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Empty Handed Faith

This morning I opened up my Twitter feed to read this:

We shall never be clothed with the righteousness of Christ

except we first know assuredly

that we have no righteousness of our own.[1] -- John Calvin

While I agree that we must be clothed with the righteousness of Christ the issue I have here is that not all who are so clothed know their need “assuredly”. This is where Calvin’s theology goes beyond scripture, once again. Calvin makes salvation based upon your definite, full knowledge of your need. Calvin feigns that unless one has this knowledge one will not be clothed with Christ’s righteousness but remains in their sins. This means, for Calvin, that one is saved by knowledge not by faith alone.

Let’s first look at what Scripture says about salvation, since that is what being “clothed with the righteousness of Christ” is.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

These are familiar verses for many but read it again with this in mind: What is the “this” that Paul speaks of? Well, it is three things, grace (that comes from God and is not in yourself), salvation (that comes from God and is not from anything you do or have done) and faith (is a gift from God and not something you have within you on your own). Here we read that saving faith is a gift of God’s grace through which HE saves you. Paul goes on to remind us that works of any kind do not save but it is through faith.

What does faith do? It receives. Faith is an empty hand held out. It has nothing it does nothing. George Ils wrote that “faith is the empty hand held out in the dark…[2]

Keep in mind that this “faith” is a gift from God. I’ll get back to this important point.

We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

Paul, in Romans reminds us that this salvation is freely given, not based on anything we do or have but is because of grace, which is undeserved kindness. Both grace and faith are gifts.

Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8, ESV). The Psalmist reminds us that the giving of salvation belongs to God alone and He offers it to the world through an undeserved kindness and a gifted faith.

How does faith come? How is one saved through faith?

Romans 10:17 states, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

God gives faith through the Word. God grants the forgiveness of sins through the Sacraments: Peter reminds those believers scattered throughout the Roman empire that they were saved through baptism (1 Peter 3:21, Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…)

So, Scripture establishes that we are saved by grace through faith which is a gifted faith.

However, Calvin states that you have to do something else: “assuredly know that you/we have no righteousness of our own.” Well, here comes the issue. If faith is a gift from God, does that faith fall short? I mean, does God give us a “half-faith”? Would he leave those whom He has redeemed with a broken, insufficient faith? What happens with those who have mental challenges and cannot comprehend much? What of infants? Certainly they do not, at the time of their baptism when faith is given as a gift through the water and the Word, comprehend their lost condition to the point Calvin speaks of here? What happens to them? Do they not have true faith?

Scripture also teaches that Jesus Christ is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Now back to my point earlier. God grants saving faith and since He gives it that makes Him the author of that faith. The Heidelberg Catechism states that true faith believes everything the Word of God says.

True faith is a sure knowledge

whereby I accept as true

all that God has revealed to us in his Word. (Lord’s Day 7 Q. 21)

Well, what if you haven’t read it all? What if there are things that are hard to comprehend? Does that mean you do not have true faith? See, this all leaves the faith to the comprehension of the sinner. It takes faith out of God’s hand and makes it a work of man and they better have a full comprehension of their need.

The issue I have is that both Calvin and the writers of the Heidelberg make faith something based on knowledge. So, until they have that “knowledge” they do not have true faith? I’ll go back to the infant and the one with mental struggles when I ask, how then can they have a “sure knowledge”? And what of the new believer, an adult who is just learning? Do they not have true faith because they haven’t yet accepted as true every single thing God’s Word teaches because they don’t know all that it teaches? Is true faith only real and genuine when you see fully your utter need? This would make faith something that the person develops or has on their own.

No, Scripture teaches that faith, saving faith, is a gift from God to those of all ages and comprehension skills. Calvin dares to say that you won’t be clothed with Christ unless you see your utter need of Him, which makes salvation based upon knowledge. This is a slippery slope into Gnosticism (right knowledge = right salvation).

However, if God is not only the Author of your faith, as Hebrews states, but also the Perfecter of it, then that would me He is also in charge of the growing of that faith. While the faith given at your conversion (as an Adult) through the preached Word and strengthened with your sins forgiven through the Waters of Baptism, may be small, like a mustard seed, it is nevertheless a perfect gift from God fully instrumental in saving you.

The gift of faith, a gift from God does not lack anything nor do you need a fuller knowledge in order to benefit from that gift because God’s gifts are perfect and sufficient with nothing lacking.

Next time you’re told that your faith has to have something more, remember that God gave you saving faith and it is not broken, insufficient, or inadequate remind them and yourself that "all His promises are Yeah and Amen in Him." (2 Cor. 1:20)

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans (n.p.: Ravenio Books, 2012), 166.

[2] George Iles, “Little Masterpiece of Science,” Goodreads, accessed January 22, 2019,

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