Saving Faith as Treasuring Christ

ETS Annual Meeting | Denver

I’ll start with an assumption I hope we share: Saving faith is a receiving of Christ. John 1:11–12: “He [Christ] 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.” So, saving faith is a receiving act, not a giving act or a performing act.

When God justifies the one who has saving faith, he does not have respect to faith as giving him anything or performing anything to prove our merit. God justifies through faith because faith receives Christ as the sole ground of God being one hundred percent for us. That’s my assumption, my starting point.

Question and Proposed Answer

My question is this: More fully, what do we receive Christ as? And more specifically: What is the actual experience of receiving him? What is happening in our soul when we experience saving faith?

My answer to the first question is that whether we are receiving Christ as Savior, or Lord, or Shepherd, or Friend, saving faith receives Christ as a treasured Savior, a treasured Lord, a treasured Shepherd, a treasured Friend, a treasured righteousness. Saving faith receives a treasured Christ.

Thus, the answer to my second question is that what is happening in our souls when we experience saving faith is that we are treasuring Christ. We are experiencing the spiritual affection that corresponds to the greatness and beauty and value of Christ. Therefore, the thesis of my book What Is Saving Faith? and this talk is that “saving faith has in it the affectional dimension of treasuring Christ” (20).

Historically saving faith has been described as including knowledge, assent, and trust. I agree with that. But what needs to be drawn out of this great tradition is that this knowing includes a spiritual sight of the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6), and this assenting includes the consent of the soul to the value of that glory (Philippians 3:7–8), and this trusting includes the treasuring of that value as eternally satisfying (John 6:35). That’s my aim — to draw out this reality from the great tradition by showing it as biblical.

Two Reasons Affection Is Vital

I regard this affectional dimension of faith as essential for salvation. Where it is absent, there is no saving faith. Where Christ is not received as a treasured Savior and treasured Lord, he is being used, not trusted in a saving way. Or to say it another way, “Saving faith does not see Christ as useful to obtain something treasured more than Christ” (224).

To be sure, Christ is useful. He is the means of escape from hell, and forgiveness of sins, and resurrection of a pain-free body, and a new creation. And for these we should be leaping for joy. But if we receive Christ because no-hell, no-guilt, no-pain, and new-creation are our treasure, while Christ himself is not the supreme treasure, then that receiving is not saving faith.

It is possible to trust a surgeon to operate on your brain and have no desire to spend time with him at all. He is simply useful. You trust him because he’s competent and because your health is valuable. When the cancer is removed, or hell is escaped, we may have no interest in him. A pain-free heaven without Jesus would be perfectly acceptable to thousands of professing Christians. Which is one reason I wrote the book.

“Saving faith embraces Christ both as useful for his saving gifts and as precious for his satisfying glory.”

The spiritual affection of treasuring Christ is essential not only because it leads to human salvation, but also because it leads to God’s glorification. The reason this is so is that saving faith embraces Christ both as useful for his saving gifts and as precious for his satisfying glory. The affectional dimension of saving faith is essential both for the salvation of sinners and for the glorification of the Savior. Without it, the all-satisfying worth of Jesus would not be magnified in salvation as God intends.

Substantial Precedent

My defense of this claim — that saving faith has in it an affectional dimension — is not mainly by showing how widespread this truth is in historical theology, but rather to draw it out of biblical texts. But it is important to me that I not say anything without substantial precedent in the history of God’s people. I am fallible. And it is good that my reading of Scripture be chastened by two thousand years of other people’s reading of the Bible.

So, I do take heart when I read:

  • Calvin describing saving faith as “a warm embrace of Christ” that consists in “pious affection.”
  • Turretin describing faith as the “embrace of . . . that inestimable treasure.”
  • Owen calling it a reception of the “Lord Jesus in his comeliness and eminency.”
  • Mastricht saying that it “denotes desiring and reception with delight.”
  • Shedd saying that “evangelical faith . . . involves an affectionate love of Christ.”
  • Berkhof saying that it is a “hearty reliance on the promises of God.”

To my knowledge, I am not saying anything that has not been said in various ways by others far more gifted than I.

Biblical Support

But in the end we go to our Bibles. So let me point to several of the key Scriptures where I try to show the affectional nature of saving faith. I’ll try to point to the nub of the exegesis, hoping that you might look at the fuller argument in the book or bring it up for discussion in the panel.

2 Corinthians 4:3–7

First, we look at 2 Corinthians 4:3–7. And the thing to look for is, What is missing in the experience of the one who lacks saving faith in verse 4? And then, given what God does to change that in verse 6, what is the experience of the one who has saving faith? And what is it called in verse 7?

Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers [those who do not have saving faith], to keep them from seeing the light [the shining] of the gospel [the good news!] of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said [at the beginning in creation], “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light [shining] of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

So here the gospel is defined in verse 4 as the “good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” or as verse 6 describes it, “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” I think those are two ways of describing the one divine glory revealed in the gospel. This glory shines with spiritual “light” through the gospel story of Christ crucified and risen.

On the one hand (according to verse 4), the god of this world, Satan, knows what he must do in order to prevent saving faith from happening when that gospel is proclaimed. He must prevent the spiritual sight of that glory. That is what he does in verse 4. He blinds the minds of those without saving faith.

On the other hand (according to verse 6), God, the Creator, knows what he must do in order to change that and bring about saving faith. He must cause this divine glory in the gospel (“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”) to shine in blinded hearts. That is, he must cause the light of the glory of Christ — the glory of God in Christ — to be seen (with what Paul calls “the eyes of your heart” in Ephesians 1:18).

In our unbelief we saw Christ in the gospel as foolish, or a stumbling block, or boring, or mythical, or unimportant, or negligible (1 Corinthians 1:22–24; 2:14). And then the Creator of the universe caused us to see Christ as glorious, true, valuable, all-sufficient, satisfying — all of that I think is implied in “the glory of Christ” (v. 4). And in that miracle of spiritual sight, saving faith came into being.

And how does Paul describe this in verse 7? He says, “And we have this treasure.” What treasure? The glory of Christ seen in the gospel. “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul sees the experience of the glory of Christ in the gospel as a great treasure. Christ in his beauty is a treasure. The gift of seeing him that way is a treasure.

Since those who are blind to this treasure in verse 4 are called “unbelievers,” I infer that those who see him this way in verse 6 are believers. What they see now, but could not see before, is glory. The glory of God in the face of Christ. Or, as verse 7 says, they see him as a treasure.

I conclude, therefore, that saving faith includes a treasuring sight of the glory of Christ in the gospel. (Consider also 1 Corinthians 1:21–25; 2:14; Ephesians 1:18; and John 5:44.) The very nature of the new birth that causes the sight of the treasure of Christ, determines the nature of the faith it creates — namely, a treasuring of the treasure of the glory of Christ.

2 Thessalonians 2:9–12

Second, we look at 2 Thessalonians 2:9–12. What to look for here is the relationship between faith in the truth and love for the truth.

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

First, what is the meaning of the strange phrase in verse 10? Another way to put it is: “They did not welcome/receive the love of the truth.” My suggestion is this. At the end of verse 12 it says that these people “had pleasure in unrighteousness.” That is, they loved unrighteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:15). So, in verse 12 they love unrighteousness, and in verse 10 they will not welcome a love for the truth.

This is similar to Romans 1:18, where men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (cf. Romans 1:28). And 1 Corinthians 13:6, where love rejoices in truth rather than rejoicing in unrighteousness. So I take 2 Thessalonians 2:10 to mean that in the deception of unrighteousness, these people would not even consider replacing love of unrighteousness with love for the truth. Even if it were offered to them as a gift, they would not receive a love for the truth.

Now, with that clarification, Paul connects faith in the truth and love for the truth in two ways to show how there is no faith in the truth without love for the truth.

“There is no faith in the truth without love for the truth.”

First, he says in the middle of verse 10 that people are “perishing, because they [did not welcome a love for] the truth.” Then, in verse 12 he says that people are “condemned who did not believe the truth.” So, failure to love the truth condemns, and failure to believe the truth condemns.

And then, second, to make the connection between loving the truth and believing the truth one piece, Paul points at the end of verse 12 to a surprising contrast. We would expect him to say, “They did not believe the truth but believed a lie.” But what he says is, “[They] did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Which could be stated, “They did not believe the truth but loved unrighteousness” (cf. 2 Peter 2:15).

Instead of loving or finding pleasure in the truth of the gospel, they loved and found pleasure in unrighteousness. Which I think implies that believing includes loving what is true and right as it is presented in the gospel. And this loving is an affectional element in saving faith, because it is clarified here as “finding pleasure in.”

So, I conclude that the (new birth) miracle of welcoming a love for the truth of the gospel, is part of the miracle of saving faith in the truth of the gospel. And this “loving” is essentially what I mean by “treasuring.” A shift of loves is at the root of saving faith.

Hebrews 11:1, 24–26

The third text we look at is Hebrews 11. The thing to look for here is how the writer describes faith as looking expectantly and confidently for a treasured reward. I’ll read verse 1 and then verses 24–26:

Now faith is the assurance [or substance] of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . . By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

When he says, “Faith is the [substance] of things hoped for,” he implies that there is an affectional element in faith because, in the biblical understanding of hope, we only hope when we feel a confident expectation and desire to gain something we treasure.

And this understanding of faith is made explicit in the case of Moses in verses 24–26. By faith Moses turned his back on the “fleeting pleasures” of Egypt (v. 25) and looked to the promised Messiah and hoped in the “reward” to come (v. 26). His faith was the substance — the experienced present reality of that future reward — which he treasured more than the treasures of Egypt.

So, I conclude that the writer to the Hebrews understands saving faith as having in it an affectional dimension, which he would call treasuring the reward that God promises to be for us in Christ.

Gospel of John

Let’s consider one more brief but hugely important cluster of texts from the Gospel of John. John never uses the noun faith, but he uses the verb believe ninety-eight times. I think the reason for this has to do with the affectional nature of saving faith as John presents it. As I read these passages, watch for how John describes believing as drinking, eating, and seeing with satisfaction.

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. . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” (John 6:35, 51)

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37–38)

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than [loving!] the light because their works were evil. (John 3:18–19)

From these and other passages in John, I conclude that Jesus treats believing as having an essential affectional dimension. That dimension is described as eating the bread of life so that our souls do not hunger (John 6:35, 51), and as drinking living water so as never to thirst again (John 4:10–11; 6:35; 7:38), and as loving the light of the world for the glorious brightness that he really is: “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14; 3:19).

For this experience of saving faith to happen in hearts that are mere flesh (John 3:6), Jesus says that we must be born again (John 3:3, 7). When that happens, saving belief comes into being as a compelling preference — thirst, hunger, longing — for Christ as living water, heavenly bread, and the light of the world.

As Peter puts it, we are born again as infants who “have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:3). The life-giving milk of Christ is pleasing. This tasting is not a neutral act. Saving faith comes into being as a God-given preference — desire, hunger, thirst — for the water and bread and light that Christ is. And it exists as a satisfied drinking and eating and beholding of Christ.

“Christ is most magnified in our faith when our faith is most satisfied in him.”

I suggest that John never uses the noun faith but uses the verb believe ninety-eight times because he wants to foreground the spiritual act of the soul in receiving and coming and drinking and eating and loving. He prefers not to speak of believing as a state or position of the soul but as an act of the soul — a spiritual imbibing, ingesting, embracing, and savoring of the all-satisfying glories of Christ.

Magnify Jesus

My main point has been that saving faith has in it the affectional dimension of treasuring Christ. The ultimate reason this matters is that God designed saving faith such that he would be maximally glorified through it in salvation. That happens because such faith glorifies Christ not only as useful but also as precious. As a treasuring grace, saving faith magnifies Christ’s all-satisfying worth.

Or we might say Christ is most magnified in our faith when our faith is most satisfied in him.