The Nature and Necessity of a Public Profession of Religion

Charles Hodge

From Hodge’s The Way of Life (1841).

Religion consists, in a great measure, in the secret intercourse of the soul with God; in those acts of adoration, gratitude, confidence, and submission which the eye of man cannot see, and with which the stranger cannot intermeddle. These secret exercises, by controlling the external conduct, and by supplying the motives for the humble demeanour and benevolent actions of the Christian, cannot indeed fail to manifest their existence; but all unnecessary parading them upon the notice of others, borders on the offence which our Savior condemned in the ancient Pharisees. Agreeably to his directions, our alms are to be given in secret: when we pray, we should pray in secret; and when we fast, we should not appear unto men to fast, but unto our Father, who seeth in secret. In these words, Christ does more than condemn hypocrisy; he not only forbids the performance of religious duties with the design of being seen of men, but he teaches that true religion is unobtrusive and retiring. It avoids the glare of day. It is holy, solemn, secret, rejoicing in being unobserved. It is directly opposed to the ostentatious display of religious feelings in which those delight, who seem to make religion consist in talking about it.

Although religion is thus retiring in its character, and although it consists, in a great measure, in the secret intercourse of the soul with God, it nevertheless has its social and public relations, which render it impossible that a true Christian should desire to keep the fact of his being a Christian a secret from the world. This is indeed often attempted, for a time, by those whose faith is weak, and who dread the reproach with which a profession of religion is, under many circumstances, attended. The temptation to such concealment cannot well be appreciated by those who have always lived in the bosom of a religious society, where the profession of religious sentiments is a passport to confidence and respect. Such persons little know the trial to which those of their brethren are exposed, whose parents or associates view all experimental religion with hatred or contempt, and who visit every manifestation of pious feeling with the chastisement of cruel mockings. To a greater or less degree, a large portion of the people of God are called upon to endure this trial; and they are often tempted to ask whether they cannot be religious without letting it be known. If religion is a secret thing, why may it not be kept a secret? To this question the answer is simple and decisive. The confession of Christ before men is declared in Scripture to be essential to salvation. “Whosoever,” said our Savior, “shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” Matt. 10:32-33. Again: “Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38. Paul also, in writing to Timothy, says, “Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God.” II Tim. 1:8. “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us.” II Tim. 2:12. And still more explicitly, when teaching the condition of salvation, he says, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Rom. 10:9-10. The same truth is taught in all those passages which assert the necessity of baptism, because baptism involves a public profession of the gospel. Thus our Saviour, in his commission to the apostles, said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Mark 16:16. And on the day of Pentecost, when the people were convinced of the sin of having rejected Christ, and asked what they should do, Peter answered, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” Acts 2:38. It was not enough that they should retire to their houses and repent before God; they must publicly acknowledge Christ and their allegiance to him. There is, therefore, no condition of discipleship more clearly laid down than this. If we do not confess Christ, he will not confess us. If we do not acknowledge him as our Saviour, he will not acknowledge us as his disciples. If we are not willing to share with him in the reproach and contradiction of sinners, we cannot share in the glory which he has received from the Father.

The relation in which we stand to Christ as our King, renders a public acknowledgment of his authority necessary. In the kingdoms of this world, no one is admitted to the privileges of citizenship without a profession of allegiance. And in the kingdom of Christ, those who do not acknowledge his authority, reject him. By refusing to confess him as Lord, they declare that they are not his people.

The church is also often compared in Scripture to a family. Can a child live in his father’s house without acknowledging his parent? May he receive the blessings of a mother’s love, and not acknowledge her to be his mother? May he pass her in the street without recognition, and then steal, under cover of the night, to be fed at her table and to be protected by her care? As everyone feels that no child, with proper filial feelings, could hesitate to acknowledge his parents, so we may be assured that we are not the children of God, if we are afraid or ashamed to acknowledge him as our Father, and our obligations to honour and obey him.

It is still further to be considered, that Christians are the worshippers of Christ. The apostle salutes the Corinthians as those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus; and from the beginning, in Jerusalem and at Damascus, Christians were designated as those who called on the name of Christ. Acts 9:14, 21. But what kind of a worshipper is he who is ashamed or afraid to acknowledge his God? All the relations, therefore, in which a Christian stands to Christ, as his King, as the Head of the family of God, and as the object of Divine worship, involve the necessity of confessing him before men; and we practically reject him in all these relations, by neglecting or refusing this public profession of him and his religion.

A moment’s consideration of the nature of the religion of Jesus Christ must convince us of the impossibility of being a secret Christian. Not the heart only, but the whole external deportment, must be regulated by that religion. It forbids many things which the world allows; it enjoins many things which the world forbids. Obedience to its precepts, of necessity includes a public profession; because such obedience draws a line of distinction between its disciples and the people of the world. This is one of the reasons why the people of God are called saints. They are distinguished, separated from others, and consecrated to God. Whey they cease to be thus distinguished from those around them, they cease to be saints. If their inward temper and outward conduct do not mark them out as a peculiar people, they are not Christians. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” It cannot be that those who deny themselves, and take up their cross, and daily follow Christ; whose affections are set upon things above; who walk by faith and not sight; who live unto God, and keep themselves unspotted from the world, should not visibly differ from those whose spirit, principles, and objects are all worldly. Nor is it possible that this difference should exist, without an avowal, on the part of the Christian, of the cause of it. He must appeal to the authority of Christ as the justification of his conduct, and, therefore, cannot live as a Christian without confessing Christ.

Besides the general temper and deportment required by the gospel, there are many specific duties enjoined by Christ which imply a public profession of his religion. The organization of his church as a visible society, supposes the separation of a people recognizing his authority, and professing to act in obedience to his laws. The commission which he gave to his disciples was, that they should go into all the world, preaching his gospel, making disciples, baptizing them in his name, gathering them into distinct societies, and appointing officers over them for conducting public worship and for the exercise of discipline. All this supposes that his followers should constitute a body publicly acknowledging him as their Head, and confessing him as their Lord and Savior before the world. How can a man keep the fact of his being a Christian a secret, when Christianity is, by its Author, made to assume this visible, organized form? It is specially enjoined upon every believer, to associate himself with the church, to assemble with his fellow Christians for public worship, and to unite with them in celebrating the Saviour’s death. If a Christian is one who obeys Christ, and if obedience includes those external acts which involve this public acknowledgment of him, then no man can be a Christian who does not make this acknowledgment.

There are few duties (and those founded on positive precepts) commanded in the word of God, which right feelings do not, of themselves, urge us to discharge. If we are required to forsake sin, to serve God, to love the brethren, to live for others rather than ourselves, to be instant in prayer, to join in public and social worship of God — these are things in which the renewed heart instinctively delights. The external command guides and sanctions the performance; but the motive to obedience is not mere regard to authority. In like manner, while the public confession of Christ is enjoined in Scripture as a necessary duty, it is, at the same time, the spontaneous tribute of every Christian heart. If no subject requires to be urged to acknowledge a sovereign whom he loves; if no child needs to be commanded to confess a parent whom he reveres; much less does the believer need to be forced to confess the Savior, whom he regards as the brightness of the Father’s glory, to whom he feels indebted for redemption, and whom he hopes to worship and serve with saints and angels in heaven. It is not meant to be asserted, that no believer is ever ashamed of Jesus; nor that under circumstances of peculiar trial he may not fear to acknowledge his truth, or to assume his name. Peter once denied his Master. But it is certainly true, that no man can have right views of Christ and right feelings towards him, without habitually, openly, and gladly acknowledging him as his God and Savior. He will esteem the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, and choose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.

It is not difficult to understand the nature of the duty now under consideration. To confess Christ is to recognize his character and claims. It is to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ. It is to admit the truth of the doctrines which he taught. It is to profess our allegiance to him as our Lord and Saviour. This confession must be public; it must be made before men; it must be made with the mouth, and not left to be inferred from the conduct. It should be remembered, that this includes more than the mere assumption of the name Christian, in distinction from Pagan or Mohammedan. If men misconceive or misrepresent the character of Christ, a profession of such erroneous views is not the confession which he requires. To acknowledge Christ merely as a good man, or an inspired teacher, is in fact to deny him in his true character as the Son of God, as the propitiation for sin, as the only Mediator, and the sovereign Lord of the living and the dead. And to acknowledge the gospel merely as a code of morals, is to reject it as the revelation of the grace of God. The confession which is required is, the public acknowledgment of Christ in his true character, and of his gospel in its real nature. It will not do to strip the gospel of everything offensive to human pride, and to acknowledge the rest. The very thing to be done is, to take the shame of professing what is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. It is to acknowledge our faith and confidence in a Saviour despised and rejected of men, and in doctrines which human reason can neither discover nor comprehend.

There are several ways in which this public confession is to be made. As already remarked, there is a confession included in the obedience rendered to the commands of Christ. Obedience, therefore, is one form of confession, and can never be rendered without distinguishing those who yield it as the followers of Christ. Again, occasions frequently occur in which Christians are called upon to avow the truth, to defend it against gainsayers, to urge it upon those over whom they have influence or authority, or to give a reason of the hope that is in them, with meekness and fear. But the chief and most important mode of confession is attendance upon the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper. So much prominence is given to these institutions in the word of God, that every Christian should have clear ideas of their nature and of his own duty in regard to them.