Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Subjective Soteriology – Lesson 6: Saving Faith
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©1999, 2010. 2012
The Nature of Saving Faith
The Elements of Saving Faith
Saving Faith is a Work of the Holy Spirit
The Work of Faith
Saving Faith is a Growing Faith
Westminster Confession of Faith XIV
I. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
II. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
III. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Westminster Larger Catechism
Question 72: What is justifying faith?
Answer: Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Question 73: How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
Answer: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness.
Heidelberg Catechism — Lord’s Day 7
Question 20: Are all men then saved by Christ, as they have perished in Adam?
Answer: No; only such as by true faith are ingrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits.
Question 21: What is true faith?
Answer: It is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The Nature of Saving Faith
One of the problems we face in understanding the biblical meaning of faith is that the word has many common uses established in our minds. In everyday experience we hear people talk about faith in the economy, faith that turns a blind eye to dangers and presses on, faith in a family member’s or friend’s integrity, faith in the irrational, or faith that a sufficiently reasonable conclusion has been reached. People often dismiss content entirely saying, “Just have faith.”
There is a concluding mechanism in the human mind that at some point resolves that certain ideas will be acted upon as being true. There is a broad sense in which that may be called faith.
The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for faith is aman (אמן). The root-meaning of the verb is “to confirm”, “to support”. In the Niphil form it means “to be made firm or sure, established, verified” which in the moral sense is “to be reliable, trustworthy”. In the Hiphil form it means “to regard as firm or trustworthy, to place trust in, or to have confidence in”. The noun form is emunah (אמונה) which means “firmness, steadfastness, fidelity, or faithfulness” (as used in Habakkuk 2:4).
In the New Testament the Greek word for faith is pistis (πιστις), which means “trust, reliability, faithfulness, promise, confidence”. In its basic verb form, pisteuo (πιστευϖ), it means “to believe, to trust, or to entrust something to someone”.
These were common words used in every day conversation in reference to putting trust in something. They did not always make reference to religious matters.
When we trust in something, our confidence is based upon information coming to the mind. In this broad sense we can speak of “faith” in three ways:
1. There is a purely rationalistic faith which concludes the reliability of ideas or actions based upon what comes to us by our natural senses. This external information is stored in the memory where it is later used in the process of concluding what is reliable. Trust based upon this process comes in various forms depending upon what type of information is relied upon.
a. One kind of rationalistic faith is a scientific faith. It draws conclusions by generalizing from our experiences and then particularizing from generalizations to specific cases. For example someone may decide to sit in a chair trusting that it is dependable based upon past experiences with chairs.
b. A testimonial faith bases its conclusions upon testimony from others who claim that something has earned their trust. A person my try a new brand of toothpaste because of claims made by a commercial on television or by friends. An uneducated person accepts and uses electricity, microwaves, and medicine without knowing immediately why he should trust them aside from the testimony of others.
c. An historical faith is a rational confidence based upon an investigation of past records which may include testimonials, and the interpretation of surviving material evidence .
d. A miraculous faith accepts that the supernatural is part of things they see and experience. This faith adds together the information that comes from the senses, and the belief that supernatural things occur. It remains a rational process because it reasons based upon observations it accepts as true. Belief that Jesus could heal the sick includes the assumption that he could do amazing things by supernatural powers. It does not necessarily include a trust that he was the true Christ, God the Eternal Son, and Redeemer. They accept the testimony that he did supernatural things which could be observed.
Those who say they trust in Christ by a process that is purely rationalistic do no more than the evil spirit beings do in James 2:19. They see evidence that cannot be denied. Simple assent to observed facts rationally examined does not constitute saving faith. There in James it says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”
We also need to realize that before we conclude that something is true by the purely rational process, assumptions are made. The source of information must be accepted as reliable, the information we use must be considered to be sufficiently complete, and all possible alternatives must be identified and ruled out.
2. There is a purely irrationalistic faith which concludes that something should be acted upon existentially. This approach has no interest in determining the absolute reliability of something externally. Instead it selects what appeals to the person’s present state of knowledge and disposition. This faith is sometimes spoken of by the imagery of taking a “blind leap into the darkness.” Certainty of absolute truth is seen as neither an attainable nor necessary state of the human mind. What is being experienced externally and internally becomes reality and truth for that person at that time.
Those who say they trust Christ, but say that the Messiah and his work may not be the same for everyone, and that there can be no certainty of what is accepted as truth, do not have Saving Faith. What they have is most fundamentally contrary to what God has made known in his word.
3. There is also a saving faith which is “a confidence implanted supernaturally by the Holy Spirit into the souls of the elect in their regeneration”. This faith receives as true and reliable whatever the person learns from God. This faith is first evidenced by a confident resting upon the atonement of Christ for salvation from the effects and condemnation of sin.
There are then, two ways to speak of saving faith. It is both the faculty implanted into the soul by grace that enables it to trust what God makes known, and it is the exercise of that faculty to trust in the revealed truths received from God.
John Calvin summarizes many of these ideas in his definition of saving faith taken from the third book of his Institutes (Inst 3:II:7 end), “(Faith is) … a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor 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.”
The ability of the human nature to conclude that something is reliable by means other than immediate, full, and direct experience is often the way the word faith is used in common discourse. But saving faith is not common to the human nature in all its states. The fallen soul does not have the ability to perceive as true or to embrace what God has made known respecting his fallen condition and the provision of Christ for salvation. (see syllabus on Objective Soteriology, chapter 2, section on Original Sin. Note specially Romans 3:11, 1 Corinthians 2:14 and John 6:44.)
Therefore saving faith is not present in all people. Humanism and humanistic theology must deny that sin limits our ability to perceive and to believe whatever enters our mind and experience. They deny that saving faith is a supernatural gift. They hold that all faith is either a rational choice based upon gathered sensory information, or it is an irrational leap in the dark.
The Bible presents faith as neither of these. It is a supernatural gift of God’s grace whereby we are convinced of the reliability of God and his promises. Paul’s prayer for the persecuted Thessalonians is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:2, “and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.”
Paul had just referred to faith as a gift of grace (2 Thessalonians 2:13). This same idea is clearly expressed in Philippians 1:29.
The Elements of Saving Faith
Reformed theologians have divided saving faith into various elements. Some divide it into two parts. A. A. Hodge calls them assent and trust. By assent he means that the person gives intellectual recognition to what the Scriptures reveal about the person, offices and work of Christ. By trust he means implicit reliance upon Christ, and Christ alone, for all that is involved in a complete salvation. This saving faith, according to A. A. Hodge, is an act of the whole man, his intellect, affections, and will.
The Heidelberg Catechism, in question 21, also divides what it calls true faith into two elements. They are a certain knowledge by which all that God reveals is received as truth, and a hearty trust personally in the promises of the gospel concerning forgiveness of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation by merely grace for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Some have divided saving faith into three elements. They are knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and volition (fiducia).
By knowledge they mean a learning of the information God reveals in his word through Scripture. A true faith cannot act upon information it does not have. The act of just trusting in something by itself is not redemptive. The specific object of that faith is vital. Therefore the content of the gospel must be declared plainly to the unbeliever in the process of evangelism, and explained to believers in the process of sanctification.
By assent they mean that there must be an agreement that what God has revealed is true and should be submitted to. It is not just believed to be true to our personal perception, but in an absolute and objective sense that requires a response.
By volition they mean a personal trust and appropriation of the truths of the gospel. It is the act of the will that embraces Christ as Savior and Lord. Louis Berkhof adds, “.. including a surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and a reception and appropriation of Christ.” (Systematic pg. 505).
Berkhof further comments, “the seat of (saving) faith cannot be placed in the intellect, nor in the feelings, nor in the will exclusively, but only in the heart, the central organ of man’s spiritual being, out of which are the issues of life.”
Some have seen in the first verse of Hebrews chapter 11 an exhaustive definition of faith. In doing so they often imagine this verse to support the more existential view. A close examination of that verse shows that this is not the case.
Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This verse shows what a true faith accomplishes in us. It is a practical definition rather than a strict explaining of the meaning of the word.
The verse begins with the word “Now.” This connects back to the previous chapter. There in verse 38 the writer quotes from the prophet Habakkuk who had learned that instead of questioning God when troublesome things occur, we should live by faithfully trusting in his promises. The verse quoted is Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” There the word translated “faith” is the Hebrew word emunah, which most accurately means “faithfulness.” Literally the Habakkuk passage could be translated, “The righteous will live through his faithfulness.” Those justified by God’s grace will live by faithfully trusting in God’s provisions and promises, not by trusting in their own understanding and perception of things.
Faith is first said to be “the confident reality of things hoped for”. True faith gives us confidence in the reality of the things God has promised. It applies God’s words personally in our hearts. When the Holy Spirit implants this saving faith, we realize the value of the promises of God to his children producing a great expectation. God will not go back on his word. He cannot lie.
Faith is “the establishing of things not seen”. There are things we cannot take into the science lab, things we cannot see, touch, or measure. The rationalistic method is not able to establish spiritual facts. Saving faith is that convincing proof that makes our hearts accept and trust God’s word simply because we know God said it. This evidence is more assuring than all the scientific demonstrations we may observe. It comes from the mouth of the Creator.
This text rules out the false meanings of faith. We are left with what God says about it. It is that firm conviction which comes from the Holy Spirit that God has spoken clearly with written promises we can count upon, and by which we can live.
Saving Faith is a Work of the Holy Spirit
Since the unredeemed are able neither to discern spiritual truth, nor to seek after the true God (Romans 3:11, 1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:4), saving faith must be implanted as a supernatural act of the Triune God upon the sinner.
The gift of saving faith originates in the eternal decree judicially based upon the work of Jesus Christ as Redeemer. This is why it is called a grace exercised toward the elect.
Acts 13:48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
2 Corinthians 4:6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
Ephesians 1:17-18 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,
The application of the faculty of faith is attributed particularly to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is listed among the elements manifested as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. Note also the following texts:
1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
John 6:44-45 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.”
The faculty of faith is ordinarily established by the instrumentality of the inspired word, and is directed toward the promises revealed in Scripture as the Spirit works. We desire to see faith evidenced in others as we declare to them the word of God, and pray for the work of the Spirit upon their dead hearts to grant life through the atonement of Christ.
Romans 10:13-17 for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (14) How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (15) And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” (16) However, they did not all heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” (17) So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
The Work of Faith
The Scriptures repeatedly speak of our being justified, saved from the wrath of God, by means of this implanted faith. It is the single condition stated regarding the salvation of the believer.
Acts 10:43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
Romans 3:22-25 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (25) whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
Galatians 2:16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.
Galatians 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,
2 Timothy 3:15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
The faculty of Saving Faith enables the elect of God to believe to the justifying of their souls. It engenders a trust in what God has revealed in his word, upon divine authority alone, which issues in trembling at his threatenings, taking action upon what God has promised, and thankfully obeying what he commands. The restoration of the soul to fellowship with the once offended Creator by the removal of the offense of sin in turn issues in life for the glory of God. As Jesus said in John 7:38, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'”
Principally faith is the accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life by virtue of the covenant of grace (WCF 14:2).
Faith is also a moral act. The lack of it, unbelief, is denounced as sin. It is rooted in the decree of reprobation which passes over those not elected and leaves them to reject Christ and the word of his grace.
John 3:18-19 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (19) And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.
John 8:24 “I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.”
Saving Faith is a Growing Faith
A temporal faith is not a saving faith. It is like the seed of the word that falls upon stony ground. It may cause excitement for the moment, then it dies out and reveals that it is not the gift of redeeming grace. It is only of the restraint of sin and momentary outward appearance of blessing.
Matthew 13:5-6 And others fell upon the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
Matthew 13:20-21 And the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.
A true saving faith grows as evidence of the life that God stirs within. It is not perfect in this life, but advances until its completeness in union with Christ in glory. Since it is here incomplete, it must exist in varying degrees of advancement. The means of its growth are the usual means of grace: the ministry of the word of God, the faithful exercise of worship (particularly the right participation in the sacraments rightly administered), and the diligent use of prayer conducted according to God’s instruction. These are encouraged in the believer by his membership in the church of Christ including the Shepherds who are called by God, gifted to the task, and ordained for the edification of the sheep.
For further study consider the lesson of Jesus in Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29 and Luke 9:37-43.
Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.