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Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (1)

Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (1)

What follows is from Martyn McGeown's article "Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity, but Not a Condition for Salvation," published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2019, Vo. 52, No. 2. The article will be serialized on the RFPA blog. Shared with permission.


Defining Salvation
In the minds of many, salvation is assumed to be equivalent to justification. Salvation, however, is broader than justification. Salvation is the entire work of God by which He delivers us from sin and brings us into the enjoyment of blessedness in body and soul forever. Salvation includes our future bodily resurrection and our everlasting enjoyment of heaven in the new creation. Finally, salvation includes our conscious enjoyment of the benefits purchased by Christ.

With that in mind, consider the following statement: “Salvation is by faith alone.” Is that true? Yes—justification is by faith alone. No—regeneration is not by faith alone. Actually, regeneration is not by faith at all: regeneration precedes faith in the ordo salutis (1 John 5:1). Or consider this statement: “A man is saved without good works.” Is that true? Yes—justification, now and on the last day, is without good works, that is, by grace alone through faith alone. Is that true? No—without good works a man will not be saved on the last day, for good works are the necessary fruit of justification and the evidence of a man’s justification (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 64, 86-87).1 A man without good works is lost, for if he has no good works, he is not holy but has only sins. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says that without holiness no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

We are justified in eternity, at the cross, and in the final resurrection, but the main way in which Scripture speaks of justification is in time. We are justified—we come into the consciousness of our justification—in time when we believe (Luke 18:14; John 8:11; Rom. 5:1). We believe only because faith has been given to us, and even breathed into us, bestowed on us as a gift (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29; Canons 3-4, 14). Nevertheless, we do believe, and therefore faith is necessary for justification (Canons 3-4, 12-14).[2]

In the ordo salutis, we confess regeneration, calling, saving faith, justification, and sanctification, in that order. It is not Reformed soteriology to say without any qualification, “God gives the whole of salvation in regeneration,” as if there were no ordo salutis. We teach the ordo salutis to our teenagers in Essentials of Reformed Doctrine. In Lesson 21, Q.&A. 1 we read, “What is the first fruit of God’s calling in the heart of the sinner? The activity of saving faith in him.”

Faith As a Bond and an Activity
The reader will notice my deliberate emphasis on the activity of faith. In Reformed circles, the teaching that faith is a bond or union with Christ is dominant, for it is a good and healthy counter to Arminianism, which promotes the idea that faith is only an activity—namely the activity of man’s freewill by which he accepts Jesus Christ and makes himself to differ from others who do not accept Him, something the Canons call the “proud heresy of Pelagius” (Canons 3-4, 10; see also Canons 3-4, RE 6 where the Arminians are cited as calling faith “only an act of man”). Nevertheless, the truth that faith is our union with Christ must not eclipse the equally important truth that faith includes the activity of believing. If we neglect that aspect of faith, we are not faithful to the Word of God or to the creeds. In addition, we must be careful to define our terms. Some define “the activity of faith” as the good works of obedience that flow out of faith, but I define the activity of faith as the activity or act of believing itself. When the Canons refer to the good works that flow out of faith, they use the expression “the obedience of faith,” not “the activity of faith” (see Canons 1, 9; RE 1, 3, 5 and Canons 2, RE 4).

That faith is a bond and also an activity is the teaching of all Reformed theologians, including Herman Hoeksema in the chapter of his Reformed Dogmatics on “Faith.” Hoeksema writes, “Saving faith is that work of God […] whereby the sinner is engrafted into Christ and embraces and appropriates Christ and all his benefits, relying upon him in time and eternity.”[3] Later Hoeksema writes, “By faith we may live from him, draw […] from him, and receive all his benefits.”[4] To embrace Christ is an activity. To appropriate Christ is an activity. To rely upon Christ is an activity. It is not an activity by which a sinner merits salvation—not a “work” in that sense—but it is nevertheless an activity by which a sinner appropriates salvation, specifically justification. Hoeksema clearly describes activities—to live, to draw, and to receive are activities.

Hoeksema teaches that faith is an activity as well as a bond when he writes, “A distinction can be made between the essence and the operation, or between the potentia and actus of saving faith.”[5] Both potentia, which Hoeksema calls the essence (I prefer the term “faculty”) and actus, or activity, are faith. Later, Hoeksema explains the actus: “It [faith] develops into the conscious activity of believing through contact with the gospel.”[6] Hoeksema adds: “It is therefore the Spirit of the Lord who calls and awakens the power of faith into the conscious activity of belief.”[7] Hoeksema also writes, “The reception and appropriation of the benefits of Christ … is a profound activity of the entire soul.”[8]

And, of course, the creeds, not to mention Scripture, teach that faith is both a bond and an activity. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the “graft” (A. 20) and “knowledge and confidence” (A. 21), while the Belgic Confession speaks of the Holy Spirit “kindling” faith in us, by which we “embrace,” “appropriate,” and “seek” Christ (which are activities), and calls faith “an instrument that keeps us in communion with Christ” (Art. 22).

The Canons give detailed instruction on faith. While it is true that God works faith and repentance in us (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29; Acts 5:31; 11:18), we still believe and repent. God does not believe for us. God does not repent for us. We do the believing and repenting. We do by virtue of the grace of God, but by grace we do believe and repent. The Canons explain: “By this grace of God they [the elect] are enabled to believe with the heart and love their Savior” (Canons 3-4, 13). “[Faith] is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him … [God] produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons 3-4, 14). “God spiritually quickens …[so] that … a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign” (Canons 3-4, 16). “God infuses new qualities of faith, obedience, and of the consciousness of his love into our hearts” (Canons 3-4, RE 6). The Canons even speak of “the exercise of faith” which can be “interrupted” for a time (Canons 5, 5). According to the same Canons, “we by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved” (Canons 2, RE 4) and “the special gift of mercy [powerfully works] in [the elect], [so] that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace [of justification]” (Canons 2, RE 6).

Herman Hoeksema boldly preached the demand of faith, as well as the serious warning to the unbeliever:

“Repent! Believe! Be baptized, and I will forgive you all your iniquities!” And that Word of God they heard. That is why they were amazed. That caused them to be pricked in their hearts. That made them tremble with fear. That filled them with sorrow after God. That humbled them in the dust and caused them to repent. And that impelled them unto the obedience of faith There is the hearing of obedience and there is the hearing of disobedience. There is a hearing unto salvation, and there is a hearing unto damnation. There is a hearing unto conversion, and there is a hearing unto hardening. But still even the latter is a hearing of the gospel… God always demands, just because he is God. And in the way of obedience to what he demands, he blesses us with life and glory. When any man, therefore, hears the sound of the gospel, this demand of God is conveyed to his consciousness. You ask: what demand? I answer: the demand to repent, to mourn over sin and sorrow after God, to turn away from unrighteousness and corruption and rebellion against the Most High, to seek righteousness, to turn back to God. That is the demand of the gospel … Faith is out of the preaching that is heard! And that faith is obedience. Even as unbelief is disobedience to the gospel of God in Christ, so faith is obedience.[9]

But does not the Bible promise justification to the inactive when Paul writes, “To him that worketh not, but believeth”? Notice that Paul does not say, “To him that worketh not, but doeth nothing.” He says, “But believeth.” He does not even say, “To him that worketh not, but is engrafted into Christ by a true faith.” Paul’s emphasis is—as the emphasis usually is in Scripture—on the activity of faith. Abraham did not work—he did not seek to obey God’s commandments in order to be justified—but he believed (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3), which is an act or an activity. For Abraham it was the act or the activity of holding for truth God’s promise of the coming seed; it was the act of laying hold of the promised righteousness of Jesus Christ; it was the act of trusting.

Christians must not attempt to separate faith from believing. A faith that does not believe is not faith, for faith always comes to ex- pression in believing. True faith refuses to work for salvation, but true faith does not refuse to believe. True faith receives for truth everything that God has revealed in his Word (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 21). About Scripture the Belgic Confession teaches, “Whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (Art. 7, my italics).

Listen to Hoeksema again, for he is very far from teaching an inactive faith:

We must come, then, to Christ, in order to drink the water of life, that is, to receive from Him, and to appropriate unto ourselves all the spiritual blessings of grace, to obtain righteousness and life … Christ is the open Fount of the water of life. He is our righteousness. He is our complete redemption. And He imparts Himself and all the blessings of salvation unto us through His Spirit. But this is done in such a way, that we receive and appropriate these blessings of salvation by a conscious and willing act on our part corresponding to Christ’s act of imparting Himself to us. This act on our part is expressed by the words: “Come and drink!” The water of life, if I may retain the figure for a moment, is not poured down our throat without any act on our part, or even against our will. Even if such a thing were possible, we would never taste its pure and refreshing sweetness. But it is the will of God that we taste it, for we are saved to the glory of His grace in the Beloved. He wills that we taste His grace, that we consciously experience the wonder of His grace. We must come and drink the water of life![10]

In that connection, since faith is an activity, we are commanded to believe: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (I John 3:23). Notice that John uses the word “commandment” to describe the duty of faith, and that it is not only the unbeliever who is commanded to believe for the first time (Mark 1:15; John 4:21; 10:38; Acts 16:31), but also the believer is commanded to keep believing throughout his life (John 14:1; 20:27; I John 3:23). The difference between the call of the gospel and other commands/commandments in Scripture is in what God calls us to do. In this instance He does not call us to avoid theft (the Eighth Commandment) or to be truthful (the Ninth Commandment), but he commands us to believe. Believing is a unique activity because of its object. In addition, we do not trust in the activity of faith, which was the Arminian error—to make the ground of justification the act of faith or the activity of faith (Canons 2, RE 4). We do not trust in faith itself, but we trust in Christ: “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 61). “But to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). 

For some, to speak of obeying the gospel sounds like the teaching of good works, works righteousness, legalism, and a threat to the gospel of grace. There is no need for alarm, however, for not only does Scripture speak of obeying the gospel (Rom. 10:6; II Thess. 1:8; I Peter 4:17), but also obedience to the gospel call is not the same as the performance of good works in obedience to the Law of God (see Canons 1, 3; 2, 5 and 3-4, 10). While God requires obedience to the Ten Commandments, the word “obey” here simply refers to doing what God commands us to do in response to the call of the gospel. Reformed authors have commonly referred to this response to the call of the gospel, namely repentance and faith, as “obedience,” without teaching thereby that the act or activity of faith is a meritorious work or a work on which salvation, especially justification, depends.

The call to faith in the gospel comes to every sinner. That call came to the Jews in Acts 2:37-41, and they obeyed that call, believed, and were baptized; and that call came to the jailor of Philippi in Acts 16:30-34, and he obeyed that call, believed, was baptized, and rejoiced with his household. They did those things by the grace of God, but they still did them. They did not sit idly waiting for God to save them—they heard the call to repent and believe and received the “end of their faith, even the salvation of [their] souls” (I Peter 1:9).

In April 1950, Hoeksema wrote in the Standard Bearer in connection with Acts 2:

Salvation here, therefore, does not at all refer to the act of God which includes the gift of faith unconditionally, but to the fruit of that act of God within them, to the activity on their part of the saving faith which God had already implanted in their hearts. Again, do not forget the context. Through the word of Peter, that is, through the preaching as a means of grace by the Holy Spirit, the multitude were pricked in their hearts. God had already worked faith in their hearts. And that faith is further awakened into conscious activity by the preaching of Peter, that is, by the Word of God, exhorting them to repent and be baptized and to save themselves, or to be saved, from that untoward generation. Hence, they must be saved not on condition of faith, but by the power of faith which God had implanted in their hearts and which had been brought to activity by the preaching of the gospel as a means of grace through the Holy Spirit.[11]

While it is true that faith does not work for righteousness or justification, for faith is the instrument by which the sinner receives the righteousness of another, it is not true that faith is inactive—by faith the sinner believes, embraces, trusts, and rests on Christ; and because God commands us to believe, the believing response is—and can be called—obedience or an obedient response.

Therefore, faith is God’s gift, faith is a bond that unites us to Jesus Christ, and faith is an activity. Our activity of faith is not God’s activity, it is really ours—God does not believe; we do—but that spiritual activity proceeds entirely from God’s gracious operation in us causing us to believe; or faith is God’s gracious operation in us so that we believe. Faith is not a condition on which salvation, especially justification, depends, for faith is part of salvation. Nevertheless, without faith, conscious, active faith, it is ordinarily impossible to be saved, that is, to enjoy the assurance of salvation, and to be glorified on the last day.


[1] All references to the creeds (The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt) are taken from The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005).
[2] “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe... man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of the grace received” (Canons 3-4, 12). “By this grace of God they are enabled to believe with the heart and love their Savior” (Canons 3-4, 13). “[Faith] is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him... [God] produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons 3-4, 14); Confessions and Church Order, 169.
[3] Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 2:62.
[4] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:62.
[5] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:64.
[6] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:64.
[7] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:65.
[8] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:63 (My italics).
[9] Herman Hoeksema, God’s Eternal Good Pleasure (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1979), 199, 200, 204, 207 (My italics).[10] Herman Hoeksema, Whosever Will (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, repr. 1980), 53 (My italics).
[11] Herman Hoeksema, “Faith A Condition According to Scripture?” Standard Bearer, 26, issue 13 (April 1, 1950), 293 (My italics).

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