A confessing community: Salvation applied

Redemption is something that has been achieved through the historic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That does not mean that it is an academic, intellectual reality. Instead, redemption is something that must be applied to God’s chosen people in space-time history. Confession 5 addresses this matter of the actual application of redemption. We begin in this post with 5.1–5.2.

When the time is ripe, the Holy Spirit lays claim to each of the elect through regeneration, enabling them to believe in Christ and thus be united to him (John 1:12–13; 3:3–8; 1 John 5:1).

 

Saving faith is ordinarily produced through the ministry of the word (Romans 10:14–17). It requires a knowledge of what God has revealed—about himself, man and the gospel—includes a conviction that these things are true, and comes to fulfilment as the believer accepts, receives and rests upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life (John 20:20–31; Romans 10:9–11). Any reliance which a person places in his own morality, good works or ceremonial faithfulness disqualifies him or her—whether that reliance is in place of or in addition to faith in Christ (Galatians 1:9; 3:10; 5:2–6). (Sola 5 Confession 5.1–5.2)

The Confession begins by summarising the role of the Spirit in redemption: “When the time is ripe, the Holy Spirit lays claim to each of the elect through regeneration, enabling them to believe in Christ and thus be united to him.”

John 1:12–13 highlights the reality that God must work in a person’s life to bring them to faith by noting the impotence of other means of salvation. He highlights three other means by which people might try to achieve salvation: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Some think that salvation is a matter of “blood”—that they are Christian simply because they have been born into a Christian family, or in a Christian nation. They assume that Christianity is their birthright.

Others imagine that salvation is entirely their own decision, apart from God’s grace: that it is “the will of the flesh” that makes them Christian. This attitude is often seen in those who claim that they were once Christian but are not any more. They assume that the decision lies entirely with the individual.

“The will of man” is another way that some misunderstand the application of redemption. Some might think that people can be coerced into becoming Christian by some form of forced proselytising, or that the decision of parents to “baptise” their infants has now made that infant a Christian.

John says that these means cannot achieve salvation for sinners. Instead, the sinner must be born “of God.” Sinners are totally depraved—i.e. completely incapable of earning salvation on their own. Without God’s direct intervention, nobody would come to him for salvation; therefore, God must work in those whom he will save.

If John 1 shows that God must intervene in redemption, John 3:3–8 shows which person of the Godhead does this. According to these verses, the Spirit moves to regenerate sinners entirely according to his own will. This does not suggest that the Spirit’s will is somehow in conflict with the Father’s or the Son’s, but highlights the full deity of the Spirit and the perfect unity within the Godhead.

The Confession highlights the means by which saving faith is ordinarily administered: “Saving faith is ordinarily produced through the ministry of the word.” This truth, which is supported by Romans 10:14–17, serves to remind us of the limited value that apologetics play in our evangelism. Apologetics serve a role in arguing for the reasonability and rationality of the Christian faith. An apologetic argument might be more beneficial for a believer than an unbeliever, though a well-articulated apologetic argument might persuade an unbeliever that Christianity is not completely irrational. However, it is the preaching of the gospel, as contained in the Bible and ministered by the Spirit, that ultimately draws people to faith.

While faith is ultimately produced through the ministry of the word, we must recognise that God is free to work however he wants in order to drive someone to the word. For example, multitudes of Muslims who come to faith testify that a dream was instrumental in pointing them to a Bible or to a missionary. There is no good reason to reject these claims. If a professed ecstatic experience drives someone to the word—to a missionary, or a church, or the Bible itself—in search of answers, and that person is saved through the ministry of the word, there is no good reason to call the experience into question, all the while recognising that God draws the person to faith through the word, not through the experience itself.

The saving faith that is produced through the ordinary ministry of the word “requires a knowledge of what God has revealed—about himself, man and the gospel.”

Regarding “himself,” God has revealed that he is absolutely holy, and his law demands perfect holiness. Because he is holy, he hates sin. Sinners cannot stand before him.

Regarding “man,” God has revealed that sin is what makes true peace impossible for unbelievers. All have sinned. Sin makes the sinner worthy of death. Sinners can do nothing to earn salvation. Sinners are therefore in a helpless state.

Regarding “the gospel,” God has revealed that Jesus Christ is eternally God and Lord of all who became a man. He is utterly pure and sinless yet became a sacrifice for our sin by dying on the cross. He was buried for three days and rose triumphantly from the dead in accordance with Scripture. God now calls all people to repent, to turn from all that dishonours him, and to trust completely in Christ as Lord and Saviour, counting the cost thoughtfully.

The Bible claims what God has chosen to reveal, but saving faith “includes a conviction that these things are true, and comes to fulfilment as the believer accepts, receives and rests upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life.” The writers of Scripture certainly believed that what they were writing was true and needed to be believed by those who sought eternal life (John 20:31–31). The Bible is what God has revealed to us and therefore it is true, regardless of whether or not we believe it. Because it contains the only true way of salvation, we cannot be saved without believing what it reveals.

According to Romans 10:9–11, a public confession of, and therefore identification with, Christ as Lord is also necessary for salvation. This public confession displays trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour.

If saving faith comes through the ministry of the Spirit, there is one major danger that we need to avoid. The Confession gets at this with the final clause of 5.2: “Any reliance which a person places in his own morality, good works or ceremonial faithfulness disqualifies him or her—whether that reliance is in place of or in addition to faith in Christ.”

Perhaps the clearest full treatment of this anti-works approach to gospel truth comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (see 1:9; 3:10; 5:2–6). The Confession is careful to recognise two forms of works-based “gospels”: one that places works “in place of” faith in Christ, and another that places works “in addition to” faith in Christ. This distinction is important because not all works-based “gospels” outright reject Christ, and conversely, not every “gospel” that acknowledges Christ calls for full trust in him. A Christ-rejecting works-based “gospel” is most common in completely humanistic, atheistic or non-Christian religious philosophies, where people think that they will be okay purely because they are good people. A Christ-plus “gospel” is common in religions that profess to be Christian but ultimately reject the finished work of Christ as the only basis of salvation (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.).

We should recognise that true Christians, who have believed the biblical gospel, are also sometimes tempted to embrace a Christ-plus gospel. We can often place more emphasis than we should on our church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer life, etc. These things are important, but not as a basis for salvation.

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