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Four-Dimensional Confessionalism

If you study church history, before long you will find yourself knee-deep in councils, creeds, and confessions of faith. Together, these have safeguarded the church in times of theological weakness and pulled her to biblical safety during times of turmoil. But as we enter into a new era of secularism, mere confessionalism will not be enough. I’m not only talking about historic confessions of faith, which are good and helpful theological tools; I’m talking about any claims we make about God and his grace, how those claims are applied, and how we should live in light of them. No longer will verbalizing our beliefs be enough. We need a confessionalism that the world can touch—one that takes the church’s declaration of the gospel in word and allows it to live in the streets of a longing world in deed.We need a confessionalism that demonstrates the urgency and seriousness of the message we have been given. We need a confessionalism that will not be drowned when the tides begin to turn. What we need is a four-dimensional confessionalism.

We pursue these from Hebrews 10:23—“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” 

1. Confession—“Let us hold fast the confession . . . ”

This might sound obvious. You can’t spell confessionalism without confession. But simply mapping what we believe is not enough. Anybody can be confessional. In fact, everybody is confessional, even if they don’t realize it. Everybody confesses something about God. Romans 1 makes clear that the knowledge of God “is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” It says, “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” It tells us, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Everybody is confessional.

Paul’s words are a solemn reminder: confessions don’t require truth. That is, being confessional is not a promise that what we are holding to is the gospel of Jesus Christ. My pastor puts it this way: everybody is a theologian—the question is whether or not you are a good one.

The recent decline in mainline Protestantism reveals where one-dimensional confessionalism keeps us. We long for the meat of Scripture, but are only given the faint taste of milk. Our stomachs growl for something weightier and worthwhile. If we want to recover the riches of the gospel in our confessionalism, our churches must not leave slack in the truth we confess. We must recover the Scriptural foundations of our confessions and force our theology to find its “yes,” in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the treasure of truth. Confessionalism finds its value in the truth it confesses. If our confessions are not accurately declaring the truth of the gospel, our confessions lack authority. Moreover, if our confessions are not accurately declaring the whole truth of the gospel, they are worthless. If the gospel isn’t the end of our confessions, they will burn out in the blink of an eye. 

2. Hope—“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope…”

Somewhere along the way, we decided that confessionalism must be locked up in the classroom and cut off from emotion. May this not be the case! I have nailed down a functioning definition of confessionalism: convictions verbalized. This kind of confessionalism reflects not only our mind’s knowledge, but also our heart’s emotion. In our confessions, we put into words what we feel the deepest. Friends, if our confessions are truly convictions verbalized, they must be wedded to our emotions. The two are inseparable. Together, they ease us down the aisle towards Christ who is the church’s true Husband (Rev. 21:2).

If we only needed to repeat some special mantra to be disciples, we could get away with a hopeless confessionalism. But the gospel requires much more. It must be proclaimed! And our proclamation must be in tune with our attitude. The gospel must be trumpeted from the highest halls and the lowest basements! We must speak as though it is our last breath. The gospel cuts the tops off mountains and raises the lowest valleys! There is no grander proclamation than the good news of Christ.

The gospel requires hope and we rejoice in the hope it brings! We rejoice knowing that redemption was accomplished on the cross. We rejoice knowing that we are united with Christ in his resurrection from the dead. We rejoice knowing that King Jesus is ruling high in the heavens over all things, sustaining them with the word of his unconquerable power. We rejoice knowing that one day we will be adorned as a bride, being brought near not just spiritually, but physically! Oh, the hope that lies at the heart of the gospel! In this life we are faced with suffering, but we do not lose heart! Since we will share in the first resurrection, we will never taste of the second death (Rev. 20:6). We have this hope, both sure and steadfast: our union with Christ. The gospel redirects our hope from the things of this world and shines a light on the One who has gone before us. Do not be steeped in only stiff-collared creed-reciting; instead, join with the thousands of believers who have proclaimed that the gospel does not merely fix us but makes us all-new, all-whole, all-alive. 

3. Unwavering Steadfastness—“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…”

When we have gospel truth and hope-filled emotion in our holster, we have nothing to lose. We have God on our side. The Sovereign can and will sustain us as we stand on his Word. We must hold the line.

This kind of steadfastness is not something we wait for, looking around open-handed and unsure until the Spirit gives it to us. Steadfastness is more than a spiritual gift and far more than remembering the ways that others have been steadfast. It is a conscious decision, a mindset, a refusal to teeter when it comes to God’s truth and our convictions. In 1 Corinthians 15:58, Paul instructs each of us to be steadfast since our labor for the Lord is not in vain. And while our labors find their center on the glory of God, they work together for our good! James says,

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2–4).

When we are tried, we become steadfast; when we are steadfast, we become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Though the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel are why God preserves us through trials, we can be assured of this truth: both our perfection and completion are being built out of our steadfastness. Our steadfastness is like the mud that makes the bricks of our eternity.

2 Corinthians 4:17–18 echoes this theme:

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Steadfastness during trials is like refining fire. When we do not waver during what feels like Hell on earth, heavenly glory is being prepared for us in eternity. Press on. Fight the good fight. Do not lose heart. Remain steadfast for this is good and pleasing to the Lord and you have been instructed to do it. And when it feels as if you cannot press on, look to Jesus! Know that you are preserved by his hold on you. You rely not on your steadfastness, but on his faithfulness. As you seek steadfastness, remember: no one can lay a foundation other than the one laid in Christ Jesus. Man’s foundation will someday fall apart, but his foundation is eternal. In the surety of our hope, we resist wavering. 

Restful Submission—“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

The other three dimensions hinge on this fourth dimension. If we miss this, we risk missing the boat in its entirety. Let it sink in: the One who promises to remold the world and resurrect our bodies is faithful. He is true to his word. His promises are not empty. Realizing this kind of truth is a paradigm shift; it emboldens us. The blood that trickles down the cross of Christ is evidence of his faithfulness. He is both the Guarantor and the Guarantee. Who could deliver a surer promise than the Promise himself?

Even better: he has, “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22). He has made us a people, though we once were not a people. These realities are the seeds of obedience. We can be faithful in obedience because Christ has been faithful in deliverance.

John Flavel, in his wonderful collection of sermons titled The Fountain of Life, preached on the Kingship of Christ in the souls of the redeemed:

Here is much strictness, but no bondage; for the law is not only written in Christ’s statute-book, the Bible, but copied out by his spirit upon the hearts of his subjects, in correspondent principles; which makes obedience a pleasure, and self-denial easy. Christ’s yoke is lined with love, so that it never galls the necks of his people.

Obedience is the pulse of the new man. The law is “copied out by his spirit” upon our hearts. As those born again, we obey as part of our primary nature. If we withhold our obedience while offering up confessionalism, then the words we say don’t matter.

The author of Hebrews gives us a prescription for obedience in verses 24-25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Our obedience begins in and is nurtured by the local church. When we assemble together, we are pushed to godliness and encouraged into holiness. The church gears us up for the day when we will be clothed in glory to dwell with him in eternity. If obedience is our pulse, the local church is our pacemaker, forcing the rhythm to match that of the Spirit.

Confession links to affection. What we confess with our mouths must be believed in our hearts. We cannot serve two masters. Give your affections to Jesus. They were created for him, and he will put them to their best use. Laboring for him will not return void. In the words of C. H. Spurgeon, “True rest to the mind of the child of God is rest on the wing, rest in motion, rest in service, not rest with the yoke off, but with the yoke on.” Come, rest in Christ, as we hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. Do not settle for one-dimensional confessionalism. Let us love not in word but in deed and in truth, for a faith without works is dead (1 Jn. 3:18; Jas. 2:17). God desires something tangible, a confessionalism that is four-dimensional. Rest not with the yoke off, but with the yoke on. The gospel demands us, for this is our spiritual worship.

Cody Glen Barnhart (@codygbarnhart) lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and is a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Canon & Culture, For the Church, and is a contributor at servantsofgrace. You can read his blog at counterculturing.com.