Volume Seven — Article 5, Part I Volume 7 | Home

Law and the Christian
Geoffrey J. Paxton  

Part I

The Reformed and Anglican Confessions

In our investigation into the Reformed and Anglican confessions, we shall limit ourselves to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1618-19) and the Thirty-nine Articles (1563), which we shall term "Anglican Articles."

We Are Not God's Children by the Keeping of the Law

All these great confessions join in a harmonious praise to the exclusiveness and majesty of grace. We are God's children because of His unearned kindness and favor.

Article XI of the Westminster Confession declares:

    "Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

    "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love."—Sections 1, 2.

Article XXII of the Belgic Confession is no less emphatic in its insistence upon faith alone:

    "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 faith by which we embrace Christ as our salvation is here attributed to the Holy Spirit. The object of faith is said to be "Jesus Christ with all His merits . . .and . . . nothing more besides Him."

In Lord's Days 23 and 24, the Heidelberg Catechism proposes some important questions and supplies some appropriate answers:

"Q. 59. 'But how does it help you now that you believe...?'
"A. 'That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.'

"Q. 60. 'How are you righteous before God?'
"A. 'Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. . . God, without any merit of my own, out of pure grace, grants me the benefits of the perfect expiation of Christ, imputing to me his righteousness and holiness as if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful, having fulfilled myself all the obedience which Christ has carried out for me...'"

Question 61, Lord's Day 23, stresses that faith is not a work:

"Q. 61. 'Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone?'
"A. 'Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God...'"

In stating that works of any sort have no merit in obtaining acceptance with God, all the confessions go out of their way to represent the Scripture correctly. The law does not save a person, indeed cannot save a person, because of the weakness and depravity of the human heart. Notice the emphasis upon this in Question 62, Lord's Day 24, of the Heidelberg Catechism:

"Q. 62. 'But why cannot our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?'
"A. 'Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly in conformity with the divine Law. But even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.'

Nothing save utter conformity to the law makes a man acceptable before God, and such is not possible except as a free gift in Jesus Christ Himself. Notice the stress here on the complete honoring of the law. Christ has done that for those who believe.

The Canons of Dort are as decided on these matters as are the other confessions.

Article I, under the "Second Head of Doctrine (Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men thereby)," stresses the justice of God as well as His mercy. "God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And His justice requires . . . that our sins committed against His infinite majesty should be punished . . ."

Article II says "we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God."

Article III succinctly states that "The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value . . ."

Article V draws attention to "whosoever believeth"

God is just and requires full and complete satisfaction to the law. We are unable to make that satisfaction or save ourselves from the wrath of God, but Christ is able and has delivered us from the justice of God by complete conformity to the law. All are called upon to place trust in Christ.

Article XIV, under the "Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine," says that "Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God." The article repudiates the notion that faith is "only an act of man" and not a gift, and refers to such scriptures as Jeremiah 31:33, Isaiah 44:3, Rom. 5:5 and Jeremiah 31:18.

The Anglican Articles, to which every member of the clergy in the Anglican Church is supposed to subscribe, is not wanting in clear, unequivocal teaching on the failure of the works of the law to make us right with God. Article XI declares:

    "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. . .

As if this were not clear and straightforward enough, Article XIII says:

"Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace.

Article XVIII, "Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ," says:

    "They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved."

It is clear that in all these confessions there is a harmony of praise to the exclusiveness and majesty of grace. We are not God's children by the keeping of the law. The law is not able (because of our sin) to bring us into a right relation with God. This is the work of Christ and Christ alone. He made complete satisfaction to the decrees of the law. Yet all that He did for us becomes ours through the instrumentality of faith, the gift of God.

We Are Now God's Children for the Keeping of the Law

If the confessions are unanimous in their rejection of salvation by the law, they are also at one In their insistence on the fact that we are saved for the keeping of the law.

Article XII of the Anglican Articles deals with good works. It declares that good works are "the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification." They cannot put away sins and endure the severity of God's judgment, 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."

Such good works are not meritorious in the slightest, for "when ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants" (cf. Article XIV, "Of Works of Supererogation").

Notice that Article XII says that such good works "spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith." This, of course, is the emphasis of Paul and James, and indeed of the whole Scriptural testimony. Those who suggest that faith does not have to perform good works, neither understand the nature of true faith nor the Bible. Such good works are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ.

The Canons of Dort are also instructive on this point. Article XI, under the "Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine," says:

    "But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect . . . He pervades the inmost recesses of the man . . . He quickens [the will] 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."

In the last paragraph of Article XXIV of the Belgic Confession, we read:

    "In the meantime we do not deny that God rewards good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them . . "

In Article XXV of the Belgic Confession, we are informed "Of the Abolishing of the Ceremonial Law." According to M. Eugene Osterhaven, the relation of the law to the gospel and the place which the law has in the life of the Christian are the two matters with which this article of faith deals. Osterhaven says:

"By 'law' here is meant primarily the ceremonial elements in the law which God gave Israel. These were temporary and transitory, intended to regulate the religious life of the covenant people during the time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah . . . The inner character of the laws, however, was of abiding significance and this, the Confession states, is useful to confirm us in the doctrine of the Gospel, and to regulate our life in all honesty, to the glory of God, according to his will."—M. Eugene Osterhaven, Our Confession of Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964), p.137.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 63, Lord's Day 24, tests the understanding on the concept of rewards in a nonmerit framework. The understanding is good because the answer comes back that the reward is one of grace. Grace does not do away with reward; it does away with merit. Question 64 then is:

"Q. 64. 'But does not this teaching make people careless and sinful?'
"A. 'No, for it is impossible for those who are ingrafted into Christ by true faith not to bring forth the fruit of gratitude.'

Similarly, in Lord's Day 33, in answer to the question, "What is the birth of the new man?" we are told:

    "Complete joy in God through Christ and a strong desire to live according to the will of God in all good works."

Question and Answer 91 continue:

"Q. 91. 'But what are good works?'
"A. 'Only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the Law of God, and for His glory, and not those based on our own opinion or on the traditions of men.'

It ought to be clear, even from such a brief sampling as we have given here, that the Reformed and Anglican confessions are one in this twofold affirmation: we are not the children of God through the law; but now that we are the children of God, we praise God by living in accordance with His law.

The law of God defines sin. Through the law, we know what sin is (Rom. 3:20). The law not only defines sin, but it also defines love (Rom. 13:8 f.). Love is a concrete expression, not a romanticized concept. The commandments of God make plain what love means in respect to our neighbor, our enemies and indeed for all mankind (cf. Matt. 5:17-48).

It therefore stands to reason that if love is expressed by fulfillment of the concrete commandments of God, and if faith works through love (Gal. 5:6), then those who live by faith through love, must keep the law. If faith is going to work (and it cannot work except through love) and love is fulfilling the law, then faith(ful) people cannot but honor God's law in their day-to-day existence. The great Reformed and Anglican confessions are Biblical.