Faith Defined, And Its Properties Described
by John Calvin (abridged)1,2
1. A great part of the world, when they hear the word faith, conceive it to be nothing more than a common assent to the evangelical history. And even those, who say God is the object of faith, tend to mislead miserable souls through their vain speculations. It is true, that faith relates to the one God; but there must be added a knowledge of Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. God Himself would be altogether concealed from us, if we were not illuminated by the brightness of Christ. Paul, when he speaks of faith in God, does not contradict his frequent inculcation of faith in Christ; and Peter most suitably connects them together, when he says, “by Him [we] do believe in God” (1 Peter 1:21).
2. The evil of concealing Christ must be attributed to the schoolmen [philosophers, theologians]. These schoolmen have not only concealed Christ, but fabricated the notion of implicit faith, that is, a blind faith of submitting their understanding to the Church. Implicit faith breeds ignorance and eradicates knowledge. But true faith is based on knowledge and understanding, yea, even explicit knowledge of the Divine goodness (Romans 10:10).
3. Faith consists in a knowledge of God and of Christ (John 17:3), not in reverence for the Church. But the ignorant, without discrimination, eagerly embrace as from God everything obtruded [thrust] upon them under the name of the Church. It is even asserted, that persons are possessed of true faith, though they indulged in their own ignorance, provided they assent to the authority and judgment of the Church.
4. We grant that our faith is implicit, not only because many things are yet hidden from our view, but because our knowledge of everything is very imperfect. Thus Paul exhorts the faithful, if they differ from each other on any subject, to wait for further revelation (Philippians 3:15). With the barrier of imperfect knowledge, God restrains us within the bounds of modesty, that even the most learned teacher may be ready to learn. We may observe eminent examples of this implicit faith in the disciples of Christ, before they were fully enlightened. For example, the women who went to embalm Jesus—their faith was in darkness until they were astonished by the Risen Saviour. Whence they are said to have believed at length, when they saw the words of Christ verified by facts—not that their faith then commenced, but the seed of faith, which had been latent, then shot forth with additional vigour.
5. Implicit faith strictly is a preparation for faith. The nobleman, who believed the promise of Christ concerning the healing of his son, when he returned home, believed again (John 4:50-53). John gives us a similar example in the Samaritans, who believed the woman’s report, so as to run to Christ; but who, after having heard Him, said, “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42).
6. As it is the Gospel that guides us to Christ, faith therefore cannot be divorced from doctrine. Paul, connecting the two, says, “Ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:20, 21). Faith has a perpetual relation to the Word, and can no more be separated from it, than the rays from the sun. That the Word is the fountain of faith, is evident from this language of John, “These are written, that ye might believe” (John 20:31).
7. But as the human heart is not excited to faith by every word of God, we must further inquire what part of the Word it is, with which faith is particularly concerned. Our present inquiry is, what faith finds in the Divine Word, upon which to rest its confidence. The answer is a certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence towards us, which, being founded on the truth of the promise in Christ, is both revealed to our minds, and confirmed to our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. Therefore we need a promise of grace, to assure us that He is our propitious Father; and it is upon that alone that we can securely depend. It would be of no avail to us to know the truth of God, if He did not allure us to Himself by His mercy.
8. But before I proceed any further, it is necessary to make some preliminary observations, for the solution of difficulties, which otherwise might prove obstacles in the way of the reader.
As I have mentioned at the outset, the schoolmen maintain faith to be a mere assent with whatever is contained in the Scripture. They also inquire, whether faith, which is formed by the superaddition [something added over and above] of a quality, be the same, or whether it be a new and different faith. They are trifling with faith in this manner. But if they would duly consider Paul’s declaration, “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Romans 10:10), they would cease from trifling about this superadded quality. I assert, that the assent, which we give to the Divine Word, which we call faith, is from the heart rather than from the head. For which reason it is called the “obedience to the faith” (Romans 1:5). Therefore it is an absurdity to say, that faith is formed by the addition of a pious affection to an assent of the mind; when in fact assent consists in a pious affection. But here is another argument, and a plainer one: Since faith accepts Christ as He is offered by the Father, and He is offered, not only for righteousness and remission of sins, but also for sanctification; it is certain no man can know Him aright, unless he receives the sanctification of the Spirit. Faith consists in a knowledge of Christ. Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of His Spirit. Consequently, faith is absolutely inseparable from pious affection.
9. Although the word “faith” is used in various senses, such as is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 to denote powers (dunameis, potestates, virtutes), that is, a power in working miracles; and we allow that there are even various kinds of faith, yet we recognise only one faith in the pious, according to the Scripture. Many men certainly believe there is a God. They admit the evangelical history and the other parts of Scripture to be true. There are some who even esteem the Word of God as an undoubted revelation from heaven, and are in some measure affected by its denunciations and promises. To such persons, faith is attributed, but such faith is a mere shadow.
10. Such a shadowy faith is unworthy of the name of faith! Take the case of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13, 18, 19). He is said to have believed, who, nevertheless, just after, betrays his unbelief. His sort of faith is only of the lips, and not of the heart. Being overcome with the majesty of the Gospel, he did exercise a kind of faith, so as to profess himself a follower of Christ. But he is like those persons in the Gospel of Luke, who are said to believe for a time, in whom the seed of the Word is prematurely choked before it fructifies [bears fruit]. This sort of faith is counterfeit faith, for it penetrates not the heart. Though it appears to have shot forth roots, yet there is no life in it.
11 . Faith is also attributed to the reprobate [one given over to sin]; which properly belongs to the elect. For, the reprobate are sometimes affected with emotions very similar to those of the elect. Wherefore, it is said that a taste of heavenly gifts is ascribed to them by the Apostle, and a temporary faith by Christ.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, (Hebrews 6:4).
Nevertheless, there is a difference between the faith of the reprobate and that of the elect. It is in that confidence, so as boldly to cry “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). Therefore, as God regenerates forever the elect alone with incorruptible seed, so He firmly seals within them the grace of adoption. On the other hand, whereas the reprobate have received only an inferior operation of the Spirit, these have only a confused perception of grace, so that they embrace the shadow rather than the substance. The reprobate are not regenerated, though God has enlightened their minds; for only to the elect alone, He vouchsafes [condescends to grant] the living root of faith, that they may persevere to the very end.
12. The reprobate never go so far as to penetrate the secret revelation, which the Scripture confines to the elect. The reprobate are like a tree, not planted deeply enough to shoot forth living roots. In process of time, it withers. Conversely, howsoever diminutive and weak faith may be in the elect, His impression can never be erased from their hearts.
An example of the reprobate is Saul, who for a time had a pious disposition to love God, because of the paternal kindness he received. But as the paternal love is not radically fixed in the reprobate, so they love God not as children, but are influenced by a mercenary disposition.
Then, there are those who think they have faith, who are carried away with a sudden zeal, but who deceive themselves. Of these, it is said that “Jesus did not commit himself,” notwithstanding that they believed in Him, “because he knew all men, … for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24, 25). Thus, of them who have not the living root, Christ, in Matthew 15:13, says, “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.”
13. Frequently, faith means purity of doctrine, as required by Paul, that deacons must hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). Timothy, says Paul, had been “nourished up in the words of faith” (1 Timothy 4:6), and exhorted to avoid “profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20, 21). Thus, also, when he directs Titus, to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13); by soundness, he means nothing more than that purity of doctrine.
14. What our mind apprehends by faith far exceeds all understanding. Wherefore Paul beautifully expresses it in these terms: “to comprehend … what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18,19). Therefore, faith is called “knowledge” by John, when he asserts that believers know that they are the sons of God (1 John 3:2). Such knowledge is not taught by any demonstration of reason, but by persuasion of the truth of God.
15. Faith relates to a full and fixed certainty, such as is obtained respecting things that have been tried and proved; in contrast with the unbelief that is so deeply rooted in our hearts. Hence our unhappy anxiety, doubting the promises of God. But “full assurance” (plerophorias) is always attributed to faith in the Scripture; which places the goodness of God, that is clearly revealed to us beyond all doubt. Hence the Apostle deduces from faith confidence, and from confidence boldness: “In whom [Christ] we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” (Ephesians 3:12).
16. Faith is confidence, which is called “peace” in another place (Romans 5:1). It is a security, which makes the conscience calm and serene before the Divine tribunal. In short, no man is truly a believer, unless he be firmly persuaded, that God is a benevolent Father to him, and feels an undoubted expectation of salvation. He is no believer, I say, who does not rely on the security of his salvation, and confidently triumphs over the devil and death (Romans 8:38).
17. But some will object, that the experience of believers is far from this; for, while recognising God’s grace towards them, they are often disturbed with inquietude [disturbance of mind], and sometimes by the most distressing terrors. Now, when we say, that faith ought to be certain and secure, we conceive not of a certainty attended with no doubt, or of a security interrupted by no anxiety. We rather affirm, that believers have a perpetual conflict with their own diffidence, and are far from placing their consciences in a placid calm, never disturbed by any storms. Yet, on the other hand, we deny they may be so afflicted, that they will fall and depart from that certain confidence which they have conceived in the Divine mercy. David’s life illustrates our point. In the Psalms, we read of his many complaints; but when he rebukes his soul for turbulent emotions, is he not angry with his own unbelief (Psalm 42:5)? But faith sustains the heart of the pious, and David ceases not to aspire to God, as he concludes at the end of his spiritual struggles, “Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD” (Psalm 27:14).
18. To explain these tensions, it is necessary to go back to that division of the flesh and the spirit. The pious heart perceives a division in itself, being partly distressed with sorrow through a sense of its own calamity; partly relying on the promise of the Gospel, and partly trembling at the evidence of its own iniquity. However, from all these conflicts, faith emerges victorious.
19. Summing up, faith is progressive. A mind, illuminated by the knowledge of God, is at first involved in much ignorance, which is removed by slow degrees. As a man who is confined in a prison, into which the sun shines only partially through a small window, is deprived of a full view of the sun while clearly perceiving its splendour; so we, who are bound with terrestrial fetters, are nevertheless illuminated by the light of God, shining ever so feebly to discover His mercy.
20. By the words, “for we know in part . . . and see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12), the Apostle implies, not only that faith remains imperfect as long as we groan under the burden of the flesh, but that an imperfection makes it necessary for us unremittingly to acquire further knowledge. On the other hand, the same Apostle shows what a sure and certain experience, of itself, even the smallest particle of faith gives us, when he says, “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). However, since our hearts are inclined to unbelief, and our conscience oppressed by sin, we must find a means of defence from all these.
21. To sustain these attacks, faith arms and defends itself with the Word of God. Faith tells us, that God is merciful even when He afflicts, because chastisement proceeds rather from love than from wrath. Faith is never eradicated from a pious heart, but continues firmly fixed, however it may be shaken. Thus Job asserts, though God should slay him, he would continue to trust in Him (Job 13:15). Faith is a shield that keeps David from being assailed by hostile spiritual weapons, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).
22. There is another species of fear and trembling that rather establishes our faith. It is the fear of the Lord. Thus when the Apostle teaches on the Divine vengeance on the impious, and alarms the fears of the Corinthians, lest they should fall in the same calamities (1 Corinthians 10:11), he in no respect weakens their confidence, but rather shakes off the indolence of the flesh.
23. Moreover, when he teaches us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), he wants us to accustom ourselves, with great self-humiliation, to look up to the power of the Lord. It is only in the diffidence [want of confidence] of ourselves, that we are aroused to repose all confidence in the Lord. Solomon says, “Happy is the man that feareth alway: but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief” (Proverbs 28:14). He intends that fear will render us more cautious. How can fear and faith, it will be asked, both reside in the same mind? Our answer is: Piety produces a reverence of God, but also the sweetness of grace fills a man, that is dejected in himself, with fear and admiration; causing him to depend upon God, and humbly submit to His power.
24. Some semi-Papists erroneously teach a faith that fluctuates between hope and despair, a faith which rather depends on man, and not on Christ. If you consider Christ (say they), salvation is certain; if you return to yourself, condemnation is certain. They consider Christ as standing apart from us, and not as dwelling in us. Thus I retort to their argument: If you consider yourself, condemnation is certain; but since Christ, with all His benefits, is communicated to you, so that all He has becomes yours, and you become a member of Him, His righteousness covers your sins. His salvation supersedes your condemnation. He interposes with His merit, that your unworthiness may not appear in the Divine presence. Christ, therefore, is not outside us, but dwells within us; and by a certain wonderful communion coalesces daily more and more into one body with us. This being the case, though the light of our faith is sometimes smothered in the thick gloom of temptation, it never discontinues its efforts in seeking God.
25. Bernard reasons in a similar manner, when he discusses this subject, that he discovers in the soul two opposite characters: “If I view it as it is in itself and of itself . . . it is reduced to nothing. What need is there at present to enumerate all its miseries, how it is loaded with sins, enveloped in darkness, entangled with allurements, inflamed with inordinate desires, subject to passions, filled with illusions, always prone to evil, inclined to every vice, and finally full of ignominy and confusion? . . . Man is undoubtedly become like vanity; man is reduced to nothing; man is nothing. Yet how is he entirely nothing, whom God magnifies? How is he nothing, on whom the heart of God is fixed? . . . Thou calledst things which are not, as though they were; and therefore they are not, because thou calledst things which are not; yet they are, because thou calledst them. For though they are not, with reference to themselves, yet with thee they are; according to this expression of Paul: ‘Not of works, but of Him that calleth‘ (Romans 9:11).”
26. Coming back to the fear of the Lord, which is sometimes called “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10), we see that it proceeds from a twofold apprehension of Him. For God requires the reverence of a Father and of a Master. “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear?” (Malachi 1:6). Let our godly fear therefore be a reverence mingled with this honour and fear.
27. It is to be noted, moreover, that there is a great difference between the godly and filial fear of believers and the servile fear of unbelievers. The impious fear God because they know Him to be armed with vindictive power, and tremble with horror at hearing of His wrath. They fear His wrath, because they apprehend it to be impending over them. But the faithful fear rather His displeasure than His punishment.
28. While faith, having apprehended the love of God, has promises for the present life, and a solid assurance of all blessings; its principal security consists in an expectation of the future life, which is placed beyond all doubt by the Word of God.
29. The foundation of faith is God’s gratuitous promise; for on that faith properly rests; it is not a conditional promise which sends us back to our own works. Therefore, if we wish our faith not to tremble and waver, we must support it with the promise of salvation offered us by the Lord. Wherefore the Apostle denominates the Gospel “the word of faith” (Romans 10:8), a character which he denies both to the precepts and the promises of the law.
30. Faith is saving, when by it we are ingrafted into the body of Christ. Saving faith rests on the Divine mercy; but if a man merely believes only in the justice of the Divine commands and the truth of divine threatenings, must he therefore be called a believer?
31. There can be no faith without the illumination by Divine grace. Yet, those who are so illuminated, like Sarah and Rebecca, often have their faith mixed with errors. But though our imbecility obscures faith, yet it does not extinguish it. We should be reminded to attend to the declarations of God, for faith decays unless it is supported by the Word.
32. When any promise of God is presented us, our eyes must be directed to Christ, for Paul says that we are “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). It must therefore be communicated to us by His mediation (Romans 8:3). Wherefore the Apostle, in another place, calls Him “our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). Paul is correct in stating that all the promises of God are confirmed and accomplished in Him (Romans 15:8).
33. Faith is far superior to human intelligence. It comes from the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Faith, thus given by God, has a twofold aspect. It enlightens the mind to understand the truth of God, and establishes the heart in it. And the Holy Spirit not only originates faith, but increases it by degrees, till He conducts us by it all the way to heaven (2 Timothy 1:14).
34. Therefore, as we can never come to Christ, unless we are drawn by the Spirit of God, so when we are drawn, we are raised both in mind and in heart above the reach of our own understanding. For, illuminated by Him, the soul receives, as it were, new eyes. The human intellect, irradiated by the light of the Holy Spirit, then begins to relish those things that pertain to the Kingdom of God. Even the Apostles, though taught by the Divine mouth, must wait for the coming of the Spirit, to instil in their minds the doctrine which they had heard with their ears.
35. Faith, which is possessed not by nature, but which is given us by the Spirit, is called by Paul the “spirit of faith” (2 Corinthians 4:13). In 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where faith is called “the work of faith,” he denies it to be the effect of human exertion. When he tells the Corinthians, that faith stands “not . . . in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5), he speaks indeed of external miracles; but because the reprobate have no eyes to behold Him, he comprehends also the inward seal which he elsewhere mentions. Now, Christ, when he illuminates us with faith by the power of His Spirit, at the same time ingrafts us into His body, that we may become partakers of all His benefits.
36. It next remains, that what the mind has imbibed, be transfused into the heart. For the Word of God is not received by faith, if it floats on the surface of the brain. It needs to take deep root in the heart.
It is in the heart that the Holy Spirit acts, as a seal, to seal those promises, previously impressed in our minds. Says the Apostle, “After that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13). To the Corinthians, he says, “He which . . . hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22).
37. I have earlier observed, that the faith of the pious, as experience also tells us, is often agitated by various doubts. But whatever assaults the minds of the pious may sustain, they either emerge from the gulf of temptation, or remain firm in their station. Faith is supported by this assurance, which is expressed such, as by the Psalmist, “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me” (Psalm 3:5). The Apostle to the Hebrews calls this assurance “patience” (Hebrews 10:36).
38. On the other hand, we have the pernicious [destructive] dogma of the schoolmen [philosophers, theologians], who make faith a conjecture depending on our works. Doubtless, if we are to determine by our works in what way the Lord is affected to us, I admit we cannot attain even to a slight conjecture. But since faith is founded on His unconditional promise, and not dependent on how pure our life is, there should be no ambiguity or conjecture in faith.
39. Further evidence of faith, as a certainty, and not a conjecture, is reflected in the Apostle’s exhortation to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). John says, “We know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us” (1 John 3:24).
40. Not satisfied with one attempt to destroy the stability of our faith, the schoolmen assail it from this angle: they argue, that though we may form a judgment as to God’s favour to us, from our present state of righteousness, we are utterly ignorant of what may be our fate tomorrow. The knowledge of the final perseverance of saints remains in suspense. But Paul expresses a very different opinion: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).
41. Faith, according to the Apostle to the Hebrews, is “the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). By this word, hypostasis, he means to say that faith is a prop, as it were, on which the pious mind rests. Faith is a secure possession of those things which are promised by God. Faith is the evidence of things not apparent, the vision of things not seen, the perspicuity [state of clear understanding] of things obscure, the presence of things absent, the demonstration of things concealed.
42. Faith thus produces hope. The want of hope would prove us to be utterly destitute of faith. Hope is no other than an expectation of those things which faith has believed to be truly promised by God. Thus faith believes the veracity of God, hope expects the manifestation of it in due time. Faith believes Him to be our Father, hope expects Him always to act towards us in this character. Faith believes that eternal life is given to us, hope expects it one day to be revealed. Faith is the foundation on which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith. Finally, hope by continually renewing and restoring faith, causes it frequently to persevere with more vigour than hope itself (Romans 8:24).
43. On account of this union and affinity, Scripture sometimes uses the words faith and hope without any distinction (1 Peter 1:5). Sometimes they are joined together, as in a passage in the same Epistle, “that your faith and hope might be in God” (1 Pet 1:21). It is absurd, therefore, for Peter Lombard to lay a twofold foundation for hope—God’s grace plus the merit of works. Hope can have no other object than faith; and the only object of faith, we have clearly stated to be the mercy of God.
References and Notes
- An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Book I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 204-214, 1997.
- My emphases added and one Scriptures explicitly written out. KJV used throughout.