This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(59) Q. But how does it help you now that you believe all this?
A. That I am righteous in Christ before God and an heir to life everlasting.
(60) Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them,and of still being inclined toward all evil,nevertheless, without any merit of my own,out of sheer grace,God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me—if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.
(61) Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith, for only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness are my righteousness before God,and I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone.
Atheist Richard Dawkins sees the biblical stories of the virgin birth and Jesus’s resurrection as examples of “religious propaganda.” In his mind, articles of faith are part of a political strategy to command the allegiance of “unsophisticates and children.”[i] But Dawkins’s theory only works if the virgin birth and Jesus’s resurrection never happened. Propaganda is inherently biased or misleading; often it’s completely false. Only if the Bible is a lie does believing it make you a victim of religious manipulation.
But what if Scripture’s message is true? What if God “exists and . . . rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6)? If the Triune God is the creator, deliverer, and sanctifier, wouldn’t it be important to believe what he says about himself?
What Good Is Faith?
Here’s how the catechism puts the question after almost 40 questions and answers about the Apostles’ Creed, the church’s ancient summary of Bible doctrine: “But how does it help you now to believe all this?” Short answer: Believing God’s truth completely changes us. Right doctrine—like the virgin birth and Jesus’s resurrection—sincerely believed, is how we recover the life-giving knowledge of God that was lost in the fall. By believing God, “I am righteous in Christ before God and an heir to life everlasting.” Hear in that answer a familiar theme: Faith changes both my present and future life.
Presently believers are righteous before God. Of course, this benefit is unimpressive if you miss the crisis that faith addresses. Some friends and I once asked dozens of strangers, “How are you made righteous before God?” People couldn’t understand the question. Social engineers have relentlessly shushed humanity’s nagging sense that all is not well between us and God; we might have a problem with him, not the other way around. In truth, our sin makes us unrighteous before God (Isa. 59:2). And our guilty consciences won’t let us forget. We have broken all of God’s commandments (James 2:10). And even our most heroic moments are marred with self-interest. More than that, despite our best deeds we still have an inclination toward all evil (Rom. 7:23).
Only true faith changes our relationship to God. Despite my sin, by faith in Christ, God treats me “as if I had never sinned,” as if I were as righteous as Christ himself. Salvation is a legal exchange—Jesus takes the blame for our sin; we get the credit of his righteousness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Our righteousness is from God, received by faith (Phil. 3:9), resulting in peace with our maker (Rom. 5:1).
Concerning our future, believers are also heirs of eternal life. Heirs are legally guaranteed a share of the grantor’s estate. By believing in the Son, Christians already have everlasting life (John 3:36). But believers also expect, at the time appointed by the Father (Gal 4:2), to receive an unimaginable inheritance (1 Cor. 2:9).
Since faith is the difference between life and death, it’s vital to understand how it works.
How Does Faith Work?
Sometimes people view faith as if it were a commodity with which we barter with God. We give him our faith—he gives us eternal life. But if salvation worked like that, faith would have to be quantifiable. How much faith would be needed to purchase salvation? And how good would it have to be? And what if our faith wavered? Would our standing before God become jeopardized, the way a retirement fund devalues with stock market slumps?
Faith isn’t a commodity. It isn’t like an inherently valuable work that deserves a paycheck (Rom. 4:4). “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Faith is the opposite of a commodity! It’s an emptying of self and a desperate reception of Christ’s righteousness.
In fact, it’s not faith that saves; Christ saves us through faith. We don’t trust in faith but in the triune God. When our faith wavers, we need not fear that we will get less of Jesus. I’ve seen California Redwoods whose insides have been gutted by forest fires but are alive because they are rooted to the life-giving earth. Even a frayed wire conducts electricity so long as it connects to the power source. Sometimes your faith is nearly gutted, terribly frayed. Doubts and distractions make you wonder how God could still love you. Remember, you do not “please God by the worthiness of [your] faith, for only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness are [your] righteousness before God.” Like a mouth that chews life-nourishing food, faith is merely an instrument by which we receive Christ. Faith is simply how we participate in the real events of his spotless birth and death-defeating resurrection. Faith is how we boast in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).
What is the takeaway? “Receive [Christ’s] righteousness and make it [your] own … by faith alone.” “Accept this gift with a believing heart.” We don’t create faith—it’s a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). But we must practice faith. And not just once, but constantly. If you are spiritually exhausted, wondering how faithful you have to be before God will accept you, Jesus invites you to step off the treadmill of works and trust that Jesus has done all the work the Father could ever be satisfied with. The world wants to us believe that we are enough. But we know better. We aren’t enough. Neither are the people around us. But Christ is. His righteousness is “more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.”[ii] By faith Christ becomes for us “wisdom from God, righteousness, and sanctification” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Some songs sing to you even when you don’t ask them to. But there is a good song to have stuck in your head, the song of God’s steadfast love toward believing sinners (Ps. 42:8). God is pleased with believers because of Jesus. God is stricter than we are in judging sin and more gracious than we are in forgiving sin. The best possible news is that to those who believe, God “counts no iniquity” (Ps. 32:2) but instead declares them righteous (Ps. 32:11) only by true faith in Jesus.
[ii] Canons of Dort, 2.3.