John 3:16; Proverbs 3:5-6; Romans 1:5 (Romans 1:1-17)
To be successful in any endeavor, no matter how difficult or complicated the task, it is essential that you first learn the basics and that you then never forget the basics. An accomplished concert pianist still rehearses the scales over and over. A successful basketball team keeps practicing the fundamentals such as good passing and blocking out for rebounds. Several times a year pilots for commercial airlines – no matter how many years they have been flying – have to go back to class and practice in the simulator. The basics form the foundation, and if we forget the basics, cracks develop in that foundation and pretty soon the whole structure collapses.
The same is true when it comes to our faith as followers of Jesus. No matter how long we have been a Christian, regardless of what positions we have held in the church, from time to time it is good to go back and review the basics. Doing so helps strengthen our spiritual foundation and it helps us remember some things we may have forgotten. We may gain some new understanding as perhaps we see something from a different angle.
We will likely develop a greater appreciation for who God is and all God has done for us as we go back and spend some time reflecting on what is at the core of the Christian faith. To periodically review the basics of the faith helps strengthen that foundation of belief and understanding so we will be better equipped to face all of life – the good times, the bad times, and all those days and experiences that fall in between.
Learning about God, and then refreshing our understanding of who God is, is so important. For what we believe about God will ultimately determine the nature of our relationship with God, and that more than anything else will determine how we live all of life. For we all live our lives on the basis of who we think God is – a loving Father, a harsh judge, a distant non-involved deity. All of our thinking, all of our values, all of our actions will flow forth from what we believe is ultimately true about God. And the more we know of God, the easier it will be to trust Him with our lives.
So it is vitally important that we seek to understand as much about God as we can as accurately as we can – not just so we will think the right thoughts but that we will then live as we should, and of course, so we can enjoy a healthy, satisfying, and authentic relationship with God. Even if we have been a Christian for decades, we still need to be growing in our understanding of God, adding to what we already know, correcting what we have believed but is not completely accurate, and strengthening the convictions we hold that are true.
To help us grow in our understanding of God, for the next several months or so we are going to consider the basics of the faith as we look at a statement that has been used in the church almost from the beginning of its history. New converts to Jesus Christ were asked questions about this statement prior to their baptism. What we will be studying is the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite every month before taking communion. We recite it monthly, but I want to make sure we truly understand what it proclaims.
I know some of us come from churches or denominations that have tended to shy away from creeds. Some are downright opposed to them. The church I come from, the Baptist Church, has typically rejected the use of creeds, saying that the Bible is the only text we look to for guidance and instruction in our faith. But that is really an overreaction.
Creeds can be very helpful. They are not meant to take the place of Scripture, or to proclaim something that goes beyond the teaching of Scripture, but rather the creeds of the Church are meant to summarize clearly and truthfully what Scripture teaches. When Christians recite a creed, it is an affirmation of the biblical revelation of God and it serves as a reminder of what we believe. So let’s read together the Apostles’ Creed and see if this is not true.
THE APOSTLES’ CREED
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He descended into hell (to the dead). On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Isn’t that a great statement of Christian doctrine, of what we believe as Christians? It is a concise but comprehensive summary of biblical teaching. The only phrase in this creed that is troubling to some is the one that affirms belief in the holy catholic church. The reason this raises some red flags is that they think of the Roman Catholic Church, and they are protestant rather than Catholic. We will look at this in more detail down the road, but for now let me just point out that the word “catholic” means “universal.” So when it is not capitalized, which it is not here, rather than referring to the Roman Catholic Church it affirms belief in the one, universal, or worldwide church of Jesus Christ of which all true believers – Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox – are a part.
The Apostles’ Creed, while being very ancient, was probably not the first creed used by the church. The first creed, or statement of faith, was probably the simple but profound statement “Jesus is Lord,” which is found several times in the New Testament (Rom. 10:9; I Cor. 12:3; II Cor. 4:5). Many biblical scholars think this was the first creed of the church. A Christian is one who receives Jesus Christ as Lord.
This short creed makes two powerful claims. First, it declares a believer’s loyalty and commitment to Jesus Christ. For someone to confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is to declare that Jesus is Lord not only of the universe, but that Jesus is Lord of his or her life. That being the case, the believer seeks to do the will of Jesus. A “lord” is one who rules, and to confess that Jesus is Lord means Jesus is the One who rules in your heart and directs your life.
Second, the statement “Jesus is Lord” says something about who Jesus is in relationship to God. In fact, He is God – God the Son – just as God the Father is God and God the Holy Spirit is God. So Jesus, as God the Son, is Lord not only of the individual believer but He is Lord over all creation.
This proclamation that Jesus is Lord is foundational to Christian belief. As time went on, though, and the early church spread into the areas where people had no Christian background, it became necessary to explain in more detail just what constituted Christian belief or faith. And so something similar to the Apostles’ Creed existed at least by the end of the second century. By the fourth century the Apostles’ Creed had assumed more or less a fixed form. What slight variations did exist from place to place were worked out by the seventh century. So the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles or used by the apostles, but it is based on the teaching of the apostles, and its roots go back to the early church.
Today we will consider just the first two words of the creed, “I believe.” What does it mean to believe? That’s a very important question. Probably the most well-known verse in all of Scripture is Jn. 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It is believing that leads to eternal life, so it is vitally important that we understand just what it means to believe. We need to note that there are different levels, or aspects of believing. The first level is what we can call assent. Assent, or mental assent as it is sometimes called, is simply believing certain things are true. In this sense, to say, “I believe in God,” means simply that I believe there is a God. Sometimes people say, “I believe in God,” but they have no loyalty or commitment to God. They just believe there is a God. Of course, this is the essential starting point. Obviously before we can say anything about God we must believe there is a God.
Many outside the Christian family wrongly assume though that this is the essence of Christian faith. Christians are those who believe there is a God, and that God has something to do with a man named Jesus. Some within the church believe they are Christians simply because they believe that. But to believe means more than simply being of the opinion that there is a God. James 2:19 emphasizes this when it says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” Even Satan and all his hosts believe that there is a God. In fact, they are convinced of that. But they have rejected this God whom they know exists. So obviously saving faith, biblical faith, has to do with more than simply believing there is a God.
So moving on from the level of assent, to believe also means to trust. Believing is not only assent to an objective fact (the existence of God). It is not something cold and cerebral. To believe has an active sense to it. What that involves is a sense of trust. Specifically, we have placed our trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord because of His death on the cross for us. Rom. 3:23-25 declares:
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of His blood to be received by faith.”
Faith is simply the noun form of the verb “to believe.” To believe is to have faith. This passage from Romans tells us that our justification before God which leads to eternal life is possible because Christ Jesus shed his blood on the cross to bring us the forgiveness of our sins. As it says, by God’s grace we are redeemed. All we have to do to gain salvation is simply to believe, for it says we receive this gift “by faith.”
So when we say the phrase “I believe” as we recite the Creed, we are affirming that we believe in Jesus, and that His death on the cross paid for our sins. Thus, we have placed our trust in Him for salvation. We are not trusting in our goodness or our religious works as being sufficient to save us, rather we are trusting in Jesus and His saving work on the cross.
Then we trust God not only for salvation but we trust God to guide us through all of life. As Prov. 3:5-6 encourages us: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
If we believe in God, and we believe what Scripture affirms about God – that God is loving, perfectly wise, completely good, and all-powerful, then the response of faith is to trust God. To believe is to realize that the God who exists loves me, and in faith I respond to His love by saying “Yes” to God. If God loves me, and if God is wise, powerful, and good, I can trust Him with my life, my future, my destiny, and so I give God control of my life.
To believe also means commitment. When Jesus called people, he called them to leave their former way of life to follow Him, and that implies commitment. Biblically, it is a contradiction of terms to say you believe in God but do not commit your life to God.
As I pointed out a few moments ago, there was a close relationship between the Apostles’ Creed, or the early forms of the creed, and baptism for early believers in the Roman Empire. That was a time of persecution. It wasn’t so much that the Roman authorities were bothered by the fact that the Christians in the empire bowed before someone named Jesus. After all, there were all kinds of gods that were worshiped by various groups within the Roman Empire. The Roman leaders didn’t really care whom a person or group of people worshiped.
What provoked the Roman authorities was that the Christians proclaimed that there is only one God and that Jesus, as God the Son, is the only way to God. He was the only one worthy of bowing before. So the Christians would not bow before Caesar. They would not make offerings before his statues or participate in religious festivals related to the supposed divinity of Caesar. That was the main cause of persecution for the early Christians – not that they worshiped God as revealed in Jesus Christ, but that they wouldn’t worship Caesar.
In this environment the new convert publicly stated the creed prior to his or her baptism. In doing so they declared that they believed and what they believed, and what they believed was in the one true God. And by saying this is what they believed they were demonstrating their commitment to the One spoken of in the creed. For they knew the possible consequences of proclaiming the words of the creed and then living on the basis of it. Even with their life on the line, they were saying, “I believe in the God revealed in Scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ, and because I believe He is the only true God, I have committed myself to Him and His ways. And thus, I will not bow before false gods.”
A similar thing happened a little more than 80 years ago. In Germany before 1933 it was customary in Protestant churches for the minister alone to recite the Creed in the Sunday service. But after 1933 some congregations began to join in the recitation. The Nazi regime at that time tried to get – or force – the churches to endorse its agenda. Church members wanted this opportunity, in the face of Nazi attacks on the church, to confess their faith personally and publicly. They wanted to make known not only whose existence they believed in, but who they were committed to. And so they would not bow to Nazi pressure to compromise or distort the faith. Some paid a heavy price for that commitment.
“I believe in God,” means “I have committed myself to God” rather than to Caesar or some other god. It means I will live for God rather than the gods of this world, be it the god of wealth, sex, power, prestige, success, or whatever.
For us, to truly believe in God means we allow God to guide us and rule over every aspect of our lives, and at the same time we reject the rule of anyone or anything else in our hearts. So, there is an exclusiveness to our faith. We turn from all false gods, even the ultimate idol – the god of self – and choose the one and only real God. We are committed to God and God alone.
Now if this seems rather narrow or too demanding, we need to see that this commitment to the one true God also brings a sense of freedom. We are set free from the slavery and deception of false gods. We are delivered from all the disappointment they ultimately bring. We are free to live life as it was meant to be lived, which can only happen as we commit ourselves to our Maker. It means we are free to experience the fullness of God’s love. When we know that the one true God came to us in Jesus so we could experience the fullness of life now and eternal life with Him in the world to come, we have the assurance we need to commit ourselves fully to Him.
Finally, and related to commitment, believing means obedience to God. James 2:17 declares, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Commitment to God leads to action, and we call that action obedience. True faith is an act of surrender, the surrender of our will to the will of God. Rom. 1:5 speaks of the “obedience that comes from faith.” Authentic faith, to truly believe, results in obedience; obedience is part of the package.
Faith is as useless without obedience as a soldier is useless if he does not obey his commander. That soldier may have superb training. He may have the most sophisticated equipment in the world. But that’s all of no use if he doesn’t obey his commanding officer. So it is with faith. Other things can be present, but without obedience it is not genuine faith. Authentic faith will lead us to do the works of God. Faith will express itself in how we live, not just how we think.
Perhaps this can be best summed up by a true story told by Bob Vernon, who at the time was the Deputy Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Department. He writes:
The sun was just coming up. The motorcycle officer moved smoothly through the quiet Los Angeles suburb on his way in to work. As he neared an intersection, a red pickup truck sped past without even slowing for the stop sign. The officer turned on his flashing lights and radioed the station that he was in pursuit of the red vehicle.
As his unit pulled up behind the slowing truck, the officer was thinking, “This fellow is probably late for work.” Unknown to the officer, the driver of the pickup had just robbed an all night grocery store. On the seat beside the driver was the paper bag with the money and the gun he had used. The driver was thinking, “The cops know already.” He was scared. He rested his hand on the gun.
The truck pulled to the side of the roadway and stopped. The officer parked his motorcycle and approached the driver’s side of the pickup. He was relaxed. “Good morning sir. May I see your…” He didn’t even get to finish his sentence. The driver stuck his arm out of the truck and fired his weapon. The barrel of the gun was only two inches away from the officer. The bullet hit the officer in the center of his chest. He was knocked to the ground seven feet away.
For a few moments all was quiet. Then, to the horror of the gunman, the officer slowly stood to his feet. The driver couldn’t believe it. In shock, the policeman slowly began to brush the dirt from his uniform. After two or three seconds, the officer regained his wits, pulled his service revolver, and fired two rounds into the side of the truck. The first round went through the open window and destroyed the windshield. The second round went through the side of the door and ripped into the driver’s left leg. “Don’t shoot,” screamed the terrified robber, throwing the gun and the bag of money out of the window.
The officer’s life had been spared because he was wearing a bullet proof vest.
A few months later another officer, Ray Hicks, and his partner went to serve a search warrant on a well-known drug dealer in the city of Inglewood. As his partner knocked, Hicks yelled out “Police!” and started to kick down the door. From inside the shabby apartment, four slugs were fired through the door. One found its mark. The impact was almost exactly where the motorcycle officer had been hit only a few weeks before – squarely in the center of the chest.
Later his partner recalled that Hicks said quietly, “I’m hit,” and slowly sank to the floor. The coroner reported that the policeman probably lived less than a minute. The bullet had ruptured an artery; blood to the brain had been stopped instantly.
Police officer Ray Hicks was 27 years old. He left a wife, three children, and a bullet proof vest in the trunk of his car parked 30 feet from where he fell.
Every police officer in Los Angeles believes in bullet proof vests. They work! I doubt you could find a policeman anywhere who doesn’t believe vests save lives.
But that is not enough. An officer must do more than believe in vests. He must take his belief to the point of personal commitment. He must be willing to wear the vest, and wear it at all times. Even when it is hot. Even when it is uncomfortable.
And it is not just enough to believe that a man named Jesus lived 2000 years ago. One must take his belief to the point of commitment. He must be willing to take his belief to the point of “putting on” the Risen Christ, receiving Him as Savior and Lord.
That is what it means to truly believe. So to say, “I believe in God” as it is meant to be said means more than simply acknowledging the existence of God. It’s not like a police officer saying, “I believe in the value of bullet proof vests,” but then not wearing one, for then one’s belief in God makes no difference in their life. And like Officer Hicks keeping his bullet proof vest in the trunk of his car, we don’t, so to speak, keep God in our back pocket so we can pull Him out occasionally, perhaps during a crisis or on Sunday mornings.
Someone has said, “Faith (to believe) is the response of the whole person to the person of God. It is a joyful response on my part to the overwhelming divine love I see revealed in Jesus Christ.” So believing has to do with trusting in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, and then trusting God as we allow Him to guide our lives. It means we allow God to take hold of us and transform us. It means we have come to understand and believe some of who God truly is, what He is like, and all He has done for us. And on the basis of this, we respond to God with trust, commitment, and obedience.
When we respond to God at this level, we begin to experience life in all its fullness that Jesus offers us.