Introduction – The Nature and Form of a Confession

As we recall the vigorous and pervasive impact that the Second London Confession had on Baptist witness for three and a quarter centuries, this journal seeks to propose several very practical and pastoral ways in which it can be employed. The ever-recurring call upon a pastor’s time, energy, and spirit is the amazing privilege and duty of opening the Word of God to the people under his charge week by week. This edition of the Founders Journal points to ways in which the Confession can help maintain some lovely interest and substantial ornamentation to the rhythm of sermon production and delivery. We include several outlines of sermon suggestions derived from selected chapters of the Second London Confession. Before we undertake that project, I want to write a bit about the nature and value of confessions of faith and encourage readers to take advantage of their treasures.

Initially, consider the nature of a confession. This consideration, hopefully, will give some tips about how to use them for a more profound way of communicating expository and doctrinal substance to the people. One advantage to mull over is that confessions express biblical teaching in a distinctive way. First, they are founded on a long history of biblical exposition. They emerge in the history of the church from a matrix of interpretative data that has been proved and reproved in an extended effort to grasp the teaching of the Word of God on particular ideas that have been seen as cardinal tenets of biblical revelation. From an expository standpoint, confessional categories must arise from a grammatical, literary, historical exposition of Scripture.

Second, they provided a synthesis of this exposition. They witness to our confidence in the Bible’s consistency, concluding that teachings on respective subjects, in accordance with the analogy of faith, may be put together to discover what the entire Bible says about the subjects to which our minds would be oblivious without the riches of divine revelation. Third, confessions provide a connectional milieu for relating the doctrines of Scripture to each other in a meaningful way. The interrelationships between subjects should be explored and proper connections indicated: e.g. law, sin, atonement, person of Christ, justification, sanctification, assurance, etc.

Third, look at the very pragmatic reality that confessions give clear and exclusive expression of a controverted doctrine. Some confessions arose as baptismal confessions, truths for new converts to express as constituting their faith in Christ and commitment to the Scripture as their guide for living. For these personal expressions of faith to reflect the unity of the faith of the church throughout the world, the individual items of expression should be uniform, if not in exact wording, then in substance. When divergence came in the understanding of the substance of these confessions, they were reasserted with explanatory language and expanded explanations. They began to serve a polemical purpose in addition to their being the matter of expression of personal faith. Doctrinal ideas became more expansive and led to more extended doctrinal exposition of the Word of God. Confessions included articles on the nature of God as unique, eternally triune, sovereign, utterly and uniquely independent and self-existent, infinitely wise, and the perfection of all excellence in virtue, beauty, purpose, and knowledge. Articles on the person of Christ emphasized the fullness of his two natures, humanity and deity, unchangeably and inconfusedly united in one person. The issue of the nature and effects of sin had to be sorted out and given clearer definition which naturally led to discussion of the nature of salvation. Other doctrines eventually were given similar attention, filling out the full range of revealed truth from eternity past to the occupation of both God and man in eternity future.

Confessions help focus our attention on central issues of faith. They give attention to ideas in biblical revelation that have occupied the minds and energized the discussions of serious-minded Christian thinkers and ministers in former years. Because of this characteristic, they help present day ministers avoid the danger of personal idiosyncrasies in doctrine and emphasis as well as dodge the fallacy of giving too little attention to important doctrines.

Confessions give the foundation of witness to the world. The Christian ministry of apologetics must be based on true Christianity. Seeking to defend doctrines that orthodox, evangelical Christianity does not teach is a vain and profitless exercise. Defense of the faith and the readiness to give an answer for the hope that is in us has vitality and meaning to the degree that the ideas defended are true and actually a vital element of the corpus of Christian truth. Likewise, a grasp of doctrinal connections informs and supports evangelism. Neither the Pharisees nor the Judaizers, though they proselytized vigorously, did Christian evangelism, for they taught false doctrine. Jesus said that the Pharisees, in all their zeal and success, made their converts twice the children of hell as they themselves were. Paul told the Galatians that if they adopted the demand for circumcision they forfeited a soteriology of grace. True doctrine is essential for evangelism; confessions help us focus with greater clarity on Christian truth.

In the pursuit of the whole truth and purity in worship, Christians have separated from one another on certain issues. Confessions define with clarity the distinction between one Christian group and another. For the purpose of conscientious Christian discipleship, we must recognize with candor that all denominations are not the same and certain elements of their understanding of what constitutes obedience to the commands of Christ differ. In light of this reality, confessions help each individual live with clear conscience before God.

Confessions give expression to one’s loyalty to the Bible as the Word of God. Some have sought to present confessions as idols or substitutes for the Bible. On the contrary, they do not substitute for the Bible but help conserve and protect biblical truth. The movement of Pietism sought to correct the tendency among the members of state-churches to neglect the Bible because of their nominal connection with a confessional tradition. Their emphasis on Bible study was, and is, much needed, but they did not reject the appropriate usefulness of confessions. Opposition to confessions frequently masks a rejection of established biblical doctrine, and even the final authority of Scripture itself. This was certainly the case among many members of the Baptist Union in the Downgrade Controversy in England in 1887–88. So it was in the Northern Baptist convention in 1922. When William Bell Riley moved that the convention adopt the New Hampshire Confessions of Faith, the convention passed a substitute motion suggested by the liberal Cornelius Wolfkin that they adopt the New Testament alone for they needed no other confession. This was truly a horribly deceitful cover-up.

Within the Bible itself, we find clear suggestions that confessional statements, distilled concentrations of cardinal truths are helpful and serve in the protection of the whole corpus of biblical truth. The command to memorize the “Hear, O Israel,” in Deuteronomy 6:7 and to meditate on it as reinforced by the theological reflection seen in Mark 12:28–34 is an indication of such confessional commitment. Several passages in 1 Timothy (1:15; 2:3–6; 3:16) give evidence of the heuristic power of confessions. I believe the same is true for 2 Timothy 1:8–11; 2:11–13 as well as 1 John 4:2.

Historical factors have conspired to give a recognizable form to most confessions. What is called the “Rule of Faith” existing in several versions in the early church eventually became a test in the immediate post-apostolic age for the orthodoxy of professors of the faith. Giving uniformity to these “rules” developed the Apostles’ Creed. This in turn became foundation for the production of the Creed of Nicea, 325, adopted to exclude Arianism, and the Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 that expanded to affirm the deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. At Chalcedon in 451 a mature statement asserting the biblical elements concerning the person of Christ, and avoiding the various insufficient rationalizations, was adopted.

In the sixteenth century, Reformation confessions expanded those creeds, while affirming all the essentials of orthodoxy, to include affirmations of sola scriptura, the doctrine of justification by faith, the perfection of the work of Christ, and some corrections concerning the Sacraments. A mature expression of reformation theology is found in the Westminster Confession. Prior to the Westminster Confession, Baptists had defined themselves through the use of confessions, but after that beautiful, coherent, and comprehensive expression of Reformed truth was published, Baptists found sympathy with using that form in their own continuing witness through confessions. General Baptists produced the Orthodox Creed while the Particular Baptists produced the Second London Confession. That led to a family of confessions known as the Philadelphia Confession, the Charleston Confession, and the Abstract of Principles.

Due to certain doctrinal pressures from a variety of standpoints that pressed on the Regular Baptists of New England, they set forth an answer in the New Hampshire Confession in 1833. This, through the influence of E. Y. Mullins, became mother to the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, and developments of that confession in 1963 and 2000. Each of these developments was prompted by the need to give clarification to a doctrinal challenge of the day.

One of the pastors in the Philadelphia Association in 1817 made a strange but serious accusation against the churches of the association. He averred, “The doctrines of sovereign grace, which distinguish our excellent Confession of Faith, are seldom or never heard.” The associational letter for that year was on the doctrine of limited atonement, and the “Corresponding Letter” to other associations made the resolute affirmation, “The assemblage of Bible doctrine, a summary of which is contained in the confession of faith which our fathers had long ago adopted as their rule of faith and practice, we continue cordially to embrace, steadfastly maintain and publicly avow; aspersions to the contrary notwithstanding.” On the 325th anniversary of the Second London Confession, I believe that “assemblage of doctrine” still would be beneficial to “embrace, steadfastly maintain and publicly avow.” In the interest of aiding the public avowal of these great truths, this edition of the Founders Journal gives suggestions concerning how the articles could serve as an encouragement to doctrinal preaching.

Earl Blackburn’s article on chapter 8 of the confession gives a rich doctrinal discussion of one phrase out of a large article. His introduction, however, gives a more comprehensive background in the historical development of the formal statement to the entire section on Christology. His focus on the Holy Spirit’s ministry as necessarily operative in the appearance, labors, and consummation of the work of the incarnate Lord should provide thoughtful hints for a series of sermons.

Tom Ascol has selected several sections of the article on the church, twenty-six, and provides a maturely-conceived, well-organized, and thoughtfully presented outline of several important ecclesiological issues—origin, membership, government, authority, communion with other churches. This suggests another series of messages on a vital subject whose importance sometimes is minimized. Every pastor, under the authority of and by the will of Christ, will have a ministry that is directed toward and channeled through the local church. Failure to grasp the revealed structure and operations of this “peculiar people,” for whom Christ died, can be fatal to the usefulness of a preacher of the gospel.

Jeff Johnson launches into a discussion of God’s decree, one of the most difficult, but equally rewarding, doctrinal subjects of the confession, as it has systematized the biblical teaching on that subject. He has chosen to give a sentence outline of the entire chapter. He seeds it carefully with Scripture quotations and pithy doctrinal points. The result is an impressive presentation of the confession’s teaching and the Bible’s clarity on what is, but should not be, a subject of contention and discomfort. Again, at the proper time, a minister of the Word will find some rich material for a doctrinal series on how God conceives and sets forth His own purpose in creation, providence, redemption, judgment, and consummation.

The constant desire of Founders Ministries for all its readers is that God will be glorified, the church will be edified, and ministers of the gospel will be strengthened and encouraged by this material.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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