Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What is saving faith?

It says something about the state of evangelicalism today that we’re even having to define and debate something as elementary and essential as the nature of saving faith. However, let’s seize the opportunity. And let’s begin with a classic definition of saving faith as our frame of reference:


I. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

II. By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But 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.

III. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

WCF 14:1-3


Let’s now isolate and emphasize some of the key ingredients in this definition:

Among other things, §1 distinguishes the source of saving faith in regeneration.

It is possible for the unregenerate to believe many things. Due, however, to the fall, it is not possible for the natural man to believe the Gospel.

There are three or four lines of evidence for this proposition:

i) Direct evidence from the sovereign and subjective grace of God, which is necessary to bring a sinner to saving faith in Christ.

ii) Indirect evidence from the noetic effects of sin.

Not surprisingly, these two lines of evidence are often intertwined in the witness of Scripture, viz. Jn 3:3-8; 6:44-45,65; Rom 8:7; 1 Cor 2:14; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 2:1-10; 4:18; Tit 3:3-5.

iii) Indirect evidence from apostasy, where we have the phenomenon of non-saving faith, viz. 1 Jn 2:18-29; Heb 6:4ff.

The apostasy of the Exodus generation is a paradigm example. At one level it was psychologically impossible for the Exodus generation not to believe in the true God. After all, they were witnesses to his miraculous deeds of deliverance and providence.

Yet this bare belief did not rise to the level of saving faith (cf. Heb 3-4).

iv) By implication, apostates are a subset of nominal believers. All nominal believers are potential apostates, but absent a triggering event, they may never commit apostasy. They believe by default, in the absence of a triggering event.

Church history abounds in examples, such as the Downgrade Controversy and its historic parallel in the Church of England.

Many Victorian intellectuals lost their Christian faith due to Darwinism, higher criticism, the New Geology, and so on. Had they been born a century earlier, they would have remained nominal believers.

§2 distinguishes the object of saving faith.

§3 makes allowance for the person-variable character of saving faith in its intensity or constancy. A Christian can suffer from doubts, or even backslide for a time.

The fatal error of the Sandemanian lies in his reductionistic definition of faith, which restricts saving faith to the object of faith to the exclusion of its supernatural origin.

This, in turn, allows him to say that a one-time believer can become a full-time unbeliever and still be saved.

The Calvinist, by contrast, denies this hiatus since saving faith is, itself, the result of a state of grace precipitated the new birth. And just as the Holy Spirit is responsible for making a believer a believer in the first place, he preserves the believer from the moment of spiritual birth until his death in Christ. God is not a God who lays the cornerstone, but not the keystone (Phil 1:6).

Regeneration does much more than originate a superficial faith in Christ. Rather, it initiates a moral likeness between the begetter and the begotten (Jn 3:6; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18). The begotten shares the same spiritual priorities as the begetter, for like begets like.

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