Back to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more – Henry V, Shakespeare

The debate over salvation by faith alone continues unabated. As I wrote in my last article on the subject, at issue is whether and how good works can be considered necessary or part of salvation. From the recent Desiring God article, it’s apparent that I did not overstate things when I said that Piper was separating justification from salvation. The article, though not written by John Piper, references Piper’s article and states:

But what about being saved by faith alone? You’re not. You’re justified through faith alone. Final salvation comes through justification and sanctification — both initiated and sustained by God’s grace. (emphasis original)

The article also warns that your salvation depends on you killing your sin. According to Piper and others at Desiring God, justification is by faith alone, but salvation (or final salvation) is through works and faith. As I wrote previously, this teaching is contrary to what the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions and catechisms teach.

That last part is what I want to focus on in this article. Last time, I used several Bible verses to explain the Scriptural foundation for salvation by faith alone. While I did quote from the Heidelberg Catechism, I wanted to give additional excerpts from the other well-known Reformed confessions and catechisms. As you will note, the teaching that salvation, from first to last, is by faith alone is clear in all of the Reformed confessions and catechisms.

From the Westminster Confession of faith, notice that it says that saving faith means resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands,  trembling at the threatenings,  and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF XIV.2 on Saving Faith, emphasis added)

The section on good works has several useful passages. The first one quoted here states that good works are the fruit and evidence of faith. Some have used the last statement highlighted below to say that the confession is teaching the same as Piper, that good works are instrumental to salvation and eternal life.

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (WCF XVI.2 on Good Works, emphasis added)

But it is clear from the following passages that this is not what the Confession teaches. There is no merit of eternal life nor profit for us in our good works.

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (WCF XVI.5 on Good Works, emphasis added)

The Westminster Larger Catechism also teaches that salvation is by faith alone. Justifying faith rests on Christ for salvation:

Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation. (WLC 72, emphasis added)

And how does that faith justify? Not by good works:

Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness. (WLC 73, emphasis added)

Sanctification, the Catechism reminds us, is God’s work:

Q. 75. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life. (WLC 75, emphasis added)

The 39 Articles also teach that good works are the fruit of salvation and are not a means of salvation:

XII. Of Good Works.
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit. (Article 12, Of Good Works, emphasis added)

The Second Helvetic Confession speaks at length about good works and their place in the life of a Christian. It categorically rejects the teaching that salvation is through good works:

WE ARE NOT SAVED BY GOOD WORKS. Nevertheless, as was said above, we do not think that we are saved by good works, and that they are so necessary for salvation that no one was ever saved without them. For we are saved by grace and the favor of Christ alone. Works necessarily proceed from faith. And salvation is improperly attributed to them, but is most properly ascribed to grace. The apostle’s sentence is well known: “If it is by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. But if it is of works, then it is no longer grace, because otherwise work is no longer work” (Rom. 11:6).  (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVI, emphasis added)

The 3 Forms of Unity include of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. They don’t all go into the same depth on the same subjects as the Westminster and Second Helvetic Confessions, but the themes of the Reformation are still very clear.

The Canons of Dordt teaches that eternal life (salvation) is by faith in Christ alone:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them. (Canons of Dordt, 1.4, emphasis added)

The Belgic Confession also teaches that salvation is by faith in Christ alone:

Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith
For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.
Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God-– for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.” (Belgic Confession, Article 22, emphasis added)

And that good works are evidence and the fruit of our salvation, but not a means of salvation:

Article 24: The Sanctification of Sinners
So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” — thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’
Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.
Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.  (Belgic Confession, Article 24, emphasis added)

The Heidelberg Catechism I referenced in my first article. It is very clear in affirming salvation by faith alone in Christ alone and rejecting that good works merit us salvation or eternal life:

Q & A 60
Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.

Q & A 61
Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.

Q & A 62
Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.

Q & A 63
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.

Q & A 64
Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude. (Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 60-64, emphasis added)

The confessions and catechisms were written, in part, to teach lay people what the Bible teaches on various important topics. As such, the material is usually straightforward and beneficial for believers of all ages and all levels of education. This is in keeping with the Reformed emphasis on educating all believers so that all may be informed especially regarding salvation.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, while Scripture may not all ways be easy to understand, what we need to know about salvation is plain and does not require advanced degrees or special knowledge of obscure sources in their primary languages to understand correctly:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF, I.7, emphasis added)

These Reformed confessions and catechisms comprise the standards for most confessional denominations. They are not equal to Scripture, and the Westminster Confession makes clear that the Scriptures are the “supreme judge” in any controversies:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF, I.10)

Everything, no matter who said it, must be weighed against Scripture. And for confessional Christians, a good place to start is with our confessional standards. Confessional Christians, especially ordained leaders, believe and affirm that the confessional standards of their denomination contain “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (PCA and OPC ordination questions). For this reason, it is important to know and to return to the confessional standards in any controversy.

Piper does not hold to any of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a Christian or that he doesn’t teach useful things. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be surprised when he teaches something outside the confessional standards.

No matter how much we may like Calvin, Twisse, Edwards, Horton, or Piper,  ultimately we don’t confess them. We confess the standards of our denominations. It really is that simple.

If you’d like to read more on the current Sola Fide debate, I recommend the following articles:

Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 1
Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 2: “Salvation”
Rachel Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 3, Beginning at the End: The Marrow Men
Salvation Sola Fide: Martin Luther and the Fruits of Faith
“…Let’s just pipe down and let the experts handle this.”
Piper: Salvation by faith alone and just a little bit more?
The Gospel According to Piper
Believers Are Saved And Sealed
In By Grace, Stay In By Faithfulness?
Salvation Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: On Distinguishing Is, With, And Through

9 thoughts on “Back to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

  1. insanitybytes22 says:

    Well said. I’ve read some of those articles at Desiring God and am baffled.

    I love this, “It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.” That is the very essence of our faith.

  2. Dominic Stockford says:

    Glad to see the 39 Articles making an appearance.

    Surely though, what Piper teaches is dangerously wrong, as dangerous as Rome in its way?

  3. A Girdwood says:

    You had me at WCF. But the Anglican and continental stuff is interesting too. What strikes me is that, while the Big Men have not appeared to criticise JP publicly, my FB feed has been littered over the last week with articles from White Horse Inn and Ligonier making a big noise about Sola Fide over and over again. Now, obviously much of this is to do with the Wittenberg anniversary, but you have to think there is coded messaging going on. Without the oversight of a presbytery or diocese, ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’

  4. Sharon says:

    Rachel, thank you for this article. It captured my attention (I am fairly new to reformed faith or haven’t grown up in it) because these reformed preachers use a phrase “if you do this you are not a Christian or if you do that you’re not a Christian”. Reformed faith is such a treasure chest of comfort, yet these preachers make salvation about what I do, not what Christ did. Here are a few examples:
    Technology: TV and cell phones are a sin
    Lords Day: talking football or politics on this day is a sin and you ate not a Christian
    Politics: voting is a sin.
    Martha was not a Christian (at that time) because she wouldn’t sit at the feet of Jesus.
    I have questioned my salvation so many times using these standards and have concluded that I am not a Christian – by these ‘definitions’
    Thank you Jesus for what YOU have done!
    Sharon

  5. Elisa says:

    You are spot on.
    As I was reading, my thoughts circled to the thief on the cross with Christ. He was justified by faith alone, by Christ alone. There was no time for his works.

    Works of faith- Once we are saved and justified by grace, we can’t help but to be irresistably and insatiably pulled into continuing Christ’s ministry. Good works are a natural result of justification.

    We have to be so careful in Christian circles. It is a part of our sin nature to want to take credit for our own salvation. Making our works a part of it is no different than what the other world religions do.

  6. Daniel Beach says:

    Great article. Salvation is by faith alone. Sola Fide. I think what some people like Piper can get mixed up is that true faith is always accompanied by good works, they are a by-product of saving faith, not a requirement for salvation.

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