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In his beginning to A Treatise on Faith and the Creed, the great church father Augustine states in regard to the Apostles' Creed:
"Inasmuch as it is a position, written and established on the most solid foundation of apostolic teaching, "that the just lives of faith;" and inasmuch also as this faith demands of us the duty at once of heart and tongue,-for an apostle says, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,"-it becomes us to be mindful both of righteousness and salvation."
As we begin our exposition of the Apostles' Creed concerning "our duty at once of heart and tongue," it is helpful to first affirm some basic presuppositions. This is vital to a right approach to this succinct summary of what "I believe."
True faith must, first of all, be based on biblical knowledge. People have many religious notions. Webster defines ‘notion' as "a general, vague, or imperfect conception or idea of something." That is a good description of how many people think about God. What they ‘believe' is according to their own vague ideas, and not according to biblical doctrine.
God cannot be rightly known, or believed in, apart from the Bible. As a faithful summary of Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism states that a true ‘believer' is one whose faith must, first of all, be based on "a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word" (HC Q&A 21). The content of what "I believe" must be God's Word-the Holy Bible. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans 1:17).
But true faith involves more than merely having knowledge-even the knowledge of God's Word. Knowledge is no better than notions if it is nothing but an end in itself. God's Word is to have and to hold. It must be a "sure" knowledge. To say "I believe" is to agree with God and affirm His Word, the Bible, as the absolute truth which I must know and to which I must attend. For ,"He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation" (Belgic Confession Article 2).
Who Truly Believes?
But there is more to be said. For this reason the Catechism also teaches that from such "sure knowledge" there must arise a "hearty trust" in God through Jesus Christ. Such trust consists of a personal, wholehearted reliance on God, based on the certainty of His Word, concerning His saving grace in Jesus Christ. This then is the substance of true faith-"which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel" (HC Q&A 21). The Holy Spirit's work of regeneration by means of gospel preaching is absolutely necessary. "Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the Word of God which lives and abides forever...Now this is the Word which by the gospel was preached to you" (1 Peter 1:23, 25b).
Who are they then, who truly ‘believe' when they confess in the creed, "I believe"? Only those in whom the Holy Spirit works true faith in Christ through God's Word. Such faith is the peculiar privilege and possession of God's elect people, sovereignly and graciously given. Thus we read when Paul preached the gospel, "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48). God's elect are those who truly believe, and therefore have "forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation...freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits" (HC Q&A 21). These are all true Christians.
A Christian's Creed
It is from this presupposition that the Catechism then moves in its exposition of the Apostles' Creed. This is not merely a Christian creed. It is a Christian's creed-a personal confession of faith-"not only to others, but to me also" (HC Q&A 21). This does not mean, however, that each Christian confesses the Creed apart from others-as so many islands midst a sea of unbelief. Rather, each Christian confesses together with others, as the church of Jesus Christ-not as islands, but as a holy, catholic continent. This principle is stated with beautiful balance in Q&A 22 of the Catechism: "What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe? All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in summary" (italics added).
The articles of the Creed summarize God's Word of gospel promise. This, of course, must necessarily begin with God Himself. "Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; The Word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return" (Isaiah 45:22-23a). As Christians, we are monotheists-believing in one God. This immediately sets us apart from the multitudes of polytheists, who believe in "many gods and many lords" (1 Cor. 8:5). But that distinction alone is not enough, for there are others who are adamantly monotheistic as well (e.g. Jews and Muslims). When we confess, "I believe in God the Father Almighty," we move into the sphere of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. God is one in essence, yet distinguished in three persons-God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (the basis for the three parts of the Creed). Compared to other monotheists, it is here where our paths formally diverge.
"You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble!" (James 2:19). Those words are no compliment. It is good to believe that God ‘is.' In our land, most people say that they do believe in God (which polls consistently affirm); as if they're doing God a favor by believing that He exists. It is good as well to believe that there is one God. And yet, to say, "I believe in God," without a true faith in the one true God, is to be damned with devils.
In actuality, one cannot rightly believe in God unless that God is the Triune God. As the Catechism states, "Because God has so revealed Himself in His Word, that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God" (HC Q&A 25). This is not the place for a detailed defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. But what is necessary for a Christian to believe concerns us with the Triune God of the Bible, and His sovereign and gracious working in creation and redemption-through which He reveals Himself as Almighty. This may seem so basic, but in our so-called ‘post-Christian nation,' Christians must assert this clearly and without apology.
Some recent events in our own cultural context serve to highlight this necessity for a clear apologetic. Absurd as it may sound to Christians, a suggestion was recently made (which received considerable media attention) that everyone should just start calling God, ‘Allah' (the Arabic word for ‘God'), in order to get past the religious divisions in our land. In a recent interview for an Arab television affiliate, President Bush said, "I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God....I believe there is a universal God. I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham. I believe in that universality" (cited from World Magazine, Oct. 27, 2007). This "I believe" which our president confesses, is no Christian(s) creed at all. And for this, he needs to repent (and for him, we need to pray!).
God the Father is not Allah, for the Bible (God's Word) is not the Koran (man's word). And the idea of the universal fatherhood of God is nothing but man's notion, and an old heresy. To confess, "I believe in God the Father Almighty," is to confess the first Person of the Trinity, which only the Christian can do.
God, the Eternal Father
What then do we believe about "God the Father"? First of all, He is that Person within the Godhead who is eternally equal with yet distinct from the Son and the Spirit. The Belgic Confession of Faith speaks of the Father as "the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible" (Article 8). Here, God the Father is properly viewed as the self-existent, uncreated Creator, although His creating work necessarily involved the Son and Spirit (Gen. 1:1-2; John 1:1-3). And in this He is truly Almighty, of which we will learn more in the next article in this series, concerning Him as "Maker of heaven and earth."
Unique to the Father is His distinct relations within the three Persons of the Trinity-also known as His personal (incommunicable) properties. The Westminster Confession of Faith very concisely states such relation: "The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son" (Chapter 2.3). Thus we see that exclusive to the Father is His active eternal generation of the Son. It is also from the Father (and the Son) that the Spirit proceeds. And this is all within the oneness of the Trinity-incomprehensible, yet eternal absolute truth-of the God in whom we believe and whom we worship with reverence and awe.
So this is also true with respect to God's eternal decree. Consider these words of Scripture praise to God in regard to election: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Eph. 1:3-4). This is a most profound and humbling truth of the Father's sovereignty in salvation according to His covenant of grace in the Son. Such gracious blessings from the Father are ours in Christ-"having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:5-6). Truly from such theology exudes doxology!
In this regard, the Catechism speaks of two aspects of God's Fatherhood that we confess. The first concerns us with His relation to His Son, or, as the Catechism puts it, "the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (HC Q&A 26). Again, bound up in those words is a most awesome and incomprehensible truth concerning the Father's eternality in relation to "His only begotten Son" (John 3:16) whom He loves (John 3:35). But the Catechism goes on and speaks of that startling and wonderful reality of God as Father in relation to the Christian: "That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...is for the sake of Christ, his Son, my God and my Father" (HC Q&A 26).
Many people lay claim to God as Father. To be sure, God is the Creator of all. Paul said to the Athenians, "we are the offspring of God" (Acts 17:29). Our genealogy goes back to Adam, who is called "the son of God" (Luke 3:38). However, fallen in Adam, man gave up his birthright to call God, Father. Spiritually dead in "trespasses and sins," all men by nature (sin) and practice (sins) are "sons of disobedience" and "children of wrath" (Eph 2:1-3). To those who would not believe in Him, Jesus said, "You are of your father the devil" (John 8:44).
Scripture makes clear that it is only those in Christ-united to Him by true faith-who can truly call God their Father. God is our Father by virtue of our election in Christ-believing that God "chose us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4). God is our Father by virtue of our redemption in Christ-believing that God sent His only begotten Son "in whom we have redemption through His blood" (Eph. 1:7). God is our Father by virtue of our adoption in Christ-believing that God sent His Holy Spirit to regenerate us as His children "crying out, ‘Abba, Father'" (Gal 4:6). "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).
This is the relationship which the Father sent His Son to secure-to "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). So that, by God's grace through faith in Christ, we can surely know, believe, and confess that this Father is "my God and my Father." "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1 John 3:1). Christian, pause to ponder how it pleased God to glorify Himself, in manifesting such great love by giving His only begotten Son to save you from your sins and His eternal wrath, and make you His child-merely of His sovereign love and grace. God the Father is All-Mighty in our election, redemption, and adoption!
Almighty God and Faithful Father
It is on this basis that Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). We come to Him as needy children, trusting Him to provide as our Almighty God and faithful Father. As the Catechism states, "in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul" (HC Q&A 26). This is the Christian's peculiar privilege-"to have no doubt"-even in the midst of the most difficult providence. As the Catechism continues, "and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father" (HC Q&A 26).
Our children today are accustomed to seeing superheroes sweeping across screens with high-definition deftness-performing great and good acts made ‘believable' by computer graphics. But this is mere fiction. In reality, they are not almighty at all, for they do not exist. Sadly, this too is how many think about God. Among the plethora of recent books written by atheist authors, one is entitled, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I have not read this book, but the title alone is a testimony to how sin poisons everything and of the sinner's natural enmity against Almighty God.
God is great! As Christians, our Father is the sovereign and omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the entire universe. "He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power" (1 Tim 6:15-16). He is Almighty in Himself and He is Almighty in all His holy will. His power is providential-"the almighty, everywhere-present power of God" (HC Q&A 27). He proportions it perfectly for the good of His people. By His sovereign will and might, He sends and turns trouble for our good. He does so in conjunction with His perfect knowing of us. He does so in the context of His perpetual presence with us. He does so according to His eternal wisdom over, love for, and faithfulness to us. He cannot do otherwise, any more than He could stop being God.
And all this He does for the sake of Christ His Son, to whom we belong. "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:28-29). Every Christian may and must count on this by faith. God is able and willing! Let us all continually pray for grace to view and trust God according to His Word, and not according to our limited understanding in the midst of life circumstances.
There are many Christians who have had difficult, even abusive relationships with earthly fathers. The idea of fatherly love and care is foreign to many. Respect is lost. Trusting is difficult-at times seemingly impossible. But whatever our experiences in this sin-wracked world, we must never transfer such thoughts over to God. By His grace we rise above them and look to our holy and loving heavenly Father, who has called us with a holy calling (2 Tim. 1:9), and made us new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Only then can we rightly see, that in the wise providence of our Almighty God and faithful Father, "indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand" (HC Q&A 27).
This is the stuff of true faith. He is the source of our strength, comfort, and confidence-today, tomorrow, and for all eternity. Thus we may come before "our Father who art in heaven" with our all our cares and petitions, believing that He is both able and willing to provide. Jesus made this abundantly clear: "Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you...Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:23-24). What the Father grants to us, He does for the sake of His Son, who forever intercedes on behalf of His brethren (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). He has given the Holy Spirit to help us midst all our weaknesses (Rom 8:26-27). And thus, we trust the Father with humble expectancy as His dear children in Christ, who confess in the power of the Spirit, "I believe in God the Father Almighty."
As another school year is upon us, it is our genuine desire to see our covenant children succeed and prosper in life. Prosperity, according to Webster, is a "successful, flourishing, or thriving condition, especially in financial respects." People usually associate prosperity with temporal and material success. The measure of a successful man is often gauged "in financial respects," relative to things like jobs, money, stocks, houses, and cars. This is a generalization, but is not the idea of prosperity in our culture, more often than not, linked to one's economic condition?