Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 13
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I. You and I live in a create-your-own religion day.
Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, dated Saturday, December 27, 2003, captures the reality of this in a feature article titled “Beliefs: Spiritual Blend Appeals to People of Many Faiths.” Let me read some excerpts to you from this article.
To someone steeped in Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism, actor Lori Alan’s self-description – “a nice Jewish Southern Baptist Buddhist girl” – may appear odd, if not outright contradictory. But she is at ease with her customized spiritual arrangement.
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Increasingly, Americans are becoming eclectic in what they believe, picking and choosing from here and there, as they would their wardrobe.
“It’s Do-It-Yourself Religion,” said pollster David Kinnaman of the Ventura-based Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research firm that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984. A recent Barna poll found that significant numbers of Americans embrace beliefs that are “logically contradictory,” blending different faith views to create unorthodox religious viewpoints.
“Mix and match spirituality, I call it,” said theologian Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He believes the smorgasbord approach may reflect a dissatisfaction many people feel about their faith traditions and also a hunger they feel to experience God’s spiritual reality in as many ways as possible.
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So they will search wherever they think they might find answers, even commingling several religions, Gibbs said.
“Younger people live with ambivalence. It’s not either-or but both-and.”
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon is more noticeable in Southern California, experts say, with its diversity of religions and extreme individualism.
“What they’re saying is: Each individual is ultimately the arbiter of personal fulfillment and personal meaning,” Kinnaman said.
In a nationwide poll of 1,000 adults in September, one in 10 “born-again” Christians – who believe salvation is based solely on confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ – said they believed in reincarnation, which violates Christian precepts.
Nearly one in three respondents claimed it is possible to communicate with the dead, and half said they believed a person could earn salvation based on good works without accepting Christ.
Similarly, many who claimed to be atheists and agnostics also harbored paradoxical beliefs. Half of them said they believed that everyone had a soul, that heaven and hell existed and that there was life after death. One in eight atheists and agnostics in the poll believed that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably would make life after death possible.
Historian Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, says the phenomenon of cutting and pasting different beliefs to custom-make one’s religion is more noticeable in Southern California. “What I see happening here is that people are picking out the cherries that interest them, which generally in American culture means the glorification, the enhancement, of the individual,” he said.
People who come up with their own kind of spiritual mix don’t have to contend with the “constraints” and “demands” of major religions, he said. Bartchy said the new trend appeals because people can pick the pieces that make them feel good without having to make any changes.
“You are told that God loves you or that the spirit of the cosmos thinks favorably of you, or as some Hindu teachers love to say, ‘My goodness, all of you are recycled stardust.’ This is thrilling to hear, but you don’t have to change a thing,” Bartchy said.
This is the reality of the world in which you and I live at this present moment. It has not always been this way, and perhaps it will not always be this way. I am not saying there has not been great variety of opinions all through human history. There certainly has. What is so amazing about this particular moment in time is the fact that people are so quick to declare their right to pick and choose doctrinal statements from various religions, some of which are clearly self-contradictory, and live with this “cognitive dissonance” without it creating any kind of intellectual or spiritual problem for them.
Now, we must be careful not to imply that this is the first time in human history that it has been this way. This tends to happen whenever societies overlap, when one is exposed to a plethora of religious and theological notions.
The first century was very much this way as Hebrew, Greek, and Roman cultures collided and people were exposed to an overwhelming amount of religious pluralism. It was even complicated by the fact that many of the business guilds were tied in with religious pagan practices, so economic survival was dependent on a person’s membership within the right group in the community. It made it particularly difficult for Christians, whose faith was in a crucified and risen Jesus Christ, the notion threatened the first century Judaism, as well as various expressions of pagan Greek and Roman culture.
That’s why the New Testament was so important. Believers needed the narrative of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts as the historical bedrock on which to build their understanding of the faith. The rest of the New Testament emerged as letters addressing issues of significance in the lives of the believers. As the faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire, believers in Jesus Christ faced both universal intellectual and theological challenges to their faith, as well as unique kinds of opposition and seductions, tailor-made by local circumstances. Read the New Testament with this in mind and you will become all the more appreciative of the challenges that faced Jesus and, after His ascension, faced the early church.
So, in a way, what we are faced with today is quite similar to what the church faced in the first century. We no longer live in a homogeneous society in which one religion prevails. It is a marketplace of competing notions, beliefs and concepts.
II. These realities, and much more, make doctrine very important!
This is the 13th and final in our series Know What You Believe.
Back in September, when I started this series on The Apostles’ Creed, a number of you came to me, quite distressed that I would take this much time to deal with historic Christian doctrine.
Most who came to me were not saying that they did not believe the content of The Apostles’ Creed. Most, in fact, said they shared my beliefs in the content of The Apostles’ Creed, and much more doctrinal content of a very detailed nature, that flows naturally under each of the statements in the Creed. The concern was that the series would come across as too academic. It would sound too much like a seminary classroom. Our attendance would decrease, our financial support would ebb. One person told me, “People just aren’t interested in doctrine any more.” And someone else said, “People, especially young people, just want help in living their everyday lives. They don’t want preaching that is a head trip.”
These very comments convinced me of the importance of, for the first-time in my life, tackling The Apostles’ Creed and preaching my way through these very basic, elementary, doctrinal teachings held by all believers who have been faithful to biblical revelation through the centuries.
The very word “doctrine” is scary, because it implies that which is so final. There is not a lot of flexibility when we are talking about divinely revealed truth. The politically correct world wants intellectual, theological and moral “wiggle room,” to allow an environment in which “anything goes” except that which, for the moment, is simply culturally not acceptable.
We have an enormous amount of ambivalence, for example, about the words “dogma,” “dogmatic” and “dogmatics.” The dictionary definition of “dogmatics” is “a branch of theology that seeks to interpret the dogmas of a religious faith.”
The word “dogmatic” is defined as “1: characterized by or given to the use of dogmatism, 2: of or relating to dogma; synonym see dictatorial.”
The word “dogma” is defined as “1 a: something held as an established opinion; especially a definite authoritative tenet; b: a code of such tenets; c: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds. 2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church; synonym doctrine.
You can see, can you not, the ambiguity even in the dictionary definitions. On one hand, you are dealing with a body of material, highly respectable and appreciated for its comprehensive endeavor to systemize theological concepts. Karl Barth’s classic multi-volume study on theology is titled Church Dogmatics. Yet the same words are used to describe bigoted, narrow-minded, opinionated people; the kind of people none of us wants to be around.
Make no doubt about it. You and I live every day of our human existence here on earth based on multiple realities of dogma, of doctrine.
All of life is doctrinal. Refuse to accept this fact and you cannot even get through one day of life.
Doctrinal truth is present in every one of our lives. We set our clocks by a doctrinal understanding of what time it is, based on Greenwich Mean Time, with the rest of the world’s time zones falling into place around that norm.
We live with the mathematical realities that two plus two equals four. We tolerate no amount of relativism when it comes to calculating numbers, whether they are dates on the calendar, calculations in building codes, or quotations on the stock market. H2O equals water. We have pretty precise understandings of how the earth rotates on its axis. All of these are God-made doctrines, if perchance we believe there is a God. This is what we call natural law.
The same thing functions in the area of theology. At this point, your defensive antennas go up. Some of us don’t want theology and science put in the same category. To some extent they are correct. It is a bit more difficult to measure theological truth than it is to measure certain kinds of scientific truth. But the reality is that all of us are doctrinal, even those who do not accept the doctrinal truth of the Bible.
A theological doctrine is a faith position. It is a belief. It is not something we can prove scientifically. It is something we live on, we commit ourselves to, we base our lives on. Although we should not be doctrinaire, arbitrary, dogmatic people in temperament, that does not mean that all of us do not hold to certain doctrinal, dogmatic affirmations.
Let me express this in a succinct illustration, given by Timothy Keller, the minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He writes:
I’ll give you an example. Mr. A is a Christian. His friend, Mr. B, is not. Mr. A one day sits down with Mr. B and says,” I wish you could believe Jesus is Savior and Lord. Let me try to convince you.” Mr. B says, “Nobody can know anything definite about God. And secondly, you should not try to persuade other people to see things your way. That’s not right.”
When Mr. B says you can’t know anything definite about God, that is a faith position. That’s not scientific. That’s not empirical. It’s a belief. And secondly, when he says you mustn’t try to convince other people your take on spiritual reality is the right one, he at that moment is saying to Mr. A, “You ought to see it my way.” In other words, he’s saying, “I have a relativistic take on spiritual reality, and you ought to take it.” He’s doing the very thing he’s forbidding as he’s forbidding it.
Both Mr. A and Mr. B are being doctrinal. They have a non-empirical faith position. They’ve bet their lives on it. Mr. B has bet his eternal destiny on the idea that nobody can know anything definite about God. And they’re both contending for it. Here’s the difference. Mr. A is being openly doctrinal. He’s being frank about his doctrine. Mr. B is not. Mr. B is in denial.
My point is that some of the people who are most anti-doctrinal express their opinions from a clearly doctrinal foundation. It just happens to be a very different doctrine from the one of historic Christianity against which they are speaking.
The big questions is, from what source do I extract my doctrine?
Do I create my own theology eclectically, a bit from this religion, a bit from that religion, accepting those parts which I like and rejecting those parts of each of those religions which I dislike? In this case, I am the autonomous one. I become God. I arbitrarily decide what I believe or don’t believe on what I like or dislike. If I don’t like being called a sinner, if I don’t like the notion of hell, if I don’t like the sexual or business ethics articulated in the Bible, if I don’t like the notion of a God who can get angry, I simply dismiss those notions out of hand. If, on the other hand, I like the talk about a God of love, the promise of heaven, and a few notions such as “The Golden Rule,” doing unto others as I would like people to do unto me, then I accept these as a doctrinal basis for my life.
Ultimately, though, I have to decide who is God. Am I God? Do I take a little bit from this religion and that religion and put it together in a way that pleases me, or is there perhaps a God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments about whom I can know much? I am prepared to stop and take seriously what the church has held as the basic doctrinal content of the faith through the centuries. I am prepared to stop and study the debates that went on over each of those faith statements. Granted, I am prepared to acknowledge that most religions of the world have some of the teachings of Scripture embedded in them and perhaps have even mastered them better than I have myself. But, at some point, I need to come to grips with what I believe and what I don’t believe. I have to decide whether or not I accept or reject what the Bible says about the nature of God, our human condition, how one attains right relationship with that God, and how one practically lives his or her life here on Planet Earth.
I for one am prepared to declare with enthusiasm the content of the faith as expressed in The Apostle’s Creed, as well as the essential teachings about the faith contained in others of those great confessions, that have spoken at a point in time to the issues confronting the church through the centuries. That is why in the Presbyterian Church we have The Book of Confessions. It includes: The Nicene Creed, The Apostles’ Creed, The Scots Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Shorter Catechism, The Larger Catechism, The Theological Declaration of Barmen, The Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is important that I take these statements seriously, not as Holy Scripture itself, but as an endeavor from a human standpoint to articulate in some systematic fashion the teachings of God’s Word in a way that helps me know what I believe.
I hope you have found this series helpful.
If you take it seriously, it will help you live your life in a relativistic culture. And it will strengthen us as a church, St. Andrew’s here in the Harbor Area, as we corporately express our faith within this relativistic culture.
The pastor has a responsibility to size up the environment in which he or she is doing business and to speak from God’s Word to that culture.
When I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1973, I was exposed to a culture that was deeply steeped in historic Christian doctrine. What I sensed that church needed was preaching that was more relational, practical, down- to-earth, day-to-day, in its application. So I made that my primary emphasis, for the five years I was there, preaching straight from the Bible, God’s Word, building on the strong doctrinal foundation, but applying it in relational terms.
When I came here in 1978, I saw a church that was strong in relational dynamics but needed to strengthen its doctrinal foundation. The Lord laid on my heart to do a series, preaching through the entire book of Romans. It took the better part of one year. Some people left the church. It was tough going, both for the congregation and for me as pastor. But I believe it gave a doctrinal backbone to this church that has enabled us to be the people we have been for these decades.
Now I am convinced, as rugged going as it has been in some ways, this teaching through The Apostles’ Creed has been very important for us as a congregation.
III. What does “the life everlasting” really mean?
That’s the last faith affirmation in The Apostles’ Creed. In some ways, we have already answered the question when we talked about Jesus Christ returning to judge the quick and the dead. We have also addressed it when we talked about our belief in the resurrection of the body.
Yet there is a bit more that needs to be said. It is important that you and I see everlasting life from two very significant perspectives.
First, everlasting life has a quantitative dimension to it. It is a life that goes on forever and ever.
The Bible declares that life does not end with death. Many people in our society assume that death is the end of it all. There are people who minimize the importance of life on the basis that it is just biological, zoological fact, accidental in nature.
Even the Old Testament does not get too specific about the nature of life everlasting. It describes the Creator God who knows us personally, even before the time of our conception, all the way through this life. The psalmist writes this: “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you” (
We have already seen the magnificent provision that God has made for us in the life beyond this life, the life that goes on forever. At one level, everlasting life is exactly what it says. It is a life that goes on and on forever. It is quantitative in its definition. At a second level, the life everlasting means much more than this. We must see it in its qualitative dimension.
Unfortunately, the King James Version shifts back and forth, using two words in order to translate the same Greek word. At times, it uses the word “everlasting.” At other times, it uses the word “eternal.” It would be much better to always use the word eternal. That is what is meant, both in the quantitative and the qualitative understanding of this word.
When Jesus, in
And what is important for us to realize is that this quality of life doesn’t come simply through theologically knowing about God. It comes through the establishment through Jesus Christ of a personal relationship with God.
It is quite interesting to note that the very word for “perishing” that is used in
The Apostle Paul declares, “. . . because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (
This is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He came into the world, in the person of His Son, to offer you and me not just a life that goes on and on forever. That would be terrible without Him. He came to offer you and me God-quality life, eternal life, both now and in the life to come.
IV. Let me use some words and images to sort of underline and tie all this together.
Already we have used the words quantitative and qualitative. These two need to function in an oscillating dynamic. Both are appropriate. We dare not emphasize one to the neglect of the other. The bad thing is, because of the expression “everlasting life,” too often the qualitative takes a back seat to quantitative.
The word that I would like to leave with you at the end of this extensive study is the word congruence.
This word appears nowhere in The Apostles’ Creed. But it is the basic understanding that undergirds all biblical revelation. It is a word that implies a holistic understanding of the Christian faith. It is a word that implies a coming together of all the elements that make up Christian theology and the life experience of the follower of Jesus Christ.
For example, I may have my theology down perfectly. I may emphatically hold to every phrase of The Apostles’ Creed. I may hold the Bible high and wave it as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” And if you look closely enough at my life you will discover that in actions and attitudes I repudiate the very teachings I declare I espouse. On those occasions on which that happens, I am living a life without congruence. My wife, my children, any outsider close enough to see me as I really am, would call me what? You are right. A “hypocrite.”
I may know what I believe. And I may believe it emphatically. But if I do not act on my belief, I am a phony. That doesn’t mean that I save myself by my actions. It is by grace that I am saved, through faith. But God wants me to live a life in which my obedience to Jesus Christ, my loyalty to the family of faith, and my ethics in the way I do business and function in the community, is evidence to how serious I am about what I believe.
One of the men I most respect is Eugene H. Peterson. He wrote the most helpful paraphrase of the Bible titled The Message. He describes how, some 40 years ago, he was the founding pastor of a new congregation in the Baltimore suburbs. He was committed to church growth. He was told what you had to do to found a church to ensure its numerical and financial viability. He writes the following in the article titled “The contemplative Christian, Transparent lives” published in the November 29, 2003, issue of the Christian Century magazine:
It wasn’t long before I was in crisis. A deep chasm had opened up between what I was preaching and the way I was leading our congregational development. My attitude toward the men and women I was gathering in the congregation was silently shaped by how I was planning to use them to succeed, with little thought to feeding their souls with the bread of life. I found myself thinking competitively about the other churches in town, about how I could beat them at the numbers game.
I never wavered in my theological convictions, but I had to get a church up and running, and I was ready to use any means to do it: appeal to people’s consumer instincts, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals through catchy slogans, create publicity images to provide ego enhancement.
Then he describes how one day he and his wife attended a lecture by Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician, who had left a medical practice that focused entirely on the body to embrace the healing vocation that dealt with the whole person – body, mind and spirit. He had read every one of Tournier’s books, appreciating the authenticity of his writing. He was even more overwhelmed with the transparency and congruence of the man when he observed him in person. “There was no dissonance between word and spirit, no pretense . . . He wrote what he lived. He lived what he wrote. He was the same man in his books as he was in person.”
Peterson describes how that was the day that the word “contemplative” entered his vocabulary, giving shape to the way he wanted to live his life. It revolutionized his attitude toward his congregation and other churches in the community. It made him realize that the standards on which churches are measured are not usually God’s standards for measuring the church. He writes: “If there’s a single word to identify the contemplative life, it is congruence – congruence between what we do and the way we do it.”
And then he describes his life of congruence in terms of a glacier. A glacier is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. Literally nothing can stop a glacier. A glacier is not formed overnight. A glacier is formed by the falling of snow that collects over a period of time. As the snow deepens, the weight compresses and ice forms, then more snow, then more ice, year after year, and nothing happens. Nothing happens until that glacier is 64 feet thick. Then it starts to move and nothing can stop it.
I personally want my life to be of this quality, one that brings into congruence the theological doctrinal content of the faith that is so important, the deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is so important, along with attitudes and actions that are also so important. And that is my prayer also for you, and for this church we call St. Andrew’s. We need to know what we believe. And we need to know who we believe. And we need to know how we are going to live our lives in relationship to what we believe, and the one in whom we believe.
All this comes together in the word “congruence.”
The Apostle John makes this most perceptive observation of why he wrote the Gospel that bears his name. He wrote: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (
Charles Haddon Spurgeon on one occasion said to his congregation, “I want you all to go home. I want every one of you to take a piece of paper, and I want you to write on the piece of paper either ‘Forgiven’ or ‘Condemned.'”
I would like you, right now, to do something similar. I would like you, right now, in your mind to declare either “Forgiven – Eternal Life,” or “Condemned – Perishing.” You are either one or the other. If you know there is nothing you can do to save yourself, but God has done it through His amazing grace, and you have repented of sin and put your trust in Him, with great affirmation, declare, “Thank God! I am no longer condemned and perishing but through Jesus Christ I am forgiven, I have eternal life!”
If that is not your affirmation, I urge you, right now, to pray the prayer that is appropriate to you. It may go something like this: “Dear God, I am confused. I have done things I shouldn’t have done, and I have left undone things I should have done. My life needs help. I am sorry for my sins. I claim your forgiveness, based on what you did on the cross. I thank you for the great doctrines of the faith that remind me of who you are and what you have done on my behalf. God, I just don’t want to hear about facts. I want a personal relationship with you. I repent of sin, and I put my trust in you alone for salvation. I claim your forgiveness, your eternal life, your God-quality life for this life and the life to come. In Jesus name, Amen!”
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, May and June.
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.