What is Saving Faith?
October 24, 1999
The question posed by my title 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 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 Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” they replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That’s simple enough. Believe and be saved. A multitude of verses (especially from the gospel of John) could be added that say the same thing. The problem is not with the words but with their meaning. Many years ago I heard a sermon on this text called The World’s Greatest Question and God’s Simple Answer. Indeed God’s answer is simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” But what does it mean to “believe?” A.W. Tozer put the matter this way: “To the question ‘What must I do to be saved?’ we must learn the correct answer. To fail here is not to gamble with our souls; it is to guarantee eternal banishment from the face of God. Here we must be right or be finally lost.”
My Brother, Not Me!
Perhaps my own testimony will be helpful. I was raised in a family where my parents made sure the four Pritchard boys were in Sunday School every week. When we were very young, Mom spent lots of time on Sunday morning making sure we were freshly scrubbed and properly dressed before she delivered us to the First Baptist Church of Russellville, Alabama. I started in the Cradle Roll and eventually moved to the Toddlers, Beginners, Primaries, Juniors, Intermediates, and then to the High School Department. I learned the songs and memorized dozens of Bible verses.
When I was nine years old, I attended church camp with one of my brothers. It happened that the pastor came down with the bus driver to pick us up at the end of the week. On the way back home, Brother Colley (as he was known to all of us) called me to the front of the bus and said, “I understand you made a decision this week.” Actually it was my brother who had made some sort of decision during one of the services, but I was too scared to correct him. He told me to walk forward during the invitation the following Sunday and present myself at the front of the church for baptism and membership. I vaguely recall walking down a long aisle and sitting on a bench while a deacon took a card and filled out some information. Then I was introduced to the congregation. They voted me in with a show of hands and I was given the “right hand of fellowship” as the congregation filed past after the service to shake my hand and welcome me to the church. A week later I was baptized.
As I look back on that experience, it is clear in my mind that I had not the slightest understanding of what I was doing. To be precise, I knew I was joining the church but nothing more than that. If anyone had asked, “Are you saved?” the question would have baffled me. I don’t recall anyone speaking to me about the state of my soul or my relationship with the Lord.
But now I was a member in good standing of the visible Christian church. Seven years later I accepted Christ after a youth retreat at Tishimingo State Park in northeast Mississippi. That was the first time I consciously trusted Christ as my Savior.
What does it mean to believe?
What about that seven-year period after my baptism and before I trusted Christ? Was I saved or lost? So far as I know, I did not know the Lord and did not understand the gospel. I have no assurance that I would have gone to heaven if I had died during that seven-year period.
Yet I was a member of the church. In one sense I was a “believer.” I share that story because I do not think it is untypical. Millions of Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians can testify that they were joined to a church in childhood but had not the slightest idea of what they were joining or what it really meant to be a Christian.
That raises a key question: If salvation is predicated on believing in Christ, how do you know when you have truly believed? Or, What does it mean to truly believe? We all understand that the word “believe” has many difference 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,” 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.
It is in precisely that sense we can say not everyone who “believes” is saved. Some are, some aren’t. If the words of Jesus in Matthew 7 mean anything, they must mean that there are many “unsaved believers” who will be greatly surprised at the Last Judgment.
I. Wrong Ideas About Saving Faith
Perhaps it will help to simply list some of the wrong ideas about saving faith.
Knowing facts/giving mental assent
Walking an aisle/signing a card/raising a hand
Public profession of faith
Identical with church membership
Inherited from believing parents
Feeling sorry for your sins
Promising to do better in the future
Only a strong faith can save you.
Note that the first five wrong ideas refer to very legitimate religious acts. As we will see shortly, knowing the facts of the gospel is vital to saving faith, yet saving faith is more than knowing facts. Walking an aisle, signing a card, raising your hand in a meeting—those are all valid ways of expressing your inner commitment to follow Jesus. Certainly church membership is very important. And if we have believing parents, we should be grateful for their positive influence, but influence alone will not save us. Feeling sorry for sin is a valuable spiritual lesson, but Judas felt sorry for his sins and he was not saved. Much may be said in favor of moral reformation and the value of having strong faith, but those things will not save you.
Let me add one more wrong idea about saving faith. Many people today seem to think that saving faith is faith in faith. That is, vague faith without any object. They say it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something. People like this may say, “I’m not religious. I’m a spiritual person.” They speak of “having a spiritual base” and trusting God “as you understand him.” But when you try to pin them down on the specifics of what they believe, they don’t know what to say. This wrong idea is particularly dangerous because it takes a good idea (the need for faith) and offers salvation to anyone who has faith in almost anything at all.
One writer speaks of our churches being filled with “pious pretenders in the pews.” Perhaps it is true. Only God knows the heart. But this much is clear. Many people do not know the answer to the question: What must I do to be saved?
II. The Three Elements of Saving Faith
Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have understood true saving faith as having three parts, correlating with the Latin words notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Those words speak of faith as involving the intellect, the emotions, and the will. The faith that saves us involves all that we are in coming to Christ. Faith starts with knowledge, moves to conviction, and ends with commitment. Let’s briefly take a look at each element.
This 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. And truth must be proclaimed before saving faith can be exercised. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
Saving faith is intelligent faith. John Calvin said, “Faith rests upon knowledge, not upon pious ignorance.” The right believing of right knowledge is necessary for salvation. The gospel is about information that we need to know. You aren’t saved by information but you can’t be saved without it.
Suppose you are in a burning building and cannot find the exit. “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.
Saving faith is not superstition. It is based on facts, truth, reliable information. The Bible tells us there is no salvation apart from the gospel. That gospel must be preached. And it must be believed. We are not asking people to have vague faith in an unspecified Savior. We are asking people to believe in the divine-human Son of God who walked on earth 2000 years ago, who was born in Bethlehem, who lived just over 30 years, who worked miracles, who taught the masses, who debated the Pharisees, who died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day, who stayed on earth for 40 more days and then ascended into heaven. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Son of God and God the Son. He died as our substitute, paying for our sins, bearing our penalty, dying in our place, the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God. He is the Savior of all who believe in him, the mediator between God and man, our Redeemer, Lord, and King. We are asking people to believe in that Jesus and only in him. In a world of spiritual counterfeits, there is only one Jesus who can save and that is the Christ of the New Testament. He is the one we must preach. That is where saving faith must begin—with true facts about Jesus Christ.
Said another way, here are five non-negotiable facts about Jesus that must form the heart of our gospel preaching:
His true humanity
His atoning death on the cross
His resurrection from the dead.
We must be perfectly clear on this point. Christian faith is not a blind leap in the dark. We are called to believe in something—not just anything. But 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 must be grounded in the facts of divine revelation. Faith rests on facts, not on thin air.
Knowledge is essential but it alone can never save you. If you stop with knowledge, you will be nothing but an intelligent unbeliever or an unsaved church member. This is a particular danger for children growing up in a church like Calvary. Our kids can end up with lots of head knowledge but nothing more.
That’s why saving faith begins with knowledge but it never ends there.
Conviction means to know something and then to be persuaded that it is true. The most common word for “believe” in the Old Testament is aman, which mean “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. It goes beyond knowledge to a personal conviction that these things are true.
Yet the demons believe and are convinced of the truth regarding God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. But they are not saved. In fact, they continue in their rebellion in spite of what they know. Conviction of the truth is important, but if you stop there you are merely qualified to be a demon.
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 do. 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.
Commitment speaks to the active part of faith. We might use the word “trust” in the sense of “relying fully upon,” such as resting with your full weight knowing that a bed 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.” It means to “embrace” or to “accept” or to “receive” or to “welcome” someone or something. Consider the action words the Bible uses as synonyms for faith: looking/ hearing/ seeing/ coming/ accepting/ embracing/ reaching out/ eating and drinking/ fleeing into/ laying hold of.
We can find all three elements of faith in one verse: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). I know … and am convinced … what I have entrusted. It’s all right there. Knowledge, conviction, commitment.
True saving faith always ends in personal commitment. Sales people understand this principle. After the presentation is made, at some point people 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.
We may illustrate the three elements of faith by comparing it to courtship and marriage. When a young man first develops a relationship with a young woman, he says to himself, “I like what I know about this person and I want to know more.” As the relationship progresses, he realizes that he has fallen in love and the thought comes to him, “I want to marry her.” That is conviction but he is not married yet. He is not married until he stands before the minister with his beloved by his side and in the presence of God and witnesses says, “I do.” Then and only then is he married. Knowledge, conviction, commitment.
Or suppose I plan a great banquet and invite hundreds of people. Word goes out far and near about the great feast I am preparing. The invitations are free, all I ask is that those planning to come respond personally. One man says, “I’ve heard about it but I’m not going.” That’s knowledge and nothing more. Another man says, “This will be a wonderful banquet. I must go,” but he neglects to return his invitation. That’s knowledge plus conviction. “I’m going to the banquet. Here’ s my invitation. I’ll be there,” says a third man. He and he alone will be admitted. Coming to the banquet means showing up and taking your seat. Coming to Christ means the same thing. It means coming to him as your Savior and taking your place in God’s family. If you don’t come, you can never be saved.
The Great Blondin
One final illustration may help. 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 to come 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 that occasion he asked the cheering spectators if they thought he could carry a man across sitting in the 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.
True saving faith takes place at the moment of personal commitment—and not before then.
—It may be expressed through a prayer or walking an aisle.
—It may be expressed through baptism.
—It may be expressed through a “public profession.”
But those things alone are not saving faith. Saving faith understands the gospel, believes the gospel, and then commits to the gospel as the only hope of salvation. It reaches out and trusts Christ as Lord and Savior. S. Lewis Johnson summarizes well: “Authentic faith, given by God, includes knowledge of the gospel’s great historical facts, an assent to the truthfulness of them, and a trust in Christ who accomplished them. Is not this the faith that saves?” Indeed it is.
III. An Example of Saving Faith
Four times in the gospel of Luke Jesus uses the phrase “Your faith has saved you.” Each example is instructive, but I find none quite as moving as the story of the woman with the “issue of blood” (the King James term) who came to Jesus in a crowd, touched the “hem of his garment” (literally, one of the tassels hanging from the corner of his cloak) and was instantly healed. After 12 years of misery, just one touch and her disease is gone forever.
I find this helpful because the woman never says anything to Jesus. No doubt she is both afraid and ashamed to address him openly. Even after her miraculous healing, she doesn’t say a word. She simply finds him in the crowd, touches the tassel, is wonderfully healed, and then turns to go. Only at that point does Jesus address her. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 8:48). (Note: The NIV has “healed” but the word also means “saved.”)
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 mustard seed and through it, God moved the mountain of her illness.
This is a hopeful story for those who feel their faith is not strong. If you come to Jesus Christ in simple faith—even though your faith be as feeble as this woman’s was—He will not turn you away. Do you ever feel as if your problems keep you from coming to God? Do you ever feel so dirty and unclean that you think Jesus would not have anything to do with you? Do not despair. Jesus is not offended by your problems. He’s seen it all before. I say it again. He will not turn you away.
The Power of Feeble Faith
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’s not 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 so long as it is resting upon a strong object. And who could be stronger than Jesus Christ Himself?
“But my faith is not strong.” We are not saved by strong faith but by weak faith in a strong object. Even a trembling hand can receive a golden cup. God never asks if our faith is strong, he only requires that it rest on the Lord Jesus Christ. When I receive a gift with my hand, I do not look at my hand and wonder what sort of hand I have. I look to the gift and don’t worry about my hand.
Christ Standing at the Door
I suppose most of us are familiar with 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 the 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, by all means do not delay. Go to the door and let him in. This is true saving faith.