Have you ever wondered why the Heidelberg Catechism deals with the definition of faith? From one perspective, we could say that it’s simply important to understand what faith is. It’s important for our children to be taught what faith is. And obviously, faith is central to the teaching of the Bible and to being a Christian. Those are good enough reasons to devote an entire Lord’s Day to what the Bible says about faith.
But there’s also an historical reason. In the sixteenth century the definition of faith was a hot issue. It was an issue between Protestants and Roman Catholics. On the one hand, the Roman Catholics said that a faith which saves is primarily about what you know. They emphasized knowledge. But they also said that, at its heart, faith includes good works. Good works are part of the definition of faith according to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants, both Lutherans and Reformed, denied this. According to Protestants, the essence of saving faith does not in any way include our obedience to God’s law. Good works are necessary as the fruit of saving faith; good works are the evidence of saving faith – but good works are not part of the essence of faith. Our definition of faith cannot include good works.
You might hear that and think that’s just an old discussion from the sixteenth century. However, it’s still important for us today to be clear on the definition of faith. There are those who would like to have our understanding of faith reconfigured to include our good works. Today those folks include not only Roman Catholics, but also other Protestants. One of those is Norman Shepherd. Shepherd is a retired Christian Reformed minister. Shepherd has publicly written of his belief that good works are integral to the definition of faith. This has raised concerns in many circles that Norman Shepherd is introducing a doctrine of justification that includes works. Yes, Shepherd agrees: we are justified by faith alone. We are right with God only through faith in Christ alone. But then: what is faith? If you include obedience to God’s law in the definition of faith, then you’ve smuggled in works through the back door. The result will be that Christians will believe that what we do does in fact contribute somehow to our salvation.
There’s a lot more that could be said about that (I’m just scratching the surface), but I just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that this is still an important issue today. How we define faith matters. So, we can be thankful that the Heidelberg Catechism brings us back to the biblical teaching of what faith looks like.