Defining the Terms Professing and Confessing
Professing or confessing Christian, I know that this may seem like a distinction without a difference. However, I cannot emphasize how important it is that we get this right. In an article that I published in October of 2018, I touched on the topic just a bit. With this article I want to break down what the differences are and why I think they are important.
I will start with what a confessing Christian is definitionally.
A confessing Christian is one who wasn’t merely raised in a church going family or has given some sort of emotional assent to the Gospel. The confessing Christian is the person who has embraced the reality of confessing Christ in a biblical sense. In the article I linked to above, I mentioned the Greek word homologeōis. It is used in Romans 10 where Paul says, “if one confesses with their mouth…”.
I see this is a powerful statement for Christians to understand. A truly confessing Christian is identifying that they are exactly what Scripture says about them. They are casting themselves at the foot of the cross and resting solely on Christ for their justification.
Conversely, the professing Christian is not what they seem.
A professing Christian is one, who at the “right times”, gives lip service to Christianity. Also, this person has no problem backing off their faith if the circumstances dictate. This is the guy who hangs out with his buddies and mocks “other” Christians for standing firm on issues. Or maybe the gal who says, “Me and god? We have an agreement.”
While the scriptures use the words professing or confessing interchangeably at times, there is certainly a cultural difference. My argument in this article is that Jesus and others in the New Testament draw a distinction between the two.
Jesus and the Professing Christian
In Matthew 7 we are confronted with some hard words. I am not referring to the opening verses. You know the ones I am talking about. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” I am talking about this passage from verse 15-23.
Jesus is giving a clear warning to us. However, this passage isn’t meant to strike fear in the genuine disciples of Christ. It is meant to be a terrifying truth to the one who merely professes. Make no mistake, there are thousands of people around you that claim to be Christian. These folks will be very busy doing “church work”. They may very well be the most active people in all the “others ministries” of your local congregation. Furthermore, they might be so active that it puts others to shame.
However, according to this passage, these folks are trusting in their works for their justification. They believe that their works will make them known, not only to men, but to Christ. Yet, these professing Christians have no fear. They are convinced of their right standing with God and boldly tell Him all they have done.
Accordingly, Jesus rebuffs them. Strangely enough what I observe frequently is that the professing Christian spends no time concerned for their eternal state. Conversely, it is the truly confessional Christian that fears this passage.
Paul and the Professing Christian
In Titus 1 Paul puts two groups of people on display for us. The professing Christian and the confessing Christian. In verses 5-9 Paul reminds Titus of his assignment; teach sound doctrine and equip other men to be elders. In verse 10 Paul shifts and begins to extrapolate on why it is important for believers to be so equipped. He ends with this in verse 16:
“16 They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.”
Here Paul uses the word homologeōis just as he does in Romans 10. Yet they are used in very different ways. Paul is emphasizing the lip service that these folks are giving to following Christ without doing what Christ cherishes. Furthermore, this passage is reminiscent of Romans 1:18-32. In that passage Paul lays out heavy charges against those who deny God claiming there is no god.
What Paul is doing in the Titus passage is to say that these folks are expressing an abiding truth about themselves. They are, by their works, agreeing with God that they are wicked and reprobate. Their foolish doctrines and tenacious clinging to self-styled good works are all for nothing.
Paul has successfully juxtaposed the professing Christian and the confessing Christian in these two passages from Titus. He is instructing us as to what to look for. Moreover, he wants us to be ready to mark the professing Christians for what they are. Look carefully at verses 10 and 11, Paul wants these dangerous people stopped. Furthermore, he makes it clear that despite stern warnings and rebukes, they will continue to claim Christ while they continue to sin against Him haphazardly.
If we are mindful, we will see that Scripture wants us to know the difference.
Jude and Professing Christians
In his epistle Jude doesn’t use the word homologeōis but he labors to delineate the differences between professing and confessing Christians. In verse 4 he refers to the professing Christians as those who crept in unnoticed that were marked for condemnation.
The rest of his epistle really works to be a long rebuke of the professing Christian. However, Jude also cautions the confessing Christians in his audience. He tells them to be very careful in dealing with these charlatans. He doesn’t want to see them calling them out in an ungodly way. Jude’s desire is that the false confessor be rebuked and saved or driven away.
Certainly, the totality of Jude’s epistle seems hard and heavy-handed. Moreover, when observed from the perspective of the shallow emotionalism of the modern church, Jude seems like the divisive one. However, what Jude is doing is meant to be a God-glorifying exercise. God wants a holy Church.
A sanctified collection of believers, and He will not rest until that is accomplished.
The Culture Behind Confessing Christ as Lord
Romans 10:5-13 is a case study in what confessing Christ looks like. So, what does that mean?
In the days of the Ancient Church, Rome ruled everything. They held most of the known world under their sway. Asia, Northern Africa, most of Western Europe and eventually a good portion of Northern Europe and the British Isles. Everywhere that Rome ruled, there were puppet governments. Those puppet governments brought the institution of Roman mythos and its pantheon of gods. Not the least of which was Caesar.
Shortly after the death of Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the Roman Senate declared him a god. Prior to his death Caesar had named his grandnephew, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, his heir. Upon seeing his now deceased mentor deified, Gaius declared himself a son of the god, and so began the worship of Caesar.
Subsequently, by the time the Church started to grow and eventually reached Rome, laws had been passed regarding Caesar’s deity. All Roman citizens and subjects were required to worship Caesar as Lord. Often, to ensure that citizens and subjects alike were properly worshiping Caesar, priests and soldiers would travel the cities with a portable shrine. The expectation was that as it passed you would bow and worship. To fail to do so would result in swift and severe punitive measures, slavery being the least of them. Death in the arena or crucifixion being the worst.
This was the context of Paul’s words to the Church in Rome. When he told his audience to confess Christ as Lord with their mouths, he speaking to a very public act. A public act that could very well result in their death. A public confessing of Christ then is nothing like what we see in the modern Western Church today.
The Deceptive Professing Christian
Finally, put this in context of the words of Christ in Matthew 7, “Many of you will come to me and say LORD, LORD…” These folks spent no time confessing Christ before mankind. They made many outward shows of all the wonderful things they could do, but they never owned Christ as King. There was no risk for them. No bitter gaul to swallow or public cross to bear.
Christ was an ornament for them. A fashion accessory, especially when you look at the things they were claiming to do in His name. As a side note, these professing Christians are reminiscent of the word of faith crowd today. They claim to be doing things in the name of Christ. H
owever, they are more enamored with crowds, popularity and money than in confessing Christ at great personal cost.
Juxtaposing Baptism to Understand Professing Christ Against Confessing Christ
Let’s juxtapose the modern ordinance of baptism with the ancient ordinance of baptism.
Today, baptism is a safe and secure practice for the western church, (not so much in many other places.) The new convert is led down into a warm and clean pool of water, often in the relatively private setting of the church’s meeting place. Frequently, the elder/pastor will ask a series of rehearsed questions that are easily answered with a yes or no. The candidate for baptism is announced a Christian and immersed. They then walk out of the pool, change cloths and then sit in the meeting hall and have a nice lunch with their friends. Ordinarily, they are congratulated for being baptized and receive gifts and accolades.
In the Ancient Church, baptism was a very public act of obedience to the commands of Christ. There weren’t safe buildings with baptismal pools built into them. The water may have been warm or deadly cold. However, it was far from clean and comfortable. The new convert would stand in the water in front of the entire community, believers and unbelievers alike. Here, they would publicly pronounce Christ as Lord.
This was an act of high treason against Rome and blasphemy against Caesar. This public confession of Christ was, in many ways, a renouncing of Roman citizenship. It would not go unnoticed by the world.
Now you tell me, which of the two examples more closely aligns with professing Christ and which aligns with confessing Christ?
Stephen as a Confessing Christian
In Acts 7 we watch the story of Stephen unfold in a chilling and beautiful way. I want to speak with just a bit more detail now.
Stephen was sold out to the cause. He wasn’t holding back in the least. Particularly, when it came to the truth. He preached in the temple for two chapters worth of writing. In addition to Stephen’s bold confession of Christ there was something else happening there. Stephen had a prestigious person as a member audience. Saul of Tarsus, maybe the best educated man of his day, was in the crowd when Stephen started preaching.
As Stephen preached his way to a death sentence, Saul listened. Saul witnessed what it meant to confess Christ as Lord even unto death. There is no way we can know this beyond doubt, but this encounter must have left an indelible mark on Saul. I imagine as Paul sat down to pen his letter to the Church in Rome, his own impending execution looming, his thoughts turned to Stephen. One can easily be convinced that as Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth…” he was moved by Stephen’s stalwart faith.
Furthermore, Paul was no stranger to such suffering for confessing Christ. Beyond that he was also acquainted with being abandoned by professing Christians. Paul had to have had the example of Stephen in his mind his entire walk as a Christian. To me, it seems unavoidable.
The one question that each Christian needs to ask of themselves is this:
Am I the one who will hear “get away from me I never knew you…” or “well done my good and faithful servant…”? Often, the answer to that question cannot be easily summed up with a brief look at one’s life. Our works will never save us, but they do indicate who we belong to. Our fruit will find us out.
I implore you my beloved readers, examine yourselves. Work out your salvation in fear and trembling. Check your heart to see if you are merely professing Christ or heartily confessing Him.
Soli Deo Gloria!