Christians, according to the Word of God and the history of the church, are identified by their belief in the Apostolic gospel (Mark 1:14–15; Rom. 1:16; Gal. 1:8–9). But if we must believe the gospel, we must understand the gospel. To understand the gospel, it helps to have a summary of the gospel, for while every word of Scripture is God-breathed and important (2 Tim. 3:16–17), God’s Word gives us more than just the gospel. Questions and answers 22–23 of the Heidelberg Catechism assert that the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, a Trinitarian confession grounded in the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 10:21–22; John 10:30).
How can the Heidelberg Catechism say that the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed? The creed does not explicitly mention the doctrine of justification by faith alone or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and both teachings are essential to the gospel (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:17). However, before we question its adequacy as a gospel summary, we need to give the Apostles’ Creed a second glance. The early church did not debate imputation, so we cannot expect an extensive description of imputation in this creed. Instead, the early Christians spent most of their time and effort defending the nature of God against heretics who denied Christ’s deity and the personhood of the Holy Spirit, among other things.
The absence of an explicit discussion of the merit of Christ and its imputation in the Apostles’ Creed does not entail a total absence, for such concepts are assumed throughout the creed. What is the gospel besides the good news of what the triune God has done for sinners to glorify Himself? That is what the Apostles’ Creed is all about. There is nothing explicit in the Apostles’ Creed about imputation because medieval Roman Catholic traditions that forced the Protestant Reformers to define formally the exchange of our sin for Jesus’ righteousness did not exist at the time the Apostles’ Creed was formed.
The Apostles’ Creed is a fine summary of the biblical gospel. It tells us that our Father, of His own initiative, sent His Son to live, die, and be resurrected for His people. It is about God’s work on our behalf, not what we do to earn a right standing before Him. To believe rightly what the creed teaches is to believe the gospel.
The portion of the medieval church that evolved into modern Roman Catholicism is actually the church that departed from the Apostles’ Creed. The Protestant Reformers who sought to uphold the ancient faith in the controversy over justification did not depart from it. When we confess this creed, let us be conscious that it does more than just describe the nature of God — it also tells us what God alone has done for us, which is the essence of the gospel.