Faith and Irresistible Grace
This article first appeared in the August 1983 issue of the Standard Bearer, part of a special issue on irresistible grace.
The word 'faith' in Scripture is derived from a Hebrew word that means 'that which is firm,' thus, that which is steadfast, trustworthy, infallibly true. From this is derived the subjective idea, the firm unchangeable conviction that God's Word is true. Scripture speaks of this in II Peter 1:19: "We have also a more sure (absolutely sure) word of prophecy; whereunto we do well that we take heed." In the New Testament the Greek word for faith corresponds with that, since it is derived from a word that means 'to persuade,' and thus 'to be persuaded,' to believe, to trust with a sure confidence.
Adam in paradise had that sure confidence in God. As he came forth from the hands of the Creator he intuitively knew God. His first consciousness was the deep awareness of the power and glory of God as revealed to him in the broad expanse of the sunny heavens, in the rushing torrent of the streams, in the singing of the birds, in the beautiful variety of trees; plants, and flowers, and in the peaceful grazing of all sorts of animals. We can well imagine that his first cry of wonder must have been, O my God, how glorious art Thou in all the works of Thy hands! For Adam was created in the image of God in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, so that he intuitively knew God, devoted himself to God and was prepared to serve Him as King of the earthly creation. With his whole being he sought God as his highest good, expected all things from His hands, and rejoiced in the intimate fellowship of walking with God and communing with Him at the tree of life.
Therefore his sin of eating of the forbidden tree was characterized by willful disobedience, rebellion, and breach of covenant. Willfully, even deliberately, he turned himself against God, listened to the lie of Satan as transmitted to him by his wife, and allied himself with Satan in the wicked attempt to be like God. Since Adam was the head of the human race Adam's guilt became our guilt, and since he was our first father we are all conceived and born in sin, our understanding is darkened into foolishness, our heart is turned against God in wicked rebellion, our will is perverse, so that we put forth every effort to gain our selfish ends, dishonoring God's Name, misusing and destroying God's creation, and filling the measure of our iniquity every day.
Only grace can change that. In fact, grace does not merely restore us to our former state in paradise, but exalts us to a higher and richer life in an even closer intimacy and communion with God as the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ. God sent His Son into the world to seek and to save His lost sheep and to lead them into the sheepfold of heaven, nevermore imputing our sins unto us. Only the atoning death of the cross could redeem us from sin and death and make us sons and daughters of our God, heirs of the salvation that He prepares for us in the Father's House with its many mansions.
Therefore Scripture teaches that there is salvation in no one but in Jesus Christ. He not only opens the way to our salvation, He not only brings salvation, but He is all our salvation. He assures us, "I am the Bread of Life." "I am the Water of life," "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," "I am the true Vine." It is especially this last statement, the figure of the vine, that is important to us here. In John 15:1, 2 Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. . . .Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me. . . .For without Me ye can do nothing."
At the moment of regeneration we are ingrafted into Christ like a branch in the vine, to draw our life from Christ. Or, to change the figure, at regeneration the life of Christ is implanted in our hearts. We become new creatures, born from above. To us is given the spiritual faculty, the ability to believe. Just as an infant has all the potentialities that he will ever have, whatever he may become later in life, so also the reborn child of God has the full potentiality to believe, even though that faith becomes evident only later. "I live," says Paul, "yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). Therefore faith is the living bond that unites us to Christ, whereby we become partakers of Christ and of all His benefits.
Salvation is by faith and by faith alone. In answer to the plea of the Philippian jailer, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?", Paul answers, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts. 16:30, 31). Jesus says in John 3:14, 15, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." Again in verse 36 of the same chapter it is confirmed that salvation is by faith, and by faith alone: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
This faith, according to our Heidelberg Catechism, consists of a certain knowledge and an assured confidence (Lord's Day 7). This knowledge is not merely intellectual, but involves the heart. It is a knowledge of an enlightened understanding, arising out of the life of Christ that is implanted in the heart. Paul speaks of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (Phil. 3:10). There are many professed theologians who are thoroughly acquainted with the Scriptures, but who in their spiritual blindness do all in their power to undermine the truth revealed there, while there are unlearned believers who are given spiritual eyes to see, spiritual ears to hear and hearts to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. "This is eternal life, that they might know Thee the only true and living God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou has sent" (John 17:3). Those who know God, also know themselves, in all their sin and misery. They flee to the cross to seek pardon in the atoning blood of the Savior and know Him as their only and complete Savior.
This faith is also an assured confidence. The believer not only confesses that God is the only true and living God, but also adds, This God is my God forever and ever. He is assured of the forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of the Savior. He has the adoption to sons and cherishes the hope of eternal life in everlasting fellowship with God. In the midst of all the trials and sufferings of this present time He rests assured that God is for Him and that nothing can be against him. He is confident that God Who has begun a good work in him will surely finish it. Even in times of doubt and temptation when God seems far from him he still seeks his refuge in God in prayer. He cherishes the beginning of eternal joy in his heart.
The all important question is, Who works this faith?
The common conception is that God offers His salvation, but man must believe and accept it. Christ is presented as standing knocking at the door of the heart. The knob is on the inside so that He cannot enter unless the sinner opens the door to let Him in. Or the figure is used of one holding out a slice of bread, which the hungry person can accept or reject. It is maintained that when God created Adam in His own image the will was not a part of that image. At the fall the will was impaired, but did not become perverse. The sinner can realize his sin and misery, can still will the good, even though he does the evil. Paul's complaint in Romans 7, that when he wills the good evil is present with him, is ascribed to the natural man apart from grace. He can hunger for the Bread of life, can reach out as a drowning man for the lifeline that is thrown to him in the preaching of the Word. This is a shameful denial of the sovereignty of God, making a helpless Jesus dependent upon mere man; no, worse, upon a dead sinner. If this were the case, not one of us would ever be saved.
There are also those who speak of faith as a condition unto salvation. They defend this view in a pretence of maintaining man's responsibility, as if God's sovereign grace ever bypasses man's responsibility. In our own history as Protestant Reformed Churches the statement was made from one of our pulpits, and ultimately condemned, that "God promises to every one of you that, if you believe you shall be saved." No matter how one may attempt to give this a Reformed interpretation, the fact remains that it militates against the plain teachings of the Scriptures. The general promise that is declared to "everyone" is made dependent upon the condition "if you believe." This can never be taken to mean that God says to the lost sinner, "I promise to save you on the condition that I fulfill in you My own promise, that is, that I give you faith to believe." The only possible interpretation is, that faith is a condition unto salvation, and that man must believe before he can be saved. Scripture always confirms the truth, "For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). Nothing, not the grace, not the salvation, not the faith is in any sense of man, but it is God's work of sovereign mercy in us.
Similar to the view mentioned above is the view that God's promise to the baptized child at baptism (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39) is a conditional promise that is contingent on the child's acceptance. It is said that God promises to each baptized child that he is an heir to eternal life, but if this child, when he comes to maturity, does not accept that promise, he thereby rejects it and becomes a covenant breaker and is cast out. Apart from the fact that this teaches a salvation that is dependent upon a dead sinner, this also teaches a grace that is resistible and a falling away of saints. Salvation is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God Who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16). There can be no real faith nor assurance of faith except from God.
Faith is God's gift, which He works in our hearts through the preaching of the Word and by His Holy Spirit. Not by an outside source, such as science, secular history, or anything else that must prove the Bible to be true, but by the testimony of Scripture itself. Faith is through hearing, and hearing is by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Our Reformed Confessions maintain that faith is "conferred, breathed and infused into man," for God "works in man both the will to believe, and the act of believing also" (Canons III, IV, Head of Doctrine, article 14).
Thus we can triumphantly declare, "For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to Whom be the glory for ever. Amen." This assurance of faith depends not on us, but on God alone, and is attained only in God's sovereign mercy.
Rev. Cornelius Hanko was born to Herman and Jennie (nee Burmania) Hanko on May 19, 1907 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received his heartfelt desire when the Lord in His mercy took him to glory on Monday, March 14, in the year of our Lord 2005.
Rev. Hanko was baptized in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. During the common grace controversy in the 1920s the Hanko family followed Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the majority of the consistory of Eastern Avenue in their polemic against common grace and their advocacy of one, sovereign grace of God for the elect in Christ Jesus. The Hankos thus became charter members of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the Eastern Avenue Protesting Christian Reformed Church, her pastor and consistory, were cast out of the CRC in 1926. Rev. Hanko, therefore, was the last of the PRC clergy (and perhaps of the entire membership of the PRC) to have had direct, personal contact with the events of 1924–1926 that led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Already in his teenage years Rev. Hanko had his eye on the ministry. His first inclination was to be a missionary. That never happened, because the Lord called him to the pastoral ministry for his entire career. Rev. Hanko began his studies for the ministry under Revs. H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema, and G. M. Ophoff. He graduated from the seminary in 1929 with five other men (four of whom left the PRC in the split of 1953 and one of whom left the PRC in the early 1960s. All five of these eventually became ministers in the CRC).
After graduation from the seminary Rev. Hanko and his bride Jennie (nee Griffioen) made their way to Hull, Iowa PRC, in which church Rev. Hanko was ordained a minister of the Word and Sacraments in the PRC. God blessed Rev. and Mrs. Hanko with four children, all of whom are members of the PRC: Rev. Herman C. (married to Wilma Knoper), Professor Emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary; Fred (married to Ruth Miersma), who gave his working life to the Protestant Reformed Christian Schools (Adams Street in Grand Rapids, where he was my ninth grade teacher, Northwest Iowa in Doon, where he taught with my wife, and Hope, Walker, Michigan); Elaine, widow of Richard Bos; and Alice, who cared for her father in his later years.
In addition to the Hull PRC, Rev. and Mrs. Hanko served in the following Protestant Reformed Churches: Oaklawn, Illinois (1935); Manhattan, Montana (1945); First, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1948); Hope, Redlands, California (1964); and Hudsonville, Michigan (1971). After becoming emeritus in 1977, Rev. Hanko remained active for a number of years, preaching and teaching in the churches and preaching two services per Sunday in Florida during the winter seasons.
His years in First Church were difficult ones for Rev. Hanko because of the controversy that resulted in the split in First and in the denomination in June of 1953. The controversy involved the doctrine of the covenant. The majority of the congregation of First and of the members and clergy of the denomination embraced the covenant view of Dr. Klaas Schilder (conceiving of the essence of the covenant as consisting of a conditional promise made by God to every baptized child). These left our churches. During these years, while never compromising the truth of an unconditional covenant of grace and friendship established unilaterally by God with His elect in Christ Jesus, Rev. Hanko never lost a certain healthy balance in his preaching and teaching in First Church. He simply did his work by the grace of God, preaching, teaching, and caring for the flock of God as best he was able.
During his years in First Church, which numbered more than five hundred families before the split in 1953 and ca. 200 families after the split, Rev. Hanko had my father as one of his co-laborers in the consistory. They became good friends. The Hankos and the Deckers regularly visited together. It was through this contact that I got to know Rev. Hanko on a personal basis. It was during Rev. Hanko’s years as pastor of First that I was a student at Calvin College, then located on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids just a short block away from the parsonage occupied by the Hankos. Not infrequently, I would walk from class at Calvin to the parsonage with my questions. Rev. Hanko patiently answered these questions from Scripture and the confessions and would then offer prayer. Rev. Hanko was used by God, together with my parents to keep me in the PRC as a member and later as one of the churches’ pastors. I also had the blessed privilege after October 1, 1965, the date of my ordination as pastor of the Doon, Iowa congregation, to labor for a few years with Rev. Hanko as a colleague. We younger pastors in Classis West leaned heavily on our older, experienced, and competent colleague, learning much from his godly example.
During his pastorate in Hudsonville, Michigan the Lord delivered his beloved Jennie from her suffering into glory. I remember sitting with Rev. Hanko in the ICU waiting-room at the hospital, when he remarked, “Part of me is dying in there.” Now Rev. Hanko, having died in the Lord, enjoys God’s fellowship in Jesus in glory as well.
We thank God for giving our churches this gifted and faithful servant and for using him for the edification of the churches for the years of his lengthy ministry among our Protestant Reformed Churches. That in the years to come these churches may follow the example of our beloved brother, Cornelius Hanko, and “…earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints…” is our fervent prayer (Jude : 3b).
Soli Deo Gloria! (Written by Rev.Gise Van Baren)