As I read “What We Believe” and the Westminster Confession of Faith, I realize that in his grace God allows for faith in Christ and repentance to lead us to salvation. This is wonderful. However, as I read questions 85 in the Shorter Catechism and 153 in the Larger Catechism, I see that three elements are mentioned: “faith, and repentance, and diligent use of …” I understand what the “outward means” are (LC 154), but are there then three elements, rather than two?
Thanks for your question regarding the elements that are found in a believer’s response to God’s grace. I do appreciate the lengths you have gone to, reading through the Confession, and Shorter and Larger Catechisms. I will try to integrate these into my answer in addition to the Scriptures, which form our primary standard or rule for belief and conduct.
If I can start with your striking statement, “in his grace God allows for faith in Christ and repentance to lead us to salvation. This is wonderful.” This is wonderful indeed! The grace of God is astonishingly wonderful! May I be so bold as to refine your statement a little? I think Scripture teaches that “in his grace God gives faith and repentance without which we cannot be saved.” See Acts 20:18–21: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility … testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is how Paul sums up his gospel-preaching when meeting with the elders from Ephesus.
Both faith and repentance are indispensable if we are to be saved, God—God the Holy Spirit—gives these as unmerited gifts, but we still have to believe in the Christ of Scripture and then actively follow through with repentance. Indeed, turning to Christ for the first time, that initial spiritual act of faith, is repentance.
Allow me to be a little clearer by what I mean when I use these loaded terms, faith and repentance. Faith is knowing the truths of the Gospel, comprehending them so that you inwardly recognize their truth, and then trusting your body and soul to Christ alone. Repentance is an inner and outer change whereby we hate our sins and—realizing God’s love in Christ—turn from those sins to Christ in new obedience. One cannot have true faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and not repent; conversely one cannot truly repent without having saving faith in Christ.
I think the continuation of faith and repentance is also relevant to your question. How do we maintain our saving faith when the twenty-first century world wants to eradicate faith in anything other than man? Similarly, how do we continue to repent when the culture around us flows away from God and goodness to sin? Well, that is where we move on to your references to the outward and ordinary means. To grow in faith and continue in a repentant life we need make diligent use of the Scriptures, of prayer, of the sacraments, and also allow other Christians to encourage and even correct us. Faith and repentance need to be sustained and grow. Some who claim to believe show an initial change but don’t last too long, and their faith is seen to be more of a flash in the pan. Christ warns us all about this in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1–23).
If I understand your question correctly, I would be inclined to say that faith and repentance are necessary as one is born into the Christian faith. Christ calls this being born again (John 3, repeatedly), and the Apostle Paul often calls this regeneration (Tit. 3:4–7). But when a child has been born he still needs to continuously feed and be instructed, or he will become weak. If he is alive, he will experience hunger and not rest until he has obtained the food necessary for life. (Ask the parents of any newborn!) So it is with salvation. If one has truly been blessed with God by receiving the gifts of faith and repentance, then a lifestyle change has taken place; it’s not just a momentary adjustment. Then, to sustain this new life Christians are to read God’s word (the Bible), talk to God in prayer, and receive the blessings of baptism and the Lord’s supper, while being with his people—our spiritual brothers and sisters. The prime opportunity to enjoy all of these is Sunday worship in a Bible-believing church. If you are looking for such a church, we can offer some suggestions for most places in the USA.
Let me leave you with some words from the Apostle Paul: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
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