Fisking an idea on how to treat Confessional Documents

In a recent denomination magazine someone wrote a op-ed piece. This is my attempt to find the humor in it.

December 5, 2015 — Discussions about our denomination’s confessions, also known as the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism—are ongoing.

Some believe that we should preserve these confessions as they were written. Others argue that we should adapt them to contemporary times but continue to affirm their authority. Still others argue that we should do away with these confessions altogether and start anew. And some have proposed that we add a fourth document to the Three Forms of Unity, such as the Belhar Confession, to make our testimony more complete.

I propose that we refer to the Three Forms of Unity as the “historical confessions” of the CRC. This implies, of course, that the exact language of each confession be minutely preserved. After all, they are historical documents that reflect the precise spirit of their time. These documents should never be altered, and for that reason should always be referred to as “the historical confessions of the Christian Reformed Church.” Further, these historical confessions should never be considered normative for our times because their normativity for today would violate their historicity of yesterday.

Bret responds,

Great idea. Lets apply this reasoning to other historical documents.

1.) I propose that we refer to my wedding vows as the “historical wedding vows.”  This implies, of course, that the exact language of the wedding vow would be minutely preserved. After all, those vows are a historical document that reflect the precise spirit when I was married. This document should never be altered, and for that reason should always be referred to as “the historical wedding vows of Mr. & Mrs. Bret L. McAtee.” Further, this historical wedding vow should never be considered normative for our times because its normativity for today would violate its historicity of yesterday.

II.) I propose that we refer to the membership vows that our members take as their “historical vows” to the local church. This implies, of course, that the exact language of each membership vow be minutely preserved. After all, they are historical vows that reflect the precise spirit of their time. These vows should never be altered, and for that reason should always be referred to as “the historical vows of the members of sundry Christian Reformed Churches.” Further, these historical vows should never be considered normative for our times because their normativity for today would violate their historicity of yesterday.

III.) I propose that we refer to the  Scriptures as “historical Scripture” of the CRC. This implies, of course, that the exact language of each Scripture be minutely preserved. After all, the Scriptures are a historical document that reflects the precise spirit of their time. This document should never be altered, and for that reason should always be referred to as “the historical  Scripture of the Christian Church.” Further, these historical Scriptures should never be considered normative for our times because their normativity for today would violate their historicity of yesterday.

Except for assorted 5 year olds, closed head injury patients, and adult post-moderns who “reasons” like this?

How is it that Historicity is put into antithesis with normativity?

With this kind of methodology how is it possible to still believe that true truth is timeless?

“Yes Aunt Agnes, I know in your time serial adultery was wrong, according to the historic Confessions, but today the normative confessions say that God is pleased with serial adultery.”

What would be normative, however, is a Contemporary Confession. Such a new document would be similar to the CRC’s Contemporary Testimony Our World Belongs to God, but not necessarily identical to it. This Contemporary Confession would be drawn up by the CRC synod. From then on, a synodically appointed standing committee would, upon the instruction of the annual synod, recommend certain modifications, alterations, or additions to the Contemporary Confession as needed.

This process would be repeated at the commencement of each subsequent synod, at which time all the synodical delegates would also subscribe to the Contemporary Confession. The document would then be normative throughout the entire year. Newly elected or appointed office-bearers would also be expected to subscribe to it.

Something to think about!



Wasn’t this tried before? Some guy, wearing a pointy hat speaks ex-cathedra from the synod (whoops… I mean “The Chair”) and then all of Christendom knows what is true and what they should think. After all, if Synod says it is true then  why would anyone disagree? Didn’t Luther have something to say about this idea.

“I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils or CRC Synods, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning.”

I can just see it now.

“My only comfort in life and death (until next years synod meets) is that I am not my own …”

This year the Heidelberg gives us “Sin and Misery,” “Our Redemption,” and “Gratitude.” Next year the Heidelberg could  be divided into, “Low Self Esteem,” “Our Self Actualization,” and “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough,  and doggone it, people like me,” categories.

Really, I fail to understand how any thinking person could reason like this.


The Heidelberg Catechism & The Duration Of Christ’s Suffering

Recently a ministerial colleague expressed his disagreement with the Heidelberg catechism at a particular point at Lord’s Day 15. Lord’s Day 15, Q, 37 states,

Q. 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?

A. That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: (a)

that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, (b)

he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, (c)

and obtain for us the favour of God, righteousness and eternal life. (d)

The point of disagreement of my colleague was that he did not believe that Christ, during the time he lived on earth, sustained the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind. My minister friend quite agreed that Christ sustained God’s wrath while on the cross but he did not agree that Christ sustained God’s wrath while living.

The text that the catechism cites for this is Isaiah 53:4

Surely, he hath born our infirmities, and carried [f]our sorrows, yet we did judge him as [g]plagued and smitten of God, and humbled.

Obviously Urisunus and Olevanius interpreted this Isaiah passage to mean that he (Christ) bore our infirmities and carried our sorrow while living as well as dying. (They present other texts [I Peter 2:24, 3:18, I Timothy 2:6] to support Christ sustaining the wrath of the Father on the cross.) However the Isaiah text doesn’t explicitly say that and so I can understand why my friend might interpret the Isaiah passage as a prophecy of Christ’s burden bearing on the Cross.

However, I am of the persuasion that Isaiah is rightly interpreted as pointing to the wrath bearing of Christ during his sojourn on earth.

We must keep in mind the Christ was a public person. All orthodox Reformed people agree that in and of Himself the Lord Christ was perfect and without sin so that in and of Himself the Father could only be pleased with Him. We must keep in mind though our Reformed Federal Theology, and its attendant legal-judicial categories. Christ was a public person who was standing in as a representative for Adam and his descendants. As a public person, and the Representative of God’s elect, the Father’s disposition towards the public person and representative was the same as his disposition towards those who the Representative public person was representing. Christ represented the elect of Adam’s fallen race and as God’s wrath was upon Adam’s fallen race, the Father’s wrath was upon the Son during his whole time on earth, just as the Catechism teaches. The Lord Christ suffered during His whole time on earth and bore God’s wrath even when not on the cross because He was, before God, judicially speaking, the sinners for which He was a public person. This is basic Federal Theology.

Another issue that should be dealt with here is the phrase, (that Christ) “sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.”

First off we should note that this can not be teaching either a Hypothetical Universalism nor a blanket Universalism. We know this because of what the Catechism explicitly says elsewhere earlier in the document where we find Limited atonement as implicit in the Heidelberg text. Keep in view that the pronouns are always pointing to a particular people.

Q.) 20. Are all men then saved by Christ as they perished in Adam?

A.) No, only those who by true faith are ingrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.1

1 John 1:12,13. I Corinthians 15:22. Psalm 2:12. Romans 11:20. Hebrews 4:2,3. Hebrews 10:39
And in 29 and 30 and 31:

Q.) 29. Why is the Son of God called JESUS, that is, Savior?1

A.) Because He saves us from our sins,1 and because salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.2

1Matthew 1:21. Hebrews 7:25 / 2 Acts 4:12. * Luke 2:10,11.

Q.) 30. Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus,1 for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.2

1 I Corinthians 1:13. I Corinthians 1:30,31. Galatians 5:4
2 Isaiah 9:7. Colossians 1:20. Colossians 2:10. John 1:16. * Matthew 23.28.

Q.) 31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?

A.) Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit 1 to be our chief Prophet and Teacher,2 who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption;3 and our only High Priest,4 who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father;5 and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.6

1 Hebrews 1:9 / 2 Deuteronomy 18:15. Acts 3:22. /3 John 1:18. John 15:15 / 4 Psalm 110:4 Hebrews 7:21 /
5 Romans 5:9,10 / 6 Psalm 2:6. Luke 1:33. Matthew 28:18. * Isaiah 61:1,2. * I Peter 2:24. * Revelation 19:16.

The Catechism should be read in such a way so that what precedes earlier in the Catechism informs what comes later in the Catechism. Given the presence of all this implicit limited atonement type language earlier in the Catechism it would not make sense that suddenly in question 37 Ursinus and Olevanius suddenly start speaking as if they are Arminians on the doctrine of the atonement.

Secondly, on this score, one can reference Ursinus’ commentary on question & answer 37 and read,

“Obj. 4. If Christ made satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore, he did not make a perfect satisfaction.

Ans. Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof . . .”

The Commentary of Dr. Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism,– p. 215

Here it is clear that the Heidelberg is not holding to a Arminian Hypothetical Universalism where in Christ’s death makes salvation only possible for each and every individual. Ursinus is articulating the idea that Christ’s death was sufficient for mankind but efficient for only the elect since only the elect would have the benefits of Christ applied to them.

Caleb’s Baptism — Heidelberg Catechism Q. 22-24


In the last question the catechism instructed us as to the definition of “true faith.” In the following questions the Catechism sets the table for a detailed examination of our undoubted Catholic Christian Faith. Because these next few questions are basically table setting questions for the following questions we will be able to examine more than one question today.

As the catechizers have established what true faith is, they next turn to the issue of what it is necessary for a Christian to believe. They have given us a definition of faith and now they turn to the truths upon which our faith must be anchored.

A couple of things to note briefly here before we turn to question 22.

First, as we have mentioned before, this emphasis that we find in the catechism on the issue of the content of our faith reminds us again that Christianity is the life of the mind. Question 22 asks, “What is then necessary for a christian to believe,” not, “What is necessary for a Christian to feel,” or, “What is necessary for a Christian to experience.” As we have said feelings and experience have their place in the Christian life but it is what we believe — what we embrace as truth — that is the essence of the Christian faith.

Second, we should note that “Faith” is an inescapable category. What I mean by this is that all men live by faith in something or someone. It is not as if only Christians have faith, or only religious people have faith. Every living breathing person you meet has some kind of faith. The humanists have faith. They have faith that man, by the use of putatively autonomous right reason, can arrive at true truth quite apart from any religious considerations. (Of course thinking that one can arrive at truth apart from any religious consideration is a religious faith consideration.) The Materialists have faith that everything happened by time plus chance plus circumstance. Since they were not there, there is no way they can know that their materialism is true. Besides, for the materialists, can there even be discussion about “true,” since “true,” for the materialist, is only the firing of random chemicals in our purely material brains? If the brain secretes thought the way the liver secretes bile can the materialist really speak about “truth?”

When it comes to faith the difference for the Christian and the pagan is that the pagan’s faith reduces to “faith in faith,” while the Christian’s faith is faith anchored in divine revelation.

Very well then, with that as preliminary the Catechism asks,

Question 22. What is then necessary for a christian to believe?

Answer: All things promised us in the gospel, (a) which the articles of our catholic undoubted christian faith briefly teach us.

As they ask what is “necessary” to believe, I understand the catechizers to be communicating that what they are about to give is the basics of Christianity. They intend to stick to the meat and potatoes of our undoubted Catholic Christian faith. The catechism is given as a basic Christianity 101. Now we might find that surprising given that it takes 129 questions in the catechism to give us the basics. We’re used to 30 second sound bites to get us up to speed on any given subject. We think that we can crash course almost any subject and get up to speed in almost no time. But the Catechism, in order to give us just the essentials gives us 129 questions and answers to digest, understand, and own. Of course what is discussed in the Catechism is just the bare essentials. A Christian, having this foundation will learn much much more throughout their whole Christian life and then when they are old and ready to depart they will readily admit that they are but a child in their understanding of their undoubted Catholic Christian faith.

It is interesting that what we are required to believe is all that is promised in the Gospel. This teaches us two truths.

1.) Our undoubted Catholic Christian faith is about grasping God’s promises. The Gospel is first and foremost about God’s promises to us. The Gospel is first and foremost what God has done for us. When we teach a Christian what is necessary to believe we are teaching them to rest in God’s promises. We are teaching them that God has done all the saving in Christ and that He promises to save all those who are weary and heavy laden if they will take God at His Word that “all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

2.) The “Gospel,” as we shall see, includes believing in doctrines that sometimes are, in our contemporary Church setting, not seen as being necessary to consider. For example, the catechism will be teaching us that it is necessary for us to believe in a robust supernaturalism. In order to believe the Gospel we are required to believe Divine creation, the virgin Birth, that our Lord Christ was resurrected from the grave and that He ascended into heaven. The authors of the catechism did not countenance a hermeneutic that allowed us to try to understand the Scripture apart from the Supernatural and where we find people in the Church who claim Christ but interpret the Bible in order to avoid the supernatural or who use semantic deception to diminish the supernatural there we find people who are out of step with the Catechism and Scripture.

That belief is necessary for the Christian is taught in John 20:31

“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

In question 23 the catechism gives us the Apostles Creed as the statement that they will be breaking down in order to explain to us our undoubted Catholic Christian faith. This Creed comes to us from the life of the early Church and gives 12 affirmations regarding the nature and character of the catholic (universal) Christian faith. Often the Apostles Creed is used in Church services. In some of the branches of Christianity you might even find the Creed being chanted during the worship service. As you know we regularly recite the Apostles Creed whenever the Lord Christ invites us to His table (Eucharist).

Question 23. What are these articles?

Answer: 1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe a holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting.

Since we will be looking closely at each one of these 12 statements we allow the Creed to go uncommented on here.

Then in Question 24 they give a brief subdivision of the Apostles Creed.

8. Lord’s Day

Question 24. How are these articles divided?

Answer: Into three parts; the first is of God the Father, and our creation; the second of God the Son, and our redemption; the third of God the Holy Ghost, and our sanctification.

The whole statement of the Apostles Creed is broken down into three subdivisions. One subdivision for each member of the Trinity.

The work of God the Father is associated with Creation. Subsumed under His work of creation we will be looking into His work of sustaining, and governing. God’s Providence will be a matter we pay close attention to.

The work of God the Son is associated with our Redemption accomplished. The Son was set apart from Eternity to be the Representative and Savior for His people. As such we will be looking at matters like propitiation, reconciliation, atonement, and other doctrines associated with the Son’s work of Redemption.

The work of God the Spirit is associate with our Redemption applied. The Spirit, being sent by the Father and the Son, applies the work of Redemption to His people and possesses His people to the end that they go from Christ-likeness to Christ-likeness.

Even though we subdivide the Apostles Creed in these three parts we mustn’t be so wooden as to think that the particular work that is assigned to each member of the Trinity finds the other members of the Trinity uninvolved with that work. For example, even though we rightly ascribe Creation to the work of the Father, we can read in Scripture of the Son and Creation,

Colossians 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.

And Genesis speaks of the work of the Spirit in creation,

Genesis 1:2 The earth was [a]formless and void, and darkness was over the [b]surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was [c]moving over the [d]surface of the waters.

Similar examples could be given for each of the works that are properly ascribed to the members of the Trinity. So, while it is not wrong to think of the Father in relation to his Creator work, or the Son in relation to His Redemption work, or the Spirit in relation to His Sanctifying work it would be wrong to not realize that because of the intimate relationship between each member of the Trinity that when one member is involved in a particular work each member is involved in that work. Each member of the Trinity cooperates in each work.

Heidelberg Questions 114b – 115

Question 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?

Answer: No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; (a) yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God. (b)

Re-cap — small beginning (Illustration — advance in an infinite ocean)

(b) Rom.7:22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

This teaching of the Catechism, following Scripture as it does, ought to put an end to all forms of antinomianism in the Church. Antinomianism is the teaching that the law has no role in the Christian’s life. The idea is that the believer has been saved by God from the law and so the law no longer has a role in their life and instead of the law as their standard for “how shall they then live,” the standard becomes the Holy Spirit, as abstracted or divorced from the law guiding them, or they will contend that it is love” that directs their behavior but again, it is a love that is more informed by their instinct then it is by God’s revelation.

The Catechism brings to the fore that, “that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” And they lodge this observation in the teaching of Scripture,

Ps.1:2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

You see some folks want to pit the NT against the OT and so they will go to passages like

Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

And reading that they will then interpret it to mean that the law has ended for the Christian who trusts in Christ. But end in “R. 10:4″ means goal, purpose, or culmination and what it is teaching is not that the law no longer has a role in the Christian’s life but rather that Christ is the one who gives all that the law required.

So, our walking in the way of God’s law revelation is not a means to gaining something we do not already have (peace with God and God’s approval) but rather our walking in God’s law revelation is a manifestation that we are a people who are now, as Paul says in Ephesians, “light in the Lord.” Our walking in God’s law revelation is the placarding of the truth that Christ has redeemed us and made us a people unique unto Him. This is so true that if it is the case, by God’s grace that we make advance in this walking in God’s law revelation that announces that we are being conformed to Christ, that we glory in the Lord because we know it is the Spirit of Christ that causes us to go from Christ-likeness unto Christ-likeness.

And so because of that we pay attention to God’s Revelation as it teaches us how to walk as Disciples of Christ. We agree with the Apostle Paul,

2 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

So, we understand that the experience of the Grace of God in our lives that finds us redeemed and set apart as God’s Holy people, in no way detracts from the permanence and authority of God’s law.

There is a long record in our history of trying to squeeze out the role of God’s law in the believers life as a rule of conduct.

In the 17th century one Robert Towne could say

“To faith, or in the State or things of faith, there is no obligation, nor use of the law.”

John Saltmarsh disliked,

those who say “that duties are to be done because commanded,” and in his book, “Free-Grace” he reveals his contempt for those whose Gospel preaching is ‘over-much heated by the Law, and conditions and qualifications,’ and who hold the believer in the poverty of spirit by keeping him ‘both under Grace and Law at the same time.” Saltmarsh said that to urge believers to ‘Repent … and walk according to the Law of God’ is a legal way of bringing comfort to the soul, and that preachers who do this give ‘rather something of the Law than Gospel,’ for ‘nothing but the taking in of the law … can trouble the peace and quiet of any soul.’

Saltmarsh continued,

“The Gospel is … a perfect law of life and righteousness … and therefore I wonder at any that should contend for the ministry of the law or the Ten Commandments under Moses. The believer is under grace, and there is ‘no Moses now.”

Now as we continue to consider we say again, that as Christians our “sincere resolution to begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God,” is a resolution that is born of gratitude for the righteousness and peace with God that we have because Christ is our acceptability before the Father. “Our sincere resolution to begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God,” is a sincere resolution that starts from being forgiven and not from trying to earn forgiveness by our behavior.

Well, the Reformed of the day had an answer for those who even those many years ago wanted to deny the role to the law as a rule of conduct for the believer,

John Sedgwick considered,

“The antinomian war-cries of Free Grace, Christ’s Righteousness, and Gospel Liberty, to be “Baits and Snares … to cast down Obedience, to keep Christians from their dutie to God,” and Sedgwick deplored the “Law destroying, Dutie casting down course of the Antinomians.”

Another Puritan minister, James Durham affirmed that this rejection of the principle of obligation was itself a breach of the 1st commandment.

Thomas Gataker defended the principle of obligation by reference to the Greek word in I John 2:6 and the occurrence of the same verb in Romans 7:12. Gataker could say,

“To deny the Moral law to be of any more use to believers, or to be so much as a rule of conversation, or that they owe obedience unto it in point of duty and conscience; this strikes at the very root, and cuts in sunder the knot, not only of Christian Charity, but even of all civil society.”

Now the reason I’m giving these quotes and going over this issue is because we have needs to see that we are not the first generation to deal with antinomianism. And we have needs to see that the objections that we might see today have been seen before and have been dealt with before. We can be confident that the Catechism is correct when it teaches us, following Scripture, that we begin to live not only according to some but all the commandments of God. And the catechism is correct to enjoin upon us the law as a rule of conduct for the Christian’s life.

And for this section, to underscore this, we will finish with a quote from 17th century Reformed Minister Samuel Rutherford,

“The Law is yet to be preached, as tying us to personal obedience, whatever antinomians say on the contrary … Antinomians judge that by the Gospel, Christ hath done all for us, which is most true in the kind of meritorious and deserving cause, satisfying justice, but they do loose us from all personal duties, or doing ourselves, or in our own persons, so as we should be obliged to do, except we would sin. We think the same law obligation, but running in a Gospel-channel of Free-Grace, should act as now as if we were under a covenant of works, but not as if the one were Law-debt, and the other wages that we sweat for, and commeth by law debt; Antinomians make all duties a matter of courtesy.”

He then goes on to point out that Antinomians ‘contend for a Christian liberty wherewhith Christ hath made us free, and we contend for the same, but the question is, wherein the liberty consisteth, in concerns us much that we take not license for liberty.

Well, I could go on with many more quotes. But you get the sense. The problem that we have in the Church today of antinomianism, is a problem that has been in the Church in the past. And yet our Catechism solves that problem by insisting that.

That while no Christian can keep God’s law perfectly and though even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God. ,

And we would close this question by observing that it is precisely at this point why we will be hated by men. It was Christ’s keeping of the law and his exposing of God’s enemies false treatment of the law that found Him crucified. If we seek to walk in God’s law revelation as a rule of life, out of gratitude for a forgiveness freely given, we will be walking convictions to those who insist that the only law is that there is no law, or to those who live by other autonomously created law orders that are inconsistent with God’s revelation.

Well, then this takes us to question 115 and with this we finish up our look at the law.

Question 115. Why will God then have the Ten Commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?

Answer: First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know (a) our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ;

(b) likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come. (c)

Know our sinful nature

We preach the law the Catechism says so that we may know our sinful nature and find ourselves keep returning to Christ as our only righteousness.

Rom.3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

There are two dangers here.

1.) Knowing our sinful nature so thoroughly that we lament of God’s grace to us or we become so defeated because of our knowledge of our sinful nature that we become ineffective.

To those who fall into this trap we must remind them that God has forgiven them in Christ and that though they are sinners that ought not to stop them from attempting mighty things for God. They need to have impressed upon them and be reminded that even though they may be great sinners, Christ is a greater savior.

2.) The other danger here is that our sinful natures would lie to lightly upon us and so we would begin to think of ourselves more highly than we ought and in thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought we would fail to be impressed with Christ being our acceptability before the Father.

If the previous group of people need to be constantly taken back to God’s provision in Christ, this group of people need to be taken back to God’s absolute standard of righteousness. None of us have any reason to be impressed with ourselves. If we could for one second see our sin as it really is we would know in that one second why,

Our hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
We dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name.

Paul understood how the law took men back to Christ,

Rom.7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Rom.7:25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now, as a minister, let me say that I far more often see contemporary Christians plagued with the second danger of having their sinful natures lie on them too lightly then I meet people who are plagued with the first danger of their sinful nature lying on them too heavily. I know my own danger is the former and not the latter.

The second reason they give for preaching of the law is that we “constantly endeavour and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.

Here they cite Paul from his letter to the Philippians on the importance of this pursuit of God

Philip.3:11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Philip.3:12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Philip.3:13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philip.3:14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

It is interesting that what the Catechizers are doing here with this answer is in the first reason they are emphasizing looking outside of ourselves to Christ who is our righteousness, while in the second reason they emphasize the aspect of increasingly becoming in our daily lives what we have freely been declared to be.

These always go together and in this order. The objective reality of who we are in Christ is the foundation from which we operate to increasingly become what we have been freely declared to be. The outward look creates and sustains our inward becoming. Much is wrong with the Church today in the West because we forget the necessity of both of these reasons for preaching the law or because we reverse the order of these reasons for preaching the law.

The Catechism, following Scripture, instructs that there is a connection between preaching the law and our conformity to the image of God. By putting it this way there is direct linkage made between the law and God’s image. The law is strictly preached that we may become increasingly conformable to God’s image. How is it that the strict preaching of God’s law could lead to our becoming increasingly conformable to God’s image unless it were the case that the law is God’s image?

Notice here though, that we are not thrown upon our own autonomous efforts. It is the case that we are looking to God for increasing conformity to His image. As the catechism teaches, we pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit that we might increasingly become more conformable to the image of God that is set forth by the strict preaching of God’s law. This is not “lift yourself up by your bootstraps and trust in your own efforts” sanctification. This is God’s grace from beginning to end.

Here we see a fantastic coming together of several themes. The strict preaching of God’s law, the reality that Christ is our righteousness, and the fact that our increasing conformity to the image of God is related to the strict preaching of God’s law, the reality that Christ is our righteousness and the place of the Holy Spirit and prevailing prayer in the life of the believer.

But that perfection we all desire … that being done with the sin that we are all too familiar with is not something that transpires in this life. Our perfection that is proposed to us is for the life to come. This keeps us humble and dependent upon Christ for our righteousness. This keeps us from being self satisfied. This keeps us always looking for the sin that needs to be put off in our own life, regardless of how far God has brought us in Christ. And finally, this makes heaven precious.

Sometimes disgust with myself makes me pine for heaven so I can be done with the sinful nature I carry around and see all too often. The thought of death scares me but the thought of heaven makes the thought of death tolerable because I know that once death is past, what lies in front of me is the perfection proposed. I will be done with the old man and the newness I already know as down payment and promise will be known in full.

Caleb’s Baptism — True Faith Defined — (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21)

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.