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Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (2): Faith and Justification

Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (2): Faith and Justification

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. The previous entry is Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (1).


The Relationship between Faith and Justification
If faith is something without which no sinner is justified, is faith a condition on which salvation, and especially justification depends? Or to put it another way, what according to the Scriptures and the Reformed creeds is the relationship between faith (the activity of believing) and justification? Is a sinner justified merely by being engrafted into Christ or does he also believe for his justification and in order to be justified?

The Heidelberg Catechism describes the role of faith in justification in these words: “I cannot receive and apply [the righteousness of Christ] to myself any other way than by faith only” (A. 61) and “[Christ’s righteousness becomes mine] inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” (A. 60). Receiving, applying, and embracing are the activities of faith. A sinner cannot be justified— that is, in his own consciousness, so that he consciously enjoys peace with God—without such faith, for an unbeliever is not justified. In addition, the preaching must proclaim this relationship: “It is declared and publically testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God” (A. 84).

On this point the other creeds are in full agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism: “To speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness … Faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). “[We are] relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him” (Belgic Confession Art. 23). “[W]e by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the righteousness of Christ, are justified before God and saved” (Canons 2, RE4). “[God’s] special gift of mercy…powerfully works in them, that they [the elect] rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace” (Canons 2, RE 6).

The creeds, therefore, teach that the sinner must do something to appropriate salvation or justification—he must believe.

A sermon from the heat of the battle in 1953, well known in Protestant Reformed circles, in which Herman Hoeksema preached about the Philippian jailor in Acts 16, seems to contradict this. In the course of that sermon, it is claimed that Herman Hoeksema explained that the correct answer to the jailor’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” was to “Do nothing.”[12] In other words, so argue some who appeal to this sermon, the jailor must do nothing to be saved—he must do nothing for his salvation. Instead, salvation is by faith, which is not an activity, but the gift of God.

While that statement, “Do nothing,” has been exaggerated, we must remember two things. First, Hoeksema did not say, “Do nothing.” He said, “Do nothing, but believe.” Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailor, therefore, was not: “Do nothing.” Second, it is a disservice to Hoeksema to reduce his views on such important topics to one or two phrases in a speech or sermon, while ignoring multiple lengthy quotations from Hoeksema where he deals explicitly, systematically, and carefully with these topics. While in the minds of some, Herman Hoeksema’s “do nothing” statement is central to the 1953 controversy concerning the conditional covenant, it ignores what Hoeksema wrote on the same topic in the Standard Bearer in the midst of the conditional covenant controversy just a few months before Synod 1950 provisionally adopted the Declaration of Principles, which document brought the controversy to a head:

This last remark by the Rev. [Andrew] Petter causes me to wonder whether he has ever understood the pure Protestant Reformed truth that must have nothing of conditions, but insists that the salvation which God works for us and in us is absolutely unconditional, is not even conditioned by faith. Does he really imagine that it is Protestant Reformed to answer one who anxiously inquires about the way of salvation, who therefore was already pricked in his heart by the Holy Spirit, by saying very foolishly to him that he must do absolutely nothing and that he cannot do anything? If that is really the Rev. Petter’s conception, then he has never understood us at all. How could we ever say to a man that is anxiously inquiring for the way of salvation, or, in fact, to anyone, whether he is inquiring or not: “My dear man, you must do absolutely nothing; you must not even repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Just wait, like a stock and block, and you shall surely be saved.” On the contrary, to such a man, as well as to anyone, we simply preach the gospel, that is: we preach the Lord Jesus Christ and faith in Him as the only way of salvation. We do not hesitate to preach the way of faith even in an imperative form, as the apostle Paul does to the jailor in Philippi: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” For we know that the preaching of the gospel is a means of grace and that through that means the Holy Spirit will work faith in the hearts of the elect. And this is exactly what happened in the prison at Philippi. There was a man who already was anxiously inquiring about the way of salvation, a man, therefore, who, as Calvin explains, had already been influenced by the Holy Spirit and was prepared to obey the gospel. And there was Paul preaching to that man, preaching the gospel. Mark you, Paul did not merely function as a man, simply informing another man about the way of salvation. But he functioned as a preacher that was sent. He was confident, therefore, that if it pleased God to save that jailor, Christ Himself would speak through Paul’s word and work faith—active faith—in the heart and mind of the jailor at Philippi. And that is exactly what happened. For the jailor and all his house were saved. And in the same confidence, namely, that the Holy Spirit will work faith in the heart of the elect, we preach the gospel, as a means of grace. But we do not say ever, to any man, whether he be elect or reprobate: “God will save you on condition that you believe; you must first fulfil a condition before God will ever save you.” That certainly is not the gospel; and it certainly is not the Reformed conception of the relation between faith and salvation.[13]

That is a far cry from “Do nothing.” Hoeksema would not tell a person who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” to do nothing. He would answer, as the apostle Paul did, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). We learn that the jailor did that: “[he] rejoiced, believing with all his house” (v. 34).

Prof. David Engelsma agrees and identifies a hyper-Calvinistic nervousness in some who would call such a jailor—or any sinner for that matter—to do nothing:

If the fruit of the preaching of the gospel is that men, pricked in their hearts, cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” or that a Philippian jailor says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” it is not in place, it is not typically Reformed, to launch into a fierce polemic against freewill or to give a nervous admonition against supposing that one can do anything toward his own salvation. The answer to such questions, the Reformed answer, is “Repent…” and “Believe.”[14]

The Philippian jailor did not yet enjoy the consciousness of the forgiveness of his sins and Paul addressed him not as a saved man, but as a sinner under the conviction of sin who desperately needed to know the gospel of salvation. If the jailor had already enjoyed the consciousness of the forgiveness of his sins, he would not have anxiously cried out, “What must I do to be saved? He would have said, “I am saved. What must I do to show gratitude to God for my salvation?” Then Paul would have preached, to speak anachronistically, a sermon on Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 32 on the necessity of good works. If the jailor had already enjoyed the consciousness of the forgiveness of his sins, he would have not have had his sword at his own throat ready to commit suicide (Acts 16:27). Because he was not yet saved in the sense that he did not yet enjoy (consciously) the forgiveness of his sins, he asked the urgent question, “What must I do to be saved?” And because the jailor did not yet enjoy the consciousness of the forgiveness of his sins, Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be (in the future) saved, and thy house.”

Therefore, we should understand the jailor’s salvation in this way: Paul addressed the Philippian jailor with the command: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Paul did not say, “You are saved already because you are regenerate; therefore, do nothing.” He said, “Believe and thou shalt (in the future) be saved.” In other words, the jailor would enter into the enjoyment of the other benefits of salvation—justification, the forgiveness of sins, and, ultimately, heavenly glory—through faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith in Jesus Christ no man enjoys salvation, not even this panicking jailor. It is possible to possess salvation (to be regenerate, for example) without conscious faith, but it is not possible to possess the other benefits of salvation such as justification and sanctification, and to be consciously aware of them, and thus to enjoy and experience them, without faith (Rom. 5:1; I Pet. 1:22; Acts 26:18).

Indeed, any faithful Reformed preacher could say to anyone, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” To every person the command comes: “Believe!” In the ears of every person the promise is preached: “And thou shalt be saved.” However, the promise is only for believers; unbelievers will not receive the promised salvation. Homer C. Hoeksema writes, “A command has nothing in common with a condition... Characteristic of a command ... is that it is exactly unconditional and absolute. It must be obeyed without any question ... As such, this clause [‘whosoever believeth’ in Canons 2, 5] does not state a condition or prerequisite for salvation, but it identifies those who shall be saved.”[15]

The case of Cornelius is similar. At the beginning of Acts 10, Cornelius was regenerate—his prayers and his good works were acceptable to God (v. 4); these good works were the fruit of regeneration and even faith, faith of a Gentile God-fearer, but one who did not yet know the gospel. The angel told Cornelius: “Call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:13-14). Part of Peter’s message to Cornelius was, “To [Jesus] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). Cornelius was saved (regenerate); Cornelius would hear words by which he would be saved; Cornelius was told that whoever believes in Jesus would receive the remission of sins. This simply illustrates the truth that Scripture speaks of the reception of salvation in different senses and with different tenses. And this is exactly why definitions are important.

Herman Hoeksema explains the relationship between faith and justification:

Christ is our righteousness, and Christ only. If you ask, in this sense, “What must we do to be righteous?” the answer is, “Nothing!” Can we do nothing that is pleasing to God, that will make us righteous? The answer is no. Does it not make us more righteous if we do good works? The answer is no. Our righteousness is perfect. Christ is our righteousness. Our own righteousness is nothing but unrighteousness. Christ is our righteousness. When the End of the law came, he fulfilled it all for everyone who believes. If you ask, “Must I do nothing to be righteous?” I say that you must believe.[16]

“You must believe” is the call to an activity. How can a person possibly have knowledge of his justification unless he believes? Christ put it even more strongly, “He that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Paul expressed it thus: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).[17] Or consider Belgic Confession, Article 23, “[We rely and rest] upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him.” In The Gospel Truth of Justification Engelsma sets forth the relationship between justification and faith in these words:

The faith that is counted for righteousness is a faith that consciously and deliberately “worketh not.” It is as if the sinner whom God has awakened to his guilt and burdened with the weight of deserved punishment cries out, “How shall I seek and find forgiveness and righteousness with the God whom I have offended?” Hearing the word of the gospel of grace, the sinner then responds to his cry, “I will not work; I will believe only.” The faith that renounces working and works for justification is true faith. Whatever supposed “faith” insists on working for righteousness is thereby exposed as a false faith.[18]

“I will not work; I will do nothing” is not the answer. “I will not work; I will believe only” is the answer. To believe is an activity. Faith, then, is the instrument of justification. Faith is not the ground of justification. Faith is not our righteousness. The obedience of Christ is our righteousness. Faith is the God-given means by which we embrace the righteousness of Christ and the instrument by which God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. Nevertheless, faith always includes an act and an activity.


[12] Herman Hoeksema preached this sermon on July 5, 1953; the sermon was entitled “The Calling of the Philippian Jailor.” The transcript of that sermon is available online, text/4612137350.pdf. In that sermon, reacting to the conditional theology being promoted at the time, Hoeksema declared, “And although, of course, there is truth in that statement, you must believe, when those people, people of that kind, that want to contrast, that want to make contrast or distinction or rather a contradiction between we must believe and election on the other hand, I usually express myself very strongly, beloved, in saying, ‘No, that isn't so. You must not believe. We must not believe. We must not believe. We must not believe.’ And they are astounded, usually” (p. 2). Later, on the same page, Hoeksema states, “We must believe, but there is no hope in that statement, and there is no salvation in that statement … You must know nothing, believer. Believe nothing, do nothing, but believe. Believe, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (2). Later, he says, “The activity of faith is in its first manifestation that we cling to Christ. That’s active faith and by that active faith we receive out of him all our salvation” (8-9).
[13] Hoeksema, “Faith A Condition According to Scripture?” Standard Bearer, 293-4 (My italics). If the Lord Jesus Christ and faith in Him is the way of salvation, and that way is preached in the imperative form, then Hoeksema must be referring to the activity of believing and not merely to the bond of faith.
[14] David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, repr. 2014), 194.
[15] Homer C. Hoeksema, Voice of Our Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Re- formed Free Publishing Association, 1980), 355. (Hoeksema’s italics).
[16] Herman Hoeksema, Righteous by Faith Alone (Grandville, MI: Re- formed Free Publishing Association, 2002), 451 (My italics).
[17] We have believed with the purpose that or with the result that we are justified is the meaning of Galatians 2:16.
[18] Engelsma, The Gospel Truth of Justification (Grandville, MI: Re- formed Free Publishing Association, 2017), 190.

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