It is clear that you can’t get anywhere if you are pulling in different directions. The same is true when it comes to the work of God. This morning, we are going to begin a series of messages on the EMC Confession of faith. Each Sunday until just before Christmas, we will look at different articles of the confession, which you have in the pew and which are also available in the EMC constitution for those of you who have one. Different people will be preaching on different articles and I trust that it will help us recognize and affirm what we agree upon so that we can effectively work in the same direction.
Before we get into the first article, however, let us think a little more about what a confession of faith is. The introductory statement of the Confession of faith is important to help us understand what we expect from this document.
Introduction to Confession
This Statement of Faith is a consensus reached after several years of discussion. It should be seen as a confession, showing how the teachings of the Scriptures are currently interpreted and understood by the congregations of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.
These are the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith as they have been discerned in the Scriptures. While this statement reflects convictions inherited from the Anabaptist-Mennonite theology of the 16th-century Reformation, the Bible has been regarded as the final authority on what is to be believed.
This statement has been designed to create clarity, to give direction and to provide the basis for fellowship and working together. Because of the confessional nature of this statement, it will be normal to continue to reflect on the accuracy with which it reflects the teachings of the Scriptures.
One of the first things we notice is that a Statement of Faith is a consensus. A consensus is an agreement. The consensus about this Statement of Faith was reached as people from our church and other EMC churches sat down and wrote out this statement. We probably, at one time, had a chance as a congregation to agree with the statement. As you became a member of this church, you were asked if you agree with it. For those who are members, you have agreed that you believe these things. As we examine it together, it will remind you of what you have agreed to. For those who are not members, it will give you a chance to evaluate if you agree with what is taught and believed in this church and could perhaps also become a member because you do agree and want to work in the same direction.
What does such a consensus mean. Does it mean that you have to agree with every word and idea? The statement itself indicates that we continue to reflect on the accuracy of the confession. Therefore consensus does not mean 100% agreement. It does mean, however, that as a member of this church you would not teach against these things and you would work together with others to examine Scripture further to refine and make it a clearer statement.
This may seem rather a fuzzy approach, but the reason for it is that the statement of faith is not the final authority. We recognize that our understanding may change, we may need to respond to new situations and so although it is a consensus about what we believe, it is not the final authority. The final authority is the Bible and the consensus arises out of the study and interpretation of Scripture. As people who come from the Anabaptist, or Mennonite, tradition, this distinction is important. Other churches have what they call “systematic theologies” and their confessions are much more rigid. We as Mennonites rather develop a “Biblical theology” which means that as a community of faith we are always examining the Bible to see what it is teaching and therefore we are always thinking about what our consensus about the primary teachings of the Bible are.
Why is it important to develop such a consensus? The illustration of the bicycle helps us understand. There are three statements in the introduction to the confession which explain. First of all, this statement is designed to create clarity. It is to be a clear statement about what we believe. It is also designed to give direction. It helps us know which way to go. Furthermore, it “provides a basis for fellowship and working together.” It is in this statement that we get a good glimpse of what I meant to illustrate with the bicycle. If our primary beliefs are similar, we don’t have to waste time on the assumptions, we can get down to work knowing that at least on these things we agree.
I trust that the examination of the articles of faith will help each of us grow deeper in our understanding of God and how we can serve Him. As we examine the different articles, it will be well for all of us to examine the Bible and our own hearts to see if we really believe these things. Those who will be presenting the messages will try to clarify the article of faith, support it in Scripture and shed some light on how it must make a difference in our lives. If we approach the confession of faith as a dry, dead piece of paper, then there is not much value in studying it, but if we recognize that it is intended to make a difference in our life, then we will be keen to understand and follow it.
The first article is what we believe about the Bible, which as we have said, is the foundation of the confession. The Confession says:
“We believe that the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, are the inspired and infallible Word of God. They are the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct (Matthew 5:18; 24:35; II Timothy 3:16, 17; II Peter 1:16-21).”
Have you ever seen – a hunter’s Bible, decorator’s Bible or a cake decorator’s bible? There are books that use the term “bible” to give the idea that this is the final and complete word about this particular topic. The book that we revere and look at as the final word about all of life is not any of these kind of books. We confess that the book that we affirm as our source of direction for life is not the book of Mormon or the Koran. It is the Scriptures. Those Scriptures are also defined as the Old and New Testament. I have a Bible here which has other books in it. These books are called the apocrypha. There are Christians who believe that these books are also the books that should be listened to as the Bible. We don’t believe that.
During the years after Ezra and Nehemiah and up to a few hundred years after Jesus, many different books were written. By the time Jesus came along, the Jews had agreed upon the 39 books which we identify as the Old Testament. When Jesus came along and during the years of the apostles, these were the books which they identified as Scripture. As the apostles began to write, even during the time of the apostles, the church began to recognize that some of their writings should also be looked at as Scripture. But, as I have said, many books were written. How would they decide which books were truly Scripture? Most of the books we now know as the New Testament began to be recognized as Scripture by the mid second century, but it took until 367 ad before the church agreed that the New Testament as we now know it, was the Scripture. Sometime later, some people wanted to add the apocryphal books, but that has not really been a consensus and so today most Christian groups agree, as we do, that the books we look at as The Bible are the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament.
Why is the Bible so special? Our confession says that we believe that Scripture is inspired, but what does that mean? Perhaps you may hear a piece of music and you think that it is very inspiring. Perhaps you read a book and you are deeply moved by the book and consider the book to be inspiring. The King James version of the Bible says in II Timothy 3:16,17 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” When we talk about an inspiring song or book and the inspiration of the Bible, are we talking about the same thing? Not at all and we need to be careful to make a clear distinction. The NIV translation of this same verse is, “All Scripture is God-breathed…” This gives us a better understanding of what the inspiration of the Bible really means. It means that it comes from God. This is important because we believe that this book has divine origin. We are saying that when we read any of the 66 books of the Bible, we believe that it is God speaking in this book. The same idea is found in II Peter 1:20,21 which says, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
How does that work? When we read the Bible it is evident that human beings are speaking. In Proverbs 30, for example, it says that these are the words of Agur. Those who study the language of the Bible will tell you that each writer in the Bible and each book of the Bible has a different way of writing. It is evident that the Bible has a human hand upon it. Now there are some things written which are directly from God. In the prophets, like in Ezekiel 2, Ezekiel is given a message directly from God which he is to tell the people, but often it is not the direct word of God, but human words. If human words are clearly evident in the Bible, how can we say that God is speaking? II Peter helps us understand how this can be when it says that men of God spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
What is most important for us to notice here is that this is God speaking. Because it is God speaking, II Timothy 3:16,17 says that it is good for something. It says, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
This is perhaps the first place where we need to ask our selves, “do I agree with that.” Do I believe that all the words in this book are God speaking?
That means that when it was written, it was God’s communication and when we read it today, it is still God’s communication. A. W. Tozer said, “A new world will arise out of the religious mists when we approach our Bible with the idea that it is . . . a book which is now speaking.”
What are the implications of such a belief? Our confession indicates that because we see this as God speaking, it means that we see it as infallible.
There are two verses attached to the confession that indicate that it is infallible. Matthew 5:18 is a quote from Jesus who said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Jesus also said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
The smallest letter in the Greek alphabet is the “iota.” When the NIV translates “least stroke of a pen” it is describing the little marks that are used to distinguish one letter from another. This is written to help us understand that all of the Bible is trustworthy and all of it is important.
If these things are true, as we confess them to be, that is a pretty powerful perspective. We are saying that we believe that this book has all the important information for life and eternity. We are saying that this book is the book which must be raised above all other books because it comes from God and is absolutely true and trustworthy and we must follow it. So the question comes again, “do we agree with this? Do we believe that the Bible is God speaking to us? Do we trust the Bible?
If we say that we believe that God is speaking to us and if we agree that it is trustworthy, what are the implications for us? The confession goes on to say that “They are the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” In other words, we need to listen to God speaking through His Word. The question then becomes, are we listening?
II Peter 1:19, encourages us that we would do well to “pay attention to it.” If we say that this is God speaking then we need to be listening. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” That means that we need to let God’s word permeate our lives. If the word of God is to live in us, we need to know it and know it well. What kind of time do we spend studying? People spend hours pouring over the TV guide, newspaper, novels, but if in our day we are not spending time letting God’s Word come into our hearts, can it really be said that we believe that this is God speaking? Joseph Cook wrote, “Do you know a book that you are willing to put under your head for a pillow when you are dying? Very well; that is the book you want to study when you are living. There is only one such book in the world.” E. T. Harris said, “No one ever graduates from Bible study until he meets the author face to face.”
But how do we pay attention to this word? What does it mean to listen? The ancient Etruscans foretold the future by looking at sheep livers. They divided the liver into sixteen parts just as they had divided the heavens into sixteen parts. Certain gods ruled various parts of the heavens and would get into corresponding parts of the liver and give signs that provided guidance for people. There are some people who use the Bible much like the Etruscans used sheep livers. They treat the Bible as a book that has secrets that need to be divined by magic. The Bible is not like that, however. It is a clear communication from God. As we listen to God speak, we need to be careful to discern what God is saying in it. It yield’s it’s treasures not to magic, but to careful study. That is why II Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” I like the phrase “correctly handles the word of truth.” It calls us to recognize that when we read and study this book, it is not about what we want it to say. We need to allow God to speak in it. The best way to do that is to handle it accurately, trying to understand what God is saying. Holding to good principles of interpretation like context. Louis Cassels says, “Any single verse of the Bible, taken in isolation, may actually be dangerous to your spiritual health. Every part of it must be read in relation to the whole message.”
The third part of listening is that we must do it. Mark Twain said, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Why are they the problem? Because when we understand what God is saying as He speaks to us in His Word, then we need to do it. James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
We say this is our confession. A confession is a system of religious beliefs. It is something we state and declare agreement with.
Do we really confess that this is the Word of God? Then let us read it, study it and obey it.
Next week, Larry will examine the next two articles which are the ones on God and God the Father. I encourage you to read them and think about what they mean for your life.