Geerhardus Vos on the Personal and Active Faith of the Old Testament

The Westminster Larger Catechism defines justifying faith as

a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation (72).

Faith is not merely the intellectual assent of the mind to the redemptive revelation of God, it is also a receiving and resting upon the person of Christ. By this definition the Reformed go beyond Rome’s demand for nothing more than an historical assent to the truth by including a heartfelt trust of the whole person. This personal and active dimension of faith is evident in the words used throughout the Old Testament to express the concept of believing. We’ll turn to Geerhardus Vos’ survey of these words in the fourth volume of his Reformed Dogmatics on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) to see this.

אמן (“To Believe”)

The first and most often used word is אמן. Vos notes that in the hiphil form the word is best rendered as “demonstrating faithfulness,” “generating faithfulness,” or “establishing oneself.” It has to do with “an active disposition of the soul, an action that produces change” (72).

The word also takes on certain nuances depending on the preposition connected with it. With the preposition לְ (“to”) it generally has to do with holding something to be true. This is seen in Deuteronomy 9:23, which speaks of Israel’s failure to actively believe: “you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe him…”

With the preposition בְּ (“by,” “in”) it usually denotes a trustful resting in a person or in a truth. This is used of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Now Abraham’s faith was more than just his holding the promise of God to be true. “As this promise was a matter of life for Abraham, so this promise was also a living testimony for him, and his faith was not merely concerned with the truth in the abstract but with the God of the truth. A personal relationship came about between the consciousness of Abraham and God. Thus we may already say in general that [Abraham’s believing here] is the trustful acceptance of the testimony of a person that becomes a basis for certainty for us through the conscious conception of that person” (73).

בטח (“To Trust”)

A second word that is used in the Old Testament is בטח which means “to be sure,” and so with the preposition בְּ (“in”) it means to trust in someone. So Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped.” Vos comments, “Here, too, the personal relationship comes out. Depending on the testimony is accompanied by and derives its strength from this personal relationship” (74). The imagery of the Lord being the psalmist’s personal shield is a helpful picture of what it means to trust in him.

חסה (“To Take Refuge”)

We find a third word used in Psalm 57:1, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” The Hebrew word here is חסה, which means “to hide” or “to take refuge in.” This trust of the psalmist’s soul is not a mere intellectual assent to the truth, but an active trusting in God. The intense imagery of taking refuge in the midst of a destructive storm would be incongruous with a mere acceptance of the truth with the mind. The whole trusts in the Lord and so seeks refuge in him.

קוה (“To Wait”)

A fourth, and final, word used is קוה—an intense, active word that can mean “focusing the mind on something.” At times it might carry the sense of “hoping” in the biblical sense that carries certainty and conviction or “an intensive focusing of the intellect that definitely expects the realization of what is desired” (74). It is usually translated as “wait”: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14). “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa. 40:31). “This waiting … is not a passive state, depleted of all expression of life. Rather, it is an extending and securing of the heart, a reckoning on Jehovah connected with the inner strength of the soul” (74).

Summary and Conclusion

Vos summarizes the various elements that belong to the concept of believing in the Old Testament (pp. 74–75):

  1. Faith is an activity of the intellect as it accepts the testimony of another.
  2. Faith can be much more than an activity of the intellect. As trust it is that deeply moral action by which, in order to have stability, man, as it were, puts himself into another.
  3. As such, faith does not have a passive but an active, dynamic form.
  4. As trust, faith is accompanied to a greater or lesser degree by a sense of security. Faith not only seeks certainty but finds it and also produces certainty. It knows itself to be certain and safe and lives in a reality with its conceptions that is not yet present.

Faith is a free gift from God that is kindled in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. All of the benefits we have spoken of are not true of faith in the abstract—our faith is not in faith itself—but because of the concrete object of our faith, namely, Jesus Christ. By faith we are united to him (you might say with Paul we are put in him) as our living and personal Savior, in whom we have died and in whom we have also been raised to new life. Today he not only supplies us with a place of security and rest as we navigate the tempestuous waters of this present age, but also works in us faith by his Spirit so that we do not fail to arrive on the shores of the crystal waters flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1).

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