Tag Archives: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 7

We Distinguish: Knowledge/Assent/Confidence

The Bible teaches that true faith in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation.  If you’re going to have eternal life, you must have this vital faith connection to Christ.  In Acts 16, Paul and Silas were in the prison in Philippi.  God sent a great earthquake and all the doors were opened and the chains fell away from the prisoners.  The jailer was about to end himself, but Paul stopped him.  The jailer then said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  And the simple answer from the apostles was:  “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…”

Given that faith is essential for salvation, it follows that clarity about the definition of faith is also essential.  When it comes to the definition of saving faith, Reformed theology has historically distinguished between three different components: knowledge, assent, and confidence.  While these three can be distinguished, they must never be separated.  All true saving faith has all three of these components.

The first component of true saving faith is knowledge.  With the intellect, one has to know the basics of what is to be believed.  One has to comprehend the basics of what the Bible says about God, about ourselves, our sin, our Saviour, the gospel, and so on.  Knowledge of the essentials of God’s Word is crucially important.

True faith takes that knowledge and works with it.  Faith includes not only knowing the knowledge, having it up there in your head, but also accepting it as being true.  This is what we call assent.  Let me give you an example of what the difference is between knowledge and assent.  I find Islam fascinating.  It’s a false religion, but its intricacies are an amazing (and sad) testimony to human creativity.  I can read the Qur’an and I know what it says.  I may have a basic knowledge of the message of the Qur’an.  But that doesn’t make me a Muslim.  For one thing, I don’t accept it as being true.  Similarly, someone could read the Bible and intellectually know the basic teachings of the Christian faith.  Someone could even conceivably go to catechism and go to church each Sunday and have an intellectual interest in Christian doctrine.  But they don’t accept it as being true.  They may have the knowledge of a Christian, but without accepting it as true, that person isn’t a Christian.  He or she doesn’t have saving faith.

According to Richard Muller (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms), these first two components of knowledge and assent belong to that human faculty known as the intellect.  This is our mind which comprehends and assesses data presented to us.  Together knowledge (notitia) and assent (assensus) make up “sure knowledge” (cognitio certa).  That term is found in Lord’s Day 7 of our Heidelberg Catechism:  “True faith is a sure knowledge…”  At first glance, it may appear that the Catechism only describes two components of faith:  sure knowledge and firm confidence.  However, historically the first component divides into knowledge and assent.  There’s a strong hint of that in the Catechism itself when it goes on to say that this knowledge involves accepting as true “all that God has revealed to us in his Word.”  “Accepting as true” is the essence of assent.

The third component in saving faith is confidence or trust (fiducia).   This element belongs to the human faculty known as the will.  The will is that part of a human being that desires.  Saving faith must see the person desiring for themselves what the gospel offers in Jesus Christ and then taking hold of him, trusting in him.

The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 7, describes this as a “firm confidence.”  A true faith has firm confidence that all the truths of the gospel are not just for other people, but also for me, personally.  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you forgiveness of sins out of mere grace for the sake of Christ’s merits,” I say to myself, “Yes, that’s true for me too!”  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you everlasting righteousness and salvation out of mere grace all because of Christ,” I say, “Amen.  That’s my God.  That’s my Saviour.  This good news is for me!”  So true saving faith must include personal appropriation of what the Bible teaches.  It’s not enough to know what the Bible says.  It’s also not enough to be able to say the Bible is true.  You have to go all the way and say that what God offers in the gospel is also for you personally and individually.  You must trust in it for yourself.   

According to historic Reformed theology then, saving faith consists of knowledge, assent, and confidence.  That approach comes straight from Scripture.  Think of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  How can we be sure of what we hope for if we don’t know what the Bible teaches?  How can we be certain of what we don’t see, if we don’t know anything about what the Bible says and don’t agree that it’s true?

Why does all this matter?  There are at least two good reasons. 

First, if true faith is essential to salvation, you’d want to make sure you have it.  You would want to make sure that you haven’t left out any of those components.  After all, there are people who convince themselves that they’re Christians merely because they have some intellectual knowledge of what the Bible teaches.

Second, it’s crucial to notice what’s not included in saving faith.  One thing that’s definitely not present in the biblical definition of a true saving faith is good works.  Listen to Paul in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  In that passage “works of the law” are set against “faith.”  It’s impossible that Paul meant that faith includes works of the law.  Everywhere Scripture teaches about salvation in general and justification in particular, we find that the word “faith” is used in the sense of looking outward to Christ, not looking inward to trust in one’s good works. Biblical, Reformed theology recognizes how salvation is entirely by grace – undeserved from first to last.  That includes our faith.  While humans are called to faith, while humans are involved in faith (knowing, assenting, trusting), ultimately faith is something worked in us by the Holy Spirit.  Faith is therefore not our contribution to salvation.  Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Praise God for his gift of faith!


We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel

Law-Gospel2

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.