CONFESSIONAL PRAISE
August 12, 2016
by CARL TRUEMAN

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:9–10)

The confessing to which Paul refers here is a public act, and such public acts of confession serve a variety of purposes. There is confessing before the world, the action of witnessing to Christ before the pagan nations. Such is captured by the use of the term witnessing to refer to acts of personal evangelism. The Greek word for such witnessing, of course, lies behind the modern word martyr. Then there is the public and personal affirmation of truth within the church which marks out the true believer from the impostor. Thus, those who deny with their mouths that Jesus is Lord, who say Jesus is Lord but deny that God raised him from the dead, are not true members of Christ’s church, no matter how likeable or pious they might otherwise be. But there is also the further aspect of confession as praise. For Paul, doctrine and doxology are not separated: the truths of the gospel drive him again and again to praise. And, reading his letters, one is struck time after time by the fact that doctrinal statements are clearly uttered in a manner that expresses the sheer delight and joy Paul has in verbalizing such.

Philippians 2:6–11 provides a good example, where Paul, in pressing on his readers the need for humility, describes the mission of Christ using a form which is arguably that of a poem or hymn, and which culminates in the magnificent declaration that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In ending in such a climactic way, this section of the letter is both descriptive, in that it points the reader toward the praise that such truths should evoke. It is also in itself a superb example of what it enjoins: theological confession as doxology.

Creeds and confessions are not simply boundary markers but they arise out of a desire to praise God.

To Philippians 2, we might also add 1 Timothy 3:14–16, where Paul is talking about wanting to visit Timothy and then breaks out into a hymn of praise, which also constitutes an outline of some key elements of his christology. In this brief passage, he makes a normative statement about God’s revelation, the role of the Spirit in Christ’s saving work, the witness of angels, the proclamation of the gospel, the resulting faith, and Christ’s ascension to glory in the space of a few brief lines; but this is more than just a set of doctrinal propositions—it is also an act of praise. There is no opposition or difference between doctrine and doxology here: the expression of praise is rooted in, constituted by, an expression of the theology. This is a vital point, and we do well to remember that our creeds and confessions are not simply boundary markers but also that they arise out of a desire to praise God, the content of which praise should be the same as that of said creeds and confessions.

Earlier in the same letter, Paul provides a superb example of how polemic, praise, and doctrinal confession can be intimately related. He is writing to his protégé, Timothy, encouraging him either to go to Ephesus or to remain there (it is not clear which is the case) in order to refute the false teaching of a group that is having an unfortunate influence within the church. This group has quite probably infiltrated the eldership, since Paul himself excommunicates several of them rather than leaving this to the congregation (1 Tim. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). It is unclear exactly what the content of this false teaching is, but it appears to involve arcane interpretation of the law which has the effect of blunting its basic purpose as that which exposes humanity’s sin. Against this, Paul asserts the proper use of the law and then offers himself as an example of God’s grace and as a paradigmatic case of the gospel. Then quite suddenly, he moves from his condition to a statement about the mission of Christ to a doxological outburst:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:15–17)

This passage is a remarkable example of how doctrine, personal testimony, and praise can be wonderfully intertwined in the words spoken by a Christian. There is no opposition here between what Christ has done and what Paul has experienced. More significant from the perspective of this chapter is the connection between theology, polemic, and doxology. In attacking the false teachers, Paul inevitably asserts true teaching as the alternative, but for Paul such assertion can never stand on its own and for its own sake: it moves him inevitably to praise.

Creedal Praise Can Be Divisive

Yet there is more: the content of this praise, of this doxological statement, is itself highly polemical. To praise God as King of the ages is to deny the claims of anybody else to ultimate kingship: Paul is thus setting the whole of creation within the context of God’s sovereignty. To praise God as immortal is to assert that he and he alone is utterly different from everything else in that only he neither comes into being nor passes out of being. To praise him as invisible is to identify him with the God of the Old Testament who could not be seen face-to-face even by Moses and who must not be represented by an image or an idol. To praise him as the only God is to deny the claims of every other thing to which anybody has or will ever ascribe deity. To give him honor and glory is thus to give him what truly belongs to him and to no other. Paul’s polemic leads him to praise; yet his praise is itself ineradicably polemical in its assertions. This, of course, is because praise is rooted in, and expressive of, the identity of God. It is thus always going to be doctrinal and always going to be polemical in a fallen world that flees God and prostrates itself before idols.

All of this reflects the basic conclusion that doctrine or dogma is part of the very essence of Christianity. Statements that posit a gap, or even an opposition, between believing and belonging are fundamentally misleading. Believing is the means of belonging. Thus, to say that belonging precedes believing is to misunderstand exactly what belonging is; and to say that believing is possible without belonging is to attenuate the biblical notion of what exactly it is to believe. In other words, separation of the two concepts in any way produces sentiments which might sound inclusive and aesthetically pleasing but are in fact meaningless gibberish.

In practice, of course, it can be very tempting to make such a separation. In the Reformed constituency, the accent upon correct and precise doctrine can lead to an intellectualism that separates doctrine from doxology in a manner that is unfortunate and unbiblical. In other branches of the Christian church, an overemphasis on experience of activism or particular aesthetic forms can lead to the relegation of doctrine to a secondary position or even worse. This side of heaven it is unlikely that any church or congregation will ever achieve the perfect balance; but being aware of the problems and pitfalls does help us to be more self-critical and more aware of the potential weaknesses and temptations to which our particular traditions might be peculiarly vulnerable.

Thus, if true Christian believing and true Christian belonging are two sides of the same coin, inextricably joined together, then praise that expresses the content of belief is the means by which such belonging is given public expression; and this brings us back to creeds and confessions as being normative guides to Christian doctrine and also, in this context, to the content of Christian worship.

====================================================================

This piece is adapted from Carl R. Trueman, THE CREEDAL IMPERATIVE (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136–139.