Dear Church Family,
Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines and describes how the people of God are justified (declared righteous) before Him; specifically, the alone instrument of justification is faith. There, we find faith defined as receiving and resting upon Christ and His righteousness (WCF 11.2). Now, in chapter 14 of the confession, “Of Saving Faith,” we find an elaboration and further explanation of what saving faith looks like.
(1) The definition and means of saving faith (WCF 14.1)
Saving faith is a work of God’s free grace (the gift of God, Ephesians 2:8) whereby those who are of the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls (Hebrews 10:39). Faith is the product of the indwelling of the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11). Another way that we might put this is to say that while faith is the free and gracious gift of God, it is exercised by the individual (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).
So, faith is a gift of God that is exercised by His people, but how do we receive this gift of faith and how does it grow? Or, to ask the question another way: if God’s people want to seek the conversion of the lost and to build people up in their faith, how should we go about that? What should be the primary work of the church? Here, the confession lists three things that God ordinarily uses: the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper), and prayer.
First, concerning how a person initially comes to trust in Christ: saving faith is ordinarily wrought (begun or created) by the ministry of the Word (Romans 10:12-17; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 1 Timothy 4:16). Second, concerning how a believer continues to grow in that faith: faith is ordinarily increased and strengthened by the ministry of the Word (Galatians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 2:1), the sacraments (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32), and prayer (Luke 17:5). To put a finer point on it, we might say that the ministry of the Word (the reading and preaching of the Scriptures) is both justificational and sanctificational, while the sacraments and prayer are not justificational, but only sanctificational.
Practically speaking, this is why the reading and preaching of God’s Word is central in the ministry and worship of Reformed churches. It is also why the sacraments and prayer have a prominent place in our ministry and worship, as well (albeit, subordinate and dependent upon the Word). It explains why the worship of Reformed churches are typically more simple and less extravagant then that of many contemporary-minded churches: we seek to prioritize and emphasize the simplicity of the ordinary means of grace.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a helpful summary of this prioritization and emphasis: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (WSC 88).
(2) The activity and object of saving faith (WCF 14.2)
When we speak of the ‘activity’ of saving faith, we are referring to how a Christian responds (in faith) to God’s Word. One of the first marks of saving faith, is that a Christian believes in the truth and authority of the Bible – that the Bible is actually God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 5:10; 2 Peter 1:16-21). Second, a Christian responds (in faith) in different ways to the various teachings of Scripture.
According to the confession, there are three different responses to the various teachings of Scripture that are characteristic of those who have saving faith: (1) by faith, a Christian obeys the commands of God’s Word (Romans 16:25-27; John 14:15); (2) by faith, a Christian trembles at the threatenings of God’s Word (Isaiah 66:2); and (3) by faith, a Christian embraces the promises of God’s Word (Hebrews 11:12-13).
When we speak of the ‘object’ of saving faith, we are referring to that which a believer trusts in. It’s not enough simply to have faith, one must have faith in something or someone that is able to save: that is, in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the principle acts of saving faith are: accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone (John 1:11-13; Acts 16:29-32).
(3) The victory and assurance of faith (WCF 14.3)
The world, the flesh and the devil assail and seek to destroy our faith; however, we can have the confidence that if God has begun the work of faith in us, He will complete it (Philippians 1:6). And, we are encouraged and admonished in the Scripture to take up the shield of faith as we seek to combat these spiritual enemies (Ephesians 6:16).
An entire chapter in the confession is devoted to assurance (WCF 18); however, at this point, while speaking about faith, we may say that one of the goals of true saving faith is that it grows such that the Christian will gain a full assurance of their salvation (Hebrews 6:11-12). As we come to understand better what it means to be born again (or born of God), we will grow more and more confident in the victorious power of faith (1 John 5:4-5) as we grow more and more in our knowledge and trust in the Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Concerning the age-old question, how can sinful man be made right with God, the Scripture clearly teaches that we are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone. Abraham believed God and it was credited to Him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-13). The prophets declared that the soul of the proud is not right within him, but the righteous will live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).
Praise God that He has not left us to try and justify ourselves before Him based on our own merits (Galatians 2:16), but that He was revealed to us the truth of the gospel: having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch