In part 8 we saw that the source of true faith is the sovereign, powerful, re-creating work of the Holy Spirit. Ordinarily, however, he works through what the classic Reformed writers, including Calvin, and the Reformed churches call “the means of grace” (e.g., WCF 1.7; WSC 88; Belgic Confession Articles 2, 9, 30). The Latin word for means is quite familiar. We use it daily: media. We speak of this “media’s approach to this or that question.” Our theologians and churches spoke of the media gratiae.
Certainly God is capable of operating without the use of means. That is not in question and there have been orthodox Reformed writers in the modern era (i.e., the 19th century) who, in order to preserve divine sovereignty and freedom, have insisted that, in effecting regeneration (new life) God operates immediately, i.e., without means. Nevertheless, we should not be surprised that our writers and churches have taught that God uses means not only to confer new life but also the gift of faith. After all, even in the act of creation God is said to have spoken. “And God said…and there was” (Gen 1). God acted directly, sovereignly, freely and through the Word. In Ezekiel 37, where God gives us the most wonderful and wonderfully clear illustration of his sovereign power and grace in conferring new life, he says to the prophet: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:4; ESV). Ordinarily God the Spirit operates through his infallible, inerrant Word.
This is why the Apostle Paul was so insistent that faith comes through the preaching and hearing of the gospel.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom 10:14–15, ESV)
In Paul’s logic, the conferring of new life and faith is inexorably connected to the preaching of the gospel. No one is able to call upon God unless they first believe. No one is able to believe unless they have heard the gospel and no one hears the gospel without a preacher. The feet of those who preach the Good News are beautiful only because they carry good news. It is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). That’s why neither Paul nor we are ashamed of it, even though it is the apparently foolish message of a crucified man raised from the dead.
The Reformed churches confess, then, that true faith does not appear magically out of the blue sky. It is the sovereign, free, Holy Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen 1), who came upon the Apostolic church in power (Acts 2), who grants new life but he does so freely, through the preaching of the Gospel.
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 Gospel is not magic but it is a means. Should we say that everyone who hears the gospel or who comes into contact with it through the sacraments is necessarily granted new life and comes to faith, then we have unduly restricted the freedom of the Holy Spirit. He has, as it were, attached himself to the Gospel but not in such a way that he now works for us. We cannot say, “We’ve preached the gospel, now this hearer must be regenerate.” No, the Spirit is like the wind—you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3). We must be born again/from above (both) and that only happens when the Spirit grants new life but he has ordained to do so through the preaching of the Gospel. The Spirit is free to confer new life and faith when he wills but when he does so, he has ordained to do so through the Gospel.
If we separate the regenerating and faith-giving work of the Spirit from the Word, i.e., from the Gospel, then we run into what the classic Reformed writers called “fanaticism,” i.e., the notion that we can know God apart from his Word. That’s a form of subjectivism, where the faith becomes determined not by what God has objectively and clearly revealed in the Word, not by the objective reality of the Gospel (the incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ), but by one’s experiences, impressions, or intuitions. That is the road to disaster.
When we divorce the gift of faith from the Gospel, we may also fall into universalism, i.e., the notion that salvation is possible outside of Christ. If we say that then we have made Christ’s death worthless (Gal 2:21). Universalism is a species of rationalism, i.e., setting our intellect above God’s self-disclosure in Christ and in the Scriptures. That is why so many have found the gospel to be “foolishness” (1Cor 1:25), because it seems weak and our intellect seems so powerful. Faith has a very definite object: the crucified and risen Christ. A faith that is directed anywhere else is not a Christian faith, it is not true faith. It is a delusion. It is arrogance. It is presumption. It is many things but it is not faith as Scripture understands it and as the Reformed churches confess it.
In Q. 65 we confess the same thing:
65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.
This is truly Pauline logic: We are justified and united to Christ, by the Spirit, through faith alone. Since that is so, it is essential to know whence faith? It is the Spirit-wrought gift but the Spirit works in us “by the preaching of the Holy Gospel” and that same Holy Spirit who made us alive, who granted us faith and through it righteousness and union with Christ, strengthens it by confirming his Gospel promises in the use of the sacraments. The means of grace are not magic but they are essential to our Christian faith and life.