Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis. Rapidly. History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil. Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture. Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America. That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.
Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste. In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).
Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago. As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder. That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe. If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for? Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?
Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed. This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D. In those days being a Christian could be tough. Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing. Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed. And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to. That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers. As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s. This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with. So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!
As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three! The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline! We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand. To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.” Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:
and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;
I did not make it, no it is making me…”
In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being. The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief. He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of. We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’ We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’” When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.
This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for. It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at persecution.com). Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all. It has power. It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large. The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world). This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.
“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G. This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons. The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance. That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life. Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion. The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:
We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (I added the emphasis)
That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”
Coming up next, Part II – Father, almighty, Creator.