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What is Saving Faith? (article)

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Article 9 of 13 from the Articles and Public Letters series

September 2001 – The question, “What is saving faith?” is not as easily answered as one might assume. It is evident from reading the New Testament that not everyone who “believes” truly possesses saving faith. Jesus Himself warned in Matthew 7:21-23 that on the Day of Judgment many will claim to have worked miracles in his name, but he will say to them, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” And James 2:19 informs us that even the demons believe in God—and tremble because of that belief. Yet they are not saved.

On the other hand when the Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” this simple reply was given, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That’s clear, isn’t it? Believe and be saved. The problem is not with the words but with their meaning. If salvation is based on believing in Christ, how do you know when you have truly believed? We all understand that the word “believe” has many different nuances. For instance, if I say, “I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow,” that’s nothing more than a hunch. Or if I say, “I believe George Washington was the first President of the United States,” that refers to a settled historical fact. But if I say “I believe in Jesus with all my heart,” I have made a different sort of statement altogether.

True saving faith involves the intellect, the emotions, and the will. Faith starts with knowledge, moves to conviction, and ends with commitment. Let’s briefly take a look at each element.

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A) Knowledge

Knowledge refers to the factual basis of the Christian faith. It speaks of intellectual understanding of the truth. You must know something in order to be saved. Faith is based on knowledge and knowledge is based on truth, which means that saving faith is intelligent faith. The right believing of right knowledge is necessary for salvation. The gospel contains information that we need to know in order to go to heaven.

Suppose you are in a burning building and cannot find your way out. “Where is the exit?” you cry out. Through the smoke and haze comes the answer: “Go down the hallway, turn left, go down one flight of stairs. The exit is on the right.” Are you saved because you know where the exit is? No, you still have to make the journey yourself. But if you don’t know how to get there, or if you have wrong information, you’re going to burn to death. You aren’t saved by knowing the truth but you can’t be saved without it.

We must be perfectly clear on this point. Christian faith is not blind faith. We are called to believe in something—not just anything. True saving faith rests first and foremost in Jesus Christ. This is paramount. We must know who he is, why he came, why he died, why he rose from the dead, and how he can be our Lord and Savior. I am not suggesting that we must pass a theology exam in order to be saved, but we must know something about these truths if our faith is to rest on the right foundation. Faith rests on facts, not on thin air. Faith in the wrong thing, however sincere, will not save anyone.

Knowledge is essential but it alone can never save you. Saving faith begins with knowledge but it never ends there.

B) Conviction

Conviction means to know something and then to be persuaded that it is true. The most common word for “believe” in the Old Testament means “to have confidence in, to regard as completely reliable.” That Hebrew word comes over into English as “Amen,” which literally means “Yes, it is true.” Saving faith involves saying “Amen” to the facts of the gospel.

A man may go to a doctor who tells him he has cancer. “But there is good news,” says the doctor. “We have just discovered a chemotherapy that can cure your cancer. Do you believe it?” “Yes,” you answer. Are you cured? No, not until you roll up your sleeve and let them stick in the needle and pump the lifesaving medicine into your veins.

Conviction is essential because you must be personally convinced of the truth, but that alone cannot save you. There is one final element in true saving faith.

C) Commitment

Commitment speaks to the active part of faith. We often use the word “trust” in the sense of “relying fully upon,” such as resting your full weight on a bed, confident that it can hold you up. True faith always reaches out to rest upon some object. If we go to a doctor, we must rest our faith in him. If we go to a lawyer, we must put our case in his hands. This is what is meant by phrases such as “Believe in your heart” or “with your heart.”

True saving faith always ends in personal commitment. Sales people understand this principle. After the presentation is made, at some point customers have to sign on the dotted line. If they say, “I know that’s a good product,” you haven’t made a sale. If they say, “I believe I need that,” they are closer but you still haven’t made a sale. But when they say, “Where do I sign?” you’ve just closed the deal.

The Great Blondin

In the 19th century the greatest tightrope walker in the world was a man named Charles Blondin. On June 30, 1859 he became the first man in history to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Over 25,000 people gathered to watch him walk 1100 feet suspended on a tiny rope 160 feet above the raging waters. He worked without a net or safety harness of any kind. The slightest slip would prove fatal. When he safely reached the Canadian side, the crowd burst into a mighty roar.

In the days that followed he would walk across the Falls many times. Once he walked across on stilts, another time he took a chair and a stove with him and sat down midway across, cooked an omelet and ate it. Once he carried his manager across riding piggyback. And once he pushed a wheelbarrow across loaded with 350 pounds of cement. On one occasion he asked the cheering spectators if they thought he could push a man across sitting in a wheelbarrow. A mighty roar of approval rose from the crowd. Spying a man cheering loudly, he asked, “Sir, do you think I could safely carry you across in this wheelbarrow?” “Yes, of course.” “Get in,” the Great Blondin replied with a smile. The man refused.

That makes it clear, doesn’t it? It’s one thing to believe a man can walk across by himself. It’s another thing to believe he could safely carry you across. But it’s something else entirely to get into the wheelbarrow yourself. That’s the difference between knowledge, conviction, and commitment.

“That’s Amazing!”

While serving as a guest host on national call-in program called “Open Line,” I took a call from a young girl named Angela who asked how you could know you are saved. I quoted 1 John 5:13, which says that you can know you have eternal through believing in Christ. Salvation depends on trusting Jesus Christ. It’s more than just believing facts about Jesus. To trust in Christ means to rely completely upon him. Trust is what you do when you fly in a plane. You trust the pilot to get you back down on the ground safely. You trust a doctor when you take the medicine he prescribes. You trust a lawyer when you let him represent you in court. God says that when you trust Jesus Christ in that same way you are saved from your sins. All you have to do is trust Christ completely and you can be saved. When I asked Angela what she thought about that, she blurted out, “Wow! That’s amazing.” Yes it is. It’s the most amazing truth I know.

Faith and Good Works

At this point we must address a question that has been the subject of heated theological debate in recent years. Is it possible to have true saving faith without that faith being manifested in a truly changed life? The answer depends partly on how you define your terms. On the deepest level the answer is no. When Christ comes in, he transforms us from the inside out. We cannot completely divorce salvation from daily life. New life will eventually show itself in the way we think, believe, speak, and how we relate to others. If there is no change over time, what is the practical benefit of coming to Christ in the first place?

However, there is another side to this question. New life must show itself “eventually.” How soon and how much and how visible the change will be to others (and even to ourselves) differs greatly from person to person. A woman said she doubted her salvation because she is doing nothing about her own spiritual growth. Her repeated procrastination has made her wonder if she is truly saved. A young man told the speaker at a men’s retreat that he struggled so much with habitual sin that he doubted his salvation. How do we help people in these situations? The answer goes like this. We are made right with God solely on the basis of what Christ accomplished for us in his bloody death on the cross. When it comes to salvation, you ought to ask yourself this question: “Am I satisfied with what Christ did on the cross to provide my salvation?” We know that God is satisfied with the death of his Son. Are we satisfied as well, or do we feel that we must add some measure of good works or spiritual growth in order to assure our place in heaven? If we are trusting in Christ and Christ alone, then we can have assurance that we are truly saved. The doubts we feel stem from a lack of personal obedience. Instead of doubting, the woman needs to call her church and sign up for a small group Bible study where she can grow spiritually. The young man needs to find a mentoring relationship with a godly man who can hold him accountable and help him find deliverance from his habitual sins. The problem in both cases is not theological. It’s a failure to use the means of grace God has provided for daily spiritual growth.

The Power of Feeble Faith

One day a woman with a serious bleeding problem came to Jesus as he passed along a narrow, crowded street. She reached out, touched the corner of his cloak, and was instantly healed. After 12 years of misery, just one touch and her disease was gone forever (Luke 8:40-48). This story is helpful because the woman never said anything to Jesus. No doubt she was both afraid and ashamed to address him openly. Even after her miraculous healing, she doesn’t say a word. She simply found him in the crowd, touched his cloak, was wonderfully healed, and then turned to go. Only at that point did Jesus address her. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 8:48).

In this poor woman we see the amazing power of feeble faith. She knew who Jesus was (that’s knowledge), she believed he could help her (that’s conviction), and she reached out and touched him in the crowd (that’s commitment). She didn’t have a huge amount of faith. But she had a tiny grain of faith and through it, God moved the mountain of her illness.

How simple it is to come to Christ. Only a touch and this woman is healed. Not by her toiling, not by her promises to do better, not by an offer to do something for Jesus if he would do something for her. No deals here. She reached out a trembling hand and in an instant, she was healed. It wasn’t even a long process. It happened so fast that it could only be called a miracle.

That’s what feeble faith can do. Coming to Christ is not difficult. The hardest part is reaching out with the hand of faith. If you want to touch Jesus, all you have to do is reach out to him. That’s the power of feeble faith when it is directed toward the right object. You don’t have to have strong faith. You can have weak faith as long as it is resting upon a strong object. And who could be stronger than Jesus Christ Himself?

In the last book of the Bible we find the image of Christ standing at the door and knocking. The picture comes from Revelation 3:20 where Christ offers to enter a lukewarm, lethargic church and have fellowship with those who will let him in. It is a wonderful picture of how Christ comes to each of us. And in this picture we see the three elements of faith made clear.

I hear the knock—That’s knowledge

I go to the door—That’s conviction

I open the door—That’s commitment

Only then does Christ come and make himself at home in my heart. Years ago I learned a children’s chorus that goes like this: One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. Inside and outside, on which side are you?

This is a crucial question for all of us to consider. On which side of your heart’s door is Jesus Christ? Is he on the inside or on the outside, still knocking, waiting for you to open the door? If you hear Christ knocking, do not delay. Go to the door and let him in. This is true saving faith.

For Further Study

It is clear from the New Testament that not everyone who “believes” is truly saved. Most of us have probably known people who made a “profession of faith” (sometimes in a dramatic fashion) and later drifted away from the church. And some people say they believe in Jesus but the Jesus they believe in is not the Christ of the Bible. Others claim to be born again while living in open sin and giving no evidence of any desire for repentance and forgiveness. And many sincere Christians struggle with deep doubts and secretly wonder if they are truly born again. In this last category are those who harbor doubts because they are deeply aware of their own personal failures and simply do not feel “worthy” of being called a child of God.

While there is no one answer that solves all these problems, it helps to remember that salvation depends on the Lord Jesus Christ and not on us. Although we often say that we are saved by faith, perhaps it more accurate to say that it is Christ who saves us by faith. As long as we focus on ourselves—our faith, our doubts, our lack of progress, our mistakes—we are certain to struggle in our Christian walk. When we focus on Christ, we find true assurance and the proper motivation for serving God.

1) In Ephesians 2:8, what is the relationship between grace, salvation, and faith? In what sense are all three of these things “not of ourselves?” What happens when we forget this truth and claim credit for our salvation?

2) If we are not saved by good works, why bother doing good as a Christian (Ephesians 2:10; Matthew 5:16)? In what way are our good works an evidence of true saving faith? (See James 2:14-24).

3) Is it possible for a person who claims to work miracles in Jesus’ name not to be truly saved? (Matthew 7:21-23) What did Jesus mean when He said of the false prophets, “By their fruit you will recognize them?” (Matthew 7:20) What “fruit” is He talking about?

4) 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 offers a clear picture of true conversion. List the steps in the transformation of the Thessalonians from idol-worshipers to committed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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