A person is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
Every word of that sentence is important, but one of those words is rather hard to define. What do Christians mean when they talk about being saved by “faith”?
Most of us assume that the word ‘faith’ is more or less synonymous with the word “believe,” but the Bible is careful to communicate that it is not. The Apostle James says: “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19 ESV).
The demons believe a great deal about God; they believe he is holy, just, merciful and Sovereign. They believe he sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for human sin, and they believe Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. They believe that he ascended to the Father’s right hand and has taken his seat and begun to rule. The demons believe in a great many true things but they are definitely not saved!
So what do we mean when we speak of saving faith?
A careful study of the New Testament would seem to indicate that what the Bible means by “faith” includes at least the following three things.
While the Apostle James was making the argument that faith is more than belief, he was not making the argument that it is less than belief. Belief is part of what it means to have faith. The Apostle Paul said: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 ESV).
Saving faith includes deep, passionate belief (“in your heart”) in the essential facts concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. A saved person believes that Jesus is Lord and that he died and rose again. Saving faith cannot be less than that.
But it has to be more than that.
It must also include the concept of trust.
The word “trust” implies a personal application and commitment. Its one thing to believe something, and it is another thing to trust in that something or that someone for your own life and salvation. We can hear that distinction quite clearly in Romans 4 where Paul says: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5 ESV).
There Paul says that saving faith is a faith that has made a decision to not trust in one’s own works but rather to trust in Christ who justifies the ungodly.
When people with that kind of faith die and stand before God and are asked by God why he should let them into heaven, they will not recount their service hours or produce their tithing records – rather, they will point to the nail scarred hands of Christ. “There is all my hope and plea! See the blood! It speaks for me!”
That is trust, and that is more than “mere” belief.
Saving faith must also include the concept of obedience.
This is the one most Evangelicals today tend to leave out, but the Apostle James is very concerned that we not do so. According to James, a “faith” that does not result in obedience to the commands of Jesus is not saving faith. He said: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14 ESV)”
“That faith” apparently, is not saving faith. It is deficient, sub-Christian and unsaving: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV).
It is not only James who makes the connection – all the Apostles do. The author of Hebrews says about Jesus: “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9 ESV).
This teaching goes all the way back to Christ himself. He said in Luke 6: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46 ESV).
A real disciple believes in who Jesus is, trusts in what Jesus has done and obeys what Jesus has said.
That is saving faith and it is always a gift from God. “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 (Ephesians 2:8–9 ESV).”
Thanks be to God!
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.