“Since I don’t want to go to hell, I’ve decided to believe in Jesus.”
“I can’t come to your church. God would strike it down with lightening.”
“I believe in Jesus, but don’t want to make profession of faith because I want to have fun in college.”
The spiritual life is rarely made up of an “if” but more of “what” or “how.” So, it’s not if someone believes, but what they believe. It’s not whether or not someone worships, but what someone worships. It’s not if someone is religious, but how someone is religious. So, I may not attend a Christian worship service each week, but I may plan my week around the big game, put on the right clothing, and go through the rituals of praise and intercession for my team. It’s a religious experience to be sure. All of this is to say, that each of the statements above are a kind of profession of faith. It’s not if the individuals have faith, but what kind of faith they are professing.
My understanding of Profession of Faith is rooted in the Reformed tradition through the Reformed Church in America. Most people in my tradition understand Profession of Faith as a one-time act that typically takes place in the teenage years. They have either experienced it through a mandated catechism class or pursued it along with their peers in youth group. For many people the education leading up to Profession of Faith entails learning a particular tradition’s belief system and being able to articulate it. For others it is the ability to testify to my personal relationship with Jesus. And, for some, it is a combination of both. Ultimately, it is about becoming a full-fledged member of the church.
The formal act of professing faith takes place in two parts: before the elders and before the congregation. There are questions and answers. The elders ask questions about who you are; wonderful questions about belief, acceptance, and reliance. They seek promises to exhibit joy, walk in a spirit of love, and to seek peace. I really like the question. I don’t like the answer “I do” because I don’t. At least not all of the time. A better answer would be “I’m trying to” or “I’ll do my best.” “I do” is too definite and implies that joining the church is only for those who have their act together.
Before the congregation, the questions and answers change. People making Profession of Faith are asked to say no to evil and say yes to Jesus. These are good things. Then, they are asked to be faithful members of the congregation. There’s more to it than that, but that’s what people (and churches) really mean. As a member I can vote, I am expected to contribute financially, and am invited to share my talents in service of the church. Oh, and I can take communion.
My experience of Profession of Faith has been frustrating for two reasons. First, I notice that people treat it as a conclusion rather than a commencement. Second, it seems to be too focused on membership in an institution rather than a commitment to a certain way of living. I find a better understanding of Profession of Faith to be rooted in the Exodus from Egypt.
If you’re familiar with the Exodus story, you know that God’s people are in slavery under a harsh taskmaster. You know that God has sent Moses (along with ten nasty plagues) to set them free. You know that on their last night God commands them to paint their door frames with blood from a lamb. That way God will no to pass over their home and spare them from death. The blood serves as a sign. What that sign says become clear only with a little background?
We typically assume that when God’s people cry out to God that they have been with God all along and just need God more desperately now. In reality, they had left God and were feasting on the idols of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:7-8). Their loyalty and trust had been handed over to the gods of Egypt. They sought life and peace from the hands of the gods of Egypt. God’s people were not desperate for God. They had abandoned God. It was only when the gods of Egypt failed them that they cried out to God to save them. So, when God swept through his judgment was on “all the gods of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12)
So, when God’s people painted their door frames with blood they were making a profession of faith. The context helps us to see that it is not just ascribing to a set of beliefs. It’s not just signing on to membership in an organization. God has put an offer of rescue on the table, freely and for all. The blood on the doorframe was an acceptance of that promise. It served as a sign of renewed commitment. The blood that outlined the doors of their homes was a sign of renewed trust in God to rescue them. It was a seal of their promised loyalty to seek life from God and God alone. The blood was a “no” to the gods of Egypt and a “yes” to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their freedom, though, was only the beginning of their walk with God.
The New Testament talks often about Jesus’ blood. We are washed in it. We are cleansed by it. We even drink it. That Jesus is called a Lamb is another connection to the story just referenced. Our sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are acts of profession. They profess our faith in Jesus to rescue us from the grief, sadness, and pain that result from our slavery to sin and our fear of death. A formal Profession of Faith only adds to that same testimony. It is a public testimony of our trust in Jesus as a Savior and our loyalty to Jesus as Lord. It’s possible to do apart from all of the doctrine and apart from the institution (though not apart from Jesus’ body).
But remember, it’s not if you profess your faith, but how and in what. It’s not whether if you worship, but which god you worship. You will seek “salvation” from grief, sadness, and pain. You see it all the time. People seek refuge, rescue, security, and prosperity in their work, in drugs, in marriage, in sex, in church, in gangs, and in fun as the quote above suggests. It is a human desire to seek life and peace and all the gods of this world promise to deliver.
On which God will you feast? Whose promise do you trust? In what or whom will you put your faith? In Jesus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has put an offer of rescue on the table, freely and for all. The act of baptism, communion, and publicly professing faith all serve as a sign of your acceptance of that promise. Profession of Faith is a public testimony that you are joining the community of people who trust in Jesus. It is a first step on the journey of trying to walk with Jesus, of doing our best to feast on him and him alone.