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The Reformation Restoration of Faith and True Religion

Saving faith is the instrument by which the whole person is united to the whole Christ in the unbreakable bond of the Holy Spirit. I am not my own, confesses the believer, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Faith is not merely an activity of the mind assenting to the truth, nor merely an activity of the heart being assured of God and salvation, but an activity of the whole person. This faith, which the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts, “embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him” (Belgic Confession art. 22). In the same way faith does not embrace half a Savior, as the Belgic Confession goes on to say, so also it is not an activity of half a person. Saving faith is nothing less than the whole self embracing a whole Savior. It is a matter of the heart, in the biblical sense, as that from which proceed all expressions of life in mind, feeling, and will.

This is consistent with the way Paul speaks of our union with Christ, which is by faith. He writes to the Colossians, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Similarly to the Romans, he writes, “We were buried … with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). And to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Paul does not qualify as if only part of you died with Christ; he has in mind a total death. And the same is true of the new life in Christ. By faith our whole self is brought into union with the whole Christ in his death and resurrection.

This holistic view of faith is at the basis of true religion, as the means of fellowship with the living God. In creation we learn that man, as the image of God, was to serve and enjoy him with his whole self in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, that is, as his prophet, priest and king. Likewise, in God’s work of redemption, regeneration is in principle a renewal of the whole person to this once forfeited, but now regained service in Christ. True religion, then, is not something that can be relocated to certain areas of a person’s life, but is the animating principle of all of life. Our view of faith must coincide with this.

The Roman Catholic Captivity of Faith and True Religion

This view of faith was something that was thankfully recovered by the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church had reduced the full-orbed nature of faith to a mere activity of the mind assenting to revealed divine truth, and in doing so corrupted the true religion. Herman Bavinck, in his excellent essay, “Philosophy of Religion (Faith),” accurately summarizes the Roman Catholic view of faith:

It generally is the acceptance of a witness on the basis of the trustworthiness of the spokesman, and it retains this meaning also in the religious arena. It is true that an operation of the Spirit is necessary to illumine the mind and to bend the will. Still, faith is and remains an activity of the mind. It exists in the acceptance of and agreement with God’s truth as contained in Scripture and tradition, on the basis of the inerrant authority of the church (25-26).

While Roman Catholic theology is far from unified, this summary of Bavinck is consistent, for example, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. First, for Rome faith is merely the assent of the mind. While they may speak of personal adherence and insert such language as “his whole being,” they never go beyond mere assent. For example, “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer.'” (143). While the language, “whole being” is used, the action attributed to the “whole being” is only that of assenting. So either the whole being of man is reduced entirely to his mind or his whole being is brought in subordination to his mind. Even when speaking of Mary—in whom Rome venerates “the purest realization of faith”—the catechism only states that she “welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ and so giving her assent.” Aquinas is also cited as saying, “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”

Second, Rome supplants the Holy Spirit with the Church as the source of faith. It is the Church, according to Rome, who teaches the believer to say both “I believe” and “We believe” (167). Furthermore, “It is the Church that believes first, and so bears, nourishes and sustains my faith…” (168). And the Church is considered the believer’s mother because through her “we receive the life of faith” and so “she is also our teacher in the faith” (169).

This view of faith severs the unity of the person, embraces rationalism, and injects a heavy dosage of impersonalism, imposing an institutional mediator between the believer and Christ, thus corrupting the true religion of fulsome fellowship with the living triune God.

The Reformation Rescue of Faith and True Religion

In response, “the Reformation,” writes Bavinck, “presented a completely different view of faith. Even though faith could properly be called knowledge, it was, as Calvin said, still more a matter of the heart than of the mind” (26).

This is embodied in the great document of the Reformation, the Heidelberg Catechism. After stating in Q/A 20 that salvation is only for those who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings, it expectantly asks, “What is true faith?” The answer encompasses the whole person, mind and heart, intellect and soul, knowledge and assurance. It reads, “True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation” (Q/A 21).

In contrast to Roman Catholic theology, “faith thus received from the Reformers a unique, independent, religious meaning. It was distinguished essentially from the faith of which we speak in daily life, and also from historical and temporal faith, or faith in miracles. It was not just an acceptance of divine truth, but it also became the bond of the soul with Christ, the means of fellowship with the living God” (26). In this we have the restoration of true religion.

Following the Reformation we find unfortunate attempts to again sever the unity of the person with either rationalism and cold orthodoxy (reducing faith to the intellect) or pietism, mysticism and ethicism (reducing faith to feelings and morality), along with Immanuel Kant’s failed attempt to unite them once again. We will explore this, along with some of the manifold implications of the Reformation’s proper and wholesome view of faith for Christian living, preaching, evangelism, etc. in future articles. We will also look at some of the insights from Geerhardus Vos on the various words used throughout the Old and New Testaments for “faith,” so as to find biblical confirmation of the Reformed view.


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