True faith

Introduction

“As by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,
so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:19)

This is the Bible’s summary of what we have studied so far in the catechism. Because of Adam’s sin, we are miserable sinners who deserve God’s wrath; but because of Jesus Christ we receive new life and peace with the Lord.

But does that mean that everybody in the world is automatically right with God? “Are all men, then, saved by Christ, just as they perished through Adam?” asks the catechism (q&a 20). The answer is: no. Not everybody is saved, and when we are saved it is not automatic. We need a true faith. It is absolutely necessary for salvation that we believe. This is clearly taught in the Bible. For instance, Paul and Silas were once asked: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered promptly: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Jesus himself said: “Whoever believes in [the Son of God] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” (John 3:16, 18)

If faith is so important, we should learn what it is and where it comes from.

    True faith.

        1. Saving faith
        2. Knowing faith
        3. Comforting faith

Saving faith

Faith is not an arbitrary hoop for us to jump through. People sometimes make it sound like that. As if God picked a random thing for us to do, and then counts it as good enough for a sinner to be saved. The Reformed churches rejected this idea as unbiblical (Canons of Dort, chapter I, error 3). If you think of faith as an arbitrary condition for salvation, you have misunderstood the importance of Jesus Christ.

The point of faith is that it connects us to our Saviour. The catechism says: that by a true faith we are grafted into Christ. The language of “grafting” comes from the context of orchards and vineyards. You can cut a branch of one fruit tree and attach it to another tree. When this is done properly, the branch will become an integral part of that tree. It will receive nutrients from the tree and can produce good fruits.

The Bible uses this image in Rom. 11:17-21, to describe how non-Jewish believers, as it were, become part of the family tree of Abraham. They are like branches of a wild olive tree, which are cut and grafted into the original, cultivated olive tree. You can also think of Jesus’ teaching in John 15, where he compares himself with a grapevine and the believers with the branches.

The point is this: we can only be saved if Jesus’ obedience and righteousness and holiness becomes ours. This is only possible if, in a profound way, we are part of him, so that his life is now also our life. Just as a vine passes on water and nutrition to all its branches, so Jesus passes all his goodness to those who really belong to him. Then they will live the holy life for which they were created. Then they will love God and love others. As the Lord said: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit.” (John 15:5)

Faith is that life-giving connection between Jesus Christ and us. Real faith makes us one with Jesus. The Apostle Paul often calls this: “Being in Christ.” Real faith is the way in which we take what he gives to us.

That faith is indispensable. If we don’t have real faith, if we are not grafted into Christ and do not get the necessary spiritual nutrients from him, then we are on our own. As we have seen, there is no hope for sinful human beings on their own, without a Saviour. Faith is therefore absolutely necessary.

Are all people saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam? No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.

Knowing faith

What is faith? What does it look like? How do you do it? The word “faith” is closely connected to the verb “believing”. At the heart of faith is believing that Jesus Christ is indeed the Saviour. We need to know this core fact; we must be sure of it. This is the first thing that the catechism says about faith (q&a 21): True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word.

This means, first of all, that we know the things that God has told us. There are people who worship and revere what they don’t know. When the apostle Paul came to Athens, he saw an altar in the city with the inscription: “To an unknown God.” (Acts 17:23) Religion without knowledge cannot bring you close to God. You wouldn’t know where to look for him, what to hope for, or how to live a good life. So when Paul preached in Athens, he began by saying: Let me tell you about the God you are trying to worship. Let me give you the knowledge you need to do it well.

Paul makes this point again in one of his letters.

How then will they call on [the Lord] 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 preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14-15)

An important part of Christian preaching and teaching is to give people the knowledge about God.

Where does that knowledge come from? God has revealed it to us in his Word, says the catechism. If we could only look around us in the world and talk to other people, we would never have more than an inkling about God. Thankfully, he showed us who he is. We traced some of this in the previous lesson: We know all this from the gospel, which God revealed in Paradise, through the patriarchs, the prophets, the sacrifices, and through his Son Jesus Christ. All we need to know has been written down—practically, for us, God’s Word is the Bible.

Faith needs knowledge, and the knowledge about God can be found in his Word, in the Bible. That is why the church has sermons, catechism classes, and Bible study groups. That is why we encourage parents to tell their children Bible stories, and why we expect Christian schools to have classes about Christian doctrine.

True faith needs knowledge. But it should not be just factual knowledge. It is about things we should understand with our hands and our heart. It has to be personal. When God reveals himself to us, he does not give us cold facts, but he pursues a relationship between him and us. We must know about God’s law, but in a way that makes us feel bad about our sins. We must know about the Saviour, but in a way that makes us long for him. We must know God, but in such an intimate way that this knowledge blends together with love.

And it has to be sure knowledge. That doesn’t mean that we must score an A on a Bible quiz, or that we may never have questions. But there is a difference between knowing something and accepting it as true. You could study Christian theology for years, and still remain uncommitted, or even dismissive of what you learn. In the Bible, James points this out powerfully when he says: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) The devil’s knowledge of God may be profound, but it is not faith, because instead of accepting it, he hates it.

In theology we speak of our “assent” to what God tells us. Lord, you have told me in your law that I must live a life of love, and I agree that this is indeed my purpose in life. You have shown me the ugliness of my sin, and I acknowledge that I am a sinner in need of redemption. You have told me about Jesus Christ, and I accept that he is the only way to be saved.

Comforting faith

But there is a third aspect of faith: confidence.

I need to know that the beautiful things God shows us in the gospel are true for me, that they are true about me. Not only that Jesus is the Saviour. Not only that he builds a relationship with people and saves them. But that he is my Saviour and saves me. I need to know this from the bottom of my heart, so that I can rely on it, so that it can become the foundation of my life.

When the New Testament speaks of “believing” and “faith”, it uses a word that often must be translated as “trust”, or “entrusting yourself”. Trust in God, not only that what he says is the truth, but that he loves you and cares for you. Entrusting yourself to God, not only accepting what he says, but giving yourself over to him. It is like daring to fall backward: not only knowing that someone is there who could catch you, but trusting that this friend will catch you.

Faith consists of knowledge, assent, and confidence. The Heidelberg Catechism highlights the confidence. Historically, this was necessary because the Roman church downplayed and almost denied this personal, confident aspect of faith. It merely looked for assent, for people agreeing with the Bible and especially with the church’s teaching. But even today there are Protestant Christians who leave confidence out of the equation. They sincerely agree with the gospel and hope for salvation through Jesus Christ, but they don’t dare to be sure that it is really for them.

The catechism points out that confidence, even firm confidence, belongs to Christian faith. How is that possible? First of all, the Bible gives reason for confidence. It does not leave us wondering about the possibility of salvation. It declares boldly: “If you believe in the Lord Jesus, you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Not: you might be saved, but: you will be saved. Guaranteed. Because Jesus is a perfect Saviour, and his work is complete. There is not a person in the world whom he could not save. You don’t need to be anything special; you merely have to believe in Jesus.

Of course, those who doubt about their salvation often doubt about the quality of their faith. Sure, if I believe in the Lord Jesus, I will be saved; but do I truly believe? Is what I have true faith? Thankfully, the Bible is full of encouragement for people who are concerned about the weakness of their faith. Jesus was patient and loving toward his disciples, even though he often called them: “You of little faith…!” He showed his mercy to the man who said: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

The catechism also encourages us by showing where this faith comes from. The last line of q&a 21 in the Book of Praise says: “This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.” This is a Biblical truth—but the original version of the catechism had this sentence in a different place. Originally, it said: “True faith … is also a firm confidence, which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but also to me,” and so on. The emphasis is: the Holy Spirit will give you the confidence that God’s salvation is for you. He will make you see that you receive forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation. This is a clear echo from the very first answer of the catechism: “By his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life.”

This means that the quality of our faith does not depend on us. Nothing in salvation depends on how good we do things. Everything we get from God is out of mere grace, and only for the sake of Christ’s merit. This may be the hardest part of the Christian faith: to rely completely on the fact that nothing depends on you, but everything on the Lord Jesus. Even your faith grows by the power of the Holy Spirit. He turns mere knowledge about God into heartfelt acceptance and into loving trust. He translates the teachings from the Bible into powerful conviction, and into a willingness to live for Jesus. He develops the seed of God’s Word into the fruit of living a holy life.

In practice, our faith is not always strong. Especially our confidence wavers. We do not always feel perfect assurance, the full conviction that we are truly saved. Then it is good to think about the sources of our faith and confidence in God. It does not depend on how good we are, but on the trustworthiness of God; and he tells us in his Word that Jesus is the Saviour we may embrace. Our faith does not grow from our willpower, but is worked in our heart by the Holy Spirit. It is therefore important to use God’s Word, to read it in the Bible and to hear it proclaimed in the church. It is essential to pray to God for his Holy Spirit, so that he may grow your faith.

Conclusion

Faith is absolutely necessary for our salvation, because it connects us to Jesus Christ. Through faith, his life becomes ours. His righteousness covers our sins; his power makes us live holy lives.

Faith has different aspects: sure knowledge, which is personal, and to which we agree from the heart; and the firm confidence that all that Jesus is, is really for me. This faith is not something that we invent. The knowledge comes from the Word of God; that is why Christian believers study the Bible. And, as we study God’s Word and pray for a stronger faith, the Holy Spirit grows our confidence day by day. Then we will also see our faith take shape in our everyday living. Or rather, we see the divine life of Jesus himself at work in us, so that we live lives of holiness and good works and joyful worship from the heart.

Questions

Reading/listening questions

  1. What does it mean to be “grafted into Christ by a true faith”?
  2. What is the main reason we study the Bible? How is it connected to faith?
  3. What do we mean by “assent”?
  4. How can you know that Jesus’ work and salvation are for you?

Discussion questions

  1. Why is faith necessary to be saved? Isn’t Jesus’ sacrifice good enough to save everybody?
  2. What is the most important aspect of faith? Is it what you know? what you say? what you do? what you feel?
  3. What can and should we do to grow our faith?

Suggested Bible reading schedule

MondayHebrews 11:1-18. How does the Bible define “faith”? How did faith change the lives of the people mentioned in the text?
TuesdayHebrews 11:19 – 12:2. How does this chapter show the power of faith? What great advantage do we have over the Old Testament believers?
WednesdayJohn 3:1-18. Why does Jesus claim that he must be believed? Why is that faith so important?
ThursdayJohn 15:1-17. What key aspect of faith does this passage describe in v. 1-10? What fruit of faith does v. 11 mention? What effect of faith is discussed in v. 12-17?
FridayRomans 10:1-17. What kind of righteousness does faith pursue? What is the source of faith, according to v. 14-17?
SaturdayJames 2:14-26. Are good works an essential part of true faith?

Further reading

Assurance of salvation

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