Covenant Youth Publicly Profess Their Faith Why does the church require this?
Sometimes people ask for a biblical justification for requiring our young people publicly to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour before they may be permitted to join the rest of the congregation at the Lord’s Table and otherwise enter into the “full rights and privileges of the Church.” Furthermore, if there is not an explicit biblical justification, does the Church have a right to require it?
This question was also raised at one of the Reformation Conferences last year. It seems to be a question being asked rather widely. Having thought about it somewhat, I cannot give a chapter and verse. Which is not really news: the Church has never given any single chapter and verse for the doctrine of the Trinity either. A verse that might spring to mind is 1 Timothy 6:12. But it may well be that Timothy was at that time also baptised as a new convert to Christianity. It is not likely he was baptised as a child and that the “good confession” mentioned there was subsequent to that. Probably he was baptised on his good confession as a convert from the OT faith to Christianity. Our young people are already true members of the Church, and perhaps have always believed and are already active in Church life. They love the Lord and already confess his name anyway at school, university, work, wherever. So why does the church require these members publicly and formally confess their faith before entering into “full communion”?
The question, “does the Church have a right to require it?” is not a bad question and I want to attempt an answer to it. But I must say honestly and first of all that I find the reticence a little difficult to understand. No one disagrees that we must confess our faith before men. The Scriptures are too clear about that. And some of those who have difficulty with the formal Profession of Faith before the Church before admittance to the Lord’s Table wonderfully confess Christ before the world in many varied situations of life. Why is that not enough, they ask? I have found it difficult to find material on this question, but it seems to me that there is a practical reason and a principial reason. First of all,
The practical reason
Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:20 that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” Acts 2:42 gives us a picture of the basic ingredients of Church life. In the previous verse we are told that “those who gladly received (Peter’s) word were baptised; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (to the body of believers, the Church). Verse 42 goes on to tell us that “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” So, among other things, the Church is the body of those who have believed in and continue in the apostles’ doctrine. If we leave the foundation, if we leave the apostles’ doctrine, which they gave by the authority of Jesus, we are not part of the Church (1 Corinthians 3:10-11; 14:37-38; 1 John 4:6). The apostles had authority wherever they went (1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17).
That apostolic authority in the Church is continued down through the ages in the elders and ministers of in each local congregation. We see this when Paul speaks to Timothy of things “contrary to sound doctrine, (sound doctrine being that which is) according to the glorious Gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (1 Timothy1:10f.). He therefore tells Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep” (2 Tim.1:13f.), “commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2) ... “correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2:25). Thus, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (4:2f.), i.e., the apostles’ doctrine.
We are all, therefore, as confessing believers in Jesus Christ according to the apostle’s doctrine, by the command and practice of those same apostles, to be recognised as part of that number (Acts 2:42 cf. Hebrews 13:17) that Church of Jesus Christ, founded upon the apostles and the prophets.
But a very practical question arises straight away. There is simply a multitude of ‘Christian communions’ in the world. Some of that multitude may be as a result of genuine geographical, cultural or language reasons. But many of them are also over genuine disagreements over what actually is the apostles’ doctrine! (At least, one hopes they are genuine disagreements; otherwise we are all guilty of mere schism, and that is sin. But at the moment, let us ascribe best motives all round.) So, at the least, we can say that both the understanding of the apostles’ doctrine and the continuing administration of the apostles’ authority down through history to and in our own day is fractured.
That places a responsibility on the growing Christian to come to an understanding and conviction for himself, in honesty before the Lord, as to what, among all these various understandings available, is according to Scripture. The Reformed Churches lay out their understanding of what the apostles taught in the Reformed confessions. Do you accept them as your confession of faith also? Then it is your bounden duty (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:5) to acknowledge and publicly accept the authority of the apostles as manifested in this federation of congregations of Christ’s Church which understand and confess the faith as you do. I say publicly, in part (see further below), because Jesus did; “Everyone who shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). It is interesting that in ancient Israel, an ecclesiastically united (if not uniformitarian) society, Jewish boys were required to do just that. How much more necessary is it for us to do so in our ecclesiastically fragmented situation.
If it be said that we require this out of tradition, I would answer, no. We do traditionally require it, that is true. But it is not a mere tradition, but a good and useful one. Remember, Jesus also stood in and continued in all the good traditions of Israel, e.g., synagogue worship, Purim, Hannukah, none of which have Scriptural warrant. And did Jesus go to Jerusalem when he was twelve to do his bar-mitzvah? (Luke 2) But this requirement is more than something good, even practically necessary. So there is also, secondly,
The principial reason
Publicly confessing one’s faith in a Reformed Church involves an acceptance of the covenant, a confession of personal commitment to Christ, a confession of the reformed understanding of the apostles’ doctrine, and a formal acceptance of the authority of Christ in his Church in this congregation (or federation of congregations). These points are the substance of the four questions in the Form for Public Profession of Faith. All four aspects are necessary to intelligent, mature Church membership. But did you notice the first? an acceptance of the covenant.
You see, at your baptism, God made a covenant with you to be a God to you and to your children also, should he so bless you in the future. It is a continuation and reapplication of the covenant God first made with Abraham (to be a God to him and his children) to one of his children, you. But covenant promises always require a response; so in Genesis 12, Abraham built an altar (v.7). In Genesis 15, we read that “he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness” (v.6). In Genesis 17, after first doubting the Lord and God having to reassure him we then read that he obeyed and circumcised Ishmael and all the males of his household. On Mt Sinai in the desert when God reaffirmed the covenant to Israel and gave the Law of the Covenant, the people responded with, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” You see it again at Mts Gerazim and Ebal before the entrance into the Promised Land; and again at the end of Joshua’s life before he, the OT saviour with Moses, dies and leaves the OT Church to its regular life and discipline under the “elders in the gate.”
Covenant-making ceremonies are always public. For they must be witnessed. They are therefore, necessarily, formal ceremonies. The point I am getting at is this; God has formally made a covenant with you in which he has made a promise to be your God and Saviour. Do you accept that covenant and those promises? Oh yes, I know you do in your heart, and in lip and life also. I believe you when you tell me that. But you have unfinished business with God. You have left God hanging, half-way through a public ceremony. Of course, he knew you would have to – being just a baby when he extended his covenant to you personally. But does he still have to? He is standing there, in Church, at the baptismal font, waiting for your answer!
One could say it is a bit like marriage. That formal Profession of Faith before the Church can be a mere formality, but the everyday confessing Christ in all sorts of situations in life shows the reality of it. So too, it is not hard to see when a couple are in love with one another; that is the reality. Yet still, society has always required, and biblical society too!, with the Lord’s endorsement, a formal entrance into a covenant of marriage before one enters into the full rights and privileges of marriage. And continuing really to love one another in all the various situations in life, “for good or ill,” is the proof of the pudding. Yet still, that marriage covenant-making ceremony is not nothing. There you made formal vows to each other and there may be times when it will be the fact and remembrance of those vows that will keep you determined to foster that love again – which can, at least, get lukewarm if it is not constantly nourished.
So there it is. It is good and useful in that it sets the layout of the land very clearly, everybody knows where they are, what are their responsibilities and privileges, and the whole Church rejoices to hear you say to God; I thank God for his covenant promises mediated to me through my parents and the whole covenant community. I now formally and publicly accept those promises because I believe that God has worked the reality of them in my heart by His Word and Spirit. I further declare that, in thankful response to that grace of God, for myself I take on the responsibilities of God’s covenant and life in the covenant community as understood in the apostles’ doctrine. So help me God. Amen.