True Faith: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7

20. Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in
No, only those who by true faith are engrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.1
[1] Jn. 1:12–13; 1 Cor. 15:22; Ps. 2:12; Rom. 11:20; Heb. 4:2–3; 10:39.

21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word,1 but also a hearty trust,2 which the Holy Spirit3 works in me by the Gospel,4 that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God,5 merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.6
[1] Jas. 1:6. [2] Rom. 4:16–18; 5:1. [3] 2 Cor. 4:13; Phil. 1:19, 29. [4] Rom. 1:16; 10:17. [5] Heb. 11:1–2; Rom. 1:17. [6] Eph. 2:7–9; Rom. 3:24–25; Gal. 2:16; *Acts 10:43.

22. What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe?
All that is promised us in the Gospel,1 which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in summary.
[1] Jn. 20:31; Matt. 28:20. *2 Pet. 1:21; *2 Tim. 3:15.

True Faith
Having identified Jesus as the solution to mankind’s problem, the next obvious question is whether all mankind indeed benefits from the solution. Is there a hell, and will anyone be in it?

The answer the Catechism gives us is that only those who possess a certain something will benefit from this saving work of Christ, and that not all possess it. That something is saving faith, or true faith. It is very important then that we know what saving faith is.

There are many who attribute mystical significance or spiritual importance to believing in anything at all. This is so-called “Peter Pan” faith- it is not so much what you believe that will benefit you, but believing in something. If you believe you can fly, you can! But believing in something false does not make it true, just as not believing in something doesn’t make it false. As writer Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It is the truth which sets us free, not wishful thinking.

So the Heidelberg in question 21 teaches us that the first element of saving faith is a sure knowledge. I need to assent to the truths of the Scriptures. The believer does so as an act of will, holding for truth all that is revealed in the Scriptures. This will be true despite the fact that many things in the Scriptures will be unknown to him, or obscure or even misunderstood. That phrase “holding for truth” shows not just the perception of the truth of something, like noticing the sky is blue; it is a decision that a man makes that God is trustworthy and the Scriptures are His word. This first element is not about the amount of doctrine you know; you do not need to be familiar with every doctrine or fact taught in the Scriptures before you can claim to have it. It is rather a pre-commitment that one makes, that the Scriptures are true and whatever they can be shown to teach, one will hold. When one recognizes the Scriptures for the word of God by the power of the Spirit, then one will make this commitment.

That first part is really the difficult part. Even in times past when the Bible was widely regarded as reliable, this assent was very often more nominal than real. A man may say that he believes the Bible because he knows he is supposed to, but when confronted with some teaching of the Bible that is uncomfortable for him, will give himself some excuse for not believing that particular truth. Many will refuse to hear the teachings of the very Scriptures they claim to believe, as was true of many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Such a one does not “hold for truth” all that is contained in the Scriptures, whatever his claim.

The second element is trust. The definition of “trust” sometimes is ambiguous, and different theologians will express it different ways. But the Catechism here defines it clearly, and in such a way that one might really fold it into the first element, holding God’s word as truth. If I truly do hold God’s word as true, then I’m going to regard is as true for me and trust it personally. This is what the Catechism says, that unless a person regards the truths of the gospel as being true in his particular case, with respect to his own situation, then he cannot be regarded as having a true and saving faith. Faith is not the ability to get the questions on the confirmation examination right. Faith is a personal, existential knowledge, or what the Puritans would call an “experimental” knowledge, that is, a knowledge that actually impacts the way I live. Another way this quality is often defined is a personal trust in Jesus to save me, a “resting and receiving” of Him as Savior.

The Catechism’s definition of faith is quite simple and straightforward, and we should resist the temptations that sometimes arise to load up faith with a lot of extra qualities. Certain levels of emotional intensity, degrees of sanctification, doctrinal sophistication or the like should not be included in the definition of saving faith, as this usually ends up importing a lot of man’s work into that definition. We should not be ignorant of a constant temptation to elevate my own contribution to my salvation. One of the great hallmarks of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and we should be careful of subverting that doctrine by redefining faith to include a lot of things that I do, or else the gospel risks being overthrown.

Jesus’ perfect righteousness and sacrificial death on my behalf is the way that I am rescued from God’s wrath. Faith is the way that I receive that benefit. Faith therefore must remain a simple passive receiving, or else I have substituted my own effort to some degree in the place of Jesus’ redemption, and that is the road to ruin. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul answered simply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is one of the places that the Heidelberg Catechism implicitly teaches the doctrine of predestination, since this saving faith, according to Q. 21, is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. It does not arise from us. Not all have this faith according to Q. 20, and therefore the Holy Spirit must choose to work this faith in some rather than others. The Heidelberg does not deeply delve into predestination; the other two of the Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt, have more to say on the subject.

How am I to know, then, that I am predestined? That is clear from this question. Those who possess this faith, who hold the teachings of Scripture to be true and who trust in the merits of Jesus Christ for their salvation, are saved. Therefore they are predestined, since only those in whom the Holy Spirit works that salvation will have it, and the Holy Spirit works in those chosen by God. They can be assured of that salvation, assured of God’s favor in their lives, assured that they belong to Christ and only to Christ, and that nothing can stop them from receiving all of His blessings in due time. The assurance of that salvation is in fact one of the marks of true faith, that I have that hearty trust that the promises of the gospel belong to me.