What is faith?
Calvin writes a beautiful Trinitarian definition of faith in the Institutes - "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." (2.2.7) Father to Son to Holy Spirit to us. Calvin uses many images to describe how the Holy Spirit links us to faith. The Holy Spirit is like secret water that cleanses, a schoolteacher who brings Jesus' lessons to our minds, and an engraver with a seal for our hearts (2.1.1-2).
What is faith's object, and on what is faith based?
Just as the Holy Spirit and faith are inseparable, so, too, is the Word and faith. In Chapter 2, Section 6, Calvin explains that God gave us the Word in order to learn of God's will toward us. Calvin does not rein faith in so tightly as to be bound only to the Word, but without the Word, faith will surely fail. Calvin takes pains to emphasize that reading the Word must come from a conviction of its truth, and must go deeper than top-of-the-head knowledge that God exists.
Despite Calvin's propensity for describing the difficulties that face Christians, he has an incredibly light message regarding the way in which to seek God in faith through the Word. He advises against passages such as dashing babies against rocks, and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those verses should be unpacked at a later point in the faith journey. Instead, we should concentrate on God's grace, benevolence, and mercy in the Bible. God wants us to find and dwell in Christ.
The next section of the Institutes regarding faith (2.2.10-11, 14-19), consider all manner of questions that arise when trying to determine whether you have faith or not. I will summarize below:
- You say that you believe, but do not act like you believe. (Hypocrisy)
- You say that you believe, and you might believe that you believe, but in the end, you do not believe. (Illusion of faith)
- You say that you believe, and you might believe that you believe, and God might let you believe that you believe, but the Spirit has not sealed your faith. (Reprobate)
- Faith that is assurance beyond comprehension.
- Faith that is certainly meant for me.
- Faith that lets doubt flit around the edges, but never build a nest.
- Faith that walks steadily toward the light, however weak and wobbly the start.
Question for reflection: Calvin uses many and varied images to help us visualize faith, although it is an abstract term that is hard to nail down. What images have you found useful when describing your faith to others?