By Dave Breese
Over many inattentive years, we Christians have needlessly allowed our faith to become the unnatural home of many alien ideas. These come in the form of spiritual-sounding expressions, new definitions, creative changes, late improvements, and a hundred other forms of strange thoughts in the Christian family of doctrine and convictions. These little expressions may not be all bad, but more than often they introduce a new, but imprecise thought which becomes all-too-readily accepted. Most of these word constructions are at best meaningless, but they later become damaging to the faith once delivered to the saints.
Most often, these subtle changes take the early form of mere adjectives which may seem helpful and therefore, despite their lack of credentials, come into use by believers. Indeed, we are now quite accustomed to such expressions as “the deeper life,” “the full gospel,” “sovereign grace,” “genuine commitment,” and many others. In each of these illustrations, the adjectives are quite meaningless, but the expression lingers with us, sometimes having become an essential part of the theology of one denomination or another. So enshrined, these expressions become truth-subverters and faith-twisters and should be viewed with suspicion. More than that, they should be newly examined by individuals with doctrinal discernment. The fact is that all embellishments which are attached to the core truth of Christianity, which core truth is expressed in the inspired words of Scripture, should be held suspect.
One such adjective which needs to be reexamined in our time is the word “saving,” which is then used with the word “faith.” “Saving faith” has been brought into the Christian discussion once again.
The adjective “saving” is now used by its proponents to teach that there is some special quality, depth or sincerity of faith which makes it “saving” faith. It is presented as faith that is “genuinely sincere,” “real,” and the like. It is frequently defined as being “heart faith” rather than mere “head faith.” The implication is that the first will save and the second will not.
The use of this expression usually means also that saving faith is the kind of faith which is first of all made up of “repentance,” which is then represented as something more than “a change of mind.” Repentance is then improperly defined as “sorrow for sin” or “a turning about” or even “doing penance” (which is what the English word means). Saving faith is then what is invariably presented as also including dedication to the Lord, commitment to Christ, changing one’s way of living, doing good works, and the like. As a result, this construct called saving faith is freighted with several causes, results, and inevitabilities which have now become, in many uncritical minds, an essential part of saving faith itself.
The result of this freighting of the faith has been a great deal of confusion of the church in our time. Christians everywhere are wondering at the depth of their faith, concerned about the proper degree of repentance, analyzing the extent of their “dedication to the lordship of Christ.” In that all of these and much, much more are included in the current idea of saving faith, a fair amount of confusion has set in in the minds of believers. In that now it is common to equate salvation and discipleship, Christians are increasingly concerned and wondering about the reality of their salvation. Salvation is now also made synonymous with sanctification, which increases the confusion of these days. The ever-widening definitions of saving faith have now expanded to include lordship salvation, salvation by discipleship, and other forms of human works. In the discussions concerning saving faith, the grace of God is becoming increasingly obscure.
There is no such thing as saving faith.
That is, there is no such thing as a faith that is made salvific, genuine, or efficacious by its quality. It is not the quality of faith which makes it real or saving.
Faith is “real” or saving only, yes only, because it has the proper object. A “deep,” or “genuine,” “high-quality” faith in a rotting rope ladder is worthless by comparison to a simple faith in a strong, solid staircase. Yes, a flicker of faith (which may not be thought of as faith at all by its possessor) in a marble staircase is infinitely more valuable than a long, strong faith in aged hemp which has been eaten away by time. The “assumption” that the staircase will support your weight is better than the passionate, tear-stained, profound conviction that the rotting rope will hold you.
Just so, and most obviously, faith is not a thing of itself. Rather, it is given substance, reality, by its object. Faith is given its solidity by the thing in which we have faith. Just so, faith becomes “saving faith” when it is faith in Jesus Christ, the strong Son of God. Specifically, the faith that saves is faith that Jesus Christ is the God-Man and that he died for our sins on Calvary’s cross and that He rose again the third day. When one believes these twin truths—Who Christ is and what He did to save us—he has exercised “saving faith.” This is exactly what the Bible means when it says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
To understand this simple truth is to save oneself a hundred forms of confusion and doubt. Faith is not to be defined by its causes, its antecedents, its depth, its results, its longevity, or its pervasiveness. No indeed, faith is made valid only by its object. All other considerations in evaluating the reality of faith are treacherous and tricky intellectual exercises. They are extra, non-paying passengers on the good ship grace.
Yes, the good ship grace is under attack today. But now, the attack on this grand old vessel is coming from a more subtle direction than before. The word “grace” has been well-established as to its meaning in the Word of God, and is therefore not the object of the direct salvos against biblical truth being fired today. Everyone who is a Christian knows that grace means “unmerited favor” and recognizes that we are saved by grace. Perceptive Christians are correct in understanding that salvation does not come by personal righteousness; rather this blessed gift of eternal life is ours by imputed righteousness. This imputed righteousness is a credential with God which is perfect and ascribed to our account because of the finished work of Christ on the cross. We recognize that salvation is through the blood of Christ alone. We agree together that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose again, that by His death and resurrection He might give salvation and life. All of this is ours by grace. We could not merit this gift of salvation from the penalty of sin. Grace, we agree, is the way of salvation.
But alas, the Pharisees have now arrived. “Yea,” they agree, “We are saved by grace, but grace only becomes ours when we exercise “saving faith.” At this point, they proceed to introduce and then promote a false definition of faith. As we have noticed, they define faith by its quality rather than by its object. They justify this piece of deception by attaching the word “saving” to the word “faith” and thereby couple a huge and heavy trailer to the word “faith.” This coupling—this attaching of epistemological baggage to faith—amounts, upon examination, to nothing more than the old doctrine of salvation by works. Faith is made to include a false definition of the word “repentance.” Faith is also made to include a form of continuance and dedication which cannot in fact be properly measured. Faith has become “commitment,” but this assertion comes to us without any proper definition of the word “commitment.” The fact is that “commitment” cannot be defined theologically except in a perfect sense. It must be “perfect commitment” or, of course it is not commitment at all. So it is that a strange doctrine that must properly be called “semi-lordship salvation” intrudes on the truth of the gospel of the grace of God and brings with it a boatload of confusion.
One of the sad consequences of this new wind of doctrine is that the assurance of salvation has disappeared in the minds of many of the children of God. They daily look at their lives and wonder. They wring their hands and ask for the thousandth time the question, “Am I really saved?” Having been subverted, they forget that the answer to the question, “Am I really saved?” is really, “Do I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that He died for my sins on Calvary’s cross?” “Do I agree that the death of Jesus Christ, His burial, and His resurrection is in fact the Gospel?” In the midst of today’s confusions, many have ceased to believe that the death of Christ is enough to work the work for their salvation from sin’s eternal penalty. Having believed a freighted and therefore a false definition of faith, they have entered into spiritual confusion, which is a condition from which they may never recover.
In the early days of Christianity, the Galatian Christians were in danger of being subverted by the same false interpretation of Christianity. So to them, the Apostle Paul was constrained to write, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3).
Paul then reminded them of Abraham’s faith by which Abraham received imputed righteousness. What he said was, “Abraham said ‘amen’ to God” and that was saving faith; that was salvation. These Galatians are then chided for believing that one continues from this point of salvation into perfection by keeping the law. By this, the Apostle Paul denies that the faith that saves is or includes law-keeping; it is rather believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus by which we are saved.
Obviously, the book of Galatians was given to us because God knew that this problem of defining faith as works and therefore teaching perfection by works would be with us through the history of the church. Therefore, Paul said to the Galatians, and would certainly say to us today, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
The thinking which is coming upon the church in our time threatens to produce exactly this problem again, spiritual bondage.
This condition, of course, need come upon no believer. Any Christian can easily avoid this form of spiritual subversion if he will daily remember that he is saved by grace and that his faith is made real, not by its degree, but by its object. Daily, we must look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith,” as the One Who makes it all real. Too easily we are prone to succumb to obvious distortions of the Christian faith. At least, we should make those who attempt to subvert us pay a higher price than merely redefining one of our Christian words. Those who are this easily dissuaded from a proper understanding of the Christian faith will hardly be able to muster the strength when the real oppositions to the gospel come upon us.
Never forget, then, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is not at all faith in ourselves or faith in the degree of our faith. It is not faith in our ability to endure, hold out, or even be faithful. Faith in our faithfulness is a broken stick. Faith in the fidelity and the finished work of Christ on Calvary and at the empty tomb is the sole and only basis for our claim to eternal life. On that basis, our claim is sure and steadfast.
A moment’s attention to the teaching of the Word of God concerning the way of salvation will impress us anew with the simplicity of exercising the faith that saves. Exercising this faith is like looking at a serpent on a post (John 3:15)—like saying “amen” to God (Romans 4:3)—like taking a drink of water (Revelation 22:17). So it is that Jesus said, “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).
The experience of salvation in an even more passive mode is taught in Scripture. It is like being made alive when we were dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). It is to be born anew (John 3:3). It is like a blind man receiving sight (John 9:39). In this case, salvation came to the blind man because of his affirmative response to the question, “Do you believe on Jesus, the Son of God?” (John 9:35).
The faith that brings salvation, therefore, must not be defined as activity on the part of the recipient of salvation. This salvation is received not on the basis of human works, but rather as a result of the fulfillment of one requirement, that of believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and believing that the sacrifice made by Christ on Calvary’s cross is a sufficient fulfillment of the divine requirement for the forgiveness of sins on the part of the one who believes.
A call, therefore, for Christian discernment must now be extended; for truly, the battle for the gospel of the grace of God has come upon us once again. New attention must be paid on the part of individual Christians to sound doctrine and good Theology. The beginning of this attention must surely be on the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The resounding answer must always and ever be no more and no less than the stunning and surprisingly simple truth, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).