The Meaning and Role of Confessions

What Is a Confession?

A confession is a written, formal statement that acknowledges, declares, and gives evidence of religious beliefs.

A confession speaks internally, to the church that makes the declaration, and as such it informs the vision and mission of the church. A confession gives material form to the vision and mission. It states the characteristic quality of the vision and mission and communicates the vision and mission of the church to the church and about the church, thus inwardly forming the church, reminding the church of its vision and mission.

A confession speaks externally, to the oikoumene, the "whole inhabited world," the world so loved by God—as it is known in other churches, faiths, cultures, and societies both religious and secular, the "total community" in its various lifestyles and structures. A confession puts forth a declarative statement to the oikoumene so that the church's beliefs regarding the call of God to a vision and mission can be known and made evident by, in, and through the church.

"A confession does not only say something about God and his heaven, about the believer and his church, but also something about the world. It says something about God as he comes to meet the world in Jesus Christ the Lord; and about the Church as it lives in the world; and about the world as it exists before God" (A Moment of Truth: The Confession of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 1982: edited by Cloete & Smit, William B. Eerdmans, p. 113).

How Does a Confession Come About?

A confession begins its formation at a time when an extremely serious situation and a very important issue or issues arise that seem to go "right to the heart of the Gospel"; those occasions when the gospel is threatened or when the integrity of the "gospel is at stake" (status confessionis).

Such was the case in the sixteenth century when the classical Reformed confessions were formed, written, and embraced. Such was the case in the twentieth century when the Confessing Church in Germany came into existence over against those Christians loyal to Hitler. The Confessing Church wrote and embraced the Barmen Declaration in l934. Such was also the case in the later part of the twentieth century when the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in Southern Africa challenged the biblical and theological legitimacy of the doctrine and law of apartheid as being a situation that "struck a moment of truth" in which "the gospel was at stake."

What Purpose Does a Confession Serve?

"Christian faith is the decision in which men have the freedom to be publicly responsible for their trust in God's Word and for their knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ, in the language of the Church, but also in worldly attitudes and above all in their corresponding actions and conduct" (Dogmatics in Outline, Karl Barth; SCM Press, p. 28).

A confession declares that God is historical. The nature and action of God are imbedded in creation—the world. The world is the theater of God's action and God's glory. The world is the purpose of God's action. God calls the church into existence to be a community that arises out of the world and lives in the world, for the world.

A confession declares that the church is gathered not on its own behalf or for its own purposes, but to be the manifestation of God's healing, redeeming, repairing, and renewing of the world. Or, as we say in the language of our day, a thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing—following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God.

A confession professes to the world in word and deed that the church's business is God's business and that God's business is the world. It is a declaration to the world and a reminder to itself that the church is called to be radically attentive to the world, even as God is radically attentive to the world as creator, sustainer, and redeemer.

A confession gives expression of faith, by and through the church, giving rise to action/mission that becomes an historical witness to the truth that God is a living, active, expressive, moving God in events and time.