Thursday, 25 November 2010

What we believe

Just written this to discuss when visiting congregation members...

People often wonder what the core of Christian belief is. You can think of the denominations rather like a series of windows. Some are clearer than others. But it is the same gospel that we look at through them. The word gospel refers to an announcement of good news. Again and again in the New Testament, when the essence of the gospel is stated, the same three things are to the fore:
1) Believing in Christ’s person and work; and so…
2) Responding to Christ’s call to repentance
3) Trusting in Christ’s promise of forgiveness

This is perhaps most clear in Luke 24v46-47. Just before ascending to heaven Jesus explained the Old Testament to his followers. He then said:
“This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”
There we have it from Jesus himself. The core message of both testaments is this. In what follows we are going to look a little more closely at what this entails. My hope is that it will bring greater clarity to what we say in church and greater confidence of all we have in Christ.

1) Believing in Christ’s person and work
This is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed which we affirm in our services almost every Sunday. We can trace this creed back to the middle of the second century. It is accepted by all major streams of the church: Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It is therefore a good basis from which to clarify the basics of Christian belief—not least because we so regularly say we believe it.

The Bible: In affirming the creed the worldwide church affirms that its truths stem from the apostolic writings of the New Testament. Jesus commissioned the apostles as the foundational teachers for his church. As we affirm the creed, we stand in the long line of Christians who accept that their own ideas of God and his ways should confirm to what the apostles taught.

The Trinity: We hold that God has revealed himself to be the only God, and that he eternally exists as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They structure the creed. In all being the one God, each person is equal, sharing the same nature, power, character and wisdom. But their three titles show that they relate to one-another in different ways. ‘Father’ stresses primacy, whilst ‘Son’ suggests that he represents and obeys the Father. ‘Spirit’ implies the active presence of both Father and Son.

God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth: This is the context for all we learn of Jesus. The most basic definition of God is that he is the one who made everything. The creed doesn’t spell out how he did this, but only that he did. It states he is almighty, meaning that he can do anything—given that it is logically possible. ‘Heaven and earth’ was a way of describing the entire universe. It was all made by God’s power.

Holding to this keeps us humble. We may struggle to understand the trinity, or how suffering, hell or some of God’s commands are consistent with his love and justice. But this should not surprise us. We are mere creatures. When such struggles come, we must remember that God is the one who made the universe. So much of him will therefore be beyond us. But we can trust what he reveals in scripture, because he has the power to have ensured its accuracy. More than that, we can trust him, because his goodness is so clearly seen in Jesus.

Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord: There is much here. The title ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed.’ It referred to the King the Jews were waiting for God to send them. He was to establish an everlasting Kingdom of righteousness and peace. The title ‘God’s Son’ was given to Israel’s kings, but Jesus hinted there was more to it. God the Son had come in person. The creed affirms Jesus is fully God in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and fully man in being born of the Virgin Mary. ‘Lord’ was the title Jews gave God. So it also affirms Jesus’ deity, whilst stressing he rules all things and so is to be served and obeyed.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended to the dead. The third day he rose again: Here we affirm that Jesus’ death is central to our faith. “He bore our sins in his body upon the tree,” and “the punishment that brought us peace was laid upon him.” On the cross Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s justice so that God could remain just whilst pardoning us for all we’ve done. (1 Pet 2v24; Is 53v5; Rom 3v25-26).

So we affirm that Jesus experienced the fullness of death both physically and spiritually. Then he came back to life proving sin’s penalty had been paid and that Jesus is Lord of all. There is no doubt the creed intends us to accept a physical resurrection. No other idea was known to its authors or has ever been accepted in the church.

He ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead: In his resurrection body the man Jesus was seen to rise up from the earth into heaven, which can be best described as a spiritual dimension to our universe. The idea of sitting at God’s right hand stresses that he is now ruling over all things with his Father’s authority and power. There is nothing he is therefore unable to do. So when our prayers are not answered there really must be a reason.

Christ’s rule also means that he will return in person to judge everyone. This presumes all people sin and that this deserves punishment, for a perfect judge does not call innocent people to the dock. We all struggle with the idea of hell, but we cannot duck it. It is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. As our Judge he warned that it is real and it is terrible, and it is avoided by repentance and faith in him. (Matt 10v28-32; Mk 9v43-49; Lk 13v23-30; 16v19-31; Jn 3v16-18).

The Holy Spirit: The Spirit’s full divinity is implied in the structure of the creed and in ascribing him the title ‘Holy.’ Holiness describes the supremacy and purity of God’s nature. The Holy Spirit brings people to faith and transforms them into God’s own holy image.

The holy catholic church, the communion of saints: ‘Catholic’ simply means universal, and ‘saints’ refers to those who are set-apart as holy. So we affirm that when we believe we are spiritually united with all other Christians. This means that being active members of a local church is not an option. It is part of what it means to be a Christian, and essential if we are to continue in our faith. Only there does God provide the encouragement and teaching we need.

The forgiveness of sins: This is the door to all God’s blessings. Again we affirm the reality of sin, but with it God’s grace. Some are reluctant to accept that God could be angry or punish people. But even children know these things are implied in the need for forgiveness. However the wonder is that those who believe no longer face this anger. They are pardoned in God’s court. They are rescued from his punishment. They are therefore reconciled to him. More than that, they are adopted as his children and so loved as his very own.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting: As with Jesus, so with those who believe in him. Our resurrection is not of a disembodied spirit. It is to be given a new body when Jesus returns, fit for a new heaven and earth that God will create. Our everlasting life begins now as we start to live the life of that new creation inwardly. But it will be fully experienced when we are raised. Together, all who believe will then inhabit a perfect world, free from evil, pain and death. But our greatest joy will be to perfectly know and serve the Lord.

2) Responding to Christ’s call to repentance
Now to the second of our three points. Throughout the creed we affirm ‘I believe.’ Repentance gets to the heart of what this means. To believe is not just to accept all we have outlined about Jesus. It is to trust him. To repent is to ‘change our minds in such a way that we change our lives.’ Jesus confronted those who said “Lord, Lord” but did not do what he said (Lk 6v43-49). If someone truly comes to believe that Jesus is Lord, then they will treat him as Lord. So they will strive to follow his teaching in every respect.

Here we must note that throughout his ministry Jesus implied that we should reject all ideas that contradict not only the teaching of his apostles, but of the Old Testament too—when understood in the light of his coming (Jn 14v25-26; 16v13-14; Matt 5v17-47; Mk 7v5-13).

In modelling this he reaffirmed the moral aspects of the Old Testament law. So the great lifestyle lists of the New Testament teach that the Christian must turn from all other religions or occult practices, from blasphemy, hatred, bitterness, violence, adultery, extra-marital and homosexual sex, pornography, crudity, dishonesty, slander, greed and drunkenness. We have been called to a new life, inwardly re-created “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” So, though imperfectly, we will seek to be free from even a hint of sin, striving in our hearts to be kind, compassionate, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving,
pure, generous, faithful to others and at peace with all (Ephesians 3-6).

We repent when we say our confession prayer each Sunday in church. It is these things that we are committing ourselves to as we do. Above all, love for God and others is the essence of the repentant life. This is to cherish and so honour the Lord Jesus, living a life of prayer and study of the scriptures as members of his church, whilst seeking to serve and bring his gospel to the world, and raising any children we may have to do the same.

3) Trusting in Christ’s promise of forgiveness
This is the final mark of true faith. It is also assumed when we confess our sin. In doing so we acknowledge that we will always get things wrong, and so the Christian lives each day holding firmly to Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

It is this promise that assures us of God’s acceptance if we believe as we have outlined. It is this promise that gives us confidence in prayer before our God. It is this promise that guarantees his care and help throughout life, and it is this same promise that we cling to when facing death.

Christianity is therefore about grace. It is about God’s favour being given freely to all who follow his Son. Like the thief on the cross, we do not need to serve Christ for a number of years to earn our salvation, and we do not need to worry about whether we merit God’s acceptance. These things are a gift of his glorious grace. As is said in our services: God “forgives all who truly repent.” It is on this promise that our confidence stands, and from this promise that our joy comes, even when life is hard.