Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
As we continue our study of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, we come to the doctrine of saving faith.
For a man to be born again by the wonderwork of regeneration is quite obviously the work of God and God alone. We contribute nothing to our spiritual birth. The fact that God calls us from darkness into His marvelous light (II Pet. 2:9) must also be the work of God.
But when it comes to faith, many seem to think that we speak now of man’s work in salvation. It is important, therefore, that we give careful attention to the Bible’s teaching concerning saving faith.
When treating the order in which the various benefits of salvation in Christ are applied, most theologians focus on the activity of faith. That is why faith comes after regeneration and calling.
But it is a serious mistake, and one that has had dreadful consequences in the church of our day, to look at faith only as that activity by which we lay hold of Christ. To look at faith merely as the act of believing is unavoidably to make faith man’s work.
Faith is, first of all and essentially, the bond that unites us to the living Christ. Faith is emphatically the work of the Holy Spirit by which He unites us with Christ, making us a partaker of the life of Christ. It is that to which the Heidelberg Catechism first speaks when it unfolds the truth concerning faith. In answer to the question (Q.20), “Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ,” the Catechism answers, “No, only those who are ingrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits, by a true faith.”
From our study of God’s Word and from our own experience as Christians, one thing should be very clear: By the time the elect sinner comes to a conscious, active faith in Christ, much has already taken place.
There are many, many pictures in everyday life that point to this same phenomenon.
The skyscrapers that form the skylines of our major cities are much bigger than we see with our eyes. There are deep foundations, often several stories below the ground, which support the part that we see above the ground.
When you look at a flower or at the wheat growing in a farmer’s field, you know that much has taken place before those plants became a beauty to your eyes. The seed was planted and sprouted. It took root and grew downward toward its life’s source, before it ever broke through the ground and developed for the human eye to behold.
All of these examples serve as parables to illustrate this spiritual truth: By the time faith has become active in you as a matter of a certain, spiritual knowledge and a blessed, living confidence that all that wonderful salvation in Jesus Christ is also for you, there is very much that has already taken place in the hidden recesses of your heart. A wonderful, regenerating work of divine grace precedes the conscious activity of faith in the child of God.
Faith is active, of course. Faith is knowledge and confidence. Faith is believing, coming to Christ, persevering, obedience. Faith is all that and more! But, behind all that manifestation, behind all that spiritual activity, there is so very much!
That is why a distinction in the concept faith is proper and altogether scriptural. When we speak of the principle or bond of faith and the conscious activity of faith, we do not separate the two. In the previously mentioned figures we speak of the foundation and the superstructure, the seed and the plant—distinguishing between the two but not separating. So faith and believing, principle or bond and conscious act, are related and inseparable but distinct.
That our Reformed fathers saw this distinction is evident throughout our confessions.
Not only is it evident where the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the graft of faith, through which we receive all Christ’s benefits, but it is evident also in our Belgic Confession. There in Article 22, which speaks “Of Faith in Jesus Christ,” we read of faith “which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him.” That, obviously, is the activity of faith. But in that same article, we confess this: “And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits.”
And over against the Armin-ians, the Reformed church fathers at the Synod of Dordt in 1618/19 adopted this Article concerning faith (the Third and Fourth Head of Doctrine, Article 14): “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, … because He who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.”
The establishment of that bond of faith is that which gives us the power to believe, just as sight is the power to see. You may not always be seeing. In fact, there are times when your eyes are closed. But even when your eyes are closed and you are not seeing, you do have the power to see. So it is with faith. Although one may not yet believe, and his faith may not be active, if the bond of faith has been established, he has the power to believe.
The figure of a living graft is a thoroughly scriptural figure. The figure is simply that of taking a twig or a shoot of a tree and grafting it into another tree. That twig or shoot then lives out of that new tree, drawing its life and growing from that tree into which it has been grafted.
So it is that, by being grafted into Christ, we now become partakers of the life of Christ.
God through His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ, first uses the knife and cuts, separating you and me from the world. That separation comes in one quick cutting! It is not so, as so many would have it today, that we are weaned away from our sin gradually, so that we more and more begin to do a little good. No, the Lord makes separation immediately, even beneath our consciousness, when, as we read in Ezekiel 36, He takes the stony heart out of our flesh. He cuts you out of the tree of unrighteousness and ungodliness. And the Spirit, having cut you off, then takes you, the shoot which He has cut off and prepared, and grafts you into the tree of life which is Christ.
This is absolutely necessary. Why? Because all things that work salvation for us, all the benefits that we must receive, are in Christ. They are literally in Christ, who has died for us and risen again, and who now sits at the right hand of God, having received the living Spirit to pour out into His church.
We must have Christ! We must be connected with Him “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” That is the importance and necessity of that graft.
That graft binds us to Christ, to His life. Paul writes inGalatians 2:20: “…I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” In Christ alone is life.
You understand that, don’t you? Life is not found in this world of death. Life is not found in people or things. Life is only in Christ. And if we are to have life, we must be grafted into Him, to receive all our sap, our life and substance, from Him, and to bear the fruits of His grace in our walk and talk. Let no man deceive you. This graft, this spiritual, living graft, is a matter of everlasting salvation.
So we read of that graft in the figurative words of Christ in John 15: “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. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. 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).
There are a couple things in particular that I would have you notice about this text.
In the first place, you may already have noticed that Jesus speaks of branches in Him that bear no fruit. Those branches are dead; they bear no fruit; He purges them; they are removed and burned. How can that be? These are dead branches in Christ: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.”
If we shall properly understand that, it is important to remember always to view the church—whether that be the body or the tree or vine, the church of Jesus Christ—as an organism.
Bear in mind the picture of the tree. There can be no doubt that the Savior here has in view His church as it exists in the world and manifests itself outwardly. These branches which are cut off are not in Christ spiritually. Then they could never perish. But they are branches in Christ in their past generations. And as children of believers, these branches constitute a part of the church organism, not spiritually, but outwardly and organically.
That is precisely what you find in the natural vine. You have branches there which are indeed in the vine, and yet bear no fruit. Christ uses that illustration with reference to the church.
God’s church in the world is one organism, one vine. There are in the one vine fruitful branches and unfruitful branches. In the one outward people of God there are Israelites according to the flesh and Israelites according to the Spirit and of the promise, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans. Therefore, the unfruitful branches are branches which are obviously connected to the vine outwardly, but which are not connected by a living graft.
That is why it is so important, when we consider the figure of the living graft, that we realize that the graft must be precisely a living graft, a spiritual bond. That is faith as to its essence.
That bond of faith is not merely a pipeline. Christ does not simply pour the blessings of salvation through a pipe into the sinner. Faith isn’t to be likened to the pipe that comes from the road to your house, a dead tube that merely allows water to flow into your home.
Saving faith is a living bond, a living connection.
By being grafted into Christ, we become a branch of the living vine which is Christ. And the branch established with the vine by that living graft of faith stands connected to Christ and lives out of Christ. That is what we are talking about when we speak of being grafted into Christ. That is the bond of faith, the living graft of salvation. It is God’s work, and God’s work alone.