by Margit Ernst-Habib
How do we recognize the true, Living God in our lives today? How do we recognize and unmask false gods? How do we devote ourselves concretely to God’s holy will for the life of all creation? To put it another way: How do we live out our Christian faith as the confession of the Living God who creates and fulfils life? Throughout time, Christians have had to ask themselves these questions and find their own contextual answers. Perhaps a small world tour of the Christian faith can show us how we Reformed Christians confess our common God of life and strive to live by this confession.
Let us start with the confession that is unequivocally the most influential confession of the twentieth century (along with the Theological Declaration of Barmen of 1934) and plays a large role in Reformed Churches on all continents: the Belhar Confession of 1982/84, from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa. We will look (naturally only briefly) at how Christians confess the Living God and the mission of the church and the faithful, not only in the apartheid context, but also in a situation of widespread injustice (emphasis mine):
We believe that God has revealed Godself as the One who wishes to bring about justice and true peace on earth; that in a world full of injustice and enmity God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged and that God calls the church to follow in this.
This South African Church, and other Reformed churches worldwide who have since made the confession their own, see the Living God not only as one who has “revealed Godself” as the God of justice and peace, but who has also distinctly and specifically taken the side of those who have suffered injustices and hostilities of all kinds. The death-dealing idols, then, are all powers and forces “which would legitimate forms of injustice” and cause the church to avoid taking the side of the Living God “against injustice and with the wronged.” In order to live the living faith, the church is challenged to follow the “Messiah of the oppressed and the outcast” and to become “allies of the Risen One,” the very similar formulation from the Kappel Creed (Credo von Kappel) by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches in 2008.
Belhar and Kappel are not alone in their understanding of this Living God; such an understanding, which derives in particular from the biblical tradition of the prophets and gospels, plays a central role in many of the current confessional texts from churches in the Reformed tradition. The Living God is the God of life and is especially protective of those from whom the fullness of life in peace and justice has been denied, a thought that comprises more than a little of the basis for the Accra Confession: Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth. This text was adopted by the 24th General Assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now the World Communion of Reformed Churches) in 2004. In view of the “signs of the times” of economic injustice and environmental destruction, it confesses the living God as the Covenant God of grace and justice:
We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation. God has brought into being an earth community based on the vision of justice and peace. The covenant is a gift of grace that is not for sale in the market place [sic]. It is an economy of grace for the household of all of creation. Jesus shows that this is an inclusive covenant in which the poor and marginalized are preferential partners and calls us to put justice for the “least of these” at the centre of the community of life. All creation is blessed and included in this covenant.
Continuing our journey, we move to the North American continent, where our gaze is drawn to the abundance of new confessional texts by Reformed churches from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with their desire to confess the Living God anew, contextually and in their own words. One particularly impressive instance is the 2006/7 confession A Song of Faith, by the United Church of Canada. In an almost poetic way, this confession attempts to describe and praise the Living God not “for all time, but for our time” (emphasis mine) and to sing a “timely and contextual” song of the Church’s living faith. The confession thus opens by emphasizing one aspect of our knowledge of God that is very meaningful for many contemporary Reformed confessional texts and at the same time succinctly describes the significance of the Living God for this church of the twenty-first century:
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
the one eternal God seeks relationship.
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.
Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.
The Living God is the God of love: of perfect, divine love. But in this love is also visible the brokenness of human life and human community, a consequence of sin. All are affected by this brokenness of sin, as is the entirety of human life, in all its aspects, and the response of living faith to this is to sing lamentations, show repentance, and follow the calling as the children of the Living God. In this, the Living God not only is Perfect Love, but also acts as the perfectly loving: God forgives, reconciles, and transforms:
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.
and calls us to protect the vulnerable,
to pray for deliverance from evil,
to work with God for the healing of the world,
that all might have abundant life.
We sing of grace.
This is the Living God: the God of grace, who forgives, reconciles and transforms. The Living God does not remain neutral in the face of evil, but with grace and in just, merciful, transforming actions, God encounters the sin, the brokenness of our communion with God, humanity and creation:
We sing of God the Spirit,
faithful and untameable,
who is creatively and redemptively active in the world.
The Spirit challenges us to celebrate the holy
not only in what is familiar,
but also in that which seems foreign.
We sing of the Spirit,
who speaks our prayers of deepest longing
and enfolds our concerns and confessions,
transforming us and the world.
The Living God of grace sends God’s Spirit of transformation and calling into the heart of this world, to us and into us, and we respond in living faith with “God’s good news lived out”: one of the central statements of the Song of Faith, which runs through the confession like a guiding thread. We respond to good news with an urgent prayer: “Living God, renew and transform us!”
But where and how do we recognize the good news of the Living God, and how can we distinguish it from the false promises of death-dealing idols? Reformed confessions of both the present and the past are largely unified here in pointing to the Son of the Living God. The Theological Declaration of Barmen of 1934 confesses in its famous First Thesis that (emphasis mine):
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
Reformed churches of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries repeat this confession emphatically. The Uniting Church in Australia confessed in 1971/1992 in their The Basis of Union:
The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. In Jesus Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself” … Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.
Reformed Christians cannot confess the Living God without referring again and again to God’s life-giving, transforming, renewing presence and action in the world and for the world. They consider this the most fundamental cause and reason for every reformation, every transformation, every renewal, in all of the spiritual, religious, private, social, political, and economic aspects of their lives, which are new lives through the power of the Living God. The work of the Holy Spirit makes this new life a renewed life, the life of the justified and sanctified, as the Confession of Faith of the Toraja Church of Indonesia (1981) confesses:
In the Holy Spirit God is present and works in the midst of the world. He cares for, frees and governs this world in the framework of the realization of the Kingdom of God.
This presence of God is the power which reorganizes, renews and sanctifies us, so that we leave behind the old life and live a new life. The Holy Spirit convinces us through the Word of God that we have been justified in Jesus Christ, so that we are a new creation.
That God is Living, as opposed to all the death-dealing, man-made idols whose power God has already broken, is the actual reason we honour and extol God, that we obey God and love God. The first chapter of the 1976 confession by the Presbyterian Church in the United States, A Declaration of Faith, is headed “The Living God” and begins with the following sentences:
We believe in one true and living God.
We acknowledge one God alone,
whose demands on us are absolute,
whose help for us is sufficient.
That One is the Lord,
whom we worship, serve, and love. …
We acknowledge no other God.
We must not set our ultimate reliance on any other help.
We must not yield unconditional obedience to any other power.
We must not love anyone or anything more than we love God.
We praise and enjoy God.
To worship God is highest joy.
To serve God is perfect freedom.
These two words—“living God”—are in themselves a confession and an obligation; a claim and a consolation, exacting and comforting. In confessing the Living God, we confess the change in rule that delivers us from the rule of death-dealing powers and forces, renews our lives, and sends us into the world. Finally, these two words are the foundation of all Christian hope: our God is the Living God, who creates life, preserves life, renews life. The final confession that will conclude our reflections on confessing the Living God sings a song of hope to this God. In 1974, the Reformed Church in America confessed in Our Song of Hope:
We sing to our Lord a new song;
We sing in our world a sure Hope:
Our God loves this world,
God called it into being,
God renews it through Jesus Christ,
God governs it by the Spirit.
God is the world’s true Hope.
To briefly turn back to the questions that began these reflections: How then do we recognize the Living God whom we confess together, and how do we live out our lives as a confession to this God? The quotations from the confessional texts from around the world could perhaps offer some initial suggestions on how to translate the call to prayer, “Living God, renew and transform us!” into our context. Paul called upon the Christians not to conform to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed “by the renewing of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God: what is good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). If our minds are renewed by our confession to the Living God, then our lives are also to be altered into a “reasonable service” (Romans 12:1) and at the same time into the festive “fullness of life that God has promised,” as the Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann states in his most recent book, The Living God and the Fullness of Life. What could such reasonable service, a festive, joyful life of solidarity, look like? Three suggestions:
(1) If with the Belhar Confession, we confess a Living God who in Christ has taken the side of the destitute, the poor and the wronged, then not only do we see refugees and those seeking protection in Europe (and throughout the world) with different eyes, but we also know that we are called to stand at their side. Our reasonable service to God, then, will not be conformed to the pattern of the world, but to the fullness of life that God in God’s covenant has promised not only to us, but also to precisely those who live in exclusion and marginalization and who hope for justice. The Living God transforms us and calls us, as the Canadian Our Song of Faith confesses, to “protect the vulnerable… that all might have abundant life.”
(2) The faithful and untameable Spirit of the Living God, acting creatively and redemptively in the world, “challenges us to celebrate the holy, not only in what is familiar, but also in that which seems foreign” (Our Song of Faith). When we consistently cling to what we already now (whether this is our version of the Christian faith or our understanding of society and culture), when we define ourselves over against “the others” as outsiders, then confessing the Living God might gives us new prospects to transform and renew our limited minds. The growing movements in many parts of Europe that encourage and promote an egocentric nationalism and cultural chauvinism deny the work of the Holy and Living God inherent also in those very things that seem foreign to us. But the Living God will not be tamed or limited by our ideas and attributions. To the contrary, the renewal and transformation of our minds is also a conscious and critical openness, in solidarity, to everyone and everything that initially seems foreign.
(3) Finally, the confession to the Living God is the Easter Confession to the Living Lord, to the “Risen Crucified One”—a confession to the glory of God (The Basis of Union). Against all the resignation, despair, hopelessness, and desolation of our time, then, it is also the highest joy (the Declaration of Faith from the United States) as a post-Easter worship, and guides us into the freedom of the children of God, into a life of hope and abundance, in and for our world—in spite of everything.
English originals/translations of the confessions can be found on the Internet at the following addresses:
The Accra Confession 2004 (World Communion of Reformed Churches):
The Barmen Theological Declaration 1934 (Germany):
Basis of Union 1971/92 (Uniting Church in Australia):
The Belhar Confession 1982/86 (Dutch Reformed Mission Church, South Africa):
The Confession 1981 (Church of Toraja, Indonesia) was published in Lukas Vischer (ed.), Reformed Witness Today. A Collection of Confessions, Bern 1982, 47-58.
A Declaration of Faith 1977 (Presbyterian Church in the United States):
The Kappel Creed 2008 (Credo von Kappel of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches) in German/French:
A Song of Faith 2006 (The United Church of Canada):
Our Song of Hope 1974 (Reformed Church in America):
Jürgen Moltmann, transl. by Margaret Kohl, The Living God and the Fullness of Life, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2015.