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New Horizons

The Apostles' Creed, Part 2: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Sandy Finlayson

The first paragraph of the Apostles' Creed distinguished Christianity from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism by asserting the existence of one personal God. Now, in the second paragraph, Christianity is further separated from other religions by a belief in the person and work of God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Many people will concede that Jesus was a good man or a great teacher. The Creed affirms much more, insisting that Jesus is fully God and fully human. J. I. Packer has pointed out that as Jesus

invaded space and time in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago, so he invades our personal space and time today, with the same purpose of love that first brought him to earth. "Come, follow me" was his word then, and so it is still.[1]

Packer also points out that it is critical that all of us examine our hearts to see if we can sincerely say that Jesus is our Lord. If we can't, we shouldn't be saying that he is our Lord when we recite the Creed.

The Creed goes on to explain how Jesus entered the world. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. One doctrine of Christianity that has come under considerable attack is the virgin birth. But without the miracle of the Incarnation, we do not have the gospel.

Having established Jesus' identity, the Creed goes on to talk about why he came into the world. It simply states that he came to suffer. At first glance, it may seem odd that the Creed makes no mention of Jesus' teachings or miracles. The Heidelberg Catechism helps us understand what the Creed is saying here:

Q. 37. What do you understand by the word "suffered"?
A. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might set us free, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God's grace, righteousness, and eternal life.

It has become fashionable to say that when we suffer we are somehow participating in Christ's sufferings. This is dangerous and unbiblical. Christ's suffering was unique. The Creed is making the point that "our Lord Jesus Christ suffered as our substitute the wrath and displeasure of God because of our sin."[2]

In a statement of faith that is as brief as the Creed, it may seem strange that there would be a reference to Pontius Pilate. But this reference is important. It reminds us that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred at a particular time in history. We can establish from history that Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea when the Crucifixion took place. Significantly, Pilate declared that he found no fault in Jesus (John 19:4). Jesus did not suffer for his own sin; rather, he suffered and died because of our sin.

Next the Creed tells us that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Jesus had to experience death on the cross to satisfy the just anger of God against sin. When the Bible talks about Christ being "the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2; 4:10), it is teaching us that the cross was "the ... means of quenching God's personal penal wrath against us by blotting out our sins from his sight."[3] Sinners need to be reconciled to God, and this requires Christ's death on the cross.

Cornelis Venema summarizes the importance of the Creed's affirmation that Jesus died and was buried:

These words are added with good reason. They actually provide a summary and conclusion of the words preceding.... The curse of sin is death. For Christ to suffer this curse required that he suffer it fully and completely.... His body was laid lifeless in the grave.... He did it! His burial confirms that He finished it! And for us![4]

The next affirmation, "He descended into hell," was added to the Creed at the end of the fourth century, and has been the subject of much discussion. Arguably, those who added it intended it to mean that Christ, after his death, actually went to hades, the place of the dead. Some have argued that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, preached to the souls held captive there, giving them a second chance to repent. However, there is no biblical support for this view. What we should understand by this creedal statement is that Christ was utterly abandoned and forsaken by his Father on the cross.

From the horror of the cross, the Creed moves on to affirm the great hope provided by the Resurrection. We must acknowledge the Resurrection as an event that took place in history. The record is clear: the tomb was empty, and Jesus appeared many times to his disciples.

The Creed goes on to say that Jesus "ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." This encapsulates Hebrews 4:14–16, which asserts that Jesus has returned to the presence of his Father to intercede for his people. His ascension also gave him all authority in heaven and on earth, as we are told in Ephesians 1:20–23.

The final assertion of this part of the Creed is that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. He will punish those who are disobedient and reward the righteous, those who are living lives of faith. This is both an encouragement and a warning. We should be encouraged because the cause of Christ will be victorious, and those who oppose Christ and his people will ultimately be judged. We are also warned to be ready for Christ's return. All of us need to examine our hearts to see if we are living lives of faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross and looking forward to his return. As we do so, we need to recognize that we cannot please God by our own efforts, but we can please him through the power of the Holy Spirit, whose person and work are the subject of the next part of the Creed.

Endnotes

[1] J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles' Creed (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 63.

[2] Cornelis P. Venema, What We Believe: An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed (Grandville, Mich.: Reformed Fellowship, 1996), 53.

[3] Packer, Affirming the Apostles' Creed, 82.

[4] Venema, What We Believe, 56.

The author is the director of library services at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2010.

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