The Appropriation of Salvation in the Creeds
- An overview -
We begin with the question: What do we mean by the expression 'appropriation of salvation?' Prof Velema has given a good usable definition: By "the appropriation of salvation we are especially concerned with the answer to the question how a person becomes and continues to be a partaker of salvation."1By this we mean that, in the discussion of this topic, the emphasis is mostly on the question how a person becomes a partaker of salvation. We must certainly not lose sight of the other aspect. Besides, in the next paragraph it will become clear that our creeds do not use the word "appropriation" merely in connection with justification by faith, but also in connection with the strengthening of faith (for instance, in relation to the Lord's Supper). The concept thus covers the whole of the life of faith.
About the word "appropriation"
It is noteworthy that the word "appropriation" only appears a few times in the confessional standards.2
As far as the Belgic Confession is concerned, we are thinking of Article 22, which begins as follows:
We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, 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.
The word is also used in Article 35 in connection with the Lord's Supper:
But for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have, He hath sent a living bread, which descended from heaven, namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers, when they eat Him, that is to say, when they apply and receive Him by faith, in the Spirit.
There remains just one more place, namely, in Lord's Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism (H.C.), in Q.A. 61, where, in connection with justification by faith, the church confesses:
... because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.
Professor Trimp has in relation to these statements in the creeds made the comment that these references to appropriation must be seen primarily as the work of believers.3
Later he indicates that the appropriation can also be attributed to the Holy Spirit. He sees this happening in the classic Form for Baptism, in which it is said that the Holy Spirit by Baptism assures us,
... that He will dwell in us and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives....
It is indeed possible to speak of the Holy Spirit in distinction from the believer as subject of this appropriating work. Professor Trimp is also correct when he states that the creeds in the portions cited above emphasize that we appropriate salvation in Christ by faith. However, here two remarks need to be added.
The first is that our confessions always present a close connection between true faith and the Holy Spirit. (cf. for example, H.C., L.D. 7, Q.A. 21; L.D. 25, Q.A. 65.) Thus, when there is spoken about the appropriation of salvation by faith, it is rooted in the appropriating work of the Holy Spirit! This comes out very clearly in the above cited phrase in the Belgic Confession, Article 22:
... the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all His merits, appropriates Him,...
Secondly, our confessions also speak explicitly about the Holy Spirit as subject of the appropriation of salvation. In fact, in the confessions there appears, alongside of the word "appropriation," the corresponding expression "participation."4
At various times it is emphatically stated that it is the Holy Spirit Who makes believers partakers of Christ. For that we can refer, for example, to the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 20, Q.A. 53 and Lord's Day 29, Q.A.79:
What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit? ... that He is also given me, to make me by a true faith, partaker of Christ and all His benefits,...
... that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood (by the operation of the Holy Spirit) as we receive by the mouths of our bodies these holy signs in remembrance of Him...
We may conclusively say that the appropriation of salvation is primarily attributed to the Holy Spirit.5
It can also be said that believers appropriate salvation to themselves by faith which is the fruit of the work of the same Spirit.
It is important to notice in what connection the creeds speak of the appropriation of salvation. It would be possible to point to several such connections; for example, the trinitarian context in which it is placed. We could speak of the well-known distinction between the accomplishment and application of salvation, or — as it could also be expressed — the accomplishment and administration of salvation.6
By means of this distinction in the concept of salvation it is emphasized that the salvation which Christ has accomplished for us is also applied to us by the Spirit of Christ. It should be evident that these two elements are closely connected and interrelated with each other. Yet we must not allow them to be confused and therefore it is important to keep them clearly distinguished.
The words "accomplishment" and "application" appear in such a combination in the Canons of Dort, Head II, Rejection 6. The matter expressed by both concepts comes up in various other formulations.
Of the many instances we point to the following. In the Heidelberg Catechism L.D.6, Q.A.17, we read that Christ is divine that he "might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life."
In L.D.17, Q.A.45, it is said that Christ by His resurrection has conquered death "in order that He might make us partakers of that righteousness which he had purchased for us by His death."
This distinction comes out very clearly in L.D. 23, Q.A. 60 & 61. In the first answer we read that God "only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ," while in the next answer it is said "that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only." The believer says here that what God in Christ grants and imputes to him becomes his righteousness before God by personal appropriation. Thus imputation and appropriation are closely related to each other. Yet they must not be identified with each other. The gracious imputation calls for a believing appropriation.
Finally, we refer to L.D. 27, Q.A. 74, where a similar distinction comes up in connection with covenant and baptism. There it is said of the children of the congregation that "redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult."7
The word "promised" can also be rendered "granted in the promise." What is granted ("geschonken") in the promise we partake of by faith. The distinction intended here comes out most forcefully in the words "granting and partaking."
This summary overview helps us to see that this distinction, which comes to its sharpest formulation in the words granting and partaking, is based on our confessions. Those who would — for example, by way of a rejection of the subjective-objective framework — go so far as to refuse to honour this distinction and would allow the partaking to be absorbed into the granting, would shortchange our confessions.
Spirit and Word
The Word of God is the means by which the Holy Spirit brings about the appropriation of a person's salvation. This is confessed very clearly in the answer to the question, Where does faith come from?: From the Holy Spirit, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel. (Heid. Cat. L.D. 25, Q.A. 65)
How this relationship between Spirit and Word is to be understood has been an old point of controversy. The viewpoint of our reformed confession can be typified by means of two prepositions: The Spirit works by and with the Word (per verbum et cum verbo). In the expression "by the Word" (per verbum) there is an emphasis on the close relationship between the Spirit and Word. We may not separate the Spirit from the Word, as is done in various forms of mysticism. The Holy Spirit does not work without the Word, nor bypassing the Word, but He makes use of the Word as His instrument. At the same time it may be said that the Spirit works "with the Word" (cum verbo). Here special emphasis is placed on the sovereignty of the Spirit, who may always work by means of the Word, but not always in the same manner. We could also say that the latter formulation calls attention to the special work of the Spirit with the Word.8
It is well-known that on this point there is a difference of viewpoint between the Lutheran and Reformed churches. This difference actually did not exist yet between Luther and Calvin. The origin of it we find in the controversy about the Word as a means of grace, which is known as the Rahtmann controversy (1625).9Since that time Lutheran orthodoxy tended toward a one-sided emphasis on the position that the Holy Spirit works by the word (per verbum). The Reformed objection to this was that the Word too easily gained a magical power because the Spirit "automatically" makes the Word effectual. But the Spirit does not allow Himself to be locked within the confines of the Word. He makes the Word effective if and when He pleases. Thus it is characteristic of a reformed point of view that it emphasizes both that the Holy Spirit works by the Word and with the Word.10
In our confession both aspects come out dearly. Accordingly it is emphatically said in various places that the Spirit works by the Word. In this connection we think of the words just quoted in H.C., L.D. 25, Q.A. 65, where we read that the Spirit works "by (per) the preaching of the Gospel..." and Canons of Dort III/IV, Article 17: "For grace is conferred by means of (per) admonitions."
As we have seen it is intended, by the phrase with the Word" (cum verbo), to defend that the Spirit is sovereign when He uses the Word. This aspect comes out clearly especially in one or two passages of the Canons of Dort; we are thinking primarily of C.D. III, Art.11 & 12
But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man ... But this (i.e., this regenerating work) is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted, or continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable (inexpressible); not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead...
The fact that the regenerating effect of the preaching is not the result of a general enlightenment or "moral suasion" but is a special work of the Holy Spirit, is even more clearly laid out in C.D.III/IV, Rejection 7:
Who teach: That the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising ... (This is) contrary to the whole Scripture which, besides this, teaches yet another and far more powerful and divine manner of the Holy Spirit's working in the conversion of man, as in Ezekiel: 'A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh,' Ezekiel 36:26.11
To summarize we could say that, on the one hand, our confession places a close connection between the Spirit and Word.12
Under no condition may they be separated, for the Spirit works by the Word. At the same time, we may not disregard teaching of the Canons of Dort that the Holy Spirit, who is pleased to bind Himself to the Word, is still completely sovereign.
At times it is asserted that the beginning of spiritual life is a moment about which we really cannot say very much. True, inasmuch as we mean that we are speaking here about a mystery which supersedes our thinking and description we could agree. In fact, the Canons of Dort, about the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, say that
... it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable...
C.D. III/IV, Art.12
A little further we read, The manner of this operation cannot be fully comprehended by believers in this life. Notwithstanding which, they rest satisfied with knowing and experiencing, that by this grace of God they are enabled to believe with the heart, and love their Savior.
C.D. III/IV Art.13
This emphasis on the mysterious character of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration does not mean that nothing whatsoever can be said about it. In Scripture and the confessions the limits of mystery are fully respected; yet they do also describe how the Holy Spirit works and what the Spirit does in the hearts of people.
As far as our confessions are concerned, we may first point to a number of expressions which indicate that the Holy Spirit makes dead people alive and imparts to them the gift of faith. We meet such expressions everywhere in the creeds. Just a brief sampling: We read several times that the Spirit "works faith in our hearts" (Heid.Cat L.D.25, Q.A.65, L.D. 27, Q.A.74; Belg.Conf, Art.24). The Belgic Confession expresses it beautifully: "the Holy Spirit kindleth in our hearts an upright faith" a different kind of expression. There we read that God "graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe" (C.D. I, Art. 6). He has determined regarding the elect "effectually to call and draw them to his communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith" (C.D. I, Art. 7). The latter work is also described as God
... who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He (effectually calls them in time,) confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son.
C.D. III/IV, Art. 10
The following phrase is also of fundamental importance: "...but because (faith) is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him" (C.D. III/W, Art. 14).13
In these brief descriptions the "how" of the appropriating work of the Spirit at the beginning of spiritual life is for the most part hidden. In order to get more clarity regarding this "how" we turn in particular to certain portions of head III/IV of the Canons of Dort, where we find descriptions of regeneration. As we do so we must remind ourselves that our creeds do speak of regeneration in more than one sense. In Article 24 (Belg.Conf.) it states that true faith "regenerates (a person) and makes him a new man." Here regeneration is viewed as the manifestation of new life which is the fruit of faith. The Canons of Dort speak of regeneration as the beginning of new life.
In this overview we will concentrate on what the Canons teach. There we read that God
by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.
C.D., III/IV, Art. 11
In the next paragraph this description is filled out: ... so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. — Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.
C.D., III/IV, Art. 12
Here it is said that God does not only influence and actuate the will, but that by the power of God this will itself acts. The Canons do warn that this must in no wise be construed in a synergistic spirit:
... because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.
C.D., III/IV, Art. 14
However, this does not mean that the Spirit works in people as "stocks and blocks": ... so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor takes away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto; but spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it; that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign; in which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consist.
C.D., III/IV, Art. 16
It is in this manner that our confessions seeks to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. It would be a wrong thing if we would neglect all this teaching without putting it to use. It ought to function in our preaching and pastoral labours, in our discussion about spiritual guidance and spiritual life.14
The "three things"
Whoever thinks the matter of appropriation through cannot avoid the "three things" which are discussed in our Heidelberg Catechism. The question and answer in which they come up are only too familiar to us:
Q. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
A. Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.
It is clear that these three things do not simply function for the sake of a principle of division for the material of the catechism. They represent three fundamental aspects of spiritual life. We could put it this way: Around these three moments in the life of faith the Catechism expounds the whole Christian doctrine of faith. And this is done for the specific purpose of nurturing children toward faith and godliness. The knowledge of these three things misery, deliverance and gratitude — concerns the manner in which faith is experienced. In this knowledge the appropriating work of the Holy Spirit becomes evident.
Now there is (has been) much ado about these "three things." We do not have to bring up everything that happened. It is sufficient to emphasize that it is not so that in Q.A.1 a Christian is speaking, while in Question and Answer 2 the reference is to a person who is not a Christian (yet). The latter question also relates to the confession of a Christian.
Furthermore, we may not take the order of the three points to be chronological, as though a person would first experience the "part" about misery, after that the "part" of deliverance, and finally the "part" about thankfulness. This avoids allowing the three "parts" to become separated from each other.
However, we are obliged to continue maintaining that the three parts do (or, ought to) function in spiritual life. The Catechism itself clearly shows this in various places. We point to the following: Describing justifying faith the "three things" are discussed. In L.D. 23, Q.A.60, it is said that this faith experiences the bitter sense of an accusing conscience (misery) and that it directs itself toward the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ (deliverance). Q.A.64 adds to this that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith will also certainly bring forth fruits of thankfulness (gratitude). In L.D.30, Q.A.81, it becomes clear that the Lord's Supper has been instituted for those who have a spiritual knowledge of these three things.15
Lord's Day 44, Q.A.115, reveals that the preaching of the law is intended to nurture in the life of a believer a deeper knowledge of misery, deliverance and gratitude. We could also point to Lord's Day 51, Q.A.126 and even to Canons of Dort I, Art.13, and V, Art.2, where we hear the echo of the familiar trio of the Heidelberger and also see how it functions in the context of our spiritual life.
In connection with the three things the sensitive matter must be addressed as to the place which the knowledge of sin or misery has especially at the beginning of spiritual life. It is clear that we must be on the alert to avoid systematizing, or giving the impression that (a certain degree of) the knowledge of sin is a condition which must be met before we (may) come to Christ. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that the Holy Spirit, also when He begins to apply salvation, teaches us something of misery, deliverance and gratitude. The knowledge of misery clearly has its role there. From our own church history we could cite a number of noteworthy declarations in which this is clearly emphasized. We are thinking, for example, of one of the statements of the synod of the Christelijke Afgescheiden Gereformeerde Kerk ("Christian Seceded Reformed Church") of 1846 and of the testimony of the general synod of 1953 (i.e., CGKN).16
Marks and phases of spiritual life
We can be brief about the marks of faith. In our confession they are discussed in various places and with various designations. We think of the marks of Christians in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession:
With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians, namely, by faith and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Saviour they avoid sin, follow after righteousness love the true God and their neighbour, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins through faith in Him.
In this connection the fruits of election mentioned in the Canons of Dort are also important.
The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, ... by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure (2 Cor.13:5), the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc." (C.D., I, Art. 12)
What comes into discussion in this article is closely connected with what we read in H.C., L.D.32, Q.A.86, where, in connection with good works, it is said:
... also, that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof, and that, by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ.
In conclusion we may say that there is room to speak about the marks of the appropriation of salvation. These marks belong to the fruits of the Spirit. His work can be recognized by these marks.
Do the creeds also provide us with any occasion to speak about various phases of spiritual life? For an answer to this question we direct our attention once more to the Canons of Dort. In C.D., I, Art.12 it is that "the elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain assurance" (cf. also C.D., V, Art. 9). In C.D., I, Art. 16, with a special pastoral sensitivity, a distinction is made between those "who do not yet experience a lively faith in Christ, ... efficaciously wrought in them, and do nevertheless persist in the use of the means which God hath appointed for working these graces in us" and those who "seriously desire to be turned to God, cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire." In addition, the end of this article has a serious warning to those who "regardless of God and of the Savior Jesus Christ, have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world, and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are not seriously converted to God." In fact the creeds also pay attention to the periods of darkness and struggle in the life of believers (cf. C.D., V, Art.5, 11, 13). In addition to all of this we could list the other confessional references which are discussed by Prof. Kremer in his essay on spiritual guidance in preaching.17
It is not correct, in connection with what the confessions present in relation to the marks and phases of spiritual life, to use the term "classification." The observation of Prof. Kremer is especially to the point: "This is not a matter of classifying or labeling, but of spiritual leading and guidance."18