In Reformed churches there has been a longstanding tradition of learning and reciting historic confessions of the Christian faith within the liturgy. Reading confessions together within the context of corporate worship has value for the church for several reasons.
First, it reminds us that we are not alone. We stand in a long line of Christians and churches which stretch back over two millennia. We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us, risking their lives to faithfully preserve the orthodox Christian faith.
Secondly, learning and reciting historic confessions of faith remind us that the faith we confess is not unique to ourselves nor did it originate with us, but is a faith that has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). At this point in Church history, two-thousand years post-resurrection and ascension of Christ, there is nothing new under the sun. Not only is this true of orthodox Christianity, but even of heterodoxy. Heresies which present themselves as new teachings are always forms of false doctrines which were condemned by the church hundreds of years ago and are simply being repackaged today.
Third, reciting historic confessions during corporate worship reminds us that we are members of one body, the body of Christ, by means of the one Holy Spirit, that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). It reminds us that we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves--the Church, the body of Christ.
Fourth, learning and reciting historic confessions in corporate worship is helpful for teaching and reviewing important historic doctrines of the Christian faith. Particularly in churches where the Bible is taught and preached chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, important doctrines such as the Trinity or the doctrine of Justification may not come up very often in the text. Thus, reciting historic confessions in church can remind our members of these important biblical truths. Even if we don’t always agree with every word or phrase written, reciting historic confessions can spark conversations, cause our members to ask questions, and encourage them to go to the scriptures to study and understand these historic doctrines even better.
Regarding this final point, there is a line in The Apostles’ Creed (ca. 2nd century AD) which reads that Christ was “crucified, dead, and was buried; He descended into hell.” Did Christ descend into hell? This has been the subject of debate and discussion for centuries. That line is primarily based on a reading of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and, to a lesser degree, Ephesians 4:9. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (1 Peter 3:18-20). “Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph. 4:9 NASB).
Ephesians 4:9 is easily understood to mean that Christ descended to the lowest of the low upon the earth. Hence, the ESV translation: “he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” The text does not specifically say Christ descended into hell. Rather, what is meant is that Christ was born into an insignificant family, from an insignificant town (Nazareth), born in a stable and lain in a manger. And since Christ humbled himself lower than any human could possibly humble himself, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
The passage from 1 Peter, however, presents a bit of a larger problem. What did Peter mean when he wrote, “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”? Who are these spirits? Where is this prison? And when did Christ go there? It’s important to note there is no consensus among theologians. Rather, there are at least five views (possibly more) which are generally put forward for understanding this passage. Without getting too far into the weeds, here is a summary of them: (1) a view held by John Calvin is that the spirits are the saints throughout the Old Testament who have died and have been waiting in a holding location until Christ accomplished redemption for them on the cross and then goes there to proclaim their redemption, (2) a view held by C.E.B. Cranfield and Wayne Grudem is that the spirits are all those who died in Noah’s flood and have been held in Hades until Christ goes to them after his death but before his resurrection and preaches the gospel to them, (3) the spirits are the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-2 who are kept bound in some prison where Christ goes to proclaim judgment on them, (4) the spirits are the offspring of the fallen angels (Gen. 6:4) who engaged in intercourse with the daughters of men who are kept bound in prison where Christ goes and proclaims judgement on them, and (5) a lesser held view is that the spirits are the fallen angles of Genesis 6:1-2 who are kept in prison, however, it is Enoch who goes and proclaims judgement on them. Some scholars opt for a variant reading of the Greek text which inserts Enoch at the beginning of v.19. However, very few hold this view.[i]
Of these five views, the one which makes the most sense and is most faithful to the text is the third view. Peter is clearly looking back to the days of Noah’s flood (v.20). If Peter is speaking about human souls who perished in the flood, why would humans who perished in the flood receive less grace than those who perished after the flood? These spirits seem to be the same spirits Peter references in his second epistle (2 Peter 2:4-5), and those referenced by Jude (Jude 6). Thus, the spirits being kept in prison appear to be those of Genesis 6:1-2, fallen angels.
The second question is where is this prison? The text does not specifically say this is hell, but rather it is some unknown spiritual location where Christ goes and pronounces judgement upon those who are there. However, even when scripture speaks of heaven and hell, heaven is not necessarily above the clouds and hell is not necessarily below our feet. These are spiritual locations beyond our humans comprehension.
Third question. When did Christ do this? A careful reading of the text reveals the answer: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,…” (emphasis added). Peter clearly states that after Christ’s death, he was “made alive in the Spirit” which is a reference to the Holy Spirit. He then says “in which he went”; that is, post-resurrection, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ goes to the holding place of these fallen angels from the days of Noah and proclaims judgment upon them. That is, he proclaims to them that the promise of Genesis 3:15 has been fulfilled. Though they followed Satan in his rebellion against God, victory belongs to Christ and their fate is sealed! The cross of Christ was the D-Day in Christ’s war against Satan, sin, and death. While the war is not yet over, the cross of Christ delivered a crippling blow against Satan and his demons, and Christ, in his post-resurrected body, goes to the place of their holding and proclaims this monumental event!
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies