By God’s Grace and Christ’s Merits: Faith according to the Heidelberg Catechism, Part 5
This is the last post I’m doing in a series on Q&A 21, looking finally at the basis or ground upon which God grants us true faith and upholds and strengthens us in it.
What is true faith?
True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
As with the how I explored last time with the means by which God brings us to faith (by the Holy Spirit through the gospel), HC 21 identifies the ground of God’s work of granting true faith in two aspects: faith comes because of God’s grace, on the basis of Christ’s accomplished work. Crucially, HC 21 emphasizes that this twofold ground is all or nothing: it is merely of grace, only because of Christ.
Merely of God’s Grace
We believe in Christ as a gift of God. Paul couldn’t be clearer: ‘By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2:8-9). Our salvation by God’s grace through faith is precisely that — it is by grace, and thus not our own doing, but the free gift of God. We don’t believe because of any other reason but that we’ve received it as a merciful gift from our Lord. Who then can boast of his faith? Rather, we boast in God, we boast in the work of Christ for us (Gal 6:14).
Amazingly, this grace toward us has been purposed from eternity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must read the following carefully and often, because in it we find reason for ceaseless wonder and praise:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:3-14)
None of this means we aren’t ‘active’ in our faith in this gracious God. We, after all, are the one’s who believe in God; it’s not God believing in himself. It’s just that God gives us to believe in him. God’s freedom isn’t set against our freedom, as if we’re robots if he’s truly sovereign. On the contrary, we must hold both intimately and mysteriously together: ‘Work out your own salvation, knowing it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do, according to his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:12-13). It seems we often don’t realize that the choice isn’t between being absolutely free or being a puppet in God’s hands. We’re slaves to whatever holds our minds and hearts, according to Jesus (Matt 6:21, 12:34; Luke 4:18). If God didn’t give us to believe in him, we’d keep rebelling against him, and our ‘freedom’ would take us further into the death in which we’ve plunged ourselves headlong: ‘For in Adam all die’ (Rom 5:18). What good do we have, that we have not received (1 Cor 4:7)? But being a slave to righteousness is freedom indeed: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1; Rom 6:16-23).
Only for the Sake of Christ’s Merits
God grants us faith freely as a gift, but this gift isn’t absolutely free. In other words, it’s free for us, but only free for us because it wasn’t free for Jesus. God is a God who punishes sin, and we make mince meat of the text of scripture if we don’t recognize the utter seriousness with which God takes his own righteounsess and holiness and honor. Why would we need Jesus for redemption, if God could just ‘let it go’? Why would we need forgiveness, if God could just forget about our rebellion and our daily additions to our guilt?
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. But because of your heard and impenitent hearts you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed…. Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world be held accountable to God. (Rom 1:18; 2:5; 3:19)
Salvation is not primarily being saved from our circumstances or our mistakes or ourselves or even death, hell and the Devil — we’re saved by God, and saved from God — in the sense that it is God himself who must provide our redemption from just condemnation, if we are to be saved. We receive redemption from God as a free gift, because Jesus ‘came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt 20:28). Whatever the law speaks it speaks to those who are under the law, it’s true, and thus ‘through the law comes knowledge of sin’ (Rom 3:20). And yet, there is Jesus: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Gal 3:13). Jesus bought with his perfect life and curse-bearing death the gift that God has given us for his sake. Christ lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died, and rose again so that we might die to sin and live to God. (I’ve written about this a lot, for example here , here and here.)
Finally, this means that we need to be very careful not to make faith itself the ‘one little work’ I do to get in right with God. Faith isn’t like that; the whole character of true faith (again, as I’ve written about elsewhere) is to look away from ourselves and look to God in Christ. Faith turns from its own weakness and fickleness and places its confidence in the one in whom we may have true assurance of both his ability and his willingness to save us to the uttermost. As theologians have often said, faith is merely the empty hand that receives; faith is the money bag which is worthless in and of itself, but filled with gold it is a precious treasure. Faith always says ‘Yet not I, but the grace of God that is with me’ (1 Cor 15:10).
Solely by God’s grace and Christ’s merits, therefore, are we righteous by faith. As HC 60 so brilliantly says,
How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has filfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.