65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence 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.
In part 1 we reviewed briefly the basics about the biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification and salvation sola fide and union with Christ. There is a second part to the answer. The same Holy Spirit who sovereignly and freely creates new life (regeneration) in his elect operates through what the Reformed call “the means of grace” (media gratiae), namely the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments.
This aspect of our confession has to be reasserted. The Anabaptists stressed the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit and “the inner light.” Many of them were “Spiritualists.” Louis Berkhof wrote:
The Anabaptists virtually set aside the Word of God as a means of grace, and stressed what they called the internal word, the “inner light,” and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. To them the external word was but the letter that killeth, while the internal word was spirit and life. External calling meant little or nothing in their scheme.1
That conception took strong roots in the soil of American evangelicalism in the 19th century. Much of what came to be called “evangelicalism” was really only an American renewal of the earlier Anabaptist movements.2 The Anabaptists anticipated several features of what would come to be known as “Pietism” or what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). In Pietism what matters most is the quality of one’s subjective religious experience. The entire focus of piety is on the quest for an immediate encounter with the risen Christ. As this quest continues the objective, the instrumental, the means of grace recede farther into the background until they are lost altogether.
Of course, the reaction to “spiritualism” and pietism i.e., the rejection or marginalizing of the means of grace tends to sacerdotalism, the elevation (or denigration) of the means of grace into magic so that they are thought to work automatically (ex opere operato). Some Reformed writers have reacted, in turn, to sacerdotalism by marginalizing the means of grace and so it goes.
Again, Berkhof is helpful here when he defines the means of grace
…as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace. Of course these may never be dissociated from Christ, nor from the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit, nor from the Church which is the appointed organ for the distribution of the blessings of divine grace.3
There is a place between spiritualism and sacerdotalism. The Holy Spirit uses instruments. He uses the preaching of the Holy Gospel to bring us to new life and those who have new life believe. As I noted in part 1, we should not think that there are regenerate people walking about who do not yet believe. The regenerate believe and those who believe are regenerate. It is not possible that those who are spiritually dead should believe. That, among other things, is what it means to be dead (Eph 2:1–4). Paul says that we are “dead” in sins and trespasses. The first mistake of Pelagianizing movements is to downplay the spiritual consequences of sin. God said, “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). He did not say that we would be weakened but still able to “do our part” (covenantal moralism, e.g., the self-described Federal Vision movement) or to “cooperate with grace” (Rome). No, to be dead is to be inanimate, without the principle of spiritual life.
God, however, by his powerful creative and re-creative Word, operating with and by the Holy Spirit, has the power to speak us to life. This is the picture we get in Genesis 1. God spoke into the void and created all that is. The Holy Spirit was hovering over the face of the deep, as it were. Everything that was created came into being, Scripture says, through God the eternally begotten Son, the Logos (John 1:1–3). Notice, however, that the Triune God spoke creation into existence. God the Son incarnate operated by this same power when he spoke Lazaraus from death to life: “Lazarus come forth” (John 11:43). By the re-creative power of the gospel the dead were brought to life. This is just what happens when the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the message about Jesus’ perfect, holy, entire obedience as the substitute for his elect. When the announcement that Jesus obeyed, died, and was raised for our justification is proclaimed, God the Spirit is pleased to use that to bring his elect in the congregation from death to life:
?So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17; ESV).
The official preaching of the gospel in the churches is not magic. The Spirit works when and where he will (John 3) but he has promised to work through that message in a unique and powerful way. This is one reason why it is so important to get the gospel right (versus moralism) and to get it out. The visible, institutional church has a mission from our Lord. The church has been sent (Matt 28:18–20). This is why we preach the gospel freely, promiscuously, seriously to all. “Whosoever will may come” indeed and it is God the Holy Spirit, working through and with the preaching of the gospel who determines in any given time whosoever will. He gives new life. He gives faith and through that faith he creates a living, spiritual union with Christ.
Next time: what about the sacraments?
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 458–59.
- On this see the essay, “Magic and Noise….” in R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim, eds. Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (2010)
- Berkhof, Ibid., 604–05.
The picture of that communion table, pulpit, and baptismal bring back memories!