“Actions speak louder than words”, a phrase that we have all heard before, no doubt. Meaning, you can really tell what one believes through their actions. How does this relate to us as Christians? As a Christian, is our verbal confession of Christ enough, or does the Word require more? What is true confession according to scripture and the Early Church?
In scripture, Jesus said:
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven,” (Matthew 10:32) and Paul wrote “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved,”
Those instructions seem straightforward– if we confess Jesus, we will receive salvation. Simple! However, if it is that simple, how come in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells us that not all those who confess Christ will be saved:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven. . .”
Is Jesus contradicting the earlier scriptures we quoted? Absolutely not. Let us delve deeper, to clarify.
In our Western culture we understand confession to be a declaration of belief, often verbal, however, in Eastern (Hebrew) understanding, (the culture at the time of Jesus), they understood confession to mean a whole deal greater.
In the Hebrew language, the root-word for confess is “yadah” and is spelled by the letters “yod”, “dalet”. In ancient Hebrew, each letter has a meaning. In the case of “confess”, or “yadah”, the letter “yod” is a picture of a hand, and the “dalet” is a picture of a door that allows movement in and out of the tent. Combined these mean “hand moves”. “The hand is the part of the body that enables man to perform many works.” (1)
Therefore, as we see here, according to the Hebrew language, confession has more to do with works than simply a declaration. Notice how different the Hebrew definition is to our English, or Western way of thinking? It is so important we have the right understanding of the words used in scripture. So, does this Hebrew definition add up with scripture? It sure does. Let us read the rest of the passage we quoted above, in Matthew:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
Jesus clearly states the defining factor for entering the Kingdom of Heaven is those who do God’s will, aka- works. See why it is imperative we read the whole passage, otherwise we could have missed the crucial factor! The people that Jesus is referring to are confessing Him with their declarations- “Lord Lord”, but they are missing the confession of their actions. We could delve even deeper into this passage because verse 22 shows that these people are actually doing some sort of works and still not being received by Jesus. Let that be a study for you to look further into- a good place to start would be in Galatians 5:16-24 where Paul explains there are works of the spirit (good works) and works of the flesh (dead works). You can also read more about good works here.
Did the Early Church (first 300 years of the Church) stand in agreement on what true confession is? Absolutely. First-century church father, Ignatius, disciple of John the Revelator wrote:
It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. “The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” (1Co 4:20) Men “believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth,” the one “unto righteousness,” the other “unto salvation.” (Rom 10:10) It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts. For he who shall both “do and teach, the same shall be great in the kingdom.” (Mat 5:19) Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, first did and then taught, as Luke testifies, “whose praise is in the Gospel through all the Churches.”
(2Co 8:18) (2)
This excerpt from Ignatius’ teaching confirms what we have expounded upon already; that being a true christian is known by our actions. Ignatius reminds us of the scripture in Matthew 5:19 where Jesus exhorts those who teach, but only if their actions line up with what they teach. Those who confess not only with their mouth, but with their works will be seen as “great in the kingdom” according to Jesus.
Justin Martyr (St Justin), second-century Early Church Father wrote the following:
“. . . we seek the abode that is with God, the Father and Creator of all, and hasten to confess our faith, persuaded and convinced as we are that they who have proved to God by their works that they followed Him, and loved to abide with Him where there is no sin to cause disturbance, can obtain these things. This, then, to speak shortly, is what we expect and have learned from Christ, and teach. (3)
Again, it is confirmed through Justin Martyr that confession of the faith is proved by the works of the saints. This is what Jesus taught and the Early Church continued to teach. There was no deviation from what Jesus taught true confession really was in the first 300 years of the Church.
In the world, actions have more value than words, and we clearly see that scripture and the Early Church upheld this principle. To God, our actions (our works) are the proof of our confession, which leads to salvation. Understanding that our confession is more than words, then understanding the distinction between works of the flesh and works of the spirit is imperative. We have barely scratched the surface of what it means to truly “confess” Christ, so may this be a springboard to your further studies delving deeper into this topic. Blessings!
1. Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible: H3034 ‘confess’
2. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, Chap. XV. — Exhortation to Confess Christ by Silence as Well as Speech [emphasis added]
3. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. VIII. Christians Confess Their Faith in God [emphasis added]