Commentary on A Brief Statement of Faith*

In 1983, the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church U.S. reunited after a separation of 124 years. Reunion was the result of a fourteen-year-long process, yet the process demanded more than an ecclesiastical act. A new confession, in addition to the confessional documents of the two previous denominations, seemed to be needed as common theological ground to provide support for creating and building the identity of the new denomination. In typical Presbyterian manner, the whole church was included in the process of writing this new confession. A special committee worked for five years to produce a draft document. The 201st General Assembly (1989) then installed a second committee to review the statement and to produce a revised draft. This draft then was sent to the presbyteries by the 202nd General Assembly (1990), where it was approved and sent to the presbyteries. Finally, after long years of tedious work, diligent study, and often passionate debates, A Brief Statement of Faith was added to The Book of Confessions in 1991.

Some Presbyterians were not in favor of issuing a new confessional statement. In their view, reunion provided "the occasion for a new statement of faith, but it was not obvious that it offered an adequate reason." Although there were no specific and dramatic crises, nevertheless the committees were convinced that a reason for a confession existed, marked by current problems in the "ongoing life of the church." Among the issues in the ongoing life of the church, A Brief Statement of Faith addressed cultural and theological diversity and pluralism, the problem of individualism, the ecological crisis, and gender-inclusive language. Yet another urgent issue came out of the life of the congregations: the need for a basic introduction into the Christian faith and how the Reformed tradition interprets it. A Brief Statement tries to address this need in a document that is useful for teaching and study, and appropriate for use in worship.


"In life and in death we belong to God" (10.1).

This opening sentence of the Brief Statement, quoted from the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, determines the tone of the whole document. The Heidelberg Catechism offered comfort to believers by summarizing the good news in the confession that we belong to God. A Brief Statement serves the same purpose. It is comforting to know that we belong to God, because we know that God is not a neutral and uncaring God, but the God of sovereign love. The sovereignty of God has often been understood as a typically Reformed emphasis, yet sovereignty has often been abstracted from God's love.

Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.

The sovereign love that God has made known to us is the ground and assurance of our trust in the one triune God. Each of the main sections of the confession dealing with the persons of the triune God begins, "We trust," and this signifies an important change. A Brief Statement is not meant as a summary of all doctrines (as some Reformation confessions claimed); it is not first of all about theological systems, but about our trust in God. Basically, the Brief Statement reminds us that to confess faith means to trust God. Barmen indirectly claims the same thing: Because we trust Christ as our Lord, we may and must confess that no others lords can claim our loyalty. C67 also claims that, in all areas of life, we can trust that God has reconciled us to God and one another. However, all three confessions also stress that our trusting faith has content, truth that we can know and proclaim. It would be a serious misunderstanding to think of "trust" as simply a warm feeling. Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism defines true faith by combining "wholehearted trust" with "certain knowledge"; both are created in us by the Holy Spirit. This knowledge involves "the whole person, the emotions no less than the intellect, the senses no less than thoughts, devotions no less than deduction." A Brief

Statement of Faith calls us to examine our own understanding of faith as well as the content of our faith, offering guidelines for our exploration.

We Trust in Jesus Christ

We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:

Christians of all times and places have tried to discover what it means to follow Christ. Yet, surprisingly, there is not much about Christ's life and ministry in the classical confessions. For instance, all we find in the Apostles' Creed about Christ's life between birth and passion is a comma—not much to imitate! A Brief Statement of Faith fills this void with biblical material from the Gospel narratives. The opening sentence of the paragraph about Jesus Christ provides the central statement about his life and ministry: "Jesus proclaimed the reign of God" (10.2). In all he said and did, in all that he was, Jesus proclaimed that in him the reign of God had drawn near. If we want to imitate Christ, then we are called to do the same, to proclaim the reign of God in all we do and say. This is the central commission of Christian discipleship, for the church as well as for the individual believer. Following this summary, A Brief Statement gives a list of Jesus' activities in proclaiming the reign of God:

preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. (10.2)

This list is not meant to provide eight activities we can copy from Christ's life and ministry and implement in our lives. Our "imitation" of Christ poses questions to us: What good news are we to preach to the poor? What kind of release for what captives are we talking about? How do we bless children or bind up the brokenhearted? For all of this we need gifts of imagination and courage—the gifts of the Holy Spirit (10.4), which we will discuss later.

Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.

Christ's life and death show the extent and depth of His sacrifice for us.

We trust in God

We trust in God, whom Jesus called Abba, Father. In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God's image, male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community. (10.3)

Even today, many Christians understand God's sovereignty and God's love as opposing attributes. Sovereignty seems to indicate power, while love seems to suggest weakness. Once again, we are misled if we characterize God by starting with human understandings of power and love. Instead, we are to define God's sovereignty and love by God's revelation in Christ. Here we discover that we cannot divide sovereignty and love when we talk about God. A Brief Statement of Faith makes this insight explicit when it speaks about creation—"In sovereign love God created the world good" (10.3)—but the whole document reflects this understanding. The power of God is not neutral or abstract power, but the loving power with which "God raised Jesus from the dead, . . . delivering us from death to life eternal" (10.2), the power with which "God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation" (10.3), and the power with which we are justified "by grace through faith" (10.4).

At the same time, it discloses our sin:

But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator. Ignoring God's commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.

We deserve God's condemnation. (10.3)

We ignore God's commandments, but Jesus' life and ministry display, as Calvin puts it, "the whole course of his obedience." In Christ we learn that Christian obedience does not mean blindly following orders, but living out God's love for ourselves and others in an imaginative and courageous way; in short, to proclaim the reign of God.

God redeems:

Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation. In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all families of the earth. Hearing their cry, God delivered the children of Israel from the house of bondage.

Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.

Note the covenant terminology, a Reformation theme, as well as a reference to an Old Testament text, from Isaiah 49:15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” and the New Testament parable of the prodigal son..

We Trust in the Holy Spirit

We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life.  The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,  and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles  rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,  engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism,  feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.

To imitate Christ is to rely not on our own power but on the work of the Holy Spirit, who is "everywhere the giver and renewer of life." "Everywhere" means exactly that: Wherever we find renewal of life—whether in church, society, politics, science, the arts, etc.—we can be sure that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Note the reference to justification by faith and the use of Scripture and the sacraments.

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,  to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,  to hear the voices of peoples long silence, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,  we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives,  even as we watch for God's new heaven and new earth, praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

We live in "a fearful and broken world," and yet "we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives." Yet we Christians do not have to solve all problems of the world by ourselves. The Spirit gives us courage "to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace". This helps us avoid the trap of overestimating our power and ability in working for change. Christians are not the only ones who care about the world's problems and who are actively engaged in finding and implementing solutions for these problems. Living as Christ's disciples means cooperating with those who do not confess Christ as Lord, yet whose work is inspired by the Holy Spirit

This confession gives us a chance to meet the Holy Spirit working through documents of faith. We are given a chance to meet our God, who is our gracious Lord, the Reconciler of all, and the One in whom we can trust. We are given a chance to learn who we are as ones created in God's image, called to follow Christ. And we are led to give thanks and praise to God. The appropriate conclusion of any conversation with the confessions is found in joining our voices to A Brief Statement of Faith:

With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen. (10.5-6)

*Excerpted from "Conversations with the Confessions, Dialogue in the Reformed Tradition", Joseph D. Small, Editor, 2005 Geneva Press, pp. 84-89.