In Christianity, faith is extremely important. That is why the catechism talks about it often. In Lord’s Day 7, it said that only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ. Then it defined what faith is: knowing that God’s promises are true, and being confident that they are for me. Then in Lord’s Day 23, it said that we are righteous before God only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in Jesus—believing in Jesus—is the only way in which we can be right with God. It makes sense, then, to ask: where does this faith come from?
You may say: isn’t believing something that you do? Why then ask where it comes from? But the Bible teaches us that when we believe, that is not something that came spontaneously from inside us. For instance, Phil. 1:29 says: “It has been granted to you that you should believe in Christ.” If faith is so important, and it doesn’t simply come from within us, we should learn where faith comes from, and how our faith can be fed and grow stronger.
The source of faith.
1. The Holy Spirit
2. The proclaimed Word
3. The tangible sacraments
The Holy Spirit
Where does faith come from? The basic answer is: From the Holy Spirit. When we discussed the Holy Spirit in Lord’s Day 20, we said: he is also given to me to make me by true faith share in Christ and all his benefits. God gives us the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit produces faith.
Because the Holy Spirit is God himself, this means that God himself produces faith, deep within us. He works it in our hearts, says q&a 65. How special this is, you realise if you think about what our hearts would be like without faith. Remember what our big problem is: I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour. If I follow my natural heart, I do not believe in God, but want to keep him out of my life. The Bible uses the picture of a “heart of stone”, stubborn, unwilling to see the need for a Saviour, unmoved by God’s grace. That hard “heart of stone” must become a soft “heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26). Unless that happens, there can be no dedication to God, no love for Jesus, no faith.
When the Holy Spirit goes to work in our hearts, to make it ready and willing to believe in God, we call this regeneration—or being “born again”. Jesus famously said: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, 5) The idea of “born again” is nothing less than starting a new life, as a completely different person. You can see this especially in people who were regenerated suddenly, who came to believe in a very short time instead of a slow process: you can tell how they have changed.
When we believe, we become one with our Lord Jesus in a profound way. This is only possible because of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ own Spirit; but he also fills the hearts and lives of those who believe in Jesus.
We have to realise that the Christian faith is very different from what the world around us believes and accepts. Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 2:6ff: “It is not a wisdom of this age … We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God … We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.”
The only reason why we believe, and are convinced that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour, is that the Holy Spirit teaches it to us. That teaching takes place where it really matters: deep inside us, in our heart.
The proclaimed Word
But that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit only works in secret. He uses very concrete, practical ways to teach us and to give and strengthen our faith. There are especially two things that the Spirit normally uses for this purpose; we sometimes call them the “means of grace”. They are listed in q&a 65: the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments.
The first means of grace is the preaching of the gospel, the proclaimed Word of God. We already said it in LD 7: This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel. The gospel is the message of the Bible. That message is not at all secret. Billions of copies of the Bible have been published. Preachers throughout the world read the gospel and apply it to the lives of people. While it is true that the Holy Spirit works deep inside us to give us faith, the content of that faith is no hidden mystery. The content of that faith is the message of the Bible, which has been summarised, for instance, in the Apostles’ Creed.
In q&a 66, 67 the catechism gives once again a summary of the gospel: it is the promise that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross. It is the teaching that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.
That message of the cross is the heart of the matter, and it is out there for anyone to hear. It is not in line with the thinking of this world, and Paul even says: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” (1 Cor. 1:18) But it is the one key thing that we must know and embrace in faith. Therefore Paul also says: “I decided to know nothing among you expect Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)
You cannot believe in Jesus unless you first learn who he is and what he has done. That is why the gospel is so important. Hearing the gospel does not save you, but the Holy Spirit works with the gospel to give faith. This is why the church rightly puts so much emphasis on preaching, that is, proclaiming the good news about Jesus and showing how it matters for your life. In Rom. 10:14, Paul underscores the importance of preaching: “How 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?”
So the message of the Bible, the gospel, is essential. But it is not only important for people who come to the faith for the first time. There is no moment in your Christian life where you can conclude that you know the simple gospel and don’t need to hear it anymore. Throughout history, people have made that mistake, and tried to find deeper, secret knowledge of the Spirit deep within themselves. But there is only one knowledge we need, and that is Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen. The letters near the end of the Bible address this clearly: John writes: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.” (1 John 2:24), and Jude writes about “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude :3)
This means that all believers, even long-time, mature believers, must always be eager to hear the simple gospel. As the hymn says: “I love to tell the story; / ‘t is pleasant to repeat / what seems each time I tell it / more wonderfully sweet.” You never graduate from the basic gospel school; and it is essential that from this pulpit, and any pulpit in the Christian church, the simple message of the cross and the open tomb is repeated, clearly. And when you hear that basic gospel, maybe for the umpteenth time, the Holy Spirit may use it, will use it, to strengthen your faith, to anchor your hope, to grow your love for the Lord who gave his life for you on the cross.
The proclamation of the gospel is the most basic means by which the Holy Spirit works faith in our heart, and strengthens that faith. The gospel message itself is a power from God for salvation of all who believe (Rom. 1:16); and it is wise to read that message in your Bible and meditate on it from day to day. But the preaching and the live teaching of that gospel in the church is also powerful, since it is in the gathering of believers that the Holy Spirit is especially at work. It is foolish not to come to church whenever we can, for that is where we use gospel words to praise the Lord together, and encourage each other to live on the basis of that one sacred truth.
The tangible sacraments
The Holy Spirit works faith in my heart by the preaching of the gospel—and also strengthens it by the use of the sacraments. That is the second “means of grace”. In the next five Lord’s Days we will explore the sacraments in much more detail; for now, just a short introduction.
It is not easy to define what a sacrament is. When the church still spoke mostly Greek, the word mystery was used. When a person was baptised or participated at the Lord’s Supper, he partook of a profound truth beyond human knowledge. In the Latin-speaking church, the word sacramentum was used, which means “a sacred activity”, because in the sacraments, something special and holy is happening. In the Middle Ages, the church identified seven sacraments; apart from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it recognised the sacraments of confirmation (profession of faith), penance (confession of sin), marriage, ordination of priests, and the final rites (anointing of a dying person).
At the time of the Reformation, the list was narrowed to two. As q&a 68 asks and answers: How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant? — Two: holy baptism and the holy supper. The emphasis is here on what the Lord Jesus Christ clearly commanded his church to do. As we will see in LD 26 and LD 28, he specifically told his disciples to baptise, and specifically instructed them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
A sacrament, then, is a holy worship activity, instituted by our Lord himself, in which we use physical symbols to have deep fellowship with God. The catechism says in q&a 66 that sacraments are visible, but we must go a step further and say that sacraments are also tangible: we feel the water of baptism on our skin, and we taste the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Just watching the sacrament is not the same as participating in it; and the Medieval church was quite wrong in having people merely watch the priest eat the bread or drink the wine.
The catechism describes sacraments as visible signs and seals. A “sign” is a picture, a representation of something; to be precise, the sacraments are a picture of the gospel. The washing with water and the eating and drinking of the communion elements show that Jesus washes away sin and that sustains life. But a sacrament is not merely a sign, not just a picture. It is also a “seal”, a clear guarantee that the gospel promise is for us, who use the sacrament. My baptism shows that God promises to me to wash away my sins. When I participate at the Lord’s Supper, I taste that Jesus has given himself to me to give me eternal life.
The sacraments are the signs and seals of the gospel—they are not an additional message, but teach the very same thing. That is the point of q&a 67. Both the preaching and the sacraments are meant to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit uses both the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments to grow our faith.
There is a difference: the sacraments only make sense in the context of gospel preaching. Otherwise, they are at best symbolic acts without a clear meaning. Again, that is where much went wrong in the Middle Ages: people felt that the sacraments were sacred, but didn’t quite understand what they meant, and that led to all kinds of superstition. When we use the sacraments, we always make sure that we use them with understanding. The sacraments underscore what the gospel explains. Or, in the words of q&a 66, they were instituted by God so that by their use he might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.
The Christian message is very clear: we need saving, and that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. Where does that faith come from? On one hand, the answer lies with the deep mysteries and miracles of God. The Holy Spirit works faith in my heart, and the details about when and how he does it are far beyond what we can understand.
But on the other hand, the Bible makes clear that the Holy Spirit uses simple means. When he grows people’s faith, he uses the preaching of the Word, and he strengthens that faith further through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It seems so simple: a book with a story that we hear over and over. A sprinkling or pouring of water. Eating some bread and wine. If you have a critical attitude, you may complain: is that it? No complex rituals, no special incantations, no fancy meditation techniques?
But what seems nonsense to the world, God uses to reveal its power. What should we do? Read the Bible and listen to the preaching, in the community of the church, in the context of worship and prayer. Enjoy the simple sacraments Christ instituted. In themselves, these things may not seem much. But the Holy Spirit uses them as a power of salvation to create the greatest miracle of all, that lost sinners turn to the Lord Jesus in faith and are saved.
- Where does faith come from?
- What is regeneration?
- What are the “means of grace”
- Why is preaching so important?
- What are the two sacraments?
- What is a sacrament?
- What does it mean that a sacrament is a sign? What does it means that it is a seal?