It’s been closing in on twenty years since my wife and I packed our bags and moved from rural Maryland to Jackson, Mississippi so that I could attend seminary. And though that seems like almost another life, one question I was asked stands out still today. You see, part of my application to attend seminary included a telephone interview in which I was asked to share a little about my faith and walk with Christ. In that interview, the interviewer asked, “Are you saved by faith or by works?” My response, one practiced both in my personal witness and from the pulpit at that time was, “We are saved by grace alone; not by works.”
The interviewer pressed me, “Not by any works at all?” I said, “My works are of no benefit to my salvation.” Once more he asked the same question, “Any works?”
Now you see, my mother didn’t raise any dummies, so I got to thinking more closely about the interviewer’s question. What was it that he was trying to fish out of me. I knew my theology and I knew what the Apostle Paul said in Romans and Ephesians about salvation by grace, but I recognized he was fishing for something, so I thought it through again. Were there any works involved in my salvation? Certainly not on my part. My own salvation was a story of God’s glorious victory over a rebellious sinner, a sinner who only came to faith kicking and screaming because I knew the lifestyle to which God was calling me. My only contribution was dragging my heels as best as I could against God’s irresistible grace. No, there were no works of my own that contributed to my salvation, it was entirely a work of Christ. And right there, it struck me as for what the interviewer was fishing. I said, “It is only by the work of Christ that I am saved.” And I could almost see his smile through the telephone.
One thing that we sometimes miss is that God’s grace, while free to us, is not truly free. It cost someone something, and that someone was His Son, Jesus. The just demands of the Law had to be paid and they had to be paid in full. I can’t do that for myself, let alone for another. And thus, this work Jesus did on my behalf and on behalf of every believer throughout the history of mankind. This is the work that Jesus did on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, it was a work found both in Christ’s active obedience (fulfilling the Law of God perfectly in this life) and in his passive obedience (receiving upon himself the wrath of his Father for my sins and the sins of every believer throughout history). And, in this sense, we are saved by works — works found in the merit of Christ. In that, we receive free grace so that no man may boast.
And so, Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism closes with this as a reminder: “These are freely given by God and he does it out of grace alone for the sake of Christ’s merit.” It is what theologians will call a “vicarious” sacrifice — one in which Jesus does the work in which we benefit. We receive it freely by God’s grace alone…yet, it is for Christ’s merit and he is rightly praised for this work. Though we receive it freely, there was a terrible price paid for our redemption.
One of the beauties of the Heidelberg Catechism is that much of its language is found in the first person — “I” believe this to be true or that applies to “me.” Unlike many of the other Reformed Catechisms and Confessions, this makes Heidelberg stand out as a very personal and intimate profession of belief with rich pastoral overtones (a testimony to the pastor’s heart of Ursinus and Olevianus, its principle drafters).
Question 21 illustrates the importance of this approach in first person as it asks about the nature of true faith. And here, one of the statements is that the person with true faith believes not only that forgiveness, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are possible and worked by Christ for others, but the person who confesses this answer of the Catechism professes that these things are worked for him or her personally. More simply, it affirms that with faith comes the assurance of salvation. And, pastorally speaking, assurance is one of those questions that people struggle with the most.
What is interesting is the question of how and where people seek to find their assurance. In pentecostal circles, assurance is rooted in experience and feelings, hence worship services are built around seeking to generate that experiential faith in the person. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. First, experiences can be created and manipulated — lighting, hands in the air for prolonged periods, and music are all designed to artificially create in a person a sense of euphoria which is then equated with the work of the Holy Spirit. The second part of the problem is that when a person bases assurance on their experience of God’s presence (no matter how genuine that experience might be), that sets them up on a kind of spiritual roller-coaster because for every height of experience there will be lows as well. This leaves a person with no ongoing assurance of salvation.
In Arminian circles outside of pentecostalism (Methodists, Freewill Baptists, etc…), assurance tends to be rooted in the decision the person has made to be a follower of Jesus. Not only does this make salvation God’s response to man’s action (something not testified to in the Bible), but once again it establishes a theological context where people can lose their salvation. Indeed, what if one, due to a series of events, “chooses” wrongly and loses assurance. Hence, in churches such as these, much more emphasis is placed on the “Altar Call” and on constantly renewing their commitment to Christ. As one person who grew up in the Free Methodist movement recently shared with me, “I felt like I had to be re-converted every service.”
In Reformed circles, assurance is not seated within man, but it is found within God where it belongs. Assurance is based on God’s promises to those who come to him in faith. And, since God is unchanging and eternal, those promises are such that they can be relied upon. Truly, that does not neglect the place of experience — Paul writes that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God — but our assurance is not based on that experience; it is based on the humble reliance upon God to fulfill his promises to us (personally and individually) as he has done so in others. Such is the nature of God’s assurance and such is the importance of this statement about faith. Faith is the assured knowledge that the things promised to believers in Christ belong to me personally just as they have been given to others — all through faith and because of the completed work of Christ. Thus, in Christ, all of the promises of the Old Testament are yes and amen.
Remember those days when you were first learning to swim, perhaps with your father or mother standing beside the swimming pool, encouraging you to jump in and they would catch you? Perhaps it was learning to ride a two-wheeled bike for the first time and your parent (or maybe a trusted older sibling) was keeping you up, saying “trust me, I’ve got you.” Perhaps the thing to which you can relate is stepping out in a business venture and your partner or backers saying, “trust me, you got this!”
We rely a great deal on trust…and to some extent, if you don’t place your trust in others you end up becoming a curmudgeon and a cynic and you isolate yourselves from relationships. But even though trust is a part of most of our relationships, often we do not spend much time thinking about what trust happens to be.
The dictionary defines trust in terms of your “belief in the reliability” of another — in other words, it points to someone or something that is outside of you upon which you rely. In many ways, the word is almost synonymous with the word, “faith.” Trust is that recognition that if you rely upon another person, they will not let you down.
And so, when the Catechism, in Question 21, asks about true faith, it speaks of having a sincere trust that the Holy Spirit works in me through the Gospel. What is this all about? The Spirit has many roles in the life of the believer — he is counselor (John 16:7), teacher (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27), and giver of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) amongst other things. But most basically, His role is to conform the life of the believer into the image of the Son.
How does the Spirit do this? The most basic way he does this task is through the Gospel — through the word studied and preached and applied to the life of the Christian. We might even more simply speak of this in the context of the “ordinary means of grace” or in the context of the “keys of the kingdom,” both of which we will talk about more later in this catechism.
And so, an aspect of True faith, or saving faith as some would put it, is the trust that the Spirit is at work in me, conforming me into the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29) — in other words, that tomorrow I might look more like Jesus than I did today. Trusting also implies that we act upon that trust — striving as empowered by the Holy Spirit toward this goal of honoring Christ, whether through applying the Ten Commandments to my life as a way to grow in my sanctification or in seeking to be obedient to the many other commands we would see Jesus, our Lord, set before us. In other words, genuine trust requires an action on my part — a response to that trust — jumping in the pool, riding the bike, entering that business venture. We act in faith in the confidence that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel.
And note one more thing…it is the trust that the Spirit is acting in us through the Gospel — this does not require (or even speak of!) supernatural works (this I would argue, ended at the close of the first century with the close of the Canon). It is through the Gospel — the written revelation of God contained in the Bible. A humble and faithful life, rooted in the Word of God, is a far greater testimony than all the “miracles” that man might like to think he can produce.
“The fullness of your word is truth; everlasting is the judgment of your righteousness.”
“But he answered, saying, ‘It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’”
(Matthew 4:4 — citing Deuteronomy 8:3)
When the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, “What is True Faith?” (Question 21), the answer begins with the statement that true faith is “the confident knowledge that everything that God reveals in his Word is true.” Every time we recite a creed in church or for another event, we begin with the words, “I believe,” again, implying that there is a body of knowledge that goes along with true, saving faith. But what is the basis for that knowledge? It is the Bible and a commitment to the notion that it is the very word of God and that it is true.
Now, it is easy to critique the liberal church today, which largely seeks to ignore, trivialize, and strip the Word of God of any divine power. And it is even easier to critique the more broadly evangelical churches for picking and choosing what they wish to follow and consider authoritative — paying lip-service to the idea that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but flatly ignoring things that shake their theological paradigms. It is also easy to critique those churches that are heavily committed to ecumenicism, for they all-too-quickly set the Word aside in favor of fellowship. But fellowship on what basis?
But, let us turn our attention a bit closer to home. We who claim to hold to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, do we really believe that everything written in his word is Truth? If we genuinely believe that, why are we so often so quiet when people around us treat God’s word as if it is a lie?
Think about it this way, if someone was doing a math problem around us, and was doing the math incorrectly, would we not say something to correct them? If someone around us is using a word wrong, would we not say something like, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”? If someone mentions that they have been eating chicken, lightly toasted, but still largely uncooked, we would insist with them that they cook the meat to prevent an infection.
So, if we will insist on true principles when it comes to earthly things, why not with eternal? If we really believe that one of the marks of true faith is a belief that everything in God’s word is true, we should insist on it and stand for it not only in our own circles, but in the world around us. And, we should insist upon it with ourselves. In other words, if we know the Bible says we should do this or that, we should do this or that — whatever it is that God commands. Whatever.