“THIS WE BELIEVE”
In ongoing observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief overview of the Book of Concord. The series will
survey the three ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran confessions.
Throughout the Bible, God provides His people with concise summaries of His truth to hold near and dear to their hearts. Over the centuries, these confessions of faith have taken a variety of forms, but their message has always been the same.
God gave His Old Testament people a summary of the Law in the Ten Commandments. Brief psalms like the 23rd and 121st served as indelible reminders of God’s forgiveness, love and faithfulness. When the crowds recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Savior, they often referenced Old Testament passages like Deuteronomy 18 and II Samuel 7, showing that such Messianic prophecies had also become familiar memory verses over time.
The New Testament church likewise came to embrace concise confessions of scriptural truth. In several instances (for example, Philippians 2:6-11 and I Corinthians 15:3-4), Paul’s epistles present the fundamental details of Christ’s death and resurrection with the rhythm of a memory passage.
Within a generation after the death of the last apostle, several “proto-creeds” appeared in churches across Europe and Northern Africa. These early confessions of faith mirrored Paul’s pattern of using terse and memorable scriptural statements. They were used both in worship services and personal prayer as a way to teach and learn the chief attributes of the God Who saves.
By A.D. 390, the Apostles’ Creed, as we know it today, was in widespread use. Key phrases of those “proto-creeds” had naturally come together into a standardized form across Christendom. Some traditions claim it was written by the twelve apostles, each having penned one of its twelve phrases. This is a spurious tale. What we can know for sure is that the Apostles’ Creed consists of twelve succinct, Gospel declarations.
When the Lutheran church assembled the Book of Concord, a public defense of our doctrine, the Apostles’ Creed was a wise choice for the first page.
As Luther explains in his Small Catechism, the Apostles’ Creed teaches what the Triune God has done and continues to do for our eternal good. This Gospel message was to stand at the very fore of the reformers’ battle against the error of Rome and all false teaching.
The Apostles’ Creed also grounds the Lutheran church in historic Christianity. Not for tradition’s sake—tradition gains us not a thing—but as proof that our doctrine was neither a new revelation nor a mere innovation of man. The Lutheran reformers wanted to make it clear that our church does not deny key Christian doctrines, as did many sects of the past. The Apostles’ Creed emphasized where the Lutherans and Rome agree: the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the vicarious atonement, the person of the Holy Ghost, and so forth. The rest of the Book of Concord would take on the task of clarifying our differences with the Pope and other false teachers.
But most importantly, the Apostles’ Creed is a private confession of faith. The words “I believe” make it the personal prayer of every Lutheran.
God asks you to keep His Word “in your heart and in your soul.” (Deuteronomy 11:18) Thus, memory work continues to be a vital part of confirmation instruction today. Martin Luther highlighted John 3:16 as one memorable passage, calling it “the Gospel in miniature.” He also suggested memorizing the Apostles’ Creed and praying it up to eight times a day: first thing in the morning, before and after every meal, and right before bed.
You might not decide to go with that plan, but consider including the Apostles’ Creed as a part of your daily prayers. It is a succinct testament of God’s unchanging love, a thorough answer to life’s hardest questions, and a solid comfort in an unreliable world.
Keep it in heart and mind, and its concise Gospel declarations will sit ready and waiting to make their way across your lips to others in need of good news.
Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.