The Apostle's Creed
A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith
All scriptures are taken from the New International Version (NIV).
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to Judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Why study the Creed?
Occasionally we recite the Apostles Creed in our worship services, and sometimes we may even sing it set to a modern tune, but why as Christians should we study the Creed? Is it simply a tradition that has been handed down from the past but of no real relevance to our daily lives or does it continue to have value and significance today?
Contrary to common belief the Christian faith cannot be reduced to a simple system of ideas or morality. Rather its significance lies in the meaning and purpose of the life of an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, and in particular his execution as a criminal by the Romans, and the claims made for his subsequent resurrection from the dead, through the power of God. If we take away these historical "facts" Christianity ceases to be a credible answer to the deep needs of humanity and the world.
In the Creed we find a distillation of the Church's mature reflection on the essentials of the faith as expressed in scripture. Studying the Creed will help us to think more deeply about our own understanding of the Christian faith and hopefully equip us to explain it to others. It also serves to remind us that we are part of a community of Christians that reaches right back to the birth of the Church and the first Apostles who were appointed by Jesus himself. As one ancient writer wrote "the Creed is the tie that binds us together."
The Apostles Creed
The earliest form of the creed seems to have been the simple statement "Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11). Anyone who made this declaration at their baptism was regarded as a Christian.
Contrary to appearance the Apostles Creed was not written by the Apostles but arose out of the baptismal confession and instruction of the church in Rome. It did not reach its final form, however, until sometime in the early 7th century in Southern France.
It was written in an era in many ways similar to the situation we face in the Western world today. The Church was challenged from both without and within by inadequate and false understandings of the faith. It was essential therefore that believers were clear on the fundamentals that they held in common.
Today the modern cults in many ways simply repackage old heresies in a new form. One important purpose of the Creed is to provide us with a brief summary of the Christian faith and, to quote Alister McGrath, it "helps us to recognise inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity." It is a plumb-line against which we can test the truth. It does not tell us everything but stresses the fundamentals without which we have abandoned the orthodox Christian faith. As Christians we are free to differ on many points but we must all agree the essentials of the Creed. With this in mind let us look at what the Creed actually says.
For over a thousand years Christians in Western Europe knew the Creed only in Latin. Its opening words were "credo in Deum," "I believe in God." Our English word "creed" derives from this first word of the Creed, "credo." As the word suggests, it is a statement of faith. But what is faith?
In the New Testament book of Hebrews we read that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see," (Heb. 11:1). Biblical faith goes beyond a mere intellectual knowledge. It is faith in a person, Jesus Christ. That he exists, is alive today and cares for us individually.
Trust and obedience are essential to real faith (Rom. 1:5). It is not enough to simply know something to be true, we must also act upon it (James 1:22; 2:17). True faith requires a response.
What we believe should affect our hearts as well as our heads. John Wesley the founder of Methodism, in his Journal, wrote regarding his own conversion experience:
On May 24, 1738, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was thus describing the changes which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Before that meeting he believed with his mind that God could forgive his sins, afterwards he knew by experience that he had been forgiven.
In God, the Father almighty
Many people say that they believe in God, but we are reminded at the beginning of the Creed that God is "the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." We are not asked to believe in some distant impersonal "force" (like in the film Star Wars) or even another "god" among many, but rather in the Living God, who has shown himself to be active in history and has revealed himself in the creation and supremely through his Son Jesus Christ.
To Jesus's contemporaries the idea of God as "Father" would have been an astonishing almost blasphemous thought. God was perceived as distant from human beings, far above and beyond our understanding. Jesus, however, taught that God was intimately concerned with each of our lives. The truth is that we owe our very existence to God and in a very real sense he is our Father in heaven (Mat. 6:9).
Like most analogies this can be helpful provided you do not take it too far. Jesus called God "Abba" (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) which is an intimate Aramaic phrase that is perhaps best translated into English as "daddy." Of course human fathers are imperfect and often disappoint us but the analogy shows us what they should ideally be like. The important thing to grasp is that God is a person and we can come to know and relate to him in a personal way.
The reference to God being "Almighty" is also important. God, by definition, can do anything including the miraculous. But he is not capricious. We can rely on and trust him to keep his promises.
Creator of heaven and earth
How many of us I wonder have looked up in awe at the beauty of the starlit sky on a clear winters night. With the eyes of faith we can see the handiwork of God in the physical creation (Ps. 8:1-3: Rom. 1:20). However, we also need the testimony of scripture to fully understand the significance and purpose of what we see.
The infinite variety of the created universe and the regularity of the seasons and the dependability of the physical laws that govern it are an expression of God's creativity and concern for our well being.
We are here because God wanted it that way. We are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) and our individual humanity has great value. In fact one reason that we were created was to relate to God. Saint Augustine, writing in the early fifth century wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
Of course the creation is corrupted by sin just as much as human beings are. But scripture tells us that by becoming human (John 1:14) Jesus not only made possible our own salvation but the redemption of the whole of God's creation as well.
God cares deeply about all that he has created and we are the stewards of it not the owners. We are responsible to him for how we treat it.
In Jesus Christ, his only Son
As we have seen the heart of the Christian faith is a person not a set of abstract ideas or beliefs. The name Jesus literally means "God saves" while "Christ" is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "Messiah" meaning "anointed one."
The Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming of a deliverer, as revealed in the Old Testament writings, who would rescue them from the oppressive rule of Rome. For many Jesus, as a descendant of the great King David (Rom. 1:3) was the one who would restore his people Israel to a golden age and fulfill the Old Testament prophecies. However, when he came he was a very different kind of king from that which they had expected and this led people to reject him and ultimately crucify him.
Jesus is God's "only Son." In one sense we are all God's children but in another Jesus is unique. Paul distinguishes between Jesus as the natural Son of God, and believers as adopted sons (Rom. 8:23; 9:4; Eph. 1:5). In John's gospel we can see the identity of will and purpose between the Father and the Son (John 5:16-27; 17:1-26), a close relationship that was uniquely vindicated by the resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4).
It is hard for us to imagine what God is like, language is simply inadequate. But the bible tells us that by looking at Jesus we can see what God is like. "the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being," (Heb. 1:3a). To know Jesus is to know God in human form.
In the Old Testament God's name YAHWEH was regarded as too holy to be spoken. Instead the Jews used the letters YHWH as a substitute. When the Jewish Scriptures came to be translated from Hebrew into Greek (the Septuagint version), the Greek word "kyrios" - "the Lord" was used to translate this sacred name of God. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the Jews refused to call the Roman Emperor "kyrios," because they regarded this name as reserved for God alone.
In the New Testament we find that a word that was previously used with reference to God is now applied to Jesus (Phil. 2:11; 3:8; Col. 2:6). The confession "Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3) is thus a superb summary of the gospel. To confess Jesus as Lord is to proclaim his equality with God.
As Christians how should we seek to apply this? If Jesus is our Lord then we should seek to do his will and obey his commands.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary
Jesus was born of a human mother (Gal. 4:4). He is a human being just like ourselves. However, he was also conceived by the Holy Spirit. From the moment of his conception he was marked out as unique. Jesus was both God and man. Fully divine and really human at one and the same time.
The virgin birth confirmed Old Testament prophecy (Isa. 7:14). It stressed that Jesus was divine by nature not adoption at a later date. It provided an important defence against early Jewish opponents of Christianity, who suggested that Jesus was the illegitimate child of Mary by a Roman soldier (the army of occupation). The intention being to discredit Jesus in the eyes of his own people.
If Jesus was not God and man our redemption would be impossible. If he is just a man he is part of our problem, not the solution to it. But if Jesus is God alone, he has no point of contact with our predicament. What is required is a mediator, a go-between. In other words the incarnation. Jesus is both God and perfect man and thus he is able to redeem us and reconcile us to God.
Jesus knows what it is like to be human. He understands our weaknesses and we can bring our struggles and temptations to him. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin," (Heb. 4:15).
He suffered under Pontius Pilate
The creed now recounts a series of events that firmly establish that Jesus was a real human being of flesh and blood. The reference to Pilate firmly anchors the Creed to history.
The New Testament writers saw in the suffering of Jesus Christ the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12; 1 Peter 3:21-25) who was pierced for our transgressions and took upon himself the punishment that was due for our sin.
Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest (Heb. 4:15). He is someone who suffers alongside us (which is the literal meaning of the Greek word "sympathetic" and the Latin word "compassionate"). Instead of pushing us farther away, God can be found in suffering. The rejection of Christ by the world does not mean that he rejects us. Quite the opposite.
Was crucified, died and buried he descended to the dead
The Creed now brings us to the scene at Calvary. Crucifixion was a barbaric form of execution favoured by the Romans as a deterrent and used against rebellious subjects and the lowest criminals. The victim would usually be flogged and forced to carry the crossbeam to the place of execution. There the victim's arms were generally nailed to the crossbeam, which was then raised up. The victim found it increasingly difficult to breathe, due to the strain placed on his chest by the weight of his body. Eventually he would die of exhaustion, unable to breathe. It was a shameful and degrading death.
However, we read in the New Testament that it was for us that Jesus "endured the shame of the cross, scorning its shame" (Heb. 12:2). It was because of the scandal of the cross that the Christian gospel was seen by many to be "utter foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23-25).
But the gospel is not just about the fact that Jesus died and the circumstances of his execution. The true significance of his death is that he died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).
"He descended to the dead" is a statement of the belief that Jesus really did die (Acts 2:24; Rom. 1:4; Col. 2:12) and in so doing shared the fate of us all. Even though he was God, he had to taste death just like each of us. He really was human in every way. Fully God and truly human.
How do you think it would have felt to be one of the disciples watching Jesus die? Did they think that Jesus had failed? Abandoned? Despairing? Yet God, even at this lowest point in their lives, was at work in a hidden way which their emotions (and personal experience) took for absence. God's love was demonstrated by the death of his Son (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). A scene of hopelessness was about to be transformed to one of joy and hope.
On the third day he rose again
The resurrection singles out Jesus as unique. Jesus is not merely another human being suffering an unjust and cruel punishment at the hands of an oppressive government; he is the Son of God, suffering pain and rejection on our behalf.
The Cross reveals the deep love of God for humanity. In his paraphrase of the New Testament J B Phillips translates Romans 5:8 in this way, "the proof of God's amazing love is this: that it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us."
Through adoption, we become the children of God and are entitled to share in the same riches which Christ has gained. Christ is the "firstfruits" of the resurrection harvest (1 Cor. 15:20), the first among many brothers and sisters.
It is our belief in the resurrection of Jesus that sets Christianity apart from all other religions. As Saint Paul says "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." (1 Cor. 15:17). We however, can be confident in our future hope because Jesus is alive today.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father
Faith in the ascension does not mean a diminished interest in the world. It means a renewed commitment to that world, and new resources with which to meet its needs (Acts 1:11). For the ascended Christ now lives in each Christian through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:20).
This world is "a distant country" not our home (Luke 15:13). We are to pass through it "as though it were a foreign country, treating all earthly things lightly and declining to set our hearts upon them," John Calvin. We are in the world, but not of the world. We are committed to the world, because it is God's world for which Christ died, and because there is work to be done - but in the end, we must recognise that the world cannot be an end in itself. The world can too easily become a substitute for God (John 17:16) and lead us into idolatry.
Thinking about the ascension is a helpful way of making sure that our outlook on life is right. It helps us to recall that our destiny does not lie on this earth, but with the ascended Christ, who has gone on ahead of us to prepare a place for us. He is waiting for us now. "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20).
To be allowed to sit at the right hand of a dignitary was a sign of special favour (Ps. 16:8; 110:1; Col. 3:1). Not even the angels are allowed to sit at God's right hand. Jesus being allocated this place of honour confirms his unique status as God's Son (Heb. 1:13).
Jesus, having come down to earth from heaven to redeem us, now returns to heaven to intercede for us. Christians pray in the name of Jesus acknowledging that the effectiveness of their prayers rests upon what Jesus Christ has achieved in the past, and will achieve in the future (Heb. 7:25).
He will come again to judge the living and the dead
The perspective now changes to the future. The "Second Coming" or return of Jesus is a significant theme in the New Testament. It is then that the Kingdom of God will be finally established and the Judgment will take place. The writer of Hebrews tells us that all human beings are "destined to die once, and after that to face judgment," (Heb. 9:27).
It is important to realise that we are judged by someone who knows what it is like to be human and understands our situation. Once again, the writer of Hebrews expresses this beautifully: "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb. 4:16).
We will be called to give an account of the things we have done but our place with God will be secure. There is "now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (Rom. 8:1). One of the best definitions of Grace that I have heard is that "Grace is getting what you don't deserve." The hardest thing to appreciate is that it cannot be earned, only received by faith.
I believe in the Holy Spirit
In both the Hebrew and Greek languages the words for "breath" and "spirit" are the same. This wordplay can give valuable insights into the person and work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:6-8).
The Bible tells us about the Holy Spirit that:
He is a person. We can lie (Acts 5:3-4), grieve (Eph. 4:30) and resist him (Acts 7:51).
He is God. The third person of the Trinity. We catch a glimpse here of God's unity in variety. God is a loving community.
He brings life (Gen. 2:7). Receiving the Holy Spirit is the mark of being a Christian, the seal or evidence of our new relationship with God.
He convicts us of our sin (John 16:8) and leads us to Jesus (John 16:14).
He brings power to live the Christian life.
He is our comforter. In John 14:25-26 the Holy Spirit is described in the original Greek as the "paraclete," which is usually translated as "comforter, advocate or counsellor." It literally means one who comes alongside to help. Jesus has left his disciples but he sends the Holy Spirit to be with them in his place (John 16:7).
The New Testament also speaks about the Fruit and Gifts of the Spirit. The "fruit" (Gal. 5:22-23) of the Spirit can be seen as the character of Jesus while the "gifts" (1 Cor. 12 & 14) of the Spirit are his power. We need both if we are to fully reflect his character and love to a needy world.
The Holy Catholic Church
In the New Testament the Greek word "ekklesia" which is translated "Church" always refers to a group of people and never to a building or a denomination. It literally means "those who are called out (1 Peter 2:9).
In every town or village today you will find several "churches" but in God's eyes there is only one true church with many different (and varied) expressions. The word "catholic" (Greek katholikos) means "universal" or "worldwide." In that sense we are all Catholics with a little "c!"
To be holy means to be different or set apart to God. It is important to realise that this is not because of any merit of our own but by faith in Christ's finished work on the cross. It is all by grace, however, our response should be to try (with the help of the Holy spirit) to live lives that are worthy of our calling.
When you become a Christian you join the wider body of Christ, a family that exists both geographically and in time. You will express this by becoming involved in a House Group and your local church family.
The Communion of Saints
"Communion" is simply the old English word for "fellowship." The Greek word in the New Testament that is used to represent this idea is "koinonia" which has the basic meaning of sharing. We are to support and encourage one another. The strong caring for the weak. To affirm the fellowship of saints means that we are committed to one another and all that this entails.
Paul often addressed his letters to the "saints" in the city he was writing to. But who are the "Saints?" When we think of someone like Saint Teresa we tend to put them on a pedestal as, somehow, better than us. Is this what is meant here? No! The word "saint" simply means "someone who is holy" and set apart by God.
As a Christian you are holy, not because of any merit of your own but because of what Christ has done for you. His righteousness is imputed to you by faith (Rom 4:22). You will still struggle with sin but (in a legal sense) when God looks at you he will see Jesus and declares you not guilty. In that sense we are all saints!
The forgiveness of sins
This simple phrase carries a wealth of meaning. What was it that Christ achieved on the cross?
Sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). It is a barrier erected on our side that destroys our relationship with him. The bible is clear that left to our own devices there is absolutely nothing we can do to remedy this. However, the good news is that we do not have to do anything. Christ has already done it on the cross. All we have to do is receive by faith. He has broken down the curtain in the temple that separated human beings from God (Mat. 27:51).
In the New Testament the idea of forgiveness carries the dual meaning of "reconciliation" and "the remission of a debt." Both are powerfully suggestive of Christ's finished work on the cross. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ has delivered us from slavery to sin and brought us into the liberty of sons of God. He has redeemed us at the price of his own Son.
The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15;11-32) illustrates vividly the reconciliation of the Father to his wayward son. Forgiveness is sometimes hard for us to offer or accept, it can be costly, but as Christ's disciples we are called to follow his example (Mat. 6:12-15). It is often the necessary prelude to a deeper walk with God.
The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting
"The life everlasting" is an old-fashioned way of speaking about eternal life. It is not just something in the future. As a Christian you are able to taste in the present something of the age to come (Heb. 6:5). Receiving the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ enables us to experience, here and now, the fullness of life that Jesus promised his disciples (John 10:10). How much more will this be the case when we meet him face to face in heaven.
Jesus' resurrection body was recognisable but different. When he returns, we will be like him. Heaven is not some kind of ghostly existence but a physical reality. There will be a new earth (Rev. 21:1) and new people to inhabit it. But what kind of bodies will we have? Jesus's resurrection appearances give us some clues. Some things will change, for instance there will be no sex or marriage (Mat. 22:30), since if life is eternal there will be no need to reproduce! Ultimately, however, we have to admit that we have unanswered questions. I find it helpful to think of the growth of an acorn as it becomes an Oak tree. Though totally different in appearance there is an organic link between the two.
As a society we are afraid of death. We try to sanitise and if possible ignore it. Even in the Church we tend not to think much about heaven, preferring to focus on social issues and fellowship. But heaven is the goal of the Christian life. This is not a selfish desire on our part and will definitely not be boring (despite the picture some preachers paint of an eternal praise party!). If we are honest we are not told a lot about what heaven will be like. But what we can say is that it will be far better than the best that we can imagine. You will not be less than yourself in heaven, rather you will be the real you as God originally intended. C S Lewis called this present life the "Shadowlands." The real adventure lies beyond.
The Christian hope can be confident and assured. In an age of hopelessness we can rest secure. The Creed ends with a single word. AMEN. This reminds us that it is as much a prayer as a statement of faith. "Come Lord Jesus ..." (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev 22:20).
The Nicene Creed
We have looked in detail at the Apostle's Creed. Another well-known Creed is the Nicene Creed which is popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition but also found in the Anglican prayer book. It is longer than the Apostles Creed and more technical in its language. It came about as a response to specific heresies regarding the person of Jesus which were prevalent in the fourth century AD.
The use of the Creed today
The uses of the Creed today are many. It continues to fulfill its traditional function as a defense against inadequate views of the gospel and offers us a link between the often diverse strands within the worldwide Church. In both the baptismal and nurture contexts it provides a helpful framework to ground new Christians in the faith as well as enhancing our worship.
Christians disagree on many things but the creed represents a core belief held in common by believers throughout the world and a link with the Church throughout its history. To echo the words of Martin Luther "On this we stand . . . "
This is very much a basic introduction. It can only skim the surface and point the way for further enquiry. For those who are interested we list below various books that provide a more detailed introduction to this subject.
For further reading
Affirming your Faith. Alister McGrath. IVP 1991.
The Creeds and their making. Richardson. SCM 1935.
How to Understand the Creed. Besancon etc. SCM 1987.
The Cruelty of Heresy. C FitzSimons Allison. SPCK 1994.