Biblicism is reading the bible by itself and by one’s self, i.e., in isolation from the church. Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the sole, final authority for faith and life but it does not mean to declare either that believers read the bible in isolation from all other books nor does it mean to say that believers read the Scriptures in isolation from the church. Further, sola scriptura does not mean imply nor does it suggest that we should read Scripture as if no one has eve read it before. Such biblicism has a been a great temptation particularly in the modern period and perhaps especially by American evangelicals, where individualism in politics and economics (as advantageous as it is in those spheres) is carried over into ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and into hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts) and theology. A second temptation that we face is to attempt to create a narrative about the history of Reformed theology by consulting various writers in the tradition, perhaps one’s favorites, and then using one’s reading of the tradition to determine what “the Reformed” view on a topic is. Here is yet another place where the Reformed confessions help. One the one hand, by learning the confessions and by reading Holy Scripture with our confessions to hand we avoid the danger of biblicism, which has almost always been accompanied by faith destroying rationalism On the other hand, the confessions signify for us that the consensus of the Reformed was (and is). Confessions, whether drafted by an individual and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Belgic Confession, or drafted and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Canons of Dort, tell us the consensus interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, if an ostensibly Reformed writer proposes to establish what he perceives to be “the Reformed” view based upon his personal interpretation of Scripture (per biblicism) or derived from his favorite author at the expense of what is confessed by the churches, then we have a right to be skeptical. To be sure, the confessions may be revised and they may be revised on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture and in consultation with the tradition but that is an ecclesiastical process, whereby one overtures ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., a consistory or session) and engages the whole church.
In the discussions over justification and salvation initially provoked by the Shepherdite theology, which morphed into the self-described, so-called, Federal Vision Theology, that have turned in recent years to discussions about sanctification it has been suggested that though we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) when it comes to the broader category of salvation we should think and speak differently. I have already addressed the history of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) on this topic in a series of five detailed posts. I’ve given some consideration to Ephesians 2:8–10 on the relation of faith to the gift. Here I want to concentrate on the way the Reformed churches speak about justification and salvation.
Let us grant that it is appropriate to distinguish justification and salvation. The former is a narrower category and the latter is broader. Justification has no reference to sanctification. As Calvin said, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” Under the head of salvation, however, it is appropriate to discuss sanctification. That distinction having been made, some might be tempted to suggest that though we are justified sola gratia, sola fide, we are saved through faith and works or through faithfulness. Were such a suggestion to be made it would be contrary both to the mainstream of Reformed theology and to Scripture as it is confessed by the Reformed churches.
Though, under the heading of salvation, we may discuss sanctification it is not as if sanctification is any less gracious than justification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is explicit:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Note that whereas justification is said by the churches to be “the act of God’s free grace” (WSC 33) whereby God declares us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone, sanctification is the “work of God’s free grace” in renewing us into Christ’s image. Justification is a declarative, definitive (once for all) act and sanctification is a gracious work or process. That is why we have usually spoken of justification as punctiliar and sanctification as progressive, i.e., ongoing. Rome (like all moralists) confuses justification and sanctification. She says that justification is sanctification and therefore progressive. According to Rome, we are presently being justified by grace and cooperation by grace but we are not yet justified. Scripture says the opposite:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
We who believe are presently and perfectly justified. There is no future justification. We are justified now and we shall be vindicated later.
Even when we come to discussing salvation, however, we confess that it too is through faith alone. E.g., the Westminster Shorter Catechism does not say that salvation is through faith and works (faithfulness). No it says that salvation is through faith:
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
Notice that faith is a saving grace. It receives and rests upon Christ not only for justification but also for salvation and that is offered through the gospel. Here we see that the churches speak about salvation just the way they speaks about justification.
This way of speaking occurs repeatedly.
Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.
Clearly here salvation includes sanctification (e.g., converting, holiness) but even then notice the instrument of salvation: “through faith” and the outcome: “unto salvation.”
Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
The Spirit also operates through the sacraments. We reject the Romanist doctrine that the sacraments work ex opere. No, it is God the Spirit who works and he works through the sacraments but the blessings signified and sealed by the sacraments are received only by faith. In each case faith is the instrument of salvation.
In the history of the church, the biblicists have typically become Socinians and they rejected essential doctrines of the Christian faith including the doctrine of justification and salvation by free grace. Traditionalists have corrupted the doctrines of justification and salvation out of fear that gospel of free justification and salvation would not produce the sort of godliness that they want to see in Christians. Ultimately, the Socinians, the Romanists, and the moralists (e.g., Baxter) agreed: the gospel of free justification with God and free salvation must be rejected because it’s insufficient to produce the desired outcome. They agree with Paul’s opponents who asked, in response to the doctrine of free grace, “should we sin that grace may abound”? They too worried that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone would not produce the right outcome. They did not understand or accept that sanctification is a gospel mystery, that sanctification flows from the gospel.
The Belgic Confession
Above we looked at how the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks about the relations between justification, salvation, and faith. I’ve been thinking about this partly in light of the suggestion that seems to be about that where we should say that we are justified sola gratia, sola fide we should say that salvation is through faith and works or faithfulness. We saw that the WSC does not speak this way. Each spring I teach a course on the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort). Last Friday we worked through Belgic Confession articles 22 and 23 in which the Reformed Churches confess that the Holy Spirit “kindles true faith in our hearts” and thereby we gain “true knowledge of this great mystery” and that true faith “embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits.”1 True faith seeks nothing beside Christ since, if he is the Savior, then by faith we have all that we need—Christ is sufficient— or he is but half a Savior, i.e., no Savior at all. If Jesus is a mere enabler, if he merely makes it possible to do our part as the Medieval church, Rome, and all moralists teach, then we are doomed because we are so corrupted by sin that we are not capable of doing our part. We are not capable of doing “what lies within us” as the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (1420–95) had taught. Luther studied Biel’s commentary on the Sentencesand was taught that version of covenant theology but as he lectured through the Psalter, under the influence of Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms, he realized that Paul was right to say that by nature, in Adam (Rom 5:12–21) we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1–4). Therefore we are not, as the medievals imagined, able either to “do what lies within us” nor as our self-described Federal Visionists and New Perspective advocates imagine, “our part of the covenant.” Yes, every covenant does have two parts but, with respect to salvation, we’re talking about a covenant of grace not a covenant of works. This is one of several reasons why it is so important to distinguish those two covenants. The covenant of works said to righteous, holy Adam, “do this and live.” He had the ability to do and live forever. The covenant of grace says to those Adam’s children, heirs of corruption: “trust only in the Last Adam for salvation.” Our part of the covenant of grace is not to obey in order to be justified and saved but to obey because we have been justified and because God has sovereignly brought us out of Egypt, as it were, through the Red Sea (of Christ’s suffering and death) on dry ground. We have been baptized into, i.e., identified with Christ, not he into us. He is the Savior and we are the saved. For these reasons and more, in Heidelberg Catechism 29 we confess that Jesus is the Savior. There’s no mention in the catechism of our cooperating unto salvation. We say “salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.” We would be among others in whom people have been tempted to seek salvation. Question and answer 30 make this explicit:
Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
People do “make their boast of him.” They do talk about being Christians, about believing in Jesus but they stop short of placing their full confidence in his perfect, whole obedience for his people. They want to make some contribution to their salvation. As we say, however, if Jesus is merely a facilitator, then he is no Savior. The similarities with the language of Belgic Confession art. 22 are clear. True faith
seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.
Please observe what faith obtains. It is not merely or only justification. Faith embraces Christ and in him finds “everything necessary for salvation. Through faith in Christ we have a complete salvation. Both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism agree entirely with the Westminster Shorter Catechism and all three of these confessional documents interweave salvation and justification. The tidy distinction to which some might be tempted is not present here.
To make Jesus a mere facilitator, rather than a complete Savior, is, we confess, “too gross a blasphemy.” It makes him “half a Savior.” Then, immediately, the confession turns to justification through faith alone. Note this. In order to prove our doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone we appeal to Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith alone.
Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.
There are no justified sinners that are not also saved. Salvation is a broader category but it too is sola gratia, sola fide. This becomes clearer in Belgic Confession art. 23, the opening words of which say:
We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach ns, declaring this to be the blessedness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works.
As in article 22, just as soon as the confession touches on salvation it moves to justification through faith alone. The definition of salvation and justification as the “remission of sins” (remissio peccatorum) is in antithesis to the Roman definition of justification as sanctification to which we were said to contribute our condign and congruent merits and acts of propitiation (turning away God’s wrath). In other words, justification and salvation is something God has done for us and which the Holy Spirit applies to us. It is not something that God inaugurates and which we consummate or to which we even contribute. This is why we say, with Paul, “we are just justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:24). To say “freely” is to say that it is not conditioned upon our obedience or even upon the degree of our sanctification. Having been delivered from the Romanist treadmill of salvation through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace, let us not return to it.
This truth, we say is our “foundation” and it gives all glory to God (soli Deo gloria). If salvation and justification are not wholly God’s then there is some glory for us, because we “did our part.” No, true Protestants, because they are in a covenant of grace and not a covenant of works, are free to acknowledge “ourselves to be such as we really are.” We should not fall into the trap of the moralist, who wants to put us back under the covenant of works. He makes his boast of grace and the covenant of grace but he does not like to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace and so corrupts both of them. As a consequence the believer is never really solidly on a gracious foundation. It’s also a mixed and unstable foundation of grace and works.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6)
These are two different principles. Works says “do in order to be accepted and saved” and grace says, “Christ as done. You are free to do out of gratitude, in the grace, communion of Christ.” Trusting in one’s self, even in one’s cooperation with grace is presumption. Because faith apprehends Christ it is sufficient to cover all our sins. Our works, even our cooperation is nothing, we confess, but a fig leaf and that will lead not to salvation but to being “consumed.” Hence justification and salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone for “it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works” (Belgic Confession, art. 24).
1. Both the French and Latin texts of Belgic Confession art. 22 say “true faith.” Schaff translates “une vraie foi” (veram fidem) as “upright faith.” This is quite incorrect and misleading as it begins to take us back down the path to the Roman definition of faith as “formed by charity” (fides formata caritate). See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 409.