What we believe

People often wonder what the core of Christian belief is. You can think of churches or denominations rather like a series of windows. Some are clearer than others. But it is the same gospel that we look at through them. The word gospel refers to an announcement of good news. Again and again in the New Testament, when the essence of the gospel is stated the same three things are to the fore:
  1)  Believing in Christ’s person and work; and so…
  2)  Responding to Christ’s call to repentance
  3)  Trusting in Christ’s promise of forgiveness
This is perhaps most clear in Luke 24v46-47. Just before ascending to heaven Jesus explained the Old Testament to his followers. He then said:
“This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”
There we have it from Jesus himself. The core message of both testaments is this. We affirm these things when we confess our sins or say the creed in church. What follows looks a little more closely at what that entails. My prayer is that it will bring greater clarity to what we affirm and greater confidence of all we have in Christ.
1) Believing in Christ’s person and work
To believe is to trust God by trusting what he has revealed. The Apostles’ Creed summarizes what this entails regarding Christ. We can trace it to the second century. It is accepted by all major streams of the church: Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. This gives us confidence that its truths are clearly revealed and reflect the essentials of true Christian faith. It is therefore a good basis from which to unpack the basics of belief—not least because we so regularly say we believe it.
The Bible:   The defining documents of all three streams agree that the entire Bible is God’s inspired Word, and so entirely trustworthy as originally given. In affirming the creed however, the worldwide church affirms that its truths stem from the apostolic writings of the New Testament in particular. Jesus commissioned the apostles as the foundational teachers for his church. As we affirm the creed, we stand in the long line of Christians who accept that their own ideas on matters of belief and behaviour should conform not to our instincts, traditions or culture, but to what the apostles taught.
The Trinity:   We hold that God has revealed himself to be the only God, and that he eternally exists as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They structure the creed. In all being the one God, each person is equal, sharing the same nature, power, character and wisdom. But their titles show they relate to one-another in different ways. ‘Father’ stresses primacy, whilst ‘Son’ suggests that he represents and obeys the Father. ‘Holy Spirit’ implies the active presence of both Father and Son. As such we also affirm that God is holy and so supreme and faultless in every way.
God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth:   Here is the context for all we learn of Jesus. The most basic definition of God is that he is the one who made everything and so is to be honoured and served. This is why Christians both enjoy the world and care for it. In being almighty, God can do anything—given that it is logically possible. The entire universe was made by his power.
Holding to this keeps us humble. We may struggle to understand the Trinity, or how suffering, predestination, hell or some of God’s commands are consistent with his love and justice. But this should not surprise us. We are mere creatures. When such struggles come, we must remember that God is the one who made the universe. So much of him will therefore be beyond us. But we can trust what he reveals in scripture, because he is almighty so has the power to have ensured its accuracy. More than that, we can trust him, because his goodness is so clearly seen in Jesus.
Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord:   There is much here. The title ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed.’ It referred to the King the Jews were waiting for God to send them. He was to establish an everlasting Kingdom of righteousness and peace. The title ‘God’s Son’ was given to Israel’s kings, but Jesus hinted there was more to it: God the Son had come in person. ‘Lord’ was the title Jews gave God. So it confirms this,  stressing Jesus deity and rule of all things. He is to be honoured and obeyed as God.
We affirm Jesus is fully God in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, yet also fully man in being born of the Virgin Mary. Because he is God we can be sure he reveals God to us. Because he is man we can be sure he can represent us before God. This means his death really can pay for our sin and his righteous standing can be counted as our own. When we unite ourselves to Jesus by faith, God therefore justifies us: He declares us righteous because Jesus is righteous and he represents us. So God treats us as if we’d perfectly obeyed him even though we so clearly haven’t.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended to the dead:   “The wages of sin is death.” This truth lay behind Israel’s sacrificial system. Animals were put to death instead of sinners to show that a substitute was needed to pay the penalty for sin. For this reason God then sent Jesus as “the lamb of God.” We read he “bore our sins in his body upon the tree” and “the punishment that brought us peace was laid upon him.” So Jesus experienced the fullness of death both physically and spiritually - the equivalent of hell itself. What love: In his only Son, God satisfied the demands of his justice so that he could remain just whilst justifying and so pardoning us if we believe. (1 Pet 2v24; Is 53v5; Rom 3v19-26).
The third day he rose again:   Jesus came back to life, proving the penalty for sin had been paid and that he is Lord of all. There is no doubt the creed intends us to accept a bodily resurrection. No other idea has ever been accepted in the church. So we have solid grounds for our faith: the prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life, his miracles, the supremacy and impact of his character and teaching, and the resurrection capping it all. When we doubt, we should remember these things. They are the facts on which our faith should be built. We can be confident in Christ.
He ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father:   In his resurrection body Jesus was seen to rise up from the earth into heaven, which can be best described as the dimension to our universe where God is especially present. The idea of sitting at God’s right hand stresses that he is now ruling over all things with his Father’s authority and power. There is therefore nothing he is unable to do. So when our prayers are not answered there really must be a reason.
He will come to judge the living and the dead:   Christ’s rule also means that he will return in person to judge everyone. It is good that there will then be justice and all wrongs will be righted. But it is terrifying too, as everyone is guilty and so deserves punishment. We all struggle with the idea of hell, but we cannot and must not ignore it. It is to suffer beyond death under the burning anger of God and the distress of being excluded from his kingdom. As our judge Jesus warned again and again that it is real and it is terrible, and is avoided by repentance and faith in him. (Matt 10v28-32; 25v31-46; Mk 9v43-49; Lk 13v23-30; 16v19-31; Jn 3v16-21).
The Holy Spirit:   The Spirit’s full divinity is implied in the structure of the creed. He brings people to faith in Christ, transforms them into God’s image, empowers them to do good, equips them to serve in the church and brings them to eternal life.
The holy catholic church, the communion of saints:   ‘Catholic’ simply means universal, and ‘saints’ refers to those who are set-apart as holy. So we affirm that when we believe we are spiritually united with all other believers. This should breed a concern for all Christians of all types throughout the world. It also means that being active members of a local church is not an option. It is part of what it means to be a Christian, and essential if we are to serve God’s purposes or remain believers. It is only there, in word and sacrament, in the people, the prayer and the praise, that God provides all we need to keep going and growing in faith.
The forgiveness of sins:   This is the door to all God’s blessings. It assumes our sin, but with it God’s grace. Forgiveness is relational. It is to treat someone as if they have not wronged us. The wonder is that those who believe no longer face God’s anger and the punishment they deserve. Instead, they are reconciled to him. More than that, they are adopted as his children and so loved as his very own.
The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting:   Those united to Christ by faith receive what he receives. So our destiny is not to be disembodied spirits. When Jesus returns we will be given a new more glorious body, fit for the new heaven and earth that God will create. Our everlasting life begins now as we start to live the life of that new creation inwardly. But it will be fully experienced when we are raised. Together, all who believe will then inhabit a world free from evil, suffering and death. But our greatest joy will be to perfectly know and serve the Lord.
2) Responding to Christ’s call to repentance
Now to the second of our three points. Throughout the creed we affirm ‘I believe.’ Repentance is the proof of whether that belief is genuine. It is to change our minds in such a way that we change our actions. To believe is not just to accept all we have outlined about Jesus. It is to trust him, and should therefore result in obeying him. Jesus confronted those who said “Lord, Lord” but did not do what he said (Lk 6v43-49). If someone truly comes to believe that Jesus is Lord, then they will treat him as Lord. So they will submit to him, striving to follow his teaching in every respect.
Here we must note that Jesus taught we should reject all ideas that contradict not only the teaching of his apostles, but of the Old Testament when understood in the light of his coming (Jn 14v25-26; 16v13-14; Matt 5v17-47; Mk 7v5-13). In modelling this he reaffirmed and internalized the moral aspects of the Old Testament law. So the great lifestyle lists of the New Testament teach that we must turn from all other religions or occult practices, from blasphemy, hatred, bitterness, violence, adultery, extra-marital and homosexual sex, from lust—and so pornography, from crudity, dishonesty, slander, factionism, greed and drunkenness. Instead, Christ calls us to live a new life, inwardly re-created “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” So we are to seek to be self-controlled and free from even a hint of sin, striving in our hearts to be pure, joyful, kind, compassionate, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, generous, faithful to others and at peace with all (Eph 4-6).
The life of faith is not about mere outward morality or religious practice. It is to truly cherish and so honour the Lord as first in our heart of hearts. Out of love for him, it is to daily seek to live this holy life as we speak to him in prayer, study and submit to the scriptures, play our part as members of his church, serve and bring the gospel to his world, and raise any children we may have to do these things too.
We repent when we confess are sins in church. We should note that when we do we are committing ourselves again to these things. Love for God and others summarises what they entail.
3) Trusting in Christ’s promise of forgiveness
This is the final mark of true faith. We must be clear that repentance does not require us to perfectly live as above. Rather, it is to desire and determine to do so, and call on Christ for forgiveness when we don’t. However we should not be complacent, as God promises to forgive only those who truly repent.
Having said that, if we do repent then we really can live each day holding firmly to God’s promise of forgiveness. It is this promise that assures us of his acceptance because of our faith. It is this promise that gives us confidence in prayer before him. It is this promise that guarantees his care and help throughout life. It is this same promise that we cling to when facing death and that assures us of the life to come.
The gospel is about grace. It is about God’s favour being freely given to all who follow his Son. Like the thief on the cross, we do not need to serve Christ for a number of years to earn our salvation, and we do not need to worry because we can never deserve God’s acceptance. These things are a gift of his glorious grace. It is on God’s promise of forgiveness through Christ that our confidence therefore stands, and from this promise that hope and joy remains, even when life is hard.