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Passive Faith?

Passive Faith?

Martyn McGeown

A Widening Chasm?
Andy Lanning, in an attempt to show his people that a vast “gulf/chasm” exists between the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) and the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC), devoted his “doctrine class” on November 10, 2021 to the idea of a “passive faith.” As a springboard for his assertion he used a recent statement by a pastor in the PRC who objected to the idea of a passive faith, calling it “heresy.” 

Because Lanning does not interact much with the quote, I do not include it here. Instead, Lanning explains at length that the ground/basis of our justification, and, therefore, the object of our faith is Christ alone with his righteousness, works, obedience, sufferings, and death, to the exclusion of all our works. With that doctrine of justification the Protestant Reformed Churches fully agree. The ground/basis of our justification is Christ’s righteousness alone. The object of our faith is Christ alone, not our works. That is not the issue. 

Lanning informs his audience that in dealing with the passivity of faith he is treating “the instrument” of justification. “When we are talking about the instrument of our justification, we are still talking about what God does,” he says. That strikes me as strange: faith is what God does? Faith is the gift of God, but God does not “do” faith; he gives it, and we believe. “The meaning of faith is not man; the meaning of faith is Christ,” he adds. Certainly, the object of faith is Christ; and is, then, the instrument of justification also Christ? “When we say passive faith, all we mean is Christ and not man.” Is faith Christ? Certainly, the object of faith is Christ, but faith itself is not Christ. Later he says, “Faith even repudiates its activity as any of its righteousness.” Of course, the activity of faith is not our righteousness before God. That would be to confuse the instrument of justification with its ground/basis, which no theologian in the PRC does.

One would have expected a lengthy treatment on faith as the instrument/means of justification, and a discussion on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed to us by means of faith alone. However, after mentioning the instrument of justification, Lanning pivots back to “the object of faith,” and, therefore, to the ground/basis of justification, which we all agree is Christ’s righteousness. The issue is not, on what basis are we justified before God, but how does the righteousness of Christ become ours? Unfortunately, that question remains unanswered in this lecture. Instead, it is alleged that there are some who deny the passivity of faith and insist on an “active faith,” because they erroneously teach that faith’s activities are part of the ground/basis of our justification. However, no theologian in the PRC believes this. To suggest that we disagree about the ground/basis of our justification before God is false.

Later in the lecture Abraham Kuyper is quoted as stating, “Our faith is the result and the fruit of our justification.” (Of course, faith is not the fruit of justification; good works are. Faith is the sole instrument of our justification). Throwing out quotes is one thing, but what did Kuyper mean? Kuyper meant that our believing in time is the result/fruit of God’s eternal decree of justification or of his eternal decree to justify us. Or Kuyper meant that faith is the fruit of election, with which we agree (see Canons 1:9: “election is the fountain of every saving good,” including saving faith). Kuyper did not deny that we are justified when we believe in time, so that faith is the instrument (not the basis/ground) of our justification. In fact, immediately after the section that Lanning quotes, Kuyper adds, “It is also true that, for us, justification begins to exist only as a result of our faith” (The Work of the Holy Spirit, Volume 2, Chapter 6, XXXII, “Justification from Eternity,” 371). The entire section is worth reading.

Another author referenced is J. Gresham Machen, who is quoted as stating, “True faith does not do anything” (Christianity and Liberalism, chapter 6, 147). Machen’s surrounding context is critical to understanding this quote, for earlier Machen writes, “God uses in our salvation a conscious act of the human soul, an act which though it is itself the work of God’s Spirit, is at the same time an act of man. That act of man which God produces and employs in salvation is faith. At the center of Christianity is the doctrine of justification by faith” (Ibid., 141). So much for using Machen as an advocate for “passive faith.” 

John Calvin is also quoted, who says “as regards justification, faith is merely passive.” But Calvin explains his own meaning: “In regard to justification, faith is merely passive, bringing nothing of our own to procure the favor of God, but receiving from Christ every thing that we want” (Institutes, 3:13:5). The PRC do not teach that in justification we bring something of our own on the basis of which we expect to be received into God’s favor again. Our justification is on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone.

A Passive Instrument? 
There is a difference between the PRC and the RPC on the instrument of justification. That did not come out in the “doctrine class,” but it is evident from the writings of RPC men. The difference is not that PRC theologians teach that justification is by means of works, which would be false doctrine and heresy. The difference is concerning the activity or passivity of faith in justification. Is faith an active or a passive instrument? 

The following statements are taken from Sword and Shield, vol. 2, number 8 (October 15, 2021). 

“No one,” says Nathan Langerak, “denies that faith precedes justification” (12), but by “faith” does Langerak mean the activity of believing? He asks, expecting a negative answer, “Is faith, as man’s activity now, the means unto justification?” (12). “I deny,” he writes, “that faith as man’s activity, faith as what man does, is the means unto the end justification” (13).

Philip Rainey goes further, rejecting the idea that “our believing precedes in time God’s remission of our sins” (23) and denying that “faith” (by which he means our activity of believing) “precedes justification” (24). He even writes, “If [faith and repentance] are God-worked, then they are acts of God” (28). If by “acts of God” Rainey means merely that God causes our activity of believing and repenting, I agree, but most readers would understand by “acts of God” that God does them. “I affirm,” he continues, “that the faith that justifies is God’s act as much as justification itself is God’s act” (28). This is impossible because justification is God’s act of declaring believers righteous, while faith is our activity of trusting Jesus for salvation, which is not God’s act. God works that act or activity in us, but God does not perform that act for us. Later he writes, “If election is the cause of faith and repentance, then faith and repentance are first of all acts of God for salvation” (29). They are not: faith is a God-given and God-worked activity of the believer (the activity of knowing and trusting God in Jesus Christ), through which God grants salvation, specifically justification. Repentance is a God-given and God-worked activity of the believer, the activity of sorrowing over sin and turning from it, which God does not perform for us, and without which God does not forgive sin (Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 3:19; 2 Cor. 7:10). 

In the September 2021 issue of Sword and Shield Rainey wrote, “If faith and repentance are required of me for salvation, then it follows that I am the one who performs them because the one who meets the requirements is the one who performs them. And this flatly contradicts the Canons, which make clear that faith and repentance are gifts precisely in the way of God’s conferring them upon us, working them in us, or producing them in us. God performs his own requirements in us. That and that alone is the Reformed truth of faith and repentance” (16). Rainey confuses the word “confers” with “performs,” thus changing the meaning. God confers (gives), and we do (we believe, we repent, etc.); not God performs, and he does. Canons 3-4:12 says, "Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.”

Lanning agrees with his fellow writers in Sword and Shield: “To insist on man’s active faith and man’s activity of believing as the means of justification is to make faith into a work. It is to import into the righteousness of Christ something of man” (34). Of course, that is false, and Lanning mixes categories: our activity of believing is not part of Christ’s righteousness, for it is not part of the ground/basis of our justification. Faith, our activity of believing, which is a gift to us, is the instrument of justification, not, I repeat for emphasis, its ground/basis. 

Lanning adds, “We could go so far as to say that in justification, faith is utterly passive. I recognize that faith is active in embracing and knowing Christ, for example. But those activities of faith are not the significance of faith as the instrument of justification. Therefore, even when we speak of the activities of faith, such as coming to Christ, abiding in him, embracing him, knowing him, trusting him, and receiving him, justifying faith is passive” (34). By “passive” Lanning means that faith does not give God anything, but faith receives everything from God. Of course, all Protestant Reformed theologians agree that faith is not the activity of giving, but of receiving. That is why the creeds speak of appropriating, embracing, seeking, and the like, which are not passivities, but vibrant activities.

A Biblical and Creedal Explanation
So what do Scripture and the Reformed creeds teach about the role of faith in our justification before God, something Lanning largely ignores in his lecture on “Passive Faith,” since he spends most of his time discussing the ground/basis of our justification? It should be observed that I am not talking here about eternal justification, justification at the cross, justification at the empty tomb, or other senses of justification, but justification by faith in time and in the consciousness of the believing sinner. 

First, faith is not the basis/ground of our justification. We are not justified because we believe. Our justification does not depend on the quality of our faith, the strength of our faith, or the fruits of our faith. Our justification depends on the object of our faith, which is Christ. The prepositions that the Bible employs to describe the relationship between justification and faith are “by” and “through,” indicating only an instrument/means. The creeds also teach this relationship. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 61: “Why sayest thou that thou art righteous by faith only? Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith.” Belgic Confession Article 22: “We do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ.” The Canons reject the idea that “faith itself and the obedience of faith” are accepted by God as the basis of our justification (Canons 2:R:4).

Second, the faith, by/through which, but not on the basis of which, we are justified is a gift of God, which God works in us so that we believe (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). Belgic Confession Article 22: “The Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ.” “Faith is… conferred, breathed, and infused… [and God]... produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons 3-4.14). 

Third, the faith, by/through which, but not on the basis of which, we are justified is an active faith. By “active” I mean that the believer who has this faith believes, which is an activity. It is not the activity of giving God anything or contributing anything to our salvation; nevertheless, it is an activity, the activity of receiving Christ’s benefits. God imputes Christ’s righteousness (the ground/basis of justification and the object of faith) to us by/through faith alone without works. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of “receiving” Christ’s benefits “by a true faith,” which true faith is knowledge and confidence (LD 7). The Catechism defines the relationship thus: “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” (the ground/basis of justification) become mine, not when I passively do nothing, but “inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” (A 60), adding that “I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only” (A 61). Belgic Confession Article 22 states, “We believe that … the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him.” Embracing, appropriating (making something one’s own), and seeking are not passive activities. I cannot even imagine what a passive activity would be! “Belgic Confession 22: “[Faith] is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ.” Again, embracing is an activity. Belgic Confession Article 23, speaking about Christ’s benefits says, “which become ours when we believe in him.” Not before we believe, but when we believe. When we believe. Not without our believing, but when we believe. Would anyone deny that justification follows the believer’s believing? Is that what is meant by a “passive faith”? Of course, we can speak of justification in different senses, eternal justification, justification at the cross, justification at the empty tomb, and the like, but Scripture mainly speaks of the justification of believers when they believe. “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ [that is, by faith in Jesus Christ], even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ [that is, by faith in Christ], and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Allow me to mention a few more references to the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ? It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood” (Q&A 70). “What is it then to eat the crucified body, and drink the shed blood of Christ? It is not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the pardon of sin and life eternal” (Q&A 76). “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel? “Thus: when, according to the command of Christ, it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the gospel by a true faith all their sins are really forgiven them” (Q&A 84). 

It should be noted that the Belgic Confession in Articles 22-24 references the same faith, a true, justifying faith. In Article 22 it is “an upright faith” kindled by the Holy Spirit, “an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness,” and “an instrument that keeps us in the communion with [Christ].” In Article 23 the believer is described as “relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him.” Article 24 describes the same faith (“this true faith… this justifying faith… this holy faith”). It is the faith by/through which, not on the basis of which, we are justified before God. This faith cannot be “unfruitful,” where the French is oisive, which means idle, lazy, or inactive. This faith “worketh by love” and “excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in his Word,” insists the Confession. This faith is not a “vain faith.” The works which proceed from this good root of faith “are of no account towards our justification.”

Here we can also add the complete quote from Abraham Kuyper:

But—and this should not be overlooked—this publishing in the consciousness of the person himself must necessarily follow; and this brings us back again to the special work of the Holy Spirit. For if in God’s judiciary it is more particularly the Father who justifies the ungodly, and in the preparing of salvation more particularly the Son who in His Incarnation and Resurrection brings about justification, so it is, in more limited sense, the Holy Spirit particularly who reveals this justification to the persons of the elect and causes them to appropriate it to themselves. It is by this act of the Holy Spirit that the elect obtain the blessed knowledge of their justification, which only then begins to be a living reality to them.
For this reason Scripture reveals these two positive, but apparently contradictory truths, with equally positive emphasis: (1) that, on the one hand, He has justified us in His own judgment seat from eternity; and (2) that, on the other, only in conversion are we justified by faith.
And for this reason faith itself is fruit and effect of our justification; while it is also true that, for us, justification begins to exist only as a result of our faith. (The Work of the Holy Spirit, Volume 2, Chapter 6, XXXII, “Justification from Eternity,” 372)

We do not, of course, bring our works into our justification, but the faith by which we are justified is not passive. It is not a dead faith, but a living, active faith. It is not a working faith, for faith does not work, least of all for justification, but it is (to risk stating a redundancy) a believing faith, a faith that receives, embraces, appropriates, etc. That living, active faith is the God-worked, graciously-given instrument by which we embrace Jesus Christ and all his benefits, and the means by which God graciously imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ. It does not belong to our righteousness before God, and, therefore, it is not the ground/basis of our justification, but it is the instrument by which we lay hold of the righteousness of our Savior. It is not a passive instrument, for how could faith, “the hand and mouth of our soul” (Belgic Confession, Article 35) be passive, inert, inactive? 

The Protestant Reformed Churches teach justification on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ alone, which is received by/through the sole instrument of faith alone, without any of our works, which faith is God’s gift to the elect sinner. There is no gulf/chasm between us and our separated brethren on the question of the ground/basis of our justification. The RPC teach that sinners are justified by the instrument of faith, but they reject all the activities of faith (believing, knowing, trusting, embracing, appropriating, etc.) as belonging to the instrument of justification. That is where they are developing in error. Whether the gulf widens in other areas remains to be seen. 

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