What to believe?

Introduction

You can only be saved if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The catechism made that very clear in q&a 20. Faith is what “grafts you into” the Saviour, that is, connects you with him on an essential level, so that his righteousness becomes your righteousness, and his holiness becomes your holiness, and his heavenly life becomes your heavenly life.

The catechism then continued to explain what faith is. You have to know God’s Word and accept it as the truth. And you need the confidence that it is true for you.

So what is that truth of God’s Word that we must accept? What, then, must a Christian believe? You might say: the Bible. But that answer needs explanation and elaboration. What exactly does the Bible tell us? What are the main points? How important are the details? How important is it that we all agree about the meaning of those details? 

    What to believe?

        1. Listening to the gospel
        2. Knowing the way of salvation
        3. Confessing the Lord

Listening to the gospel

The catechism says that we must accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word (q&a 19) and believe all that is promised us in the gospel (q&a 21). We take this seriously. We teach Bible stories to the children. We memorize Bible texts and psalms. We organize catechism classes. We preach sermons that focus on Bible passages. We participate in Bible studies.

But the important question is not really how much you know about the Bible or Christian doctrine. The important question is whether you believe it, whether you are committed to the truth that God reveals. The catechism doesn’t say that we must know all that is promised us in the gospel, but that we should believe it. Faith is not so much knowing what God has revealed in his word, but rather: that we accept as true what he has revealed.

We should not think of the Bible as a passive revelation of facts and propositions, which we can download into our brains. Rather, it is a living text. It actively invites us to believe what it has to say. And the question for us is not so much: do you know what is in this book? but rather: do you recognize that God is speaking to you here, and are you willing to receive what he says and implement it in your life?

The gospel of John says toward the end: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30f) John admits that he left out many stories about Jesus—things our Lord said and did that we never know. John’s goal was not to give us as many facts about Jesus as possible. Instead, guided by the Holy Spirit, John selected the stories that might move us to believe in Jesus as the Saviour of God. The purpose of the text was never mere knowledge, but faith. This is true for the whole Bible: its ultimate goal is not to inform us of facts, but to bring us personally to Jesus so that we may believe in him.

When Jesus sent his apostles into the world, he did not commission them to “make Bible experts of all nations, and teach them every fact about me.” Rather, he sent them out to “make disciples of all nations, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mat. 28:19-20) We are disciples of Jesus. That means: learners. Our faith does not begin by knowing enough facts, but by a willingness to learn. In the Bible, people are never accepted into the church because they know certain things, but because they are committed to Jesus Christ, as he is revealed in the gospel. When you make profession of faith in a Reformed church, you are not asked: “Do you know the Bible completely?” But: “Do you acknowledge that the doctrine of the Old and New Testament is the complete doctrine of salvation?”

Because to be a Christian does not mean that you are a Bible expert. It means that you listen and receive, that you believe in and commit to the God who speaks to you in the pages of the Bible, and especially in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Knowing the way of salvation

When q&a 22 asks what we must believe, it says: “All that is promised us in the gospel.” This shows an important emphasis in what we should learn and study and know as Christians. What we especially want to know is the gospel, the good news of our salvation. You can read the Bible cover to cover, you can study all kinds of theology, but what matters is that you see Jesus Christ and his saving work. The Apostle Paul makes this point powerfully when he said: “I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) Of course, there is much more you could know. But the one thing that is most important to know and to believe is that Jesus was crucified so that we may live.

Note also that the catechism uses the word “promised”. Not just: everything we are told in the gospel; but: everything promised in the gospel. Promised to us. The Bible is not just a book about God, but a message directed at us, a treasure offered to us. While we should hold for true everything the Bible teaches, the most important thing is that we receive what it gives to us personally. When Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” (Mat. 11:28), true faith does not just say: “Yes, I believe that Jesus came to give rest to people who are burdened down,” but true faith comes to Jesus: Lord, yes, I am that burdened person, and I long for your rest, give it to me!

As believers in Jesus Christ, we are not so much interested in general knowledge, but in personal, relevant knowledge that brings us to our Saviour and changes our lives. Bible studies and sermons should always aim at that: no dry analysis of what the text means, but living discovery of what it promises to you and how it affects your life.

What, then, must a Christian believe? All that is promised us in the gospel. As we grow in our Christian life and actively study the Word of God, we will discover more and more about the gospel promise. But for beginners—because the catechism was written for beginners—it may seem a daunting task. Where to start? What to focus on? What should we learn first and foremost?

Thankfully, the church has a long tradition, not only of studying the promise of the gospel but also of teaching it to children and to new converts. In the earliest days of Christianity, when new converts were baptized, they were asked basic questions about their faith. It started with: “Do you believe that Jesus is Lord?” but over time a few things were added that turned out to be essential for a good understanding of our salvation. Eventually, the churches in the West adopted a specific summary. Traditionally it was known as the articles of the Christian faith; we usually call it the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed functions as a basic summary. There are many Biblical truths worth knowing that are not in the Apostles’ Creed; but the most important ones are mentioned here. The catechism calls them the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith. Catholic, which means “worldwide”, because all Christians receive them as true, even if we may disagree on many lesser questions of doctrine and practice. Undoubted, because these truths have been affirmed over and over by the church, and we can state them with great certainty.

The Apostles’ Creed is a Trinitarian creed, confessing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We will speak about the doctrine of the Trinity more in the next lesson. We must believe in the Triune God; if God is not Triune, then Jesus Christ is not truly one with God, and we cannot have real salvation. The longest section of the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, about who he is and what he has done. His incarnation, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension, and final coming are of the utmost importance for our salvation. We must believe in them, and understand that this is how we are saved.

The catechism discusses the Apostles’ Creed in detail, from Lord’s Day 8 to Lord’s Day 22. It wants us to know the basics about our Triune God and about the work of our Saviour. But again, not just the basic facts. Over and over, the Catechism will ask: what does it mean for you? What benefit does this give you? What does it mean that God is your Father, that Jesus died for you, that he is in heaven for you, that the Holy Spirit dwells in you? In this way, it brings out the many powerful gospel promises that are summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.

Confessing the Lord

True faith is a personal, living knowledge and confidence, which takes hold of the promises of God’s Word. It begins with an attitude of listening to the gospel. As believers, we intimately know the way of salvation, and grow in it daily. But then we also express that faith, as we confess the Lord.

Our faith was never meant to stay inside our heads and hearts. Faith must lead to active worship and holy living. We will talk about the practical aspects in much more detail in the third part of the Catechism, as we discuss the law and the Lord’s prayer. Here I want to focus on our confession.

If you ask a Muslim what his religious duties are, he will probably list five; and the first of them is reciting daily the confession of Islamic faith (about Allah and Muhammad). As Christians we do not have such a ritual. But even if we don’t make it a rule that we literally say “Jesus Christ is Lord” every day, it is important that we do something like it. We must express our faith explicitly, in our words and in our everyday activities.

When we gather at church, part of our worship is declaring to the Lord that he is our God, and that we love and respect him. We speak and sing about who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. Once a Sunday, we recite the Apostles’ Creed or something similar. But it is not limited to church services. When you pray, be sure not only to ask for what you need, but also to declare your faith in God, and to mention your Lord Jesus as your Saviour.

And in your relationships with others, with families, friends, fellow workers, and others, make sure that they know the one truth that is most important to you: that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. Not just that you are a Christian; not just that you go to church on Sunday; but confess your Saviour in person.

When you are married it is essential not only to love your spouse on the inside, but to tell him or her: “I love you,” and to let the world around you know that as well. It is the same in our faith relationship with the Lord. The Bible says: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)

Conclusion

True faith is essential for our salvation. It is a knowledge and a confidence that grows as we listen to God’s Word, and especially to the gospel promises it presents to us. When we receive these promises, the Holy Spirit will grow us in understanding of our salvation, love for our Saviour, and hope of eternal life.

Faith is not just a feeling, or a general trusting in God. True faith knows the Lord as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It knows Jesus as the Son of God, come in the flesh, as the one who was crucified and risen. The content of this Christian faith is the teaching of the church; and its essence is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. We should make it our own. Know it, understand it, explore it, and apply it to your life.

When that faith matures, it will bring you to worship, to the public confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Your confidence in the Lord will deepen and your love for him will grow. That faith, powered by the Holy Spirit, will make you one with Christ in such a profound way, that his life will be yours for eternity.

Questions

Reading/listening questions

  1. At the end of his gospel of John (20:31), the writer explains for what purpose he wrote it. What is that purpose?
  2. What does the word “disciple” mean?
  3. What do we usually call “the articles of our Christian faith”?
  4. Why do we speak of our catholic faith?
  5. In what ways do we confess our faith?

Discussion questions

  1. If a new convert wants to join our church, how much should he or she know? What other requirements are there?
  2. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that God is Triune, and they deny the resurrection of the body. But they would agree that Jesus is Lord; they are deeply involved in Bible study, probably more so than most Reformed people. Should we consider them Christians?

Suggested Bible reading schedule

MondayLuke 8:1-15. What does the seed represent in this parable? What does the rest of the parable teach about faith?
TuesdayJohn 11:17-27. In this passage, Martha makes a brief confession of faith, what are the three element of her “creed”?
Wednesday1 Timothy 3:14-16. Verse 16 is a “creed” of the very early church. Who is it about? What six things are said about him? According to v. 15, what is the role of the church concerning this truth?
ThursdayJude :1-4. How does Jude characterize the apostolic teaching? How is it being threatened?
Friday1 Corinthians 15:12-19. Paul is dealing here with people who don’t believe one of the key articles of the Christian faith: the resurrection of the dead. Why is this such a big problem?
SaturdayNumbers 20:1-13. In what way did Moses show unbelief? In contrast, what does this teach us about the nature of true faith?

Further reading

The Apostles’ Creed

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