Larger Catechism, #72

The Larger Catechism

Question 72

72.       Q. What is justifying faith?

A. Justifying faith is a saving grace,[297] wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit[298] and Word of God,[299] whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition,[300] not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel,[301] but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin,[302] and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.[303]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[297] Hebrews 10:39. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. [298] 2 Corinthians 4:13. We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak. Ephesians 1:17-19. That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power. [299] Romans 10:14-17. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. [300] Acts 2:37. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Acts 16:30. And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? John 16:8-9. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me. Romans 6:6. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. Ephesians 2:1. And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins. Acts 4:12. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. [301] Ephesians 1:13. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise. [302] John 1:12. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name. Acts 16:31. And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. Acts 10:43. To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. [303] Philippians 3:9. And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith. Acts 15:11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

Introduction

The question assumes something we all recognize. There is a kind of faith that justifies and a kind that does not. Not all faith justifies though genuine faith alone justifies. Many people who go to church believe many orthodox truths but mere mental assent does not justify. I may believe that eating pork is bad for me or drinking wine is good for me but such belief does nothing for my health if I don’t act on that belief.

So the first thing to consider is that there is a faith that does not justify. James 2 speaks cogently of that matter. Believing orthodox truths may put us on an equal footing with demons — “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” (James 2:19) James says you do well to believe such things but also points out that that demons believe the same things. “The point James is now driving home is that a Christian creed without corresponding Christian conduct will save neither devil nor man.”[1]  Some have called this “dead orthodoxy” but it is in fact licentious orthodoxy. It is not only inert; it is carnal. Faith without works is dead! Jesus says that this kind of faith in the end “proves unfruitful” (Mt. 13:22, ἄκαρπος γίνεται, or “becomes unfruitful”).

Another example of a faith that does not justify is what we call a temporary faith. Temporary faith represents the ones who “believe for a while” (Lk. 8:13, πρὸς καιρὸν πιστεύουσιν, or “they believe for a time or a season”). Whatever the reason (worldliness, temptation, seduction, persecution, etc.), they end up believing for a season, for a time. The length of belief may be many years or for a short time but eventually time reveals the nature of their belief.

It is not wrong to examine ourselves regarding the nature of our faith. Protestants have rightly taught that we are justified by faith alone. Unfortunately, any and all faiths have been accepted. The mere profession of faith somehow protects the person from any scrutiny — forming any discerning judgment about the genuineness the person’s profession is considered uncharitable. Because a person says he has faith, it is tantamount to asserting that the person has justifying faith.

Furthermore, a growing trend in the Reformed circle has rightly stressed justification by faith. Yet, a strange (and disconcerting) aberration has developed from this. Any emphasis on obedience, sanctification, adherence to God’s law, etc. has been roundly criticized for being legalistic. Justification by faith alone has displaced sanctification and obedience in many. Men like Tullian Tchividjian have been criticized for this.[2] For this reason, we need to be clear about justifying faith.

Saving Grace

The first thing the LC states is that justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God…” Justifying faith is first and foremost a saving grace. This means that those who have this faith have received a work of grace in their hearts that is saving. It will truly justify and in turn truly save. The classic text is Eph. 2:8-10. The saving faith “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The text used to support the LC statement is Heb. 10:39: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” The phrase reads “but of faith unto the preserving of the soul” (ἀλλὰ πίστεως εἰς περιποίησιν ψυχῆς). The writer of Hebrews is arguing that his readers are those who have a faith that truly saves unto the end. The ones who “shrink back” are not saved but “are destroyed.” They believed for a while but such a faith did not justify.

This justifying faith is a gift wrought in us: “wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit.”   2Cor. 4:13 supports that point: “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak…” The phrase “same spirit of faith” is very important.[3] It teaches that Paul and the NT believers have the same faith the same Holy Spirit created in the Psalmist. He is the one who enables us to believe.

Furthermore, this faith is wrought “by the Spirit and Word of God.” Vos has this to say, “The Word, or gospel, message alone, without the Holy Spirit, may result in a kind of faith, but not justifying faith. Where the Word is not known, as among the heathen who have never heard the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit does not do any saving work (except perhaps in the case of infants dying in infancy, etc.).” (159-160) The Spirit doesn’t create faith without a context. The person believes the truth preached. He has faith in something and justifying faith believes in the gospel and all that it teaches. When God created faith in Lydia, we see that it is coupled with the message preached to her: “and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14, NASB). She responded or paid attention to the message preached; God did not merely create faith in her without a corresponding gospel for her to believe. As Paul has taught, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Justifying Faith and Conviction

There is an element added here that could easily be misunderstood. Justifying faith includes the following, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition…” The person with real justifying faith is also convinced of his sin and misery. We read in Acts 2:37 that the people who heard Peter’s preaching were “pricked in their heart.” That is, they were convicted by what they heard, convicted of their guilt and sin. The Spirit will “reprove the world of sin” (Jn. 16:8) and everyone who has genuine justifying faith will be convinced he is a sinner. What is not spelled out (and it cannot be spelled out) is how much conviction of sin and a sense of misery they must experience. Some measure, however little, accompanies genuine justifying faith — whatever it takes to get them to Christ.

In Acts 16:30, the Philippian jailer was compelled to ask what he must do to be saved, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Here, the jailer recognized his need for salvation and realized there was no one who could help him. He had a sense of the “disability in himself” — he does not seek the remedy from somewhere else except in Christ Jesus. The truth of Acts 4:12 (“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”) also means that the convinced sinner realizes that Christ is the answer to his misery and lost condition.

Some, like Zane Hodges (a dispensationalist), have argued that faith is simply “believe.” It is no different than asking someone if he believed that the President will do what he promised. Faith is just like that, he argues.[4] There is no “mental assent” for him; there is only belief and unbelief. Faith is the “inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true.”[5] He (along with Ryrie) is convinced that the Bible doesn’t teach intellectual faith, historic faith, etc. It is belief or unbelief. Ryrie says, “When a person gives credence to the historical facts that Christ died and rose from the dead and the doctrinal fact that this was for his sins, he is trust his eternal destiny to the reliability of those truths.”[6] They fail to recognize a simple point. It is true that faith means all those things but what they failed to consider is that Scripture teaches much more than that. Those who say they believe do not necessarily savingly believe on account of their lifestyle, affections, etc. So faith includes much more than mere credence to some historical facts. Are there not many who have left the church who would never say they don’t believe those verities in the Bible? Justifying faith is more than mere mental assent.

Faith and Assent

Here is where the divines saw right through this issue: “not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin…” First of all, assenting to the truth of the promise of the gospel is necessary. Salvation is not just an experience. Something happens to the sinner (regeneration) but that work in him comes with the reception of the truth by the sinner. To be more precise, the work of regeneration enables the person to assent to the truth. The sinner trusts in Christ as he first believes in the truth: “when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him…” (Eph. 1:13). Hearing the word of truth and believing in Him go together; that is, the sinner assents to the “word of truth” when he hears it and with it he believes in him. Before unpacking that point, we need to consider a very important aspect of assenting to the truth. Vos asks, “When a person denies the truthfulness of God’s Word, in whole or in part, what does this show concerning the state of that person’s heart?

Such unbelief ordinarily indicates that the person does not have saving faith, and is not a child of God. The only exception to this statement would be the case of a person in whose heart justifying faith has been wrought by the Holy Spirit, who yet because of weakness of intellect denies the truthfulness or authority of some portion of the Bible without realizing that this is inconsistent with justifying faith and that it dishonors God. (Vos, 160)

Assenting to the truth of the gospel means that the person believes what the Bible says. We have no gospel except the one presented in the Bible. Assenting to the truth of the promise of the gospel go hand in hand with the truth of the Bible. The Spirit who gave the Word is Himself the one who enables a sinner to believe in His Word. He would not regenerate someone to not accept His own Word.

As we’ve already stated, it is more than assent because the truth brings with it the Person to whom the truth points. Jn. 1:12 speaks of receiving Christ (“But as man as received him…”) while Acts 16:31 writes of believing on the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 10:43). These verses clearly teach that in assenting to the truth, we are also receiving and resting on Christ. Propositions do not save us; Christ does. In justifying faith, the sinner receives Christ— the whole soul rests on Christ: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). The Puritans spoke of the sinner “recumbing and relying on the Lord Jesus Christ as offered in the promise of free grace for his righteousness.”[7] Recumbing means to repose, recline, etc. These various verbs all connote the simple idea of “resting” or leaning on Christ.

In this believing we set our seal that God is true; and God will, in due time, if He has not done so already, set His seal to work assurance in you, to second your reliance. ‘But if you believe not, thus you make God a liar’ (1 John 5:10).

Though you assent to the truth of the promises of Christ, yet if you draw back your affiance and relying, as if the promises were not to you, you give God the lie. Oh, then, in the sense of your own nakedness, come out of yourselves and cast yourself on Christ for righteousness—and this is the faith that saves you.

How many men deceive themselves in this saving act of faith! If they know the promise of Christ as our righteousness and assent to it, they think that is enough. But, alas, it is not; for there must be a stripping of a man’s self naked of his own righteousness and a resting on this righteousness of Christ’s alone. David stripped himself of his armor, and so went out against Goliath in the name of the Lord. Adam was naked and saw it before God made the promise of Christ.[8]

To lean or rely on something means that if the said object upon which we rely or lean is removed, we would fall. The sinner does not merely assent to the truth, he also leans on Christ. If the “prop” is not there or if the prop fails, then the one leaning on it falls. The sinner leans on Christ and His righteousness so much that if Christ fails him, he is undone.

The divines rightly recognize that justifying faith means that the sinner looks to Christ and His righteousness — he sees that righteousness and the forgiveness of sins are offered in Christ and he rests in Christ for them. In the Bible we read that God enables us to be “in Christ Jesus, who became to us … righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Paul says he wants to be found in Christ not having a righteousness of his own “but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). Justifying faith looks to Christ for that righteousness and the forgiveness of sins — “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).

So, justifying faith assumes a body of biblical knowledge, a belief in those truths, a relying and resting on Christ and a looking to Him for righteousness and the forgiveness of sins.  That is to say, justifying faith means something more than a vague religious experience! It possesses rich biblical content that focuses on forgiveness of sins and Christ’s righteousness! If those things are not preached then there can be no justifying faith — however sincere the profession may be!

Faith and Being Account Righteous

Lastly, justifying faith of course assumes the effect of faith: “and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.” Phil. 3:9 (quoted above) clearly teaches the point made in the LC. The sinner who truly believes recognizes that his believing in Christ means that he will be accounted righteous in the sight of God. God does not merely tolerate us by forgiving us — He actually accounts us as righteous in his sight. It is not as if we never sinned but rather as if we had perfectly obeyed the law — not we in ourselves but Christ and His righteousness!


[1] James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 127.

[2] See http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/08/sanctification-and-the-nature.php.

[3] “Gk. τὸ αὐτὸ πνεῦμα τῆς πίστεως, a probable reference to the Holy Spirit, through whom faith comes (see, e.g., 1 Cor 12:3). Despite his emphasis on the eschatological coming of the Spirit in the new covenant, Paul nonetheless acknowledges the work of the Spirit in the life of the psalmist” (Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 240).

[4] Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas: Rendención Viva, 1989), 27-28.

[5] Hodges, Absolutely Free, 31.

[6] Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation: What it Means to Believe in Jesus Christ (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989), 30.

[7] Obadiah Grew, The Lord our Righteousness: The Old Perspective (reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2005), 69.

[8] Obadiah Grew, The Lord our Righteousness, 70.

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