What Is True Faith? (pt 1) We Must Know What We Must Know

blue-bloods-tableOne of our favorite television shows is set in NYC and revolves around an Irish Roman-Catholic family in law enforcement. It’s a kind of book end to the Duck Dynasty. Like the latter, it features a strong family with a strong religious faith and like the latter, each episode ends with the extended family at the table for prayer and a meal. Both programs deal with explicitly religious themes. The most recent episode explored the questions of evil and faith in the face disappointment and hard providences—9/11 is a recurring theme. In the most recent episode, one of the children asked, “What is faith?” and the adults around the table gave a series of muddled and conflicting answers and then agreed that “it’s difficult.” That is certainly true but I couldn’t help but wish that the writers had access to the Heidelberg Catechism because in that moment of the broadcast catechesis, question 21 would have been of great value not only to the actors but also to the viewers.

Faith is difficult but there is much more that can and should be said.

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The Latin text of the catechism, first made in 1563 and widely used in the schools in the Palatinate and throughout the British Isles and elsewhere and adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619), is a little different from this translation of the 3rd (German) edition (1563). It asks, “What is faith?” One significance of this revision is that the Reformed churches didn’t distinguish sharply between faith and true faith. The Latin text also makes a little more explicit the implicit the three aspects of true faith. It answers, “It is not only knowledge, by which I firmly assent to everything which God has given to us in his Word, but also a certain trust ignited in my heart by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel….”

So, the first part of answer to that lunch-time question is this: there are three aspects to faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. Blind faith is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. One trusts what one knows. I did not write, “knows exhaustively” or “knows comprehensively” but simply “knows.” The German text differs from the Latin a bit here. The German text says, “gewisse Erkenntniß” (certain knowledge). The Latin text says, “notitia” (knowledge) and applies the adjective certain to fiducia (trust).

I don’t think that there is a fundamental difference. One trust that which one knows with a degree of certainty. Isn’t this what James says? “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, ESV)”? It is not faith to say, “O Lord I don’t know if you exist, but if you do.…” That is magic or superstition. This is because faith has an object. Faith has content. It is not directed at nothing or no one. Faith has reason to believe God because he has revealed himself. Everyone can see that he is (Rom 1:19–20). Everyone knows his law (Rom 2:14–15). Further, God the Son has entered history, in the incarnation, and has revealed not only the substantially the same law known in nature, which Paul calls the “stoichea” but also the same good news promised by the types, shadows, and prophets for thousands of years prior. Faith knows (the Trinitarian) persons and faith knows the content of commands and promises. There are particularities in faith. It is not vague.

Thus Paul writes:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” (Romans 4:16-18, ESV)

There are limits to what humans can know. We are finite. We are made of dust and to dust we shall return (if the Lord does not return first). We are further afflicted and limited by sin. Our intellects are clouded by ignorance and confusion. Our senses, though generally reliable—the world was made to be known and we were made to know it—do sometimes betray us. We certainly do not know things the way God knows them. We are not God. We are not immense. We are not immutable. We are not infinite. Scripture says, “In the beginning God” not “in the beginning God (and man).” God spoke our world into being and he formed us from the dust of the earth.

Nevertheless, God is greater than our limits and our sins. He spits into the dust, makes clay, and gives sight to blind men (John 9:6). By the grace of his sovereign Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep, who, at Pentecost, began to untangle Babel, who is the “Lord and giver of life” (Nicene-Constantinoplitan, 381) enables us to know him and his truth with sufficient certainty. Faith is difficult but it isn’t blind because true faith has a true, knowable object (the triune God), who has revealed his law and his gospel and by his Spirit enables us to understand them and to see ourselves for what we are and to see him for what he is and who he is to us in Christ.

Next time: Assent Not Ascent.

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  1. Hi Dr. Clark,

    This is excellent. Thank you for taking the time to write these thoughts.

    I like the translation you gave above for HC 21. very full and comprehensive.

    Can you recommend an edition of The Three Forms of Unity that is the best translation into English? Perhaps you can give me a specific link to where I may purchase such an edition…

    Have you ever thought about doing a new translation from the German?

    I am finding out that there are many different versions… and I am unsure which is the best to use.

    God bless you.

    Chuck Fry

    • Hi Chuck,

      My favorite version is the 1978 modern English translation published by the Reformed Church in the United States. The only question I have is whether their translation of bei in Q. 86 as “by” is correct or whether it should be “of.” I think the latter is more correct. We’re assured “of our faith” by the fruits thereof, i.e., that we do indeed have faith.

      I don’t think we need a new translation of the German. There are several serviceable English versions, including the 1959 CRC translation, the version found in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol 3. Here’s a post on this.

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