By Grace Through Faith: The Nature of Saving Faith

Desiring God 1988 Conference for Pastors

By Grace Through Faith

It’s time to speak to you about the nature of saving faith and that statement was not false, but it does need a little bit of unpacking. Saving faith is our phrase. It’s not a Bible phrase. It’s a phrase that we use in order to make the point which one always must make, that it is through faith that we are saved and apart from faith we are not saved. But when one reads the New Testament, one finds that faith is a great deal more than the principle that brings us into eternal life in its beginning. Faith is the principle whereby eternal life continues as long as we are in this world.

The Necessity of Faith

I want to begin, if I may, by putting what I’m going to say to you under the authority of the word, reading to you a passage which speaks of faith as a principle of life, I mean, of continued Christian life and persevering Christian life when the pressure is on. That aspect of the matter, in fact, is going to come into my presentation and that’s the note which I believe I should be striking as I begin speaking to you this morning. You, after all, are pastors who come from situations under pressure. You are ministering to people who are in similar situations. Faith as a principle of perseverance is very central, I think, to our real-life concerns this morning.

Therefore, let me begin by reading to you from the Letter to the Hebrews 10:35–11:10. Amongst other things that it does for us, this passage will show us what faith as a principle of life really is and as a word to those under pressure, I hope it’ll do more to us than that.

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.” And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 10:35–11:10, NIV).

May God bless his word to our hearts and to him be the praise, amen.

Back to the Basics

In our study of faith in these three keynote addresses of mind, we are, as I said last night, very much going back to basics. I suppose it was true for all of us that we were instructed in faith right at the beginning of our Christian lives. It must have been so where those Christian lives of ours wouldn’t have started at all. And I suppose that, as ministers, we have been talking about faith ever since we began to preach.

And yet, we do need to go back to basics at this point for evangelical thinking today has become pluralist. I think that’s a clarifying thing to see. There are many evangelical theologies running around today. There isn’t that solid consensus that there used to be of evangelical conviction binding evangelical people together. The different theologies may not be very different from each other, but they are different and faith is one of the points at which the difference is most apparent. And when it comes to practice, evangelical life has become pluralist in North America. Different people approach the living of the Christian life in different ways. We have a lot in common, but there are specific differences, and it’s in the practice of faith that some of these differences become most obvious.

So what I’m going to try and do this morning is to think through with you a clarificatory analysis of what faith is. I hope it will be clarificatory. It’s offered as such. It’s the best I can do. Then, we’ll look at some inadequate conceptions of faith and then we’ll look at some of the crucial connections of faith with other realities of spiritual life and existence. And we’ll try to establish the nature of the connections as clearly as we can. Indeed, clarity of understanding is what I’m shooting for right the way through. So this presentation will be even less like preaching than last night’s was simply because my concern right now is that, above all things, our mind should become clear. So, let’s move in.

What is Faith?

Let me move in with a reminder of the provisional definition of faith, which I gave you yesterday. Faith, I said, is a response to grace — grace perceived, grace acknowledged, grace recognized in the personal approach of the living Lord, who still comes to men through his word to speak peace into the trouble of their lives and to bring to us the salvation that on the cross he won for us.

Within that broad definition, I said, faith has at least these features. It’s a recognition of mercy offered by God to match our need. Faith never is borne without a prior sense of need. Again, faith is a realization of God in Christ, seeking you, finding you, calling you, and addressing you personally. Faith individualizes. You may be a member of a large crowd, you may never have thought of yourself as an individual isolated from the crowd ever before, but when God begins to speak to your heart, it individualizes you. You are the person whom God is addressing and you have to answer for yourself. Faith is born when the word of God begins to individualize you in that way.

Faith, again, is deliberate, resolute reliance on Christ — Christ as mediator, Christ as Savior, Christ as master and friend, Christ as all in all. I gave you that acronym from Sunday school. Faith means *forsaking all I take him (F-A-I-T-H). And the forsaking all is important. It isn’t real faith until the call to Christ is seen as a call away from every other object of trust, whether for acceptance with God or for joy and contentment in life or whatever. There’s an exclusiveness about faith at this point.

And then finally I said, “There’s this trend in the concept,” faith, this response to the Christ who comes in grace and mercy is the root out of which grows spontaneously, directly, and immediately the fruit of worship, delight in God as Edwards saw it (and rightly), leading to devotion to God. Similarly, from faith grows the fruit of obedience, the life of what the New Testament calls “good works.”

Analogies for Faith

Well, that, it seems to me, is a good introductory analysis. I hope it begins to clarify some things. I would like to add to it now a bit more in the way of introductory analysis — equally simple and equally practical. This is coming from the Anglican Bishop Ryle who was expounding the gospel in a very profound way in print about a hundred years ago. In one of his tracks he wrote like this, in a way that is very vivid and helpful I think. He’s focusing on faith in its initial activity whereby we receive Christ and actually come into the kingdom:

Saving faith is the hand of the soul. The sinner is like a drowning man at the point of sinking. He sees the Lord Jesus Christ holding out help to him, he grasps it and is saved. This is faith. Saving faith is the eye of the soul. The sinner is like the Israelite bitten by the fiery serpent in the wilderness and at the point of death. The Lord Jesus Christ is offered to him as the brazen serpent set up for his cure. He looks and is healed. This is faith.

Saving faith is the mouth of the soul. The sinner is starving for want of food and sick of a sore disease. The Lord Jesus is set before him as the bread of life and the universal medicine. He receives it and is made well and strong. This is faith. Saving faith is the foot of the soul. The sinner is pursued by a deadly enemy and is in fear of being overtaken. The Lord Jesus Christ is put before him as a strong tower, a hiding place under refuge. He runs into it and is safe. This is faith.

Now, let me add to those simple practical analyses — with which I hope our hearts and minds all resonate — something a little more formal, a little more scientific. These are some vintage theological formulae that have been tested by Scripture and tested in use over the centuries. I think we need them. I think they take us deeper into the reality of faith for the purposes for which we’re studying it today, and I think that without a little more in the way of an analysis, we could still make some serious mistakes. So that’s the next thing that I offer you by way of supplementing what I’ve said already.

Formulae of Faith

These are formulae of faith coming from the 17th century as a matter of fact. One is in the Westminster Confession where I’m going to read you a key definition, and the other is coming from a whole series of Reformed theologians of the 17th century who hammered this out in conflict with Roman Catholic theology, and at some points in tension with their Lutheran opposite members.

But first let me give you the idea which both these formal analyses are expressing, and the idea is that faith is the response (initial and continuing) of the whole person to the whole of God’s revelation. Think of faith as a circle with a center. The circumference of the circle embraces all Scripture teaching, all the knowledge of the three persons who are the one God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in all their manifold activity. But then the circle has a center and the center is Jesus Christ, the mediator and his promises of salvation.

In a moment, I’ll show how John Calvin expands the matter in Institutes Book Three, Chapter Two. He comes up eventually with the following definition, which is a definition that zeroes in on the focus of faith — that is, the saving center — and he defines faith. First, this is Louis Berkhof, writing in 1939. Let me read it to you. It’s very similar to Calvin’s definition, as a matter of fact. He says:

[Faith is] a certain conviction wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit as to the truth of the gospel and a hearty reliance and trust on the promises of God in Christ.

That squares very closely with Calvin’s definition from the 1559 Institutes. Here’s Calvin:

[Faith is] a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ and revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

You will notice that both those definitions are intellectual. That is to say, both of them define faith in terms of knowledge and trust issuing from knowledge. Neither of them defines faith as essentially doing something as distinct from knowing something. These theologians would’ve insisted that action springs from faith, but for clarity’s sake they distinguished faith as knowledge. The action, the obedience, the change of life, and the practice of repentance and good works springs from faith.

I ask you to notice that one of the characteristic things of our time is that we always define faith in terms of doing something, and we tend over and over again to create trouble for ourselves and for others by not putting enough knowledge in front of the action. And the trouble that is sown by that mistake of method can last for years and years and years. Well, I urge you to follow these good theologians — Calvin, Berkhof, and so many more — in defining faith first and foremost as knowledge of the grace of God in Christ towards you, and go on from there.

Understanding and a Whole-Person Response

I said that faith in its very nature is the response of the whole person, to the whole of God’s revelation. When I say “whole person,” I am thinking as these older Reformed theologians did of human nature, human individuals as God made us. The mind is first. That point has already been discussed in one of our question times. God is rational first and foremost, and he means us to be rational first and foremost. So it’s the mind first, as Thomas Aquinas no less said back in the 13th century: “Grace enters by the understanding.”

And then comes the response to what is known in action — we talk there about the will — and in affection. Jonathan Edwards is the man who, more than perhaps anyone else, highlighted both the true nature and the radical importance of affection. Affection to Edwards means those emotionally charged attitudes, reactions, and dispositions which reinforce action being themselves informed by the mind. The affections are such qualities as love of what is lovely, and hate of what is hateful, and fear of what we ought to fear, and joy in what we ought to rejoice at.

All of the Puritans before him said it, but Edwards said it perhaps better than any. If your affections are right, it’s tremendous strength, and if your affections are wrong, it’s awful trouble. Well, the whole person is to respond to the whole truth of God. This is the basic idea of faith, and for the whole person to respond means that our minds will be in the business (we shall know the truth clearly); our wills or our hearts will be in the business (we shall be understanding what response in action this known truth calls for); and our affections will be in the business (our hearts in the modern sense, which focuses much more on feeling than on the will). That is a different usage from the 17th century usage. In the modern sense our hearts will be in it as well as in the 17th century sense.

The Elements of Faith

Now, here are the definitions that I promised you from the 17th century, from the Westminster Confession to start with and then from 17th century theologians. I’ll give the Westminster Confession first. It’s Chapter 14 in which saving faith is defined thus:

By this faith a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word for the authority of God himself speaking therein (in other words, the believer will be a Bible believer), and it acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.

That’s the way faith behaves all through, says the Confession. But it continues:

The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Now, link that with what 17th century theologian after theologian of the Reformed tradition said about the nature of faith. Three words were used together in order to express the analysis. Faith, they said, is notitia, assensus, and fiducianotitia being Latin for knowledge, assensus being Latin for ascent, in the sense of approval and embrace of something that you find to be good and right, and fiducia meaning trust.

So, they analyzed faith as knowledge in general of the contents of Scripture and specifically of the knowledge of Christ, which is at the heart of the Christian message. And they analyzed assensus as the joyful embrace of this word as from God as true and good. You take it from God and you rejoice in it because it is so good. This is the heart joyfully receiving what the mind has coolly cognized. It’s at this point that the whole definition warms up in ascent. And then, this issues in fiducia (trust) in the Christ of the gospel, the God of the gospel, and the promises of the gospel. And that trust shows itself not in the first instance by doing things but by stopping doing things.

These theologians insisted that the criterion of true evangelical fiducia is that, as you trust Christ for salvation, you cease to do anything else in which you might otherwise have trusted. You stop working for acceptance. You stop trying to commend yourself to God by your own efforts. You put all your confidence in Christ to do that for you. He died for your sins, and how he forgives them. He is the mediator who brings you to God, and now you’re accepted. Christ does it all. Christ is the whole focus of your hopes of acceptance with your creator, and you base your life henceforth and all your hope of glory is not on anything that you are but on what Christ is. That’s fiducia, evangelical trust.

Resources on Faith

If you want to read theologians developing these thoughts, I’m going to suggest that you concentrate on three classic ones, one of whom we have already met and learned to appreciate, namely Jonathan Edwards, who seems to me to be the classic expositor of the ascent of faith, the delighted approval, the joyous embrace of God’s self-disclosure in the Bible and specifically in the gospel. Edwards makes so much, as we’ve already heard, of the importance of seeing the beauty and the delightfulness of the things that God makes known and actually delighting and rejoicing in these things. So study Edwards for the ascent of faith.

You may study him with pleasure for your notitia, your knowledge, of the content of God’s revelation and the gospel, but for variety you might like to go to Calvin’s Institutes for that. You still don’t find a better, more enlivening analysis of what God has made known of his works and ways in creation, providence, and grace.

Unlike people who write textbooks nowadays, Calvin conceived his Institutes as first and foremost a nurture book for Christians. He began as a little book that he called a catechism. It became a rather large catechism by the time he’d finished with it, but the devotional, doxological spirit which marked the catechism in the first draft remained with it to the end. It’s a spirit actually which Calvin most obviously caught from Paul. Paul writes his letters in the presence of God very consciously, and every now and then he’ll break out into doxology with words of praise to God because that’s what his own heart wants to express as he goes over the glories of God’s work of grace.

Well, Calvin, as I say, caught that spirit and the doxological temper of the Institutes is very vivid and strong. And so, the book does warm your heart as you read it, just as clearly Calvin’s own heart was warmed as he wrote it. So as a variant on Edwards for notitia, read Calvin’s Institutes and rejoice.

And then for fiducia, the kind of trust in which all the eggs are put into the one basket of relying on Christ for your salvation, even though you know that you yourself are still a sinner and not a day goes by without your being reminded afresh of that. For all that aspect of things read Luther, who is the classic exponent of that theme just as he was the pioneer, as you know very well, in excavating it and rediscovering it as it’s set out in the word in those early days of the Reformation.

So I suggest to you those three theologians, three for the price of one, in order to learn the full dimensions of what faith is. And I think that these definitions that we’ve seen from the Westminster Confession and from these theologians cover all the aspects and pick up all the angles, and I trust that as I’ve gone through this material so far, you have found yourself standing in awe of the grace and the gift of God because you have been thinking surely of the reality of faith as you know it in your own life, as you’ve seen it in the lives of truly believing people in your own congregations, and you have, I hope, been made aware again by this analysis that faith is a divine gift. Faith is a divine mystery. Faith is a work of the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts.

The Gift of Faith

This knowledge of God and this response to God is not something which comes by mother wit. Natural ability doesn’t enable people to get into it at all. Jesus, you remember, thanked God that he had hidden these things from the wise and prudent of this world (Matthew 11:25), that is, the people who thought of themselves as wise and prudent and were conceited about it. He makes these things known to babes. That’s his way. It’s the light of the Holy Spirit that calls forth and creates faith. God calls us into it by his grace, as we were saying last night.

Yes, this is the work of God, and embraced in this view of faith is a depth of understanding which many of whom enter into that by this world standards are neither bright nor sharp nor gifted nor particularly important. They enter into it through the enlightening of God. Whereas a lot of the world’s bright people, and some of them in your congregations, hardly seem to get beyond the first step or two. They never seem to get clear in a deep way about the glory of God and his word and the grace of God in his gospel at all, and we’re constantly having to try and sort them out. Well, it’s a matter of spiritual illumination. And in this, God is gracious and God is sovereign and we have to stand in awe of him, the God who does it. Here, let us remember Ephesians 2:8 again, which says:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God . . .

What is the gift of God? Why, the whole thing. It’s the salvation and the faith that lays hold of the salvation, not the one as distinct from the other but both together. It’s all God’s gift. He gave us the Savior, and he gave us the faith to receive the Savior. Our salvation is his work, first to last, and he must have all the praise for it.

Inadequate Conceptions of Faith

Now, with that analysis under our belt, that view of faith clear as I hope it is clear to you, let’s move on to what comes under my next heading, inadequate conceptions of faith. Here I have quite a number of rather nasty specifics to refer to. I have to refer to them because they’re still around and mistakes are still made with regard to them. I shall present them in a way which I’m sure will reflect my sense that they’re unlovely. I hope that you, too, as I reel them off will find yourself feeling these things are very unlovely. This is the morbid pathology of faith. These are distortions and the ways in which the quest for faith gets stymied and those seeking faith don’t quite get hold of what they’re after.

Here’s my morbid pathology then. I have five specific forms of inadequate conception.

1. Mere Orthodoxy

First, faith is mere orthodoxy, barren orthodoxy, such as the devils have as they tremble. So says James, if you remember in the second half of his letter. The Reformers called this “historical faith,” that is, belief that the Christian facts are true. “Story faith” was William Tyndale’s rather contemptuous way of referring to it.

This isn’t good enough. That’s the point being made. Faith that doesn’t produce works of obedience saves nobody because it isn’t real faith. Real faith does produce works of obedience. That’s James’s point really. It’s a bit obscure in the way that he lays it out in James 2:14–26 and following just because he uses the word faith much of the time at any rate in the way that the people he’s trying to correct are using it. They are using faith to mean mere orthodoxy. James accepts that usage for the time being in order to make his point of correction. He says, “Will faith thus understood save you? No, it won’t.”

And then he goes on to talk about Abraham and Rahab being justified by works and to set them before us as examples of what must be true of our lives also. And that, again, has stumbled people who don’t see that he’s using the word justify in a different sense from that in which Paul uses it. Actually, the story here is that Paul took the word justify, which like so many words in our dictionaries, had a number of quite general non-technical uses. He took it and made it a technical term in his own theology. He used it quite precisely, regularly for the work of God forgiving our sins and accepting our persons and thus passing on us right now in time the last judgment that ever will be passed concerning our relation to him.

But that is a technical usage which Paul developed and which James isn’t echoing. James is using the word in one of the regular senses that it had as a non-technical Greek term. Justify he uses to mean “to clear” or “vindicate” someone from suspicions brought against them or accusations that are lined up against them. And what James is saying is that we who profess faith are proved not to be phonies but to be the genuine article by the works which accompany the profession of faith in our lives.

So, where Paul says that Abram was justified by faith, you remember this is in Romans 4:22. When he believed God, God counted it to him for righteousness. James says that Scripture was fulfilled, that is, that statement was shown to be true many, many years after when Abram offered Isaac or at least prepared to offer Isaac on Mount Moriah in obedience to the word of the Lord.

There’s no confusion once you see what’s happening. James is talking about how Abram, and then Rahab, were shown to be genuine believers as distinct, as I said, from being phonies. You need works of faith, works of obedience to show that you are the genuine article, says James. That’s his whole point really.

Well, the definition of faith as mere orthodoxy unaccompanied by a change of life, a change of way, a new pattern of obedience, is not faith. That’s what Paul would say about it and that’s what James thought, although, as I say he doesn’t express it in quite those terms. Instead of saying, “Mere orthodoxy is not faith at all,” he says, “Faith (understood as mere orthodoxy) is a dead thing.” It has no life in it. It doesn’t bring life in any sense at all, but once you’ve adjusted to the way in which he’s using the terms “faith” and “justify,” you see there’s no contradiction between him and Paul as so many have thought. He’s making a very Pauline point, as a matter of fact.

2. Trusting the Church

Second, faith is trusting the church, or the church’s leaders, or your pastor, or somebody else concerning the truth of the Christian message and taking no responsibility for having convictions of your own. I am sure that in your congregations, just as in my congregation back in Vancouver, there are lots of well-meaning people who have not yet seen that we are responsible before the Lord for having convictions of our own.

In the Roman Catholic Church, this attitude has been canonized under the name of “implicit faith,” and that concept goes back centuries before the Reformation. What is required of God’s people, said Roman theology, is that they have implicit faith, that is, they trust the church for their convictions. They may not know what the church’s teaching is. If they’re trusting the church to look after them and not lead them astray, that doesn’t matter. Implicit faith will do. That is still formal Roman doctrine, although Roman Catholics in North America and incidentally in Britain also keep quiet about it these days. They can see that really it’s not a very glorious theological position to be trumpeting about.

But I want to make the point that before the Lord everyone is responsible for convictions about truth and we cannot shift that responsibility onto anyone else’s shoulders. One day we shall all of us have to answer before God the question, “Well, the Bible was given you and teaching was given you. What did you do about it? Did you embrace and love the truth?” This is quite a different question from, “Did you join the church and trust the church to see you through.” This is the question of whether you took seriously your responsibility before God to know, to discern, and to hold fast the truth.

Well, the idea that we can duck out of that responsibility and just trust the church is another distortion of faith, which means that what we think of as our faith will not be faith unless we get beyond this particular syndrome.

3. Faith and Feeling

Here’s a third distortion, a third inadequate conception. Faith is essentially feeling. I’ve dropped one or two remarks already which indicate that I want to hit on this idea. Yes, I do want to hit it and I want to hit it hard.

It may be that you think of faith as Schleiermacher, the grandfather of liberal theology, thought of it as a feeling of dependence on a God who is all around you. It may be that you think of faith the way that the wild men of the Great Awakening in Edwards’ day thought of it, that is, as a feeling of terrific religious excitement, the sort of excitement that gets stirred up in meetings where people are talking passionately and a sense that this is all very exciting just spreads through the whole company of people who are met there.

It may be that the feeling is a feeling of blind but resolute hopelessness. There’s a great deal of whistling in the dark done these days, and it’s often referred to in less well-instructed circles as the practice of having faith. We move into the future with faith. What does it mean? It means we move into the future whistling in the dark and keeping our courage up. Well, that’s a feeling, that’s a mood of resolute optimism but it’s not faith.

Nor is it faith when the feeling is the kind of thing that Rudolf Otto wrote about in his book The Idea of the Holy, an awesome awareness of the transcendent and the sense of the numinous, which some people get as they watch a West Coast sunset. I don’t know what the sunsets are like in Minneapolis but they’re grand out where I live and you can get numinous feelings as you watch them and a lot of Vancouverans do, and there are other experiences. Great music will do it and great paintings will do it. Art is a standard means of producing a sense of the numinous, but none of that is faith and that’s what needs to be said. This kind of feeling may be attested afterwards by saying, “Well, I felt that God was very close at that time,” but if that’s all you’ve got, that feeling of the numinous, it isn’t faith and it wasn’t faith. You are still a long way from faith and these things need to be said.

Faith has to be defined in terms of its object, the revelation of God, the Christ of God, the grace of God known, acknowledged, and then trusted. You mustn’t define faith as a feeling no matter how religious the feeling is. Faith is first and foremost a matter of the mind, of trust in truth known, of trust in a God who’s known, of trust in a Christ who’s offered and no feeling apart from that is faith. Well, it’s obvious when it’s said, but you will agree with me that the religious world today is full of people who have never gotten this straight. The New Age Movement of course is great at producing its own sort of tranquil, remote religious feeling, but it isn’t faith. Did you hear that, Shirley MacLaine? It isn’t faith. Forgive me.

4. Believing Untruths

Here’s a fourth inadequate conception: believing an untruth is not faith, however passionately the untruth is embraced and however sincere the embrace of the untruth is. Those who believe a lie are missing faith, not finding it. We know this in the case of non-Christian faiths, as they’re called, other religions. There are folk around today trying to tell us that all religions are forms of the same religion. That idea in different forms has been going around for 150 years, but I think we all know that it isn’t so, and I don’t need to spend time making the point. And I don’t suppose that I need to spend time on making the parallel point that heretical opinions and the views of the cults, which are worse than heresy, are not faith.

I mean, the cults do actually take up with other views though drawn allegedly from the Bible. These views are not examples of faith either. However, whatever you believe about the Arian Christ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it isn’t faith. Whatever you may believe about the three gods of Mormonism, it isn’t faith. It may not be far from the true faith but it isn’t faith, and it’s important that we should say that it isn’t faith.

Lordship Salvation

Now here’s a third one and this one might come very close to home. It might even create confusion in this very assembly, but I am going to say it because I think it needs to be said. There are people nowadays who dissociate their understanding of the gospel message from what they would describe in a rather uncouth phrase of their own coining as the doctrine of “lordship salvation.” The doctrine of lordship salvation turns out, when you look at it, to be the doctrine that repentance and faith must go together — that is, that receiving Christ means receiving Christ as what he is, Son of God coming to bless us as Savior and Lord, both. Lordship salvation observes the principle in relation to the offices of Christ that what God has joined man should not put asunder. God has joined Christ’s priesthood with Christ’s role as our teacher, or prophet, and as our Lord and master, our king.

These things are not to be separated. When the gospel is preached in a way which dogmatically separates them, and says the summons to receive Christ as Savior has nothing to do with the summons to receive Christ as Lord, and the two should be separated or the gospel is confused, well, it’s a false gospel that’s being announced. I’m sorry to have to say that because it’s evangelicals who are making this mistake and some of them may be your friends, but it is a mistake. It is, in actual fact, a curious reinvention in this 20th century of an 18th century heresy born in Scotland called Sandemanianism, of which I know we are going to hear more in this conference because Andrew Fuller hit out at it and we’re going to have a paper on Andrew Fuller which will tell us how he hit out at it.

Sandeman reacted against what seemed to him to be legalism in preaching the gospel. He deleted, therefore, the call to repentance from his account of the gospel message and said, “All that the gospel requires of us is that we believe that Christ died for our sins and rejoice in it, and that’s saving faith and that’s the message of grace.” Well, that’s exactly what has been rediscovered by these brethren who oppose lordship salvation in our time. Their motivation is the same and we should respect them for it. They don’t want, any more than any of us want, to see the gospel embroiled in legalism — doing things for salvation.

But repentance is not a meritorious work. It never was. And their fear that the preaching of repentance will lead to legalism is, I think, groundless and in the meantime they are presenting a gospel which is no gospel. They are magnifying faith in a way that destroys faith, and it’s very important, I think — though it’s painful to have to say it — that we should recognize this and at whatever cost dissociate ourselves from this mistaken view. Well, there it is. I’ve said it because I believe it, and I’m sorry I had to say it but I think I did.

Questions for Clarity

Let me say one more thing. To the folk who embraced this view, if I was able to discuss the matter with them, I would ask four questions. First of all, isn’t faith now a matter of becoming a personal disciple to Jesus Christ just as faith was in the days of his flesh? And that means it involves a personal relation to him as what he is. You can’t cut him up as if he was some kind of theological abstraction. He’s the living Lord, and he’s the same Lord who summoned, for instance, the rich young ruler to follow him in a way that would be costly and that was doing something, wasn’t it? And yet it was a call of grace, which in fact the rich young ruler at that stage of his career wasn’t prepared to accept.

I would ask this second question: Isn’t faith, as a matter of fact, an expression of a new heart that God has given, the expression of a work of inner transformation that comes out as calling, to use Paul’s words? And if it is, doesn’t our new heart of itself prompt us to a change of life, a different way of behaving, the way of behaving which the Scripture calls repentance? And if that is so, why do you impose on yourself this strange self-denying ordinance whereby you won’t tell us that we ought to repent when that in fact is what our new heart wants to do?

And I’d ask this third question: Isn’t the act of faith itself an expression of something called repentance, which is a change of mind, not simply about Christ, but about the whole of one’s life and the way one should behave? Isn’t that something which God wants? Again, I say, it is wrought in those whom he brings to faith. Why then do you refuse to talk about repentance as if there was something unspiritual in the theme?

And here is a fourth question: Isn’t the call to faith a call to get on terms with a holy God who can only approve holiness? And when you think of faith in those terms, doesn’t that very thought make you realize that you must at least commit yourself to the quest for holiness, otherwise you’re not taking God seriously?

Well, I’m doing this as a kind of dummy run. I don’t suppose, in fact, that any of you have embraced this view. I’m doing it so that you’ll see that there is actually a great deal to be said against this position, and I am looking for the day when evangelicals begin to say it more forthrightly than we’ve done in recent years.

I’ll tell you this, it’s beginning, because John MacArthur has written an excellent book against these people of which to which I’ve been privileged to contribute a foreword. Zondervan will bring it out in a very few months. He hits hard and he trains his guns well. It may be that when he’s produced his book, the view will be sufficiently exploded for us to feel that the job is done. But certainly, as things stand at the moment, it is a rampant instance of teaching and therefore encouraging people to believe an untruth, and it goes right to the heart of the gospel and we do need to speak out about it.

5. Trusting Unbiblical Techniques

The fifth inadequate conception of faith is trusting unbiblical techniques as a kind of spiritual magic for enriching your Christian experience and bringing you closer to God than you could get without them. This is the worthwhile substance of a book, which in some ways, I confess, I shook my head over. Dave Hunt spoke of this in The Seduction of Christianity, and he does zero in on the way in which so many people in so many different fields of spiritual therapy are these days putting their trust in a particular technique which they call “visualization.” And they suppose the prayer made with the help of visualization will be a much more effective prayer than if it had been made without visualization.

And it seems to me Dave Hunt is absolutely right to put his finger on that and say, “Now this is a lapse from faith rather than a focusing of faith.” And the same would be true in any parallel case. If you treated as magically fruitful for your spiritual life some unbiblical technique or other, whatever it was, you would be lapsing from authentic faith which looks only to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for spiritual enrichment and doesn’t regard any technique, any verbal formula, or any practice whatever as having magic quality to enrich your spiritual life.

Crucial Connections of Faith: Faith and Repentance

Here, I want to pick up the truth of the Christ-centeredness of faith and use it to make this point: repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same turning to Christ, the living prophet, priest, and king, or Christ the Savior, the Lord, and the leader. This entails turning from sins, yes, and even more from sin. The essence of sin is egoistic pride. That at heart is what one has to turn from or one cannot turn to Christ at all.

When God renews the human heart, as we’ve already said, he so changes us that we fall out of love with what we loved before and fall in love with Christ, with the Father, with the new way of life. Again, it’s the Edwards point. Every spiritual reality seems delightful to us and everything that we now see to be unspiritual becomes offensive to us. Well, egoistic pride now appears to us offensive.

We know that humility is the only right temper for a Christian saved by grace. We don’t want to be anything other than humble. Now, we may make an awful mess of it. There’s a lot of unconscious pride that spoils the life of Christians and even ministers. We don’t track it down, we don’t recognize it, and we don’t call it by our own name. If anybody asked us, we would say, “We are seeking to practice humility,” but those who know us best know that we are practicing pride still.

But that’s the kind of involuntary defect which Paul is, I think, writing about in the second half of Roman 7:13–25, where he says, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man. My heart has been changed. I want righteousness,” which includes humility. He is saying, “If I’m still in the grip of egoistic pride, well, I see that afterwards point after point.” That’s what he’s got in view when he says, “I find in myself, in retrospect as I examine what I’ve actually done, another law warring against the law of my mind bringing me into captivity to the law of sin.” And I could add to egoistic pride half a dozen other unlovely things which are right at the center of the living of those who are not Christ’s and which the Christian, with his renewed heart, formally renounces from the beginning of his Christian life.

So, that’s faith and repentance together. Two sides of the same coin turning from sin recognized as sin in order to turn to Christ, the holy Savior, who leads us as his disciples into the path of holiness.

Repentance Preceding Faith

Now, let me add to that a second point about faith and repentance. It’s a point that Calvin makes. In the New Testament, we are called to repent and believe, often in that order. In Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the gospel.” Acts 20:21, “I went up and down among you,” says Paul to the Ephesian elders, “preaching repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The point is that those things are put in that way with repentance preceding faith for didactic purpose, that is, the thought of turning to Christ, as one does when one embraces the gospel, is clearer if you make plain first that it involves turning from sin. Calvin says, “Actually faith is the source, the mother of all good works, and our life of repenting is among those good works,” so that actually our turning from sin is a fruit of faith. It’s the first fruit of faith. It’s really integral to faiths turning to Christ but insofar as repentance is a matter of works and of life. The theologically correct thing to say of it is that it’s a firstfruit of faith. Do you see?

Actually, a moment’s thought will show you that it would be quite wrong to suggest that people can repent thoroughly in their own strength before they become believers. They can regret, they can have remorse, and it seems to me that we should be working in our pastoral ministry and preaching to induce regret and remorse for sin. We ought not to hesitate to do that. But it involves actually turning from the bad habits and walking away and walking away into a new life, a new life into which those bad habits are no longer dominant. That’s more than anyone can do till that person has faith, and then in the power of Christ and the love of Christ and the strength that the Spirit gives — some detaching of themselves from their bad habits of former life — will be possible and that’s sanctification. Sanctification has begun and it may increase.

All sorts of pastoral questions arise. Some of us were talking about them over the table last night and we all know how difficult it is helping Christians forward on the path of holiness. Indeed we know how difficult it is traveling the path of holiness ourselves. You don’t realize until you start how many bad habits there are that need to be broken, and new bad habits get formed even as you’re trying to break the old ones. It’s a lifelong struggle. Well, we knew that. Alexander Whyte, who was very skeptical of quick and easy formulae for sanctification, once leaned over the pulpit at his church in Edinburgh and wagged his finger at his congregation and said to them, “Now, you’ll never get out of the seventh of Romans while I’m your minister.” And that was a hit at what some other people were saying, and you can see what he meant.

But now repentance, which means real beginning, at least, of tearing yourself away from the embrace of the sins that have dominated you up to this point. Repentance is a work of faith, a good work, and, as we’ve already said, you can’t have faith without it. Equally, you can’t have it without faith. So faith and repentance should be seen as very closely conjoined, inseparable from each other, and conjoined in that way. Real repentance is a fruit of faith, and if you put it in the other order, “repent and believe,” it’s for didactic purposes rather than as a matter of spiritual analysis.

Faith and Salvation

Here, the point has to do with the exclusiveness of faith and I told you before what the point really is. Why is salvation by faith only, we ask? Why was Luther so sure that he was translating right when he rendered Romans 3:26 that “God shall justify the Jew and Gentile alike by faith only.” He added the word only to the Greek. He justified what he had done. He said, “It brings out the sense.” Why was he so sure that this exclusiveness is part of the concept of faith? Well, the answer surely is because faith and faith alone links us up with Christ who is the only Savior. It’s faith alone because it’s Christ alone, and it’s only faith that unites us to him. And to grasp this is the touchstone of whether one understands faith or not.

In Christian history a lot has been said along those lines. We don’t hear so much of it today, but here for instance is something from an 18th century man, one of the heroes of the evangelical revival in England, John Berridge. He says:

Christ will either be a whole savior or none at all. If you think you have any good service of your own to recommend you to God, you are certainly without any interest in Christ. If, in other words, you think that it’s Christ and my life, Christ and my works, Christ and my service that’s going to justify you, then you haven’t begun to understand. You have no interest in Christ as yet. Be you ever so sober, serious, just, and devout, you are still under the curse of God if you have any allowed reliance on your own works and think there to do something for you and Christ to do the rest, you are still out of Christ.

That’s strong stuff, but theologically it’s correct. I think God does save the muddle-headed. He is a very merciful God, but I think that we as pastors do still have a responsibility to try and banish that muddleheadedness if we can. There are lots of people in our churches who still think that though, of course, Christ has something to do with it, the major matter in their salvation is my own life of faithful religiosity. And we have to try and teach them something better than that or else they may be found at the last without any real faith at all.

Faith and Certainty

The question is sometimes put in historical theology, and I expect some of you are into historical theology to the point where you’ve discovered that this is a question that can be put. Were the Reformers right to define assurance into faith, or to define faith in terms of assurance as Calvin did in that definition I read to you? Or were the Puritans right to say, as the Westminster Confession says, that you can have faith without assurance and that one who believes should therefore seek assurance because, though assurance is a Christian’s birthright, not every Christian actually enters into it. That sounds like a straight contradiction.

By the way, on Calvin, perhaps I better read again the definition to show you that he has defined faith in terms of assurance:

[Faith is] a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor towards us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ and revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts (that is, sealed on our hearts as truth to us individually) by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, he has defined faith in terms of assurance. Was he right to do it? My answer, and I hope you won’t think this is sleight of hand, is that both of them are right because though they’re using the same word, or at least Calvin at some points uses the same word, they’re talking about different things. Calvin, Luther, and the other Reformers are talking about the fact that faith is a conscious state of mind and you cannot exercise faith without knowing that you are exercising faith. If you are trusting Christ, then the consciousness that your trust in Christ is part of it and that consciousness is given you by the Holy Spirit. It is an assurance from God. It is faith become conscious of itself, as faith ordinarily is. And I think that the Reformers were right to say that everyone who believes at age does so consciously and, so, at that level, assurance is there.

The Puritans, however, I think were also right because they were talking about something which in the Westminster Confession is called infallible assurance. It’s a much higher degree of Christian certainty than the certainty that I am trusting now in a God who promises acceptance, forgiveness, and eternal glory to me. And there’s a lot in Puritan devotional writing which makes this plain.

Assurance and Carnal Confidence

The Puritans ministered in an era in which the churches were full of people whom they called “gospel hypocrites,” and they said, as a sober pastor must say in a situation like that, “Examine yourselves, all of you, whether you be in the faith, prove your own selves. Some of you, I suspect, are not believers yet, though you may be very confident that you are.” Well, Puritan thinking came out of that pastoral situation in which the pastors were trying to teach the folk to check their assurance, to make quite sure that it wasn’t what they called “carnal confidence” and not, you see, assurance from God at all.

They were great at exploding carnal confidence. It was part of their stock and trade. If you read the Puritans today or if you read Jonathan Edwards on the Religious Affections, you will see the way that they squared up to the problem of carnal confidence. This was the person in the church, in a Christendom situation where everybody is supposed to be in the church, who’s just come in with a crowd that is quite sure that as a churchman, he or she is all right. The confidence is there, but it’s carnal because it’s not an expression of true faith.

Well, the puritans sought to bring each of their member of their congregations, no less, to a state in which they had checked and measured themselves to see whether their confidence was carnal, or maybe as was the case with some of them, they had been taught by the pastor that the signs of a transformed heart were unambiguously there in their life, so though they’d been fearing to enter into assurance. After all, were not the Roman Catholics always saying, as they still do, that personal assurance is presumption? There were a lot of folk in the 17th century who hardly dared to take assurance to themselves even though it might have been there in their heart.

Well, the Puritans said, “Those folk who pass the test must embrace assurance and rejoice to know that they’re safe with Christ for time and eternity, and thus join the company of all others who have tested themselves by the gospel criteria and found that there is real warrant in their own changed lives for their confidence that they are true believers in grace, sharing real eternal life with the Savior.”

It’s the James point. It’s the 1 John point, really. You say that you have faith, but there should be signs that you have faith in your transformed life. Are those signs present? If they are, rejoice. You’re a real believer. It was good pastoral therapy, I think, and it’s still pastoral wisdom that we sometimes need to use with discouraged and depressed folk today.

The flip side of it, of course, is that if you are cheerfully going on confident that you are a Christian, but indulging some habit of unmortified sin and not bothering about it, well that throws doubt on your claim and should make you check that confidence of yours. You are not entitled to it while you are still indulging yourself in sin.

Faith and Sanctification

That’s all that I have time to say about faith and certainty. I was going to say something about faith and sanctification. Two very unfortunate disjunctions have gotten into our thinking about sanctification these last 120 or 130 years. They are still with us, muddling us up on a day-to-day basis. We need to nail them and get beyond them.

Disjunction number one is the disjunction between faith and repentance. I think it’s firmly fastened in the minds of the people who attack lordship salvation. They say, “You can have faith, but the summons to accept Christ’s lordship (that is, the summons to repent) is no part of the gospel.” That’s an issue that comes later. You ask, “But when does it come later?” “Well,” they say, “entry into sanctification is a second stage in the Christian life.”

That’s bad news, I think. The disjunction is in error, and it is the same disjunction expressed in another way that you enter into sanctification sometime after your first believing. What is sanctification? It’s practical repentance. Just that. No more. There’s no business on anybody’s part to posit a disjunction and make a separation here.

The second disjunction is the disjunction between faith and effort. This came in with the English Keswick movement and its American counterpart, the Victorious Life movement. And this too is still with us. Sanctification is not by effort, they say. It’s not by striving, not by endeavor, not by labor. You don’t do anything. Sanctification is by faith. You hand over all your moral problems to the Savior and then you find that he takes over and your problem is solved. It’s marvelous, they say. Well, it sounds marvelous the way they say it. The one snag is that it doesn’t work.

The truth is that there’s a false disjunction at the heart of the thinking. Now, what was said earlier this morning about the thought expressed in the magic letters A.P.T.A.T. comes in here. I know the page in my book that John Piper was referring to. I’m talking about the real path of holiness and I say it this way. The first thing you do is to work out what you have to do and acknowledge frankly to yourself that in your own strength you can’t do it. The second thing you do is to go to God in prayer and ask him to enable you to do it. The third thing you do is to go to it and actually tackle the task, confident that you are going to be helped because your God is a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God. The fourth step is review. You observe how you were helped and you thank God for that. If anything still went wrong and if you slipped yet once more, you take to yourself the discredit for that slippage and ask the Lord to enable you to do better next time round.

That’s prayer with effort. That is prayer sanctifying and animating effort. That is prayer actually energizing effort. This will-o’-the-wisp idea that the secret of sanctification is inner passivity while you let Christ do your good works and mortify your sins for you. This is a terribly innervating notion. As I said, it doesn’t work. It’s unrealistic. It has taken lots of people onto the wrong track and alas, many of them are still there, but if we should close that gap and eliminate the disjunction and the separation of faith from effort and substitute the biblical understanding, which the A.P.T.A.T. formula and the four-step pattern in which I just repeated the same thoughts, then there’ll be more real holiness in the church tomorrow than there was yesterday. Please God, that will be the case starting with us, the pastor leaders.

Faith and Struggle

I was going to say something about faith and struggle, the fight of faith. I was going to indulge in the vice of self-quotation that enables me to be briefer than I can be when I’m being rhetorical off the cuff. Faith takes God’s word about things and approaches God boldly through Christ to give all that he’s promised. Faith interprets trouble as God’s discipline of his child. See the end of Hebrews 10, all of Hebrews 11, and the first half of Hebrews 12 for that. Faith interprets trouble as God’s discipline of his child and so far from being daunted, faith rejoices to think of it — that is, of the discipline of trouble — as proving one’s sonship to God and preparing one for peace and pleasure to come. That’s the first half of Hebrews 12 as you’ll remember.

Also, faith takes courage from examples of living by faith, which the great cloud of witnesses have left us. That’s faith profiting in the way that’s lined out for us in Hebrews 11. Faith moves up and down the hero’s gallery of those who were in Christ before us and sets examples of what it means to stand fast by faith under pressure, and faith follows those good examples.

Finally, faith battles against temptations to unbelief, apathy, and disobedience. Faith sustains against those temptations the quality called patience, or endurance as in the modern translations. It’s the Greek hupomoné. If you take a concordance and check up how often Christians are summoned to hupomoné in the New Testament, I think you will be surprised at how much you find.

Faith sustains patience. Faith that gives that Christian stick-to-itiveness, which is the mark of the real saint, and without faith, that stick-to-itiveness simply wouldn’t be there. But through faith, there’s energy for patient endurance and keeping on keeping on that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

(1926–2020) was an English-born Canadian evangelical theologian and writer in the low-church Anglican and Calvinist traditions. He is remembered for the book Knowing God, written in 1973, as well as his work as an editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He was a member on the advisory board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and his last teaching position was as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.