What we believe
We believe everyone should have a place to share in God’s joy, happiness and make a positive impact on the world.
What do we believe about God?
With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church bases its belief about God on the experience of the earliest followers of Jesus. As Jews, they believed in one eternal God, who is holy and good, all-knowing, all-powerful and ever-present. This God remains mysterious, set apart from creation, living in unapproachable light. God therefore can never be fully captured by our words, our thoughts or our imagination.
But we also believe that God has been made known to us. It is in the particular story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, which comes to us through what has been called ‘the Old Testament’, that God’s nature and will is first revealed. For Christians, the clearest revelation of God’s nature and will comes in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and this is made real in the Church by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
From this, we believe that God is revealed to be ‘triune’, one God in three persons. Known by many names, including Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this one, triune God is the one who creates, saves and sustains all things. In acknowledging God to be Trinity, we declare that God has been made known to us, but remains essentially mysterious, beyond us, calling us to communion and fullness of life.
This God who is known and yet not fully known, is the one whom we worship, the one to whom we witness, the one whom we seek to serve. God’s handiwork can be seen in the vastness and careful spacing of the stars and planets, in the beauty of the mountains and rivers, the warmth of the sun in day and the light of the moon at night.
We can see God in the complexity of life on our planet earth as well as in the immense variety of living creatures and how they support life together in intricate ecosystems. God’s wisdom and goodness are seen in creation, but this is most clearly seen by the eyes of faith. When nature seems harsh and cruel and there is pain and suffering, we trust that all remains held within God’s understanding and care.
We believe that the Bible records the most dependable account of God. Through it we continue to know God and learn about God’s love, goodness and care for this world. We learn that God is personal, and relates to human beings through the Holy Spirit. We learn that God requires justice and righteousness, and God’s holiness is offended by human injustice and wickedness.
Nevertheless, God remains ready to forgive out of a steadfast love for human beings and despite our unwillingness to follow God’s ways. God’s love is shown through the liberation of the Israelite people, the provision of food and land for them, and the demand that they build a just and fair, peaceful and loving society in accordance with God’s own nature. Israel was to be a light to the nations, a witness to God’s love and faithfulness.
The Bible also shows that God’s love for the world caused God to enter the world and to share our human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus taught God’s ways of love and justice, and brought wholeness by healing the sick, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. He brought peace to the distressed, forgiveness to the guilty, and overcame sin and death by offering up his life for the world.
We believe he was raised from the dead and this confirmed that he had bridged the gulf between human beings and God. This brought the possibility of eternal life for all. He then returned to God and now sits at the right hand of his Father as ruler over all. God then sent ‘God is personal, and relates to human beings through the Holy Spirit.’ the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ ministry in and through his followers, the Church.
In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s gracious rule over all things has begun. Under God’s reign, human beings will flourish because all will love God and neighbour fully and creation will be restored to wholeness and peace. We believe that in the fullness of time God will renew and gather into one, all things in Christ. We wait in hope for the coming of this reign in all its fullness.
In the waiting time, God’s people, the Church, are to signpost God’s coming rule, to continue Jesus’ ministry as we worship and serve God through offering care for everyone. God’s constant grace and faithfulness towards us, we believe, releases us to show God’s love by welcoming and including all people in our worship and fellowship, through striving for justice and peace, by supporting fair trade, by affirming God’s call to Christian ministry and service in all those in whom it can be discerned, and by seeking to support God’s good and fruitful creation graciously gifted to us.
And so all our action in worship, witness and service, including the care and preservation of the natural environment working for justice and peace, welcoming all and rejecting none, is done to the
- What do we believe about God? (PDF | 602kb)
What do we believe about Jesus?
The New Testament describes Jesus as God’s one and only Son (John 3:16). Everything that is distinctive about the Christian faith is closely related to the person of Jesus and what it means to say he is the Son of God. Our view of Jesus has shaped the way we understand God, how we experience salvation and the nature of the hope we have in the present and for the future.
With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church believes that who Jesus is cannot be divorced from what he said and did. Listening to what he taught and following his way of life cannot be separated from acknowledging him as Lord, a word used of him by his earliest followers who knew that to do so meant seeing him as in some way God. United Reformed Church worship services honour Jesus as divine in our hymns. We pray through Jesus and we share in a meal that Jesus invites us to, eating bread and drinking wine as symbols of his redemptive death. We bless one another in his name as we go out into the world.
In all of this, it is clear that Christians take the question of who Jesus is very seriously. We believe that it is only God who can make God known and in continuity with the earliest Christians, we proclaim that Jesus is fully God come among human beings as a fully human being.
This is how, at formation in 1972, the United Reformed Church expressed faith in its foundational document, the Basis of Union:
"We believe that God, in his infinite love for men [sic.], gave his eternal Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who became man, lived on earth in perfect love and obedience, died upon the cross for our sins, rose again from the dead and lives for evermore, saviour, judge and king."
In 1997, when making a Statement of Faith in gender-inclusive language, the United Reformed Church confirmed that Jesus is fully God and fully human in this way: We worship God revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh; who lived our human life, died for sinners on the cross; who was raised from the dead, and proclaimed by the apostles, Son of God; who lives eternally, as saviour and sovereign, coming in judgement and mercy, to bring us to eternal life.
This Jesus, who we believe was there at the beginning with God (John 1), is also a child of time. He was born a Jew in the Roman province of Judea and raised in a carpenter’s home in Galilee. The Bible describes him as a travelling teacher who was widely recognised in his time as a healer and worker of miracles. The power of God’s Spirit was apparent in his life and it characterised his ministry.
It linked his ministry to the history of Israel while also demonstrating the divine origin of his life and work. At the beginning of his public life, according to Luke, he read a passage from the book of Isaiah and declared that the prophecy had been fulfilled at that moment in time:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19)
The New Testament writers indicate that Jesus related completely to God, whom he called ‘Father’. There is perhaps nothing that shows this more clearly than his life of prayer. The more significant the decisions that needed to be made, the more urgently he called to his Father for guidance and strength: ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission’ (Hebrews 5:7).
With the whole Christian Church, we believe in the importance of the supreme paradox that while fully God, Jesus was also fully human. Jesus came into our world alongside us and shared in its pain, frustration and suffering. He sought in all things to do his Father’s will and eventually found himself being crushed in doing so.
He stood as a man before God, in no way different from us. He had a body like ours and a brain that operated in the same way that ours does. He was part of a religious culture that shaped his life and his thinking. How he acted and spoke can be understood in the light of the world in which he lived and the beliefs he held. Jesus was human in the same way that we are, and suffered temptation as we do.
But he did not experience the damaging and dehumanizing effects of ‘sin’, its fears and addictions, its self-delusions and pretensions. We could say he was the first really human person to walk this planet. He is the model for how we might now live. He is the pattern of our new humanity.
As with the whole Christian Church, we do not believe that Jesus is understood in this way by any tools available in the physical, social or historical sciences. Jesus is known in this way by faith. Followers of Jesus, including members of his own family, came to believe, after he was raised from death, when their eyes were opened by the Spirit, that he really was the Messiah, the one anointed by God, truly human and truly divine.
- What do we believe about Jesus? (PDF | 729kb)
What do we believe about the Holy Spirit?
The English word ‘spirit’ can refer to the mood or atmosphere among a group of people. While a valid use of the word, this is not what Christians mean when we talk about the Holy Spirit. With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church use capital letters and a definite ‘the’ when we talk about ‘the Holy Spirit’.
The Holy Spirit carries the presence of God into this world and in this world. God is not just a creator who wound up the world and left it to tick. Nor is God just the one who came in Jesus, stayed with us for a few years, then moved on, back to heaven. But God is also a living presence, right up to date, active in the world today.
The Spirit brings the creative power and energy of God into our world. The Spirit breathes the life and goodness of Jesus among us. We can relate to the Spirit, in friendship and dependence and companionship.
Christians celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, Whit Sunday as it often used to be called. Pentecost means ‘fifty’ – just fifty days on from Easter. Acts 2 tells of the Pentecost that followed the first Good Friday and Easter. Jesus had died, risen and ascended. He was gone. Then a wind blew, a fire burned, voices spoke, and lives were filled with a new energy from heaven. The friends of Jesus realised that they were not a people deserted. They were accompanied, empowered and enabled. The life of Jesus had come among them, in the Spirit of Jesus.
Telling it this way might suggest that the Spirit was completely unknown in Old Testament times. That is not the case. But there are some differences between Old Testament and New. The New Testament tells of the Spirit as a constant presence rather than occasional; as available to all the friends of Jesus, not just to a few leaders and prophets; specifically as ‘holy’ (the term ‘Holy Spirit’ is not common in the Old Testament); and as the Spirit of Jesus.
To call the Spirit ‘Holy’ is to speak of the life of God. God is holy – distinct, perfect, not dependent on us, yet shaping our world with goodness. The Spirit carries that holiness into our life today and helps us to respond to God and to share in God’s nature.
So the Spirit calls us to faith, reminding us of the reality of Jesus and of the truths he brought us (John 14:26). The Spirit bears witness in our hearts and prompts us to reach out in Jesus’ name as children of the God whom Jesus called Father (Romans 8:15-17).
The Spirit is the invisible power in Christian worship, kindling within us a desire to praise God and acting as conduit and interpreter of our prayers.
The Spirit makes our sacraments deep moments of connection with the life of heaven. The Spirit knits Christians together in fellowship, calling us to be one body in Christ, and giving us a bond of love with one another that reaches beyond the limits and boundaries of language, culture, tradition and background.
The Spirit calls us to a lifestyle that mirrors and embodies the values of Jesus. ‘Sanctification’ is an old name for this – the process of becoming holy in practice. Goodness is not a quality we can attain by pulling upwards on our own moral and ethical shoelaces. It needs to be a gift from God. Surely we have to respond to the Spirit. But when forces of temptation, habit or ‘The Spirit calls us to a lifestyle that mirrors and embodies the values of Jesus’ custom try to pull us off the path of Jesus, we are not in the struggle on our own. The inner strength of God’s Spirit works for us, with us and within us.
And the Spirit gives the church energy to make Jesus known. There are many words for this – mission, outreach, witness. The church was never meant to be an ingrown community. The Spirit gives us the confidence and credibility to look outward, to declare by word and action that Jesus is alive, and to represent his truth and goodness by what we say and do. Again, we are not in this on our own. We are agents of the Spirit
Finally, it is worth noting that different people in the United Reformed Church would tell parts of this story in different ways. Some would stress the Spirit’s role in creation (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 104:30) and speak of the Spirit working all over the world, not merely among Christians.
Others would underline the Spirit’s relationship to Jesus, and expect to encounter the work of the Spirit specifically in places where Jesus is named and known. Of one thing, however, we can be sure: God’s Spirit regularly has surprises in store for us. Let us be ready to respond to these with faith, hope and joy, for Jesus’ sake.
- What do we believe about the Holy Spirit? (PDF | 761kb)
What do we believe about Creation?
Throughout the centuries, people have wondered why is there something rather than nothing? In our day, it is common to contrast belief in creation with what seem to be ‘scientific’ reasons why the universe came into being.
Some dismiss the Christian belief that God created the universe because they believe it has been superseded by modern scientific knowledge. Others see the stories of creation in the Bible as ancient myths that are still able to speak to us today.
There is, then, a distinction that can be made between ‘how did things come to exist?’ and ‘why do these things exist?’ Science has little, if any interest in the second question. With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church believes that the Bible offers many insights into answering it.
The first story of creation in Genesis 1 may be one ancient creation myth among many others, but it is also quite distinct from them. The biblical account gives a sophisticated description of the process of creation out of nothing by a gracious and loving God. This creation account establishes an order but also shows progression. The story reveals God’s freedom in creating everything and that God’s approval of what had been made.
There is reference to the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, revealing that God was overseeing everything while also, through the Spirit, being directly involved with the creation. God creates the world in such a way that it is fully created, yet also has opportunity for replenishment, rejuvenation, growth and development: ‘the earth puts forth vegetation’ and the plants and animals are ‘to be fruitful and multiply’.
The account ends with a Day of Rest which represents God’s blessing of creation as well as anticipating God’s redemption of it. Even in the act of creation, then, God directs everything towards peace and wholeness when it is properly orientated in worship. And rest is confirmed as important.
The second account of creation, found in Genesis 2, emphasizes the creation of human beings. The Lord forms human beings from the earth and then creates plants and animals and designs a garden where the humans live. Genesis 1 and 2 offer different 4 accounts of creation. Rather than recounting the opening moments of the universe, they reveal truth about the nature of God and the nature of humankind as well as the relationship between the Creator and the creation.
In the story of the representative first people found in Genesis 2, we learn that God is Creator and human beings are creatures, made from the earth therefore part of creation and utterly different from God. And yet, the two earth creatures, according to Genesis 1, they are also made in the image of God (vv.26- 27). They are to use their intelligence and skill in ‘tilling and keeping’ the world.
However, an outside force of evil leads them to overstep the boundary of God’s generous provision, breaking their relationship with God, with each other, and so they are not able to become all God intended them to be, they will die. Nature is bound up in this disorder and decay. Yet there is also a hint that God continues to love human beings and the whole creation, and will renew and restore everything.
Yet the Christian belief in creation does not only come from the two creation stories in Genesis. There are other passages, such as Psalm 33, 104 and 139, which show that creation is a divine act, established once and for all. Job 38-41 reveals the absolute sovereignty of God over the created order.
The Christian doctrine of creation comes from reading the Bible as a whole, which gives a Trinitarian view of God as Creator.
The understanding that creation occurred through the agency of God’s Word (John 1) establishes that God and creation are distinct, but creation continues to depend on God to be sustained and maintained, while looking also to the completion of its purpose in the future.
The New Testament reveals that all things were created by Christ and are held together in him. Through the incarnate one, Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal God relates to time. This is important because creation is currently bound to time and therefore subject to decay and death. However, there is a promise that it will once again become what it was always intended to be.
In the meantime, God continues to care for and Creation redemption biblical act gracious progression universe Genesis 1 belief humans love ancient myth nature earth animals story plant Da s y of Rest growth scientifc garden the world peace 6 sustain creation through the Spirit, making real the redemption which Christ won and giving hope of renewal beyond its weaknesses.
Indeed, Christ was raised from the dead as the first fruits of the redemption of creation (Romans 8). The fact that God chooses to be involved in the world in order to overcome evil, decay and death gives the Christian affirmation of the world as it is now.
Caring for creation, artistic endeavour, scientific research – all are gifts of the creator Spirit enabling human participation in God’s project of creation reaching toward its fulfilment and restoration in God.
- What do we believe about Creation? (PDF | 790kb)
What do we believe about Being Human?
We might sometimes state, in exasperation, that we are ‘only human’. But that is what we are created, and thus meant, to be. The question is, what does it mean to be human? With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church affirms that all human beings are human by nature. We are all, then, subject to the forces of nature, its unpredictability, its impulses and its brevity. Nevertheless, human beings are also spiritual, or soul-full, creatures, who stand outside nature and the world and possess, at least potentially, the means of eternal relationship with God.
Our remarkable status as those who are both part of nature and yet who stand outside its bounds leads us to recognise that all humans have ultimate significance. However, when we are tempted to bask in such elevated views of humankind, we are repeatedly humbled by the wicked things that we do to one another and to the created world in which we live. There are deep shadows in the glory of our being. Christians believe that this ‘dark’ side of our nature, although real, is not an essential feature of what it is to be human. ‘the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27-28).
As humans, we bear the divine reflection. But in our waywardness this likeness has been disfigured and we no longer faithfully reflect the good character of our creator, what the Bible calls ‘the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27-28). We think, feel and know that we have fallen short of the ideal. Salvation, we hold, is to be understood not as participation in divinity but rather as a journey back to full humanity. It is a journey we cannot make on our own or in our own strength.
What does full humanity look like? Christians tend to respond not with generic or philosophical concepts but with the account of an historical person, a young Jewish rabbi who lived in an outlying province of the Roman Empire, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ words and actions show what we should and might still be as humans. We see in his short, heroic life true freedom, loving kindness, courage and deep joy. This is how we were all meant to be. If we are to be fully human, how should we then live? The prophet Micah answered in this way:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Jesus reminded us that the whole divine law can be summarised by the simple precepts to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbour as our self.
But to explain what it is to be fully human in terms of obedience to the divine law is to misinterpret the Christian message. The good news that leads us back to full humanity has to do with grace rather than law. It is about child-like trust in God’s promises rather than obedience to the divine commands. We do not have the means to liberate ourselves from our addictive behaviour. No medicine is available to heal the wounds of our heart and the pains of our memories. Our fears and dark habits are not to be overcome by programmes.
We cannot simply renounce our tendency to self-absorption by an extraordinary act of the will. The dark deeds of our lives are not excused by religious or charitable acts. We need help from beyond ourselves. It is for this we believe that God gave us his Son. The true humanity or divine image shown forth in the life of Jesus is not simply to be copied or imitated. It is to be received, to be embraced by faith. The forces that empowered his person become ours.
As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). The truly human life is one that is energised and renewed by the Spirit of Christ. We were made to be in relation to God, dependent on God’s life-giving force. Turning away from our creator is to lose something of our full humanity. Part of us dies even while we continue to live. Our full humanity is restored when fullness of life is bestowed as a gracious gift, given by Christ, received by faith.
What are the marks of the person who is becoming fully human? According to Paul they include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). These flow ‘naturally’ from the life of the one who is led by the Spirit of Christ.
There are other more specific features. The one who has been forgiven so much will be ready to forgive those who have caused them offence. Arrogance will be replaced by humility. Combativeness will give way to peace-making. This is what true humanity looks like. Jesus is reported to have said: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’ (John10:10b). God’s goal was our full humanity.
- What do we believe about Being Human? (PDF | 531kb)
What do we believe about The Church?
The United Reformed Church is part of God’s one Church which, at all times – past, present and future – and in all places worships God through God’s son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Before people think about the Church they experience it. Initially, people experience the Church as it is revealed in a particular form of worship, pattern of fellowship, engagement in mission, and witness to the gospel. Worship can be reflective and meditative, it can be traditional with hymns and a sermon, or it can be informal and led by music bands.
Churches govern themselves differently, some placing more importance on the participation of all members in any decision-making. Others have particular councils or committees to do this while still others place more importance on the authority of specific people who hold particular offices.
Whatever form of governance they have, churches engage in ministry and mission which involves proclaiming the good news about Jesus in word and in deed. This might involve evangelistic activity as well as charitable acts such as raising money for special causes or providing services for the community such as a food bank. These, and the countless other experiences that are possible, demonstrate part of the rich diversity of the Church. In one sense, this is the Church.
While everyone experiences Church and understands it first through a local gathering of Christians, the fact that the Church existed prior to our own experience of it tells us that there is more to be said. Understanding the Church is not simply a matter of considering our personal experience at a particular place and time, but trying to make sense of how and why the Church first came into existence as well as how it has developed over the centuries.
Here we discover that the Church is brought into being and sustained by God. From the fourth century, the Church has been known according to four ‘marks’: the Church is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’. The Church’s unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are not defined in terms of human morality, belief and activity because they depend on God’s redeeming, saving, liberating action in history.
The Church, then, is not the product of human activity, but the creation of God, brought into being and sustained by God coming to us in human form in Jesus Christ, and inspiring our response through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Church is one, then, because it is one in Christ who is its head.
The United Reformed Church is committed to demonstrating this by seeking unity across denominations and to work with and share with other denominations as widely as is possible. The Church’s holiness derives from God’s goodness. The Church is catholic (universal) because it includes all of Christ’s followers throughout the world, past, present and future. The Church is apostolic because God continues graciously to entrust to it the task of proclaiming to the world the same good news as was committed to the first apostles. As the Church is engaged in Christ’s mission, so it shares in the witness and calling of Jesus’ first disciples.
The one Church of Jesus Christ can only be known in a particular place and time. The United Reformed Church belongs to a tradition which believes the Church to be made visible where the Word of God is preached and heard, the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution and there is godly living among the Church’s members. This means that the Church is visible when it worships God and reflects God’s grace as the community characterised by love for God, for each other and for the world.
The United Reformed Church has a ‘conciliar’ structure, which means that decisions are made corporately by baptised church members meeting in council. Decisions are made locally, at the Church Meeting. Ministers of Word and Sacraments serve the local church along with elected and ordained elders, who are also trustees. In the wider church there are thirteen Synods which meet twice a year and General Assembly which meets annually. But there is no single way to be the Church and we do not experience the Church in its fullness.
The visible form which it currently takes can never be the only one in which the Church can be made manifest. Instead, the Church is forever able to be renewed and to change its form when, under the Word of God, the Holy Spirit prompts it to do so. The United Reformed Church recognises that, because it is made up of human beings, it needs continually to reform itself to be more faithful in its calling to follow Christ’s ministry of bringing forgiveness, healing and wholeness to the world.
- What do we believe about The Church? (PDF | 789kb)
What do we believe about Baptism?
Baptism is a mark of joining and belonging, a visible sign of entry to the life of the Church. It involves water, although there is no fixed rule about how much. A person could be completely plunged into a baptismal pool or even in the sea (immersion), or have a little water dripped or smeared on their forehead (sprinkling), or something in-between (pouring).
Baptism always implies a commitment on the part of the person being baptised. But the act of baptism is done to us: someone immerses or sprinkles us, in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s a sign of grace. While we bring our readiness to live the Christian life, the power and energy to make it possible come from outside us, from God. There is no rule about the right point in a person’s Christian journey for baptism to occur.
The United Reformed Church recognises two different practices. Some people believe strongly in infant baptism, for very young children – not because of anything the child believes at this stage in life, but because parents, Christian friends and the Church through the local congregation all promise to bring the child up in the faith. The other practice is believer’s baptism, when a person confesses Christian faith and commitment, and is baptised in recognition of this. A baptised believer would usually be an adult, although there is again no rule about the minimum age for this kind of baptism.
Jesus was baptised, by John the Baptist. Did he need to be? He certainly wanted this, to identify himself with the renewal movement which John had launched, and he himself would take forward. What did this baptism mean? This offers insight into our practice of baptism.
First, it meant cleansing. God was working in a fresh way, to offer people a new sense of pardon for their wandering from God’s ways, and to call people into a new pattern of living. John spoke of it as sorting out wheat and chaff, grain and husk (Luke 3:17). Baptism is a kind of washing away of the dust, chaff and husk of our living, so that God’s good stuff can find its way into view.
Second, baptism meant confidence. When Jesus was baptised, the Holy Spirit touched his life in a new way. From then on, he knew more deeply and truly that God was beside him and in him. Now the Spirit of God would breathe in and through him in greater power. And for many Christians today baptism is a mark of assurance. It is a sign that God is involved personally with us.
Third, baptism also means commitment. Baptism names us as servants, of God, of God’s kingdom, of our neighbour. It gives us work to do, and a purpose in living. We do not belong to ourselves, but to Jesus.
Fourth, baptism means cost. The words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, ‘With you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11), come from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where they refer to a strange figure called the Servant, who would bring God’s light to the world through his own sorrow and pain. Baptism was drawing Jesus into that role, inviting him to try on for size the identity and calling of the Servant.
So Jesus later used the term ‘baptism’ to speak of his own suffering, his immersion in the deep waters of pain and humiliation. For Jesus’ followers too, experiences that strain and stretch us, that crumple and distress our spirits, may be used by God in ways we would not expect, to ‘It gives us work to do, and a purpose in living’ bring life and hope to other people. Baptism is assurance. It is also calling, task and demand.
After Jesus had left his friends, they baptised people in his name. One reason for doing so was that Jesus himself had been baptised, another is that he commanded them to go into the world making disciples of all nations and baptising in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). In the church, baptism became a way of saying that a person’s life was focused on Jesus.
But it was not long – within a generation or so of Jesus’ own time – that Christians were also Baptism in Church ‘baptism became a way of saying that a person’s life was focused on Jesus’ thinking of baptism in terms of the link between the believer’s life and the death and resurrection of Jesus. ‘We were buried with him in his death, so as he was raised, we too might live a new life’ (Romans 6:4).
At baptism there is a contact: Jesus’ story becomes our story, and our living becomes his. There is a transition; an old pattern of life no longer claims us, and a new one begins.
Baptism, then, created community. Baptism brought people together, with no sense of rank or status. The world liked to think in categories. Christians knew better. They were ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:27-28). Baptism was a great leveller, not because it cut people down, but because it raised them up, to share the life of Jesus together. It still does.
- What do we believe about Baptism? (PDF | 611kb)
What do we believe about Holy Communion?
The Lord’s Supper, also known as Holy Communion, is one of the two ‘sacraments’, along with baptism, that the United Reformed Church believes to have been instituted by Christ. Holy Communion is a symbol meal during which we meet the risen Lord through the activity of the Holy Spirit. The meal finds its roots in Scripture. In the Old Testament, bread and wine are signs of God’s blessing. Bread or Manna was sent down from the heavens for the people of Israel when they were hungry in the desert before they entered the Promised Land.
Wine and vineyards are symbols of God’s bounty and blessing as providing security and safety (1 Kings 4:25). The beloved people of God were described as a vineyard, who were to bear fruit revealing God’s justice and mercy. God expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes with bloodshed and cries (Isaiah 5:7). Jesus declared himself to be the true vine (John 15:5), the true Israelite who did bear the fruit of self-sacrificial love and justice.
Primarily, though, the sacrament of Holy Communion is a meal which arose out of the Passover meal, in which Israelites commemorated God’s work in saving the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Death passed over the Israelite houses because marked their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. In so doing, their ‘first born’ were saved (Exodus 12). That sacrificial meal was given new significance by Jesus in his last meal with his disciples when he used bread and wine to refer to his body and blood. Eating these symbols came to be seen as participating in his offering of his life to bring salvation for the world.
Sharing the bread and wine in Holy Communion is a recollection of the past event of Christ’s death on the cross in a way that enables the past to become real and present for us today. Through the Holy Spirit what Christ accomplished through his death is made available to us today: the forgiveness of sin, the overcoming of evil and death, and God’s grace and mercy.
Holy Communion is also a means of prayerfully waiting for God’s future. In identifying bread and wine as means of conveying to us the benefits which result from his sacrifice (salvation), Jesus promises not to drink wine again until he drinks it in his Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:29). Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper identifies it as ‘proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). In this way, Holy Communion also anticipates the fulfilment of salvation in the future kingdom of God.
When we share in the meal, we remember what Christ did in a particular place and a particular time. But this leads us to focus not on the past but on how new life in Christ affects the present and points us to God’s future when all things shall be made new (Revelation 21:5) and God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
There have been different practices in various times and places in the history of the Church, as well as controversy and disagreement over what happens at the Supper. In the United Reformed Church, it is usually a minister of the Word and Sacraments who presides at Holy Communion, and the words spoken will include thanksgiving, a reminder of why we eat bread and drink wine together in accordance with Christ’s example and command, and a prayer to the Holy Spirit to enable communion.
In the United Reformed Church, there is no single way of celebrating, though it is common for Elders to serve the congregation by handing out bread and individual cups to people in the congregation, often asking them to hold their portion until all are served, so that the congregation shares together and thereby shows its unity in Christ.
- What do we believe about Holy Communion? (PDF | 732kb)
What do we believe about Salvation?
With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church acknowledges that there is something in human nature and experience which is a cause for concern. There is something about us which has fallen short of God’s intention and, as a result, there is something about our relationship with each other that is flawed.
This is what we call ‘sin’. ‘Sin’ is often explained by emphasizing our depravity or as something which causes us to do ‘bad’ things. Neither view relates to our experience. On the whole, we try to be good and few of us commit heinous crimes.
We sometimes confess our sinfulness as if we need to declare ourselves among the worst of humankind. This is a misunderstanding. The account in Genesis 3 shows us what our ‘original sin’ might be. It is not so much that the original human beings disobeyed God – though the sense of disobedience is clear.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden points us to the reality of a perennial temptation: we want to be like, or we want to be, God. The temptation is for us to place ourselves at the centre of the universe, for self-preservation to take precedence over all else, for us to put ourselves in the place that God should be.
And this is the cause of all other problems in our lives, in our societies, in our world: a failure to acknowledge God and God’s sovereignty fully in our lives and how that impacts on our fellow human beings whom we do not love as our self, in whom we do not acknowledge the image of God.
We need saving from ourselves and our natural disposition to place ourselves as more important than God. In being saved, we acknowledge our weakness, our inability to sort everything out, our own – and everyone else’s – dependence on the God who graciously deals with us by entering into our world in order to forgive, restore and transform us.
This is something we cannot achieve for ourselves, but is something which God graciously achieves on our behalf and offers to us as a gift.
In the Bible the salvation of God is often spoken of in terms of putting right or making just. How does God put things right with us? The message of the Christian gospel is that he does so by forgiving us, by renewing us and by starting to restore us to full humanity.
Through the forgiveness of sins, God ensures a right relationship between God and human beings. Having been put right, we experience what it means to be at peace with God:
‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (Romans 5:1-2).
There is a cost to this restoration. The profound, unsettling, and even scandalous response of Scripture is that it was the gift of God’s one and only son:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
With the whole Christian Church, the United Reformed Church believes that Jesus Christ died on the cross to forgive human sin.
The restoration or reconciliation that God brings to our world is a divine gift, the result of God’s initiative:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Salvation is not deserved or earned. It is not a reward to those who have proved themselves to be most worthy. It is not for satisfied, self-made, self-righteous human beings, but for the poor in spirit, for the meek and for those who mourn over their failings (see Matthew 5:1-12). It is for those who, in repentance and humility, trust in God’s undeserved goodness or grace towards them.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
And it is these forgiven people who are God’s instruments to make things right in the world, to restore harmony, to seek peace, to fight for justice. In short, to have been saved results in seeking to live the saved life in the world to the glory of God alone.
- What do we believe about Salvation? (PDF | 631kb)
What do we believe about The Future?
One of the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith is that Jesus Christ, after an agonising death on the cross, was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The resurrection was the seal that God and humankind were reconciled with each other, that sin was forgiven and that God had reordered creation back to God’s original intention.
At Union in 1972, the United Reformed Church stressed belief in resurrection as sealing Christ’s status as Son of God who lives and reigns for ever: We believe that God, in his infinite love for men [sic.], gave his eternal Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who became man, lived on earth in perfect love and obedience, died upon the cross for our sins, rose again from the dead and lives for evermore, saviour, judge and king.
In 1997, when making a Statement of Faith in gender-inclusive language, the United Reformed Church confirmed Jesus’ eternal reign and role in salvation in this way: We worship God revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh; who lived our human life, died for sinners on the cross; who was raised from the dead, and proclaimed by the apostles, Son of God; who lives eternally, as saviour and sovereign, coming in judgement and mercy, to bring us to eternal life.
In the New Testament, we see a link between Jesus’ death and resurrection and our own lives. Jesus told his disciples that his experience would have implications for them and others: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26).
Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection as an anticipation of a wider resurrection: ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (1 Corinthians 15:20). And this is sealed in baptism: ‘We were buried with him in his death, so as he was raised, we too might live a new life’ (Romans 6:4).
Jesus’ resurrection seals for us a future when we, too, will be raised. Following resurrection, there is judgement: ‘For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil’ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus taught about such judgement too, in the ‘Parable of the Sheep and the Goats’ (Matthew 25:31-46).
But it is central to Christian faith that we can approach judgement with hope and confidence because of Christ. As Paul put it ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).
We look to the future with hope for eternal life.
The Christian hope is not simply for a future of perfected individuals. Hope for personal wholeness and the renewal of creation impacts our living in the present when we live responsibly, working for wholeness and healing and living hope to see it Alongside this, we hold to the promise of a redeemed creation. The gospels refer to this as ‘the kingdom (or rule) of God’. In its fullness, the kingdom will have come when God’s whole creation is redeemed and restored to its original goodness.
When harmony and blessing reign and ‘Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). In the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, the promise of the kingdom is made real: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”’ (Mark 1:14-15).
But this kingdom, already come in Jesus, had not yet come in its fullness. Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘your kingdom come’ (Luke 11:26). Jesus seals to us the promise that God’s Kingdom will come in its fullness in the future: ‘Then comes the end when [Christ] hands over the kingdom of God to the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power; for he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The Christian hope for the future is that the whole of creation will be renewed, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). We look to the future, then, with hope that God’s will for the whole creation will be restored and fulfilled and God is ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28).
The New Testament teaches that the future for which we hope will be inaugurated by the return of Jesus (Matthew 24:30, Revelation 1:17). Christ’s second coming will restore God’s original purposes for the whole of creation.
Jesus said these assuring words to his disciples, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). We believe Jesus is coming back. His second coming is the most important thing to know and believe about the future.
- What do we believe about The Future? (PDF | 608kb)