Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 7 - A Sure Knowledge and a Firm Confidence
Question 20: Are all men, then, saved by Christ
just as they perished through Adam?
Only those are saved
who by a true faith
are grafted into Christ
and accept all his benefits.
Will the whole world be saved? What makes the question so suggestive is the comparison of Christ to Adam.
Entire nations have never heard of Adam. Others, who fluently know his name where it concerns a crossword puzzle, want nothing else to do with him. Many deny that he actually lived. None of this, however, detracts from the fact that they are all “condemned in Adam”. They do not have to do anything for it and they do not have to know or believe anything of it. No one can get rid of his descent from Adam.
This begs the question: why then can Christ not save all people, including those who have never heard of him or who do not want to know anything about him? Are all men condemned in Adam? Then Christ should also save them all. He is greater than Adam. His grace cannot have an effect on a smaller number of people than that one transgression of Adam.
This logic leads to the doctrine of what has been termed “universal salvation” (or “universalism”). Just as all men are condemned, so a general amnesty is imminent. At some time all mankind will be saved. It sounds reassuring and tempting, especially if one appeals to the power of Christ’s atoning work for it. He is not inferior to Adam. Therefore, he saves all people who were lost through Adam. Only in this way will he receive the glory to which he is entitled.
Does this view find support in the Bible? It may seem like it. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). This motive is clearly echoed in Question 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
We should not pretend, however, that it says here: “just as all men die, so shall all men be made alive”. As such it is not twice about all people, but about “all who die in Adam” alongside “all who shall be made alive in Christ.”1 The small word “in” is important. It speaks of a tight connection: we are bound either to Adam or to Christ. So tightly that we die by one, or live by the other. In that respect, there is a parallel between the two. What they do has enormous consequences for all who belong to them, for better or worse. In that respect, Adam and Christ are comparable — but not in terms of the number of people. Christ saves only a portion of the number that Adam dragged along in his Fall. Yet this does not make him lesser than Adam. The decisive factor for his superiority is not the number of people he saves, but their salvation itself.“2 The saving of one lost person through Christ is an infinitely greater work than Adam’s ruin of all of humanity.3 The latter only had to eat of the forbidden fruit to affect this state.
According to the Question, we “perished through Adam”,4 because of our connection to him and his connection to us. We are descended from him. What is there that we did not inherit from him? The whole intricate construction of our bodies comes from him. Our feet and hands are shaped like his. That we are able to hear and see and think and talk, we have inherited from him. These are wonderful gifts and characteristics. Thus far no one has a problem with his descent from Adam. However, he is not only our biological progenitor, but at the same time he is the head of humanity. Therefore, not only did his hands become our hands and his eyes become our eyes, but also his transgression became our transgression and his guilt became our guilt.
Someone who now asks, by extension, whether all people will regain salvation in the same way through Christ is confusing two things. One is that Christ saves all his own, just as Adam plunged all his own into ruin. It is the Bible itself that in this regard aligns these two aspects.5 But then comes the question: who belongs to Adam and who to Christ? For all people have intrinsically a connection to Adam, but not to Christ. The questioner overlooks that difference. Adam is our progenitor, while Christ is not. By birth, all people belong to Adam, but not to Christ. What must happen to us so that we are no longer “in Adam” but “in Christ”?
Who Only Will Regain Salvation?
No matter what people think of Adam, no one can tear him,or herself, away from him. We have come forth from him as the branches from a trunk. No one can undo that. No one can deny his lineage. Therefore, not only do we look like him on the outside and the inside, but also our aversion of God comes from him.
We have been “incorporated” into our ancestor, as it were. The only way to get rid of that is when we are broken away from his family tree and grafted into another root, namely into Christ.6 The catechism calls this: “being grafted (incorporated) into Christ”. The word points to a profound way of unification.
In this context, Jesus himself compared himself to a vine and his disciples to the branches.7The branches can only survive and bear fruit when they are firmly attached to the stem. Isolated branches are doomed to die off. It makes no difference whether they are neatly and tightly wrapped around the trunk or are lying in a heap a little further away. The vine delivers its nourishment only to branches that are completely one with it. Thus Christ gives life only to those who are closely united to him by “a true faith”.
What this “true faith” entails will be the next question. What matters now is that intrinsically everyone has his or her roots in Adam, but no one in Christ. It only comes to those who entrust themselves fully to him and “accept all his benefits”. Only they regain salvation through him.
The catechism does not slightly open the door to salvation, but emphasizes that there is only one door. Nevertheless, that one door opens so wide that all men may enter generously. Christ’s death is “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world”.8 And all who hear this message may regard it as an urgent and serious call from God to believe in his Son. He gives the assurance that whoever believes in him will not perish” (John 3:16). Only they are saved — but then indeed all of them. Therefore, we would like to know more about this faith.
Question 21: What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is a sure knowledge
whereby I accept as true
all that God has revealed to us in his Word.
At the same time it is a firm confidence
that not only to others, but also to me,
God has granted forgiveness of sins,
everlasting righteousness, and salvation,
out of mere grace,
only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart
by the gospel.
Two activities can be distinguished in true faith: it is a “sure knowledge” and a “firm confidence”. When we think of “knowledge” we are quickly inclined to think of something of our mind, our understanding. By this we know with certainty that God’s word is reliable.
In practice, such assurance can be accompanied by uncertainty regarding our personal salvation. That is why it is added that true faith is also a firm confidence that salvation is “also granted to me”. True faith cannot exist without this personal trust “in my heart”.
We are curious to see how the catechism connects these two aspects of faith — knowledge and confidence.
No Sure Knowledge Without a Firm Confidence
Someone can have the firm conviction that the Bible is true. Everything that God reveals in it, he regards as reliable. Also that God gave his Son to obtain salvation for us, even that he actually has given it “to others”. But that is where it ends. He cannot say with the same certainty that it was also given to him personally. At this point his faith gets stuck.
Many will recognize something of their own hesitation in this. How easily does our faith limit itself to a firm knowledge that the Bible is true. Or at best it limits itself to a firm confidence that salvation is something reserved for others.
Do I myself belong to those who are saved? Can I have a firm confidence on that point? It is a separate subject. It receives extra attention here. It is saved on purpose for last in the description of true faith given here. True faith holds the word of God to be trustworthy. That is where the starting point lies. But it finds its final destination and climax in a firm confidence that salvation is “also given to me”. That is the target, the end-goal of true faith. As long as it does not result in that, this faith is not yet what it should be. It is not enough to believe everything in the Bible, except that we ourselves are also saved.
There can be all kinds of impediments to coming to that final step. The catechism knows this. It is eager to help us to step over the last threshold. Therefore it says in all clarity on what basis we may know that we are also personally saved: only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Never before has anyone with the full burden of his heavy guilt sunk through that foundation. That is why we must not continue to flutter about in our faith and separate it from this foundation, but rather we are to settle down on it in full confidence. There we may hand in all our guilt and receive the merits of Christ: free of charge, merely by grace.
The catechism does not speak of perfect faith. Fortunately, “true faith” is not the same as “perfect faith”. Then we would be lost. Not now, because with our limited faith we may accept all the riches of God’s salvation. Then our faith is not overconfident or overly bold, but “true” — however imperfect it may be. Thus we are encouraged to accept the full salvation.
While we come with empty hands, “true faith” may embrace Christ with all his merits.9 An embrace is more than a firm handshake. We may put our arms around him. Of course this is meant figuratively, but it indicates how strongly we are connected to him. This faith is “the instrument that keep us with him in the communion of all his benefits”. Only in this way do we regain salvation, according to the previous Answer. There is every reason for the catechism to pay so much attention to this personal aspect of faith.10
Three benefits or gifts are mentioned: forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and eternal salvation. Together, these three treasures ensure that our debt is cancelled (forgiveness) and transformed into an eternal credit (everlasting righteousness), resulting in endless glory and joy (eternal salvation). All of this merit of Christ is given “also to me”.
The Holy Spirit
The catechism pays close attention to the difficulty of sincere Christians to arrive at personal assurance about themselves. It does not take this lightly and recognizes that only the Holy Spirit can give us this firm confidence. This is not said of the certainty that the Bible is reliable, even though it is no less true that only the Spirit can give us that certainty. But it is said here specifically and emphatically of this personal trust. It proves that our faith does not easily and automatically move from confidence in the truth of the Bible to personal confidence in the Saviour. The power of the Holy Spirit is also indispensable for this last step.
Meanwhile, this is not to say that the sure knowledge is less important. That cannot possibly be the intention. For the Holy Spirit works this firm confidence in our hearts “by the gospel”. We must therefore know this and hold it with full conviction.
Faith is not a sure knowledge without a firm confidence, but the reverse is also true.
No Firm Confidence Without a Sure Knowledge
It cannot be denied that in the description of faith, the matter of firm confidence is given much more detailed attention than sure knowledge. True faith is ultimately a firm trust in our hearts that God has also given his salvation to us personally.
Does the catechism express here a preference for firm confidence over sure knowledge? Does it consider that a sure knowledge that God’s word is reliable is not quite the same as true faith? Or a lesser form of it? At most a run-up to it? Let us first read what it says.
In any case we must not pretend as if it says that true faith is “not a sure knowledge but a firm confidence”. It does not even say that it is especially a firm trust. The original version speaks of “not only a sure knowledge...but also a firm confidence”. The one is no less than the other, but both the one and the other.
Therefore we may not play off knowledge of faith and trust in faith against each other. They are in fact interwoven. Just as it is stated in Scripture: “And those who know your name put their trust in you” (Ps. 9:10). To know him is to trust him.11 The one is included with the other. He who knows God’s Word and accepts is as trustworthy, has everything in place to know for sure that salvation has also been given to him. What is implicit in faith as a sure knowledge becomes explicit in the addition about confidence. This is what the catechism means. So it does not divide faith into two separate elements: knowledge and confidence. Nor does it speak negatively about knowledge in faith as less than trust in faith. Neither does it create such an impression, as some people have claimed.12 The catechism simply means that our personal salvation is really there for us in the gospel. From this we know that this salvation is “also granted to me”. After all, that is what it says in that gospel — black on white. It is not stated as an announcement but as a promise on God’s part. Whoever regards that word with this promise to be reliable, may trust that God’s grace — in addition to others — is also given to him or her personally. After all, it is impossible that he would deceive us.13 Thus our sure knowledge that God’s word is reliable deepens into personal trust in his promises for us. It is the Spirit who works this assurance in our hearts, and he does this “by the gospel”. That is the efficacious instrument by which he works this confidence in our hearts. Therefore, we must “hear” this gospel. Faith is a consequence of hearing it.14
That is why Jesus gave the commission to proclaim the gospel. Proclamation, coming to faith, and being saved are extensions of each other in this commission.15 The gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). That power is inherent in the news of the message. As we hear the gospel with our ears and read it with our eyes and come to know it with our minds, the Spirit works in our hearts the firm conviction that “to me also” salvation has been granted. Where in the Bible can this promise be found?
Question 22: What, then, must a Christian believe?
Answer: All that is promised us in the gospel,
which the articles of our
catholic and undoubted Christian faith
teach us in a summary.
According to Answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, I must accept as true “all that God has revealed to us in his word”. Answer 22 says substantially the exact same thing. Yet it comes with its own meaning. The special element lies in the word “promised”. A Christian must not believe only what is revealed or written in the gospel, but all that is promised therein. God does not come to us merely with a collection of truths and facts, but with his promises: guarantees of salvation, addressed to us personally. Those who have that understanding thus have the key to allow the full power of the gospel to be at work within them.
The Gospel Is All Promise – From Genesis Through To Revelation
A Christian must believe “all that is promised in the Gospel”. This “all” does not mean the sum total of all the promises in the Bible. Then it would be as if those promises were scattered far and wide in the gospel, like islands in a broad ocean.
It is not as if there are promises only in the gospel, but it is all promise, throughout. In every biblical history, God promises what he wants to give us. That is what the catechism means. That is why it can say that all that is promised to us in the gospel is summarized in the Twelve Articles. Yet those Twelve Articles are not a series of twelve explicit promises. Most of these are about what God has done before, at creation and when Jesus was on earth, just like the gospel itself. But the secret is that every article and every page of that gospel speaks about our creation, our redemption, and about our sanctification.16 In this way the whole gospel is characterized as God’s ongoing promise “also to me”. Even where no emphatic promises of his are mentioned. 17
Answer 22 therefore does not only mean that we should believe all that is in the gospel; of course it means that too. But that might only refer to the historical and prophetic reliability of the Bible. That focus would be too narrow. That is why it says: “all that is promised in the gospel”; also to us. That is what it comes down to in this answer.
An original edition of the catechism refers first of all to John 20:31. There John explains the purpose of his book about Jesus. It is not meant as a biography of Jesus for the historically interested reader. It is not a “reporting by some journalist”, but it represents the source of life. Whoever believes it will have life in Christ’s name.18 What holds true for this book of the Bible is true of all of Scripture. It is God’s promise of life!
The Bible tells the truth. In Ephesus, Gentiles had accepted the gospel. That was to them “the word of the truth,” but no less, Paul said, “it is the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13).19 The truth is, God wants our salvation.
With this the catechism hands us the key to understand the gospel in its true meaning. In every historical event, prophecy, song, letter, etc., God declares: this I also did for you.
For a Christian, the full truth of the gospel is not that God says who he is, but who he is and wants to be for us. Whoever knows and believes this has found the right attitude in listening. He may call the almighty Creator “my God and my Father”, Answer 26. When he thinks of the suffering of Jesus he speaks of “my Lord Jesus Christ”, Answer 44. Of the Holy Spirit he confesses: “he is also given to me to make me...share in Christ and all his benefits, to comfort me and to remain with me forever”. To believe all that is not a matter of excessive self-confidence or hubris. It is reverently accepting that the gospel is the word of truth. And the truth is that God wants to grant his salvation “to me also”.
The Twelve Articles
The Twelve Articles originated differently than, for example, our Heidelberg Catechism. After an initial time of preparation the latter was presented ready-made as we know it today. The Twelve Articles, on the other hand, were not drawn up all at once by the ancient Christian church. They received their present form after a lengthy and complex phase of development, which is no longer easy to trace.
As the church spread throughout the world after Pentecost, the notion that it should be one in faith remained. Around the year 150 AD baptism was administered under the utterance of formulas that already said something more specific about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the course of the subsequent centuries various confessions functioned in which we increasingly recognize the basic pattern of the later Twelve Articles. The present form appears in a writing in the early eighth century. Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768 – 814) promoted the general use of this confession. He prescribed that all believers in his kingdom should learn this creed. We will not get into its development and use any further. Suffice it to say that the main point is that the churches of the Reformation accepted this confession as a reliable summary of their common faith.20