Calvin on Faith: Christ and His Gospel
Christian Faith: Not What You Thought It Was
What does “faith” mean? For centuries it was associated with specific knowledge or a set of beliefs, but recently the understanding of “faith” has changed. In our contemporary culture, faith primarily refers to the act of believing, not what is believed or the object of faith. When the object of faith is actually mentioned, it is rarely specified. It can be love, hope, fate, the unknown, oneself, someone else, or sometimes God. An attentive ear no longer hears descriptions of faith as biblical knowledge or trust in the person and work of Jesus, but rather tunes in to descriptions of faith as general religious sentiment or individual subjective feelings.
A Christian understanding of faith is very different, and John Calvin proves especially helpful in defining faith: “Now we shall have a proper definition of faith if we say it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence toward us, which being founded upon the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.2.vii).
The Proper Object of Faith
According to Calvin, the object of faith’s knowledge is Jesus Christ. He defines faith by proceeding to the center of a series of concentric circles: God’s existence, God’s power, God’s truthfulness, God’s will “toward us” as revealed in Scripture, and finally Christ. All these circles are implied in faith, but only the last is properly understood as the object of faith. Calvin goes so far as to say that those who say that God is the proper object of faith “rather mislead miserable souls by vain speculation, than direct them to the proper mark” (Institutes III.2.i). Christ as mediator is necessary if humans are to know God. Christ is not set over against God. Rather, Calvin asserts, Christ is the means—the only means—by which we can believe in God.
True Knowledge of Christ
To explain what this means, Calvin writes: “This, then is the true knowledge of Christ—to receive him as he is offered by the Father, that is, invested with his gospel; for he is appointed to be the object of our faith, so we cannot advance in the right way to him, without the guidance of the gospel…The gospel certainly opens to us those treasures of grace, without which Christ would profit us little” (Institutes III.2.vi). Christ, who is the object of faith, is understood in terms of the gospel, which, in turn, is explained by reference to grace. To be continued.