Faith Rests Upon God’s Word

By John Calvin
November 01, 2004

This, then, is the true knowledge of Christ, if we receive Him as He is offered by the Father: namely, clothed with His gospel. For just as He has been appointed as the goal of our faith, so we cannot take the right road to Him unless the gospel goes before us. And there, surely, the treasures of grace are opened to us; for if they had been closed, Christ would have benefited us little. Thus Paul yokes faith to teaching, as an inseparable companion, with these words, “You did not so learn Christ if indeed you were taught what is the truth in Christ” (Eph. 4:20-21).

Yet I do not so restrict faith to the gospel without confessing that what sufficed for building it up had been handed down by Moses and the prophets. But because a fuller manifestation of Christ has been revealed in the gospel, Paul justly calls it the “doctrine of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6). For this reason, he says in another passage that by the coming of faith the law was abolished (Rom. 10:4; cf. Gal. 3:25). He understands by this term the new and extraordinary kind of teaching by which Christ, after He became our teacher, has more clearly set forth the mercy of the Father, and has more surely testified to our salvation.

Yet it will be an easier and more suitable method if we descend by degrees from general to particular. First, we must be reminded that there is a permanent relationship between faith and the Word. We could not separate one from the other any more than we could separate the rays from the sun from which they come. For this reason, God exclaims in Isaiah, “Hear me and your soul shall live” (Isa. 55:3). And John shows this same wellspring of faith in these words, “These things have been written that you may believe” (Jn. 20:31). The prophet, also, desiring to exhort the people to faith, says, “Today if you will hear his voice” (Ps. 95:7; 94:8, Vg.). “To hear” is generally understood as meaning to believe. In short, it is not without reason that in Isaiah, God distinguishes the children of the church from outsiders by this mark: He will teach all His children (Isa. 54:13; Jn. 6:45) that they may learn of Him (cf., Jn. 6:45). For if benefits were indiscriminately given, why would He have directed His Word to a few? To this corresponds the fact that the Evangelists commonly use the words “believers” and “disciples” as synonyms. This is especially Luke’s usage in the Acts of the Apostles: indeed he extends this title even to a woman in Acts 9:36 (Ac. 6:1-2,7; 9:1, 10, 19, 25-26, 38; 11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20, 28; 15:10; also chp. 16 to 21). Therefore if faith turns away even in the slightest degree from this goal toward which it should aim, it does not keep its own nature, but becomes uncertain credulity and vague error of mind.

The same Word is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained; if it turns away from the Word, it falls. Therefore, take away the Word and no faith will then remain. We are not here discussing whether a human ministry is necessary for the sowing of God’s Word, from which faith may be conceived. This we shall discuss in another place. But we say that the Word itself, however it be imparted to us, is like a mirror in which faith may contemplate God.

Whether, therefore, God makes use of man’s help in this or works by His own power alone, He always represents Himself through His Word to those whom He wills to draw to Himself. And for this reason, Paul defines faith as that obedience which is given to the gospel (Rom. 1:5), and elsewhere praises allegiance to faith in Philippians (Phil.1:3-5; cf. 1 Thes. 2:13). In understanding faith it is not merely a question of knowing that God exists, but also — and this especially — of knowing what is His will toward us. For it is not so much our concern to know who He is in Himself, as what He wills to be toward us.

Now, therefore, we hold faith to be a knowledge of God’s will toward us, perceived from His Word. But the foundation of this is a preconceived conviction of God’s truth. As for its certainty, so long as your mind is at war with itself, the Word will be of doubtful and weak authority, or rather of none. And it is not even enough to believe that God is trustworthy (cf. Rom. 3:3), who can neither deceive nor lie (cf. Tit. 1:2), unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from Him is sacred and inviolable truth.

Faith Arises from God’s Promise of Grace in Christ

But since man’s heart is not aroused to faith at every word of God, we must find out at this point what, strictly speaking, faith looks to in the Word. God’s word to Adam was, “You shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). God’s word to Cain was, “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the earth” (Gen. 4:10). But these words are so far from being capable of establishing faith that they can of themselves do nothing but shake it. In the meantime, we do not deny that it is the function of faith to subscribe to God’s truth whenever and whatever and however it speaks. But we ask only what faith finds in the Word of the Lord upon which to lean and rest. Where our conscience sees only indignation and vengeance, how can it fail to tremble and be afraid? Or to shun the God whom it dreads? Yet faith ought to seek God, not to shun Him.

It is plain, then, that we do not yet have a full definition of faith, inasmuch as merely to know something of God’s will is not to be accounted faith. But what if we were to substitute His benevolence or His mercy in place of His will, the tidings of which are often sad and the proclamation frightening? Thus, surely, we shall more closely approach the nature of faith; for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek Him. This fact is confirmed for us when He declares that our salvation is His care and concern. Accordingly, we need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach Him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest.

On this basis the Psalms commonly yoke these two, mercy and truth, as if they were mutually connected (Psa. 89:14, 24; 92:2; 98:3; 100:5; 108:4; 115:l; etc.); for it would not help us at all to know that God is true unless He mercifully attracted us to Himself. Nor would it have been in our power to embrace His mercy if He had not offered it with His word:

“I have declared thy truth and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy goodness and thy truth…Let thy goodness and thy truth...preserve me” (Psa. 40:10-11, Comm.). Another passage: “Thy mercy…extends to the heavens, thy truth to the clouds” (Psa. 36:5, Comm.) Likewise: “All the ways of Jehovah are kindness and truth to those who keep his covenant” (Psa. 25:10, Comm.). “For his mercy is multiplied upon us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever” (Psa. 117:2; 116:2, Vg.; cf. Comm.). Again, “I will sing thy name for thy mercy and thy truth” (Psa. 138:2). I pass over what we read in the Prophets along the same line, that God is kind and steadfast in His promises. For it will be rash for us to decide that God is well disposed toward us unless He give witness of Himself, and anticipate us by His call, that His will may not be doubtful or obscure. But we have already seen that the sole pledge of His love is Christ, without whom the signs of hatred and wrath are everywhere evident.

Now, the knowledge of God’s goodness will not be held very important unless it makes us rely on that goodness. Consequently, understanding mixed with doubt is to be excluded, as it is not in firm agreement, but in conflict, with itself. Yet far indeed is the mind of man, blind and darkened as it is, from penetrating and attaining even to perception of the will of God! And the heart, too, wavering as it is in perpetual hesitation, is far from resting secure in that conviction! Therefore our mind must be otherwise illumined and our heart strengthened, that the Word of God may obtain full faith among us. Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Topics: Reformed Thought, Theology

John Calvin

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