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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:By Faith Alone
Text:LD 23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 43:3,5                                                                                

Hy 1

Reading – Matthew 14:22-33; Hebrews 11:23 - 12:2

Ps 57:1,2,5

Sermon – Lord’s Day 23

Hy 43:1,2,3,4,5,6

Hy 65:1,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, we remember the Reformation for many things: Luther’s 95 theses, new Bible translations and confessions of faith, martyrs being burned at the stake, and more. One of the many fruits of the Reformation was how the truth of God’s Word was captured in a handful of slogans. They’re the five solas of the Reformation.

For example, there is sola gratia: the reformers emphasized the gospel that salvation is by grace alone. Or sola Scriptura: which is the one basis for the doctrine and life of the church—God’s Word. In the church, there’s one person above all, as Head and Saviour: solus Christus, the reformers said. And the grand goal of all things: soli Deo gloria—to God alone be the glory!

These phrases ring with the truth of what the church rediscovered in the Reformation, and they still ring true today. The church of Christ learned to go back to those basic and beautiful teachings of God’s Word. For Christians who’d long been misled, for those who’d anxiously tried to achieve their own righteousness, for those who hadn’t learned the riches of true doctrine, these things were a fantastic revelation.

And among the solas there was another, one perhaps weightier than all the rest. Certainly in the life of Martin Luther, this truth of Scripture had a prominent place. And that is sola fide. That was his earth-shaking rediscovery, that ‘by faith alone’ a person is justified, made right before God our Creator and Judge.

From its earliest days, ‘by faith alone’ was one of the keynotes of the Reformation. So it’s not surprising that this teaching is emphasized in the Heidelberg Catechism. This important phrase occurs throughout the Catechism, but especially in Lord’s Day 23 it gets highlighted.

“How are you righteous before God?” we are asked. And we answer, “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ” (Q&A 60). Some 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, this key truth is still vital to hold onto, to cherish and to love. I preach God’s Word to you from Lord’s Day 23,

God makes sinners righteous in Christ by faith alone:

  1. the urgent demand for faith
  2. the total unworthiness of faith
  3. the constant need for faith


1) the urgent demand for faith: There’s a lot of nice people in this world. People who are friendly; people who work hard, and never blaspheme, and respect the beliefs of others, and who might even believe there is a God. Problem is, a lot of these people don’t go to church—they’re not Christians. So we sometimes wonder, ‘What about them? Won’t they be saved? Isn’t there a place in heaven for nice people too?’

As Christians, we’re grateful that we don’t have to judge anyone’s eternal destiny. Instead, we simply take our stand on what God has told us. And that is this: all the benefits of salvation are available by faith, and only by faith.

See how the Catechism begins the discussion. It’s all there in a nutshell, in that first Question and Answer, “What does it help you now that you believe all this?” The Catechism is referring back to everything we’ve covered since Lord’s Day 7, when we first opened up the Apostles’ Creed. Since then, we’ve seen the multitude glories of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the ‘all this’ that we believe!

And this is how it “helps us,” says the Catechism: “In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting” (Q&A 59). Because we believe in Christ, because the Apostles’ Creed is our creed, because the gospel is good news to our ears, God makes us right with Him.

Answer 59 is a short answer, so the Catechism goes a bit further. “How are you righteous before God?” (Q&A 60). It’s saying, ‘What’s the mechanism for this? How does this really work?’ And the core of the answer is the same. ‘How? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.’

Let’s be clear what this believing really means. It is much more than the vague and vanilla ‘belief in God’ that many people still claim to hold. We’re talking about putting our trust fully in the Triune God, resting ourselves in what He can do.

Faith is when we humbly acknowledge before God that we could never do it by ourselves. It is confessing our life depends entirely on God alone. It’s accepting as true whatever this God says in his Word. It’s when we strive to return daily to the Father’s promises, the Son’s victory, and the Spirit’s might. This is faith.

When we believe, continues the Catechism, “God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me…” (Q&A 60). And there follows a detailed list of the benefits coming to us—namely, that God ‘gives us the credit’ for Christ’s every accomplishment, for every bit of his merit, for every second of his suffering.

Compare it to a massive transfer of money, from one bank account to another. You gave your account number to someone who had this bank account which was overflowing with cash, and they were eager to give you some. So from that massive account there was a transfer into yours—yours being completely empty and seriously overdrawn. You were badly in debt, and you had no hope of ever paying back this gift. But the transfer goes ahead: an exchange of hopeless debt for infinite riches, from Christ’s account directly into ours. It is transacted by God the Father for all who believe.

God takes “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,” and “He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience with Christ has rendered for me” (Q&A 60). That’s the gift.

But then, in case we missed it the first two times, the Catechism underlines the urgent demand for faith. It does so with words that it almost leaves hanging for effect: “If only I accept this gift with a believing heart.” You can add a dot-dot-dot after that last phrase, because in one sense, this is the outcome that must yet be determined for each and every person. This is what happens, this is the amazing gift that you get, if only you believe… Sola fide!

And let’s be clear that this sola fide refrain in the Catechism isn’t just a Reformation leftover. It’s the clear teaching of God’s Word. Like John 3:18, “He who believes in him is not condemned.” Or from Romans, Martin Luther’s favourite book of the Bible, “The just shall live by faith” (1:17).

We also read from Hebrews 11, that colourful gallery of those who believed in God. The refrain is constant there too, that ‘by faith’ God’s people “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire” (vv 33-34). Many more saints could be added to the gallery, more examples given, but one thing is the same: they all lived by faith.

That is to say, they put their trust in God. Though they couldn’t see the LORD, though God’s promises must have seemed incredible to them, though they never knew their Messiah, Jesus Christ, they believed. They held onto “the substance of things hoped for,” and they embraced “the evidence of things not seen” (v 1)

‘By faith’ is a banner truth in the Old Testament, and it still is for us today. As the Spirit says earlier in Hebrews 11, in verse 6, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Because God hasn’t changed, this truth hasn’t changed: though we cannot see God, we must yet seek God and believe in his Name.

The need for faith applies to all God’s children, you and me and everyone. We see the demand for faith also in Matthew 14. The scene begins with Jesus parting ways from his disciples, sending them by boat to the other side of the lake of Galilee. So they’re on their own, out in the middle of the water, during the darkest hours of the night. And the wind is beginning to howl, the waves are picking up.

Some of the disciples used to be fishermen, so they might’ve been used to the challenges of the open water. But today this doesn’t help their confidence. Back in chapter 8, we can see their reaction during another fierce squall. That time, Christ was with them in the boat—fast asleep—yet they cried all the same, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (v 25). Now in chapter 14, there is no Jesus, so their doom seems all but certain.

But then Christ comes out to them. He is walking on the water. The sight of that mysterious figure, shrouded in the spray of waves and the darkness of night, was even more terrifying for the disciples. “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid’” (v 27). To calm them, see what Jesus does: He speaks, He identifies himself—for He is the never-failing object of faith. And then He calls on them to take courage. He gives that one command which is found most often in Scripture, “Do not be afraid.”

Peter wants to come out and join Christ amidst the waves. We say it’s an impulsive move, the kind of spontaneity that often lands Peter in hot water. Yet it’s an act of faith. For Peter has just heard the reassuring word of Christ, and he accepts it. His confidence in Christ is so sure that he’s willing to step out of the boat and into all the uncertainty of the raging storm. He heads toward that ghost-like figure.

You can be sure that everything in Peter’s brain argues against what he’s about to do. But Peter believes. For he remembers the power that Jesus has, how even the wind and waves obey Him. And Peter has just heard that word of Christ, “Do not be afraid”—so really, why should he be afraid? If Christ was with him, he knew everything would be fine. And he knew that if the Lord commanded him to step out on the water, then He’d also make it possible. Yes, Peter believed. So when Christ said, “Come,” Peter went. And against all expectation, contrary to all experience, the water held him up.

In this scene on the water, we see the amazing power of faith. And we see the clear demand for faith. But Christ calls his people everywhere to do something very similar: to fix eyes on Him, to trust in Him, to believe his Word. ‘Do not be afraid. Trust in me, that I will save you, that I will deliver you. I will provide you with the complete forgiveness of all your sins—and yes, with anything else that you need besides. Believe in me as your God.’ Only by such a faith will we be saved.


2) the total unworthiness of faith: But there’s a problem. Because if we start thinking about it, we could get hung up on that “if only,” in Q&A 60: “If only I accept this gift with a believing heart.” Because what if our faith is weak, and what if we really struggle to trust in the Lord? Does that mean that our salvation is also uncertain?

It’s for this reason the Catechism asks the next question: “Why do you say that you righteous only by faith?” (Q&A 61). And then see how a disclaimer is put right up front: “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith…” Faith is required—absolutely—but it doesn’t depend on our faith. It’s not because of the strength and purity and consistency of our faith that God is pleased to save us!

And that’s a great relief. I think we’d all acknowledge that our confidence in the Lord is a shifting and struggling thing. We hear it regularly in the Form for Lord’s Supper, “We do not have perfect faith, and we do not serve God with such zeal as He requires. Daily we have to contend with the weakness of our faith.” We have the constant battle to rest ourselves in God’s Word, to put aside our anxieties, to find shelter in Christ, just to trust in him. Sometimes that goes OK, other times not.

This is the fight that God’s people have always had. Getting back to Hebrews 11, we see it’s full of people who persevered in spite of themselves. In spite of their own hesitations, in spite of their own sinfulness, God was faithful. For pretty much every saint who is mentioned, we can speak of how their faith was unworthy, full of fears and human striving and moments of terrible weakness. Even Abraham—the father of all who believe—didn’t always trust in the LORD. Nor did Jacob, or Moses, or Gideon…

Or think of Peter. He would soon make that great confession of faith in Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He would become a key leader of the church. Yet even Peter struggled to hold onto his faith. We see this when he denied the Lord three times, and we see it also in Matthew 14.

He had started so well. Boldly he stepped out of the boat, went walking on the water toward Christ—kept afloat by his faith, if you will. He believed the word of Christ, and trusted that with God all things are possible, even this. That’s how he made it out, perhaps five meters, perhaps ten. “But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’” (v 30).

There’s that terrible moment when Peter stops looking to Christ. He starts seeing all the reasons why he should really be back in the safety of the boat—he considers the wind, the waves, the darkness, the relentless pull of gravity on his body. And at once, Peter’s faith begins to deflate. And Peter begins to sink.

Then hear what Jesus says to Peter as He catches him and pulls him up, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (v 31). Jesus rebukes his disciple. In just a matter of seconds, Peter has gone from certainty in the Lord to uncertainty. He looked too much at what was going on around him, and not enough at Christ.

We know the feeling. We might believe in God’s power, believe that He can incredible things like create the universe, save sinners, judge the nations. So we might also rely on the Lord for many things, on many occasions. But suddenly our faith flounders. There’s a new trial, a new source of worry, a new sin. Or maybe we just look a little closer at our circumstances—and we lose that blessed assurance. Maybe God can’t handle this trouble. We know his promises, but we don’t always feel their truth. So we start to go under, weighed down by doubts and uncertainties.

Really living by faith is a struggle. We still want to have everything in our control. Maybe part of us still thinks that salvation can’t be free, but we’ve got to put in some work for it. Maybe we don’t know God well enough to know that He can be fully trusted. Whatever the cause, we can all be a people of little faith, and full of doubt. 

No wonder the Catechism insists it’s not because of the worthiness of our faith that God accepts us. If that’s what it depended on, we’d never make it. For who (besides Jesus) has ever fully and completely surrendered to the care of the LORD, utterly rested in him?

So we have to conclude that we don’t contribute a thing to our salvation—no, not even our faith. God might ask for faith, but it’s not because of our faith that He saves us. As the Belgic Confession puts it, “We do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness” (Art. 22).

Faith doesn’t justify us. The goodness and strength of our believing don’t make us right with God. No, faith is simply the way that we reach out to someone else for help, to Christ our Saviour. Christ is our salvation, He is our righteousness. It’s through Him alone that God accepts us.


3) the constant need for faith: So now what? After everything we’ve said about the unworthiness of our faith, we might give up. We might conclude, ‘So why believe? Why try to grow a strong faith? It won’t ever be enough to please God.’

But though God knows our weaknesses, He still tells us that He wants our faith, our sincere and humble trust in his Name. This is the constant need for faith. After everything, this obligation still hasn’t gone away. As the Catechism tells us one more time—the fourth time in this Lord’s Day, by my count—“I can receive this righteousness [of Christ] and make it my own by faith only” (Q&A 61).

God wants us to live daily in reliance upon Him. He desires that every day when we wake up, we resolve again to trust in Him and to depend on his mercy in Jesus Christ. For this will glorify him more than anything else. ‘Trust me,’ God says.

Once again, we see this in Matthew 14. For as Peter began to sink into the stormy waters, he knew he could do but one thing. He called out to Jesus, and he said, “Lord, save me!” Maybe Peter recognized that his faith was weak. But he still knew to turn to Christ. He still knew to cry out to him for deliverance.

And Jesus saved him! “Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him” (v 31). It might’ve been little, but Peter did have faith. He might’ve had doubts, but he never stopped believing. He trusted that Jesus could save him.

This deliverance in the middle of the lake inspires praise from all who see, “Those who were in the boat came and worshiped [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’” (v 33). That’s always the reaction that God wants: praise and worship.

When we receive salvation and eternal life as a free gift, we’re not supposed to become proud of our faith or our good position. Being saved is humbling yet somehow uplifting. For it causes us to give God all the glory and praise: how in spite of all our weakness, in spite of all our uncertainties, God has delivered us in Christ and made us his own.

And it should motivate us to hold onto that gift even tighter. It’s a deliverance that we need to claim for ourselves, each one of us. Sola fide means that we all need to go back to Christ every day, to confess that He is our one and only hope.

Like the writer to the Hebrews tells us: Keep your eyes fixed on him.

Like Peter did when he stepped out of the boat: Keep looking to Christ.

Yes, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2). Our salvation—it’s by grace alone. It’s through Christ alone. It’s founded on God’s Word alone. It is by faith alone. So to God alone be all the glory!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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