Faith in Focus

What is Saving Faith ?

The Bible speaks a great deal about faith. It is defined as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb.11:1). Without it we cannot please God, because those who come to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb.11:6). With an amount of it the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains (Mt.17:20).

But what is saving faith? With this expression, we have to be careful, because it could be understood to imply that the faith we exercise is a work that saves us. Even the Westminster Confession, whose chapter 14 discusses the subject of saving faith, has to be considered with care from this point of view. It speaks of the "grace of faith", by which "the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls". It says further:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in his Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

When the Confession calls faith a "grace", it is alluding to Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:8,9 that even the faith we exercise is a gift of God's grace so that we cannot boast about it in any way. It also, quite correctly, points out that the faith which is God's gift is not a one-off act of belief but stays with us throughout our Christian lives and bears the fruit of obedience. Faith, in other words, leads to our becoming sanctified, being holy even as God is holy (1Pet.1:15). Faith without works, is dead, as James so pointedly puts it in James 2:17. But this awareness could lead to an unhealthy spiritual introspection in which we are constantly assessing ourselves to see whether our faith is genuine or not and either castigating ourselves for not working hard enough at exercising faith or worse: patting ourselves on the back and saying our faith is going along just fine because of all what we are achieving. It would seem that the writers of the Confession were aware of this danger when they pointed out that the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life. Indeed. If we lost sight of this vital fact, we have lost the very essence of saving faith. This is the point stressed by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord's Day 23, Q.61 and the Belgic Confession, Art.22 states with equal clarity:

Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.

Saving faith, of its very nature, leads us away from ourselves and what we can achieve and focuses our attention solely on God and the gift of his grace in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Calvin, in this connection, likened faith to becoming empty. He writes:

For if faith justified of itself or through some intrinsic power, so to speak, as it is always weak and imperfect it would effect this only in part…Now we imagine no such thing, but we say that, properly speaking, God alone justifies; then we transfer this same function to Christ because he was given to us for righteousness. We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ's grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ. (Institutes, Bk.3, ch.xi.)

The point that Calvin makes here is of great pastoral significance. It means that the more we are aware of our own failings and weaknesses - how much we don't know, and how much we have not achieved as Christians - the more we will cast ourselves on God for his mercy in Christ. Which is what saving faith is all about.

We have a graphic illustration of this in Mark 5:25-34. Here Jesus encounters a woman who has had a flow of blood for twelve years. According to the legislation in Leviticus 15, this would have made her ritually unclean and everything and every one with whom she came into contact would have also become unclean. Not only has she had to endure the physically debilitating effect of her ailment, she has also been forced to endure the social ostracism associated with it. Yet even this is not all. She has spent all her money and endured much at the hands of many physicians in attempts at procuring a remedy. Jewish writings record the methods employed by physicians to deal with this particular problem. One prescribed remedy was a concoction of wine mixed with a powder formed from rubber, alum and garden crocuses. Another treatment was a dose of Persian onions cooked in wine administered with the summons, "Arise out of your flow of blood". Another was the carrying of the ashes of an ostrich egg in a certain piece of cloth for a season. Others prescribed sudden shock.

For twelve years this woman has tried everything, enduring every indignity and painful treatment prescribed, but it was all to no avail. Yet she believes that if she can touch even the garment of Jesus Christ, she will be healed of this illness. She makes her way to him through the crowd and surreptitiously touches his outer garment. When Jesus asks who did this, she owns up "fearing and trembling". At this time and in this culture, it was frowned upon for a woman to speak in public. A woman who spoke openly about a subject such as this would be even more frowned upon. And then there is her audacious action of touching Jesus' garment, something that in the ordinary course of events would have made that garment unclean. What will the crowd think? What will Jesus do and say? Well, she had nothing to fear from the Lord. Jesus says to her, in an attitude of love and fatherly care, "Daughter, your faith has made you well [literally: your faith has saved you]; go in peace and be healed of your affliction."

Here we see genuine saving faith at work. This woman is very much aware of her need and she knows that no-one else can do anything about her problem. All other potential sources of help have failed. She is empty and is ready to receive what only Christ can give. Further she was convinced that Jesus could heal her. In fact, verse 28 literally says that she was saying this. If she expressed this conviction to others, they may well have ridiculed her, but she was determined to carry out her plan. She cast herself completely on Christ and his mercy. And she was not disappointed.

This is precisely why saving faith is to be contrasted with other "faiths". Human beings express faith in many things that they cannot see and their capacity to exercise faith has produced many different "faiths", to which they sincerely hold and practise. No-one can deny the religious devotion of zealous Muslims or the faith of New Age devotees who regularly consult their crystals or practise meditation for the purpose of releasing the god within. All these are expressions of faith, but they are not saving faith, because they are directed towards someone other than the God of the Scriptures and the only Saviour whom he has sent. This woman had to lose faith in the medical profession of her day. Only when she became empty could she be filled with God's grace.

This encounter can also teach us something of the sufficiency of faith. When this woman exercised her faith in Christ and touched his garment, she recognised instantly that she had been healed. The cure was immediate and she knew this in herself. There was nothing else that she needed to do; she was completely cured. When Jesus said in verse 34 that her faith had saved her, he knew full well that in terms of the legislation pertaining to ritual purification, the woman was still unclean. She must now wait for a period of seven days and then she had to take a sacrifice to the priest. But Jesus indicates by his words that it is not these ritual provisions and these animal sacrifices that make a person well. They signify cleansing but they do not grant cleansing. This woman is already clean. She has been saved and the instrument of her salvation was her faith.

Sometimes when people hear the gospel for the first or even the umpteenth time, they have a difficulty at this point. The gospel says believe in Jesus Christ and you shall be saved from your sins. But our fallen human reason tells us that this surely cannot be the case. How can it be that simple? Surely there must be something more. Surely there must be some procedure we have to go through or ritual for us to perform. Or perhaps some form of penance to cleanse us from our sins. But no. Faith in Christ is sufficient. Of course, as a result of faith in Christ, we will also want to receive baptism and partake of the Lord's Supper. But these sacraments signify cleansing, they do not grant cleansing. It is Christ who cleanses and it is by faith that we appropriate the gift of his righteousness. Further, faith leads to a desire to obey God and actively serve him. But again, it is not these things that save us; it is Christ who saves. The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life.

In conclusion, as G. C. Berkouwer puts it, "if we wish to say what faith is, then we must put all the emphasis upon its object. For faith has to do not with itself, but with Christ".

Mr Michael Flinn is the Pastor of the new Dovedale Congregation in Christchurch.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised October 1998 / Copyright 1998