Relatively few subjects are as important as the nature of saving faith. I say this, in the first place because a person’s response to the offer of salvation depends on his or her understanding of this subject.
How can someone “believe in the Lord Jesus, and … be saved” (Acts 16:31) without understanding what the Bible means by believe? At least some understanding of what genuine saving faith looks like would seem necessary before someone could respond in faith to the offer of salvation.
But there is another reason why the nature of saving faith is important. Many issues with which Christians regularly struggle — things such as assurance, temptation, suffering, apathy, contentment, and obedience — frequently produce or are caused by fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of saving faith. Consider the issue of assurance. How can we know we have been accepted by the God of the universe? The Apostle John says in his first epistle that we need to know what genuine saving faith looks like. Once we know that, we will be better equipped to recognize it in ourselves and gain assurance that we are in fact numbered among God’s elect.
The subject’s importance is further evidenced by how the word faith is used in our culture. Recently, I passed through Mobile, Ala., on my way to Atlanta and saw a billboard along the interstate which read “Believe in Mobile.” Since the billboard was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, I concluded they were encouraging people to support Mobile or to do what they could to further the city’s development. But even if I was mistaken, one thing should still be clear: The Chamber was not using believe in the way the Bible does.
As children we are trained to “believe” in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and magical creatures like Peter Pan (surely we all remember “faith, trust, and pixie dust”). As Americans we are encouraged to believe in ourselves and our nation. These traditions may be relatively harmless, but they all influence how we think about the word faith. What is faith? What does it look like? How does Christian faith differ from faith in an idea, a city, a nation, or a fictional character?
For these reasons I jumped at the opportunity to write What Is Faith? for P&R Publishing’s “Basics of the Faith” series. My goal was not so much to define what faith is, but to describe what faith should look like so that Christians and non-Christians alike might be better able to recognize genuine saving faith and differentiate it from other varieties.
Faith is Intellectual
In the first place, genuine saving faith must be intellectual. It must know certain things about God and His will. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark or a believing for no reason. It is not merely a feeling or stubborn commitment devoid of all doctrine. Faith is doctrinal; it knows certain things.
The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of doctrine for Christian faith. We see this in passages such as Matthew 22:37 and Romans 12:2, which stress the centrality of the mind. But we especially see it in the overwhelming number of passages that speak of the importance of teaching, and of sound teaching in particular — e.g., Deuteronomy 4:1; 6:7; 32:44-47; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9 and 119:12, 26, 33, 68; Jeremiah 32:33; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 3:2; 4:11-16; 5:17; 6:2-3; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Hebrews 5:11-14.
Reformed Christianity has generally believed that saving faith involves not only knowing Christ but also trusting Him.
Doctrine matters to Jesus and His followers. We cannot say, “I don’t want doctrine; I just want Jesus,” because we cannot have Jesus without doctrine. How do we know which Jesus we want? Thousands of people have been named Jesus. (There still are quite a few around today — just check most any team roster in Major League Baseball.) Determining which Jesus we want requires doctrine. What is more, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Unitarians all believe in Jesus. But they do not believe in the same Jesus that Christians do. They do not believe in the Jesus of the Bible. Christian faith must necessarily contain an intellectual aspect. Without it, there is nothing to distinguish Christianity from those other faiths, on the one hand, or from a sugar high or an adrenaline rush, on the other. Doctrine is not only relevant to the Christian life, it is indispensable. We cannot have Jesus without it. Faith without doctrine is not saving faith but something else altogether.
Faith is Relational
Genuine saving faith cannot merely be intellectual. Simply knowing things about God is inadequate. Even demons have this kind of faith (James 2:19). Christian faith involves more than knowing about God; it involves knowing God Himself in relationship. That is why faith, in the second place, must be relational. It must know God in relationship.
The Bible frequently uses the word knowledge to refer to an intimate relationship. Perhaps the best-known example is found in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:22-23). When Jesus tells His disciples that He did not know the “many” who were prophesying and casting out demons in His name, He does not mean to suggest that He did not know certain facts about them. Jesus knew enough factual evidence about these people to know that they were “workers of lawlessness.” Jesus was using the word know to mean more than “knowing about.” He was using it to refer to a relationship. Jesus knew these people, but He did not have a relationship with them.
Matthew 1:24-25 presents another interesting example. In these verses we are told that “Joseph … took [Mary as] his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son … Jesus.” Here as well, the word know refers to more than an intellectual comprehension of facts. The point is not that Joseph knew nothing about Mary but that he did not consummate his marriage until after Jesus was born. In this case, too, the word know refers to the most intimate kind of knowledge that can exist in a relationship.
Many other passages explicitly link “knowledge” and “love.” Among them are Genesis 18:19; Exodus 2:25, 33:13, 17; Psalms 1:6 and 144:3; Isaiah 43:10; Jeremiah 1:5; Amos 3:2; Hosea 13:5; John 6:69, 10:14-15, 27, 16:3; 1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9; Philippians 3:8-10; and 2 Timothy 2:19. What this tells us is that when Jesus defines eternal life in terms of “knowledge” in John 17:3, He means knowing God in the most intimate of relationships.
Reformed Christianity has always understood that saving faith is relational. It involves more than merely knowing facts and doctrines about Christ. It involves knowing Christ himself in relationship.
This understanding of faith flies in the face of contemporary “revivalist” views that see faith in more utilitarian terms, as something like fire insurance. Those who see faith this way are convinced that it is not relational at all. It is at best a decision one makes out of prudence or common sense. But while it may be “good” and “wise” to have fire insurance, it is far more than that to have Christ. Saving faith cherishes Christ and clings to Him with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Faith is Fiducial
Genuine saving faith is not only intellectual and relational, however; it is also fiducial — a word derived from the Latin fiducia, meaning “trust.” Reformed Christianity has generally believed that saving faith involves not only knowing Christ but also trusting Him. Christians are to lean on Christ and not anything else — i.e., not themselves, not their own abilities or resources, not on government or another person, not even on the church (see, e.g., Psalm 71:5-6; Proverbs 3:5-6; Isaiah 10:20). They are to entrust their souls and all that they are and have to Christ. They are to look to Him (Isaiah 45:22; John 6:40; Hebrews 12:1-2) as the only basis upon which they can be saved and to commit themselves to Him (Matthew 11:28; 2 Timothy 1:12) as His followers (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 9:57-62).
Interestingly, this kind of trust is always built upon knowledge. The reason we trust our physicians, for example, is that we know certain things about them. We know they attended medical school and passed the required examinations, that they are experienced and skilled at what they do, and that they have our best interests in mind. We would not trust just anyone to perform open-heart surgery on us. We would want to know certain things about the surgeon and then about the nurses, hospital, and procedures to be done. Our trust is built directly on what we know.
Here again we see that faith must necessarily be intellectual. To say that Christian faith is a blind leap in the dark is as absurd as saying we should walk along a busy street and ask the first person we see to perform open-heart surgery on us. That would not be faith; it would be stupidity, along the same lines as leaping off a mountain in the vain hope that there might be a ledge below to save us. Christian faith trusts Christ not because it is a blind leap, but precisely because it knows Him.
Faith is Not a Work But Expresses Itself in Work
Although saving faith is intellectual, relational, and fiducial, it is not a meritorious work. Faith does nothing, offers nothing, accomplishes nothing, brings nothing, and earns nothing. It receives only what God freely gives. But this does not mean faith is wholly passive. Reformed Christianity has always held that faith itself is active. It knows, it loves, it trusts, it receives. These are all human actions. But they are not meritorious works, because they are all given by God’s grace (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8-9).
Reformed Christianity, moreover, has always maintained that faith necessarily expresses itself in action. Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that while good works could not in any way merit salvation, they did prove the genuineness of the individual’s faith. Faith alone saves us. But the faith that saves us will never be alone; it will always be accompanied by good works.
Genuine faith necessarily produces good works in the way that genuinely healthy trees necessarily produce good fruit. The healthy tree is unable to produce bad fruit, and the diseased tree is unable to produce good fruit (see, e.g., Matthew 7:16-18, 12:33-37). Faith, like the healthy tree, will necessarily express itself in good works.
Repentance, prayer, Bible study, and love for other Christians are some of the good works that must accompany saving faith. Genuine faith will never be without them. They are as necessary to faith as breathing is to life. An unrepentant faith is a contradiction in terms, as is a prayerless faith. Saving faith is repentant and prayerful and loves the Bible and God’s people. These works — and others flowing from faith as well — do not in any way merit salvation. But they are necessary because saving faith will not be without them.
Faith is Not Necessarily Strong
While faith must be intellectual, relational, fiducial, and active to be genuine, it does not necessarily have to be strong or mature. Faith can be weak or small and still be saving faith. The thief on the cross proves this. His faith was clearly not a mature faith, but it was a saving faith nonetheless. The thief knew certain things about God, Christ, and himself; he embraced Christ and trusted in Him, and he demonstrated that he possessed saving faith by his actions before he died (Luke 23:39-43).
Abraham’s example further substantiates the fact that faith can be imperfect and still be genuine. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham is declared to be in right standing with God — a gift he receives by faith alone. But the next thing we see is that Abraham demonstrates a lack of trust in God by seeking to take matters into his own hands and bring about God’s promises by his own initiative (Genesis 16). The faith by which Abraham received God’s gift of justification was, thus, an imperfect faith.
We see a different picture of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22, the account in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham’s mature faith is clearly displayed in his willingness to carry out the sacrifice. Were it not for God staying Abraham’s hand, the planned sacrifice would have been carried out. I shudder to think how I would respond if God were to ask me to sacrifice my son. That is why I am deeply grateful that Genesis 15:6 does not occur in Genesis 21 or 23. You see, if Genesis 15:6 did occur in one of those later chapters, it would tell us that the kind of faith by which Abraham was justified was a Genesis 22 faith, which is obviously a deep and mature faith. I am much more thankful that Genesis 15:6 occurs where it does because it tells us that the kind of faith by which Abraham was justified was a Genesis 16 faith — an imperfect and weak faith.
I think we frequently lose sight of this as Christians. We forget that faith is oftentimes weak and small, especially when first expressed. We look for a mature faith in ourselves or others and frequently use that as our standard for judging. We quickly label others as non-Christians or struggle with assurance of salvation ourselves, precisely because we are looking for perfection or maturity rather than the presence of saving faith, no matter how small. Reformed Christianity, however, has always held that faith need not be strong or mature; it need only be genuine.
Just because faith does not have to be strong or mature, this does not mean that it should always be small or weak. Genuine faith may start out small or weak, but it does not remain that way. Saving faith grows and matures. It grows in its knowledge, its love, its ability to trust, and its fruitfulness. Saving faith is intellectual; it knows about Christ, and it grows in its knowledge. Saving faith is relational; it knows Christ in relationship, and this relationship grows, deepens, and matures. Saving faith is fiducial; it trusts Christ and grows in its ability to trust Him with all that we are and have. Saving faith is active; it embraces Christ, produces works of obedience in keeping with it, and grows in its fruitfulness. And saving faith is not necessarily strong or mature in its expression; it is oftentimes weak and small, like a grain of mustard seed. But it does not remain this way. It grows and matures, just as the mustard seed does not remain a seed but grows into mature adulthood.
What is faith? What does it look like? Faith looks like knowing, loving, and trusting Christ in a way that is both active and growing. It is not a blind leap in the dark or believing for no reason at all, because faith has an intellectual component. It is not a wholly rational exercise of the mind or an apathetic acquiescence, because faith has a relational component. It is not self-reliance or inactivity but always leads to obedience and the bearing of much fruit, because faith is fiducial and active. And it is not perfect or stagnant, because faith begins small and grows over the course of the believer’s life. Faith knows; faith loves; faith trusts; faith acts; and faith grows. This is the kind of faith that receives God’s free gift of eternal life. Without it none of us will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Guy M. Richard has served as the minister of First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport (Miss.) since September 2005, the week after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the church and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He is a graduate of Auburn University (B.I.E.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of Edinburgh (Ph.D.). He has published two books, What is Faith? (2012) and The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford (2009).