The Reformers and Faith Alone


“To express the unique suitability of faith to receive the gift of free justification, the Reformers used a variety of expressions.  Calvin, for example, spoke of faith as an ’empty vessel’ in order to stress its character as a receptacle that brings nothing to God but receives all things from him.  Luther used the striking analogy of a ring that clasps a jewel; faith has no value of itself, but clasps the jewel that is Christ and his righteousness.”

“Calvin also remarked that, in a manner of speaking, faith is a ‘passive thing,’ because it is the cessation of all working to obtain favour and acceptance with God in order to rest in a favour freely given in Christ.  What makes faith a suitable instrument for the reception of free justification is that it is marked by a humble acknowledgement that all honour in salvation belongs to God in Christ.”

“As a receptive and passive acknowledgement of the sheer graciousness of free justification, faith is an act of trustful acceptance of what God freely grants believers in Christ.  When believers accept the free gift of justification by faith, they look away from themselves and focus their attention upon Christ who is their righteousness.”

As usual, Cornelis Venema is clear and right on.  I highly recommend this book, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul.  (The above quotes were from pages 17-18.)

shane lems

2 thoughts on “The Reformers and Faith Alone”

  1. Last night I was reading Bavinck on providence (RD vol 2, pg 594) and he made a very similar point about the ’empty vessel’ nature of saving faith. Whereas our minds want to make saving faith the culmination of faith in God as creator and provider (i.e.: since I believe God created the universe and that he continues to act providentially, I should trust him for my salvation).

    Bavinck, echoing Calvin and Luther, turns it around: “Belief in God’s providence is not a tenet of natural theology to which saving faith is later added. Instead, it is saving faith that for the first time prompts us to believe wholeheartedly in God’s providence in the world, to see its significance and to experience its consoling power.”

    The implications of this are striking- if saving faith is built on either natural theology (or as the FV would put it- our obedience), and I lose confidence in God as creator and provider or I fail to obey, then I’ve lost the basis for my saving faith.

    Getting the Gospel right means that our saving faith is the foundation everything else is built on. Messing up my obedience or natural theology will hurt me in this life, but can’t affect my salvation. Here’s how Bavinck ends this section: “Thus, through all the tears and suffering, it [saving faith] looks forward with joy to the future. Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God’s fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.”


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