This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part VI

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We are now on to chapters 12-16, which the study guide in the Book of Confessions says is the section about “Reception of Salvation and New Life in Christ.” The Chapters are titled “Of the Law of God” (ch12), “Of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of the Promises, and of the Spirit and Letter” (ch13), “Of Repentance and the Conversion of Man” (ch14), “Of the True Justification of the Faithful” (ch15), and “Of Faith and Good Works, and of Their Reward, and of Man’s Merit” (ch16).

Wow, Bullinger really knew how to write a good hook, eh?

When talking about “the law” the confession distinguishes between the 10 commandments with their exposition in the books of Moses, the ceremonial law (concerned with worship), and the judicial law (concerned with political and domestic matters). Distinguishing these different types of law is going to make it easier later to determine which parts Jesus himself fulfilled and which parts we as Christians are still obligated to follow, so watch for that!

“We believe that the whole will of God and all the necessary precepts for every sphere of life are taught in this law.” In other words, there’s something here for everyone, and it touches all aspects of our lives. We are not allowed to box up certain segments of life and claim that God and God’s law doesn’t have sway there–it does.

The “law was not given to men that they might be justified by keeping it, but that rather from what it teaches we may know our weakness, sin, and condemnation, and, despairing of our strength, might be converted to Christ in faith.” … “for no flesh could or can satisfy the law of God and fulfil it, because of our weakness….therefore Christ is the perfecting of the law and our fulfilment of it.” In other words–it’s not possible to 100% keep the law (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it!), at least not for us. But in Christ, we are both more capable of doing God’s will and already justified by his perfection.

So are the law and the gospel different, or even opposed? The confession says yes, but that is a strange thing to say. More often now we talk about reading the law through the lens of the gospel–what can we learn about God’s will and God’s promise from the Torah (the first five books, which contain much of the law)? How does it inform our understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching and work? There is still good news in the Old Testament–even Bullinger admits as much, saying “those who were before the law and under the law were not altogether destitute of the Gospel.” (that’s good!) One reason we know this–the extraordinary promises God made in the Torah, including “the Lord will raise up a prophet” and “I will be their God and they will be my people” and all those awesome promises to Abraham and his descendants.

So what is the Gospel? It is “properly called glad and joyous news, in which is…preached to us in the world that God has now performed what he promised from the beginning of the world, and has sent, nay more, has given  us his only Son and in him reconciliation with the Father, the remission of sins, all fullness, and everlasting life.” What do you think of this definition of the Gospel? Is there anything missing or anything that needs to be changed/removed? 

Knowing the Gospel encourages us to repentance–to turn toward God. This repentance is a gift from God–we don’t do it on our own. In fact, “we expressly say that this repentance is a sheer gift of God and not a work of our strength.” Repentance involves a few different facets–lament for our sins, confession of sin, and turning away from sin and toward God. “Sincere confession is made to God alone, either privately between God and the sinner, or publicly in the Church where the general confession of sins is said…in order to obtain forgiveness it is not necessary for anyone to confess his sings to a priest that in turn he might receive absolution from the priest…” This is a big deal during the Reformation, and still a major difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant faith traditions. We do not believe that one must speak with a priest in order to speak to God–rather, we go directly to God on our own and together as a community, and forgiveness comes directly from God to all who turn toward God. The role of the pastor is different from that of priest–rather than being the go-between with power to absolve, pastors are called to preach and teach, to open the doors of the kingdom and proclaim God’s grace that is already at work.

The heart of this grace, according to this confession, is what is called “Imputed Righteousness.” This means that when God looks at us, God sees us through the lens of Christ. Rather than being convicted by our sin, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and so we are “justified”–made right with God. This grace comes to us through faith–which is not to say that we get it for ourselves or that we create it in ourselves, but that God’s gift of faith is also a work of grace. This justification leads us to the affirmation we find in Galatians 2, “It is no longer I who live, but christ who lives in me.” And so we are able to put our faith to work–good work–again because it is a gift from God. The confession says it is a gift we receive by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel and steadfast prayer. 

Faith can “quiet the conscience and open a free access to God, so that we may draw near with confidence…the same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word, brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works.” In the law we find that good works are God’s will for us, but they “ought not be done in order that we may earn eternal life by them, for eternal life is the gift of God. Nor are they to be done for ostentations…nor for gain…but for the glory of God…to show gratitude to God, and for the profit of the neighbor.”  So we know that we do not earn our salvation through works, but even though we are justified by grace we still “know that man was not created or regenerated through faith in order to be idle, but rather that without ceasing he should do those things which are good and useful. For in the Gospel the Lord says that a good tree brings forth good fruit.”  These good works are pleasing to God, though they do not cause God to love us more or less–they do not earn us grace or good favor, but they do please God who will reward those works in mysterious ways. (Admittedly, sometimes the reward is a gift or skill or calling to yet another work!)

Ultimately, the point of this whole section is this: “We are not to glory in anything in us, since nothing is our own. We therefore condemn those who defend the merits of men in such a way that they invalidate the grace of God.”

What do you think of this section? What questions do you have? What stands out to you as particularly right-on or relevant, or wrong or ridiculous? What do you think is the difference between the Law and the Gospel, and what does all this have to do with how you live as a Christian?

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One response »

  1. Thank you, Pastor Teri, for making this Helvetic Confession understandable. Your explanations and clarifications are really helpful!

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