Creedal Christianity is Useful
Is it? Is creedal, confessional, catechetical Christianity useful? It appears to me that for most laymen it's high school algebra or geometry class. You know, "Why should we learn this? When will I ever use this in real life?" In decades of asking Lutherans what is Communion only pastors have ever answered what every single Lutheran learned in Catechism: "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink." If creedal Christianity is so useful why don't more catechized Christians use it?
Do people need water? We saw how much last week. That's why cities are built in proximity to rivers. You need water for crops, animals, health, and life. So why don't we divert rivers into cities? That's called a flood and rather than useful it is destructive. The Bible contains the entire river of the knowledge of salvation that God wills for humans to know. 2 Tim. 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." Why not then just use the Bible only? Denominations try; A 19th century survey of 53 American denominations' statements of belief found that the distinctive feature of American religion was "no creed but the Bible" (Democracy of American Christianity, 166). That sounds very pious, doesn't it? But the moment I say the words of the Bible are my creed the question is no longer what does God mean by the Bible but what do I mean (Conservative Reformation, 184).
The Bible is the river; the Bible is divine. A creed is not divine. It's only useful if it accurately states what God says in the Bible. A creed is to the Bible what a bucket is to a river. We agree; diverting a river into a town is a disaster, not a way to rightly use water. So having the whole Bible as your creed is not useful either. A confession where you state what the Bible means is useful. It's true; a creed that does not accurately confess what the Bible says is like a bucket with holes in it, but it is better than no bucket at all. A late 19th century Lutheran theologian said that "those who reject a creed, will speedily reject the Scriptures themselves'" (Jackson, Liberalism, 213).
A faithful confession, a Biblical creed, a catechism that accurately reflects what the Bible means is Biblical doctrine for easy recall and use. If you memorized your Small Catechism you know this, but how many of us actually use it? Our lack of use doesn't mean it's inherently unuseful. Haven't you ever worked in the garden and decided to dig, weed, or even prune with your hands only to get frustrated and pick up a spade, hoe, or shears? Well, get frustrated with trying to get a drink, water, or wash with the rushing flood of the river of Scripture. Use the bucket instead.
When someone asks or doubts creep into your mind about where did all this come from, you have an answer in the First Article. "I believe that God has made me and all creatures." And, He "still takes care of them." Not only does "He richly and daily provide me with all that I need", "He defends me against all danger." You confess to believe in a Creator not an evolver; in a Father not fate or chance. And He does all this not because you don't sin, or because you believe hard, or even believe at all. No, "All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me." Does this creed accurately confess Scripture? If so, it's a "thus says the Lord" and truth that will stand against sin, death, and devil too.
When issues of Creation or God's providing and/or protection come up, go to the bucket of the First Article. Those issues are usually raised from outside of you. Second Article questions, doubts, fears about redemption usually boil up from your sinful nature, your conscience, your sins. The bucket of the Explanation of the Second Article of the creed is useful against these. It confesses a God who is Man and Man who is God. The One who is "true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary." This one is your Lord who has redeemed you, purchased you, won you from all sins, from death, and from the devil himself. How did He do this? By His blood that He kept holy by never sinning and by shedding that blood to cover your guilt. And this changes everything. The rest of your days you get to not only live in His kingdom and but serve in it in a state of being constantly righteous, innocent, and blest by Him. For Jesus' sake, in His kingdom, you get to live like Jasmine, the confined princess, whom Aladdin shows "A Whole New World."
The Second Article accurately shows that Jesus redeemed you, but how does all that become yours? The 1966 Monkees knew. They sang, "I'm a Believer." That's true; All God does, promises, gives is received by faith, but hear the song in the background, have the Explanation of the Third Article in the foreground. With Paul in Ephesians 2, you confess that you believe you can't believe. Faith is a gift of God the Holy Spirit not a work, not a decision, not a choice by you. Believing in God the Creator and God the Redeemer is something God the Sanctifier calls you to, gathers you to, enlightens you to, sanctifies and keeps you in. Stop rooting around your heart, head, or conscience looking to see if you can find something called faith there and measuring if you have enough of it.
Remember the 1990's ad campaign, "Got Milk?" Well, the question is not "Got Faith?" But "Got Jesus?". That's what Luther said. In place of seeing a thing called faith' in his heart, he saw Jesus there. Jesus was His righteousness (Wengert, Formula for, 51-2). So the question is, "Got Jesus?" The Third Article says you do: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but." But the Holy Spirit has by the Gospel called me to believe in Jesus and will keep me in this Jesus till I die.
But can creedal Christianity be useful on the night Jesus was betrayed? Let's say you're at that table. Jesus states, "One of you will betray Me." One after the other says, "Surely, not I, Lord?" The Greek shows they all ask the question but they all believe it can't be them. The ESV hides this translating, "Is it I?" Nope, each is certain it can't be me. The bucket of the Explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed says, "I believe I can't believe" which leads us to confess, "Of course it's me." Augustine said the rule was "in all doubtful and difficult problems of thought and action, to be suspicious of nothing or nobody so much as oneself" (Christianity and Classical Culture, 505). Luther confessed in the same vein, "For the greatest temptation is that you find yourself so hardened, hardhearted, and insensitive that no trouble moves you" (LW, 44, 63). Surely, it can't be me!
And it's not that one of us will betray Jesus, but all of us have, multiple times, and Scripture says the sooner we confess this the better: David said after committing adultery and murder: "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long" (Ps. 32:3). Solomon teaches, "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (Prv. 28:13). And John says, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1:8).
However, what really haunts you tonight is this: "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." And those of you of poetic bent will like the touch that John 13:30 adds: "As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night." Talk about the dark night of the soul? Talk about, "Who shall stand?" Follow in the Gospels Satan stalking and taking Judas: A year before tonight Jesus had said, "Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil" (Jn 6:70). Then earlier the afternoon of our text Luke tells us: "And Satan entered Judas And Judas went to" the OT church leaders "and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus" (Lk 22:3,4). And tonight: Jesus says, "My betrayer is one who shares this dish with Me," and specifically, "it's the one who takes this morsel from Me." And Judas took it and Satan entered him and he didn't wake up to what he had done till too late. How do you know this can't be you? Carrie Underwood can wake up to, "Oh no, what have I done?" And the Rolling Stones can even have sympathy for the Devil, so, "Surely it could be me!"
We don't enter Lent tonight to feel bad for how much Jesus suffered for us. We enter Lent to see what His suffering did for us and our salvation. The Second Article fairly trumpets: that with the blood we're going to see Jesus shed and with the innocent suffering and even death He will endure, He has redeemed us lost and condemned people, purchased and won us not just from all sins, not just from death, but from "the power of the devil." Confessional Lutherans, creedal Lutherans, like us, "simply believe that after the burial the entire person, God and Man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed hell's power, and took from the devil all his might. neither hell nor the devil can take us or any believer in Christ captive or harm us" (FC, SD, IX, 2, 3). That confession of faith is pretty plain; pretty clear, and pretty comforting, consoling, hopeful and helpful.
But what if we were there tonight and stated, We'd never betray Jesus" and went on to argue about which of was considered to be the greatest? Could creedal Christianity help? The Creed is the Great Leveler. By confessing God as our Creator we say that God made me and all creatures "without any merit or worthiness in me." By confessing God as Redeemer, we're saying we need redeeming. We're a lost and condemned person. By confessing God as Sanctifier, we're saying what He does for me He does for all believers in Christ, i.e. He daily and richly forgives us all our sins and on the last day will raise all the dead and give to all believers in Christ eternal life.
Two closing points about creedal Christianity. First, from the Eastern Orthodox: The pastor's words which lead to confessing the creed are: "Let us have love for one another, that we may confess in unanimity of faith." Cool. The second from a Catholic priest of the 19th century: "'tempering pious zeal corrected I believe' to one does feel'" (Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence, 280). 3 times are Catechism says, "I believe". Use it! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20210224); Passion Reading 1, Apostles' Creed