Note: Back in 2015 I posted a a teaching outline entitled The Doctrine of Conversion: Understanding Faith and Repentance, and the three part series beginning with this post is basically an expansion and reworking of that outline. However, rather than take the old one down, I thought I would simply post these others and allow the blog’s readers the option of choosing which approach they find most helpful.
One of the many disturbing aspects of the recent election of our new president was the manner in which he sought the support of Evangelical Christians by claiming to be a Christian himself, despite the fact that this claim was rooted in a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel and a heretical understanding of faith. After all, not only did he claim that he never saw any need to seek forgiveness for his sins, but he also repeatedly bragged about having sat under the teaching of the late Norman Vincent Peale, whom he clearly regards as a great teacher.
Yet Norman Vincent Peale was a heretical teacher who did much to undermine the Christian faith, especially through his false teaching about the nature of faith, which he regarded as virtually equivalent to “positive thinking.” In fact, he wrote a famous bestseller entitled The Power of Positive Thinking, in which he claimed that, “When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.”
Tim Challies has done a good job of summarizing some of the false teaching of Peale, a portion of which is as follows:
Norman Vincent Peale popularized what came to be known as positive thinking. He took existing ideas from Christian Science and other inspirations, gave them a biblical veneer, integrated them with psychology, and packaged them for the masses, spreading his message through The Power of Positive Thinking and his other works. His foremost contribution to the world was this notion that thoughts are causative, that our thoughts can change our lives, our health, our destiny. Readers were thrilled with this notion that if they believed it, they could have it, or be it, or do it ….
None of this would be remarkable, except that he taught it as a minister who claimed to be a Christian. Yet as a Christian minister he denied that God was a being, saying “Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!” (Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking). As a Christian minister he told Phil Donahue, “It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God, I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine … I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere. … Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.” He denied the very heart of the Christian faith and replaced it with his doctrine of positive thinking. (“The False Teachers: Norman Vincent Peale,” http://www.challies.com/articles/the-false-teachers-norman-vincent-peale)
No wonder Peale could write:
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement. (The Power of Positive Thinking, https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1121350-the-power-of-positive-thinking)
We should not be surprised, then, that our President thinks he can claim to be a Christian and yet see no need to repent of sins or seek forgiveness from God. He has apparently learned his view of Christian faith from Norman Vincent Peale, and it is a false, heretical view.
In a similar way, the false prosperity gospel turns faith into our ability to create what we want through convincing ourselves we will have it and then speaking this belief into existence. No wonder our President has also gravitated to Paula White, one of the primary preachers of the false prosperity gospel.
How different, however, is the view of an orthodox Christian, such as Geerhardus Vos, who has written that, “In all believing, there is a letting go of ourselves and resting in another. In conversion, faith – of which the seed was given in regeneration – turns to God to rest in His testimony” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 58).
This highlights one of the major problems with the heretical views of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel, both of which make faith a trust in our own ability to change our own thinking and speaking about the world rather than a trust in God. It is basically trust in ourselves rather than in someone outside ourselves who is truly worthy of our trust, and who has most especially revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Hence Wayne Grudem has aptly written that, “Saving faith is trust in Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life with God” (Systematic Theology, p. 710). As we examine some of the Scriptural teaching concerning saving faith, we shall see that this definition is correct.
I. Saving Faith Is a Personal Trust in Christ
Robert Peterson summarizes well the traditional Protestant understanding of saving faith in this regard:
Traditional Protestant theology has identified three aspects of true faith: knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia).
A certain amount of knowledge is essential to true faith – the basics of the Gospel. However, having this knowledge does not insure salvation. [See, for example, Romans 1:32.]
Assent means accepting the knowledge of the Gospel as true; it means saying ‘yes’ to it. One could have notitia [knowledge] and assensus [assent] and still not be saved. [See, for example, John 3:1-15; Acts 26:27-28.]
Trust (fiducia) in Christ as Savior is also necessary for true faith. This involves confidence that his saving work saves me. (Christ and Salvation Syllabus, p. 108)
That such distinctions are grounded in Scripture will become plain as we proceed. For now we will simply recall that this is why the Apostle James challenges the notion that bare knowledge of facts about God is enough:
NKJ James 2:19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble!
Thus, faith is more than mere intellectual assent to facts about God, and saving faith in Christ is more than mere intellectual assent to facts about Christ.
Also, beyond the obvious fact that Scripture reveals our Lord Jesus as a person who makes promises to us and is to be trusted as such, there are several lines of Scriptural evidence that emphasize this fact.
First, Scripture speaks in a special way of believing in Christ.
NKJ John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Wayne Grudem is helpful in explaining the sense of the Greek phrase employed by John and commonly used in the New Testament:
John 3:16 tells us that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here John uses a surprising phrase when he does not simply say, ‘whoever believes him’ (that is, believes that what he says is true and able to be trusted), but rather, “whoever believes in him.” The Greek phrase pisteuo eis auton could also be translated “believe into him” with the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person. Leon Morris can say, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.” He understands the Greek phrase pisteuo eis to be a significant indication that New Testament faith is not just intellectual assent but includes a “moral element of personal trust.” Such an expression was rare or perhaps nonexistent in the secular Greek found outside the New Testament, but it was well suited to express the personal trust in Christ that is involved in saving faith. (Systematic Theology, p. 711)
Thus the language itself was adapted to convey this distinctly Christian view of faith.
Second, Scripture speaks of believing in Christ as receiving Him.
We find an example of this in the Gospel of John:
NKJ John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name ….
John parallels receiving Jesus with believing in Him. This refers to a personal acceptance of Christ into one’s life, not merely an an intellectual knowledge of, or assent to, facts about Him.
Third, Scripture speaks of believing in Christ as coming to Him.
We shall briefly consider several examples of the way our Lord Jesus spoke of faith in this way:
NKJ Matthew 11:28-30 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
NKJ John 6:35 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”
NKJ John 7:37-38 On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Just as John had paralleled receiving Jesus with believing in him, even so Jesus Himself paralleled coming to Him with believing in Him. They are two ways of saying essentially the same thing. In this way our Lord Jesus refers to believing as a personal encounter with Him, not simply an intellectual assent to facts about Him. It could not be any clearer, then, that Scripture teaches that saving faith is a personal trust in Christ to save us. But this entails our second point.
II. Saving Faith Is Relinquishing Trust in Ourselves
As Robert Reymond has observed:
With a glorious monotonous regularity Paul pits faith off over against all law-keeping as its diametrical opposite as to referent. Whereas the latter relies on the human effort of the law-keeper looking to himself to render satisfaction before God, the former repudiates and looks entirely away from all human effort to the cross work of Jesus Christ, who alone by his sacrificial death rendered satisfaction before God for men. (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 732)
Let’s take time to briefly consider this “glorious monotonous regularity” in the teaching of Paul. For example:
NKJ Romans 3:20-24 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ….
NKJ Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
NKJ Romans 4:5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness ….
NKJ Galatians 2:16 … knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
NKJ Philippians 3:8-9 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith ….
Scripture could not be any clearer in teaching that saving faith means relinquishing trust in ourselves and trusting wholly in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As we have already seen, the heresies of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel both end up turning faith into a work by which we trust in our own ability to shape reality for ourselves rather than turning away from ourselves and trusting wholly in God. Such an understanding of faith can never coincide with saving faith in Christ, no matter how much the purveyors of such views claim to be Christian.
But, the truth is that none of us would having saving faith in Christ at all aside from the grace of God, and this leads to our third and final point.
III. Saving Faith is a Gift of God
This concept was taught by our Lord Jesus in a passage dealing with concept of election:
NKJ John 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”
Recall that earlier in the context Jesus used the terminology of coming to Him as equivalent to believing in Him, as we saw in our earlier examination of verse 35. So, when Jesus says here that no one can come to Him unless it has been granted to him by the Father, he means that no one can believe in Him unless it has been granted to him by the Father.
Luke teaches the same concept in the Book of Acts:
NKJ Acts 13:48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
As Anthony Hoekema has correctly argued, “the faith of those Gentiles who believed was a fruit of divine election and therefore clearly a gift of God” (Saved By Grace, p. 143).
The Apostle Paul also taught this concept:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Paul clearly has in mind not merely a mouthing of the words ‘Jesus is Lord,’ but rather a genuine statement of faith in Jesus as Lord, when he asserts that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” This faith is seen, then, to be a product of the Spirit’s working and thus a gift of God.
NKJ Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God ….
The Apostle John also teaches this concept:
ESV 1 John 5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him.
Anthony Hoekema is again helpful in his discussion of this verse:
The Apostle John tells us, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God” (1 John 5:1, JB). The word rendered “has been begotten” (gegennetai) is in the perfect tense in the Greek, a tense which describes past action with abiding result. Everyone who has faith, John is therefore saying, reveals that he or she has been begotten or born of God and is still in that regenerate state. Since God is the sole author of regeneration, and since only regenerated persons can believe, we see again that faith is a gift of God. (Saved By Grace, p. 145)
Sadly, many do not see that they turn faith itself into a work of man when they deny that it is a gift from God and thus the work of God in man.
This brings us to end of our brief study of saving faith, but I think I have sufficiently demonstrated that saving faith is a personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which involves relinquishing all trust in ourselves, and it is not something we can contrive in any case, for it is a gift of God. We must resist, then, any false notion of faith that puts man at the center, no matter how famous, popular, or powerful the people are who do so.