What Is Saving Faith?

September 6, 2006

“Pastor Ray, how can I know that I am truly saved?”

The young man standing before me was obviously in some distress. His story was familiar. He had been raised in an evangelical church where he had accepted Christ as his Savior when he was 8 or 9. After 19 years of Sunday school and church services, and after hearing countless gospel sermons, he felt confused and uncertain. To make matters worse, he was a student at a Bible school where I was the guest lecturer.

His problem boiled down to this: He wasn’t sure he had truly trusted Christ. “How do I know that I have the right kind of faith?” His inner doubts, and the deep sense of his own sinfulness, made him wonder if the prayer he prayed all those years ago was enough. He saw some fruit in his life, but not as much as he wanted or hoped — or apparently not as much as others expected from him. He kept the rules, memorized the verses, and did his weekly evangelism assignment, but still it didn’t seem to be enough. Was there something else he needed to do?

His struggles are not unique. Most of us who were raised in an evangelical church have asked the same questions about ourselves, and we’ve wondered if our faith is “real” faith or if it’s something else entirely.

Beyond Belief

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 a man 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. 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. That raises a key question: 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.

Three Elements of Saving Faith

True saving faith involves 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.

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. Truth must be proclaimed before saving faith can be exercised. Saving faith is intelligent faith. 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 alone, but you can’t be saved without it.

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 must be grounded in the facts of divine revelation. 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” 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 might use the word “trust” in the sense of “relying fully upon,” such as resting with 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.” It means to “embrace” or to “accept” or to “receive” or to “welcome” someone or something.

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!”

If you know what it means to believe a doctor when he says, “You need surgery,” you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to step into an airplane entrusting your safety to the captain in the cockpit, you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to ask a lawyer to plead your case in court, you know what it means to have faith. Faith is total reliance upon another person to do that which you could never do for yourself.

How much faith does it take to go to heaven? It depends. The answer is not much and all you’ve got. If you are willing to trust Jesus Christ with as much faith as you happen to have, you can be saved. But if you’re holding anything back, thinking that maybe you need to do something to help save yourself, forget it! True saving faith expresses itself by reaching out to take Christ as our Savior and Lord.

—It may be expressed through a prayer of personal trust in Christ.

—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. Saving faith reaches out and trusts Christ as Lord and Savior.

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 can know you are saved. I quoted 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” I told Angela that 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.

What About Repentance?

At this point someone may ask where repentance fits into the gospel message? After all, the very first word Jesus spoke in his public ministry was the word “Repent.” The word repentance literally means “to change the mind.” It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think the differently. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind. Let’s suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a skydiving school and they show him how to rig up his gear, how to pull the ripcord, and how to land safely. Finally the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death but he’s afraid to back out. The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the door of the airplane and sees the ground 7,000 feet below. His legs grow weak, he’s getting sick, and somebody behind him is trying to push him out of the airplane. At the last second he says, “No. I’m not going to do it.” “Go ahead, you can do it,” his instructor shouts. “I’ve changed my mind,” he replies. “I’m not going to jump.” And he doesn’t. That man has repented. He’s changed his mind in a decisive way.

That story illustrates how repentance works. Repentance is a change in the way you think that leads to change in the way you live. When you really change your mind about something, it’s going to change the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and ultimately what you do about it.

True repentance and saving faith go together. They are like two sides of the same coin. To repent means to change my mind about whatever is keeping me from coming to Christ. To trust Christ means to wholeheartedly reach out to him by faith so that he becomes my Savior and Lord.

Let’s return to the case of the Bible school student struggling to know if he has the “right kind” of faith. 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 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.

As I talked with the him, it became clear that he truly did understand the gospel and was truly trusting in Jesus Christ as his Savior. That wasn’t the problem. He admitted that he has a bad temper and struggles with a sharp tongue and a critical spirit. “If I were really saved, my life would be different,” he declared. Without getting into a debate with him, I simply asked, “Do you want to be changed?” The question seemed to stun him, because he had trouble finding an answer.

I gave him a bit of “homework” to do: “Go back to the people you have hurt by your thoughtless behavior and ask for their forgiveness. Then come back and talk to me again.” When I saw him later that week, he greeted me with a big smile and then he said, “Things are so much better now.” Once he got things right with his friends, his doubts seemed to vanish. That shouldn’t surprise us when we remember that genuine salvation touches every part of life. True saving faith reaches out to trust Christ and Christ alone. When He comes in, He changes us from the inside out, little by little, day by day, step by step. We are saved by faith, and we live by faith.

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. 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?

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. He will not turn you away.

“Can I Be a Christian?”

I received a very unusual letter from a young woman from China who had been attending our church in Oak Park for a short time. This is what she said:

Dear Dr. Ray Pritchard,

I have come to your church about two months, and I like (it) there a lot. I began to read the Bible by myself, and I want to be a Christian. However, I don’t know how I can be a Christian. I want to talk to you about it, but I am a little shy, so I write to you. Can I be a Christian? Would you tell me how I am able to be a Christian?

I am looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you very much.

(I”m sorry, my writing is not too good.)

How do you answer a letter like that? Even though she is just learning English, you can sense the deep desire of her heart coming through those simple words.

This is part of my reply to her:

You asked, “Can I be a Christian?” The answer is Yes. You can be a Christian. The most important thing I can say to you is that being a Christian means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

How do you get to know Jesus Christ personally? There must be a desire in your heart, which there already is. And you are already reading the Bible, which is God’s message to you about Jesus Christ. So the good news is that you are not far from being a Christian right now!

In order to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you must trust him as your Savior. Does that sound strange? I hope not. Already you know much about Jesus. You know that he worked many miracles and helped many people. But the most important thing to know about Jesus is that he died on the cross for your sins. That is, when he died on the cross 2,000 years ago, he took your place. You should have died there. But he died in your place, as your substitute, and by his death he paid the price for all your sins.

That’s a lot to think about, and you don’t have to fully understand it (no one fully understands it), but you do have to believe it. That’s what trusting is. It’s believing, really believing in your heart that something is true. Trusting is what you do when you get on an airplane. You trust your life to the fact that the airplane will safely take you up in the air and then safely get you back to the ground again. That’s trust. It’s staking your life upon something you believe to be true.

Trusting Jesus Christ means staking your life upon the fact that when he died on the cross, he really did pay the price for your sins and he really did take your place.

So, do you believe that Jesus Christ died for you? Are you wiling to stake your life upon that fact? If you are ready to say Yes, then you can be a Christian.

Let me give you a simple prayer to pray. This prayer is not magic. You should only pray it if it expresses the real feeling of your heart. But if it does, then you can pray this prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, Thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for taking all my sin away. I believe you are the Son of God and the Savior of the world. I gladly take you as my Savior. Come into my life and make me a Christian. Please help me to live a life that will be pleasing to you. Thank you for hearing this prayer. Amen.

That’s simple, isn’t it? If you will pray that prayer and mean it from your heart, you can become a Christian right now. I hope you will just stop right now and pray that prayer to God.

Did you pray that prayer? I hope so. If you did, I would be honored if you would tell me so. On Sunday, if you do not feel too shy about it, you can just come up to me and say, “Pastor Ray, I prayed that prayer.” I would be so happy if you would do that.

I put that letter in the mail and wondered how my friend would receive it. Would it make sense? Would she understand it?

The very next Sunday she came up to me after the second service and said with a shy smile that she had gotten my letter. I asked her if she had read it. She said yes. I asked her if she had prayed the prayer. She said yes. I asked if she understood what the prayer meant. She said yes. I asked if the prayer expressed the desire of her heart. She said yes. Then I said, “Welcome. You are now a Christian.” She said, “That’s all I have to do be a Christian?” When I said yes, the most beautiful smile I have ever seen spread across her face from one side to the other.

Christ Standing at the Door

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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?