FAITH: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT ISN’T
By Will Graham
In order to identify what saving faith is, it would be ever so useful to describe what it is not. Various misperceptions regarding the true essence of faith are fairly common nowadays. So let’s call them by name and show their insufficiency.
What Faith is Not
Firstly, saving faith is not ‘dogmatic faith’. By that I mean a merely intellectual assent to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith without a personal commitment to them. One may believe in the existence of God, the historical crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the goodness of Christian morality without experiencing a personal transformation of one’s own heart. After all, the devils believe and tremble (James 2:19). Faith is something more than cerebral.
Secondly, saving faith is not ‘temporary faith’. Jesus referred to such a faith when He recounted the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:10-20). Folk with this brand of faith initially receive the Word of God, but when Satan or tribulation or worldly seductions come knocking at their door, they denounce the Word and sell their souls for a plate of lentils. Such rootless faith is of no value in God’s Kingdom.
Thirdly, saving faith is not ‘miraculous faith’. Pharaoh’s magicians and Nebuchadnezzar’s wizards did wondrous works; but they were not sons of God. Even Judas Iscariot had power to heal the sick and raise the dead; yet he was a child of perdition. Deuteronomy 13:1-3 makes it crystal clear that even false prophets can predict the future with pin-point accuracy. In other words, faith needs something more than miracles to be proved genuine.
Fourthly, saving faith is not just ‘credulous belief’. Before faith can flourish, it first needs to hear the uttering of a divine promise. Without this Word from God, there can be no faith. This fourth point is especially relevant given our contemporary church scene wherein multitudes are taught to dream up ideas and visions in their own hearts whilst confessing “in faith” that God will bring them to pass. Such a faith is no faith at all because genuine faith relies on the testimony of the Spirit of God; not the flippant spirit of man. Only when God speaks can faith be exercised. You cannot have faith in something that God has not spoken.
What faith is
We cannot get anywhere in determining what biblical faith is all about without the term ‘trust’. This is true both in Hebrew and Greek. Charles Hodge analysed that, “Faith, in the comprehensive and legitimate meaning of the word, therefore, is trust.” Faith’s primary element is trust. But this prompts a question: trust in what?
Scripture’s uniform answer is trust in God. But it’s a lot more than just a general confidence in some vague deity out there in the great beyond. Perhaps the best recent example of this kind of nebulous belief in the academic world is the late Anthony Flew (1923-2010). After championing the cause of atheism throughout the course of his life, he converted to Deism at the turn of the century confessing that all the evidence pointed to a designer God. Nonetheless, the distant and disinterested deity of Deism is not the intensely near God of the Gospel, that is, the loving Father God who reveals Himself in and through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Faith trusts in the God of the Gospel. But to dig a little deeper we need to ask another question: what exactly is it about the God of the Gospel that faith must trust? This is where the concept of ‘promise’ becomes all important. Faith puts its confidence in the chief promise of the Gospel, namely, that whosoever believes in Christ is not condemned (John 3:18, etc.). He (or she) has passed from death to life! Faith lays a hold of the mercy of God manifested in Christ crucified and refuses to budge an inch. Faith, therefore, glories in God’s merciful promises.
The first generation of Protestant Reformers stressed this connection between saving faith and God’s promises relentlessly. Martin Luther wrote, “Faith gives the honour to God that He can and will perform that what He promised, namely, to make sinners righteous.” His right-hand man Philip Melanchthon continued much in the same spirit, “Faith is clearly the recognition of that mercy by whatever promise you apprehend it.” And again, as one of the spokesmen of the second generation Reformers so eloquently put it, “We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” A century later the Protestant Puritans kept preaching the same holy doctrine. Here’s a quote from just one of them, William Gurnall, who defined faith in the following matter: “It is the act of the soul whereby it rests on Christ crucified for pardon and life, and that upon the warrant of the promise.” In other words, faith is inseparable from the merciful promises of God. And all these merciful promises hone in upon Jesus. As the New Testament repeats time and time again in manifold texts, Christ is faith’s supreme object.
This observation helps us to understand another important facet of faith i.e. that it is not self-sufficient. The glory of faith does not reside in itself. Faith always points above and beyond itself. It cannot be content alone. Faith’s grandeur consists in being the avenue through which Christ’s righteousness is applied to the sinner’s heart. Faith is the tunnel that draws vast goodness from the lake of Christ. Jesus is an end in Himself; faith is but a means to Him.
Faith, then, is entirely captivated by Christ. This explains why I think that the best way to think about faith is a pair of arms wide open waiting to embrace the love of God. Whereas repentance signifies a turning away, faith is a drawing near, a coming close and a kiss of deep affection. It is so much more than a scholarly agreement. To go back to the original definition we proposed, faith is heart-warming ‘trust’. This is the essence of what true faith is all about. Faith believes that God will be eternally merciful to sinners because that is what He has promised. Or as the writer of Hebrews declared, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not yet seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
To conclude, faith is neither ‘dogmatic faith’ nor ‘temporary faith’ nor ‘miraculous faith’ nor ‘credulous belief’. It is a solid trust in the merciful promises of God of the Gospel revealed through Christ. Since faith is entirely orientated towards Jesus, it is a thoroughly affectionate substance that sets the heart of men (and women) of God ablaze with holy passion.
So I ask you today: have you placed your faith in Christ? Are you depending on what Jesus has promised or on the whims of your own heart? Is Jesus everything to you? Does your heart ache for Him on the one hand and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God on the other?
If you haven’t called upon the name of the Lord yet, I repeat the apostolic promise: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved!” And if you have already trusted in God’s goodness, then I urge to keep walking from faith to faith finding full satisfaction in the sweet presence of King Jesus- the One in whom faith finds its reason for being.