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Report of a meeting which was never held

What I am going to tell you is pure fantasy, but it might be useful to pause a moment because it can teach us something.

It was some years after our Lord and Savior had risen from the dead, and the congregation of Jerusalem had already become quite large. One evening there was a meeting, held with the elders of the congregation, and as was usual, also the apostles who were resident in Jerusalem. Even though it was a dangerous time, and the enemies were keeping a sharp lookout, the brothers had gathered from all parts of the city. No one was absent when the chairman, James, the brother of the Lord, opened the meeting.

The matter to be discussed that evening was of vital importance, hence the full attendance. In those days none of the four gospels, as we know them, had yet been written, but various accounts of events that had occurred during the Master’s time on earth had been recorded. These included accounts of miracles He had performed, accounts of discussions He had held with the young men and accounts also of some of His speeches both at Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. At that time, they were still short, loose notes; they had not yet been put together into one book. It stands to reason that these written accounts were extremely valuable to the congregation. They were eagerly read by the members in the city and they were even beginning to be distributed outside Jerusalem. They were also starting to be used during the worship service, here and there.

Well, the issue, the question that was before the meeting of the elders and apostles this evening, concerned these loose notes. The question was, should these bundles of loose notes be accepted as trustworthy reports of what had taken place and could they be recommended for use in the worship services.

All present appreciated the importance of the decision that had to be made. If these accounts were officially accepted and openly used then they would spread far and wide, and give direction to the life of the congregations.

After the chairman opened the meeting with prayer, he outlined the great importance of the decision that had to be made and then asked if any of the elders or apostles had any objection to the written accounts in circulation. They were all amazed that it was Philip who requested the floor first of all.

“If you ask me if I have objections,” he said, “then I can only say that the notes before us are totally trustworthy. I have not found anything in them that has not really happened.

“Another question to ask, though, is whether it is desirable to use them in this form. Is it really necessary, brothers, that in these writings there is such extensive attention paid to how Peter, more than once, did deeply grieve the Master? I think of the occurrence, also related in these writings, when they were going to Caesarea Philippi. The Master turned round and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’

“I know that is what happened. I was there myself and I heard what was said, but I have to ask, is it really wise to air this happening for all and sundry? I think of that terrible night when Jesus was condemned and how Peter denied Him three times. It is true, it did happen, but again I ask myself is it really necessary to air these things openly? We here in Jerusalem, we know Peter and have a high regard for him, but if these papers spread to other countries where they have never seen Peter, wouldn’t this give an entirely wrong impression of Peter? Aren’t these really matters of an intimate nature, which concern only Peter in his relationship with the Savior? Considering how well everything has turned out, shouldn’t we just forget what happened in the past?”

When Phillip finished speaking those present couldn’t help but look in the direction of Peter. They expected Peter to jump to his feet and say something. But that didn’t happen. Peter sat silent, frowning and looking at the table, and not saying a word. The sides of his mouth trembled, and from the way he held his hands, with his white knuckles showing, it was clear that he was extremely moved and was involved in a severe internal struggle. For some moments everyone in the meeting was absolutely silent. Not one of the apostles spoke.

In the end it was one of the elders of the congregation who broke the silence. “I am entirely in agreement,” he said, “with the previous speaker. I would like to go even further. I have noticed in all the writings the apostles really play a rather sad role. It repeatedly says that they did not understand the Master. It is told once, when they came back from the north to Capernaum, that they had a serious tiff between themselves about who was the greatest among them. It is written that, even in the Passover room, when the Master instituted the Holy Supper, the apostles were at loggerheads about who should take the place of honor. The story is also told of how three of the apostles, our beloved Peter, James and John, were asleep in that terrible moment when our Savior fought His most bitter struggle in Gethsemane.

“Is all this necessary, do we really want to broadcast this throughout the world?

“Won’t this cause a lack of respect, which we all owe, to our office bearers? Can we really expect that the people who will read this, who will see how the first disciples often didn’t acted as faithful servants of the Master, can we really expect that they will have great reverence for the founders of the Church? Is it not rather to be feared that such stories will lead to damage in the congregations? I ask myself would it not be wiser if we kept all such stories to ourselves and didn’t to pass them on to others.”

Again it was one of the apostles who now began to speak. He also judged that there was a dangerous aspect to such stories. He reminded his listeners that one of the accounts related that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in Him and that they were even at enmity with Him. “Is it right,” he asked, “to broadcast this story? We all know that the chairman of this meeting, James, the brother of the Lord, also belonged to them, but that after the resurrection he repented. Does his dark past have to be revealed to all eyes? Might that not lead, in time, to a deterioration of the relationships within the congregation?”

When this third speaker had finished there was a painful silence in the meeting. One could feel that most of those present labored under a great strain.

The chairman who otherwise was quick to encourage the members to deal speedily with the matters at hand now sat silent. It was obvious that he also had a struggle within himself.

The silence lasted for some minutes.

It came as a great relief when finally Peter stood up and started speaking. It was clear he was extremely moved; while he spoke he time and again had to hold the table, as if he needed its support. The words that he spoke came as if pushed from the deepest part of his heart.

“Brothers,” he spoke, “humanly speaking I am thankful for all that has been said this evening, but I also realize, that these words are at the same time a dangerous temptation for me. It is true that years ago the Master once said to me, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ I, therefore, feel that tonight I must say it myself, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ How could I ever make my Master great if I am not prepared to make myself thoroughly small? How could we apostles ever proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ throughout the world, if we did not at the same time tell of all our foolishness and cowardice and all our egotistical and self-seeking deeds and thoughts with which we made the suffering of the Master so much heavier? Only in that way can our message become the Gospel, the happy tiding for the people of all nations and of all ages. Then they will see that we, the young men of the Master, are just as weak, dumb and self-seeking as they are themselves, and that we are only what we are today because He with His love surrounded us.

“You ask me, if by these stories the respect for the office will not suffer? That could well be so, if the respect for the office depended on our status as great men. But the glory of the office does not lie therein that we are great, but that the Master, who had mercy over us, is so great.

“When I remember how the Savior told us that this Gospel should be preached to all people, then I know that gospel should also include how I with my self-conceit often deeply hurt my Lord. It should include how we, young men, often argued among ourselves as little children about the place of honor, that we slept when He struggled His fight to the death, and that I, in a terrible way, three times denied Him. That should all be included, but this one thing more should also be included that the Master said: ‘On this petra I will build My church, tend my sheep.’

“Though there is nothing nice to say about us, nevertheless we may do something, we may serve in God’s Church, and that is only because He never for a moment abandoned us and prayed for us right to the end. Brothers, let us not hesitate for a moment, but let this Gospel, as it lies before us be distributed throughout the ages to all the people in this world. Then we diminish, but He is made all the greater”.

When Peter had finished speaking a deep holy peace descended on the whole meeting. The chairman, who for the whole time had just stared straight ahead, looked up. “Brothers,” he asked, “shall we act as proposed?”

And although not one of those present answered aloud, it was more than clear that this word was agreeable to all.

And so these loose papers were distributed, later they became the Gospels as we have them today.

Dr. J.H. Bavinck (1895-1964) was a Dutch minister, missionary, and theologian. This article first appeared in the October 1999 issue of Reformed Perspective under the title”The birth of the Gospel.” It has been translated by Rene Vermeulen and is reprinted with permission from 15 Paasverhalen, no 18 Zaklantaarnserie, published by Voorhoeve/Kok, Kampen, The Netherlands. 

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Church history

The necessity of creeds and confessions

Many years ago, ten Christian men got together and decided to start a church. For several weeks they met together every evening to discuss what they believed to be the essentials of the Christian faith. As they charitably reflected and discussed these matters, they discovered that everyone had a slightly different view on what constituted the essentials. They began to despair as they realized that their deliberations were not yielding any fruit. Out of frustration, Mr. Unity asked a simple yet profound question, “Brethren, on what basis will we come together as a church? What exactly is it that we believe concerning God and the Gospel of Christ Jesus, our Lord?” Mr. Calvin, the leading thinker of the group, pondered the question for some time as he gently tugged at his beard with his eyes closed. Suddenly, Mr. Calvin responded, “Yes. That’s it! We must put in writing what we believe the Scriptures teach concerning God and the Gospel of Christ Jesus, our Lord! What is it that we can all agree upon? What is it that we all believe the Holy Scriptures teach? What is it that we together confess with heart and mouth? Of course, there will be more work to be done. We will need to write a few procedures on how we will deal with conflict, choose leaders, worship, but for now, let us put in writing exactly what, as a church, we believe. Let us put in writing our official position on those issues that will form the basis of our life together as a Christian church.” Mr. Luther, the man who struggled with his salvation – “How can God love a wretched sinner like me?” – immediately responded to Mr. Calvin’s suggestion. “Mr. Calvin,” said he, “Your proposal is great. Is it acceptable to you and to you, my dear friends, if we begin with the existential question, What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Mr. Luther continued, “As you know, I often struggle with comfort and I need to be reminded daily of the greatness of my Savior.” Mr. Calvin and the others agreed, and so the hard work of writing a confession began. Mr. Ursinus was the first to speak. He opened his Bible and turned to Romans 8:35-39 and said, “Brothers, I believe that our greatest comfort is that we belong to Jesus Christ. Therefore, I propose the following answer, My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” Everyone agreed. Mr. Olevianus spoke next. He said, “My dear brother, what you say is true, but more can be said.” With his already opened Bible he turned to 1 Peter 1:18-19, which he read aloud and then said, “We need to add the following, ‘He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood.’” Before he could finish, Mr. Unity interjected, saying, “I like the sound of it. ‘My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with this precious blood.’ I really like the sound of that. Deep. Rich. Biblical.” Several others in the group nodded their heads approvingly and said, “Yes,” or “Amen.” Then Mr. Trent spoke up. “Hmmm… I like where we are going with this statement, but we need some more precision. We all agree that the devil is in the details and I’m worried that we might be giving the wrong impression. I fear that some of the weaker brethren might conclude that since Jesus has done everything for us, they might not be concerned about living a faithful life. Why don’t we make a slight change, an ever-so-slight change? How about this? ‘My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has paid for my sins with this precious blood.’ By eliminating the words ‘fully’ and ‘all’ we can affirm the necessity of works and merit. To have comfort in this life, we must not only trust in Jesus: we also need to have confidence in our works and the work of the saints.” Much discussion ensued, but Mr. Trent was unable to convince anyone of the merits of his position. The group was almost ready to vote on the final wording: What is your only comfort in life and in death? My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. However, Mr. Arius, the gentle, kind, and soft-spoken grey-haired man, stood up and pleaded with the brethren. He said, “Dear brothers, I am concerned that we are giving too much weight to our interpretation of Scripture and not enough consideration to Scripture itself. The Bible says that Jesus is the son of God. Hence, he is not God himself, but the son of God. Therefore, we must say, with the Apostle Paul that our only comfort is in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:3). Please, brothers, let us not divide over man’s words. Let us be content with Scripture itself, which clearly teaches us that Jesus is not God and not our greatest comfort.” Though Mr. Arius spoke with sincerity, compassion and pastoral sensitivity, the group could not adopt Mr. Arius’ interpretation of Scripture. Not even Mr. Trent could agree with him. When the time came for the ten brothers to vote, they voted on the following motion: Whereas the following question and answer reflects our interpretation of Holy Scripture, which is our highest and only infallible rule for faith and life: What is your only comfort in life and in death? My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. Resolved: This question and answer is our official understanding of Scripture. It is our confession of faith; it is our position paper on comfort; it is our doctrine; it is part of the “pattern of sound words” that Paul calls us to follow; All pastors, elders and deacons in our church must sincerely receive and adopt this confession as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. The motion passed 8-2, with Mr. Trent and Mr. Arius voting in the negative. Mr. Trent decided to join a church that regarded Scripture and Tradition as co-equal authorities, denying Sola Scriptura and Mr. Arius joined a local cult that denied the deity of Christ. Rev. Garry Vanderveen blogs at Show, Don’t Tell where a version of this first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission. FAQ Do confessions undermine the authority of Scripture? No. Confessions are a common/shared interpretation of Scripture, which is the highest and only infallible rule for faith and life. Can confessions undermine the authority of Scripture and create dead orthodoxy? Yes. The ungodly suppress the truth in all kinds of ways, so it is entirely possible that one masters the Confessions and the Scriptures, yet hates Christ. Can confessions create lazy Christians, Christians who love God but do not study his Word? Yes. I have experienced the following exchange several times. Me: Why must we obey the commands of God? Other: Because God has saved us we must obey his commands as an expression of gratitude. Me: Are there any other reasons? Other: No. This is the reason the Heidelberg Catechism gives. Although the Heidelberg Catechism provides a biblical answer it is not the only biblical answer. The Bible says that since we are united to Christ, we must live his life (Rom 6:10-11; Gal. 2:20). Since Christ obeys the commands of God, we who are united to Christ must obey them because this is who we are. Can one have a saving relationship with Christ and reject confessions? Perhaps. However, as soon as someone summarizes the Bible on any given matter, he is offering a “confession” of sorts. Unless someone recites the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation in response to a question about the Bible, one is involved in confessional activity. Should the church embrace old confessions? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. The truth of God’s Word is not new, nor is the Spirit’s work of opening our eyes to the truth of his Word a recent occurrence. God’s Word endures throughout all of history – it never changes (Isaiah 40:8); and, the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify his church into that unchanging truth (John 17). Should the church write new confessions? Yes. Every age has its particular challenges and questions, and the church must address them. How should a church write a new confession? Since a confession is an official interpretation of Scripture by the church, confessional writing should involve many churches. What happens when a church doesn’t subscribe to a written confession? In such cases, the church usually succumbs to the tyranny of the loudest, most powerful, and persuasive member(s). When there is no objective confession that the church embraces, someone will rise to the top and impose his or her confession upon everyone else....