“And without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11.6).
We are justified through faith. Through faith in Christ, we are pronounced righteous in God’s sight based on Christ’s mediatorial work. He paid the penalty of our sin, and performed in our stead the requirements of the covenant of works. In simpler words, we are saved by grace through faith. But what is faith? This is no insignificant question. If the benefits of justification become ours through faith, then the two most critical questions are, What is faith, and How do I know I have saving faith?
A fundamental difference, however, exist between the questions, What is faith, and How do I know I have saving faith. In the first question, we must only consider the elements of faith. In the second question, we must also consider the effects of saving faith. Obscuring the distinction between these two questions has resulted in numerous misunderstandings about the doctrine of salvation. In other words, if in answering the question, What is faith? we observe the effects of faith we will necessarily fall into salvation by works. If, on the other hand, in answering the question, How do I know I have saving faith? we only observe the elements of faith, then we will necessarily fall into antinomianism. To clarify this distinction, and to answer these two vital questions, we will first examine different kinds of faith so we can easily distinguish these from saving faith. Second, we will examine what faith is not. Lastly, we will examine what faith is.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FAITH
Several different types of faith are found in Scripture. They differ from saving faith not only in their character, but, more importantly, they differ in effect; The Bible speaks of only one faith that saves. For it is possible, as the apostle Paul said, to believe in vain (1 Cor. 15.2).
Historical faith is merely assent, the kind of faith typified by the Sandeman heresy of the past, and by no-lordship views being preached today by such men as Zane Hodges. Historical faith amounts to nothing more than the acknowledgment of a fact to be true. This type of faith acknowledges Christ as Savior and may even acknowledges other doctrines–but it is nothing more than an acknowledgment. “This faith accepts the truths of Scripture as one might accept a history in which one is not personally interested” (Berkhof). In Historical faith, there is no appropriation. There is no resting in. There is no reliance on–only an intellectual belief in the historical facts of the Scriptures.
In Acts we find that Simon Magus had faith, “And even Simon himself believed.” What is it that they believed? In Simon’s case, the preaching of the gospel was believed. Yet clearly he was not saved. In the parable of the sower the word of the kingdom, which can only mean the gospel, was preached, and some received it with great joy; however, they were not saved, as is evident from the entire passage. Yet, they believed something! And that something was the facts of the gospel. The point is, the idea that faith consists in merely assent, an acknowledgment of the facts, does not explain how different kinds of faith exist.
Temporary faith, as with all non-saving faith, is not rooted in a regenerated heart and will not stand steadfast in days of trial and persecution. Our Lord Jesus Christ provides an example of this non-saving faith in the Parable of the sower, “And the one whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately falls away” (Mt. 13.20-21). We also see examples of temporary faith in the gospels and epistles. In John’s gospel, we read, “many came to believe in Him” (8.30); yet as the discourse develops these “believers” later say that Jesus was a bastard and demon possessed and later try to stone Him to death! (8. 31-59. Note verse 31, “Jesus was saying to those Jews who believed in Him”). Another example is Paul’s companion Demas. Paul calls Demas his “follow-worker” (Philemon 24), but later says of Demas, “For Demas, having love this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tm. 4.10). Apparently, Demas’ faith seemed real enough to mislead even the apostle Paul, but was nevertheless only a temporary faith as evidence by Demas’ actions. But Paul was not the only apostle fooled by temporary faith. The apostle Phillip baptized Simon, a supposed believer, only to discover later that his faith was not real (Acts 8. 1-24). Other examples can be given, but these are adequately in establishing that there is a temporary faith, a faith that from outward appearances seems real, but in the end proofs to be a faith that does not save.
These individuals, it must be emphasized, were not saved, only later to lose their salvation. John describes these individuals not as Christians losing their salvation, but as those who, “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1 Jn. 2.19).
James concludes his discourse on the relation of faith to works with: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2.26). According to James, a faith that does not result in works is dead and cannot save (Ja. 2.14). The relation of works to faith and salvation has throughout church history been disputed. Generally, three opinions have been given. (a) That faith and works secures salvation, (b) that faith alone secures salvation and works may or may not accompany salvation, (c) that faith alone saves, but works always accompany true saving faith. According to this view, we are, as Luther said, justified by faith alone, but with a faith that is never alone. This last view best fits all the Biblical evidence on the subject, especially the teaching of James. (See Faith and Works)
WHAT FAITH IS NOT
Many erroneously make obedience an element of saving faith. For example, in Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible it says on page 55 of the Old Testament: “Man IS JUSTIFIED BY FAITH IN THE ATONING BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST, resulting in A SUPERNATURAL REGENERATION FROM ABOVE” A little further down the same page it says: “He is NOT JUSTIFIED BY WORKS or BY NATURAL DEVELOPMENT FROM WITHIN and SELF EFFORT.” (Col. 3 note 3).
Apart from Dake’s confusion over regeneration’s place in the Ordo Salutis, his statement on justification is seemingly biblical–until he defines faith. For example, on page 201 of the New Testament he gives this definition of faith: “Full surrender, yieldedness, and obedience to all known truth. (9) Dake’s definition of faith is part of the notes for Jn. 3.15. The verse reads: “That whosoever believes” and according to Dake, belief means full surrender, yieldedness, and obedience to all know truth, “may in Him have eternal life.” On page 107 of the New Testament, Dake writes: “3 things men must do and continue in to receive eternal life: 1. Believe, which implies complete and continual obedience.” (10) One need not be a theologian to recognize that the gospel according to Dake is salvation by works and heretical. However, for those who are still not convinced, try to meet Dake’s so-called conditions for eternal life on page 100 of the New Testament. There are only 23!
No doubt true saving faith will produce obedience as the Holy Spirit works within our hearts. But faith is not obedience. Obedience is the evidence of saving faith. To introduce obedience into the definition of faith is to make salvation contingent on our works; for faith receives the gift of salvation, and if faith includes obedience, then faith and my obedience receives salvation. This is salvation by works, something the Bible everywhere condemns.
Not what my hands have done
Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole;
Not all my prayers and signs and tears
Can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other works save thine,
No other blood will do,
No strength save that which is divine
Can bear me safely through.
Neither is walking the isle, joining a church, nor saying the so-called sinner’s prayer saving faith; nor is it evidence of saving faith. The biblicalness of some these external acts are questionable, but the point here is that they are not saving faith. Many a sinner has walked the aisle, said the sinner’s prayer, and joined a church, but they believed in vain as evidence by their apostasy.
ELEMENTS OF SAVING FAITH
We must be careful to recognize that while we speak of the elements of faith, there are not different stages of faith. Faith is a complete act of the whole person, heart, mind, and will. We speak of the elements of faith to have a clear comprehension of what true saving faith is. Reformed theologians have appropriately maintained that there are three elements in faith: (a) Knowledge, (b) Assent, and (c) Trust.
“How then shall they call upon Him whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10.14).
Faith is often characterized as blind, or as a “leap into the dark.” However, there is always a reason for faith. Faith must act on knowledge or it cannot act. In order for a rational person to put their faith in anyone or thing there must be reason for it. In other words, we can believe only that which we know, and this fact is no less true about saving faith: “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10.14) “This is eternal life, that they may KNOW Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (Jn. 17.3). This, of course, does not mean that the reason or knowledge behind faith is comprehensive, or even fully comprehended. There are mysteries that we as Christians fully believe. But there is nevertheless indispensable core knowledge to be believed for salvation. Paul sums up this knowledge saying, “But we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1.23), and, “Now I make known o you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15.1-3)
Yet, knowledge is not faith (Rom. 10:14). Knowledge does not save. But without knowledge faith is impossible because knowledge is the root of faith. No one can trust Christ for salvation without knowing something about Him. This knowledge may not be full, and the faith that receives Him may indeed be weak. However, without knowledge, faith is impossible, for we must know something about the one whom we believe in. “Faith in Christ requires a knowledge of Christ. Faith must always have an object, either a person or thing. We cannot have faith in the void, in nothingness. The very nature of faith is that we have faith in someone or something. Christian faith has Christ as the object. We must therefore know about Christ before we can believe in Christ” (Confessing Christ, P.27).
Saving faith rest on the knowledge of God’s salvation as revealed in His Holy word. People may obtain some knowledge about God through nature, or conscience, but this knowledge is altogether inadequate for saving faith. As faith rest in Christ as He is offered in the gospel, it becomes saving. In other words, the object of faith is Christ, and only the Christ that Scripture reveals. Correct knowledge matters. It does not matter whether one is sincere, if what is believed is false. Sincerity cannot save. The Prophets of Baal were sincere in their worship, but sincerely wrong.
Not only are we to know certain facts about Christ and salvation, but we must believe them to be true. It will do one no good to know all the historical facts, and even facts about salvation, if one does not believe. King Agrippa knew the facts about Christ but this knowledge did not save him (Acts 26.26-28). Still, knowledge and assent do not make saving faith. We hold that the Bible teaches that mere assent is insufficient to save, that the Bible teaches that saving faith includes trust. The devil and his demons acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Mt. 8.29), but assent to the truths of the gospel cannot save them.
The difference between trust and assent is easily seen in this Wesley hymn:
He breaks the pow’r of reigning sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean, ( knowledge and assent)
His blood availed for me. (trust)
This is the essence of saving faith, to believe that His blood avails for me! To stop short of this is only to possess an intellectual assent to certain propositions of Scripture, to merely believe His blood can make the foulest clean. Knowing and believing Biblical truth is not enough, we must trust in Him who died for us. We are not merely to know certain things about Him, or merely believe certain things about Him, but we, if we will be partakers of eternal life, must trust in this Christ who saves. We must receive and rest in Him alone for our salvation.
That saving faith is more than simple knowledge and assent is demonstrated by: (a) Faith is often in Scripture called trust (Ps. 2:12; 17:7; Mt. 12:21; Eph. 1:12). (b) Faith is often in Scripture described as active: “turning to” (Isa. 44:22), “receiving” (Jn. 1:12, 13), “eating” of Him (Jn. 6:54), “coming” (Jn. 5:40), “laying hold of” (Heb. 6:18). These figures suggests that faith is more than mere knowledge and assent. (c) Some places in Scripture repentance–which is active and not merely assent–is joined with faith (Mk. 1.15; Mt. 21.32; Acts 20.21). (d) Scripture tells us of differing faith– a faith that saves and a faith that does not. However, belief is not only present in saving faith, it can also be present in non-saving faith.