Central to Berkouwer’s exposition of Christian experience are three books which might be called a kind of trilogy – Faith and Justification, Faith and Sanctification, and Faith and Perseverance. These titles emphasize the importance of faith in the theology of Berkouwer. From beginning to end, the Christian life is a life of faith. In each of these books, Berkouwer stresses that true faith in Jesus Christ is in direct contrast to the sinful pride of man by which he glories in himself rather than in the Lord. Commenting on the meaning of justification by faith, Berkouwer writes, ‘Everything is really said in an unobtrusive phrase, in Christ.’ On the subject of Faith and Justification, he continues, faith… is not added as a second, independent ingredient which makes its own contribution to justification in Christ… faith does nothing but accept, or come to rest in the sovereignty of His benefit … we are not acceptable to God because of the worthiness of our faith. Grace is exclusively and totally God’s. Citing John Calvin, Berkouwer describes the nature of faith thus: ‘faith looks away from itself to Christ’. With this understanding of faith, Berkouwer offers a helpful analysis of the doctrine of sola fide (by faith alone) and sola gratia (by grace alone): ‘Solo fide and sola gratia … mean the same thing.’ In these doctrines, by faith alone and by grace alone, God is glorified and man is humbled. On the final page of Faith and Justification, Berkouwer issues a warning against man’s sinful pride. It is a warning which is grounded in the gospel doctrines of salvation: by faith alone and by grace alone ‘let the sound of sola fide-sola gratia ring in the life of the Church. Let it be a warning against the pride of the treacherous heart.’9 These doctrines of salvation – by faith alone and by grace alone – also lie at the heart of Berkouwer’s exposition of Faith and Sanctification. He stresses that ‘in the New Testament all admonition is grounded in and proceeds from the mercy of God’. When the mercy of God is magnified, the pride of man is brought low – ‘the Scriptures preach humility: the only suitable response to the mercy of God.’ How is man able to walk in the way of humility? It is the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘The Spirit alone could perform the miracle of making man walk on the road of sanctity without a sense of his own worth.’ How long is man to walk in the way of humility? The believers life-long experience is to be a walk in humility; ‘This humility is not to be sloughed off as believers advance to new levels but to be preserved as long as grace communicates itself.’ This call to humility brings with it a strong warning against human pride: if anything is clear in the message of Scripture, it is that in sanctification there is never, under any circumstances, any room for self-pride or self-praise.10 This emphasis on humility also comes out strongly in Berkouwer’s volume on Sin, where he maintains that ‘(i)n the mystery of the Spirit there is no greater gift than this gift of humility’. Concerning the importance of humility, he writes, ‘it is identified with the gift of conversion itself since “(o)nly those who are humble can escape the judgment of which the Gospel speaks: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Luke 1:51)’. Berkouwer speaks of humility in connection with ‘the mystery of the Spirit’ since it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that sinful man can be led into and kept on the way of humility. Concerning this ministry of the Holy Spirit, Berkouwer writes, ‘In reproving and rebuking, in comforting and counselling, the Holy Spirit maintains a Christian in humility.’11 If we are not to walk in the way of sinful pride, we must learn to walk in the way of humble faith. In this, the Holy Spirit is our Teacher. Berkouwer’s strong emphasis on the grace of God, with its warning against man’s sinful pride, is maintained in the third part of the trilogy, Faith and Perseverance. Here, he stresses that we are not concerned with ‘perseverance … by one’s own power’. Rather, we must direct attention to ‘the persevering grace and power of God… the faithfulness of God’. In maintaining this emphasis on divine grace, Berkouwer insists that’(t)he grace of God is never the cause for glorying in one’s own power’ and that ‘(p)erseverance is always opposed to false self-confidence.’ There is, in Berkouwer’s trilogy on the Christian life, an echo of Calvin’s Institution which never tire of repeating the warning against every attempt at gaining assurance apart from Christ and His cross.12 The fact that Berkouwer has written this trilogy on justification, sanctification and perseverance should not lead us to suppose that he is concerned only with personal faith and has nothing to say about the corporate aspects of Christian faith. In his book, The Church, he gives attention to the relationship between the individual believer and the fellowship of God’s people. Berkouwer stresses that in ‘God’s saving reconciling action (t)he individual does not disappear’. Instead, ‘he is liberated from individualization and solitariness in order to have a place in this new fellowship.’ In the purpose of God, both the individual believer and the fellowship of the Lord’s people have their important place: Every individual need receives his undivided attention; yet, at the same time, ways are opened by which the individual receives a place in a human fellowship, ending all individualism.13 In his understanding of the relationship between the believer and the church, there is a warning against both individualistic pride and ecclesiastical pride. The individual believer dares not stand apart from the church because it is not all that it should be. The church dares not conceive of itself as an impersonal organizational or institution which can run roughshod over its individual members. Consideration of the believer’s place within the church leads us on to The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here, we are called away from our sinful pride. Concerning baptism, Berkouwer writes, ‘The fundamental fact about baptism will always be its involvement with the death of Christ.’ Developing this idea further in connection with the meaning of baptism, Berkouwer makes an important point: The prevenient aspect of the grace of God lies not in the temporal priority of the acts of God in baptism in comparison with the conscious acceptance of the divine promise, but in the temporal priority of the cross of Christ with respect to the baptized person, whether child or adult. A particular form of baptism, whether believers baptism or infant baptism, must not become such a source of doctrinal or denominational pride that we lose contact with the only legitimate boasting: ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 6:14). In his exposition of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, Berkouwer comments helpfully on the phrase ‘worthy partakers’. They are those who confess their sins in self-abhorrence, humiliation, faith in God’s promises, and gratefulness of heart. This is the ‘worthiness’ that belongs to the Lord’s Supper. It is not at all meritorious in nature, but is in complete harmony with what is signified and sealed in the Lord’s Supper. It is a worthiness that coincides with a confession of ‘unworthiness’ and with trust in the salvation of God.14 This insightful explanation of what it means to worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper presents a holy and yet loving rebuke to man’s spiritual pride, whatever form it may take. There is a rebuke for those who, while speaking of their own unworthiness, proudly refuse to receive – by faith – the salvation which God, in love, offers to them in Christ. There is a rebuke also for those who take the love of God for granted, coming to the Lord’s Table as a matter of mere religious ritual. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper directs our attention toward the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26). This is an oft-repeated reminder to us that the life of faith is a life that is directed toward the future. In his book, The Return of Christ, Berkouwer emphasizes that we must approach the future with a living faith and not with proud complacency. Challenging the teaching which moves directly from the love of God to the notion that all will be saved, he writes: ‘it is extremely dangerous to think and talk about “the love of God” and what follows from it outside of the gospel.’ The way of living faith is quite different from a proud complacency which simply assumes that all will be saved. Here, Berkouwer refers to ‘the question addressed to Jesus… “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” ’. He points out that ‘Jesus’ answer seems so noncommittal, so evasive’. Concerning Jesus’ answer: ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door (Luke 13:23f.)’, Berkouwer comments, ‘this evasiveness is only apparent’, adding this insightful remark: This is the answer to this question … this question has been answered, once for all time.15 In all our theological study, there is one thing we must never forget. Whenever we bring our questions to God, he gives his answers, but they are not answers which bolster our proud complacency. They are answers which call us to faith, a living faith, a growing faith, a faith which brings glory to God.
9 Faith and Justification, (Grand Rapids, 1954), 43, 175, 44, 201.
10 Faith and Sanctification, (Grand Rapids, 1952), 25, 125, 78, 117.
11 Sin, (Grand Rapids, 1871), 228-9.
12 Faith and Perseverance, (Grand Rapids, 1958), 228-9.
13 The Church, (Grand Rapids, 1976), 77.
14 The Sacraments, (Grand Rapids, 1969), 118, 176, 256-7.