Salvation, Unbelief and Saving Faith
Q10: Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
Answer: By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in his just judgment temporally and eternally, as he has declared, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them."
Q11: Is not God then also merciful?
Answer: God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.
Q20: Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ?
Answer: No; only those who are ingrafted into him, and, receive all his benefits, by a true faith
Q21: What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, (e) are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.
Q22: What is then necessary for a christian to believe?
Answer: All things promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic undoubted christian faith briefly teach us.
Q23: What are these articles?
Answer: 1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe a holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting.
Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q84: What doth every sin deserve?
A: Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.
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 to us 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 and ordinary 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.
New City Catechism:
Q27: Are all people, just as they were lost through Adam, saved through Christ?
A: No, only those who are elected by God and united to Christ by faith. Nevertheless God in his mercy demonstrates common grace even to those who are not elect, by restraining the effects of sin and enabling works of culture for human well-being.
Q28: What happens after death to those not united to Christ by faith?
A: At the day of judgment they will receive the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them. They will be cast out from the favorable presence of God, into hell, to be justly and grievously punished, forever.
Q29: How can we be saved?
A: Only by faith in Jesus Christ and in his substitutionary atoning death on the cross; so even though we are guilty of having disobeyed God and are still inclined to all evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of our own but only by pure grace, imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ when we repent and believe in him.
Q30: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A: Faith in Jesus Christ is acknowledging the truth of everything that God has revealed in his Word, trusting in him, and also receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.
Q31: What do we believe by true faith?
A: Everything taught to us in the gospel. The Apostles’ Creed expresses what we believe in these words: We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
In beginning to deal with the topic of salvation, one would have supposed that the New City Catechism should be a beautiful masterpiece on this topic, coming from people who emphasize the Gospel and the importance of being "Gospel-centered." This section on the beginning of salvation deals with the subjects of the necessity of faith for salvation, the definition of faith and the content of faith for salvation. Sadly, the problems of New Evangelicalism (and even Evangelicalism in general) plague this enterprise, although there are a couple of bright spots here and there.
I will analyze the New City Catechism (NCC) here under the following headings: (1) The issue of common grace in relation to salvation, (2) the eternal destiny of unbelievers, (3) the way of salvation, (4) what is true faith, (5) the content of the Gospel, and (6) salvation and the means of grace.
(1) The issue of common grace in relation to salvation
Question 27 starts off the section of salvation by transiting from the issue of sin and the Fall into the question of salvation. The NCC correctly notes that not everyone will be saved, but only those elected by God and united to Christ in faith, a particularism that is laudable and comparable to the HC and the WSC, noting that it goes against the grain of universalism prevalent in this age. Yet in this question and answer, the insertion of a sentence on God's giving of common grace is extremely problematic, and here's why.
The issue of "common grace" is controversial in conservative Dutch circles, with the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) rejecting the idea of common grace. To put it succinctly, the PRCA sees the notion of "common grace" as compromising the doctrine of Total Depravity. After studying the issue, I have seen that the concept of "common grace" was intended by its more orthodox proponents to be non-salvific. God's "common grace" is "common" as it is expressed formally through God's provision in the Noachic Covenant (although it applies even to pre-diluvian times), and it is "grace" as describing God's demerited favor to sinful Man. "Common grace" has therefore to do with God's providence, and not to do with salvation.
Now, it could be objected that "common grace" does provide the environment needed for special grace to function, and thus it is in some sense salvific. But such is to confuse the means and ultimate intent for the immediate intent. God's immediate intent in the Noachic Covenant was not salvation, although His ultimate intent has always been salvation. One cannot confuse the means and ultimate intent with immediate intent. Otherwise we would end up with all sorts of absurd and heretical conclusions. The Gospel functions as the means to harden the reprobates in their transgressions and unrepentance (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Should we therefore conclude that the Gospel is a damning message? God forbid! But that is what happens when we confuse categories and confuse the immediate intent with the ultimate intent. Just as the Gospel is good news, yet it function as bad news to those who are perishing, so likewise "common grace" is not salvific, although it functions as the backdrop for salvation.
Here, we see the problem with the NCC. By putting the notion of "common grace" into a section on salvation, it at the best confuses categories, and at the worst it seems to posit some form of "common salvific grace," a gross monstrosity that fits the PRCA caricature of "common grace" rather well. We note here that the Reformed catechisms are much more circumspect and omit the whole issue of "common grace" in this section, although they did mention the providence of God. We further note the insertion of the phrase "works of culture," where we see the transformationalist framework inserting itself into the catechism. Instead of opting for catholicity, the NCC by the use of such language decides to limit itself to a certain Neo-Kuyperian urban missiological framework, which is a negative point compared to the Reformed catechisms which aim to express the catholic Christian faith.
(2) The eternal destiny of unbelievers
The NCC does a good job in holding on to the eternal punishment of unbelievers, and that such is indeed a punishment by God (c.f. NCC 18). The NCC preserves the good point of making the punishment of unbelievers due to them not being united to Christ by faith, and not because people reject the Gospel. Here, the NCC does well.
(3) The way of salvation
Here, we see a very curious phenomenon. The NCC has decided that not only must you have faith in Christ, but you must have faith in Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross in order to be saved, the latter not found in any of the Reformed catechisms. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that one can deny Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross and be a Christian, but why pick this doctrine only as the one doctrine that must be believed in order to be saved? Secondly, if Christ's substitutionary atoning death on the cross merits separate mention from faith in Christ, does it mean that one can have faith in Christ without believing in Christ's substitutionary atoning death, or is the addition of the latter clause an exercise in redundancy? Yes, it is good that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is also mentioned as something that needs to be believed in, but how does all these relate to having faith in Jesus Christ?
We note here how the Reformed catechisms deal with the question. The Heidelberg Catechism just mentions receiving by a true faith, and left it to the next question to define what true faith is. In other words, the focus here is not to dichotomize between having true faith in Christ, and belief in cardinal doctrines. There is no true faith in Christ apart from belief in cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, whereas that does not seem to be the case with the NCC. In the WSC, faith in Christ is mentioned along with its other side repentance, and the diligent use of means. We will discuss the diligent use of means later, but it is noticed here that besides that, what we have left is faith, since repentance is just the flip side of faith — one cannot have faith without repentance, and one cannot repent in a godly manner without having faith.
The issue here is that the NCC confuses the way of salvation with the content of the Gospel to be believed. We preach Christ and Him crucified, not the technicalities of the atonement. Yes, people ought to believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, but they are saved by the person of Christ (manner), not theories about Christ however true and vital they are. Thus, the NCC is not as good as the Reformed catechisms on this subject.
(4) What is true faith?
Here, the NCC describes true faith rather well. It is however strange to see the multiplication of redundant participles, for after describing true faith as trusting in Christ, it goes on to describe it as receiving and resting on Christ alone, but what else does trusting in Christ means except "receiving and resting on Him"? More reflection should be done here so that what constitutes true faith could be succinctly expressed, instead of combining phrases together, as if the more words the merrier.
(5)The content of the Gospel
The NCC puts forward the Apostles' Creed as the content of what the Christian ought to believe, as the summary of the truths taught to us in the Gospel. The HC on the other hand not only puts forward the Apostles' Creed, but also interprets the Apostles' Creed as to the content of the Gospel. The WSC just mentions that the Gospel is to be believed. In terms of content, it seems that the HC defines what is to be believed more exhaustively, followed by the NCC and then the WSC. However, is that really so?
It must be remembered that the Apostles' Creed is confessed by branches and sects that trace their history to the early Church. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy confess the Apostles' Creed. The continental Reformed in the HC were confessing that they were actually the true catholics, and thus they confess the Apostles' Creed again in the HC. But rather than just stating the Apostles' Creed, they explain how they interpret the various articles of the Apostles' Creed, and thus they make it plain just exactly what is the Gospel that is to be believed in. In other words, the HC did not just put forward the Apostles' Creed as the summary of the Gospel, but actually exposits it.
The WSC on the other hand did not specify what the Gospel is, and thus we must see it as the entire system of doctrine concerning soteriology as expressed in the Westminster Standards. While not necessarily going into the technicalities, the Gospel message must include the vital parts of the system of doctrine of the standards, and thus while salvation does not require knowledge of all doctrines with their technicalities, yet there can be no Gospel message that explicitly or implicitly denies any of the cardinal truths of the Westminster standards.
In contrast, the NCC, by putting forward in question 29 the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, seems to prioritize that doctrine above all other doctrines. By putting forward the Apostles' Creed without any exposition, it also seems to make the content of the Gospel message needed for salvation vague. The NCC opens up the possibility that salvation is possible for anyone who professes to hold the Apostles' Creed and agrees with the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, which is indeed an improper view of the content of the Gospel. As stated, why is the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement singled out, while the doctrine of the Trinity for example not mentioned? Also, in light of the current liberal ecumenical movement, can the NCC allow for the salvation of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in their respective communions, not despite their communions, which is what the Reformed hold to? All of these problematic questions are possible interpretations of the NCC, and thus the NCC here is inferior to the Reformed catechisms.
Now, of course it could be objected that the rest of the NCC sets forth the Gospel such that it excludes Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is certainly a possible interpretation of the NCC. However, there is a difference between what a confession or catechism teaches as the truth, and what it states ought to be believed. In this case, it seems that the NCC limits the content of the Gospel for salvation to the mere words of the Apostles' Creed and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, while it could be interpreted that the other parts of the NCC set forth the fuller content of the Gospel that are not necessary for salvation.
(6) Salvation and the means of grace
Lastly, we deal here with the relation between salvation and the means of grace. As it is mentioned, WSC 85, in dealing with salvation, speaks about the "diligent use" of the outward means of grace. Here, the WSC, better than the HC, connects salvation with the way in which God works salvation out in the life of believers. This is also why the questions concerning faith and salvation in the Westminster catechisms come after the questions on the acts of God in salvation. Thus, justification, sanctification, adoption are all discussed before faith; God's acts and works for Man and in Man before Man's response. The WSC (and the WLC) connects salvation not just to Man's act of faith, but to the larger tapestry of God's act of salvation. That is why the means of grace enters into the discussion, for not only does Man ought to have faith, but such faith necessarily results in the diligent use of the means of grace, the means of grace which are spelled out in WSC 88 as attending to the Word, the sacraments and prayer.
So firstly, the NCC here, in putting the topic at the beginning, lends itself to seeing salvation as something one does, as opposed to the Westminster language about all these being the communication of Christ's benefits of redemption. It allows for an interpretation that sees an individual as appropriating the salvation won by Christ, instead of Christ communicating to believers His benefits through their faith. In the former, the focus is on the individual doing something, while in the latter, it is Christ doing the saving even through our personal faith, which is the mere receiving instrument. It is the empty hand of faith into which Christ pours out His redemptive benefits, not the active act of believing that grasps Christ's redemption.
Secondly, the NCC, by just dealing with salvation without speaking of the use of the means of grace, seems to think of salvation as a one-time act of believing. For sure, justification is a one-time act of God, but salvation is a process from election to glorification. The WSC is thus superior here since it sees an intricate connection between having faith in Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means of grace. We note here that WSC 85 uses the preposition "with." While not wishing to read too much into the preposition, thus shows that salvation is not construed as requiring faith plus an additional work of attending to the means of grace, but faith that, as it is a true faith, comes with the work of attending to the means of grace.
Now, it may be asked whether the same criticism could be applied to the HC. To that, we would answer no, for the way the HC is structured shows it has a different pedagogical focus. The NCC mostly follows the Westminster Catechisms in structure, and thus it has a more systematic ordering like it.
While it has its bright spots, the flaws in the NCC at this point is an indication of the problems within the New Evangelical Calvinism regarding a sloppy view of common grace, an emphasis on certain aspects of the Gospel while downplaying other areas of doctrine, its downplaying of the means of grace, the broad ecumenical impulse, and the revivalist focus. The Reformed catechisms are thus superior to the NCC in this area.