American Creed vs. The Nicene Creed
On Sunday nights we’ve been using the text of the Nicene Creed to discuss major differences between what the Bible teaches and what our culture believes. Here, once again, is the text of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
We’ve been examining how this creed, and how Scripture, provide a view of the Christian faith that is different from what many n America believe. So far, we’ve looked at four of these differences:.
1. American Creed: It doesn’t matter what you believe. Christian Creed: We believe. Whereas many in our society argue that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere in your belief, Christianity has historically argued that belief is critical and what we believe makes all the difference in the world.
2. American Creed: God is my on-call counselor. Christian Creed: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. Whereas many today view God as a nice but distant God who assists when we ask and then returns to his post, Christians have historically believed in a God who is powerful, personal, and intricately involved in all of life.
3. American Creed: We believe in many lords. Christian Creed: We believe in one Lord. Many today believe that Jesus is one of many lords, one of many viable spiritual alternatives. Christians, however, believe in Jesus as the true Lord, the only alternative.
4. American Creed: Jesus cares for the hereafter. Christian Creed: Jesus also cares for the here and now. While many wrongly believe Christianity is only good for dealing with matters of life after death, Christianity has always been a faith that deals also with matters of life before death.
The Forgotten Holy Sprit
Tonight we explore a fifth difference between American spirituality and Christianity. It has to do with the Holy Spirit. In general we might say that many Americans believe this about the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is no big deal. It’s not that Americans don’t believe in the Holy Spirit. It’s that the Holy Spirit plays a very minor role in their belief system. He’s an extra on a film set. He’s not a major star. Most American Christians don’t seem to highly value the Holy Spirit.
Author and speaker Francis Chan is the author of a book entitled The Forgotten God. He argues that the Holy Spirit is largely forgotten in religious circles. In one interview, Chan put it this way: “…the Holy Spirit is tragically neglected and, for all practical purposes, forgotten. While no evangelical would deny His existence, I’m willing to bet there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their lives over the past year. And many of them do not believe they can.”[ii] It’s not a matter of whether American Christians believe in the Holy Spirit. It’s a matter of whether or not they have experienced his presence and action. Chan believes the majority of Americans have not.
This stands in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches. Chan continues, “But what if you grew up on a desert island with nothing but the Bible to read? Imagine being rescued after twenty years and then attending a typical evangelical church. Chances are you’d be shocked…Having read the Scriptures outside the context of contemporary church culture, you would be convinced that the Holy Spirit is as essential to a believer’s existence as air is to staying alive…There is a big gap between what we read in Scripture about the Holy Spirit and how most believers and churches operate today.” Many American believers see the Spirit as an active presence in the lives of people in Scripture. But they do not experience the Holy Spirit in their own lives.
Thus from a practical perspective, the Holy Spirit is no big deal in American spirituality. He is a curiosity. He is sideshow. He is not critical to the spiritual creeds and deeds of Americans.
The Holy Spirit and the Nicene Creed
But when early Christians summarized their faith, both for those who were already Christians and for those onlookers who wanted to know more about Christianity, they were convicted that the Holy Spirit was central. Here’s how they put it in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
The early Christians believed that Scripture demanded that the Holy Spirit be given prominence. For them, the Holy Spirit was not an afterthought. The Holy Spirit was as important as Father and Son.
Let’s look briefly at this statement phrase by phrase. First, the early Christians believed in the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.” Both of these titles—giver of life, and Lord—are applied to God the Father and Jesus throughout the Bible. Thus, the early Christians used this phrase to highlight that the Spirit was as important a figure in the Trinity as the two other members.[iii] Just as Jesus is Lord and God is Lord, so they believed the Spirit was Lord. Just as Jesus and the Father gave life to everything, they believed the same about the Spirit.
Next, the early Christians believed in the Spirit as one “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The creed included this statement in order to deal with a controversy that was raging at the time. This controversy eventually contributed to the schism between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church in 1054. To be consistent with Scripture, the authors of the creed wanted to emphasize that both Father and Son sent the Spirit. Some, however, viewed this as an unwanted change to an earlier version of the creed which stated that only the Father sent the Spirit. A conflict erupted and eventually groups divided over this phrase.[iv] The phrase, however, represents the fullness of Scripture which portrays both Jesus and the Father as the ones who give the gift of the Spirit to their people.
The third phrase—with the Father and Son he is worshipped and glorified—is implied by Scripture though never stated outright by Scripture. With this phrase the authors of the creed wanted to highlight the Bible’s teaching that the Spirit is not a creation of the Father or the Son. Like Father and Son, he has eternally existed. Thus, he is to be worshiped and glorified just as we worship and glorify Father and Son.[v]
The final phrase—he has spoken through the prophets—points to the role of the Spirit in the creation of Scripture, the ultimate source of our beliefs regarding the Christian faith. Through the Holy Spirit, God inspired the prophets and others to write Scripture and thus give us the truth about himself and ourselves.[vi]
Jesus and the Spirit
There are strong reasons for elevating the Holy Spirit in the way the Nicene Creed does. One of the foremost reasons has to do with the way the Holy Spirit is tied to Jesus. Scholar J. I. Packer writes that there are numerous ways that Christians have tried to describe the importance of the Holy Spirit.[vii] But he argues that the most important truth about the Spirit has to do with the Spirit’s connection to Jesus. The best way to understand why the Spirit is so critical is to focus on the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. I’ll briefly share three ways in which the two are tied together.
- First, several times in Scripture we find the Spirit named after Jesus. For example, the Spirit is called “The Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9); “The Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19); “The Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7); and “The Spirit of His Son” (Gal. 4:6).
- Second, the Spirit is involved in the life and work of Jesus. It was by the Spirit that Jesus was born to Mary (Matt. 1:18). The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:16). It was under guidance of the Spirit that Jesus was led to the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). It was by the Spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead (1 Pet. 3:18). At each critical chapter in Jesus’ story, we find the Spirit.
- Third, in the words of J. I. Packer, the Spirit “floodlights” Jesus.[viii] By floodlight Packer means those lights which brighten the exteriors of homes at night. You do not see the actual floodlight. You only see what the floodlight is illuminating. Packer writes, “[The Spirit is] the hidden floodlight shining on the Saviour…The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’” The Spirit is a floodlight shining on Jesus.
The Spirit is fundamental to the Christian faith because of his connection to Jesus. But there are more connections than just the three noted by Packer. Here are for additional links between Jesus and the Spirit. First, the Spirit reveals Jesus’ way. Here is how Jesus described the Spirit: 25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you ( Jn. 14:25-26 TNIV). While this is a promise made to the apostles, most scholars believe it is nonetheless something that also applies in a limited way to each follower of Jesus. Jesus promises the Spirit will bring to mind the words of Jesus. The Spirit will enable us to remember the teachings of Jesus. When we do not know which direction Jesus’ footprints go, the Spirit can bring to mind Jesus’ words which show the way. Jesus provides more commentary on this in Jn. 16:12-14: 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be a conduit from Jesus to us. Jesus will make things known to the Spirit. In turn, the Spirit will make those things known to us. Thus, one of the fundamental roles of the Spirit is to reveal Jesus’ way more clearly.
Second, the Spirit prepares us for Jesus’ ministry. Paul writes this in 1 Cor. 12:27: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. Every Christian is a part of what God is doing through the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, the church carries on the ministry of Jesus. And each individual is a part of what God is doing through that body. Each Christian participates in the ongoing ministry of Jesus. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 12:7-11: 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. Each one of us is given an ability, through the Spirit, to contribute toward the work of the body. This is one of the fundamental roles of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives every follower of Jesus abilities so that we all can carry on the ministry of Jesus.
Third, the Spirit mediates Jesus’ presence. In The Bible there are statements that lead us to think of the Spirit as power:
- The Spirit of the LORD came on him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. (Judg. 14:6 TNIV) The Spirit gives Samson great strength. Using the Spirit, Samson tears a lion apart.
- As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. (Ez. 2:2 TNIV) The Spirit physically lifts Ezekiel.
- Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. (Mk. 13:11 TNIV) The Spirit puts words in their mouths.
- After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4:31 TNIV) The Spirit shakes the place and enables them to preach boldly.
It is correct to say that the Spirit is a power. The Spirit can allow people to do and say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do. Yet, the Spirit is described in Scripture also as a person, not just a power:
- Paul speaks in Rom. 8:27 of “the mind of the Spirit.” The Spirit thinks.
- Paul writes in Rom. 15:30 of “the love of the Spirit.” The Spirit loves. He has emotions.
- Paul warns in Eph. 4:30 that we can “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” He can be grieved.
- John urges churches in Rev. 2:7 to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The Spirit speaks.
- In 1 Cor. 12:11 Paul describes how the Holy Spirit provides talents and “distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” The Holy Spirit thinks, loves, grieves, speaks and determines. These are all qualities of a person, not merely a power.
Specifically, he is the personal presence of Christ. Jesus communicates this clearly in Jn. 14:16-20: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him no knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Notice how Jesus describes the Spirit. The Spirit is another advocate. That means there must have been a first advocate. Who is the first advocate? Jesus. The Spirit fulfills the same role as Jesus. The Spirit now does for us what Jesus did when he was physically present on earth. He is another advocate. Jesus says he lives with and will be in you. But then Jesus says I will come to you…I am in you. Jesus talks about himself and the Spirit as one. The Spirit lives with us. Jesus lives with us. The Spirit dwells inside us. Jesus dwells inside us. The Spirit is the presence of Jesus.
Finally, the Spirit cultivates Jesus’ character. Paul writes about the Spirit and love in Gal. 5: 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Gal. 5:13-26 TNIV)
There are two ways to live. You can live by the desires of and leadership of the flesh. The result? You’ll be the opposite of love: biting and devouring others; filled with hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions; provoking and envying others. Or you can live by the leadership of the Spirit. The result? You’ll be the very essence of love. Above all, Paul says, the Spirit will grow within you fruit which consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The purpose of the Spirit is to transform us from the inside out into people who are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And while Paul does not say so specifically, it seems certain that for him, this fruit which the Spirit can grow sums up the lifestyle of Jesus.
John Stott writes, The mere recital of these Christian graces should be enough to make the mouth water and the heart beat faster. For this is a portrait of Jesus Christ. No man or woman has ever exhibited these qualities in such balance or to such perfection as the man Jesus Christ.[ix] R. A. Torrey writes, We have here a perfect picture of the life of Jesus Christ Himself.[x] This is Paul’s way of summarizing the life Jesus lived: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Every element of the fruit of the Spirit is demonstrated by Jesus. It is no wonder, then, that the Spirit of Jesus takes up the task of shaping us into people who are also characterized in the same way.
The American Creed vs. the Christian Creed
Thus we return to the contrast between what is often believed in American spirituality and the truth of Scripture which is reflected in the Nicene Creed. At times it appears that Americans live as if the Holy Spirit is no big deal. The truth is very different. A defining belief of the Christian faith is that the Holy Spirit is a very big deal. There are few things as fundamental as the role of the Holy Spirit and our need to follo
[i] Gerald L. Bray, Editor Ancient Christian Doctrine Volume 1 (IVP, Academic, 2009), unnumbered page.
[ii] Francis Chan, website devoted to The Forgotten God.
[iii] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Image, 2007) Kindle: 3225.
[iv] Ibid., Kindle: 3311.
[v] Ibid., Kindle: 3340.
[vi] Ibid., Kindle: 3395.
[vii] J. I. Packer Keep in the Step With the Spirit (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), 17-54.
[viii] Packer, 65-66.
[ix] John Stott Baptism and Fullness IVP Classics (IVP, 2006), 98.
[x] R. A. Torrey The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Cosimo Classics (Cosimo, 2007), 110.