When Christians publicly confess the truths that the church has always confessed, God is distinguishing between the church and the world—as well as between true and false churches. Historic doctrinal standards help draw a sharp line between orthodox teaching and false teaching in the articulation of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Some of my earliest childhood memories center on being with my family in worship on the Lord’s Day. In the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that we attended, expository preaching, hymn-singing, and prayer were fixed elements of worship, as were the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian church. We regularly confessed the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed—or some particular doctrinal statement out of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Shorter Catechism, or Heidelberg Catechism. Our pastors cited doctrinal statements from the Westminster Shorter Catechism in their sermons. Though I was unaware of it at the time, these historic doctrinal formulations were shaping my young mind in regard to biblical doctrine, worship, and the Christian life. Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of planting a Reformed and Presbyterian church. I enthusiastically incorporated many of the historic creeds and confessions into our worship service for the express purpose of instruction—as well as for the preservation of the core truths of the Christian faith and the worship of God.
In his 1973 article “Towards a Confession for Tomorrow’s Church,” J.I. Packer insisted that historic creeds and confessions assist the church in carrying out four principal responsibilities—its doxological, declarative, didactic, and disciplinary tasks. Accordingly, churches should make use of these historical doctrinal statements in their worship (doxological), witness (declarative), teaching (didactic), and conservation (disciplinary). Packer proceeded to define how they function in each task:
Their doxological function is to glorify God by setting forth his works of love and putting into words a responsive commitment. Their declarative function is to announce what the communities that espouse them stand for, and so to identify those communities as belonging to Christ’s church, the worldwide fellowship of faith.