What is Saving Faith?

The Bible teaches that sinners are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.

The moment I make this statement an array of emotions are invoked and people will line up to make the case that what I said is not true.  The reasons people think this statement is untrue can be narrowed down to two major lines of reasoning.

The first is the difficulty of people to grasp the scope of God’s love and ensuing grace. The idea that God would declare a wicked sinner not guilty, and then righteous, and give him eternal life and an inheritance in heaven just because he believed what God said in the gospel of Christ goes against every instinct of man. Such an idea is a scandal! Only the most naive would embrace such an idea! Surely sinful man must prove something to God before He can be approved.

I suggest the second, and larger problem is the common misunderstanding of what is meant by “faith“, especially “saving faith” in the Bible. A surprising number of people evidently believe that “believe” and “faith” are exactly the same in regard to salvation and have the most elementary meaning of each word in mind. It is common in our fellowship for a candidate for baptism to be asked “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”  The problem is that believing that truth is not faith. Giving mental assent to some facts is not what the Bible means when it talks about “belief” or “faith“.

There are many places in the Bible that perfectly illustrates what genuine saving faith is. One of my favorites is found in Hebrews 6.

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
(Hebrews 11:6)

Without faith it is impossible to please Him…”. Since this is true we need desperately to know what “faith” is. The remainder of the verse explains it clearly.

I suggest that biblical, saving faith has three components, and lacking any one makes what one believes less than what God demands. The second section of the verse says, “for whoever would draw near to God…

  • must believe that he exists”. Unfortunately this is as far as many people ever get. They believe a set of facts about God and about Jesus in much the same way we believe stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Believing that Jesus was actually a historical figure, and that he was called “The Son of God” is good but is only part of  what faith is. I can give mental assent to historical facts but I never have to depend upon those facts, or put my trust in one of those historical figures. When Jesus told Nicodemus he should believe on Him he meant to “rely on”, to “lean on”, or to “dependently trust” in Him. This is the most fundamental or basic component of faith, it is intellectual.
  • “and that he rewards” It is not enough to believe God exists, we must also believe he will act on our behalf. This is the emotional aspect of faith. This is the point where what you believe in your head starts to be embraced by your heart. Paul’s description in Romans 10 clearly shows this, v9 “believe with your heart” and v10 “For with the heart one believes and is justified“. When I say I believe something with all my heart it is more meaningful than just a fact I have accepted as true.
  • “those who seek him” This is when faith is complete. Those who are seeking are acting. Until what you know if your head is true and what you embrace in your heart is acted upon it is not saving faith. This is the aspect of faith I have called volitional. It requires an act of the will to do something. Looking once more at the familiar passage in Romans 10 you read in v9 “if you confess with your mouth” and in v10 “with the mouth one confesses and is saved“. A person hears about Jesus and believes he exists, they believe in their heart that he will do something for them, and they then tell someone. It is in this context Paul writes in v13”everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved“.

So then saving faith is intellectual, emotional, and volitional. Now it is easy to see that there is absolutely no tension between what Jesus and Paul taught and what James taught; “Faith without works is dead, being alone” A belief that stops short of surrendered obedience is too short to be biblical, saving faith. There are observable responses to the gospel. Going public with your faith by telling others (confession), reenacting the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in baptism, and a lifestyle of obedience to what you know to be what God wants of you are all observable and to some degree measurable. But none of these observable acts are worth a plug nickel if first there has not been the first two components of faith. Many, many people are trusting what they do (which are good and noble things) and are not depending on Christ alone. It is the outworking of that solitary dependent trust in him that matters for time and eternity.

Again and again Abraham is put forth as our example of a faithful and faith filled man. He “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness”. Before he was circumcised, before Issac was conceived, before he took a step toward the place to where God would lead him, God declared him to be righteous. Let us not make the mistake of assigning human limitations to God who is unlimited. Do you not think God knew you, knew exactly what would would do on any given day, how you would sin, when you would hear the good news and respond? It is his foreknowledge that gives him the divine prerogative to justify a sinner in an instant who is yet to do those observable things. Now you will have to show me, and those to whom James wrote would have to show him (James 2:18), but God knows the beginning from the end.

The scriptures are very clear. Those who do not have the walk to match the talk are not Christians. Read 1 John. You will find over and over distinctions, a lifestyle of loving living by those who belong to God and are in Christ. They did not become Christians by doing those things, they do those things because they are in Christ. Because they have trusted him they love as he loved. 1 John 5 makes crystal clear that the division is made between the saved and lost by who believes on Christ and those who do not.

Are we saved by faith alone in Christ alone? Yes we are. But to affirm that statement we must know what is meant by “faith”. I hope this might help someone to understand better. Faith and works are not separated, they are always together in saving faith.

His peace,