Sunday, March 6, 2016

15. Saving Faith

Sharon Rees

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:

Bad Faith:
     - 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)

Good Faith:
     - 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.

Describing faith to parishioners and helping them struggle with the complexity is the task of a pastor today and always. Calvin offers many good talking points. At the end of the day, Calvin wants to make sure that we go to bed assured of Christ's promises in our lives. "For the end of the conflict is this: that faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it." (2.2.18)

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?


  1. When it comes to describing my faith I often refer to James 2:26,"as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." I feel that my faith is best expressed and shown when I am helping others and putting their needs above my own. Some people say "I get taken advantage of," but I am in complete control of my actions. I desire to help others and there is no need for repayment. People respond to what I do or do not get involved in that sets my faith a part from what is common in the world around them. I allow my works and putting people first which demonstrates my faith and what God has done for me.

  2. Thanks Sharon! I love this! I think Jeff is right in suggesting that doing faith is a core component to sharing faith with others. I really like, however, that Calvin notes that doubt is real. "Unbelief is rooted in our hearts." (3.2.15) and is a "disease." I think allowing others to understand that doubt is real can help them think of their faith "as moving toward the light" as you summarized above. Later in the chapter, Calvin writes of the doubter, "it is uncertain whether it will even come to them or rather, whether they will come to it." This was me and I felt so guilty and despised when I came across someone who "flaunted" faith in my face. Why did I doubt? Someone who understand that faith is like a mustard seed and can grow was much more helpful for me. Even the person who says "I don't know if God exists" is starting with the seed of God and that is a place from which to grow and share faith -- always patiently!

    1. Always patient- has a nice ring to it. The army taught me patience is something that everyone needs. Patience gives us the ability to deal with what is unknown or when timing is unknown. I really enjoyed the summary, Sharon. Your writing is always clear and concise. I looked to the same reference as Christy and decided to respond to both here. I was drawn to the concrete language of 3.2.15. “Sure and firm” are comforting words. The confidence and boldness support the same thought (3.2.15, b.)

  3. Good recap of a lot of material. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1) always comes in my mind when I think of faith.
    This quote from Patrick Overton describes it best for me. “When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”
    I just know. And that comes by the grace of God.

  4. Hi Sharon,
    Thank you for this well summarized post on Calvin's descriptions of faith. For me I like the image of the mustard seed and the Levin in the loaf. As a pastor I believe that one of the greatest gifts we can bring to others is a willingness to express our doubts and questions. Thank you Pam for that wonderful quote! Sharon as we consider faith, I wonder what calvin thinks of the gospel passage of mark 9:24 when the boy's father says "I do believe... help my unbelief!" To me that passage is one of the most real expressions of faith we can find.

    1. Rick, that is also the verse I thought of immediately when reading this section. I find it so comforting that we can have belief and unbelief at the same time. It doesn't seem possible. Too often, we think that unbelief must wipe out belief. Calvin would protest. At first, I thought Calvin was a bit of a switch hitter. He started the section by saying that faith is firm and sure and certain, but ended by allowing for doubt that overcomes at times. Rather than belief or unbelief, I think Calvin would allow for both. I think he was just concerned that we should let unbelief sink us.

  5. Great summary of the text in Calvin. I confess that when I got going on this section I laid aside Lane and just drove through the Institutes. I actually found the whole thing a roller coaster ride.

    I was comforted by such comments as "Scripture...regularly teach[es] that understanding is joined with faith." (3.2.3) He couples faith with the word of God, and studying the Word seems like a great way to move toward faith.

    Then he says, "It is not enough...unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from him is sacred and inviolable truth." (3.2.6) Then Calvin writes: Faith "requires full and fixed certainty." (3.2.15) Which sounds like a total impossibility.

    Then Calvin comes to the idea that "We say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief." It ends up that the key is the long struggle to belief, to faith.

    It is a lot like sanctification in that we are never fully faithful. In fact, I think it probably stems from the same root problem - our own humanity. Calvin writes, "In the course of this life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith."

    I think it is just like Calvin to paint the picture as unsolvable by we mere humans and only resolved by our relationship with God, Christ, and the Spirit.

    To answer you others above, I agree with Jeff, I am a big fan of James and believe our actions speak volumes about our true beliefs.

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful post! This topic has been one of my favorite so far, for a few reasons but primarily because he shares faith as 'the principle work of the Holy Spirit'(McNeil 541), and because this gift of Faith opens the door to so much of what the Lord has for us, it takes on the image of a threshold for me. Then as I was considering your question, I remembered a conversation I had the other day in the car with my daughter. I was sharing with her that I sometimes see myself as a Willow Tree, the bending of it's branches representing the way in which I bend with the obstacles of life and so I think a Willow Tree might also be an image of Faith for me as well. A Threshold and a Willow Tree. This makes me smile, as I think about the long swinging branches of a Willow Tree which sway along with stormy winds or gentle breezes, and too I think of children hiding under a Willow Tree, the shady protection and fanciful-ness of a Willow. A place of rest and safety is imagined there, as if one is beneath the wings of an eagle...

      Last night during a ministry meeting, one of my peers shared a poem. It seems to fit in well with the topic of Faith and so I will share it:

      I Believe

      I believe in the sun
      Even when it isn't shining
      I believe in love
      Even when I can't feel it
      I believe in God
      Even when God is silent
      Anonymous Author

  6. Sharon your powerful in your writing. Like all before me I certainly believe faith without deeds is dead faith. I would say to Calvin though about the ugly passages they can be easily overcome if one reads and believes Rm. 11:33-36. Oh the depths and riches even a little faith will bring.

  7. Sharon, what a task is was to open up this section of the institutes, I felt that this section alone could (should) cover two weeks alone. You did a wonderful job of breaking it down. Here are my insights for this section to add.

    The Spirit of Christ is the Second Adam that gives life, whereas the first Adam brought to us death and the work of Christ 'the mediator' is still going on inside of us (3.1.2)

    The Spirit of Christ is Christ still among us. I read that, I believe that, but I never spent a lot of time thinking about that. The work of the Spirit is to drive us through faith toward a deeper knowledge of God's will more than a knowledge of God. (3.2.6)

    Faith is a process not a destination. The Spirit is the water for the seeds of faith that brings about the buds of righteousness (3.1.3)

    The Spirit is the inner teacher, that without, the promises of salvation would be like the wind beating against our eardrums making no sense at all. (3.1.4)

    As to your question: I always think of my faith journey as a call of my name that I responded to. As a young child I prayed to someone I knew was there. In my thirties, it was a voice that I heard in the Gospel of Matthew who in the text told the fisherman on the sea shore to follow him, was also to me in my living room.

    Now my question to the group: There is a terrible accident and a Christian arrives first on the scene and runs to car with the most damage. The driver is badly wounded and is near death. The Christian says to the dying man, "I am here to pray with you, do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior." The man says "No". The Christian responds, "Are you ready to accept him today." The man says, "Yes." and passes away. Is this an act of acceptable faith according to Calvin? What say you?

    1. Hey Tim, you sure know how to make a person think. My first inclination is to wonder why the Christian didn't actually pray as promised. How much better to share faith, than to extract a commitment under the worst of circumstances.

      Calvin always seems to come down on the side of God choosing and humanity accepting. Even when the circumstances are not life and death, I sometimes wish people would evangelize by talking of the saving faith of Jesus with others and not move so quickly (or at all) to the ubiquitous question you mention above. The Holy Spirit will work even better when a crack is formed that lets the light in.

    2. Q: "My first inclination is to wonder why the Christian didn't actually pray as promised."

      A: The Spirit is the inner teacher (3.1.4) I would respond that in the moment the Christian was lead to ask that question by the Spirit. So that there could be a profession of faith. And I think Calvin would trust in the grace of God that even this last breath profession of faith would be sufficient.

  8. Sharon, thanks for your thoughtful post and excellent summary. I appreciate the posts above. I too like the faith in action mantra and I love that quote Pam shared! Sharon, you used several of the quotes that I had highlighted in my reading. I especially like, “our souls are cleansed by the secret watering of the Spirit.” This year in Confirmation, I asked our Confirmands to look for an image to represent their faith statement or to represent who God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit are to them. I am excited to see what they choose.
    We are an image-rich culture, yet I really don’t have an image to represent my faith. I like seeds, because Jesus used them a lot in his parables to talk about the kingdom of God. They start out so small, but can grow into something unbelievably wonderful. And only God can cause them to grow. We can plant seeds, water seeds and even pull the weeds around them, but God and God alone makes them grow. I also like the transformation of the butterfly. How it starts out so ugly and wormy, but when it dies to the old self, something glorious is reborn. I realize that both of those images are so overdone, but I just can't think of another "image" to offer right now.

  9. Sharon, thank you for the summary. You indeed hit on very important points. Your question is also one of mind bogging. It is truly important for us to appreciate that faith is in us, with us and around us. In descending from the general to the particular about faith, Luther states that, “there is a permanent relationship between faith and the word.” This faith, talks of as life giving to the soul, “hear me and your soul will live” (Isaiah 55: 3) “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20: 31).
    The same word is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained, if it turns away from the Word if fails.” (Institutes 3.2.6). Once the word is taken there is no faith.

    Paul defines faith as that obedience which is given to the gospel (Romans 1: 5). “In understanding faith, it is not merely a question of knowing that God exists, but also, and especially of knowing when His will is toward us” (Institutes, 3.2.6). Faith is the knowledge of God’s will towards us, perceived from his word. The foundation is the preconceived conviction of God’s truth. We fail to pay attention to what goes on around us, we fail to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.
    As story is told of a rich man who was invited by a pastors who needed assistance to support a mission. The pastors in speaking with the rich man quoted from Ecclesiastes 11: 1 – “cast your bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” This rich man gave our a large sum of money to support the project with the view and understanding that he will get it back in multiples in days. After a few days he went to the pastor to complain that he has received nothing in return for what he gave. The pastor would quote different texts to encourage him.
    One day, he went to the pastor very angry, the pastor carefully and tactfully calmed him down and after asking him a series of questions about creation and his success in life pointed out to him that he is not capable of creating any part of his body, not even a single hair on his head let alone the riches. The pastor confirmed to him that all he has are gifts from God. Indeed, this man realized that deep within him, he knew that his successes were not of his making but it is of something. He always believed that this “something” is the driving force behind his success. He came to the understanding that it is no other than God who is living in him. He listened for it again, and again but did not experienced is anymore as before but his faith in the Lord grew beyond bounds and in believing he lived.