The Righteousness of Faith (Blogging the Belgic: Article 22)
We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with the topics of faith, righteousness, and justification being key issues that led to the division of the church at the time. These ideas are not minor or trivial matters but ones that key church leaders deemed are teachings that make a great difference for Christians and the Christian life; many have said they are the foundation on which the church and Christian life rises or falls. Article 22 of the Belgic Confession gives the Reformed understanding on these topics, as it discusses where faith comes from, what faith is, and what faith does.
The article begins by noting that true faith comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit: “We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith.” That is, faith is not something that we acquire or obtain by our own intellect or capacity but comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit; faith itself is a gift of God. We see in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that only the person with the Spirit can accept the things of God, as the message of the gospel is foolishness to the natural person, and elsewhere we see that our faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9) and something given to us by Christ (Philippians 1:29). Jesus also speaks about this truth in John 3:5 when he speaks about being born of the Spirit; the Spirit is what produces faith. This fact should always humble us!
That is where faith is from, but what is faith? The article then defines true faith as that which “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.” What a great definition! At its root, faith is seeking nothing else but Jesus, trusting in nothing or no one else but Jesus. This trust in Jesus alone means that we do not depend on our own good works or anything we have done, but we look only to the merits of Jesus Christ (his perfect life) as the condition for our salvation. We sometimes ask people if they think they are going to heaven when they die, and if they do, why? If someone asks me, I would say that I do think I am going to heaven and that I am doing so not because of my own works but because of Jesus, who lived a perfect and righteous life and in whom I trust. This statement about Christ’s merits introduces something that Christians often forget -- it is not just that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins, but that he lived the perfect life to achieve the righteousness that we need (Romans 5:12; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Theologians sometimes talk about Christ’s active obedience in his life (to all God’s laws and commandments) and his passive obedience in his death (making payment and atonement for our sin); we need both to be saved. Belief in Jesus is trusting in his life and death as being the substitute for our own, living the life we should have lived and dying the death that we deserved.
Since faith is looking at Jesus and him alone, that means that if we say anything else is required for salvation, he is only half a Savior, as the confession continues. “For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then those who have Christ by faith have his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God— for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior.” Again, what powerful words. We must remember that Jesus did not make us savable but has saved us through his life and death - if we believe.
This idea that we are saved through faith alone is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, as the writer of the confession refers back to Paul and quotes Romans 3:28: “And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are ‘justified by faith alone’ or ‘by faith apart from works.’”
A question that often occurs in these discussions of faith is whether faith is then a work by which we earn salvation. The Confession clarifies this by pointing out that faith is not the reason we are saved but the means, the mechanism through which we receive Christ’s righteousness: “However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us—for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.” Faith is the beggar sticking out his hand for bread - but Christ is the bread that saves us.
Not only does faith save us, but faith also keeps us in this communion, as the confession notes, “And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.” We are saved by faith, but we must keep in faith to keep in fellowship with Christ. When we have this faith, we can be confident that we are righteous, that our sins are no longer held against us. The article confirms this, as it ends by stating: “When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.”
So, the big question is whether you trust in Christ or Christ plus anything else for your salvation. If you add anything to Christ, then he is not truly your Savior and you are trusting in that (whether it is your works, your baptism, your church, or whatever) rather than Christ. It is not enough to have faith in something - the question is if you have faith in Jesus and his merits alone. If you have faith in him, your sins are absolved and your are made right with him. This truth and freedom is foundational for all of life, giving us the freedom to follow Christ.
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