Studying the Confession: Make Disciples Old

It is possible to make disciples that are just too new.

Case in point. In his book, The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012), Carl Trueman relays the story of a pastor who regularly declared his devotion to Scripture by dismissing creeds and confessions. With the Bible held high before his church, he thundered from the pulpit: “This is our only creed and our only confession.”

Ironically, explains Trueman, this local church held to enough mismatched doctrines that in its life and teaching it connected “to almost no other congregation in the history of the church.”

The disciples here were made so new they would likely not recognize as legitimate the worship and doctrine of the old Protestants who populated churches centuries before them.

A novel and disjointed schooling produces a novel and disjointed disciple. This is an unwanted success. If a disciple’s schooling is a jumble of disparate parts, the disciple does not fail to become a jumble himself, no less vulnerable to embracing contradictions and innovations than when he first began.

There is a better way. Our great creeds, catechisms and confessions are the very helps Protestant churches need to make disciples old in doctrine and duty. Such a syllabus gets the Christian moving, growing up and growing old in the faith well before they are old in years. This, of course, assumes maturity is the goal of discipleship not perpetual open-mindedness and adolescence: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).

Should a renewal of best practices come upon our churches, it will begin with those men appointed to make disciples. Pastors and elders must first be convinced in their own minds that making disciples old in the faith by using a confession is wise and good.

If we are not convinced ourselves, we will regard this as just another short-lived technique. We might try it even, but only because we are always trying something new. To start anything without conviction, even the best thing, will only bake obsolescence into the cake.

It is a common suspicion among Protestant teachers that using a confession for discipleship will devalue Scripture in the heart of a disciple. The first step toward being convinced otherwise is to understand that a good confession clearly places itself beneath Scripture.

The Westminster Confession of Faith makes this point vividly using the phrase, “rule of faith,” only two times, once positively and once negatively. In chapter I, article 2 the Confession states that only the inspired 66 canonical books are to be “the rule of faith and life.” In chapter XXXI, article 3, the Confession then declares it is not itself a “rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”

The Confession is a true servant to biblical discipleship. It bows before its master, Holy Scripture, but always with its sleeves rolled up, ready to be a help. How does it help? Chiefly, it provides brief yet substantive summaries and accounts of the Bible’s teaching under 33 headings of doctrine, headings most pertinent to the life of every disciple – especially life in the church. In other words, the Confession helps the teacher organize and summarize God’s truth, so the disciple may early and quickly gain traction in faith and practice.

The sooner the disciple makes such gains the sooner they are equipped to repel errors and heresies; the sooner they are equipped to hear preaching; the sooner they feel in their heart the broad shape of the Church’s unity beyond their own little moment.

Some Protestant teachers will protest (double-protestation!?) that the Confession is too comprehensive, too binding. But this really turns out to be a protest against ourselves. Every teacher of the Word should have something to say on the subjects encompassed by the Confession. “The Bible teaches this about the Trinity.” “The Bible teaches this about Providence.” “The Bible teaches this about Marriage and Divorce.” And so on and so forth.

If we offer no document to say what we believe about these things, we are still discipling as comprehensively as the Confession. Our silence teaches disciples to think our thorough Christian belief on a matter is that it does not matter, or it matters so little and is so susceptible to change tomorrow we have not bothered to write it down. This becomes their comprehensive understanding. It says Christian doctrine is always new.

The Confession offers something better. It says to the disciple we are teachers by now (Heb. 5:12). We are not still trying to figure this out. It says to the disciple they are students, they are to receive the Christian faith not design it themselves. It says we have been waiting for you, sit and receive what has been prepared for you. It will order your thoughts, delight your heart, and soon make you old in the faith ready to teach others.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley