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Chapter 1: Salvation for Believers Only (continued)

Radically opposed to all these universalistic and semi-universalistic theories of salvation stands the answer of the Catechism: “No; only those who are ingrafted into him, and receive all his benefits by a true faith.” This answer is worthy of our closest consideration especially for two reasons. First of all, by the expression “ingrafted into him” it presents faith, not as an act on the part of man, but as a gift of God, a means whereby God saves the sinner through Christ. And secondly, by the same expression, as well as by the clause “and receive all his benefits by a true faith” the Catechism opposes all intellectualistic and philosophic conception of saving faith, and presents it as the spiritual bond by which the believer is united with Christ.

As to the first point of interest mentioned above, the rather precise and exact expression “ingrafted into him,” was, no doubt, intentionally employed by the authors of the Catechism, in order to convey accurately their conception of the importance of saving faith. How easily might the answer be cast into a different form, which apparently would express the very same truth, but which would actually deprive it of its real meaning and force! In answer to the question: “are all men saved?” the majority of evangelical Christians of our own day would most probably say: “No; all men are not saved; but only those that believe in Jesus Christ, and accept Him as their personal Saviour.” To many a Christian, unskilled in the discernment of the true doctrine and the detection of errors, it would seem as if this answer, though different in form, expresses exactly the same truth as that of the Heidelberger. And the advantage of this form is that it is very popular, and if you say no more, all orthodox Christians will agree with you. In fact, you may go a step further, and insist that faith is a gift of God, without causing any serious disagreement. Nay more, in answer to the further question: to whom does God give this faith? you may even appear to be very Scriptural and Reformed, and maintain that this gift of grace is bestowed only upon God’s elect, and no Arminian will differ with your statement, as long as you only leave room for the answer to the original question: “Only those are saved that believe in Christ, and that accept Him as their personal Saviour.” For the Arminian would say that the elect are those that are willing to believe in Christ and to accept Him, and upon those that so reveal their willingness God bestows the gift of faith. O, it is granted, it is even emphasized that salvation is only of grace. But whether the sinner will receive this grace depends in last analysis, upon himself. All men are not saved, but God is willing to save all. And you must leave room for the well-meaning offer of salvation to all, for the “altar call” from pulpit and radio. Faith, therefore, though it is a gift of God, must be presented as an act of man, an act whereby the sinner accepts Christ. But notice, now, that the Catechism uses an entirely different terminology in its answer, a terminology that leaves the sinner entirely passive in the hand of God: “No, but only those that are ingrafted into him.” One must be ingrafted into Christ before he can accept Him, even before he can be willing to accept Him. And the ingrafting into Christ is an act of God, never of man. As long as the sinner is not ingrafted into Him, he is dead in trespasses and sins. And he cannot, he will not, and cannot will to come to Christ. As sinner, indeed, he is very active. He will resist and reject the gospel in unbelief. But with a view to salvation he is wholly passive. Christ must come to Him, before He can come to Christ. Salvation is of the Lord. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. Rom. 9:16.

Viewed in this light, this question of the Catechism and its answer becomes very serious. They speak, not of man, but of God. Are all men saved? No; but only such as it pleases God, and that in absolutely sovereign grace, to graft into Christ by a true and living faith.

As to the second point of importance mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, the Catechism here offers a profound spiritual conception of saving faith: it is the means whereby we are united with Christ, the spiritual bond whereby we are made one body, one plant with Him, so that by faith we may live from Him, draw our all from Him, and thus receive all His benefits. We shall have more to say about the character of faith in the next chapter. But here we must briefly call attention to this essential nature of faith as our union with Christ.

Faith is not another work by performing which we become worthy of salvation. All the work that makes us worthy of righteousness and eternal life and glory has been performed and completely finished by Christ. Even the gift of faith He merited for us by His perfect obedience. Nor is faith a condition upon our fulfillment of which God is willing to give us the salvation merited for us by Christ. There are no conditions whatsoever unto salvation. It is free and sovereign. Nor is it the hand by which we on our part accept the proffered salvation. Often it is presented thus. Salvation is compared to a beautiful gold watch which I freely offer to someone. I hold it in my extended hand and beg the person upon whom I would bestow this gift to take it. It is his for the accepting. But he will never actually possess that watch unless he will extend his own hand to take it from mine. Thus, it is alleged, faith is the hand whereby we take hold of the salvation proffered in the gospel. But also this is not true. For, first of all, the reception and appropriation of the benefits of Christ is by no means such a mechanical and external transaction as taking a watch from a man’s hand. It is a profound spiritual activity of the entire soul. And, secondly, the natural man has no hand whereby he is able to accept the salvation of God in Christ, were it merely offered him. No, but faith is a bond, a spiritual bond, whereby we are so united with Christ that by it we live out of Him.

That is the meaning of the figure that underlies the expression: “ingrafted into Him.” It is the figure of a twig or scion of one tree that is ingrafted upon another. That ingrafted branch becomes one organism with the tree upon which it is grafted, so that from it it receives all its life-sap. The figure is thoroughly Scriptural. The Savior compares the relation between Himself and believers to that between the vine and the branches. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. . . .I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” John 15:1-5. The apostle speaks of the olive tree and of branches that are grafted into it. Rom. 11. And he speaks of being planted together in the likeness of Christ’s death, and in the likeness of His resurrection. And the spiritual bond that so makes us one plant with Christ that we live out of Him, is faith.

One might use other figures to illustrate this same truth. You can put a dead stick in the ground, but it will never show signs of life, nor do you expect it to sprout into foliage and bear fruit. On the contrary, it will rot. And the richer the soil, the faster will be the process of decay. But plant a little tree in that same soil, and it will strike its roots into it and draw its nourishment from the soil, and grow and bear fruit. This may illustrate the difference between the unbeliever and the believer. You may bring the former into contact with the Christ through the preaching of the gospel: it will only harden him in his unbelief. And the richer and stronger the gospel that is preached to him, the more he will hate it and rebel against it. But let the wonder of grace be performed upon a sinner and let the power of faith be implanted in his heart, and he will strike the roots of his soul into the Christ that is presented to him in the gospel, and from that Christ he will draw his life. A more mechanical, and for that reason less suitable figure, is that of the relation of your lighted home to the central power plant in your city. In that central power plant there is, so to speak, the power that is able to light your home at night. But if your home is not properly wired and connected with that central plant, so that the current is carried right into your home, your rooms will remain dark. So there must be a living connection between Christ and your heart, if you are to partake of the light of life. And that connection is saving faith.

The truth is, that all our salvation is in Christ. In Him is our redemption, the forgiveness of sin, the adoption unto children, eternal and perfect righteousness, knowledge of God and wisdom, freedom from the dominion of sin and sanctification, eternal life and light and joy,—all the blessings of salvation are not only merited by Him, but they are in Him. He is our wisdom and knowledge, our righteousness and holiness, our eternal life and peace. In order, therefore, to obtain these blessings of salvation, we must first become, one plant with Him. We must be united with Him in a spiritual-organic sense of the word. And the bond whereby we are united with Him is faith, a gift of God, a means whereby God joins us for ever to Christ. And when we are so united with Him by the power of faith, we become active, and by that faith we receive Him and all His benefits. By that faith whereby we are ingrafted into Christ, we appropriate Him unto ourselves so that His righteousness and holiness, His life and peace become our own, and we rejoice in the God of our salvation!

Chapter 2: The Nature of Faith

In the preceding chapter we already touched upon the character and significance of saving faith and its relation to salvation through Christ. The believer is saved through faith. Without faith he is not saved for a moment. If it were conceivable or possible that he should ever, even for a moment, lose his faith, that moment he would be lost, and again he would be dead in trespasses and sins. For all his life and salvation are in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by faith he is joined to that Christ, ingrafted into Him, and receives all His benefits.

But now the Catechism calls special attention to the nature of true, saving faith. In answer to the question: “What is true faith?” it points to the following elements: 1. Faith is both a certain knowledge and a hearty confidence. 2. This knowledge concerns all that God has revealed to us in His word. 3. The confidence of faith is trust concerning my personal salvation as being freely given me of God by grace, and that only for the sake of Christ’s merits. 4. With respect to this confidence of faith, it is said that it is wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel.

The answer places all the emphasis on the element of confidence. It is the peculiar property of saving faith, that distinguishes it from all other kinds of faith. All other kinds of faith are also a “certain knowledge,” but saving faith is not only this, but also a hearty confidence that I have a personal part in the salvation God has wrought in Christ. In fact, the answer leaves the impression that not the element of a “certain knowledge,” but only this hearty trust is wrought in our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the gospel. The “certain knowledge” of faith is not the special work of grace that is wrought in our hearts through the gospel by the Spirit of Christ.

That this is, indeed, the meaning of the answer is corroborated by the explanation Ursinus gives of this part of the Catechism. We read: “The justifying faith is described in the Catechism. In this description of faith “knowledge and holding for truth” are mentioned as characteristics of faith in general. Faith does not exist in a doctrine which is not known; one must necessarily know the doctrine before he can believe it. For this reason, we reject the ‘implicit faith’ of the Romish Church (i. e. believing what the church teaches, regardless of the question whether or not one is acquainted with it). This description of faith differs from the general definition in that it speaks in addition of confidence, and of application of the forgiveness of sins through and for the same of Christ. The peculiar characteristic of faith is: to rest and to rejoice in God on account of so great salvation. The efficient cause of it is the Holy Ghost. The means whereby He works this: the gospel, implied in which is also the use of the sacraments. And it is the will and the heart of man that experiences this operation.

“This justifying or saving faith differs from the other kinds of faith in this, that it is a firm confidence, whereby we appropriate to ourselves the merits of Christ, i. e. are firmly convinced that the righteousness of Christ is given and imputed also to us. Now, confidence is an inclination of the heart and of the will; this inclination has regard to some good, rejoices in it and relies on it; also in our language (German) it denotes ‘a complete reliance on something.’ The Greek word for faith is derived from a root which implies the idea of confidence. In this sense even profane authors, like Phocylides and Demosthenes, already used the word.” 1, 147.

It is plain, then, that according to Ursinus, the knowledge of saving faith is the same as that of all other kinds of faith. It is simply the intellectual apprehension and assurance of a certain truth or doctrine. There is knowledge in so-called historical faith. All men believe in their deepest heart that God is. Even the devils believe that God is one, and they tremble in this knowledge. James 2:19. There is knowledge in the general faith in the objectivity of the world according to the testimony of our senses. The same is true of “miraculous faith,” or the assurance that some wonder will be performed by us or upon us. And even what is called “temporary faith,” and which is nothing but a temporary stir of the emotions, is not possible without knowledge. Now, this element of knowledge these other kinds of faith, according to Ursinus, have in common with true, saving faith. And it is also wrought by the Holy Ghost, but not by the Spirit of Christ, and not necessarily through the gospel. There is a general revelation of God, and there is also a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby every man is assured of certain truths, e.g. of the existence of God. But it is the element of confidence that distinguishes saving faith from all other kinds. And this confidence of saving faith it is that is wrought by the Spirit of Christ, and through the gospel, as a special work of grace.

We call special attention to this part of the answer of the Catechism, and to its explanation by Ursinus, because we cannot accept this exclusive emphasis on the confidence of faith, as if it alone were the work of grace by the Spirit through the gospel. And no one does. Not only the confidence of saving faith, but also its certain knowledge is peculiar to itself, and is wrought by the Spirit through the gospel. Even though usually attention is not called to the somewhat strange separation between the knowledge and the confidence of faith the Catechism makes, the answer is always explained as if it presented both elements as the fruit of the special operation of the Spirit of God in Christ. Dr. A. Kuyper Sr. writes (E Voto, 1, 129, 130):

“This ‘certain, secure knowledge’ does not consist in a further development of a knowledge which in part we already possessed, nor in an unfolding of a knowledge that was hid within us. One does not make any headway in this knowledge, though he would finish the courses in all the schools. Even if one would do nothing else all his life long than read the Bible, and compare Scripture with Scripture, he would not even advance one step toward the knowledge that is here meant. No, here a new knowledge is meant, which you did not possess as a sinner, and of which you received the power in regeneration. Another kind of knowledge this is, comparable to the original knowledge which Adam received in Paradise, and which is given us of God in Christ ‘our wisdom.’ He that receives this knowledge, knows differently, sees differently, touches differently. That which before he could not discern, he now perceives, and it becomes life to him. ‘Enlightened eyes of the understanding’ the apostle therefore calls this knowledge; and they are eyes too, that gaze with such uncommon accuracy, that they afford immediate and complete certainty and assurance concerning those things that are perceived by them: so clearly, so lucidly, so sharply this knowledge defines the things before your consciousness. The natural man does not see anything of this, but the spiritual man that has the gift of faith discerns all things. On the other hand, if one is not born again, he cannot even see the kingdom of God.

“Without the implanting of this saving faith, one may, therefore, indeed, commit the Bible to memory, and accept its contents historically, but this does not help him. ‘He may also work himself into it by the spur of the emotions, and for a time rejoice in it, but neither this ‘historical’ nor this ‘temporary’ faith has anything in common with the faith whereby we are ingrafted into Jesus. Even ‘miraculous’ faith has nothing in common with saving faith, for although you had a ‘faith to remove mountains’ (and that is miraculous faith) and love was not infused into your heart, you still would be nothing.

“Disputations, therefore, do not help. We must have testimony, the Word must be administered, because usually it pleases God to use the Word as a means for implanting of faith; but even though you talk day and night to someone, as long as his some cannot see through the eye of faith, you cannot show him the glories of God.”