In the first four parts of this series we looked at what Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21 says about the three aspects of faith (knowledge, assent, and trust). Faith, however, has an object. It always does. A mere historical faith looks to the past but without a lively trust in the living Savior. Even so-called “blind faith” has an object, in the act of trust itself. Of course, neither mere historical faith nor blind faith are true faith. That’s why the object true is so important. That’s why true faith has three aspects. It also has a true and right object: Christ.
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.
Mere historical faith, mere assent, and blind faith, these are generated by human activity. We do have the power to create these things in our heads and hearts. We can study and decide that something happened in the past (e.g., that Jesus was raised from the dead). We can be quite sure that it happened but that certainty is not true faith. To be sure, it is necessary to true faith that one have such knowledge but such knowledge is not sufficient for true faith. People frequently have knowledge of and assent to intellectual propositions in which they have no personal trust. If, e.g., one’s knowledge of and assent to Jesus’ resurrection has no more significance than Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, then one does not have true faith. Further, one can have a deep conviction that something must be true but if one cannot say why it is true, if it is an unreasoning conviction, then such a faith is equally fruitless. These are the products of the engine of the human faculties (intellect, the will, the affections).
True faith is the product of the Holy Spirit. His sovereign, powerful, re-creative work is the sine qua non of true faith. Just as he hovered over the face of the deep in creation (Gen 1), as he blows over dry bones and makes them alive alive again (Ezek 37), and as he came in power at Pentecost (Acts 2), so also the Spirit, who blows where he will (John 3) must first give new life to the spiritually dead (Eph 2:1; Col 2:13). Dead men tell no tales. Dead men do not believe and, in Adam (Rom 5), apart from Christ, we were all dead in sins and trespasses.
It is essential that we grasp this ugly truth. By nature, as Adam’s children, we are dead. We are not ill. We are not merely wounded. We are dead. This is the Scripture language and imagery to describe the consequences of the fall. Whenever the church has obscured the gospel (and the power of the Christian life) the first thing she has done has been to downplay the effects of the fall. Remember, Pelagius (late 4th century AD) flatly denied that in Adam’s fall sinned we all. He taught that Adam set a bad example. The Western Church (led by Augustine in N. Africa) condemned Pelagius’ heresy (Council of Ephesus , 431). After Pelagius, however, even during Augustine’s life, there developed a splinter movement, which we now call “semi-Pelagianism,” that affirmed that in Adam’s fall sinned we all but they minimized the effects of the fall. They changed the metaphor from death to illness. This is the language that one sees among the Remonstrants and Arminians. When we start with the wrong metaphor, then we’re tempted to talk about how Jesus has done his part and now salvation lies waiting, if only the the sin-sick sinner will do his little part. Of course, that’s completely unbiblical. Jesus did not say, “It is begun, now do your part.” He said, “It is finished.”
That is why Christians are called a “new creation” (2Cor 5;17). In creation (Gen 1), the Lord did not say to creation, “Well, I’ve done my part, now, you go do the rest.” No, he spoke creation into existence our of nothing (ex nihilo). So, it’s important that we follow the logic of the creation metaphor when we consider the new spiritual life that the Holy Spirit confers upon us. We are dust. We are incapacitated. He doesn’t come and give us a little life and wait for us to do our part, to do, as the late medieval Franciscans taught, “what lies within us.” What lies within us is sin and death!
No, the Spirit works in us, as he hovered over the face of the deep, and he creates new life. That is why faith is grace or a gift. Just after saying that God gives life to those who are spiritually dead, Paul wrote:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10, ESV)
We are God’s handiwork. We are created. Notice the imagery. Notice the metaphor. Are we stocks and blocks? No! We are much more than that. We are a new creation by the Holy Spirit. We have been saved by God’s free favor (grace), not by the injection of medicine. That is the Roman error. In its nature, salvation isn’t something we can accomplish. That’s why we can’t boast. We didn’t do it. God did and he did it through faith (δια πστεως). The grammar signals that faith is the instrument of salvation, not the ground (basis). It is the instrument of salvation because, in its nature, it receives something that someone else has done and given and rests on another. True faith receives salvation freely given by Christ to his people and it rests on Christ and his finished work for us.
Paul is most careful that we should understand that true faith is a supernatural endowment. “And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This thing (τουτο), he writes, “is a gift.” The whole complex of salvation and faith is a gift. Our backs were against the Red Sea. We were dead. We were beyond hope. Pharaoh’s chariots were thundering down toward us. Doom was immanent and then God parted the Red Sea. He delivered us. He saved us. We were dead. We were cold. We were buried and he raised us from the grave. He gave us new life. He gave us faith. It’s a gift.
We can generate knowledge. We can generate assent. We can generate trust but we cannot generate true faith. Only the Spirit gives faith. If you believe, if you have true faith, it is because the sovereign Lord first made you alive. If you believe, you are recipient of a wonderful gift from God.
Next time: All That God Has Revealed To Us In His Word.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.