The Elements of the Gospel: Faith

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

(This post is a continuation of the Pastoral Soteriology Series.  It assumes pre-requisite reading of earlier posts, and will be followed by additional posts.)

While grace is the overriding precondition of the gospel, scripture unyieldingly asserts that faith is the necessary component by which salvation is applied to the sinner’s account.  Ephesians 2:8 notes both elements quite clearly, asserting, “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith.”  Likewise, Hebrews 11:6 notes that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” demanding that God’s acceptance of man in some way hinges on the existence of essential faith.  While faith in no way trumps grace – nor can it exist outside of grace – it is nonetheless a required component of the gospel which cannot be subverted.  One simply cannot be saved without faith.

The Substance of Faith

The term “faith” is translated from the Greek term, pistis, (pis’-tis), which is roughly defined as “persuasion,” “conviction (of a truth),” or “reliance.”  Inherent in this definition is the necessity that one must have a foundational “belief” in something for such persuasion or reliance to depend.  Yet, such should not be understood as a merely academic though process, but an active conviction which is inspired by true confidence.  One may believe it is going to rain on a given day, yet not strongly enough that he changes his plans or carries an umbrella under his arm.  In such cases, a static rational belief exists, yet the biblical burden of a demonstration of faith has not been met.

As presented in scripture, faith is best understood as a two-tiered mechanism incorporating not only a foundational assertion of a certain truth, but also a reciprocating and dynamic response to such conviction.  As such, biblical faith demands that the aforementioned man (who believes it is going to rain) arm himself with boots, a raincoat and an altered schedule for the day’s events.  His belief is not merely an intellectual position but a life-altering certainty of mind and will.

The foundation of belief as a component of faith is clear enough in passages such as Galatians 3:22, noting that salvation is “given through faith in Jesus Christ…to those who believe.”  Likewise, as noted moments ago, Hebrews 11:6 states that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and rewards those who earnestly seek him.” 

Yet, faith is not merely theoretical.  It is also practical.  A second component of faith – beyond static conviction – is present in scripture which propels one’s cognitive position into an operational status.  In conjunction to a compelling belief, sincere faith necessarily requires a compulsory response.  Thus, the second tier of biblical faith is that of “operation,” or a properly produced response to one’s belief.

James describes the paradigm in this way:

James 2:14-17 (NIV)
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James clearly identifies a connection between one’s supposed belief system and an appropriately motivated response to its foundational tenets.  James almost ridicules “such faith” one would assume to be based in intellect alone, noting that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  This dead faith is described as that which “a man claims to have” if no deeds follow it.  Plainly a dividing line exists between clinically “believing” and/or articulating something and concretely “doing” something.  “Such faith,” as James calls it, is illegitimate if not accompanied by a proper response.

To further illustrate, James goes on to say,

James 2:18-19 (NIV)
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.

There exists a great chasm then between simply declaring a belief and having a response-oriented and “living” faith; a chasm stretching the vast distance between God’s beloved children and the demonic realm itself!  For “even the demons believe (that there is one God) and shudder.”  What demon exists who does not believe in God?  What demon lurks who does not believe that Christ is the Son of God and that he was crucified, buried and resurrected?  Not only do the demons believe such things – they know such truths intimately!  They were in attendance when God spoke the earth.  They were witnesses to the fall of man, the establishment of the covenants and the very life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ himself.  Their “belief” – as far as stagnant clinical knowledge goes – is unassailable in its clarity.  Yet they remain utterly condemned; according to James no different than one who claims a belief without action.  James could not have made a finer illustration of his point.  Faith requires response.  It is not based entirely upon right thinking – though right thinking is certainly required – but upon the product of right thinking.

Jesus noted this principle as follows:

John 14:12a (NIV)
12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.

Jesus’ assertion concerning one’s demonstration of faith was not that one would merely “think like I’ve been thinking,” but that one would “do what I have been doing.”  While belief is certainly an element of faith, the response that such belief should inspire cannot be separated out of legitimate faith.

Paul concurs in Romans 1:5 that,

Romans 1:5 (NIV)
5 Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

The faith he speaks of produced the response of obedience, not right thinking alone.  Faith is a belief which motivates one to action. 

The faith “hall of fame” in Hebrews 11 is a veritable treatise of this principle in action.  Each are commended for their faith.  Each believed God – and responded appropriately.  (v4) By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain.  (v7) By faith Noah built an ark.  (v8) By faith Abraham obeyed and went to the place he was called.  (v17) By faith he offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  (v20) By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau.  (v23) By faith Moses’ parents hid him.  (v29) By faith the people (Israel) passed through the Red Sea.  In these circumstances men are commended for their faith – which was demonstrated through their procedural response to that which they believed.  Would Israel have been commended for their faith if they refused to set foot into the Red Sea?  Would Abraham be commended for his faith had he denied the journey to which God called him?  Would Moses parents be celebrated for refusing to put him in the bulrushes?  In every circumstance where faith is exhibited in scripture it is something which yields a lifestyle commitment to the profession of one’s belief.

Much could be addressed in churches today concerning the functional definition of faith as it is revealed in scripture.  It seems that a tendency to highlight one component over another is a continual boon to the false conversion industry.  In some cases, static belief is highlighted to the exclusion of active response.  In these cases, “right thinking” trumps necessary response.  “Just believe that Jesus is God’s son.  Believe he died on the cross and that he rose again – and you will be saved.”   While such belief is essential, it has brought the intended convert only to an equal stead with the demonic kingdom; that of intellectual acknowledgement of the truth.  To others, an unhealthy focus on the “action step” of faith is exhibited to the exclusion of having right beliefs.  They appeal for people to “pray this prayer” or “walk the isle” – or better yet, do both!  All too frequently people are called to an active response at emotional altars without the slightest cognitive acquiescence to that which should be propelling them to such deed.  Myriads are preaching a “new” gospel today which decries that “to be Christian is to do the things Jesus did.”  Such statements are half truths at best.  While one who has saving faith will do the things that Jesus did (as Jesus noted), one can also do the types of things Jesus did without any belief whatsoever in whom Jesus was.  If the performance of certain deeds is sufficient for salvation, then salvation is indeed by works- not grace through faith.  Faith requires a foundational belief which leads one to action.

Over the course of years I have come to a short but inclusive definition of faith from a biblical perspective.  That working definition is that faith is “a belief which motivates one to action.”  This simple characterization understands that one first believes and becomes therefore compelled to respond.  Without action faith is dead.  Without belief only dead works are achievable.  It is belief to the point of action which is required of one to be brought into the Kingdom of God.

The Stipulation of Faith

Enduring in today’s widely debated field of soteriology are those who declare that faith is not essential for one’s salvation.  To some extremists, the requirement of faith for salvation in some way hinders the doctrinal proclamation that salvation is by grace alone.  Such are human arguments rather than biblical ones, however.  Scripture makes no attempt to dumb down its teachings so that they fit neatly into one’s acceptable doctrinal platform.  Scripture claims that salvation is by grace through faith.  Furthermore, as this series continues it will be revealed clearly that scripture declares specific certainties will exist for all who are truly redeemed; including repentance, the Lordship of Christ and the love for Christ.  While it may be argued whether these elements are pre-justification or post-justification, it cannot be argued with scriptural integrity that one can be a true believer in Christ and not confess him Lord of all- nor can one be in Christ without engaging his sinful condition with repentance (the response of faith).  But, I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The doctrines declaring the application of faith as a requirement for ones salvation permeate the New Testament.  Already noted is Ephesians, which determines declaratively that it is “through faith” one is saved by grace.

Ephesians 2:8 (NIV)
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—

Likewise, Paul writes in his mini gospel treatise in Romans 3 that righteousness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ,” while still asserting wholeheartedly that justification is given “freely by his grace.” 

Romans 3:22-24 (NIV)
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Those who claim faith as an “addition” to grace must tread these texts very carefully; that their doctrine does not deny its source.

The author of Hebrews notes the distinction between those who hear the gospel and are saved and those who hear it and remain lost in their sins.  He states,

Hebrews 4:2 (NIV)
2 … we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.

Akin to James’ demons who believed and yet had not faith, here again the absence of faith relegates those who heard a right message to continue under God’s wrath.  It is “because (they) did not combine (the gospel) with faith” that the message was of no saving value to them.

Faith is an essential element of the gospel.  Without it no one can be saved.   Faith depends on one believing the right message of the gospel and properly responding to such belief (which will be discussed in future posts) – all of which never leave the confines of God’s providential grace.  Such faith is foundational, as Paul’s Damascus Road conversation with Christ revealed:

Acts 26:15-18 (NIV)
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

The Source of Faith

Since faith is required for salvation then, one’s natural focus might next be aimed at determining where or how such faith may be acquired.  Are there certain steps one must take in order to secure such faith for oneself?  Is there a proper pursuit which would lead one into a status whereby faith could be raised up?  The short answer is “no.”  There is nothing a man can do to establish himself as a candidate for faith; it is an ability which God provides to man by grace, the overriding condition of salvation.  God’s grace supersedes any and all other elements of the gospel, thus making one’s salvation “not from yourselves,” but “the gift of God.”

Faith, like grace, is God’s own work.  Let me quickly retort however that this does not eliminate man’s responsibility in the gospel transaction, as some are quick to assert.  The point being made at this time is that man cannot produce his own capacity for faith in Christ.  Christ produces faith capacity within man.  Scripture indicates that it is God’s word which He provides as the source of such enablement.

Paul notes this dynamic clearly in Romans 10:16-17 concerning Israel’s hearing of the gospel of Christ.

Romans 10:16-17 (NIV)
16 But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

This text reveals clearly both the opportunity of faith granted by Christ’s word and the responsibility attributed to those who hear it.  If “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” then none are capable of such faith outside of having heard from Christ directly through his word.  Even so, not all who heard accepted the good news, indicating the responsibility given to man for the application of the faith opportunity God provides.

John also contends that the hearing of the word is the vessel by which God provisions faith.  He states,

John 20:30-31 (NIV)
30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus’ testimony was thus written by John “that you may believe” and “that by believing you may have life in his name.”  This belief – a fundamental component of faith – was acquired by God’s own work of the provisioning of his word through John’s testimony.  Once again “the message is heard through the word of Christ.”

Paul further illustrates this truth as he reminds Timothy,

2 Timothy 3:15 (NIV)
…how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Thus, the opportunity for faith comes by God’s own power through the hearing of the message.  This message is commonly referred to as “the gospel,” or “the good news.”  The gospel is God’s word concerning God’s grace which was revealed through the provision of the substitutionary atonement of the righteous Christ.  Calls to faith are granted by the Lord himself by grace – from first to last – yet man remains accountable for his response.  This faith is provisioned by God through the preaching of the gospel; the very means by which God reveals himself to those who will exercise their faith. 

Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)
16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

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