Excerpted from his book,
A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
The subject of faith is introduced next in order:
1. Because it is the means by which we are made partakers of the Mediator.
2. Because the preaching of the gospel profits nothing without faith.
In speaking of faith, we must enquire:
I. What is faith?
II. Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak? III. In what does faith differ from hope?
IV. What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
V. What are the effects of faith?
VI. To whom is it given?
I. What is Faith?
The word faith, according to Cicero, is derived from fiendo, which signifies doing, because that which is declared is performed. It is, according to him, the assurance, and truth of contracts, and of whatever may be spoken, and is the foundation of justice. According to the common definition, faith is a certain knowledge of facts, or conclusions, to which we assent on the testimony of faithful witnesses, whom we may not disbelieve, whether it be God, or angels, or men, or experience. But since, according to the most general distinction, there is one kind of faith in divine, and another in human affairs, we must here enquire, what is faith in divine things, or what is theological faith? The definition of faith, therefore, taken generally, must be given somewhat more exactly, and yet it must be such as to comprise in it all the different forms of faith spoken of in the Scriptures.
Faith, in general, of whatever kind mention is made in the Holy Scriptures, is an assent to, or a certain knowledge of what is revealed concerning God, his will, works, and grace, in which we confide upon divine testimony. Or, it is to yield assent to every word of God delivered to the church, in the law and gospel, on account of the declaration of God himself.
Faith is, also, often taken for the doctrine of the church, or for those things of which the word of God informs us, and which are necessary to faith, as when it is called the Christian faith, the Apostolic faith. It is, likewise, often used for the fulfillment of ancient promises, or for the things themselves, which are believed; as “Before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” (Gal. 3:23.)
II. Of How Many Kinds Of Faith Do The Scriptures Speak?
There are four kinds of faith enumerated in the Holy Scriptures, viz: historical, temporary, the faith of working miracles, and justifying or saving faith. The difference which exists between the different kinds of faith here specified, will appear by giving a proper definition of each.
Historical faith is to know and believe that every word of God is true which is divinely delivered and revealed, whether by the voice, or by oracles, or by visions, or by any other method of revelation by which the divine will is made known unto us, upon the authority and declaration of God himself. It is called historical because it is merely a knowledge of those things which God is said to have done, or now does, or will hereafter do. The Scriptures speak of this faith in these places: “If I have all faith so that I could remove mountains,” which may also be understood of all the different kinds of faith, except justifying. “The devils believe and tremble.” “Simon also believed,” viz: that the doctrine of Peter was true, yet he had no justifying faith. (1 Cor. 13:2. James 2:19. Acts 8:13.)
Temporary faith is an assent to the doctrines of the church, accompanied with profession and joy, but not with a true and abiding joy, such as arises from a consciousness that we are the objects of the divine favor, but from some other cause, whatever it may be, so that it endures only for a time, and in seasons of affliction dies away. Or, it is to assent to the doctrine delivered by the prophets and apostles, to profess it, to glory in it, and to rejoice for a time in the knowledge of it; but not on account of an application of the promise to itself, or on account of a sense of the grace of God in the heart, but for other causes. This definition is drawn from what Christ says in the explanation of the parable of the sower; “He that received the seed into the stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while, for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.” (Matt. 13:20, 21.)
The causes of this joy are in a manner infinite, and different in different individuals; yet they are all temporary, and when they fade, the faith that is built upon them, vanishes away. Hypocrites rejoice in hearing the gospel, either because it is new to them, or because it seems to calm their minds, whilst it delivers them from the burdens which men, by their traditions, have imposed upon them, as does the doctrine of christian liberty, justification, &c.; or, because they seek, under its profession, a cloak for their sins, and hope to reap rewards and advantages, both public and private, such as riches, honors, glory, &c., which shows itself when they are called to bear the cross; for then, because they have no root in themselves, they fall away. But hypocrites do not rejoice as true believers, from a sense of the grace of God, and from an application to themselves of the benefits offered in the divine word, which may be regarded as the cause of true and substantial joy in the faithful – the removal of which single cause is sufficient to make their faith temporary.
This temporary faith differs from historical only in the joy which accompanies it. Historical faith includes nothing more than mere knowledge; whilst this has joy connected with this knowledge; for these time-serving men “receive the word with joy.” The devils believe, historically, and tremble, but they do not rejoice in the knowledge which they have; but rather wish it were extinguished; yea, they do not even profess themselves to be followers of this doctrine, although they know it to be true; but hate and oppose it most bitterly. In men, however, historical faith is sometimes joined with profession, and sometimes not; for men often, whatever may be the causes, profess that truth and religion which they hate. Many also who know the doctrine to be true, still oppose it. Sie wollten dass die Bibel im Rhein schwimme. These sin against the Holy Ghost.
Obj. But the devil has often professed Christ. Therefore he cannot be said to hate this doctrine.
Ans. He did not, however, profess Christ from any desire of advancing and promoting his doctrine, but that he might mingle with it his own falsehoods, and thus cause it to be suspected. It is for this reason that Christ commands him to keep silent, as Paul also does in Acts 16:18.
The faith of miracles is a special gift of effecting some extraordinary work, or of foretelling some particular event by divine revelation. Or, it is a firm persuasion, produced by some divine revelation, or peculiar promise in regard to some future miraculous working, which the person desires to accomplish, and which he foretells. This faith cannot be drawn, simply, out of the general word of God, unless some special promise or revelation be connected with it. The Apostle speaks of this kind of faith, when he says, “If I had all faith so that I could remove mountains,” &c. (1 Cor. 13:2.) This declaration may, however, be understood of all the different kinds of faith, except justifying, yet it is spoken with special reference to the faith of miracles.
That this is a distinct kind of faith, is proven:
1. From the declaration of Christ. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove,” &c. (Matt. 17:20.) Many holy men also have had strong faith, as Abraham, David, &c., and yet they did not remove mountains. Therefore, this species of faith is distinct from justifying faith, which all true christians possess.
2. Exorcists, as the sons of Sceva, (Acts 19:14,) have endeavored to cast out devils, when they had not the gift or power of accomplishing it, who were afterwards severely punished, when the evil spirit fell upon them, overcame and wounded them.
3. Simon Magus is said to have believed, and yet he was not able to work miracles; he, therefore, desired to purchase this gift.
4. The devil has a knowledge of what is historical, and yet he cannot work miracles; because no one, except the Creator, is able to change the nature of things.
5. Judas taught, and wrought miracles, as did the other Apostles; therefore, he had a historical faith, (perhaps also temporary,) and the faith of miracles; and yet he had not that faith which justifies; for Christ said of him, “he is a devil.” (John 6:70.)
6. Many shall say unto Christ, “Lord, Lord, have we not in thy name cast out devils?” to whom he will nevertheless reply, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:22.)
7. Lastly, the other kinds of faith extend to all things which the word of God reveals, and requires us to believe. The faith of miracles, however, refers merely to certain works and extraordinary events. It is, therefore, a distinct kind of faith.
Justifying faith is properly that which is defined in the catechism; according to which definition, the general nature of saving faith consists in knowledge and an assured confidence; for there can be no faith in a doctrine that is wholly unknown. It is proper for us, therefore, to obtain a knowledge of that in which we are to believe, before we exercise faith; from which we may see the absurdity of the implicit faith of the Papists. The difference, or formal character of saving faith, is the confidence and application which every one makes to himself, of the free remission of sins by and for the sake of Christ. The property, or peculiar character of this faith, is trust and delight in God, on account of this great benefit. The efficient cause of justifying faith is the Holy Ghost. The instrumental cause is the gospel, in which the use of the sacraments is also comprehended. The subject of this faith is the will and heart of man.
Justifying or saving faith differs, therefore, from the other kinds of faith, because it alone is that assured confidence by which we apply unto ourselves the merit of Christ, which is done when we firmly believe that the righteousness of Christ is granted and imputed unto us, so that we are accounted just in the sight of God. Confidence is an exercise or motion of the will and heart, following something good – resting and rejoicing in it. The German has it, “vertrauen, sich ganz und gar darauf verlassen.” πίστις (pistis) and πέπεισμαι (pepeismai) the former of which means belief, and the latter to believe, are from πέπεισμαι (pepeismai), which means strongly persuaded; whence πιστεύειν (pisteuein), even among profane writers, signifies to wax confident, or to rest upon anything; as we read in Phocilides, “Believe not the people, for the multitude is deceitful.” And in Demosthenes, “Thou art confident in thyself, &c.
Justifying faith differs from historical, because it always includes that which is historical. Historical faith is not sufficient for our justification. The same thing may also be said of the other two kinds of faith. Justifying faith, again, differs from all other kinds of faith, in this, that it is by it alone that we obtain righteousness, and a title to the inheritance of the saints. For if, as the Apostle says, we are justified by faith, and faith is imputed for righteousness, and by faith is the inheritance, then this faith must be one of the four kinds of which we have spoken. But it is not historical faith; for then the devils would also be accounted just, and be heirs of the promise. Neither is it temporary faith; for Christ rejects this. Nor is it the faith of miracles; for in that case, Judas would also be an heir. Hence it is by justifying faith alone that we obtain righteousness, and an inheritance among the saints; which the Scriptures properly and simply call faith, and which is also peculiar to the elect.
No man, however, truly knows what justifying faith is, except he who believes, or possesses it; as he, who never saw or tasted honey, knows nothing of its quality or taste, although you may tell him many things of the sweetness of honey. But the man who truly believes, experience these things in himself, and is able, also, to explain them to others.
1. He believes that every thing which the Scriptures contain is true, and from God.
2. He feels himself constrained firmly to believe and embrace these things; for if we confess that they are true and from God, it is proper that we should assent to them.
3. He sees, embraces, and applies particularly, to himself, the promise of grace, or the free remission of sins, righteousness and eternal life, by and for the sake of Christ, as it is said: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” (John 3:36.)
4. Having this confidence, he trusts and rejoices in the present grace of God, and from this he thus concludes in reference to future good: since God now loves me, and grants unto me such great blessings, he will also preserve me unto eternal life; because he is unchangeable, and his gifts are without repentance.
5. Joy arises in the heart, in view of such benefits, which joy is accompanied with a peace of conscience that passes all understanding.
6. Then he has a will and an earnest desire to obey all the commands of God, without a single exception, and is willing to endure patiently whatever God may send upon him. The man, therefore, who possesses a justifying faith, does that which is required of him, regardless of the opposition of the world, and the devil. He who truly believes, experiences all these things in himself; and he who experiences these things in himself, truly believes.
III. In What Does Faith Differ From Hope?
We must not confound justifying faith with hope, although both have respect to the same blessing. Faith lays hold of present good, whilst hope has respect to that which is future. Obj. But we believe in everlasting life, which is, nevertheless, something that is future. Therefore, faith also has respect to future good. Ans. Eternal life is a future good as to its consummation; and, in this respect, we do not simply believe in it, but hope for it. “For we are saved by hope.” “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” (Rom. 8:24. 1 John 3:2.) But life everlasting is also a present good, in respect to the will of God, who grants it unto us, and in respect to the beginning of it even in this life, in which respect it is not hoped for, but believed, as it is said: “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath everlasting life, and is passed from death unto life.” “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God,” &c. (John 5:24; 17:3.) By faith, therefore, we are persuaded that those benefits are ours, which we have not as yet, on account of the promise of God; and by hope, we confidently look for the full consummation of these things. It is in this sense that Paul speaks of faith when he says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” (Heb. 11:1.) That is, it is that which makes those things hoped for, present and real; and is the evidence of those things which do not appear as it respects their consummation.
There are some who make the following distinction between faith and hope: Faith embraces the promises contained in the creed concerning things to come; whilst hope comprehends the things themselves which are future. This distinction, however, is less popular, and not as easily understood as the former.
IV. What Are The Causes Of Faith?
The first and chief efficient cause of historical and temporary faith, as well as the faith of miracles, is the Holy Spirit, who produces these differ ent kinds of faith by his general influence and operation. It is different, however, as it respects justifying faith, which the Holy Ghost produces by his special working. “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8.)
Obj. The devil has historical faith. Therefore it is wrought in him by the Holy Ghost.
Ans. The faith which is in devils is indeed produced by the Holy Ghost, but it is by his general working, as we have remarked; and not by his special influence, by which he works saving faith in the elect, and in them alone. For whatever knowledge devils and hypocrites possess, God produces in them by his Spirit; but not in such a manner as that he regenerates, or justifies them, as in the case of the elect; nor in such a manner that they may acknowledge and praise him as the author of this gift.
The instrumental cause of faith in general is the word of God, comprehended in the books of the Old and the New Testament, in which, beside the Word, there are also many divine works and miracles contained. The chief and peculiar instrument of justifying faith is the preaching of the gospel. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 1:16; 10:17.) Justifying faith is, therefore, not ordinarily produced in adults without the preaching of the gospel.
The cause of that faith which works miracles, is not simply the word of God, but it requires a special promise, or revelation.
The formal cause of justifying faith is that which is peculiar to saving faith, which is a certain knowledge of all that God has revealed, and an assured confidence wrought in the heart.
The object of saving faith is Christ, and the promise of grace.
The subject, or part of man in which it exists, is the understanding, the will, and the heart.
The end or final cause is, first, the glory of God, or the manifestation of his righteousness, goodness, and mercy; and, secondly, our salvation.
V. What Are The Effects Of Faith?
The effects of justifying faith are,
1. Our justification before God.
2. Joy and delight in God, with peace of conscience. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” (Rom. 5:1.)
3. Conversion, regeneration, and universal obedience. “Purifying their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9.)
4. The consequences which belong to the effects of faith, such as an increase of temporal and spiritual gifts, and the reception of these gifts by faith.
The first effect, therefore, of justifying faith, is our justification. After this has once taken place, all the other benefits which follow faith are made over unto us, which benefits, we believe, are given unto us by faith, inasmuch as faith is the cause of them. For that which is the cause of a cause, is also the cause of the effect. If faith be, therefore, the last cause of our justification, it is likewise the cause of those things which follow our justification. “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” (Luke 8:48.) In a word, the effects of faith are justification, and regeneration which is begun in this life, and will be perfected in the life to come. (Rom. 3:28; 10:10. Acts 13:39.)
VI. To Whom Is Faith Given?
Justifying faith is peculiar to all the elect, and to them alone: for it is given to all the elect, and only to them, including even infants, as it respects an inclination to faith. “No man can come to me except the Father draw him.” “It is given unto you to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given.” “As many as were ordained unto eternal life believed.” “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called, justified and glorified.” “Faith is the gift of God.” “But they have not all obeyed the gospel; for Esaias saith, Lord who hath believed,” &c., “for all men have not faith?” (John 6:44. Matt. 13:11. Acts 13:48. Rom. 8:30; 10:16. Eph. 2:8. 2 Thes. 3:2.)
Temporary faith, as well as the faith of miracles, is given to those who are members of the visible church only, that is, to hypocrites. “Have we not in thy name done many wonderful works: cast out devils?” &c. (Matt. 7:22.) The faith of miracles, however, which was possessed by many in the primitive church, has now disappeared from the church, inasmuch as the doctrine of the gospel has been sufficiently confirmed by miracles.
Historical faith may be possessed even by those who are out of the church, and also by devils.
Obj. 1. Historical faith is a good work – the devils possess this faith – therefore they have good works.
We reply to the major proposition thus: Historical faith is a good work if it be connected with an application of those things which are known, and if confidence be at the same time joined with it. And if it be said, by way of objection, that this faith is the effect of the Spirit of God, and so of itself a good work, we reply that it is indeed a good work in itself, but it becomes evil by accident, seeing that the reprobate do not receive and apply to themselves the things which they know to be true. Hence the devils are said to tremble, because they do not apply to themselves what they know of God; that is, they do not believe that God is to them what they know him to be from his word, merciful, gracious, &c.
Obj. 2. Many infants are included in the number of the elect, and yet they have no faith. Therefore, all the elect do not possess faith.
Ans. Infants do not, indeed, possess actual faith, as adults, yet they nevertheless have a power or inclination to faith which the Holy Ghost works in them according to their capacity or condition. For, since the Holy Ghost is promised to infants also, he cannot be inactive in them. Therefore, that which we have said, that saving faith is granted to all the elect, remains true.
We add still further, that faith is necessary for all the elect, and not only faith, but also a profession of faith in those who have arrived to years of understanding, and that,
1. On account of the command of God. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain;” therefore thou shalt reverence and profess it. “He that confesseth me before men, him will I confess before my Father which is in heaven.” (Ex. 20:7. Matt. 10:32.)
2. On account of the glory of God. “Let your light so shine before men,” &c. (Matt. 5:16.)
3. Because faith is not inactive, but like a fruitful tree, it manifests itself by profession.
4. On account of our safety. “By the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Rom. 10:10.)
5. That we may bring others to Christ. “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32.)
We may know that we have faith,
1. From the testimony of the Holy Ghost, and by the true and unfeigned desire which we have to embrace and receive the benefits which Christ offers unto us. He that believes, is conscious of the existence of his faith – as Paul says, “I know whom I have believed.” “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak.” “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath the witness in himself.” (2. Tim. 1:12. 2 Cor. 4:13. 1 John 5:10.)
2. We may know that we have faith, by the doubts and conflicts which we experience, if we are of the number of the faithful.
3. From the effect of faith, which is a sincere purpose, and desire to obey all the commands of God.
Obj. 3. Those who may fall and lose the grace of God before the end of life, cannot be certain of eternal life: because to be certain of our salvation, and yet not be raised above the possibility of losing the grace of God, involves a contradiction; therefore we cannot be certain of our salvation, so that, what has been said of justifying faith, that it is an assured confidence of righteousness and eternal life, is false.
Ans. The antecedent is true of those who finally fall away; for to be able thus to fall, is inconsistent with the certainty of salvation; but those in whom God once produces true faith, do not finally fall away.
Reply 1. All those who are weak, may finally fall away. We are all weak. Therefore we may all come short of the grace of God.
Ans. If the righteous were sustained by their own strength, they might indeed fall and lose the grace of God, but they are continually supported by divine grace. “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand.” (Ps. 37:24.)
Reply 2. God has no where declared that he will preserve us in his favor to the end.
Ans. Yea he has declared it in the passage just quoted, and in many other places. “I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father which gave them me, is greater than all, and no man,” &c. “I am persuaded that neither life nor death, nor angels, nor principalities,” &c., “shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (John 10:28, 29. Rom. 8:38.)
Reply 3. But it is said, “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12.) Therefore God does not promise perseverance, but makes our salvation dependent upon ourselves, which is to make it doubtful.
Ans. There is here a fallacy in regarding that a cause which is none; for God, by this exhortation, wishes to nourish, to preserve and perfect the salvation of believers by urging them to their duty, and not to commit their perseverance to their own strength and will. Wherefore, if we now truly believe, we ought certainly to rest assured that God will also preserve us in time to come; for if he desires that we should be assured of his present grace, he will also have us certain of that which is still future, for he is unchangeable.
Reply 4. But it is also said in Eccl. 9:1, “No man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.” Therefore we cannot be certain of the present grace of God, and consequently we cannot determine anything in reference to that which is still future.
We reply to the antecedent:
1. No man can indeed know, or judge with certainty, from second causes, or from events whether good or evil: for the external condition of men furnishes no safe criterion either of the favor or disapprobation of God.
2. He may not know it of himself, and yet if God is pleased to reveal it unto him, he may not be ignorant of it. We may therefore be ignorant of our salvation, as far as it is dependent upon second causes, but we may know it in as far as God is pleased to reveal it unto us by his word and Spirit.
Reply 5. “But who hath known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:34.)
Ans. No man indeed knows the mind of the Lord before it is revealed; but after God has revealed it, we may know as much as is necessary for our salvation. “We all with open face, beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory unto glory.” (2 Cor. 3:18.)
Obj. 5. Paul exhorts the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain;” and Christ exhorts us to “watch and pray.” (2 Cor. 6:1. Matt. 26:41.)
Ans. This, however, is said to prohibit carnal security, and to excite the faithful to watchfulness and prayerfulness, in order that the certainty of their salvation might be preserved.
Obj. 6. Saul fell away finally. He was one of the godly. Therefore the righteous may finally fall.
Ans. Saul was not a truly pious man, but a hypocrite. Hence we deny the minor proposition. And if it is said by way of objection that he had the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we reply that he had only such gifts as are common both to the godly and ungodly; but he had not the gift of regeneration and adoption which is peculiar to the godly.
Obj. 7. The doctrine of perseverance, and of the certainty of our salvation, produces security.
Ans. It produces by itself a spiritual security in the elect, and a carnal security in the reprobate by accident.