Sermon Illustrations on confession
Agreeing with God’s Words
I missed that confession is not just a commandment, not just one of the “steps to salvation”—it is a means of God’s grace. The word confess, which means to assent or agree, is the English translation of the Greek compound word homologēo (homos, “the same,” and logos, “word”). When we practice confession, we use our words to agree with Gods words. God always speaks the truth, so in confession we must also speak the truth.
When people are asked what they believe in, they give, not merely different answers, but different sorts of answers. Someone might say, “I believe in UFOs”—that means, I think UFOs are real. “I believe in democracy”—that means, I think democratic principles are just and beneficial. But what does it mean when Christian congregations stand and say: “I believe in God”? Far more than when the object of belief is UFOs or democracy.
I can believe in UFOs without ever looking for one, and in democracy without ever voting. In cases like these, belief is a matter of the intellect only. But the Creed’s opening words, “I believe in God,” render a Greek phrase coined by the writers of the New Testament, meaning literally: “I am believing into God.” That is to say, over and above believing certain truths about God, I am living in a relation of commitment to God in trust and union. When I say “I believe in God,” I am professing my conviction that God has invited me to this commitment, and declaring that I have accepted his invitation.
The Creeds Connection to The Body of Christ
Despite belonging to a church where recitation of the creeds is an integral aspect of worship, I was for many years part of that group of moderns Pannenberg referenced who have wondered (sometimes silently, sometimes aloud) about the need for continued confession of the creeds with their ancient language and concepts.
Hearing church historian Jaroslav Pelikan interviewed by then Speaking of Faith radio host Krista Tippett on “The Need for Creeds,” however, has encouraged me to acknowledge the value of continuing to recite them. Even though Pelikan, a renowned professor from Yale, could have taken a more intentionally scholarly route to explain reasons for ongoing recitation of creeds, his disarmingly personal defense of these corporate confessions of faith compels us to reconsider the creeds and what it might mean to participate in the church catholic by reciting them out loud, in worship, and together with other Christians. Here is what he said:
My faith life, like that of every one else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, “As of 9:20, what do you believe?” And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, “Now let’s see. What do I believe today?” No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, we believe in one God?”
Recitation of the creeds, in Pelikan’s vision, is one tangible way members of the body of Christ experience connection to that vast virtual body of Christ, one that connects us not just to other Christians around the world in the present but also to all previous incarnations of the body of Christ in the two-thousand-year history of the church.
A Strange Relationship
Evangelicals, in my experience, have a strange relationship with both the three ecumenical creeds—Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian—and with a particular affirmation of the latter two: that Jesus “descended to the dead.” Regarding creedal authority, evangelicals seem to understand intuitively the importance of creedal affirmations.
Evangelicals want to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, the direction of the Father in creation, the necessity of the Son’s work for salvation, the activity of the Spirit in the church, and the hope of Christ’s return. And yet evangelicals are also Protestants and so want to recognize the supreme authority of Holy Scripture over tradition in matters of faith and practice. When it comes to the creeds, then, evangelicals sense their importance and their truthfulness but are also reluctant to call them “authoritative.”