Pastor John, could you explain to me what true saving faith looks like? I think the New Testament shows us that there is a false kind of faith that can look like the real thing, but is a flawed and deceptive substitute. Am I right?
Thanks for your question. Yes, indeed you are right.
The Apostle Paul’s main theme in the book of Romans is that of the Gospel itself, as he answers the question, “how can an unjust person ever be acceptable to a just and holy God?” In passages such as Chapter 3:20 – 4:8, he teaches that we are justified by faith alone and not by anything that we do (other passages where Paul states this are Titus 3:5; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8,9; Phil 3:9; to name just a few).
Romans 3:28; 4:3-8 – “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Having established the case biblically that we are justified by faith apart from works, we then need to ask the question, “what kind of faith is it that justifies?” In other words, what does true faith look like?
This is precisely the issue that James is addressing in chapter 2 of his epistle. He writes in verse 14, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?”
The obvious answer to James’ question is “no, that is not the kind of faith that saves. True faith will produce works.”
It is never enough just to make the claim to have faith. No one is ever saved by a mere empty profession of faith. What is professed must actually be possessed for justification to exist. James teaches us clearly that if genuine faith is present, it necessarily produces the fruit of works. That’s the nature of true faith. In fact, if works do not follow from “faith,” then it is proof positive that the “faith” is not in fact genuine, but a mere claim to it.
There is no discord between what James writes and what we find in Romans and the rest of Paul’s writings. Faith without works is dead, and a dead faith never saved anyone. True faith is a living faith, and will inevitably show itself with accompanying action or works. Yet even if all these good works do come from genuine faith, these works still have no part in the ground of our justification. Our works add no merit to us, removing all grounds for boasting. “For by grace you are saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works so that no one should boast” (Eph 2:8, 9).
The only work that contributes to our justification is the work of Jesus; not the work of Jesus in us, but the work of Jesus for us. His merit is the only merit that counts for us. Paul tells us that it we are justified by faith apart from works, and James tells us that that kind of faith that actually saves is a faith that will of necessity produce works.
The Reformers of the 16th Century were very clear about all this. They described true saving faith as having three parts to it, which were described by three Latin words: notitia, assensus and fiducia.
1. CONTENT OR INFORMATION (notitia) – Like our modern day word “notice”, notitia concerns information or knowledge of the truth of the gospel. We need to understand the facts of the Gospel.
What exactly must be believed? Certainly, a person does not need to be a highly trained theologian to be saved. The Holy Spirit draws both adults and young children to a saving knowledge of Christ. Yet when children are converted to Christ, they may not know every nuance of the faith, or even a detailed understanding of the atonement – merely that Christ died for our sins. However, I believe it would be true to say that a truly saved person, although they may not be able to articulate the content of the Gospel at length, will not reject it when they do hear it. I believe that’s a very important point to make. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish…” (John 10: 27). Christ’s true sheep instinctively know the Shepherd’s voice and follow Him. The regenerate person humbly submits to the faithful teaching of Scripture when hearing it (Scripture being the Shepherd’s voice), unlike those who are still in the flesh who are completely incapable of doing so (Romans 8:7, 8).
This noticia includes belief in one God, in the full humanity (1 John 4:3) and deity of Christ (John 8:24), and His death for sinners on the cross (1 Cor. 15:3), as well as His physical resurrection from the dead. Romans 10:9 says,
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
I believe the noticia would also include some understanding of God’s grace in salvation – that is, God saves us because of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners, not the sinner’s work on behalf of God.
2. BELIEF (assensus) – It is entirely possible to understand something (the notitia) and yet not believe it personally (assensus). We need to be able to say “I both understand and believe the content of the gospel.”
3. COMMITMENT (fiducia) – The third and final component of true saving faith is a full trust in and commitment to the One who loved us and died for us. This is of critical importance simply because it is possible to understand these truths, believe they are true, and yet pull back from the necessary commitment that will actually enlist us as one of Christ’s followers. To possess only the first two parts (notitia and assensus), without the third part (fiducia), merely qualifies us to be demons! James 2:19 declares, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” Even demons understand and believe, but that does not mean that they have a share in redemption.
REPENTANCE AND FAITH
Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. True saving faith is a repentant faith. It involves a turning away from all that is known to be wrong and from all false gods and all false ways and turning to the one true God instead to find its joy, treasure and sole reliance for salvation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The New Testament word for repent (normally the Greek word metanoein) means “to change one’s mind.” It is not so much an emotion (though it may at times be accompanied with emotion) as it is a decision. It is possible to shed a great deal of tears and yet never “repent” in the true Scriptural sense. Others have mistakenly associated repentance with what is called “doing penance” but again, it is entirely possible to perform many religious acts and yet never repent. True repentance is a firm inward decision, an about turn in thinking, a changing of one’s mind.
The Old Testament word for repent meant literally to turn, to return or to turn back. This is in perfect harmony with the New Testament meaning – the New Testament emphasizes the inner decision and the Old Testament, the outward action. Putting both definitions together, the word repent means to change the mind, resulting in the outward action of turning back, turning around, (an about face) to move in a completely new direction.
Repentance is not an optional extra in the Christian life. It is an absolute essential. Jesus said, “…unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:3, 5
Faith involves trust, reliance and a humble submission that in Christ alone is salvation found. True saving faith renounces all forms of self reliance and self justification and instead, leans solely on the Person and work of Christ for salvation. Understanding this Dr. James White writes, “God’s grace is powerful, and it brings full salvation to the soul of the person who despairs of anything other than free, unmerited grace. Grace cannot clasp the hand that carries within it ideas of merit, or good works, or any other kind of human addition to grace. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). God’s wondrous grace cannot be mixed with human merit. The hand that holds onto its own alleged goodness, or attempts to sneak in a merit here, a good work there, will not find the open hand of God’s grace. Only the empty hand fits into the powerful hand of grace. Only the person who finds in Christ his all-in-all will, in so finding, be made right with God. This is why the Scriptures say it is by faith so that it might be in accordance with grace: in God’s wisdom, he excludes man’s boasting by making salvation all of grace.” (The Empty Hand of Faith)
True saving faith will always produce the fruit of good works. Though our works play no part at all in justifying us before God (Rom 3:28; 4:4, 5; Eph. 2:8, 9) they justify or vindicate our claim to faith before a watching world. Our lives should demonstrate that the faith professed was, and is, also possessed.
Phil Johnson makes this clear when he writes, “even our best works are imperfect and therefore worthless for any merit in the sight of God. This cannot be overstressed: our own works play no role whatsoever in justifying us. But every authentic believer has a new heart, new desires, a new love for God and spiritual gifts that enable us to be used by the Holy Spirit in spite of the remnants of sin in our flesh. And we press on toward Christlikeness, because Christ Jesus has made us His own (cf. Philippians 3:12). In other words, if our faith is truly genuine, there should be some evidence of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) somewhere in our lives. Conversely, when someone verbally professes faith in Christ but his or her personal life and private thoughts are utterly devoid of good works, personal holiness, righteous desires, love for God, and love for the brethren—that person needs to hear and heed 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
What we find in the New Testament is that often the call to salvation is couched with expressions of repentance and faith. For example, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”” – Mark 1:14, 15
However, there are times though when only one of these two terms are used: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” Acts 17:30; or ““Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” Acts 16:31.
This should in no way alarm us. Though one of these two things are sometimes emphasized more than the other, both are essential elements of true saving faith and there is no disharmony involved in this. This is because when calling people to faith, God is also calling people to turn from all they know to be wrong and to trust in Christ alone. Once again, true faith is a repentant kind of faith renouncing all claims of self justification or reliance upon human merit of any kind. It is the very opposite of pride and something absolutely impossible for the unregenerate heart. Unless a man is first born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. It is not in his nature to repent and trust in Christ.
Repentance and faith, though they are actions performed by the true child of God, should never to be confused with meritorious works. There is no human merit involved in repentance and faith. That is why both are spoken of as gifts from God. God grants repentance. God grants faith. They are not the result of the workings of the flesh. Unregenerate man can never repent or put faith in Christ, for that is not in the nature of one possessing a heart of stone. Similarly, no demon will ever repent and believe in Christ, for again, it is not in the demon’s nature. But the true child of God – those whom God makes alive, will repent, will believe – they will come to Christ, turning from all falsehood and sin, trusting Christ alone. The true child of God is a new creature, old things have passed away and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17) including seeing sin as it really is, in all its sheer ugliness, and seeing Christ as the true heart’s treasure. This new creature also wants to know the will of God and do it, and this includes a desire to know His Word and to obey it. It would also include the desire to be with fellow believers and to be a part of a local Church where nurturing, fellowship and service can take place.
As you consider your own standing before God, would you say that yours is in any way based upon what you do, rather than upon what Christ has done in your place? Can you honestly say you trust Him with your eternal destiny, and fully believe He carried your sins on the cross, and has given His righteousness to you, so that you can stand before God on the day of judgment?
If at the present time you are not able to answer these questions in the affirmative, I pray that God will indeed give you the gift of true repentance and faith, and that you will call upon the Name of the Lord and be saved.