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By the Spirit through the Gospel: Faith according to the Heidelberg Catechism, Part 4 of 5

7 May, 2010


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

This is the second to last post I’m doing in a series on Q&A 21, looking today at the means by which we come to true faith and are sustained and strengthened in it. Then, finally, I’ll look at the ground or basis of true faith. To put it another way, this time we’re looking at the how of true faith (God’s means of giving faith), next time we’re looking at the why of true faith (God’s ‘motive’ for giving faith).

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.

HC 21 identifies the how of true faith in two ways: worked by the Spirit, and worked through the gospel.

The Holy Spirit Works

True faith is something ‘the Holy Spirit works in me’. That’s a pretty straightforward claim about the ‘how’ of true faith. It is the Spirit who hovered over the face of the waters of creation (Gen 1:2), who ‘hovered over’ Mary at the incarnation (Luke 1:35), who descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism and rested on him (Matt 3:16), who came upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and indwells all those who believe in Jesus, who gives us new birth (John 3:3-8) as our guarantee of citizenship in the fullness of the new creation that is to come (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14).

That faith is a work of the Spirit further means that it is not our own work, but a gift of grace:

For 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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10)

By the Gospel

So true faith comes through the gracious work of the Spirit, and in turn comes ‘by the gospel’. Interestingly, then, we see not only that faith is brought about through the means of the work of the Holy Spirit, but that in bringing faith about the Spirit himself uses another means (so to speak). It’s important to recognize this: the Spirit hasn’t ordained that true faith should be given immediately, without means. God has ordains and provides means by which we come to faith and are built up in our faith. Hearing the gospel is the God-purposed way of coming to faith. Paul puts this better than I can:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then 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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”….So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:13-15, 17)

Paul cites the wonderful promise of Joel 2:32 that all who call upon the Lord will be saved, and then moves to the very practical issue of means: ‘How?…unless…. The main point: faith comes from hearing. The Spirit works faith in us, sustains our faith and strengthens it, through hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.

Finally, God has ordained means of sustaining and strengthening our faith, not only through the continual proclamation of the gospel, but through the ongoing nourishment of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is too much of a feast (so to speak) for me to hope to take up here, but HC 72-82 does a great job, for starters. I’ll end by directing you to QQ. 75-79:

How does the Lord’s Supper remind you and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts?

In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup. With this command he gave this promise: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood. (see Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25)

What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his poured-out blood?

It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ and by believing to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life (John 6:35, 40, 50-54). But it means more. Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body (John 6:55-56; 1 Cor 12:13). And so, although he is in heaven (Acts 1:9-11; 1 Cor 11:26; Col 3:1) and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone (1 Cor 6:15-17; Eph 5:29-30; 1 John 4:13). And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as members of our body are by one soul (John 6:56-58; 15:1-6; Eph 4:15-16; 1 John 3:24).

Where does Christ promise to nourish and refresh believers with his body and blood as surely as they eat this broken bread and drink this cup?

In the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:23-26) This promise is repeated by Paul in these words: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor 10:16-17)

Are the bread and wine changed into the real body and blood of Christ?

No. Just as the water of baptism is not changed into Christ’s blood and does not itself wash away sins but is simply God’s sign and assurance (Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5), so too the bread of the Lord’s Supper is not changed into the actual body of Christ (Matt 26:26-29) even though it is called the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17; 11:26-28) in keeping with the nature and language of sacraments (Gen 17:10-11; Exod 12:11, 13; 1 Cor 10:1-4).

Why then does Christ call the bread his body and the cup his blood, or the new covenant in his blood? (Paul uses the words, a participation in Christ’s body and blood.)

Christ has good reason for these words. He wants to teach us that as bread and wine nourish our temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood truly nourish our souls for eternal life (John 6:51, 55). But more important, he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance (1 Cor 10:16-17; 11:26), and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and paid for our sins (Rom 6:5-11).

And further reading, for those interested: Hearing is Believing: Seeing Jesus with our Ears Before our Eyes

And on the Lord’s Supper: Simon Jooste’s Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper: The Spirit as Bond Uniting us to the Vivifying Humanity of Christ


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