[The following is a sermon of Rev. Coen Vrey, the minister of Bellville Reformed Church, which was read during a recent church service.]
For those of you who are new to the Reformed tradition, we believe that along with the Heidelberg Catechism the Belgic Confession provides for us a faithful summary of what Bible teaches. In Article 21 of the Belgic Confession we learn about where true faith comes from and what it consists of. True faith is born in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and it consists of two defining elements.
The first element is sure knowledge. The Holy Spirit and no one else can convince a person that the Bible is the Word of God. He convinces a person of this through no other means than the Bible itself. The Holy Spirit enlightens our minds and guides us in such a way that when we read the Bible we can understand it. Through the Bible the Holy Spirit teaches us who God is. There is one God who is Three Persons equal in power and glory. There is God the Father who created all things and purposed all things to come to pass, including loving election of sinners before the foundations of the world. Then there is the Son of God, Jesus, who became man to save God’s elect people from sin, death and hell. And finally, there is the person of the Holy Spirit who changes the hearts of sinners and gives them the gift of faith so that they will believe in Jesus and become united to him. The Holy Spirit also has the ongoing role of changing Christians more and more into the image of Jesus through the same faith that saved them in the first place.
The more a person spends reading and studying the Bible, the more the Holy Spirit convinces a person that the Word of God is true. Everything that the Lord has revealed to us through inspired men in the Bible can be accepted as unadulterated truth about God and man, and the way of salvation. By the workings of the Holy Spirit through the Word, God sees to it that we grow in the knowledge that strengthens faith.
But the Holy Spirit goes further than merely instilling knowledge in a person. Together with the sure knowledge the Holy Spirit also creates a firm trust in God in our hearts. Faith is after all not something dealing only with a person’s mind. Faith is not just the gathering of knowledge: as if being a Christian is about studying to pass a test in order to gain access to Jesus. If this were indeed the case then only those people who have good memories would be able to become children of God and receive eternal life. Then, it would just be a matter of giving the church council all the right answers to their questions. Why would attending to worship services even be necessary if Christianity is all about knowledge and knowledge has been gained?
No, beloved, faith is simultaneously a matter of the mind and the heart. The more the Holy Spirit establishes sure knowledge of Biblical truth in a person, the more He enables firm trust to grow in a person’s heart. God not only wants man to know that He is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also wants us to place all our trust firmly on Him. He wants us to trust Him with everything in our lives, more than you would trust your own earthly father. The Lord wants us to trust that Jesus Christ not only died for other people but also specifically for your sins on the cross. He wants us to relinquish control of our lives to him. He wants us to have the assurance that one day we will be with him in paradise.
Brothers, sisters and children, so far we have heard that faith does not originate from within us but that the Holy Spirit instills it in us. The Holy Spirit enables a relationship based on trust to grow in a person through faith. The life of faith, therefore, is one in which the believer denies himself and instead lives for Christ and his glory.
This now brings us to Article 22 of the Belgic Confession, which is concerned with the foundational Biblical teaching of our justification before God by faith alone. To be justified as a sinner before God is to be set free from the just penalty for breaking God’s holy law. Someone who has been pronounced free is no longer subject to prosecution. Such a person is deemed innocent of wrongdoing. Think about it. The concept of being pronounced free is not foreign to us in this world. When someone is charged with a crime and during the trial it is proved that he did not commit the crime, he is acquitted of all charges and is set free. Such a person can leave court as a free man. He will not be prosecuted any further in connection with his crime.
In Romans 3:21 the Holy Spirit teaches us through the words of Paul that all people are guilty because of sin. Whether Jew or Gentile, everyone has failed to keep God’s law and has done evil in his sight. There is not even one person who is righteous. Not one person on this earth lives a life that is naturally pleasing to God. No one renders obedience to God freely and willingly, and no one naturally loves his neighbour. On the contrary, all men naturally have the tendency to hate God and their neighbour.
According to Articles 20 and 21 of the Belgic Confession, we make the sobering confession that the just punishment for sin is death. There is no other way to pay for the debt we owe to God for our sin. Not even by keeping the law, as the Jews thought, can we erase the guilt of our sin before God. A person cannot pay his debt to God by keeping the law, but rather learns about the depths of his sin from the law. From the law we learn how high God’s standards are and how we can never live up to them. In fact, we learn that our debt to God increases every day because of our sin.
But there is good news for us as sinners. For, in the fullness of time God sent His own Son into this world to become man, and as the God-man be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. That which man could not do and which the law also had no power to do, God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the sinless and perfectly just Son of God, took to himself our sin and in exchange has given us the eternal life. Jesus Christ stood before His father in our stead, to be treated as a sinner in our place. The suffering and death that Jesus endured was sufficient to satisfy God’s justice toward us for our sin. The blood of Jesus has washed away our sin and his resurrection has given us new life.
Beloved, the reconciliation that Jesus Christ achieved on the cross for us is so complete that we can do nothing – absolutely nothing – to add to it! Never again will there be a need to pay down the debt of our sin to God. It has been paid in full. The blood of the Lamb of God is enough to wash away the sins of all those that the Father has given the Son to ransom. If then, we must answer the question: How is man justified before God? We must give only one answer and that is Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Saviour; our righteousness and our life. All we need to do is believe this good news by faith!
In Romans we 3:28 we read the words: “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Now, hopefully we don’t have a problem with the last bit of this verse, as we have just learned that we cannot pay our debt to sin by trying to keep God’s moral law. Problems, however, can arise in the first part of the verse. Some people may reason that a person’s faith is the reason why God declares him righteous. And yet, if faith – something residing in us – were the grounds for our forgiveness this would mean that man has something to contribute to his salvation. So what does Paul mean here?
Simply put, what Paul is saying is that faith is the means by which we are justified. Faith is that gift from God – an instrument in the hands of our soul – by which we lay hold of our Saviour Jesus, who is the proper grounds for our justification. Let us try to clarify this with an illustration. We all know what a garden hose is. One can say that you water your garden by means of the hose, but it does not mean that the hose is the ultimate source of life-giving water for the garden. You need water in the hose in order to water the garden. The garden hose, then, is the instrument by which one waters the garden. Likewise, the gift of faith is the instrument by which we receive Jesus and all of his life-giving benefits.
By the instrumental means of faith man is justified before God apart from the works of the law. It is not faith in isolation from Jesus that justifies us. It is not because man believes that God is now obligated to acquit him. Remember, we can do nothing that would compel God to do anything for us. Whatever God does, He does so because He is God. When He acquits man he does so because He loves him. At the end of the day, faith is that God-given channel along which a person receives his justification in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
With regard to the image that Paul uses in Romans 4:4, we can put it in another way. If faith is the reason why God acquits man, then what does this say about the sufficiency of Christ’s work? When we work, our reward is not counted as a gift but our due. To work for our justification is to refuse the free gift of grace. Rather, Paul proclaims and we confess that justification – being right with God – is about receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, by the instrument of faith.
Man deserved to die for His sins. But now, God has set us free because Jesus Christ died to earn our forgiveness. No one deserves to be acquitted of his guilt. No one can come to the Lord and say: You have to set me free. God justifies us and God declares us righteousness for the sake of Jesus Christ. From this we can conclude that man does not receive justification based on his faith, but rather based on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Faith, therefore, is not a work by which we earn our salvation before God.
Faith is a gift bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit. After all we believe and confess that the Holy Spirit establishes the sure knowledge in our minds and a firm trust in us through the means of the Word. Thus, we cannot brag and say that faith is our own achievement. It is the achievement of the Holy Spirit. Faith is that out stretched hand, which the Holy Spirit gives to every chosen child of God. In this out stretched hand God places Jesus Christ and all His works. Everything that Jesus Christ has done – His perfect obedience to the law of God, His life of sufferings and his death on the cross because of our sin, are literally placed in our hands of faith.
How faith works is to receive Jesus Christ, our Righteousness. Faith embraces Jesus Christ and all His merits. By means of faith we accept or receive Jesus alone as our personal Saviour – we want nothing but Him to reconcile us to God. By the means of the Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God enables us to accept the good news of the gospel. God persuades us to embrace Christ as our only Saviour and grants us the faith to believe that Jesus did indeed die on the cross for us.
Brothers, sisters and children, the sad things is that we often times speak of faith as if it is our own doing. We see and hear how other people experience their faith and how they remain steadfast and we compare ourselves with them. The result of this comparison is that one can easily reason that our own faith is not enough. After a while you come to worry that your faith is too weak to embrace Jesus Christ, to truly receive the righteousness that God gives. At other times, people can start believing that they need to have some kind of extraordinary experience before they can be right before God.
The problem with such thinking is that it looks to add to the finished work of Jesus – as if the blood of Jesus is not sufficient. It is this search for an experience that often leads people to want to be baptised again. This quest for something to add to the merits of Jesus is not as innocent as it looks. In doing so, people are saying that Christ is only partly our Saviour. Let us rather abstain from this blasphemy.
We will not receive certainty about our righteousness before God in this manner. The Lord Jesus alone gives us certainty. Let us therefore pray that the Holy Spirit will strengthen our faith more and more through the Words of Christ. Receive the proclamation of the Word with eagerness and in faith. Be diligent in Bible study and meditation. For this is how the Holy Spirit establishes sure knowledge in us and in turn strengthens our faith. The bottom line is that faith is not an achievement we can boast about. Rather, it is the open hand that the Holy Spirit gives us, by which we lay hold of Christ alone for our salvation.
Read by Kobus Opperman at RCSS, 30 June 2013