By Brian Myers & Michael Ives
Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church
Des Moines, Iowa
Q85: What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A: To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.
Q86: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered in the gospel.
Q87: What is repentance unto life?
A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
Q88: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
By the time we reach these questions in the Assembly’s famous Shorter Catechism, we have learned of the rigorous demands of the law (questions 39-81), of the covenant of works in which Adam failed, and of the failure of the human race represented in him (questions 12-19). We have learned of the dreadful consequences of this (questions 19, 82-84). Sinners outside of Christ will be cast into the fires of hell for all eternity. All sinners outside of Christ have made themselves liable to God’s wrath. Wrath is not reserved only for the infamous characters of history, such as Nero, Hitler, and Stalin. Not just those who do unspeakable evil are destined for judgment. All sinners outside of Christ.
People tend to think of great judgment only for those who do great wickedness in this life. Such is not the teaching of scripture. In Matthew 11:21-24, we see that those that had observed the mighty works of God and yet rejected him will undergo greater judgment than those cities in which great wickedness was commonplace. What does that say to us about those who are raised in the covenant, raised in the church, those who are the beneficiaries of all the means of grace? If we have had the great privilege of being in the visible church and we fail to place our faith and trust in Christ, our judgment will be great indeed. The apostle’s solemn utterance resounds in our ears, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).
In this brief examination of the catechism’s questions 85-88, we address the “how” that arises from these sobering contemplations. We will thus treat God’s requirement of faith and repentance for salvation, as well as the definition of faith and repentance set forth in the catechism. Then having discussed the necessity and the requirements, we shall shortly address the means of grace that God has appointed for us. Not every point made in the catechism will be discussed in detail, but we trust that the important matters that are treated herein will be of benefit to all.
Question 85 essentially deals with this most important question of life: How can we be saved? “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” Question 84 says that every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God, and so it follows that this question would be asked. The sinner’s reaction to hearing the answer to question 84 may understandably be to ask this very question. The sinner asking such a question may well be afraid. He may be the subject of the common operations of the Holy Spirit, causing him to experience great legal terrors. Consider the proof texts given for question 84. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat. 25:41). These texts are indeed fearful to those as yet unconverted.
The fearing soul should not regard his experience as a bad thing.
We recall the notable maxim of Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Surely the fear of God’s wrath may be included in what this verse has in view. In any case, the legal conviction of sin and fear of sin’s consequences are ordinary experiences prior to regeneration. Archibald Alexander, in his Thoughts on Religious Experience, notes the purpose of such conviction: “The only end which it can answer is to show the rational creature his true condition, and to convince the sinner of his absolute need of a Saviour.”1 And so we read in Galatians 3:24, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Thus, while legal conviction will save no one, it may be used by the Spirit to drive people to the foot of the cross where salvation can indeed be found.
It has been a matter of debate whether or not a law work prior to regeneration is a necessary thing. Thomas Boston, for example, appears to affirm the necessity of legal conviction prior to regeneration2 while Archibald Alexander did not.3 The Presbyterian church was divided on this question in the “Old Side- New Side” controversy in the early part of the eighteenth century. But regardless of this debate, all would admit that conviction of sin is indeed a necessity. This is why the use of the law is so important. People need to know that they are in need of salvation. And they need to know what they are being saved from.
Nowadays, many evangelicals regard Christ as an antidote for the effects of sin rather that for sin itself. In other words, the question no longer is “I am a sinner, and the wrath of God is upon me, so what must I do to be saved?” Rather, it is “I am a drunk, therefore I need Christ.” Or, “I am drug addict, so I need to try Jesus.” No, Christ is not presented to us in the gospel so we can clean our lives up. That will be a happy consequence of true conversion, of course, but that is not the focus of the gospel. The focus of the gospel is Christ crucified for the spiritual salvation of sinners.
And let us be certain of one thing: this question concerns us as individuals. We are to wrestle with this matter personally. The matter of repentance and faith is not one in which we are dealt with as a group. There are some contemporary reformed circles that tout a corporate notion of salvation. Among them, the idea of personal salvation is lampooned as “baptistic” or “revivalistic.” But consider what Christ said to Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” A man, says Jesus. A man must be born again. He did not address a group of men, nor the sect to which Nicodemus belonged. Neither did he even refer to the nation of Israel. Rather, a man must be born again.
He goes on to say “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (Jn. 3:5-7). It is true enough that all men are in need of this new birth. That may be understood to be universal, but the remedy for the need is neither corporate nor only federal in the abstract. Christ taught the new birth in terms of a man’s personal need, and that included Nicodemus. This need for personal regeneration is not obviated by membership in the covenant community. Nicodemus was in the covenant community. You couldn’t be any more in the covenant community than Nicodemus, and yet he still had a need. Christ told him so. Men, women, and children all have a personal need for regeneration. Even those in the covenant community have this need. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord made it plain that the law dealt with matters of the heart and not merely the external. The people were astonished at his doctrine. Similarly, the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” when the Lord encountered the rich young ruler (Mat. 19:25). It was becoming clear to them that being a son of Abraham in external conformity to the law simply wasn’t enough.
We’ve been discussing this matter of personal salvation within the context of the new birth. Now, a good Calvinist knows that the new birth is not something that he can achieve himself. He knows that faith and repentance are results of the new birth; they are the saving graces wrought by the Holy Spirit. But the personal need for them remains the same. You won’t be regenerated simply because you are in the visible church, and you most certainly won’t be converted and exercise faith and repentance if you are not regenerated. May we be done with the notion that membership in the visible church necessitates salvation. It does not. To believe so is a spiritually fatal error.
Now that we perceive the urgent necessity of salvation, to what antidote must we betake ourselves? The divines respond first of all by urging faith in Jesus Christ.
When turning to consider its character, we see first of all that it is a saving grace. It is a thing that does not originate from us. Were this the case, it wouldn’t be referred to as a grace. Faith is a gift of God. Ephesians 2:8 read, “For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God.” What a marvelous thing that God would grant unto sinners the gift of faith! We see secondly that in faith we receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. The Confession puts it this way, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”4 When one first becomes a Calvinist, the temptation may exist to no longer use words like “accept and receive” when speaking of salvation. Though much of the Confession’s definition seems to resonate with modern evangelical language, it is nonetheless true. Under question 86, the Divines give us two proof texts that clearly illustrate this. Hebrews 10:39 reads, “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” John 1:12 is also cited, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” We need to believe and receive. Words such as “believe,” “receive,” and “accept” are not words that should be eliminated from our vocabulary simply because they may have been co-opted by evangelical Arminians. These are words that are scriptural, confessional, and, when properly understood, convey the essence of saving faith. We believe in and receive Christ, thus we rest upon Christ and trust in him for salvation.
Thomas Vincent gives us some insight into when we may say with confidence that our souls rest upon Christ for salvation. “The soul doth rest upon Christ for salvation when, being convinced of its lost condition by reason of sin, and its own inability, together with all creatures’ insufficiency, to recover it out of this estate, and having a discovery and persuasion of Christ’s ability and willingness to save, it doth let go all hold on the creatures, and renounce its own righteousness, and so lay hold on Christ, rely upon him, and put confidence in him, and in him alone, for salvation.”5
Next we see in the answer to question 86 that it is Christ alone who saves us. Christ alone! It is not Christ plus works. Nor is it Christ plus my standing in the church, Christ plus my baptism, or Christ plus my good, sound, Calvinistic theology. It is not Christ plus anything. Someone has said that justification is analogous to a room. And that room had to be filled with Christ – nothing more, nothing less. There is no space in that room for anything else but Christ. And if we were to start dragging our works into the room, there would be no space for Christ. Christ must have every square foot, or he will have none. If we want Christ to reside there at all, the room must be swept clean of our works. Salvation is in Christ alone.
We human creatures are so prone to deception on this point. We are constantly attempting to save ourselves or contribute to our salvation somehow. This is where many a soul has been lost, even when professing Christ as Savior. When the eye of faith is cast somewhere other than Christ, the result is fatal to the soul. It is an easy trap for the Arminian who finds himself trusting in a decision to follow Christ rather than trusting in Christ himself. It is just as easy for the Calvinist who sees his salvation in an intellectual assent to certain theological propositions rather than Christ crucified for sinners. Again, salvation is in Christ alone. Flavel says “The primary object of faith is the person of Christ, and the secondary are his benefits.” He goes on to say that one “must eye Christ only, and exclude all others, or he cannot be justified; Phillipians 3:9. And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ: The righteousness which is of God by faith, Romans 4:5. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”6
We see also in this catechism answer that Christ is offered to us in the gospel. He is offered. He is presented as the magnificent remedy for our sinful condition. He died for sinners. God, manifested in the flesh, died for sinners. Being good Calvinists, do we think he made an atonement for every man, woman, and child who ever lived or will live? No. The Bible doesn’t teach that.
But do we believe him to be really, truly, and genuinely offered to everyone? Yes we do. When someone fails to respond to the gospel is it because the gospel has failed? Has Christ failed? Were the promises of the gospel not true? Of course not! The gospel is true, powerful, and genuine every time it is presented. On this point, John J. Murray remarks “Holding to the most exalted Reformed orthodoxy we can invite sinners to the Lord Jesus not on the basis of ‘Christ died for you in particular,’ but on the ground of the Christ who died for sinners being offered to every one to whom the gospel comes. That offer and that invitation is as particular as if the sinner’s name was written on it.”7 And Rutherford says, “In the Gospel offer the reprobate are called as if they were chosen…they have as fair a revealed warrant to believe as the elect have, for they are sinners to whom Christ is offered.”8
So what is the problem then? Well, the problem remains where it always has with human creatures, namely, with our hearts. The Holy Spirit must regenerate us if we are to respond to the gospel in faith and repentance. We saw this earlier in our discussion. Our hearts are dead. They must be quickened. They must be granted the gift of faith. Nonetheless, our Lord is indeed presented in the gospel as crucified for sinners. We can say that the gospel is true for everyone with whom we speak because we know that they are sinners in need of Christ. These are precisely the subjects unto whom Christ is freely offered: sinners in need of Christ. Everyone has warrant to believe the gospel. They are commanded to repent and believe, but they are also warmly invited by a Savior who has demonstrated His love for sinful men and who has promised to save them to the uttermost if they will but repent and believe. Hence the compelling words of our Lord, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
The next component given in response to the “how?” is repentance unto life. It is the second side of the same coin.
In question 87, we learn that repentance, like faith, is a saving grace as well. It does not come from within ourselves, but from God. Peter thus exclaims in Acts 5:31, “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”
By the Holy Spirit, the sinner is truly convicted of his sin in a moral sense rather than simply legal. He really sees it. He really understands that he has offended God. He grieves over it. He hates it. He turns from it. Francis R. Beattie explains, “It is not the mere natural sorrow or regret for sin which is unto death, but a godly sorrow which is unto life. The root idea of the word (repentance) is a change of mind or view, in regard, specially, to the matter of sin. It implies a radical change of heart and mind, of life and conduct, in regard to sin and its deserts.”9
Those who have repented in this way see the mercy of God in Christ. There does the sinner finds refuge! It is not simply in the seeing sin as heinous that the sinner finds relief, for apart from the merciful Savior no relief will be found. The Divines have quoted Joel 2:13 here, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” This is a great proof text. It shows the delightful and wonderful mercy of God toward His people. The sinner, now having his heart quickened by the Holy Spirit, is not only struck with how vile his sins are in the sight of God, but he is moved out of love for his merciful Savior to sin no more.
Repentance “unto life” involves a newness of life for the believer. A genuine repentance will have a necessary effect upon how the believer leads his life. There is a resolve to be more conformed to the image of the Savior. There is a true desire to do that which Christ commands. This must be present in the renewed heart, however weak the outworking may actually be. And the presence of this resolve and desire provides good evidence that the repentance is indeed real. He is still plagued by what we might call the ‘remaining corruption,’ but he abhors it. He loves his merciful Savior because the Savior first loved him. And the Holy Spirit will enable him to mortify the flesh. Yes, he will continue to struggle, and he will sometimes fall; but he will continue to fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. He will never give up if he is Christ’s. And one day he will be delivered from the battle, evermore to be in the presence of the Lord, the One who not only delivered him but who enabled him and was with him every step of the way. What a wonderful thing!
Next, his repentance, both initial and ongoing, will address all sin. His repentance will not rest in generalities, but will deal with particulars.10 This involves confession not only to God, but sometimes also to our fellow man as well. We ought not expect relief from our conscience when we confess our sins to God but make no attempt to confess those same sins to our neighbor when we by them have offended him.11
Repentance must not be understood as providing any kind of satisfaction for sin. Pardon for sin is only found in Christ. Yet it must be said that no one will ever be saved without repentance. It is commanded that those who wish to be saved must repent (Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, Luke 13:5).
We see also that God requires the diligent use of the means of grace. The Scripture abundantly attests to this. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans10:17). We cannot expect that God will save and bless us if we ignore the very means that He has set forth to accomplish these ends. It is true enough that we cannot save or sanctify ourselves. But it is no less true God uses outward and ordinary means to save us, ignored only at the peril of our very souls. The Lord has set forth the Word, the sacraments, and prayer to communicate to us the benefits of redemption. Boston says, “We have no ground to expect grace or salvation but in the use of the means, Proverbs 8:34 “Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.” He goes on to say, “The neglect of the means is a contempt of the thing. If we would be healed, we would lie at the pool. If not, we say we care not for cure.” He then concludes that, although we dare not say “God has promised to save and convert those who do what is in their power in the use of means,” it is nonetheless “possible,” even “probable” that God would.12
These means are found in the corporate worship of His church. This is not to say that private prayer and reading of the Word are not means or that they are not profitable for salvation. They most certainly are! Private exercises are not to be neglected. But the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments belong exclusively to the church, and are practiced in public worship along with the singing of praise, the reading of the Word, and public prayer. The means of grace in their grandest display are in the corporate worship of His church. And the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us that the visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no possibility of salvation.”13 If we are to be diligent in our use of outward means, we must not neglect the attendance of public worship.
We have very briefly examined these four catechism questions. What are we to say about these questions? Are there four more important questions in the catechism? Is there a subject that we should discuss that is more important than salvation?
We spoke earlier of faith being a gift. Some might be tempted to simply say that they do not possess the gift. Is this an excuse? Is this an excuse that God will recognize? The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.” If you say you do not have faith, you should go ask for it. If you say you have not experienced the new birth, ask the Lord in His mercy to regenerate you. There is nothing wrong with that. In Jeremiah 31:18-19 we read, “turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented.” Seek the Lord’s work in quickening your dead heart. Pray that he would remove your heart of stone. Ezekiel 36: 26-27 affords us ample encouragement, “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 an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
Ask! Be diligent in your use of the means of grace. The Lord is the Rewarder of those that diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6). Remember that you are warmly invited to come to Christ and have your burden of sin removed (Matt. 11:28). He invites you to His wedding feast. “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage” (Matt. 22:9). Will you come? Will you be clothed in His wedding garment?
1 Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), p. 18.
2 Thomas Boston, The Beauties of Boston (n.p., 1831; reprint, Inverness: Christian Focus Publications, 1979), pp. 589-91.
3 Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, pp. 15-17.
4 Westminster Confession of Faith (London, 1646: reprint, Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), Chap. 14, Sect. 2.
5 Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture (London: Printed for Henry Mortlock, 1675; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), p. 227.
6 The Works of John Flavel, vol. 6, An Exposition of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism (n.p.: W. Baynes & Son, 1820; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), p. 268.
7 John J. Murray, “The Marrow Controversy – Thomas Boston and the Free Offer,” in Preaching And Revival. The Westminster Conference Papers (Colchester, Essex: Christian Design & Print, 1984), p. 52.
8 Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened: Or, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (Edinburgh: Printed by Andro Anderson for Robert Broun, 1655), p. 339.
9 Francis R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards (Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1896; reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1997), p. 229.
10 Westminster Confession, Chap. 15, Sect. 5.
11 Ibid., Chap. 15, Sect. 6.
12 Thomas Boston, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, vol. 2 (Previously published in The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston, Ettrick, London: William Tegg & Co., 1853; reprinted separately, Still Waters Revival Books, Edmonton, 1993), pp. 398-99.
13 Westminster Confession, Chap. 25, Sect. 2.