Confession: A Union of Heart between Sheep and Shepherd

Founders Journal · Issue 49 · Summer 2002 · pp. 16-22

Confession: A Union of Heart between Sheep and Shepherd

Tom J. Nettles

The Foundation for a Ministry of Truth-telling

Relationships between pastor and people begin with a common commitment to truth. The primary task of a minister of the gospel, and indeed the task that defines all else that he does, is the proclamation of a message. In its role as reflector of the wisdom, power and grace of God, the church has as perhaps its preeminent function the proclamation, defense and confirmation of the gospel. Of great consequence, therefore, to both pastor and people is the determination that they agree on the content of the message that largely will give shape to their lives together and their mutual efforts to glorify God.

A Brief Sketch of the Historical Pedigree

John Spilsbury, pastor of the first Particular Baptist Church (see FJ 44, 11) argued that agreement on a confession necessarily preceded any mutual submission to ordinances. As he put it, “persons must be informed of the truth in judgment, and bound by the same in conscience” before they can act together in any function as a church. William Screven, founding pastor of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, SC, showed the continuity of this conviction when, in reflecting on the task of ministry in his final years, he admonished his congregation to supply themselves with an able and faithful minister that would be “orthodox in faith, and of blameless life, and does own the confession of faith put forth by our brethren in London in 1689.”

Elias Keach, son of Benjamin Keach, established the first church in the famous Philadelphia Association. He was converted in Pennsylvania while preaching as a practical joke to a group of dissenters. He confessed his imposture, received counsel from a Baptist preacher, Thomas Dungan, in the area, was baptized by him, and soon was called as founding pastor of the Lower Dublin, or Pennepek, church–the first church of what would eventually become the Philadelphia Association. After four years of faithful and zealous pastoral and evangelistic ministry he returned to England where he began to serve as pastor of a church in London at Tallow-Chandlers Hall. He saw clearly the need for a confession of faith to give clear definition both to the being and the well-being of the church. Maintenance of pure faith and practice, in Keach’s view of the church, called for a confessional standard. Pastors will serve their churches more efficiently, biblically and spiritually when such a confession is operative. The preface to the articles of faith makes this point and also gives interesting insight into the religious climate of the time.

It is a question, whether any age since the apostles time, hath afforded greater Advantages of Gospel-light than this wherein we live: and I think, without question, that England … exceeds all other countries upon this account; and yet (to our shame be it spoken) no Age has discovered less Practical Godliness, and more lightness and Vanity than this Century, &c. And tho the Light of the glorious Gospel seems to break forth more clear and transparent than of late Years (as some proclaim) yet nothing more obvious than this, that the Ignorance and Non-proficiency of Professors of Religion in our day, extravagantly exceeds that in the Puritan Age past; so that for want of a clear Understanding and solid judgment, too too many are easily drawn aside to error, by smooth Flesh-pleasing arguments, and sophisms of Men. Hence we see the necessity of catechising Children, and training them up in the true notions of Religion betimes, which we have too great reason to fear by some among us is much neglected; and it evidently appears in many Persons who offer themselves to our churches for Communion (when wrought upon by the grace of God) and tho we cannot, but must in Charity conclude some of them are true and sincere Converts, and therefore dare not refuse them; yet are they received not without some hesitation, when they appear so ignorant and unintelligent by their Expressions, that we should be ready to judge that they had spent most of their days, and been brought up in some wild Parts of America, rather than in such a Goshen Land of Gospel-light, had we not full assurance to the contrary: and indeed this is one great reason why we have published the Articles of our faith, and that in so narrow a compass, and at so small a Price, that it may come into the hands of the Members of the Congregation, for their clearer information and Confirmation in the Doctrine of God our Saviour; and also that they may be the better armed with Spiritual Armour against such who lie in wait to deceive, and be ready at all times to give a reason of the hope that is in them, to the stopping of the mouths of Gainsayers: and hereby all that have their Eyesight, may see (unless they refuse to open their Eyes) that the Baptists are not such scarecrows as some would make the unwary believe, seeing we agree in the main with our Brethren the Godly, among the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Independent Parties, &c. and only differ from them in those things to which Truth and Conscience oblige us.

For practical godliness, intelligent profession, confident union and public testimony, Keach believed that a confession of faith served the church well and honored the revealed truth of God.

John Gill wrote a confession of faith at the beginning of his ministry at Horsly-down, Fair Street, Southwark about a mile from the old London Bridge. According to John Rippon, the confession probably was a slightly modified form of his personal confession. Consisting of twelve articles, it makes strong and clear statements on the doctrines of the fall and sin, the doctrine of God with particular emphasis on the person of Christ, and the doctrines of grace. It begins with an engaging account of the reason for this mutual agreement to doctrinal articles.

Having been enabled, through divine grace, to give up ourselves to the Lord, and likewise to one another by the will of God; we account it a duty incumbent upon us to make a declaration of our faith and practice, to the honour of Christ, and the glory of his name; knowing, that as with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, so with the mouth confession is made unto salvation-our declaration is as follows: …

Andrew Fuller, when called to take the charge at the Baptist meeting in Kettering, wrote a confession of faith that he presented during the day of his installation. John Ryland, Jr., remembered that the confession had such powerful effect that Robert Hall, Sr., “was much moved by it, and made ashamed of his own defects.” This confession became foundational to Fuller’s seismic theological treatise The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. One item of faith that he thought necessary to explain to this congregation and to all present at the installation was his concept of his duty as a gospel minister. It was expressed in article XV of the confession:

I believe it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it; and as I believe the inability of men to spiritual things to be wholly of the moral and therefore of the criminal kind, and that it their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in him for salvation though they do not; I therefore, believe free and solemn addresses, invitations, calls, and warnings to them to be not only consistent, but directly adapted, as mean, in the hand of the Spirit of God, to bring them to Christ. I consider it as a part of my duty which I could not omit without being guilty of the blood of souls.

Such a declaration came in the heat of the Modern Question Controversy. Several prominent ministers among the different dissenting denominations had adopted a view opposed to Fuller’s understanding of his duty. In the light of the status of that controversy, Fuller felt the burden of conscience not only to acquit himself well in the major doctrinal categories which he addressed in the confession, but on this practical outworking of the theological commitments. Pastor and people must have the same mission, and a clear expression of Fuller’s doctrine sealed the relationship.

When the Philadelphia Association met in 1769, the first year that the minutes were printed and distributed by order of the Association, the minutes contained the announcement, “Our Confession of faith may be had at Philadelphia for 15 coppers, half bound. In sheets for 7 coppers. Catechisms, 4 coppers.” That was not the only place that their confession of faith received prominence. The minutes record that two churches in New York “sent their messengers with their church covenants and confessions of faith in order to be first known to the Association, and the Association known to them, and then to join it, if mutual approbation should be obtained.” After examination, the conclusion was presented to the association that “these churches are orthodox, that they are rightly constituted, their ministers regularly ordained.” In light of that the Association recommended that “letters be written to them to signify this our judgment, and to own them as sister churches.” Though such careful theological examination and judgment as a necessary prelude to conscientious fellowship would seem strange to the ears of many a twenty-first century Baptist, it was normal procedure for our more doctrinally astute and biblically disciplined forefathers.

On the same page of the Minutes, as if to reprimand proleptically our confusion of categories, the Association adopted a bold approach for the advance of religious liberty. They joined the Warren Association of Rhode Island, and solicited associations in Virginia and Carolina to do the same, in a petition to the legislatures of Boston and Connecticut “in favor of their brethren who suffer for nonconformity to the religious establishments of those colonies.” They were looking for a “speedy or effectual redress of their grievances” in “seeking relief for our oppressed brethren.” Religious liberty concerned the freedom of churches and individuals to pursue, or not, religious truth and to organize themselves accordingly without interference or repression from the government. The political arrangement of civil society should present no threat to this pursuit. Requirement of confessional fidelity within a church or an association was a part of the way Baptist churches chose to organize themselves; it was endemic to the nature of religious organization and in no way crossed a full commitment to religious liberty or their activity in seeking “relief for our oppressed brethren.” Doctrinal, that is, confessional, conformity within a church manifests the purpose of the church and is a means of promoting it. Seeking agreement on truths of Scripture, in the minds of these Colonial Revolutionary Baptists, in no way violated their equally hot pursuit of religious liberty.

The necessity of union by agreement gave rise to the confession of faith adopted by the Cumberland Baptist Association in Maine in 1818. Six years before the founding of the state convention, while meeting in Portland, the churches constituting that association adopted a confession that had three parts. The first part, consisting of ten articles treated basic theological issues; the second part, consisting of six articles, presented the doctrine of the church, its members, its officers and its ordinances; the third part recommended a church covenant. A short preface showed their view of the importance of the confession:

Whereas union of sentiment in the great principle of Revelation is an important requisite to Christian fellowship, and, whereas union of sentiment cannot appear without knowing the belief of each other, nor our belief be well known without some written statement of it,–Therefore, according to the usages of our brethren who have gone before us, and of others, the Cumberland Baptist Association have approved the following articles: …

Their conviction, therefore, was that cooperation in a mission required union in belief. This did not replace Scripture, but was a manifestation of several leading ideas of the “great principle of Revelation.” Also, written form gave a more testable, clear and permanent form than mere hearsay. The written confession inhibited and discouraged (I started to write “eliminated,” but such is never the case) the danger of the association’s harboring men of heterodox principles that would gradually erode the purity of their churches and their mission. They saw both their doctrine and the practice of making a confession fully harmonious with Baptist precedent.

The Confession of Abraham Booth

The ministerial history of Abraham Booth (1734-1806) provides an excellent example of confessional stewardship in the pastoral calling. Booth, originally a General Baptist and hostile to the doctrines of the Particular Baptists, became convinced that his opposition resulted from erroneous principles, misguided zeal and insufficient grasp of the truth of God’s grace. He joined the Particular Baptists and in February 1769, was ordained to the pastorate of Prescott Street Church in London. He continued there for thirty-seven years. At his ordination, his message consisted of a personal confession of his faith. His plain, clearly articulated, profoundly constructed evangelical thought so characteristic of all his valuable writings came through strongly in this confession.

As evidence for the argument of this article, we note that Booth begins his confession with this sentence: “As it has been customary on these solemn occasions, to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us; and, as I am now called upon, in this public manner, to make a free and open confession of my religious principles; I would look up to the Father of lights, and the Spirit of truth, that I may be enabled to make a good profession in the presence of many witnesses;–in the presence of God, of angels, and of men.” He viewed this as a common and healthy practice.

Booth began by affirming that the existence of God clearly may be deduced from the beauty, variety and intelligent design of nature, but that a “more positive and explicit revelation of the perfections and purposes” of God is given in the Bible. Booth gives a lengthy catalogue of evidences compelling in their cumulative effect that draws him to conclude, “I cannot hesitate a single moment to pronounce it a divine revelation, and every way worthy its infinite Author.” The Bible alone, therefore, he considers as “the only rule of my faith and practice.” From that source he presents his confession being persuaded that “the following doctrines are contained in those oracles of eternal truth” and, therefore, are his foundation of hope and source of spiritual joy.

He confesses that there is only one God “possessed of absolute and infinite perfection” whose governance extends to all “his creatures and all their actions.” In this single divine he finds that the Bible teaches the eternal co-existence of “three distinct persons,” the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

God created all things and with peculiar blessings of light “he created man, and constituted him lord of this lower world.” Though man, as male and female, possessed uprightness, innocence and holiness, out of his own free will he transgressed God’s command and plunged himself and his posterity into “guilt, depravity, and ruin.” All sinned in him and fell with him. Adam as both natural and federal head bequeathed to his posterity “the guilt of his first sin … and a corrupt nature.”

The “unerring word” also teaches that “the eternal Sovereign, before the world began, of his own good pleasure, and to manifest the riches of his glorious grace, foreseeing the fall of man, chose a certain number of this apostate race to eternal salvation, whom he predestinated to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ, according to his own sovereign will.” To accomplish this he entered into a covenant of grace with the Son.

In accordance with this eternal covenant, the Son took to himself our nature in an incarnation, and after a sinless life took our punishment as a vicarious atoning sacrifice. He was buried and after three days the Crucified rose from the dead. This provides the “highest possible evidence, that the debt he became responsible for was perfectly paid–the sins for which he suffered entirely expiated–the divine law and divine justice fully satisfied–the powers of darkness vanquished, and death itself overcome.” Also His resurrection seals the certainty of the resurrection to immortality of His saints. His ascension, session and intercession guarantee the preservation of His people and that their praises and prayers ascend with acceptance before the eternal throne.

The “same sacred canons” teach that justification of sinners comes only by “the righteousness of christ imputed to them” not by any “holy qualities wrought in them, or any works of righteousness performed by them, either with or without the assistance of the Holy Spirit.”

Regeneration and consequent holiness of life, nevertheless, are necessary if one is to see the Lord. This regeneration and its fruits of faith and sanctification “are not the produce of man’s free-will and power, but the effects of a divine agency by the word of truth.” Because of this, those so transformed are kept by God’s power to a “certain, infallible perseverance in grace to glory.”

Christ has left “various ordinances” for the edification of His people on their earthly pilgrimage. Among these He has left two “positive institutions” that set before us as vivid emblems various aspects of the power and effectuality of the Lord’s passion and resurrection. These are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Scripture gives no warrant for baptism of any but those who manifest faith in Christ and make profession of it. Baptism can be in no other form than by immersion. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, which is designed to “impress our minds with a lively sense of the evil of sin–the sufferings of Jesus for it–the benefits derived to us through those sufferings–together with that union and communion which we have with him and one with another” necessarily follows baptism.

Death immediately issues in the souls of saints entering into glory made perfect in holiness while the souls of “the wicked are immediately transmitted into the abode of darkness and despair.” At the resurrection, Jesus Christ will appear as Judge and will “make an everlasting separation between the righteous and the wicked; awarding eternal life and infinite happiness to the righteous; but everlasting death and never ending torments to the wicked.” Booth continues, “The equity of which sentence on either part, I am fully persuaded, will be admired and applauded by all holy intelligences; and acknowledged even by the damned themselves to their aggravated woe.”

In closing, Booth declared that these proposition not only were the leading articles of his faith but the abiding sentiments of his heart. He had experienced the “powerful, comforting, sanctifying influence” of these truths on his soul. He did not pretend to infallibility of judgment or to know all that is to be known in this present imperfect state. His mind, so he professed, stood “open to conviction, and susceptive of truth, by whatever means it may please God to inform me of it.” As he had in the past, he would communicate these advances or changes “to others as cases and circumstances may require.” With that well-conceived and justly humble caveat, Booth nevertheless professed before his ministerial peers and his church, “Such also are the doctrines I am determined, by divine assistance, to preach, and to make the important subjects of my future ministrations.”

A Historical Judgment

Though it would be impossible to demonstrate that no exceptions exist to this procedure, one may easily and fairly conclude that confessional agreement between pastor and people was alive and well in Baptist churches and associations from the earliest days of modern Baptist witness. Any effort to represent high confessional expectations as contradictory, or even anomalous, to Baptist witness must be seen as unfounded by critical historical inquiry. Baptists were people of good common sense and profound commitment to biblical truth and witness and they did not think that God’s glory and purpose thrived in the matrix of doctrinal obscurantism, minimalism or agnosticism. Doctrinal confession, expression and agreement served as balm to their wounds, health to their souls and constant nourishment for their corporate witness to the world.