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Sure Knowledge of God’s Revelation: Faith according to the Heidelberg Catechism, Part 1 of 5

28 April, 2010


(Series originally posted 29 July — 7 August 2009.)

In the next five posts, I’ll be looking at each aspect or element of faith’s character and content, in an effort to unpack in some small way the rich account of true faith given in Q&A 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

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.

The first ingredient to true faith is sure knowledge that God’s revelation is the truth. Theologians often break faith’s character up into three parts, and the Catechism does something very similar, but it speaks of the first two parts  together here in this first statement. The traditional elements are knowledge (of what God has said and done, through hearing his word), assent (agreeing that what God has said in his word about himself and about us is true), and trust (putting our whole confidence in the one who has truly revealed himself in his word, rather than in ourselves or anything else). Both knowledge and assent to the revealed truth of who God is and what he’s done are in view in these first words of HC 21.

Jesus says in his high priestly prayer that ‘this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17:3). This doesn’t mean that the Father is God rather than the Son (cf. John 1:14, 18, 10:30), but that everlasting life entails knowledge of both Father and Son, coming to know the only God through the Son whom he has sent (and by the Spirit who gives knowledge of all these things, John 14:26). Therefore we are ‘sanctified in the truth’, which is the word of God (John 17:17).

A couple statements in James particularly highlight the ‘assent’ aspect of faith by pointing out the direct contrast between faith and doubt: ‘let [the one who lacks wisdom] ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind’ (James 1:6). Later, he says something with similar implications: ‘You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!’ (James 2:19). My point is that an integral aspect of faith is assent to the truth of revealed knowledge of God and his ways.

Hebrews 11‘s definition of faith encompasses all three aspects as well, but again I want to highlight the first two:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Heb 11:1-3)

It seems simple enough, but it’s easy to overlook the reality that we have assurance and hope concerning certain things; we have convictions about unseen things. Faith is more than knowledge of the truth, but it certainly is that. The author of Hebrews makes this obvious when he goes on to speak of creation ex nihilo — which is certainly something that we have to be told about in order to believe is true!

The fact that biblical faith by definition includes knowledge of God which he was given in space and time, and a reception of this revelation as true, is so important. Often ‘faith’ is defined as primarily our self-expression of a relatedness to something greater than ourselves, a certain grand I-don’t-know-what. This isn’t knowledge of what God has revealed. Often when someone says they ‘have faith’ it means that they wish or expect things will somehow work out the way they think best. This isn’t assent to truth in the Christian sense. Christian faith isn’t a feeling (although it certainly includes feelings), or a sense of something greater than ourselves (although we are certainly dealing with things greater than ourselves). Christian faith is much more concrete, because it has reference to who God is, according to what he has done and is doing, in real space and time. True faith is not self-referential, but looks outside of ourselves to its object, in knowledge and assent no less than in trust.

By faith, we know God — not whomever I think God might be, but the one and only self-existent and all-sufficient God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our creator and redeemer, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is God, and we have been given the understanding to know ‘him who is true’ because he has revealed himself by prophets and apostles, through whom we behold the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (1 John 5:20; 2 Cor 4:6).

I’ll explore HC 21′s description of the content of the true knowledge of faith in more detail, as well as the how of true faith, after I look at what’s really the ‘hinge’ of true faith — trust.

One Comment
  1. 30 April, 2010 12:57 am

    Apart from one experiencing Miracles especially The Miracle that is receiving “the love of The Truth”, “true faith” remains an unknown ;-(

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