What Then, is Faith?

It is a terribly important question that needs to be answered. What exactly is faith? Throughout church history, numerous opinions and ideas have developed on what the content of faith is. Some would have us believe that the sum total of faith is simply to believe that Christ existed and was who He said He was. Medieval scholars, reflecting a Romanizing tendency, would have us believe that faith is simply faith in everything the authoritative and infallible church teaches, hence the later dogma of implicit faith. Others would have us believe that true faith is simply an assent to true doctrines. Now, we must grant that in all three of these, there is an element of truth. We had better believe Christ is who He said He is. We also are wise if we take the council of the history of the Christian church as they followed the canon of the covenant, which is Scripture. After all, the same Holy Spirit who leads us into truth lead them into truth many years ago. And we should hope that God will reveal correct doctrines to us. Faith is a huge topic in Scripture, and it behooves us to define it properly. We know from Scripture numerous things regarding faith. For instance:

Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Romans 5:1: Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:8: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it  is the gift of God.

So, among other things, we know from Scripture that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, we are justified by faith, and we are saved by grace through faith, which is the gift of God. Scripture has much more to say about faith as well, but for our purposes here, the goal we are shooting for is to define what faith is.

First, let us explore some ideas regarding faith that either are incorrect or incomplete.

a. That faith is a mental assent to certain facts.

In the case of Christian faith, this is certainly part of faith, but it is not a saving faith. It does not tell us the whole story and in effect, it ends up with a decided antinomian tendency. Some theologians of a free grace bent, tend to go this far as well, such as Zane Hodges. Now granted, I tend  to sit on the fence line of the discussion between free grace and Lordship salvation, but I believe taking the free grace stance to this level is an unhealthy extreme and ends up defining faith in a way that is not biblical. Hodges has written that conversion to Christ involves “no spiritual commitment whatsoever.” One wonders if repentance and sanctification are eliminated altogether. On the other hand, some within the Lordship camp have essentially ruined assurance of salvation altogether, or at the very least made it completely subjective, connecting assurance of salvation with the inward work of the Holy Spirit and by extension, not sinning. This cannot be the case, however, as will be discussed below.  If the free grace position is defined properly, it guards against antinomianism and rejects legalism. Likewise, so does the Lordship position. Properly defined, free grace salvation is not “easy-believism,” as is the charge that many Lordship proponents level at the stance. Also, Lordship does not smuggle in works, as many free gracers charge. If Lordship proponents are referring to the stance of the extremists such as Hodges, their charges are justified. The problem that the extreme free grace proponents must guard against is the outright elimination of repentance from the Gospel call and the Christian life. This wrong idea of faith is precisely what James was writing against in James 2:14-26. This faith that he is battling against is a “faith” that is nothing more than a mental belief in facts. It is a faith that says: “I believe that Christ is who he said. He is the Son of God and lived, was crucified, and raised. Then He ascended  to heaven.” Now, this is all completely true and every Christian person who has ever lived believes this. But, this is not a full definition of saving faith. There is more to it, for as James says: “Even the demons believe - and shudder!” Thus, we can assert that even Satan and his minions believe this much. They all know for a fact that God is one and that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was raised. Thus, this definition of faith cannot be the biblical one.

b. That faith is assent and belief to church teaching.

This definition was mainly put forth by medieval scholars and has carried over into Roman Catholicism, even to this day. To be fair, even in modern Roman Catholicism, they do not rule out personal faith in Christ by this, but this is generally how the Catechism tends to define faith.  However, due to this definition, faith in essence became something that justifies only when that faith is completed by working through love. Thus, what is referred to as justifying faith basically became another virtue, in the same vein as hope or love. This basically makes faith an act of doing on the part of the person, as opposed to an act of receiving. The major issue with this definition is of course that the object of said faith is not Christ, but rather the church.

c. That faith is an assent to true doctrines.

From the outset, we can say that faith is going to assent to true doctrines, in the same way that faith will assent to who Christ is, as that is a true doctrine. Again we have a partial definition that does not tell us the entire story. Some factions within Christianity have taken this idea to the point of salvation by knowledge, damning everyone else in the process. That is to say, if a person claiming to be a Christian cannot articulate certain doctrines of the faith, then they are viewed as reprobates. The point that is missed in all of this is that clarity of articulation and perfect doctrine is a far cry from outright rejection of truth, when true and proper doctrines are presented to the believer.

So then, what is faith? We can say that faith involves more than just assent and more than just knowledge. I would argue that faith involves knowledge and assent, but also trust. Faith is given sharper definition by doctrine, but that faith is not directed at the doctrines for doctrine sake, but is directed towards our Triune God as He has shown Himself to us through the redeemer, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Edmund Schlink, a Lutheran scholar, has said this: “The faith here spoken of is not that possessed by the devil and the ungodly, who also believe the history of Christ’s suffering and resurrection from the dead, but we mean such true faith as believes that we receive grace and forgiveness of sin through Christ.” In other words, faith that is true does not merely assent and acknowledge the truth about Christ, but receives and clings to Christ, because not only did He accomplish His glorious work for mankind, but specifically, for me. Agreeing with the Lutheran definition, the Heidelberg Catechism says much of the same: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” And John Calvin in The Institutes adds: Faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

We also must realize that faith in itself is not a cause. Faith receives, it does not merit. Thus, when we speak of justification, we should recognize that it cannot be faith itself that is the grounds of that justification. It cannot be the basis, as only the meritorious work of Christ can be. Faith receives - it lays hold of Christ and His merits. Michael Horton has some good insight here when he states that “Strictly speaking, one is not justified by faith but by Christ’s righteousness which is received through faith.” Since faith receives and cannot be considered a cause, we must likewise recognize that faith itself does not look inwardly, since the faith that we are given comes to us not from our inner being, but from a source outside of ourselves. Horton says again that “This means that in the act of justification faith is itself completely passive, receiving a gift, not offering one. The faith that justifies is immediately active in love, honoring God and serving neighbor, but this active love is faith’s fruit, not the act of justifying faith itself.” Horton continues, “Given our native instincts, we can always turn gospel back into law - in this case, by making faith into faithfulness, the act of receiving into an act of working.”

All of this, is of course diametrically opposed to much of the above definitions of faith that do not do the biblical example justice. In Arminianism, for example, faith is turned into a cause, essentially making faith itself the reason and basis as to how we are accepted into God’s family. This, fleshed out to its conclusion, turns faith into a work of merit that garners us favor before God, elevating faith to an act of the will and not a gift of God, and turning it into an instrument to gain acceptance before the Triune God. Such would be an addition to the work of Christ in salvation, and we essentially would be left with Christ’s work + my acceptance. On the contrary, the Biblical example has our faith as a channel which receives the benefits flowing from God. Our faith itself is a gift, as Ephesians 2:8, Romans 12:3, and Hebrews 12:2 remind us. Likewise, liberal theologies turn faith into inner experience and fall into the pit of Gnosticism or mysticism in many cases. Mysticism destroys the theological doctrine that salvation comes to us from an external source through the God-ordained means of grace that he has provided. This leads Horton to conclude that “In all of these ways, faith loses its specific object (Christ and all His benefits)and therefore its proper character as an act of receiving that which has already been achieved for us. In the act of justification, we must insist, faith merely receives, embraces, and clings to Christ; it does not do anything but receives everything.”

Therefore, faith, by definition is not just a hopeful, wishful, or even highly probable opinion. How can it be that? If someone is banking their life on what amounts to “a good chance,” how can that be considered a true faith? Eat your heart out, Blaise Pascal. I have heard it said by numerous folks that it is impossible to know anything with much of a degree of certainty. And most of these folks claimed to be Christians! I hearken back to John Calvin’s words that faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Faith is also not something that we naturally can concoct up ourselves in anything we would like, of which faith in Christ would be a subset, because we do not naturally have faith in the work of Christ. It is not an inherent property of human nature. I have seen Romans 12:3 yanked out of context to support the idea that everyone universally has faith. Specifically, the finale of the verse which says that “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” But the same apostle writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians “For not all have faith.” (2 Thess 3:2) Faith, likewise, cannot be said to be some sort of general trust and belief in God and the promises He has made. That would amount to a slightly elevated mental assent. Nay - faith, true faith, is defined by the Gospel, says Horton, “is the specific conviction of the heart, mind, and will that God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ on the basis of God’s Word. Faith is clinging to Christ.”

We also must recognize that inherent in the faith that is given to us is assurance. Scripture speaks at length about assurance. Thus, if God has inspired the authors of Scripture to write regarding assurance, it is a topic that should be studied and learned. As we have seen far above, the author of Hebrews begins the 11th chapter by saying that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Contrary to this passage, Roman Catholic teaching does not allow for assurance, since faith is linked directly to assent to the teachings of the church. Even when this faith is worked out through love, believers can still not have assurance of being finally saved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.” But, having assurance of final salvation is regarded as presumptuous or even arrogant. The Reformers insisted that this could not be the case. In fact, they argued in an opposite direction. Namely, that faith IS assurance precisely because Christ’s work that merits salvation is finished and complete. Likewise, the Reformers argued that even though our faith and repentance remain imperfect this side of glory, we can still have assurance because assurance comes from outside of ourselves. Again we see that faith does not gain assurance by looking inward. Our assurance is not increased by our doing or our loving. Granted, subjectively speaking, we certainly can experience different levels of assurance precisely because our faith and repentance can and do waver as we await the final day. However, believers in Christ have objective assurance because the work of Christ is not an inward experience, but rather an historical objective fact. Lutheran and Reformed confessions have agreed on this definition regarding assurance. We grant that some later branches of Reformed Theology, namely the Puritans, tended to separate faith from assurance, as did some Pietistic Lutherans. The problem with this separation is that now assurance is based on how much faith a person has or how ‘good’ it is. This of course makes assurance wholly subjective, since it looks inwardly instead of externally to the unchanging Christ, whose work is complete, and to a God who will never waver. Likewise, Romans 12:3 tells us that God has assigned measures of faith to all of His children. Thus, instead of looking to the finished work of Christ, we end up looking inwardly, and our assurance is shaken, since we are sinful, changing, and downright fickle creatures in some regards. Ah, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb 13:8)

Therefore, we see that faith is much more than bare assent or bare knowledge of true doctrines, although those two things are certainly important and faith indeed will receive as much. It is also a complete trust in God to save me, through the work of Jesus Christ, which is given to us by grace alone and received through faith alone, which causes us then to work in love. And likewise, we see that we can have assurance - not by looking inwardly at what we are doing or how we are “walking,” but by looking externally at the finished work of Christ. We indeed have come to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

Hebrews 11:1-3: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.