Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 1
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in
righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
Question: Does what you believe really matter?
Answer: Yes–because it determines both how you live your life and how it impacts your eternal destiny!
Today we begin a series on The Apostles’ Creed. I have never preached on it before. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest statements of the essential, doctrinal and historical truths of the Christian faith.
Why should we take the time to address this ancient creed?
The answer to this question is quite straightforward. Embodied in these words is a distillation of divinely revealed truth that equips us both to live and die.
Frankly, I regret that I’ve waited until the last Sunday of my 25th year as your pastor to tackle this project. I do so now because of the relativistic era into which we have emerged. We live in a day of “post-modern” thought. Many today are prepared to affirm just about anything.
Think of your own life. You and I know that our social survival depends on our displaying “positive, unconditional regard” for everyone with whom we come in contact. It’s true at the office, it’s true in our social relationships and it’s even true within the extended and nuclear family. No one wants to be judged, ourselves included. So we have adopted, whether we realize it or not, the notion of “inclusivity.”
Let me for a moment argue in favor of this reality. It is important that you and I treat every human being with ultimate respect. In fact, that is at the very basis of the Christian life. Jesus, when asked to make a brief thesis statement as to the greatest law of all, responded:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (
The Apostle Paul, after waxing eloquent on the importance of knowing Christian doctrine and living according to the teaching of God’s Word, declares, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (
At the same time, this does not mean that “anything goes.”
You know that delicate oscillation between loving your child yet watching that child make decisions that could very well destroy his or her future. Robert Bellah, in his book Habits of the Heart, examined American society in the last years of the twentieth century to see what makes it tick. He was particularly interested in American belief systems. He and his colleagues came up with some startling discoveries. One of the people he interviewed, Sheila, had this to say: “I believe in God. I can’t remember the last time I went to church, but my faith has carried me a long way.”
Bellah expressed the conclusion that her words characterized the relativistic spirit of our day. Everybody sort of believes in something. In fact, most people are religious. So many today are like Sheila, and Bellah uses the term “Sheilaism” to capture the spirit of our post-modern society.
Surveys in the United States show that 80 percent of Americans believe in God. When you carefully look into the “god” in whom they believe, you find at its core that this god is in fact a little voice inside themselves. They are really believing in themselves and how they personally choose to live, quite devoid of any outside divinely-revealed truth.
Somehow we need to figure out how to live in a way that respects the humanity of every person created in the image of God while, at the same time, learning how to live our own lives in a way that benefits from the fact that the Creator-Sustainer God has broken into history, touched our lives in a way that is transformational and wants to, through us, touch the lives of others.
Even as the last thing you want is a pastor, parent or friend watching your every move and telling you that what you are doing or thinking is “bad,” even if that person knows the counter-productivity of what you are doing to your ultimate welfare, so our friends don’t want us going around, acting like little gods, telling them what to do or not to do.
At the same time, it is important that we, in loving ways, address the essence of God’s action in human history, coming to a greater understanding of His divinely-revealed truth that equips us and those around us in both how to live and die.
This is where biblical truth is so important. We need to know that truth.
Why, though, do we need creeds? Don’t they just box us in?
Well, yes, they do. At the same time, they release us to a clearer understanding of who God is, who we are and how to function in relationship to God in this life and in the life to come.
Are you aware that you are a theologian? A few of you sit up straight and say, “Yes, I know that. In fact, I’m a better theologian than are you, John!”
But most people are startled by that reality. You don’t think of yourself as a theologian.
Let me broaden this, though, and declare that every single person who walks the face of this earth is a theologian. Everyone has beliefs, whether those beliefs are very well thought out or not. Everyone believes that either there is a God or isn’t a God, or gods. Whether or not one has given a lot of thought to that question is not the issue. The fact is that whatever vague or well-thought-out notion one has theologically, it is highly determinative of how that person will live his or her life.
The fact is that we do need a Creed. We need to be able to express in some thoughtful way the intellectual truth content of Christianity. It is helpful to go back and study the ancient creeds. That is why we are taking the time to focus on the most basic of these creeds, The Apostles’ Creed.
Belief is key to life. What you believe really does make a difference.
Why is this? Because where you start philosophically and theologically determines where you will come out.
For example, if there is no God or no absolute truth referent in life, the conclusion on which you will end up living your life is that there is no absolute moral truth. You may come up with workable ways in which to live your life that, to some degree, function for you, but these will shift from time to time, depending upon the circumstances of life. So what was true back in the 1950s may no longer be true in the 1970s or in the year 2003.
Yet, if per chance there is a God who is creative and does sustain, this God has disclosed himself through the special revelation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and biblical truth, and everything in your life and mine is impacted by this truth.
I will be forever indebted to my father, a man of deep faith, who shared this insight with me while I was still a young man. He would say, “John, remember whenever you are talking to a person, you need to discover their starting point, their philosophical presuppositions, which will then enable you to see why they have come out where they have in their thinking.” He was not saying that all philosophical presuppositions are correct. He was saying that it is important for us to know what our philosophical and theological presuppositions are.
So there are three specific needs for creeds.
One, we need a succinct statement of fundamental Christian truth.
Remember, The Apostles’ Creed emerged at a time when the New Testament canon had not been fully decided. There were the Old Testament Scriptures, there was the teaching of the apostles and there were various documents available that would later be compiled into what we now know as the New Testament. The early church needed a statement. And we need a statement today of essential doctrinal truth, just to know who we are.
Two, we need a unified creed to help us detect heretical beliefs.
That was true back in the first five centuries of the church, and it is true today.
There is nothing new in terms of theological error and heresy. You will find every contemporary false doctrine present in some shape or form in the debate carried on by the leaders of the Christian church in those first five centuries. You and I need to be very much alert to these heresies today so that we do not find ourselves shaped by the culture in which we live–but shapers of that culture, or at least able to live as a counter-culture to the prevailing winds of false doctrine today.
This point has been driven home to me in the last few weeks. The last couple of Sundays I was here before leaving on summer vacation and study leave, some of you at the door of the church asked me, “John, what do you think of The Da Vinci Code?” As you know, it is the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. At first, I didn’t take it that seriously. But then, while on vacation this summer, other people asked me the same question. In fact, one of my friends, who was halfway through the book, opened it and said, “Tell me what you think about these particular pages.” So I read those pages and realized that in those few pages the author made some profoundly correct historical and theological observations, combined with some totally erroneous historical and theological statements. I went out and bought the novel. I am now beginning to read it. It is a wonderful piece of fiction, filled with much historical and theological truth mingled with a lot of error. My point today is not to waste your time by distinguishing between the two in a novel that many of you have not read. But it is important to know that every day you and I confront statements being made by sincere people that combine a significant mixture of truth and untruth, historical facts misstated, incorrect, along with actual beliefs genuinely held to that are counter to the historic faith once delivered to the saints. That is why we need creedal statements. That is why we are looking at The Apostles’ Creed.
Three, we need to be able to express, in clear form, corporately, the essence of what we believe.
One of the best known simple statements of what we believe is The Apostles’ Creed. What a positive statement it makes when we stand up and, together, declare aloud the basic doctrines of our faith that have been declared publicly for centuries. It stabilizes us to have this historic connect with our theological roots.
The Apostle Paul addressed this issue most succinctly in his letter to the church at Ephesus. He acknowledged then the same problem that we have today. The first century was not that different from the twenty-first century.
This summer, as I once again visited the archeological sites of some of those cities in which Paul established churches and to whom he wrote his letters, I was astounded at how similar were the conditions then to today. There was a lot of false teaching, and there were immoral practices that were contrary to God’s will for a person. Most of these cities had a temple to the goddess Aphrodite, with all kinds of concurrent sexual immorality involved in those pagan practices. Most of these cities had a temple to the Emperor, pointing out how our political idealogy often demands that we bow down and worship before the throne of political power. Pagan gods and goddesses competed for the attention of first-century men and women. And even those who had repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ found themselves in complex theological debate. This led Paul to write the believers in Ephesus:
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (
This shows the importance of a healthy theology, undergirded by biblical truth, expressed in a succinct and positive way. That is what we have in The Apostles’ Creed. Ultimately, if you and I don’t know and understand what we believe and have it undergirding us, a basic creed, you and I will be tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine, confused by the competing mixtures of truth and untruth, temptations and rationalizations of lifestyles as part of our everyday experience.
Let’s look at six ways in which you and I determine what is true.
Think of your own life. How do you determine what is true for you? On what basis do you make your decisions?
The late professor, William Barclay, in his book titled The Apostles’ Creed for Everyman, declares that there are six basic ways in which you and I determine what we believe. Our creed is actually our statement of belief. To recite a creed is to engage in an act of belief. When I say, “I believe,” what am I saying? What do I mean? A belief can be arrived at in a variety of ways.
One, belief can come from experiment and demonstration.
This is the scientific method. You and I determine that two and two makes four by taking two items and combining them with two other items, counting them and verifying that there are four items.
We can experiment, proving that hydrogen and oxygen combined as H2O make water, or that metals expand when heated and contract when temperature is lowered. You and I believe the result of experiment because we see it with our own eyes.
Two, belief can come from a process of reasoning.
I can use the process of logic to arrive at some conclusion in a movement toward which each step in the argument provides a truthful link. Now remember, as we said earlier, if the starting point–the initial link–is wrong, it may affect how all the rest of the links line up. That is the danger of logic alone. Yet logic, reason, is an important way of determining what we believe in any area of life.
Three, belief can come from the acceptance of authority.
Every day you and I make very important decisions based not on what we have experimented with, or concluded by a process of reasoning, but simply by accepting the authority of someone we trust. It may be the news anchorperson on a television network that we have come to trust. It may be a particular newspaper whose articles we trust as true. It may be some fact about the speed of sound or the speed of light that you and I feel inadequate to determine for ourselves. We trust the authorities.
And this can also apply to theological truth. The Roman Catholic Church has been quite emphatic over the centuries in declaring itself the final ecclesiastical authority when it comes to matters of faith and doctrine. It even declares, “There is no salvation outside the Church.” The key to the Protestant Reformation is the importance of you and I taking seriously the tradition of the church, but yet being able to confront Scripture directly and to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It goes beyond the limitations of a particular pastor or priest, local church or denomination.
Four, belief can come from the evidence of people whom we can trust.
There are many things in life that you and I will never be able to prove or experience for ourselves. World War I happened before my time. I believe the report on the basis of people I trust who wrote histories of that war. And I compare those histories to determine my beliefs about those events.
I have never traveled throughout North Korea. I have stood at the DMZ, looking across that No Man’s Land into that country. What I know of it I know based on those who have been there and have reported to me on the conditions.
This enters also into Christian belief. Christianity is based on an event in history, the emergence of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century. The evidence for that fact I must examine and accept on the basis of trustworthy witnesses. If I don’t believe them, a major presupposition of my belief is removed. Part of what I believe is based on the experience of men and women who have trusted Jesus Christ through the centuries. If there is something in their lives that marks them as different, displays the transformation that Jesus Christ makes, I must take that seriously. That is evidence. It helps shape what I believe.
Five, belief can come from seeing the effects of something.
I do not understand electricity. I believe in the existence of electricity, because I have seen and used its power and its effects. I may believe in Christianity simply on the grounds of the personal effect it has made in the lives of people.
Six, belief can come from experience.
If I have experienced something, I no longer have to say, “I know someone who had this experience, therefore, I believe.” Christianity consists in a personal relationship between God and humankind through Jesus Christ. The fact that in 1945, as a youngster on Labor Day, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior, and, through the years, I have experienced what it is to walk with Him, is something that no one can take away from me. The fact that, as a 14-year-old I accepted Jesus Christ as not only my Savior but asked Him to become the Lord of my life, and have followed Him as both Savior and Lord, has experientially verified, decade upon decade, the truths of the previous sort. It’s not just someone else’s experience; now it is my experience. Oh, yes, I have had my doubts, faced my tragedies, had my relational difficulties and am painfully aware of my sin, past and present, but I have experienced the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. ” I know whom I have believed and am persuaded He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day.” Early in the Christian life I would have quoted the person who originally said that as my authority. Now I can say that it is my testimony.
In addition to these six, there is a seventh way we can come to belief. It is belief that comes from God’s special revelation.
Ultimately, it is important to build what we believe on God’s revelation in the Bible.
Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail, extremely critical of me personally and the stand that we, here at St. Andrew’s, have taken on the human sexuality controversy facing our denomination. I do not know this man well, and I wanted to treat him kindly in my response. At the same time, it was important to stand firm on very strongly held convictions. As I carefully framed my response, I came to my concluding statement that when all was said and done, the reason I hold the position on human sexuality that I hold and we, here at St. Andrew’s, have officially endorsed, is because of our confidence that God has spoken clearly on this matter in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. That is the bottom line. The issue may be impacted by the six ways in which we determine what is true, each of them to one extent or another fits into the mix of how we approach the Bible and our interpretation of the Bible. But, in the final analysis, what I believe for both faith and action is ultimately determined by what God has said.
You have to decide. Do you accept the Bible as your authority? You must decide whether or not you are going to accept or reject biblical teaching. The big question is, what is the Bible?
I hope you signed up for a covenant group. The study book for our covenant groups this fall is Know What You Believe by Paul E. Little. The first discussion chapter in that book deals with the Bible, how we got it, where it came from, its composition, various approaches to it. Take advantage of that study.
The reality is that some people see the Bible as a humanly-devised book, a compilation of humankind’s quest after God. For them, it has a lot of inspiration, a lot of humanly-devised truth, and, in the final analysis, it is riddled with errors and human limitations and certainly not trustworthy.
The historic understanding of the Christian church through the centuries is that the Bible is the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is actually the God-inspired record of God’s quest in love for humankind.
As such, it contains many kinds of literary expression that the Holy Spirit of God initiated and inspired people to write down God’s truth, reflecting their own temperaments and literary ways of expression, but the original writings are without error, fully reliable. Here at St. Andrew’s we hold to the “plenary of verbal inspiration” of the Bible, believing the authenticity and reliability of the very words that were written without depriving the writers of their individuality.
You have to decide which it will be for you. Historically, the church has built its theology, its doctrine, on biblical authority. We have debated what various passages of the Scriptures mean. Ultimately, the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself.
Our devotional reading this week has included the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Talk about a passage of Scripture that wrestles empirically with life. The writer, teacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem, describes his experiment with everything you think would bring satisfaction in this life–experiments with power, money, alcohol, with sexual pleasure, with material goods such as houses and elaborate clothing. He observes the vanity of a life in which you build riches and, in your old age, you are unable to enjoy them. The next generation comes along and wastes it all. He sees the inconsistencies we all have observed in one way or another. But, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he comes to the bottom-line conclusion, when all is said and done: “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them'” (
Check out The Apostles’ Creed, and you will discover in essence that what Solomon wrote 3,000 years ago from his own experience and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is what the Creed addresses. A thousand years later, the Apostle Paul writes these words to his young friend: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (
Again, The Apostles’ Creed captures the essence of what Paul is saying. It provides a doctrinal base, a succinct expression of our faith, which we find much more explicitly expounded in the Scriptures. Each phrase is pregnant with multitudes of truth that are triggered in our thoughts as we reflect on how the Bible expands on this skeletal statement of what we believe, the mighty acts of God–from creation to the fall to redemption–the very doctrine of the end times. It captures the central themes of the Bible that provide the “due NORTH” that every one of us needs to navigate–spiritually, theologically, morally and relationally.
When all is said and done, it is important to decide how we are going to respond to this divinely revealed truth.
One way to respond is to assent to it intellectually.
You and I can say, “I believe,” but we can do it in a way that it has absolutely no affect on how we live.
I know people who believe that cigarette smoking has something to do with cancer of the lungs, but they continue to smoke. Their belief has not affected their actions. Theirs is a belief that rests only in the mind and does not express itself through the will and through deed.
The Bible says that even Satan believes. It is quite possible that Satan could, with integrity, say The Apostles’ Creed in a cerebral kind of way.
The second approach is to believe in a way that is total.
This is not just an assent to doctrinal compositions. This involves a repentance for sin and a personal commitment of your life to God, whose name is Jesus Christ, for this life and the life to come! This involves obedience to His teachings. It involves a life changed by His amazing grace! This is what the Christian faith is all about.
What you believe really does matter, both in terms of content and in terms of life transformation!
This is one of a series of sermons based on the Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.