Tag Archives: Saving Faith

The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 6: Salvation Is Impossible By Works Righteousness

[This is the 6th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 6: Those that endeavor to perform sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, as the condition whereby they are to procure for themselves a right and title to salvation, and a good ground to trust on him for the same, do seek their salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Christ, as he is revealed in the gospel; and they shall never be able to perform sincere and true holy obedience by all such efforts.”

The natural man is hard-pressed to come to terms with salvation by free grace, because of his longstanding love affair with works righteousness. As Marshall put it, the natural man is addicted to the idea of salvation by works, and it is impossible for him to give up that method on his own:

“And though we have a better way revealed to us in the gospel, for the enjoyment of the favour of God, and holiness itself, and all salvation, without any procuring condition of works, by the free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ: yet it is very difficult to persuade men out of a way they are naturally addicted to, and that hath forestalled and captivated their judgments, and is bred in their bone, and therefore cannot easily be gotten out of the flesh. Most of those that live under the hearing and profession of the gospel, are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation; and therefore they cannot love it heartily. The only means they can take to bring themselves to it, is to stir up themselves to an hypocritical practice in their old natural way, that they may avoid hell, and get heaven, by their works.”

There is an underlying principle here, namely, that salvation requires man to come to terms with his utter dependence on God for everything, and to renounce all self-righteousness. The most succinct way to state the essence of Reformed soteriology is: God saves sinners. God is the active agent who performs the action. Sinners are the recipients of that action. The subject and direct object are diametrically opposite in relation to the verb. And yet our own depraved hearts as well as Satan seek to get us to reverse that sequence in order to miss the narrow path that leads to eternal life.

Marshall made this point in response to those in his day who held out “sincere obedience” as the condition for salvation:

“Let us now examine the modern doctrine of salvation by the condition of sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, and we shall quickly find it to be a chip of the same block with the former legal way of salvation, in the same manner destructive to the means of holiness, and to holiness itself. It requireth of us the performance of sincere obedience, before we have the means necessary to produce it, by making it antecedent to our justification, and persuasion of eternal happiness, and our actual enjoyment of union and fellowship with Christ, and of that new nature which is to be had only in him by faith. . . . By this devised conditional faith, Satan keepeth many poor souls at bay, poring upon their own hearts for many years together, to find whether they have performed the condition, and whether they have as yet any right to Christ for their salvation, not daring to venture to take him as their own.”

But we know that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Glory be to Him!


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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 4: Find Holiness and Union With Christ By Means of the Gospel

[This is the 4th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 4: The means of instruments whereby the Spirit of God accomplisheth our union with Christ, and our fellowship with him in all holiness, are the gospel, whereby Christ entereth into our hearts to work faith in us; and faith, whereby we actually receive Christ himself, with all his fullness, into our hearts. And this faith is a grace of the Spirit, whereby we heartily believe the gospel, and also believe on Christ, as he is revealed and freely promised to us therein, for all his salvation.”

Marshall built precept upon precept in the fourteen “directions” required to unfold the gospel mystery of sanctification. Direction four deals with the nature of saving faith, since it is one of two means used by the Spirit of God to affect the believer’s union with Christ (the first being the gospel of the grace of God, and the second being faith).

Marshall identified two acts necessarily found in saving faith: 1) believing the truth of the gospel; and 2) believing on Christ as promised freely to us in the gospel, for all of salvation. He also asserted that these two acts of saving faith must be performed heartily, with an unfeigned love to the truth and a desire for Christ and his salvation above all things. He elaborated on the manner of such hearty performance by asserting:

  1. Our assenting must not be forced by mere conviction of the truth, such as devils and wicked men may have.
  2. Our believing in Christ must neither be only a constrained fear of damnation, without any hearty love and desires towards the enjoyment of Christ.
  3. This love must be to every part of Christ’s salvation: to holiness as well as forgiveness of sins.

When comparing Marshall’s definition of saving faith here with that of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (follow this link to an earlier, related blog), we find common ground with respect to what it means to believe on Christ (i.e., trusting in and resting upon Christ for salvation). Marshall’s treatment, though, includes an aspect of repentance. In coming to Christ, the repentant sinner turns from sin to God for happiness and life and everything. Repentance isn’t a superficial matter of obtaining “fire insurance” in order to continue on a path of ungodliness, but a total renunciation of all that is contrary to God, and so is never ending this side of heaven. Marshall puts it more succinctly:

“We must desire earnestly, that God would create in us a clean heart and right spirit, as well as hide his face from our sins (Ps. 51:9, 10); not like many, that care nothing in Christ but only deliverance from hell. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled (Matt. 5:6).

So a key observation to be gleaned here is how specious are the claims of many so-called Christians today who care little for being conformed to the image of Christ. How silly would it be for someone to say, “I really love Sally, but I can’t stand to be in her presence because of the way she looks, moves, talks, thinks, and basically everything about her.  She is so embarrassing.”

Just as Sally will not be taken in by such vapid sentiments, neither will the Lord, in that those who are His will be conformed to His image in holiness, without exception (Heb. 12:14). Or as the Psalmist warns (Psa. 50:16-23, ESV):

16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?

17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.

19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.

20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.

21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!

23 The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

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Week 28 of 50 in the Institutes: A Hard Man?

The closing sentence of first section of this week’s reading assignment (3.17.11) where Calvin gave the reason why true faith justifies a person reminded me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 (emphasis added):

The Apostle, in giving the name of faith to an empty opinion altogether differing from true faith, makes a concession which derogates in no respect from his case. This he demonstrates at the outset by the words, “What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works?” (James 2: 14.) He says not, “If a man have faith without works,” but “if he say that he has.” This becomes still clearer when a little after he derides this faith as worse than that of devils, and at last when he calls it “dead.” You may easily ascertain his meaning by the explanation, “Thou believest that there is one God.” Surely if all which is contained in that faith is a belief in the existence of God, there is no wonder that it does not justify. The denial of such a power to it cannot be supposed to derogate in any degree from Christian faith, which is of a very different description. For how does true faith justify unless by uniting us to Christ, so that being made one with him, we may be admitted to a participation in his righteousness? It does not justify because it forms an idea of the divine existence, but because it reclines with confidence on the divine mercy.

The McNeill-Battles edition renders that last sentence as: “It therefore justifies not because it grasps a knowledge of God’s essence but because it rests upon the assurance of his mercy.”

Resting, or failing to rest, upon the assurance of God’s mercy is the difference between eternal life and eternal perdition.  Whatever a person believes about God he, or she, will inevitably find to be true personally.  We can see this from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.  To recount, the parable depicts a wealthy man preparing to go on a long journey.  Before his departure, he calls three of his servants and gives one five talents, another two, and to a third servant one talent.  (A talent in those days was a weight of roughly 75 pounds, and it could also indicate coinage.  An Attic talent amounted to six thousand denars, which would have taken an ordinary laborer twenty-one years to earn.  So even the servant who received just the one talent was entrusted with a great fortune.)  Upon the master’s return, the servant who had received five talents had invested it and made five additional talents.  The servant given two talents also traded and gained two more.  Both were commended by their master.  But the servant entrusted with only one talent took it and hid it in the ground.  When the master returned, he told him:  “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.” (Mt. 25:24-25, ESV) The master took the servant at his word and responded: “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” (Mt. 25:26-27, ESV)

As William Hendriksen has observed in his New Testament Commentary, we must understand that the wicked and slothful servant misrepresented himself as well as his master.  His master wasn’t reaping where he did not sow, because he had indeed given the servant a whole talent.  What’s more, the servant wasn’t returning all that the master was entitled to, because he only returned what he was given, when in fact his master was also entitled to whatever gain the talent would have earned when invested.  Because of his failure to handle faithfully what was entrusted to him, the servant should have admitted his guilt, but he instead acted as if his master should give him credit for returning only what was given to him.  In so doing the servant revealed that he was utterly wicked and selfish.

Today we live in an age where the push for secularization seeks to exclude religion from the public square and confine it to the margins where it has little impact.  The important thing, it is believed, is to be authentically you.  Anything that gets in the way of that endeavor must be pushed aside.  A fundamental problem with this approach is that it takes all of God’s blessings and hides them, denying that they came from Him to begin with, and thus seeks to rob Him of his glory.  And then such secularization has the audacity to shake its fist at the Creator when things go wrong and say, “It’s your fault!  You are a hard master!”

This parable is but one of three tests depicted in Matthew 25 whereby the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats on the day of judgment.  As Calvin’s treatment of justification by faith masterfully shows, it is impossible to earn a right standing before God by works righteousness.  Only those who believe and trust in him to be merciful and good will find him to be so.  And this is why the gospel is such good news as it bids: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28, ESV)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

July 13: 3.17.11 – 3.17.15

July 14: 3.18.1 – 3.18.5

July 15: 3.18.6 – 3.18.10

July 16: 3.19.1 – 3.19.7

July 17: 3.19.8 – 3.19.12

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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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