On the Road to Maturity: Public Profession of Faith
Article 61 of the Church Order states: “The consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.” In the Reformed Churches it is customary for baptized members to publicly profess their faith in the worship service. A specific liturgical form is used for this purpose. The profession of faith usually takes place at the end of the catechism season, e.g. either at Easter or at Pentecost.
Although profession of faith is not a sacrament, it is nonetheless a momentous occasion since baptized members become communicant members of the congregation. They now have a voice in the congregation. They receive certain privileges, such as taking part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, financially contributing to the church, having (for men) the right to vote, and sharing in various duties.
Questions have been raised regarding the instituted public profession of faith. Does it not become somewhat forced? Do we really have to profess our faith before celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Where in the Bible can proof be found for this? Should children who do have the right to be baptized be barred from the Lord’s Supper? If so, is the church (council) not going beyond its boundaries in making decisions about individual responsibility? Critical questions like these are asked, not only by those outside the church community, but also by church members themselves.
Questions regarding the profession of faith, which lead to questions about child communion versus family communion at the Lord’s Supper table, should not be quickly dismissed. More should be said about these issues. It is good to give account for an institution we want to observe and honour.
B. What is profession of faith?
The New Testament uses a word for profession that literally means “saying the same thing as”. It is about saying “amen” to what God has spoken. It is about publicly stating an acceptance of God’s Word, an open expression of belief in God and his Word, and a lifelong commitment to him. This is done together with the entire congregation.
The form for the public profession of faith summarizes everything in four questions, upon which the response “I do” is given. They are about:
- the doctrine of the Bible, as taught by the church
- the accepting of God’s covenantal promises, as given in baptism
- wholeheartedly living in accordance with God’s Word
- submitting to church discipline, if necessary.
This short form dates back to 1923. Before 1923, however, there was also public profession of faith. As early as the 16th century, the churches of the Reformation decided in favour of it. In opposition to the Roman Catholic teaching that sacraments automatically grant God’s grace without evidence of the receiver’s faith, Reformed catechism students have to profess their faith, in order to make use of the sacraments in faith.
At that time, students publicly professing their faith were examined in the church service on their knowledge of church doctrine. They were required to recite the main points of the Heidelberg Catechism.
It is interesting to note that the current form uses the questions proposed by Voetius (1589-1679).
C. Profession of faith and baptism
Profession of faith and baptism are clearly connected. Whoever publicly professes his faith also accepts everything that was said at his baptism.
Upon comparison, it can be seen that the form for public profession of faith is a review of the baptism form. This is evident in the following:
- Question 1 of the form for profession of faith is related to question two of the form for baptism: the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, is the true and complete doctrine of salvation.
- Question 2 of the form for profession of faith concerns God’s covenantal promises, which are sealed by baptism. It follows up on the first part of the form for baptism: to detest and humble oneself before God and to seek life in Christ.
- Question 3 of the form for profession of faith is the continuation of what the form for baptism says about our obligation in the covenant, that is, loving the Lord and serving him according to his Word, breaking with all worldly desires, and crucifying our old nature in order to live godly lives.
Profession of faith is a response to baptism. Profession of faith is also a duty to which God calls all those who were baptized.
In the 16th century this conviction was also evident. Calvin, as well as other Reformers, stressed this. According to Calvin, profession of faith is a duty that proceeds from baptism. In this event we are making use of our baptism. Also in this, we must be obedient to the God of the covenant. This emphasis of Calvin is closely related to his view on the sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have a dual function:
- From his side, God testifies to us that his covenantal promises are true. God nourishes and strengthens our weak faith through the sacraments.
- From our side, by use of the sacraments, we testify to our faith in God. We bind ourselves to God, just as he binds himself to us.
Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism have a second function (cf. Calvin’s Institutes, Vol. IV, 14, 19; 15, 1; 16, 2 and 21; 17, 37). Calvin calls this a second use of the sacraments. The second use can only be activated when the baptized person understands and believes his baptism, thus being able to give witness to God. That is the deed of publicly professing his faith, after he has been sufficiently instructed in the catechism. An echo of this Reformed teaching is heard in the form for public profession of faith since it corresponds with the form for baptism.
D. Public profession of faith and the Lord’s Supper
The form for public profession of faith also makes a connection with the Lord’s Supper. Professing one’s faith opens the way to participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (cf. the introduction and question 2). In church we hear, “Since you have now come here to make this profession before God and His holy Church, and hereby to receive admission to the holy supper....” Although public profession of faith concludes the period of formal catechism instruction, it is the beginning of a new phase of life, namely participation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
At this juncture those in favour of child communion would protest loudly in response. Their arguments (A) will be stated briefly, and comments (C) will be made following them.
- The whole family took part in the Passover meal (Exodus 12). Since the Lord’s Supper replaced the Passover feast, the children of the families ought logically to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
- It is true that children ate of the Passover meal. If there was an age limit, it is not possible to prove it. It is also true that the Passover, just like the Lord’s Supper, is a covenantal meal. The deeds of God’s deliverance are remembered. But it is too simplistic to equate the two. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper in the place of the Passover (Matthew 26:26-29), not as an addition to it, but as a fulfillment of the Passover. Christ gave it a new and deeper meaning as a remembrance meal: “Do this in remembrance of me”. One must understand Christ’s work in its totality and believe in him in order to truly remember Christ with bread and cup. Paul speaks of “discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29), and states: “Let a man examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Young children are not able to do this. For this reason they need instruction first.
- If the children have a right to be baptized, they also have a right to the Lord’s Supper. These are two sacraments of one covenant. Baptized children may not be barred from the Lord’s Supper.
- There is a definite difference between the two sacraments. Baptism grafts us into the congregation of Christ (HC, Q&A 74), and the Lord’s Supper nourishes and sustains our life with God (BC, Art. 35). This means that we must first of all entrust ourselves to God in faith. Through the Lord’s Supper, God strengthens our faith, while we proclaim that the death of Christ is the way to life (cf. Calvin: the two uses of the sacrament). In the Lord’s Supper we respond to God’s promises. We must clearly know and understand God’s promises. Baptism does give the right to eventually participate in the Lord’s Supper, but this is by way of faithfully accepting what God has promised and demanded in baptism.
A. The Lord’s Supper teaches the children what God has promised. There is therefore every reason to let the children partake in the celebration. The children will learn as they participate.
C. Indeed, the Lord’s Supper teaches something specific, since sacraments are intended to teach us (HC, Q&A 66, 75, 80). The teaching is an illustration or sign, the purpose of which is the strengthening of our faith. It is not an instruction in the manner of the catechism, which is an explanation of the doctrines. Children should first follow catechism instruction. Thereafter, as confessing members, they look forward to having their faith be nourished by what the Lord’s Supper shows to them and has them experience. This does not mean, however, that baptized members need not be present when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Christ addresses the entire congregation in the Lord’s Supper. The act of seeing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an integral part of the catechism instruction.
In opposition to Roman Catholic doctrine which holds that the sacraments automatically dispense God’s grace to us, the Reformed Churches have shown that sacraments must be used in faith. In order to be able to do this, doctrinal instruction and guidance into faith are necessary. The dual function (see section 3) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper not only justifies that public profession of faith is to take place after a period of catechism instruction, but demands it as well.
E. By means of education and guidance
Professing your faith is preceded by a period of instruction and guidance to maturation in matters of faith.
The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) differentiated between three types of instruction: home catechism, by the parents in the family setting, church catechism, usually taught by the minister, and school instruction. The last two continue and support the task of the parents as the primary educators. The third question in the form for baptism, which refers to the parents’ task “to instruct ... and to have him instructed therein ...”, deals with their responsibility.
1. Home catechism
The promise made at baptism (question three of the form) obligates the parents to teach their children. Within the family circle, children must learn to trust God and be confident in their relationship with God.
If children do not learn this at home, church and school will not be able to fill the void. The family remains the centre for raising and educating the children “in the aforesaid doctrine”.
The importance of home catechism must not be underrated. The family is called the matrix and finishing-school for life in the church and in society. It is obvious that much care should be taken to teach children in the family. The Bible clearly teaches this:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 We must continually instruct the children to love God.
Psalms 78: 1-8 Generation upon generation must know God’s deeds.
Ephesians 6:1-4 Children must obey their parents. Parents must raise the children and lead them,
without giving them occasion to become bitter.
Proverbs 4:1 Instruction brings one insight.
Proverbs 12:1 Disregarding instruction is foolish (cf. Proverbs 13:18; 22:6).
2. Church catechism
The church’s instruction is the primary aid in raising and guiding children. The Heidelberg Catechism is the teaching guide used by the church. The minister explains what the Bible says and what baptism promises about who God is and what he does for his people. This is instruction in the doctrine of salvation. The minister instructs his students in what it means to love God and how to serve him with their entire lives. He does not only say, “Choose Jesus! Do it now!”, or, “Let Jesus come into your heart and you will be saved.” This kind of summons is very one-sided. They must learn to submit themselves to God. God has chosen them first through his covenant. By means of God’s Word the Holy Spirit works faith and trust by teaching about the covenant of the Lord. In this manner the students arrive at their public profession of faith, having learned what this faith means.
3. School instruction
Teaching and instructing children of the covenant at school is also of great importance. The struggle for Christian education since the 19th century, and for Reformed education since the Liberation of 1944, makes us acutely aware of the aim of this form of education. The aim is to give Biblical instruction to the children of the church in accordance with the confession of the church. The school participates in the molding of the children so that they wish to serve God in their lives. They must also learn to serve God in the future, in the position they may attain in society, thanks to their education. The opportunity to make use of this special instruction is a privilege that should not be passed up.
F. When to make public profession of faith
There are various opinions about the appropriate time to make public profession of faith. The general rule is: whenever one is ready for it. One should have reached a sufficient degree of maturity. Is it right to associate public profession of faith with a particular age?
In the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands of the 16th and 17th centuries, youths aged 14 or 15 were allowed to make public profession of their faith. Under the influence of Pietism (an individualistic movement in Germany that emphasized piety as life’s main concern) and the Counter-Reformation (the movement against the Reformation), however, the age level was raised. But one cannot tie down public profession of faith to a certain age. The Lord deals with each of his children individually. Catechism is aimed at making public profession of faith in due time. Knowledge and maturity go hand in hand and lead to the decision as to when public profession of faith ought to be made.
In this present time young people often profess their faith when they are 18 or 19 years of age. According to child psychology, they are then in their third phase of life, i.e. adolescence. Out of conviction they choose for specific norms and values, and are able to take on responsibilities.
A good current development is allowing intellectually disabled people to make profession of faith and to participate in the Lord’s Supper. A mentally disabled person who understands, be it in simple terms, what it means to love and fear the Lord and what the celebration of the Lord’s Supper means, should be admitted.
When the intellectual disability is so severe that basic understanding fails, public profession of faith and participation in the Lord’s Supper are not required. These special sheep of the Lord’s flock cannot wander away from him. This is a great comfort to the parents, in all the difficulties brought about by a severe mental disability.
G. Profession of faith and growing in faith
Professed faith should continue to grow. Yet many people experience a decline rather than a deepening of their faith after public profession. By this we do not mean doubting, which we all struggle with at times. But the strong plant which stood so proudly during the public profession of faith sometimes seems to languish instead of continuing to grow. Sometimes it disappears altogether. Some leave the church because they no longer believe. How can this be avoided?
Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit works faith and strengthens it (HC, Q&A 65). He does this by means of the Word and the sacraments. Faithful church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer are the first requirements in a Christian’s life. Remaining faithful is what we promised when we made profession of faith.
Believing requires training. “Train yourself in godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). “Press on to make it your own” (Philippians 3:12). “Run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). The Bible continually stresses that believing is choosing, and consequently, persevering in that choice. Anyone involved in sports will have to keep up his condition by training. Training in faith is also necessary. We must improve our condition. There are different ways to do this, such as Bible study societies. But the personal relationship we have with the Lord must always be our first priority.
The Bible draws our attention to the dangers of grieving the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and quenching the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), or of falling behind in grace (Hebrews 3:12). We must continually ask ourselves: is my life ruled by faith?
Further, the entire congregation carries responsibility for each individual member. When someone leaves the church and claims to no longer believe, the congregation may have been remiss in communion with such a person. We should watch over one another, in order to build one another up, to encourage one another and, when necessary, to reprove one another.
Parents face great difficulties when they notice that their baptized child is straying away from the Lord. Fortunately, they do not have to conclude that their child does not belong to the elect or was not born again, as would be the case with the doctrine of presumptive regeneration (A. Kuyper). Yet it is difficult to believe that God’s promises are true and faithful for this child while having to look on while he turns away from God. How do we deal with this tension in our faith life?
We may never doubt God’s promises. That would undermine our own faith. We may always plead on God’s promises. This brings peace for parents who have dedicated themselves to providing a Christian upbringing for their children.
Children who have strayed may never be written off or treated as lost. The parents should see to it that the way back is not barred because of their actions. This will open up opportunities to speak to the children with tact and wisdom, and to continue to appeal to them. God does not write off such children as long as they live. That is the truth of baptism.
Public profession of faith is an institution that must be honoured. It is not meant to keep baptized members from participating in the Lord’s Supper, but to lead them to the Lord’s Supper by means of education and instruction. This institution is in harmony with the character of the sacraments and is based on the Word of God.
I. Tips for the introduction
- The questions in the form provide a good guide in explaining what public profession is all about and what its purpose is.
- Show that instruction and education to guide young people into becoming mature church members is not indoctrination, or forcing one’s own opinion on someone else, a practice modern educators strongly oppose.
- The three forms of instruction mentioned in section E provide suitable material for an introduction and discussion.
J. For discussion
- Within our family circle, are we sufficiently dedicated and serious in our relationship with the Lord? What kind of dangers can threaten this relationship? Is watching television responsibly and choosing suitable literature part of home catechism?
- Within the family, is the attention given to catechism and school sufficient? How can active participation be strengthened?
- What are the differences between catechism classes, youth work in the congregation, and school education, as forms for instructing covenant children?
- In Acts 8:26-40, profession of faith and baptism of the eunuch follow after each other, quickly and spontaneously. Why can one not use this as an argument against years of catechism instruction?
- Should we, as a church community, not make a greater effort to care for our youth, since they are children of the congregation? Would it not be better to raise the children with commonly accepted rules without imposing on one another’s freedom?