You Are What You Believe: Why the Apostles’ Creed Matters
January 11, 2004
Today we are beginning a new sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. Twelve years ago I announced to the congregation that I intended to preach through the three foundational documents of the Christian church—the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. So I preached through the Ten Commandments in 1992 and the Lord’s Prayer in 1993. But other events intervened and I never got around to preaching through the Apostles’ Creed. And in fact, I had forgotten all about my earlier intention until a few weeks ago when I was thinking about our theme for 2004—”Back to Basics.” I knew that I wanted to do a series on Christian doctrine but couldn’t decide how to go about it. And then I remembered what I said back in 1992. Immediately, I decided that now is the time to preach through the Apostles’ Creed. And so, after a short 11-year “intermission,” I’m going to finish what I left undone in 1993.
THE APOSTLES’ CREED
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty,
whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
Churches generally take one of two positions regarding the Creed. Either they recite it every week or they hardly ever say it at all. Calvary has been in the second group, but there are many churches where the Apostles’ Creed is a regular feature of the worship service. When I asked the congregation how many people came from a church that recited the Creed every Sunday, at least two-thirds of the people raised their hands. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic churches (among others) say the Creed every Sunday. Many evangelical churches, including Calvary, do not, although we have used it occasionally.
If we don’t recite the Creed every week, why study it now? There are three good answers to that question. First, it is the oldest and most widely accepted creed. It is recognized by all branches of Christianity—Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. For 2,000 years the Apostles’ Creed has served as a succinct statement of the irreducible minimum of the Christian faith. It is the common heritage of the Christian church. Second, it offers a broad survey of Christian doctrine. It starts with creation and ends with eternal life. That’s about as broad as you can get. As we will see, it is not comprehensive, but everything it covers is important. In a year when we want to go “Back to Basics,” this is a good place to begin. Third, the Creed offers a radical challenge to the skepticism of this generation. The people of the world doubt that we can be certain about anything. “I’m not sure” serves as the motto for most people. Over against that uncertainty we have the first two words of the Creed: “I believe.” Let a man dare to say in his office or with his buddies or at a party those two words, “I believe,” and suddenly the crowd will grow silent and all eyes will fix on him. We aren’t used to hearing people say “I believe,” and it shocks us when we hear it. If we had no other reason, this would be good enough. The Creed forces us to say, “I believe,” and that alone is good for the soul.
Thirteen years ago I traveled to Russia with John and Helen Sergey. For 17 days we traveled from Leningrad to Moscow to the Volga River. While we were in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), I met Art DeKruyter, the founding pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb a few miles west of Oak Park. Art not only founded the church but he stayed as pastor for over 30 years. Under his ministry the church grew to over 3,000 in attendance. He and John Sergey were good friends and so we traveled with him from Leningrad to Moscow. Art and I shared a cabin together on the special presidential train that traveled through the night. For several hours we stayed up talking shop together. When Art asked if we recited the Apostles’ Creed at Calvary, I said we didn’t. He told me that they recited it every Sunday at Christ Church and he thought it would be a good thing if we did the same thing at Calvary. He declared that modern men and women need the mental discipline of saying the Creed every Sunday because it serves as an antidote to the prevailing secular unbelief and the rampant skepticism they face daily. There is one phrase from the Creed that our people need to say every Sunday: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body.” That’s the hardest phrase to believe because it goes against everything we are taught and everything we see with our eyes. We have lots of funerals; the last resurrection happened 2,000 years ago. And if you have walked away from the grave of a loved one, you know how the harsh reality of death can erode your faith. We need to say the Creed to remind ourselves that we believe that death will not have the final victory. We believe in something absolutely stupendous—the resurrection of the body.
I. The Necessity of the Apostles’ Creed
The key phrase of the book of Judges, although written over 3,000 years ago, could have been written last week: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV). It would be hard to find a more fitting description of modern American life. If you ask people on the street what they believe, you will receive a bewildering array of answers. Consider this quote from a 20-something backpacker in Boston when asked what he believed: “I don’t know what I believe in. And if I believe—I believe there’s some Higher Power, I think. But I don’t know. Like right now I’m at a point where I don’t know what to believe, but I’m open to everything. So I like to believe in everything, because I don’t know what it is I truly believe in.” That strikes me as a totally honest statement. He speaks for a whole generation that is ready to believe in everything. And why not? When you don’t know what you believe, why not be open to everything?
No “Bible Thumpers”
If we ask people on the street how they determine what they believe, does it come from inside them or from some outside source, almost everyone will say it comes from the inside. They will point to their opinions or their feelings or “This is my best guess.” Feelings trump everything else nowadays. This week a friend sent me the following e-mail:
My brother recently announced that he was now engaged to a woman he met on a “Christian” Internet dating service. During our dinner conversation he told me all about her and said that one of his qualifications for a wife was that she had to have Christian beliefs, but not act like a “Bible thumper.” He explained this statement by saying that he wanted a woman who believed in Christian values but not necessarily someone who was a Christian and lived out her faith.
I asked him what his views were on Christianity and he replied that he was a Christian and believed that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He went on to say that he agreed with all the findings of the “Jesus Seminar.” Among other things, he said he believed that Christ was not born of a virgin, he did not physically rise from the dead, and that there was nothing wrong with gay pastors. I asked him what he based his beliefs on and he explained that they were based on his own understanding of who God is.
That strikes me as a fairly convenient religion. You keep the parts of the Bible you like, and you get to throw away the rest. This is one reason why we desperately need the Apostles’ Creed. It stands as an important corrective to the “me-centered” theology of the present day. The Creed reminds us that truth is not optional. There are boundaries to the Christian faith. Not everything is negotiable. Some things must be believed if you are to call yourself a Christian. You can choose to live outside those boundaries, but if you do, you aren’t a Christian and you shouldn’t call yourself one.
This leads us to a vital truth point: Christianity is a doctrinal faith. It is not an “X” that you can fill in with whatever content you desire. Christianity is a life based on the doctrines of the Bible. We must never say, “As long as you believe in Jesus, it doesn’t matter what else you believe.” Unless the Jesus we believe in is the Christ of the Bible, he’s not the real Jesus at all. This means that Christianity is more than a conversion experience. To be a Christian means learning the doctrines of the Bible. This does not come naturally to any of us. There are things to learn and there are doctrines we are required to believe. That’s why the Apostles’ Creed is so important in the history of the church. Truth is not up for grabs. And it is not decided by what we feel or by a majority vote or the latest opinion poll. The Creed reminds us that truth comes from God, and that is where we must start in our spiritual journey.
II. The History of the Apostles’ Creed
The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which means, “I believe.” Originally the Apostles’ Creed was not a formal, written document. In the earliest days of the Christian church, it started as a baptismal formula. Whenever I perform a baptism, I always ask each person four questions before I baptize them:
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”
“Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead?”
“Are you trusting Jesus Christ and him alone as your Lord and Savior?”
“And do you wish to be baptized and live for him?”
I ask the candidates to speak loudly so the congregation knows why they are being baptized. Their answers form the “public profession of faith” that precedes their baptism. If a candidate ever refuses to answer or if the answer is incorrect (that hasn’t happened yet in all the years I’ve been a pastor), I will not baptize them. That’s how important those questions are.
The early Christian followed a similar practice, but their questions were slightly different. Evidently they asked questions like:
“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord?”
“Do you believe Christ died on the cross and rose again from the death?”
And so on. From those questions the Creed developed into its current form over many generations. In his book on the Apostles’ Creed, Don Cole offers four reasons why the Creed eventually became a formal statement of faith:
1) To help the early church distinguish truth from error.
2) To provide a basis for refuting heresy.
3) To provide a basis for Christian fellowship.
4) To ensure consistent teaching among all the churches.
The Word Comes First
Since I’m going to be preaching on the Creed for a number of weeks, it’s important to know that we don’t base our faith on any creed or statement of faith. Our ultimate source of authority is the written Word of God. Because it is inspired by God (II Timothy 3:16), the Word is true in all its parts and entirely trustworthy. No creed can make that claim for itself. Think of it this way: First there is God who gives us his Word. Then from the Word come the creeds and confessions of the church. The church believes the creeds and confessions because they reflect what God has said in his Word. This doesn’t mean that everything found in every creed or confession is correct. But it does mean that creeds and confessions of faith are very helpful as long as they reflect what the Word of God actually says. So these sermons are ultimately based on the biblical teaching that underlies the Apostles’ Creed.
Here are six fast facts about the Creed: First, it is very old. Scholars believe that its earliest form can be traced back to A.D. 120. Second, it was not written by the Apostles. It is called the Apostles’ Creed because it reflects what the apostles taught. It summarizes apostolic doctrine. Third, it is brief. Our version contains 114 words. Compare that to the Calvary Statement of Faith, which contains ten times as many words. Fourth, it is God-centered. In fact, it is Trinitarian. The first sentence deals with God the Father, the second with God the Son, the third with God the Holy Spirit. Fifth, it is selective. The Creed touches on the central issues of the Christian faith, but there is much it passes over. It says nothing about Satan, angels, demons, predestination, baptism, church government, or the details of the Second Coming. Sixth, it is easy to memorize.
Here’s a handy way to think about the Creed. Let’s suppose that before you leave on vacation, you purchase a book of maps to help you find your way. That book of maps contains separate maps for all 50 states, and there will be smaller inset maps for all of the larger cities in each state. At the front of the book there is a large, two-page map of the United States. If you want to drive from Naperville to Lincoln Park, the US map won’t do you any good. And the state map won’t help much either. You’ll need to consult the map of Chicago. If you want to drive from Peoria to Cicero, the state map is what you need. But if you want to drive from Miami to Seattle, then you’ll keep the book open to the big map of the United States. The Apostles’ Creed is like that big ma p. It gives you the “big picture” of what Christians believe. We believe more than what the Creed says, but we don’t believe less than that.
III. The Importance of the Apostles’ Creed
If you’ve read this far, you may wonder, “What does all this have to do with me?” Good question. After all, we live in a practical age where people want to know how the truth impacts them personally. The answer is found in the first two words of the Creed: “I believe.” That’s a very powerful assertion. It’s not the same as saying, “I know” or “I think” or “I feel.” To say “I believe” means that you are making a personal commitment to the truth. Romans 1:16 declares that the gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to “everyone who believes.” And Romans 10:9-10 adds the concept of believing “in your heart,” which means to believe from the depth of your being. Salvation depends on what we believe. That’s why the gospel of John over 80 times declares that salvation comes to those who believe.
In a deep sense, you are what you believe. Start with your behavior. Where do your actions come from? From your feelings. Where do your feelings come from? Your attitudes. Where do your attitudes come from? Your values. Where do your values come from? Your beliefs. Trace it back far enough and it always comes out at the same place. You are what you believe. Consider this further thought: What you believe determines your destiny. John 3:16 tells us that God gave his Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life. Your eternal destiny depends on whether or not you believe in Jesus “in your heart.”
What It Means to say “I Believe”
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the word “believe.” In Greek the word is “pisteuo,” which means to “believe into” something or someone. In English the word “believe” has different meanings. If I say, “I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow,” that’s nothing more than a hunch. If I say, “I believe George Washington was the first President of the United States,” that refers to a settled historical fact. But if I say, “I believe in Jesus with all my heart,” I have made a different sort of statement altogether.
Let me illustrate. Suppose I go to the doctor and he says, “I’m sorry but you’ve got cancer that is life-threatening. I have chemotherapy that can cure the cancer, but it is very difficult to take and is likely to make you sick. If you’re willing to take it, you can be cured of cancer.” In that case, to say, “I believe in my doctor,” means something very specific. It doesn’t mean “I believe he really is a doctor” or “I believe he’s right when he says I have cancer” or even “I believe the chemotherapy can cure me.” You don’t truly believe in your doctor until you roll up your sleeve and let that life-saving medicine enter your veins. Until then it’s all just talk. To believe in your doctor means to trust yourself completely to his care, to accept his diagnosis, and to put your life in his hands. That’s true faith. Believing in Jesus means to trust him completely with your eternal destiny. It means to trust Christ so completely that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there.
In the 19th century, the greatest tightrope walker in the world was a man named Charles Blondin. On June 30, 1859 he became the first man in history to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Over 25,000 people gathered to watch him walk 1,100 feet suspended on a tiny rope 160 feet above the raging waters. He worked without a net or safety harness of any kind. The slightest slip would prove fatal. When he safely reached the Canadian side of the Falls, the crowd burst into a mighty roar.
In the days that followed he would walk across the Falls many times. Once he walked across on stilts, another time he took a chair and a stove with him and sat down midway across, cooked an omelet and ate it. Once he carried his manager across riding piggyback. And once he pushed a wheelbarrow across loaded with 350 pounds of cement. On one occasion he asked the cheering spectators if they thought he could push a man across sitting in a wheelbarrow. A mighty roar of approval rose from the crowd. Spying a man cheering loudly, he asked, “Sir, do you think I could safely carry you across in this wheelbarrow?” “Yes, of course.” “Get in,” the Great Blondin replied with a smile. The man refused.
That makes it clear, doesn’t it? It’s one thing to believe a man can walk across by himself. It’s another thing to believe he could safely carry you across. But it’s something else entirely to get into the wheelbarrow yourself. Believing in Jesus is like getting into the wheelbarrow. It’s entrusting all that you are to all that he is.
It’s not the amount of faith that matters; it’s the object of faith that makes all the difference.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
I spoke with a man whose father died recently. Although his father went to church and often heard about Jesus, the son worried about his father’s salvation. Although I could say nothing definite about his father because I did not know him, I reminded the man that it’s not the amount of faith that matters; it’s the object of faith that makes all the difference. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Weak faith in a strong object matters more than strong faith in a weak object. It’s not a matter of “how much” you believe, it’s whether or not you are trusting the Lord Jesus Christ to save you. In II Timothy 1:12, Paul says, “I know whom I have believed.” He doesn’t say, “I know what I have believed,” though that would be true. And he doesn’t say, “I know how much I have believed,” even though that is also true. And he doesn’t say, “I know when I believed,” which he could well have said. And he doesn’t say, “I know why I have believed,” even though that would be true as well. He doesn’t even say, “I know in whom I have believed,” which would be perfectly appropriate. As Spurgeon puts it, it is as if he says, “I know the person into whose hand I have committed my present condition, and my eternal destiny. I know who he is, and I therefore, without any hesitation, leave myself in his hands. It is the beginning of spiritual life to believe Jesus Christ.” If you are trying to keep your own soul, you are in serious trouble and will be rudely surprised one day. You cannot keep yourself safe. Your only hope is to entrust all that you are and have to Jesus. Lay it all at his feet and you will be safe.
One final word. The Apostles’ Creed begins with the words “I believe.” Why doesn’t it say, “We believe?” The answer is simple. True belief is always personal. I can’t believe for you and you can’t believe for me. No wife can believe for her husband and parents can’t believe for their children. You must make up your own mind. You can’t live on the faith of those around you. The church is more than a gathering of people or a collection of Christians. At its heart, the church is a community of believers who are joined together by their common faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why the church for 2,000 years has affirmed the Apostles’ Creed. It expresses our common faith in Christ.
True belief is utterly personal. The Creed begins with two simple words: “I believe.” Do you? No one can sit on the fence forever. I end with this thought: A Christian is a person who truly believes in Jesus. Do you? Do you? Eternity hangs on your answer. Amen.