Week 19 of 50 in the Institutes: A Right Definition of Faith

This week’s assignment overflows with Calvin’s pastoral concern for his readers, and Carl Trueman’s blogs on the Reformation 21 website are not to be missed either (see links at bottom of post).

I want to draw attention to Calvin’s definition of saving faith in 3.2.7 and note its agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession.  So let’s begin with Calvin’s definition:

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. (Beveridge)

The notable feature of this definition of faith for twenty-first century Christendom is the role of the Holy Spirit in assurance of salvation (as opposed to man, or the mere utterance of a prayer).  As Trueman observed (May 11 blog), assurance is indeed central to Christianity.  But today, I’m afraid that assurance is taken for granted in a presumptive, automatic, name-it, claim-it approach: “I prayed the prayer, so I’m saved.  Why the concern about assurance?”  Calvin went on in the next section (3.2.8) to assert that faith goes beyond a mere assent to certain truths, and that true assent itself is more “a matter of the heart than of the head, of the affection than the intellect”.

When we compare Calvin’s definition of saving faith to that found in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 21), we find assurance worked by the Holy Spirit common to both:

Question 21. What is true faith? Answer: 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.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 14) elaborates more, but contains the same emphasis on the Holy Spirit, with an acknowledgement that there may be saving faith where full assurance is lacking:

  1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
  2. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding and embracing the promises, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.  But the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
  3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

For his part, Calvin balanced the certainty inherent to true faith with the weakness found therein as well, due to indwelling sin.  Hence the need to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling (3.2.23), which is a far cry from “name-it, claim-it.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 11:  3.2.7 – 3.2.10

May 12:  3.2.11 – 3.2.15

May 13:  3.2.16 – 3.2.21

May 14:  3.2.22 – 3.2.27

May 15:  3.2.28 – 3.2.31


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One response to “Week 19 of 50 in the Institutes: A Right Definition of Faith

  1. Pingback: The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 4 | Dead Theologians Society Blog

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