When teaching on the historical development of Reformed Protestantism I have been struck lately by the greater and greater amounts of detail into which the Reformed churches went in descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s work. If you look (see below) at the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) you don’t see much beyond affirmations of faith, regeneration, and the work of the Holy Spirit. (I don’t think I have been overly selective.) And if you look at the nature of conversion, as sixteenth-century Protestants understood it, you see a notion much closer to Nevin’s idea of organic and life-long development than to the First Pretty Good Awakening’s standard of a moment of crisis of existential proportions.
When it comes to the Shorter Catechism (1647), you see much more detail (see below) about the layers and stages of the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the ordo salutis. You still don’t see any modern conception of conversion. The Divines were still thinking in terms of mortification and vivification over the course of a saint’s life. But effectual calling receives attention in a detailed way, and faith and repentance have descriptions that go beyond what the sixteenth-creeds or catechisms. (I suspect the influence here of Puritan practical or experimental divinity.)
Which then brings us to the American Presbyterian Church’s Plan of Union from 1758, a document that brought the Old Side (anti-revival) and New Side (pro-revival) back together in a hodge-podge of objective and subjective formula. What you see is even more detail regarding the inner workings of the Spirit than in the Shorter Catechism. Which is a puzzle to me. These Presbyterians already affirmed the Shorter Catechism. If they had only subscribed Heidelberg, they might have wanted a fuller statement of the Spirit’s work. But they had one. And they felt compelled to add girth to the Shorter Catechism’s already full figure. I suspect the influence of pietism and revivalism where the quest for spiritual authenticity requires ever greater levels of specifying the Spirit’s work.
Q.21. What is true faith?
A: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Question 65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
Answer: From the Holy Ghost, (a) who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments. (b)
Q 88. Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist?
A: Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.
Q 89. What is the mortification of the old man?
A: It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.
Q 90. What is the quickening of the new man?
A: It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
Plan of Union (1758)
. . . all mankind are naturally dead in trespasses and sins, an entire change of heart and life is necessary to make them meet for the service and enjoyment of God; that such a change can be only effected by the powerful operations of the Divine Spirit; that when sinners are made sensible of their lost condition and absolute inability to recover themselves, are enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and convinced of his ability and willingness to save, and upon gospel encouragements do choose him for the Saviour, and renouncing their own righteousness in point of merit, depend upon his imputed righteousness for their justification before God, and on his wisdom and strength for guidance and support; when upon these apprehensions and exercises their souls are comforted, notwithstanding all their past guilt, and rejoice in God through Jesus Christ; when they hate and bewail their sins of heart and life, delight in the laws of God without exception, reverentially and diligently attend his ordinances, become humble and self denied, and make it the business of their lives to please and glorify God and to do good to their fellow-men, – this is to be acknowledge as a gracious work of God, even though it should be attended with unusual bodily commotions or some more exceptionable circumstances, by means of infirmity, temptations or remaining corruptions; and wherever religious appearances are attended with the good effects above mentioned, we desire to rejoice in and thank God for them.