What is true faith? True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Q&A 21)
We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him….
(Belgic Confession, Art. 22)
Below is a conversation between a father and son that should not be fictional.
The car ride home from church that evening was extremely quiet. It was not the same, uncomfortable kind of silence as last Sunday on the way to church after mom and dad’s morning spat. On the way home tonight, there was a holy kind of hush. The slight frown on father’s face meant that there was something on his mind after the sermon. As the hum of the closing garage door replaced the sound of the car’s engine, father turned to his teenager before exiting the vehicle and gently indicated there was something that he wanted to talk about that evening.
Father: Son, I’m afraid I have been neglecting a duty of mine.
Son: I’m not sure what you mean. I think you’re a pretty good dad.
Father: Well, I heard something very convicting today— that God requires me as a father to seek the conversion of my children. I’m supposed to call you to repent and believe. I don’t think I have ever done that— not clearly and faithfully, at least.
Son: Have I done something wrong?
Father: No, no. I mean, yes and no. There is no specific sin I have in mind. But yes, you have done plenty of wrong, as I have, and I don’t think I have clearly and faithfully called you to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Especially the believing part…. I don’t think I have called you to faith.
Son: But Dad, I don’t see the purpose of that. I already have faith.
Father: Son, what do you mean when you say, “I already have faith?”
Son: Faith is a bond, Dad. I learned that in catechism not that long ago. Jesus is like a tree, and we are like a dead branch, and God gives us faith by joining us to Himself. I have faith because I am joined to Jesus and am part of the covenant.
Father: You have been taught well, son. I am thankful for the good, doctrinal instruction God has provided for you in our churches. And yes, it is true that faith is indeed such a bond or union to Jesus Christ. But do you think faith is more than that?
Son: I’m not sure what you mean. Faith is a gift….
Father: Maybe this is a better way to ask the question: “Do you personally and with your heart believe in Jesus alone for all of salvation?” You see, son, I have only recently come to better understand this myself. When the Bible speaks of faith, it most often speaks of faith as a conscious activity. Faith isn’t just something you have, or that a church has. It’s an activity of your individual soul. You must actually believe in Jesus and fervently cling to Him alone for every blessing of salvation.
Son: (after a brief silence) Yes, I think I believe. I work hard at school. I don’t cuss like some of the other kids. I go to church. I do pretty well in catechism. And I remember the doctrines pretty well. In fact, in comparison to even the young people that go to the Reformed church down the street, I hear that we young people in our churches know quite a bit more about the Bible and the Reformed faith, and….
Father: Hold on a minute! Let me stop you there. I want you to notice something very important. I asked you about faith, and do you know what you told me about? You talked about your works. Don’t misunderstand me—I am so thankful that you behave yourself and learn your catechism. Please don’t stop. But believing, you see, is to look away from your works, as good as they may seem. The believer will certainly do good works, but don’t mix up believing and working. To believe is not actually doing anything. To believe is to know and trust Jesus alone for your forgiveness, for God’s favor, for all your salvation including the very strength to live a holy life…. It’s simply to rest in Jesus. Do you believe in Jesus?
Son: Yes, but all this is sounding a little Arminian to me. Are you saying that I have to believe in order to be saved?
Father: Son, it is not Arminian to say, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Romans 10:9 says that. That does not mean that you believe of your own free will. Now that would be Arminian. It also does not mean that believing itself determines your salvation or contributes anything to salvation. Don’t trust in your believing. Trust Jesus alone. But it does mean that only those whom God gives believing hearts are saved and will be saved in the end.
Son: That makes sense to me. God has given me a bond of faith, not only, but also a believing heart.
Father: I’m glad to hear that. But now I want to ask another question. Do you know the difference between believing doctrine and believing in Jesus?
Son: Don’t they go hand in hand?
Father: Of course, they do. You are right. There is a liberal movement today that would have you imagine that you can believe in Jesus and not hold to true doctrine. You have probably been warned about that in catechism. In the church world today, faith becomes some good feeling at the sound of Jesus’ name put to a good tune. But many who claim to believe don’t actually know who Jesus is because they disdain doctrine.
Son: Yeah, that’s right. In catechism class the other day, I remember the minister saying, “If you don’t know the doctrines of Jesus, how can you know who the true Jesus really is? There are many false Christs today, and many who despise doctrine don’t truly know who Jesus is even if they like to say His name.” I think the Heidelberg Catechism says, too, “Faith is a certain knowledge.”
Father: Very good. But now, to help us get back to my question, can you remember more about that quote from the Heidelberg Catechism? “True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His word, but…”
Son: “…also an assured confidence, which the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart.”
Father: Yes. Notice that the emphasis is on the assured confidence or personal trust in Jesus. And that brings up a danger I am concerned about in our Reformed circles. I knew a young man once—extremely smart. Boy, he had a brain, a powerful brain. The grey matter up in his head could remember everything. He read all kinds of books. He read the Bible. He read books on Reformed theology. He went to a Reformed church and confessed his faith. He knew doctrine better than anyone I know. But everything was up there in the head, and nothing sank down into the heart. A few months after he graduated from seminary, he declared himself an atheist. Remember what the book of James says: “Devils also believe and tremble.” Faith is not anti- intellectual, but it is more than mere head knowledge. Do you remember that hymn I taught you?
Son: Which one?
Father: “Rock of Ages.” Augustus Toplady sure knew what faith was. “Nothing in my hands I bring….”
Father and Son (in unison): “… Simply to the cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress. Helpless, look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly. Wash me, Savior, or I die!”
Father: You see, to believe is not only to know about Jesus Christ. It is consciously to cling to Him with your heart. The Belgic Confession says it is to embrace Jesus Christ, seeking nothing more besides Him for salvation. Faith abandons all human effort to gain God’s favor and rests in His mercy for Jesus’ sake. So, son, back to what I began with tonight. I have neglected my duty to call you to faith. Would you be opposed to having this conversation with me more regularly?
Son: No, I’m not opposed to it. But I’m not sure why that is necessary. I already do believe in Jesus.
Father: I think it’s still important. We all need to be called to trust in Jesus again and again. One reason is that you and I have a sinful nature. That sinful nature not only wants to sin all the time, but that sinful nature constantly tempts us to rely on something else instead of or besides Jesus. After you fall into sin, how does that old man in you tempt you to deal with your sin?
Son: Deny it, give excuses, blame someone else….
Father: Exactly. And along with that self-defense is self-righteousness. We look to our past works and convince ourselves that we aren’t that bad. We try to “make up” for our sin with something good. So after we sin, we must be reminded: repent and believe. Turn not to works to cover sin and calm the conscience, but to Jesus only. Here is another question: When you know you need to improve and make progress in your battle against your besetting sin, how does your old man tempt you to do battle?
Son: I’m not sure.
Father: He says, “Try harder and do more!”
Son: What’s wrong with that? Am I not supposed to try harder and do more to fight and flee sin?
Father: It’s not what the old man says all the time, but what he doesn’t say. If you know your besetting sin, listening to that old man who tells you to try harder will lead to you falling flat on your face. You have then relied on your own effort for a holy life. The Christian life of sanctification will include effort, but first, always first, it is resting in Jesus by faith. It is first trusting in His finished work. It is first trusting in His Spirit to equip you. And only then, while you trust, do battle. Live by faith.
Son: I think I get your point, Dad. You are saying that every day, and as much as possible, every moment of the day, my eye must be on Jesus. Whether it’s for forgiveness or for sanctification, I must always look to Jesus. That’s living by faith.
Father: Yes. And since our faith is so weak and we are constantly distracted from Jesus, whether by sinful works or good works, we need regularly the reminder to believe in Jesus.
Father God: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (II Cor. 13:5a).