“We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sm. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace: howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, anymore than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can we merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.”
Article XXV, The Belgic Confession
In the preceding two articles our Confession carefully and unequivocally articulates the truth of Scripture, that the elect are justified by faith alone and not by works. Whenever that precious truth is maintained there is the charge that this doctrine makes “men careless and profane.” The Heidelberg Catechism faces this same charge: “But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?” “By no means: for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true and living faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.” (Lord’s Day XXIV, q. and a. 64) Even the Apostle Paul, after he had developed the truth of justification by faith without works, found it necessary to refute this objection. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1, 2) Against this same, age old charge, “that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life . . .”, the fathers wrote this article.
They speak, therefore, at length about good works as the fruit of sanctification. And, in order to make that point clear, they discuss the relationship between justification and sanctification. It cannot escape our attention, however, that sanctification in this article is really identified with regeneration. This is evident from the very opening sentence: “We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, dothregenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.” It would appear that the article teaches mediate regeneration, that is, the view that regeneration is accomplished by means of the preaching of the Word. Immediate regeneration, the view to which we hold, teaches that regeneration takes place beneath the consciousness and is effected by the Holy Spirit without means. The fact is that the article makes no distinction between regeneration and sanctification and simply speaks of them as synonymous. This is not an error on the part of our Confession. TheConfession simply does not enter into the whole question of mediate or immediate regeneration. TheConfession proceeds from the principle: that regeneration can be and actually is spoken of in Scripture in a broad sense as sanctification.
All of this is not to say that regeneration cannot be regarded in another sense. It can be and is in Scripture. When speaking of regeneration as taught in Scripture we must distinguish between regeneration in a narrower and a broader sense. In the narrower sense, regeneration is the implanting of the principle of the life of Christ, the new life, in the sinner who is dead in trespasses and sins. It can be compared to the planting of a kernel of seed in the earth, or to the conception of a child in the womb of its mother. This is the initial work of the Holy Spirit in the application of the blessings of salvation in the heart of the elect. It takes place without means and beneath the consciousness. Regeneration in the broader sense includes man’s conversion and even sanctification. It may be compared to the sprouting forth of the seed from the earth, or the birth of a child by which he comes to conscious life.
Concerning regeneration in the narrower sense we may note that it is the initial work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the elect. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) That term, “born again,” means to be born again and from above. It refers to a radically new life. Moreover, it is a term used in Scripture to refer to the moment of conception, the very beginning of life, the begetting of a child. This is a work of the Holy Spirit which takes place in a moment of time and is performed in the very depths of man’s being, in his heart which. is the center of all his, spiritual and ethical life. It takes place while the sinner, although elect, is still dead in trespasses and sins. It takes place beneath the level of his consciousness so that a man is not aware at that moment of the work being performed. Thus Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) It is the implanting of the new, resurrection life of Christ by which the sinner is raised from his spiritual grave and placed in everlasting communion with the body of Christ. Regeneration is a work which can never be lost; a principle of life which abides in the heart all through life, through death itself, and on into eternity. Finally, it is absolutely indispensable. Without regeneration in his heart man has no receptivity for the Gospel, he can only reject the Word. So true is this in fact that Jesus said that without regeneration man cannot even see the Kingdom of God! (John 3:3) In the line of the covenant, believers and their seed, this takes place in earliest infancy, perhaps even at the moment of conception. That regenerated child of God from that moment on is receptive to the Word of God and he begins the spiritual growth process that continues until he is delivered up into glory. This is regeneration in the narrower sense. (Cf. also I Peter 1:23-25; I John 3:9)
Regeneration in the broader sense is a work of God in the elect which implies not only the implanting of the new life of Jesus Christ, but also the entire work of salvation as it is consciously applied to the believer. It includes, therefore, conversion and faith and even sanctification. This work is accomplished by means of the preaching of the Word by which the Gospel, “the living and abiding Word” (I Peter 1:23), “the Word of truth!’ (James 1:18), is addressed by the Spirit to the principle of regeneration, calling that new life into consciousness. Thus the principle of regeneration renews and influences the mind and the will in such a way that the elect is capable of hearing the Gospel and desiring it, believing it and clinging to it. This is a life-long process and perfection is not reached until the saint is taken into glory. In this broader sense the Confession in this article speaks of, regeneration.
Thus the article continues by discussing the relationship between justification and sanctification. There is a difference between the two. Justification has to do with man’s state, and it thus frees him from the guilt of sin. Justification is a judicial act of God, a formal declaration by which man is declared righteous. Sanctification, on the other hand, has to do with man’s condition and frees him from the pollution of sin. We are washed and cleansed from iniquity. More and more the old man of sin is destroyed and the new man in Christ is quickened and we become holy.
While there is that difference between justification and sanctification, the two are related. Justification necessarily implies sanctification, for one’s state and condition must correspond. If one be justified, he will also be sanctified and even glorified. (Cf. Romans 8:29, 30) Justification is the ground for sanctification. Sanctification can never be the basis for justification, for this would lead to the error that we are justified by our works.
The importance of understanding this relationship is evident. This means that it is utterly impossible that there be a careless and profane Christian. It is impossible that there be faith without the fruit of faith. If one be justified, he will also lead a sanctified life. And the faith by which he is justified is a lively faith which cannot possibly produce a profane person. Where faith is there will be the works of faith. (Cf. James 2) Yet, at the same time, our good works can never be the basis fait our justification. And if they cannot contribute to our justification, they cannot in any way contribute to our salvation. Without justification we cannot and “would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” Our good works, even though approved by God, are of no account for our justification, for we are justified before we do good works, and God’s approval upon our works is simply the crown He places upon His own work in us. This is even, the article says, as a tree that cannot produce good fruit unless the tree itself is first good. And the fact that we are first good before we can produce good works, is due to the fact that whom He justifies God also sanctifies. Besides this, our works can never justify because even when we do good works, we remain unprofitable servants who have earned nothing, but only done our duty. And, we are not perfect, but continue to sin, while only one sin would be sufficient to send us to hell forever. Yet our works are rewarded both in this life and in the life to come. But that reward is of grace for: “It is through His grace that he crowns his gifts.”
Finally there is a word about the assurance of our salvation. This assurance can never rest upon the basis of our good works: “For we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.” If, however, we do attempt to base our assurance on our good works, then: “we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed.” Our assurance of salvation can only come by relying completely upon the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior. By grace are ye saved!