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, (a) but also an assured confidence, (b) which the Holy Ghost (c) works by the gospel in my heart; (d) that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, (e) are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. (f)
Question 20 ended by giving us the distinction between those who are saved by Christ and those who are not saved. As you remember the distinction was given that “only those who are ingrafted into him, and, receive all his benefits, by a true faith,” are those who are saved. Those who are not ingrafted into him and so do not receive all his benefits by a true faith are without God and without hope.
As such, question 21 thus delves into the issue of how true saving faith is defined and what it looks like. We should say at the outset that by asking about “True faith,” and then by starting off their answer with “True Faith is,” the clear implication is that there exists such things as false faith or spurious faith and so they want to distinguish false faith from true faith. They give us a detailed answer on what true faith is but before we go into that we want to take a second to look at the whole idea of false faith.
We find false faith throughout Scripture. The most startling example is in Matthew 7
22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Here we see recorded people claiming faith, and knowing Christ but Christ claims he does not know them. Elsewhere in Jude and in 1st John we also see people claiming to have faith and so be part of the body of Christ and yet the Apostles in both of those letters warns the genuinely faithful against them. In Galatians we have a group of people (they were called Judaizers) who would have considered themselves Christians and yet had a false faith as seen in St. Paul’s treatment of them. In James we learn that there is a kind of faith that does not save,
“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”
The faith of the devils here is a faith with knowledge but no assent. The devils know the facts but they wage war against God. So we see that the kind of knowledge in faith that we are looking for is knowledge with assent. Some varieties of false faith may affirm certain matters as true but they do not assent to them. Indeed this idea of “assent” is so important that many scholars list “assent” along with “knowledge” as a element of faith.
In the last book of the Bible we find Christ warning against faithlessness among those who are supposed to be Faithful. False faith most often co-exists side by side with faith in a False Christ. People make Christ in their own image and then place faith in that self-created Christ. As such both their Christ and their faith is false.
Because false faith exists in such abundance the Catechism is precise in giving us the definition of true faith. However, we should say in setting out, that there is a danger in this issue of false vs. true faith. Some people, being so concerned with the nature, quality, and legitimacy of their faith have taken to spending so much time examining their faith that they have forgotten that their gaze needs to be on Christ more than their faith. Like every other virtue any of us might have been given it is simply the case that none of our faiths are perfect. The faith of the greatest saint who has ever lived was not saved by his perfect faith but by a perfect Christ.
We should see the relationship of faith to Christ as a bride to be sees the relationship of the prongs to a diamond as set in an engagement ring. Yes, the prongs holding the jewel in place must be sturdy and tight but she is not impressed with the prongs holding the diamond but rather boasts in the diamond and even more so in what that diamond represents (that she belongs to her beloved and her beloved is hers). So it is with faith in Christ. Faith must clasp and cling to Christ and we must make our boast in him and remember that though our faith might not be all that it should be, it is enough if it holds on to Christ. Weak faith saves just as completely as strong faith Caleb.
With that in mind we turn to the Catechism’s answer concerning what true faith is.
The Catechism gives us three essential elements of faith.
1.) Faith includes knowledge
23 This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
Now faith can not be reduced to just knowledge — some of the greatest heretics in Church History have been incredibly knowledgeable men — but faith includes knowledge. Another way to say this is that faith is never less than a certain knowledge but it is always much more than that. There is a tendency to go to two extremes on this matter. On the one hand there are those who seem to suggest that unless someone has the entire catechism memorized they don’t have enough knowledge to have faith. So, with these folks those who have little knowledge regarding Christianity are looked on with suspicion regarding their profession of faith. The other extreme is to suggest that Faith has no knowledge content so that anybody who mouths some kind of confession of faith, even if it is uninformed by Scripture or the confessions is seen as having Biblical faith. Neither of these extremes will do. Biblical faith must have knowledge of Christ and the Scriptures and yet one does not have to have a theology degree in order to have faith. This reminds us that even the youngest of the young can have faith.
The knowledge that the Catechizers say we must have is a knowledge that “has us holding for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word.” Now I won’t spend much time here because the next few questions in the Catechism go on to elaborate just exactly what knowledge we must have. Four brief comments though.
a.) Clearly this teaches us that Christianity is the life of the mind. There is a set content in the Christian faith that must be known, affirmed, and defended. Christianity is not primarily about emotions, experiences, relationships, (those are beautiful byproducts of the Christian faith) or opinions not anchored in the word. Christianity begins with knowing what we believe and why we believe it and what we don’t believe and why we don’t believe it.
b.) The Catechizers believe in objective truth. This is important to bring out in an age of postmodern philosophy and deconstructionst literary theory which denies objective True Truth and affirms that all truth is subjective (i.e. — person or people group variable).
c.) That objective truth of which they speak is tied to the Word (Scriptures). Because Biblical Christians through the centuries have believed this they have always taken people back to the Scriptures in order to give the explicit or implicit underpinning for what they believe.
d.) Do not miss that they assert that we know what we know by God’s revealed word. Christians believe that God’s Revelation is the means by which we know what we know. God’s Revelation is the beginning and ending point for our knowing. We do not know what we know by reason operating independently of Scripture. We do not know what we know by some kind of mystical intuitive experience. The beginning and ending of our knowing is God’s Revelation.
2.) Faith includes Assured Confidence As Worked by the Holy Ghost in Concord with the Gospel
One matter that is being emphasized here is that faith is a gift of God.
Eph.2:7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. Eph.2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Eph.2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. Eph.3:12 In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.
And not only Faith is a gift of God, worked in me by the Holy Ghost, in concert with the Gospel, but also the confidence that is a byproduct of being united to Christ and so having faith (one of those benefits mentioned in the previous question) is considered an element of faith.
And what does that confidence entail that faith brings?
That confidence entails Christ. That confidence entails the conviction that Christ has taken away my offense (sin) before God. That confidence entails the conviction that Christ has won for me a righteousness and salvation that can not be negated, overturned or reneged upon. That confidence entails that all the good that comes to me, come to me quite beyond my performance or just deserts but comes to me completely by God’s Grace (undeserved favor) as secured for me by the work of Christ for me in my place.
Note, that we are taught that all this is the work of the Holy Spirit.
John 6:29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
Gal.5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
But the work of the Holy Spirit in concert with the Gospel. Word and Spirit are inseparably tied together.
Rom.10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
I can not savingly know the word without the Spirit and the Spirit will not work upon me apart from the Word. Long ago I learned that the Spirit always runs along the track of the word. The reason this is important to insist upon is that it keeps us from both the extremes of a spiritual enthusiasm on one hand that if it uses the word it uses it only as a talisman (a magic device that gives power) and on the other hand a dry arid rationalism that has no life because the Spirit is not in the rationalism. If we are to have faith that clings to Christ then we must be enlivened by the Holy Spirit in the context of the Gospel being proclaimed in some form.
Another fascinating aspect of this Question is that our faith is Trinitarian. If we re-read the question we see faith is in the Father’s revealing work, the Spirit’s enlivening work and the Son’s removal of penalty work. Our faith looks to God in both His Unity and His Diversity.
Finally, for this entry we close looking at how closely to home the Catechism brings this. The catechism, following Scripture, want us to understand that all of this good news is not just true in the abstract but that it is good news for me personally. The Gospel promises that we cling to by faith are not just true in a general sense but should be clung to as being true for each and every individual believer that God calls from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The Gospel promises are not only true but they are true for me, whichever me they come to.