The Doctrine of Saving Faith
Saving faith is faith that not only knows and comprehends the facts about the gospel of Jesus Christ but also trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
While faith can be used in various ways, saving faith is faith that not only knows and comprehends the facts about the gospel of Jesus Christ but also trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Historical faith understands the claims of Scripture, and temporary faith seems for a time to trust in them, but saving faith is a firm conviction and trust in the person and work of Christ. While demons understand and comprehend the facts about God and Jesus Christ, this faith causes them to tremble. For the Christian, faith leads to joy and confidence in the goodness and grace of God, which bestows salvation through Jesus Christ apart from works, even apart from the fruit that flows from faith.
The Bible is replete with references to faith. Hebrews 11 stands out as the great “Hall of Faith,” where the author highlights the many Old Testament saints who placed their faith in the promise of the gospel. But what exactly is faith? And why do theologians add the adjective saving? In other words, what is saving faith?
The simplest and most basic definition of faith comes from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). The author of Hebrews gives a functional description of faith; in this case, faith is believing in what cannot be seen, such as God, or as the author points out, God’s creation of the world out of nothing (Heb. 11:3). We take creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) on faith since we cannot return to the beginning personally to observe God’s act. But when we relate the doctrine of faith to salvation, the definition becomes more specific. Saving faith is a conviction wrought by the Holy Spirit regarding the truth of the gospel and a trust in the promises of God in Christ (for this definition, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition, 503). Given this definition, what are the parts of saving faith? What other kinds of faith does the Bible speak of? And how does saving faith relate specifically to the doctrine of salvation?
The church’s historic understanding of saving faith contains three elements: the facts (notitia), comprehension of the facts (assensus), and trust in the facts (fiducia). In order for someone to believe in and trust in the saving work of Jesus, a person must first know the facts. She must know that Jesus existed as a real, live, historical person. Jesus is not a myth or fairy tale. But a bare knowledge of the facts does not constitute saving faith. A person must know the basic facts and comprehend them. In other words, knowing that Jesus lived is not enough; one must understand what Jesus did in his life. He claimed to be God in the flesh (John 8:58), God’s son and equal to him (John 5:18), and the only way to be saved: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But it is not enough to believe that Jesus exists and that he made these claims. The sinner must place her trust in Christ’s claims—she must believe that Jesus is the incarnate son of God and that he came to save sinners through his life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 1:16–17; 10:9–10).
We can illustrate the relationship between the elements of saving faith in the following manner. I can go to the airport and recognize the fact that there is an airplane in front of me. I can acknowledge the fact that the airplane and its pilot can hurtle down the runway and leap into the air for sustained flight. I can study the principles of aeronautics and comprehend that when air rushes over a curved surface it creates lift, which thus enables the airplane to fly. But I must trust the airplane and its pilot, board the aircraft, take my seat, and ride the airplane in order to demonstrate my faith in it. A bare knowledge of Christ and his claims is insufficient for salvation. We must trust that he is the only way to be saved from our sin and the only one who can give eternal life.
Saving faith is thus a firm conviction and trust in the person and work of Christ, but the Bible does speak of other types of faith. Theologians have discussed historical faith, which is a bare intellectual grasp of the claims of Scripture barren of the work of the Spirit. The apostle Paul, for example, chided King Agrippa for his belief in the Old Testament prophets but the King did not believe in Jesus, the one of whom the prophets spoke (Acts 26:27–28).
The Scriptures also speak of temporary faith, which is when a person temporarily “believes” in the gospel but later falls away. Christ’s parable of the sower captures this type of faith. The sower cast seed on rocky soil, quickly sprouted, but then died for lack of a root (Matt. 13:5–6). Christ explains that this portion of the parable corresponds to the one who “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt. 13:20–21). Christ contrasts the rocky with the good soil, which is when one hears, understands, and believes in the word and produces fruit (Matt. 13:23). Christ never states who prepares the soil, a vital element of the parable. Within the broader context of the New Testament, we know that the Spirit prepares the soil of the heart to enable sinners to believe and trust in Jesus (Eph. 2:8–9; Acts 16:14). Apart from the sovereign work of the Spirit, the best that sinful humans can do is achieve a historical or temporary faith.
A third type of faith is the faith of demons; this category is similar to historical faith. James writes: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19)! In other words, demons know the facts—God exists and is sovereign over all, including their own demonic realm. Demons comprehend these facts, and the comprehension of this knowledge creates fear in them. But they refuse to believe and trust in God, and they are incapable of doing so apart from a sovereign work of God’s Spirit. All three types of faith (historical, temporary, and demons) stand in stark contrast to saving faith. The adjective saving denotes that this type of faith is a sovereign work of God’s Spirit that secures a sinner’s salvation. But how does saving faith work in the broader scope of the doctrine of salvation?
We must recognize with Scripture that faith works through love, which means that the fruit of love and obedience flows from saving faith (Gal. 5:6). But we must also acknowledge faith alone saves, not the fruit of faith. As Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). How do we relate Paul’s two different ideas, namely, that faith works by love but that we are saved by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28, 4:6)? A historic seventeenth-century Protestant confession of faith provides a helpful distinction. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) explains that the “principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (XIV.ii). In other words, saving faith does not save because of what it does but rather because of whose work in which it rests in, namely, Christ’s. The Scriptures regularly emphasize this fact from the very beginning.
When the apostle Paul expounded the doctrine of justification, how sinners can receive the forgiveness of their sins and the right and title to eternal life, he returned to the earliest pages of Scripture and the life of Abraham: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:2–3). Abraham looked to the promised Messiah, saw his day from afar, and trusted in God’s promise (Gal. 3:10–14; John 8:58). And even though faith works through love (Gal. 5:6), God does not factor this love in the justification of sinners as Paul makes abundantly clear: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4–5). In fact, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the crucial role of faith by using either the term faith or believe 17 times in Romans 4 alone. This should impress upon our hearts and minds that saving faith, not our works, is the only thing that can save us, not because it is inherently worthy but because by faith we lay hold of Christ’s work and thus receive his perfect suffering and obedience as the means by which we are saved. This is the way that all sinners have been saved throughout all of redemptive history, and this is the chief point of Hebrews 11. The Bible knows of no other means of salvation other than trusting in Christ and resting in his finished work. Old Testament saints looked forward to Christ and New Testament saints look backward to Christ, but all lay hold of Christ’s work through saving faith.
- Guy M. Richard, “A Picture of Saving Faith”
- J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied
- John Owen, Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith
- Ligonier, “What is Saving Faith?”
- Paul Carter, “What is (Saving) Faith?”
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