror of everlasting death” (Institutes, 251). This falls in line with one of the most popular theories of atonement: Christus Victor.

[2] This does not mean that the other theories of atonement are without biblical validity. Indeed, we should always strive to speak holistically about Christ’s atoning work. Just as Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, He is also our ransom from sin and the victor over sin.

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The Incarnation

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

 

Our journey through the Apostles’ Creed brings us now into a multipart study of the life and work of Jesus, which, of course, begins at His birth. The virgin birth, which Lewis called the Grand Miracle, has long been given the rightful attention of theologians. As we will see, without this opening act of God, the gospel is undone. The incarnation of Christ and His virgin birth is not a belief to be negotiated; it is the wonder of all wonders. It is our hope and our redemption.

THE DOCTRINE

Far more can be said about Christ’s birth than what we have time for here; we will, therefore, paint with broad strokes, attempting to cover the basics of this doctrine. In doing so, let us begin with the title given for this event by which we still divide all of human history: the incarnation. Incarnation means the taking on of flesh, of a body. A central text from which we can center this study is John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word was both distinct from God, while also being God (1:1). This Word was the means by which God created all things, such that nothing created was created without Him (which can only mean that He, like God, was not created). This Word is Jesus, as is made clear in verse 17. He has brought life to men, shining light into our darkness. God the Son, the eternal Word, has displayed His glory to the world that He made, such glory that could only radiate from the Son as He comes from the Father. How did He reveal to us His gracious and true glory? He became flesh and dwelt among us. God the Son became human. This is the incarnation of Christ.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the incarnation with two phrases: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. The two are inseparably linked to one another. Without the conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth is impossible. Without the virgin birth, the conception by the Holy Spirit rendered false. We cannot affirm one without the other; we must accept or reject them together.

But why were such things necessary? Let us begin with why a virgin birth was necessary. The virgin birth is not simply a silly myth for describing Jesus’ origin as a great teacher. It is a historical reality that is also a crucial component to the message of the gospel. In fact, the first promise of the gospel also prophesies the virgin birth. In Genesis 3:15, after humanity fell into sin, God pronounced this curse upon the Serpent: “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The curse must have given comfort to Eve. She was deceived and led into sin by the Serpent, but one of her offspring would destroy the Serpent. Through a woman, Adam plunged humanity into sin, but through a woman would also come humanity’s Savior. The incarnation of Jesus only deepens this symmetry by revealing that the Serpent-Crusher was not just born of woman, but He was exclusively born of a woman since she was impregnated by no man.

Many theologians have pointed to the virgin birth, therefore, as the catalyst for Jesus coming into the world as the second Adam (that is, without inheriting sin). Being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, Jesus was born free from the cycle of sin, which, of course, made it possible for Him to live a sinless life. Without the virgin birth, Jesus could not rightly be called the second Adam, and He could not give His life as payment for our sins. The virgin birth, therefore, is necessary for the gospel.

Furthermore, the two statements also point us toward the two natures of Christ. As being conceived by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that Jesus was sent by the Father to earth. He did not begin existing with His conception because He was eternally existing as God the Son. He is, therefore, divine. He is God the Son sent by God the Father.

But He was also born of Mary the virgin. He was born. Think about it. He was born. Nine months of developing in the womb and the whole shebang. He came into the world like we all came into the world: by the body of our mother. Jesus, therefore, is human. While His birth was not the beginning of His existence, it was His incarnation, His becoming flesh, a human.

This stands beside the Trinity as one of the great mysteries of Christianity. Jesus is one person, yet He bears two natures, God and man. He is fully human and fully God. He is not a glorified man who looks kind of divine, as the Arians believe. Neither is He God who only appeared to look like a man, as Docetism teaches. He is not a demigod, who is part God and part man, nor is He sometimes God and sometimes man. The Chalcedonian Creed (or the Definition of Chalcedon) gives us very specific language for affirming this reality:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

APPLICATION

Having now addressed some of the basics for understanding the incarnation, we now will look at how this doctrine applies to us. While the applications for the incarnation are numerous, I will discuss three: 1) by becoming human while retaining His deity, Jesus is able to mediate between God and man, 2) since Jesus became flesh, our bodies are not evil, and 3) by condescending to us, Jesus is the supreme model of humility for us.

Jesus as Mediator

Paul wrote these words to his disciple, Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus is only mediator between us and God. But why do we need a mediator at all?

Adam and Eve needed no mediator. They were free to bathe in the presence of God and to enjoy the world that He had given them to rule. But they rejected their communion with God in a feeble attempt to seize power. Their disobedience opened a chasm between them and their Creator. As a symbol of this separation, they were exiled from Eden, cast away from God’s presence. God gives the judgment, but the damage is self-inflicted. When we sin, we follow the footsteps of our ancestors and keep the path clear for our descendants to tread behind. We reject God, and there remains nothing for us except a gulf between us.

In His mercy, God repeatedly crossed the chasm to reveal Himself to His people. He spoke to them through prophets. He gave His Spirit to their kings. He established priests to pray and sacrifice on their behalf. Yet these were all messages from afar, letters to exiles to remind us that we were not forgotten nor unloved. But the abyss remained uncrossed.

Enter Jesus, who bridged the gulf. As a man, Jesus was able to be truly human, as we were designed to be. He became like us in every respect, except better, as we should have been. He became the second Adam, resisting the pull of sin that the first Adam fell into. When offered the forbidden fruit from Eve, Adam ate. He should have rejected the opportunity to sin. More than that, he should have offered himself to take the judgment of Eve’s rebellion. Instead of correcting and then dying for her, he chose to follow and then blame his wife. Jesus, however, never yielded to sin and died in our place to rescue His Bride.

Yet Jesus’ death would have been insufficient unless He was also God. How can one man’s physical death cover the eternal spiritual death that was the consequence of sin? Only the Infinite Himself could pay our infinite debt. Since God was sinned against, only God could also redeem. As God, the death of Jesus was the death of God. The Holy One died to make us holy, to bridge the chasm and restore our communion with Him.

Without both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, He could not be our mediator. Yet He, the God-man, is. He is the way that has been made across the divide, and there is no other. How could there be? To claim another path to God makes a mockery of the cross. Further, it makes a mockery of God humbling Himself to become a man. Jesus has not left other options open. We must either accept Him or reject Him, but we cannot view Him half-heartedly as one of many roads to God.

“There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.”

The Flesh

Gnosticism was one of the first heresies to rise up against Christianity. Gnostics primarily believed that Jesus had given to some individual a secret knowledge that was hidden from the others. Who this individual was varied between different teachers (Thomas, Judas, Peter, Philip, Mary, etc.), which is why there are so many Gnostic Gospels. Yet most Gnostics shared the idea that this secret knowledge would free them from the physical world and enable them to transcend into the spiritual world. They longed for this because they believed all things physical to be evil and all things spiritual to be good. This view led to two extreme applications. First, some Gnostics would give themselves fully to ascetism, punishing their bodies and denying themselves any earthly pleasure. Second, others would yield entirely to self-indulgence, reasoning that the body could only do evil since it was evil so why try to stop it? Both were drastic attempts to be liberated from our flesh and from the material world. Doesn’t that sound spiritual?

This swaying between extremes is still present today. While Western culture has predominately been hedonistic (as consumerism must be), society almost always fights extremes with extremes; thus, when the American dream leaves us empty, many turn to an ascetic lifestyle. The flashy steam of dopamine that is social media is only fueling this division at an even quicker pace. Social media feeds are inherently hedonistic by design. The blend of having screens as buffers between us and others, endless information novelty, personalized news feeds, and vast social connectivity has created a kind of cognitive candy. We should not be surprised then to find the disillusioned turning to Buddhism and Stoicism (often condensed into the idea of mindfulness), both of which emphasize the primary importance of disciplining our desires and impulses. Islam fits this narrative as well by requiring physical acts of daily prayer and an extended time of fasting each year. They are appealing as ascetic alternatives to the Internet-driven hedonism. They appear to give an answer for what we are to do with our bodies. Feed them relentlessly, or starve them into submission?

Christianity reaches toward both with the truth as revealed in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection blasts a hole in the Gnostic logic of asceticism. God chose to dwell in flesh; therefore, flesh itself cannot be an inherent evil. Jesus comes to redeem our bodies, not destroy them. This will occur through the death of our current bodies, but when Christ comes again, He will resurrect us into new, glorified bodies. Our flesh is not evil, just broken. This means that the life of a Christian must embrace the shades of truth that mark both hedonism and stoicism. We must recognize that God purposely made us with taste buds. He also created chocolate with a different flavor than strawberries, and He made both of those flavors wonderful to combine. As His children, God delights whenever we enjoy the gifts that He has given to us. Yet because our flesh is marred by sin, we constantly valuing God’s gifts more than God as the Giver. We must, therefore, discipline our bodies so we are not consumed by the lure of more.

We see this balance imaged in marriage. Proverbs commends us to delight ourselves physically with our spouse. Properly understood, enjoying the body of one’s spouse is taking pleasure in a gift that they have given exclusively to you. Delight is statement of love, a declaration that their body and their self is satisfying and sufficient for you. Failing to enjoy your spouse can, therefore, rightfully be seen as being unsatisfied with them and their gift, while an obsession with your spouse’s body makes them into an object to used. Both extremes are unloving and ultimately destroy the pleasure itself.

The same can be said of every gift that the Father gives to us. To reject His gifts is a rejection of His gracious love toward us, but to be consumed by His gifts is an idolatrous rejection of Him. May we, therefore, as followers of One who is both God and man be the most satisfied in our enjoyment in our enjoyment of the earthly pleasures that the Father as given us, while also being the most disciplined against letting our desires and longings consume us.

Humility

Finally, the incarnation of Jesus teaches us by example what true humility looks like. Simply stated, Jesus becoming a human is only rivaled by His crucifixion as the greatest act of humility ever committed. Consider the reality of it. God became one of His creations, like a potter choosing to become a jar. The Infinite One became finite. He clothed Himself in the limitations of a body. He willing submitted Himself to hunger, thirst, and pain. He became like us in every respect yet without sin.

Indeed, Jesus was more human than us because of His freedom from sin. As Chesterton argues, sin deadens the senses, leading to a kind of spiritual and emotional paralysis or vegetation. Yet Jesus’ heart was not dulled by sin. His spirit was not deadened to the brokenness around Him. We flinch and distract ourselves from thinking too long or hard about the present reality of atrocities like the child trafficking for organ-harvesting or systemic rape in countries like Myanmar or Libya. Yet Jesus saw every single sin as the act of cosmic treason that it is. We, therefore, cannot even begin to fathom the depth of suffering that even viewing our “small” sins would have caused Him. Yet Jesus chose this life. He willingly descended from heaven to take on flesh and blood and to ultimately have that flesh and blood broken and spilled in our place for our sins.

We must follow His example of humility in at least two ways.

First, since Jesus humbled Himself to become flesh and came not to be served but to serve us, no one is too lowly for us to serve. As our Lord, Jesus modeled how we must live by serving. If we are not greater than Him, how then can we do anything but serve as He served?

But it’s not just the act of serving that Jesus has modeled for us, but also the heart of serving. If we are not guarded, too often serving others can actually build up our pride. We can subtly develop a pharisaical mentality where we believe ourselves to be superior to others precisely because of how selfless we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, this can also limit how we serve others. By believing that we are doing others a favor by serving them, we can view our acts of service with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it mindset, which is not an act of genuinely seeking their good. Therefore, we must be constantly vigilant to conform our hearts to the likeness of Jesus, who served out of selfless and humble love for others.

Second, as we studied last week, a failure to embrace Jesus as Lord is an obstinate declaration of our own supremacy, while bowing to Jesus as Lord is a humble act of submission to Him. Embracing Jesus as our Savior and Lord means dying to self and killing our pride. Yet this act of humility pales in comparison to Jesus’ descension into the flesh. When Jesus commands us to follow Him, He is not making a demand of us that He has not exceeded Himself. He humbled Himself to rescue us; therefore, we must also humble ourselves to receive Him.

Indeed, John Flavel writes a warning in vein of the author of Hebrews about pridefully neglecting “such a great salvation”:

Does he [Jesus] veil his insupportable glory under flesh, that he may treat the more familiarly and yet do you refuse him, and shut your heart against him? Then hear one word, and let thine ears tingle at the sound of it: thy sin is thereby aggravated beyond the sin of devils, who never sinned against a mediator in their own nature; who never despised, or refused, because, indeed, they were never offered terms of mercy, as you are. And I doubt not but the devils themselves who now tempt you to reject, will, to all eternity, upbraid your folly for rejecting this great salvation, which in this excellent way is brought down even to your own doors. (59)

Do you, therefore, embrace the incarnation of Jesus? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine? Do you believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men? Do you believe that He is your mediator? Are you caring for your body in reflection of the good gifts that God has given? Are you following Jesus’ example of humility? Have you humbled yourself to receive salvation from His hand?

We believe in Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, was born of a virgin, becoming a fully human, while still retaining His divinity, so that He could stand as the only mediator between God and us. To embrace these things is to take hold joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Do you believe?

God the Son

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord

 

The admiration of Jesus as teacher and philosopher is highly prominent within our increasingly pluralistic context. Even among those whose detestation for Christianity can barely be contained, many still maintain a respect for Jesus as a speaker of love and giver of mercy.

Sadly, this mentality is ever more bleeding into Christians’ understanding as well. Many today claim to follow and love Jesus, while rejecting any talk of doctrine or religion. Doctrine, they contend, divides, but Jesus unifies. Both statements are true, but not all divisions are sinful. Indeed, some unity simply cannot exist. To affirm Jesus as God means that we cannot be unified with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Such divisions are necessary and even biblically commanded.

The stark reality is that Jesus was a teacher, and, since doctrine simply means teaching, Jesus taught doctrine. Teachers can only teach doctrine; it’s what makes them teachers. Jesus cannot be divorced from doctrine, and if we fail to view Jesus as He presented Himself, we will find ourselves following after an imaginary Jesus who often acts conveniently like we’d like Him to act.

As with the other doctrines, the Apostles’ Creed aims to condense the apostolic, biblical teaching of Jesus into a few easy-to-memorize phrases. Half of the creed will be spent upon the person and work of Jesus because He is the core of Christianity. As with our study of God the Father, we will address here the three statements made about Jesus within the first line of Article 2.

JESUS CHRIST

Christ is not Jesus’ last name; it is His title. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew derived title, Messiah. Both mean anointed one, so I will use them interchangeably. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s servants would be anointed with oil for particular tasks (i.e. David’s being anointed as king). The oil was a physical symbol of God’s Spirit being given to them in order to accomplish their purpose. In this way, David, as the anointed king of Israel, was a christ, a messiah.

Yet the Old Testament is also littered with prophesies that spoke of a coming king from David’s lineage. By the first century, this promised king was referred to as the Christ. The people of Israel awaited the Messiah, this Son of David, with great anticipation. In fact, Jesus (or Joshua, meaning the LORD saves) became a popular name by which the Jews expressed their hope and longing for God’s rescue from their oppressors.

Like in the first century, most Jews today still reject Jesus as being the Messiah because He did not accomplish the political revolution that they excepted. Yet the Gospels firmly assert that Jesus is the Christ. Mark’s Gospel begins by plainly declaring: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). In chapter eight, the center event of Mark comes when Jesus asks His disciples who they say He is. Peter responds by saying that He is the Christ (8:29). Jesus affirms Himself to be the Messiah in John 4 during His conversation with the Samaritan woman. Acts and the epistles declare this belief too by repeatedly referring to Jesus as either Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ.

But if Jesus’ disciples still believed that Jesus was the Messiah, why didn’t Jesus overthrow Rome and the other governments of the world? Although Jesus has promised to return again and establish His physical kingdom, His first coming was to free His people from a much greater threat than Rome. As the Christ, Jesus is the redeemer of humanity that was first promised in Genesis 3:15. He is the Serpent-Crusher who would destroy the power of sin in the world and free us from the curse of death. He came as the suffering servant, God incarnate, who died for the forgiveness of our sins (Isaiah 53) and to inaugurate the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31). To call Jesus the Christ, therefore, is to declare Him as the Savior, the defeater of sin and the mediator between God and man.

Thus, no one can believe in Jesus Christ without also believing in Jesus as Christ. Jesus cannot be received as a mere teacher whenever He explicitly claimed to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). As the Christ, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, to rescue us from our sins. Believing in Jesus Christ means looking to Him for salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins that we could never earn.

Yet there is also an implied belief in the Scriptures that is also necessary for believing that Jesus is the Christ. The Messiah, after all, was foretold by the prophets of old as recorded in the Scriptures; therefore, the very significance of the Jesus being the Messiah hinges upon God’s revealed Word. The Gospel of Matthew, particularly, structures itself as a direct continuation of the Old Testament narrative, and its many citations all show that is the promised Savior. Therefore, just as Jesus cannot be separated from His role as Savior, neither can we divorce Jesus from the Bible. He was affirmed by the Scriptures, and He affirmed them as well. To accept Jesus as the embodied Word means also accepting the Bible as the written Word.

GOD’S ONLY SON

Next, Jesus is called God’s only Son. Having studied God the Father last week, we already somewhat addressed Jesus as the Son. The same rationale applies here too. Since Jesus revealed Himself to be the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus’ sonship is a core component of His identity. Hebrews 1:1-3 affirms this with undeniable clarity:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds all things by the word of his power.

As the Son, Jesus was the Word through whom the Father created the world, He is the visible and radiant display of God’s eternal glory, and He continues to uphold the cosmos with the sheer authority of His word. When Jesus is called the Son of God, these are the attributes to which the New Testament writers are pointing. Indeed, the Son is, as the Nicene Creed affirms with greater clarity, “the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”

Jesus has eternally been God the Son, and He will forever be God the Son, which, of course, means that we cannot know Jesus as the Son without also knowing the Father. Furthermore, Paul states that no one can confess Jesus as their Lord without the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Believing in Jesus, therefore, requires belief in the Trinity. It is not enough to believe solely in Jesus. Any who fail to believe in the triune nature of the Father, Son, and Spirit do not believe in Christ.

But believing in Jesus as God’s only Son has another glorious dimension for us as well. As the Nicene Creed clarified, we believe that Jesus is the begotten Son of God. He is the Son of the Father by being of the same essence as the Father. He is the Son by right, by the very nature of His being. Yet Hebrews goes on to describe the work of Jesus on the earth as “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10). By His suffering, Jesus brings His people to the Father as sons and as His brothers.

Consider the weight of this truth for a moment.

We were originally created to display God’s likeness. Although less glorious than the angels, we were given dominion over the earth and its animals. We were crowned with glory and honor by the Creator Himself, yet we threw His gifts back in His face. Like impulsive children, we broke God’s command, believing God to be a malicious and controlling dictator rather than a loving and selfless Father. When looking at the God’s fence of rules, we only saw our freedom being limited, not the busy highway on the other side.

But even when we learned evil by firsthand experience, we continued to sin, the Serpent’s lie still ringing in our ears, fueling our god complex. We, therefore, deserved death. We deserved judgment, the same that Satan and his angels received, condemnation without mercy. God, instead, chose to save us. To maintain His justice and righteousness, our sin required retribution, an eternal consequence since the sin was against the Eternal One. Rather than dooming all of humanity to damnation, God took our place. The Son, through whom the world was made, entered the world as a man. His sinless life ended on a cross, where He freely gave Himself to the grave in payment for our sins. Three days later, He rose back to life to triumph over sin and to give life to all those who believe in His name for salvation. We will spend the next five weeks walking through these elements of Jesus’ work because they are the very apex of all of history. Nothing else is more important than the truth that God died to save us. How could anything even come close?

The glory of this gospel is only magnified when we understand that God is not merely restoring us back to Eden, He is making things even better. In the garden, we were God’s stewards over the earth, His image. But now, in Christ, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. God is not only the Father of Jesus the Son; He is also now our Father, since we have been made into co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). This, in no way, negates the truth of Jesus being God’s only Son, since He is still the only begotten Son. We, instead, are adopted, brought into God’s family, chosen by the Father before time began.

In Christ and as God’s children, we are also being made into “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This, of course, does not mean that we become gods, but it does mean that we are able to experience the eternal and glorious love of the Triune God, that we are given the very essence of joy and peace.

Believing in Jesus as the Son of God, therefore, means believing that He has made us into sons of God by His death and resurrection.

OUR LORD

Ben Myers writes:

Even before the ancient baptismal confession had taken shape, perhaps the earliest Christian confession consisted of just two words: Kyrios Iesous, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3). That early statement remains the spiritual heartbeat of the baptismal creed. Everything else in the creed radiates like the spokes of a wheel from that hub: personal attachment to Jesus; total allegiance to him.

This confession was not a frivolous thing. It was, for the early Christians, a matter of life and death. Beginning with Caesar Augustus, who called himself the son of god, Romans began to worship the emperor as another one of their gods. Temples and statues for emperor worship were quickly established throughout the Roman Empire. Given that nearly everyone in the ancient world already worshipped many gods, adding another to their collection was no great burden. Christians, on the other hand, refused to worship anyone but Triune God. Nick Needham describes the consequence of this collision:

The authorities saw this as a serious political offence. Worshipping the emperor was a sign of loyalty to the Empire; to refuse was to be a traitor. The chief test of whether someone accused of being a Christian was a real Christian, was for the magistrates to order him to worship a statue of the emperor and say, “Caesar is Lord”—that is, Caesar is a divine figure, a god. A faithful Christian would refuse, because for him or her, “Jesus is Lord”, not Caesar. One could not worship both Caesar and Christ. (84-85)

To declare that Jesus is Lord is an affirmation of His deity. It is a declaration of His authority, His supremacy, His glory. If Jesus is Lord, no one else is (at least not ultimately), not even Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, we owe Him our allegiance and our very lives. To be a Christian means submitting to the will of Jesus. It means becoming His slave.

The lordship of Jesus has never been easily received by the world, and today is no exception. Individual autonomy has never been valued more highly (with the notable exception, of course, of beliefs that are believed to be inherently hateful towards others). We glimpse it clearly in the abortion debate, where many who call themselves “pro-choice” are beginning to give the honest acknowledgement that babies in the womb are alive. Yet they still hold to abortion as a right because the mother’s choice overrides any right to life that her unborn child might have. The mother’s lordship over her own body stands as an infallible doctrine or, rather, as one of the dogmatic hydra heads of the religion of self.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis argues through the mouth of George MacDonald that every person who rejects Christ essentially declares the words that Milton gave to Satan: better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven (71). We are, he claims, like children who choose to miss playing with our friends because we obstinately refuse to apologize. We are each locked in constant battle for lordship; we must either choose Jesus or self.

To declare ourselves as Lord is a rejection of Jesus and of joy. We maintain our claim of supremacy, but we do so at the expense of our enjoyment and satisfaction. We do not diminish the glory of God, only our ability to bask in it with Him. Giving all glory as Lord to Jesus furthers our joy because it images the Trinity. We are most like God whenever we give ourselves selflessly to Him and His people. This is how the last are made first, and the first made last. Clinging to our life only guarantees that we will lose it. In the sacrificial shedding of our life, we find true life in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us. To empty yourself is to be like Christ, who emptied Himself for us and suffered the humiliation of death on the cross.

This is the way of Jesus, the narrow path of His kingdom. Humble yourself before Him and be exalted with Him, or exalt yourself before Him and be humbled by Him. There is no other way. The road forks here in two, and we each must choose. Jesus or self. Life or death. Wisdom or folly. Joy or misery.

To be a Christian is to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord”, to surrender ourselves fully into His hand. What we do, what we say, what we see, what we hear, what we taste, what we touch must all be done for the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Nothing less will do. C. T. Studd, who left his life of wealth and privilege to “run a rescue shop within a yard of hell” by going to unreached places with the gospel, summarizes the entire message of this study well: “If Jesus is God and He died for me, no sacrifice I could make would be too great.”

Do you, therefore, believe in Jesus as Lord? Have you surrendered your life fully over to His lordship? Do believe in Jesus as God’s Son? Are you adopted by the Father through the substitutional death of the Son? Do you believe in Jesus as the Christ? Is your full confidence in Jesus as the defeater of sin and death?

All Christians believe in Jesus, who is the Christ, the eternal Son of God, and the rightful Lord of all.

Do you believe?

God the Father

I believe in God the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

 

The Apostles’ Creed properly begins, where all things must begin, with the doctrine of God, and, although its statement on the first person of the Trinity may be short, it does not leave us with a belief in God as some sort of ambiguous and ethereal force. Instead, with clarity and precision, it affirms that God is the Father, almighty, and creator of heaven and earth. As we examine these titles and attributes from the Scriptures, we come to see that God is not an energy to be acknowledged but a Person to be known.

Entire libraries can be filled with books written about God the Father, and even then, the surface of His immensity has yet to be scratched. For simplicity and clarity, we will devote our attention to the three descriptions given in the creed: Father, almighty, and creator. We will begin by testing these attributes to validate that they are presented and taught in the Scriptures, and we will then move into how the truths of God’s nature apply to us.

CREATOR OF HEAVEN AND EARTH

We will begin in reverse since this description of God is the first attribute of Him found in the Bible. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The phrase the heavens and the earth, both here and in the creed, is a merism that refers to the entire cosmos. Everything that exists came into existence because of God. He is the Creator and the only uncreated being. He gives matter itself its beginning, yet He has no beginning. Before the beginning ever began, He was. This means that, as Creator, God is also holy. He is uniquely distinguished from all other things in existence. Black holes, dandelions, quarks, ocelots, and humans all share the common trait that we were made. We were designed, and God is the designer. He is other, outside of creation. He is holy.

Also, as Creator, God maintains ownership over all things. In Psalm 50:10-12, God declares, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” Similarly, Psalm 8:3 calls the heavens the work of God’s fingers and that He put the moon and stars into place. As the creator of heaven and earth, the universe itself is His possession.

What then does it mean to believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth? Or perhaps more to the point, how do we know that we believe that statement? If He is the Creator, then we are not of supreme importance; He is. As the author of life, all living creatures owe Him their very being, including us. Believing this must, therefore, result in a life of active and willing obedience, a life modeled after Him. After all, when the Creator commands something of His creation, it would be best for us to obey. As the supreme being above all others, we should obey Him, if for no other reason, out of fear. That’s why Proverbs calls the fear of God the beginning of wisdom; it points us down His patterned path. Yet He is also a good God who wants what is best for His creatures, so we can trust that obedience will always be in our best interest. Our obedience to His commands displays our belief that He is the Creator who is worth obeying, while on the contrary, disobeying God is a declaration of our independence from Him.

Adam and Eve did that very thing. They rejected God as their authority, as their designer, and they asserted themselves into His place. All sin follows this same pattern. Every act of disobedience is an act of idolatry because we elevate ourselves above the Creator.

Consider an example. Viewing porn is a rejection of God’s pattern for sexuality. It is a declaration that the instant gratification of ones’ desires is better than sex within the institution of marriage. The same can then be said for every sin. Sin itself is an act of defiance against God as the Creator.

Do you believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth? If so, obey Him. Read His Word in order to hear and understand how He has designed the cosmos to function, and then conform your life to His pattern. Be holy as He is holy. If you are not actively attempting to shape, order, and structure your life around God’s revealed patterns and designs, I would challenge that you do not yet believe that God is the Creator. Sin will, of course, never be overcome fully in this life, yet our lives must reflect a steady growth in being conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

ALMIGHTY

What exactly is meant by describing God as almighty? Might, of course, is synonyms with force, power, and strength is being modified by the word all. So, almighty means that God possesses all might. He is all powerful, omnipotent, sovereign. The Bible makes this point very clear. Psalm 115:3 declares, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Psalm 103:19 is similar: “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.”

Or consider a few examples from Proverbs. “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (16:4). “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (16:9). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (16:33). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (19:21). “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (21:1).

This attribute of God naturally flows from the first. If God is the Creator, it would stand to reason that He is the only being worthy of being called almighty. David affirms this connectivity in 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, where he prays: “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.”

Our God, indeed, is almighty, and there is none like Him.

But again, we must now ask: what does it mean to believe that God is almighty? First, if God is almighty, then we are not. While nearly everyone would admit the hard reality of our non-omnipotence, our lives often reflect a different view within our hearts. Our culture’s not-so-secret, love-hate relationship with busyness is one evidence of this. Many of us like the rush of being busy because it makes us feel in control, like we can order things how we like, and, since we are governing things, we cannot cease without everything collapsing into chaos. Our lives then proclaim the belief that we are almighty.

Yet our rejection of God’s omnipotence is most often seen in a subtler, but just as insidious, form: prayerlessness. The very essence of prayer is calling upon God, particularly to accomplish what we are unable to complete. Failing to pray, on the other hand, reflects a belief that we are all-sufficient and, therefore, do not need God’s aid. Prayerlessness is the rooted habit of a prideful heart, and it effectively amounts to a denial of, or at least rejection of, God’s supreme might. Prayer, however, is the opposite. It is a joyously freeing affirmation of the omnipotent God.

Do you believe that God is almighty? If so, do your prayers reflect that belief?

FATHER

Now we come to the third title of God within the Apostles’ Creed: Father. The burden of explaining the fatherhood of God here is lightened slightly by my plan to return to this doctrine in both the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Hopefully the three sermons across these three series will form a sort of trilogy around this fundamental teaching.

God as Father is a concept that is rooted in the Old Testament. Isaiah, when viewing the horror of his sin in comparison to God’s holiness, cried out, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (64:8). Or again the prophet wrote, “For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name” (63:16).

While there are other occasions in the Old Testament where God is described as fatherly toward His people and His creation, the New Testament takes this concept much further. Jesus, of course, teaches us to pray to God, calling Him our Father (Matthew 6:9). This is astounding since Jesus repeatedly refers to God as His Father throughout the Gospels. Indeed, particularly in the Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John, the apostle labors to make Jesus’ distinct and unified relationship with the Father known to us. Jesus is God’s only Son, the one who has eternally existed alongside the Father. In fact, Jesus states in John 17:24 that the Father was loving Him before the foundations of the world were established.

Jesus’ revelation of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son is beyond significant. Both God as creator and almighty are attributes that can be discerned, to at least some degree, without special revelation. We can study creation and conclude the necessity of a creator, and, from the immensity and complexity of creation, we could also come to the assumption that the creator is also almighty. While we could then view the creator as having a fatherly relationship with his creation, it would be presumptuous to make that metaphorical picture into his defining quality. Indeed, to refer to God the almighty creator primarily as Father requires special revelation, which is what Jesus did.

Jesus displayed to us an attribute of God that transcends even His designation as creator. Even though God first reveals Himself as the Creator, He became the Creator whenever He created. Therefore, if being the Creator is the primary aspect of His character, then God needed to create in order to be what He is. He needed us. But Jesus reveals that the central attribute of God is His fatherhood because He has eternally been the Father of the Son, Jesus. In Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves walks through how this eternal relationship is necessary for the statement “God is love” to be true. Just as the Father is eternally with the Son, He has also eternally loved the Son. To say that God the Father is love is an eternally true statement because He has always and will always be the Father to the Son and He is eternally loving the Son. God cannot, therefore, be love without also being Trinity.

We also depend upon the Trinity to know God as the Father and as love. Of course, we’ve already said that Jesus revealed the eternal nature of God the Father alongside His eternal nature as God the Son. But Jesus further clarifies that the Father cannot be known apart from the Son: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). It is impossible to know God as He is (that is, as the Father) without also knowing the Son because Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). The Father can only be known through the Son who is the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3).

But we still could not know the Father or the Son fully without the Spirit. Considers Jesus’ words to His disciples:

John 16:12-15 | I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

These roles are further deepened when we recall the gospel. Our rejection of the eternal Creator bore upon us an eternal judgment. We separated ourselves from His love, choosing instead His justice and wrath.[1] But thankfully, “for God [that is, the Father] so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus, the Son of God, accomplished this exchange of death for life by taking death upon Himself. He substituted Himself for us, transferring the eternal debt of our sin into His account. In this way, Jesus fixed the problem of sin. He bridged the chasm that separated us from the Father.

Yet the Holy Spirit also has an essential role in our redemption. In John 16:7, Jesus tells His disciples that His ascension back into heaven is for their benefit. How can this be? His ascension fulfilled the work of the gospel, which the Holy Spirit was then sent to teach and bring to remembrance everything that Jesus had told them (John 14:26). Indeed, the Spirit instructs each believer in the gospel by indwelling them and teaching them to glorify the Father and the Son. In fact, twice Paul emphasizes that without the Spirit interceding in our prayers we could not call God our Father (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).

How then do we know that we believe in God the Father?

First, to believe in God the Father requires belief in the Son and the Holy Spirit. No one can reject the Trinity and still cling to Christianity. To deny the Trinity is to reject the God of the Scriptures. Indeed, Jesus says about Himself, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Therefore, our belief in God the Father is proven to be valid by our belief in the Son and the Spirit.

Such a statement may sound counterintuitive, but that impulse only reveals how much the Fall has alienated us from God’s ways. As Trinity, God is utterly selfless. The Father is constantly glorifying the Son and Spirit, just as the Son is always glorifying the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit is always glorifying the Father and the Son. They are eternally giving, which is why it truly is better to give than to receive. Giving imitates God. Likewise, in Philippians 2:3-5, Paul called for the Philippians to count others as more significant than themselves by being rooted in the mind of Christ. The sinful, human impulse is to seek and claim glory for self, while God (the only truly glorious being) is constantly pouring His glory upon others, particularly upon the Son and the Spirit.

Second, to believe in God the Father means trusting His love us. John Owen writes, “The chief way by which the saints have communion with the Father is love—free, undeserved, eternal love… Have no fears or doubts about his love for you. The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is not to believe that he loves you” (12-13).

In contrast to Owen, the common view today is that God the Father is angry and vengeful, while Jesus is loving and gracious. But it was the Father who blessed us with Jesus (Ephesians 1:3). It is the Father who is called by Paul “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). It was the Father’s love that sent Jesus for us (John 3:16). When John states that “God is love,” the Father is particularly in view (1 John 4:16). And in the trinitarian benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:14, grace is attributed to Jesus, fellowship to the Spirit, and love to the Father.

Michael Reeves ties all of this together in how it beautifies the gospel:

And therein lies the very goodness of the gospel: as the Father is the lover and the Son the beloved, so Christ becomes the lover and the church the beloved. That means that Christ loves the church first and foremost: his love is not a response, given only when the church loves him; his love comes first, and we only love him because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

Do you, therefore, believe in God the Father? Do you believe in His Son that He sent to die for you? Do you believe in His Spirit that He has sent to guide in you in all truth? Do you believe in His vast love for you?

This is the God all Christians believe: the holy, Triune, almighty Creator who is also our loving and merciful Father.

Do you believe?


[1] Despite what many proclaim, His justice and wrath are essential to His fatherhood and love. The work of a father is to discipline his children, to shape them into men and women of character and integrity, which often requires a strong, firm hand. Fatherhood should also invoke a certain degree of wrath as necessary for defending children from insidious threats. Likewise, God cannot look upon sin without His justice and wrath. Sin is not only a blight against His goodness; it is also a corrosive plague that consumes us from the inside out. If God did not hate our sin, He would not be our Father.

I Believe

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 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 reminder 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 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 its 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 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 attached to the grace of Jesus like a branch to the vine.

So, do you believe?