Pastor John, you are not afraid to define saving faith as seeing and savoring Christ as supremely glorious. You have written things like: “Receiving Christ as your supreme Treasure is what faith is.” Or: “An essential element of saving faith is treasuring Christ above all things.” Or: “Faith includes the embrace of Jesus as our all-satisfying Treasure.”
Today, we have a rather critical email from a listener named Colin, who writes in to say this: “Pastor John, forgive me, but I think you’ve gone off the deep end in your definition of faith. Faith is trust. Period. ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’ (Romans 4:3). Definitely, loving Jesus more than anything is a necessary fruit of faith, but not the means of salvation. Why have you complicated saving faith?”
I share the concern of this question that neither I nor anyone else should make faith so complicated that a little child can’t believe and be saved. I think God has provided in the Bible, to paraphrase John Owen, a stream in which toddlers can wade and an ocean in which elephants can swim. If you can’t imagine elephants in the ocean, try blue whales.
“It is right and good and wise, especially with children, to treat saving faith as essentially trust.”
Which means that in the Bible, the most important realities are presented in ways that are simple and straightforward, and they are presented in ways that reveal layers and layers of meaning and reality, which are not always immediately obvious at first glance. I think it is right and good and wise, especially with children, to treat saving faith as essentially trust. That is, trust in Jesus to be who he said he would be, and to do what he said he would do. That’s what trust is, right? Be who you say you’ll be. Do what you say you’ll do and, most essentially, save me from my sin and from death and hell through your death and resurrection. I think that is good and right and wise and biblical to stress that trust does that.
As you read more and more of the Bible, and as you ask more and more questions about the very words you’re using, you realize there are dimensions of the act of trusting which have to be spelled out in order for a full understanding of what’s involved. This is owing not just to the fact that John Piper might have an overly inquisitive brain, but to the fact that there are biblical passages which call for this kind of reflection.
For me, the issue was pressed by the Gospel of John, which in one sense is the simplest of the Gospels. In another sense, it’s the most layered of the Gospels in depths of meaning. Here’s what I mean about believing in the Gospel of John. John 1:11–12 says, “He [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Who received him, who believed in him — those are at least overlapping realities if not identical. But that immediately raises the question, receive him as what? Trust him as what? Messiah? King? Savior? Friend? Lord? God? Counselor? Financial advisor?
That’s not a joke. I think if you don’t believe in Jesus as your financial advisor, you’re not saved. That is, if you reject his counsel about how to use your money and say, “You’re stupid. I’m smart,” that’s unbelief. Is it not wise to say saving faith receives Jesus for all that he is inasfar as we can understand what he is? A little child can receive him savingly with genuine saving faith for what he is according to what that child truly understands. If he’s truly born again, then he will go on receiving him as he reveals more and more of who he is as life goes by.
Piper: “There’s a kind of believing that’s not truly saving believing.”
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). One of the things that we receive Jesus as when we’re converted is as our treasure. He’s treasure hidden in a field, and conversion is having our eyes opened to how valuable Jesus is. So, we trust — yes, trust, trust, trust — him to be all that he says he is for us; namely, the supreme treasure of the universe. Trusting Jesus includes that. This helps us understand, I think, in the Gospel of John that there’s a kind of believing that’s not truly saving believing.
Listen to John 2:23–25, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing, But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In other words, that believing, something’s wrong with that. Something’s wrong. That’s not authentic.
Again, we can see the problem if you go to John 7:3–5, where Jesus’s brothers see those signs, they believe in those signs, and they’re called unbelievers. Listen to this: “His brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’” And then John adds, “For not even his brothers believed in him.” Whoa!
Of course they believed in him in some sense. You’re doing all these wonderful works. You’re surely the messianic miracle worker we’ve been expecting. But they didn’t know him for who he really was. They didn’t submit to his new way of bringing the messianic hope into the world. They didn’t know that he was going to die for their sins and that they would have to renounce all their boasting and take up their cross and follow Him. They were totally missing the true reality of Jesus, and so all of their belief in him as the messianic miracle worker is called unbelief.
Those are the kinds of things that gave me pause. I was studying this, and it sent me on a quest to find what in this Gospel really is saving faith. And I found this verse so helpful. This is John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’” It seems to me this gets right at the essence of what faith is. Yes, trust. It is trust in Jesus. It is trust in him as a kind of bread. It’s trust in him as a kind of living water. A trust that is of such a eating and such a drinking that the soul is satisfied. You will never thirst again if you eat this bread.
“Saving faith receives Jesus for all that he is inasfar as we can understand what he is.”
I think that’s what Paul was getting at when he said in the case of unbelievers that Satan had blinded their minds “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). In other words, to come to a true saving faith, whether a little child or an adult, you have to experience the miracle of spiritual sight of the supremely valuable glory of Christ, the image of God. In other words, Christ must be perceived as supremely glorious, that a 6-year-old experiences that. He would never use those words probably, unless he’s incredibly well-taught. But he wouldn’t need to use the words. He needs the miracle, though, of seeing Jesus Christ as trusted as the best of all. The most glorious and valuable of all.
I’m sorry if this seems excessively complicated to people. Here’s what I hope. I hope I don’t put any stumbling block in anyone’s way in trusting Christ. And I hope that people will find Jesus as easy to believe for the spiritual mind as a billion dollar inheritance is easy to receive for the natural mind.
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