This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of The Baptist Preacher under the title, “Why are there pious pretenders in the pews?”
In exalting faith, we are not immediately putting ourselves in contradiction to modern thought. Indeed faith is being exalted very high today by men of the most modern type. But what kind of faith? There emerges the difference of opinion.
Faith is being exalted so high today that men are being satisfied with any kind of faith, just so it is faith. It makes no difference what is believed, we are told, just so the blessed attitude of faith is there. (J. Gresham Machen, 1923)1
Almost two years ago I wrote an article entitled “Worshipping Worship.” I thought it was time to write a follow-up on worship, so I pulled my “worship” file and perused the entries of the last two years. It has become a huge file with men of varied stripe offering comment and observation. Fundamentalists and evangelicals especially have been justifiably critical of the irreverence in today’s “worship style.” But I’ve noticed (as have many others) that there is an issue that mirrors worshipping worship, and that is trusting in trust or faith.
The nature of saving faith
An Easter article in our local paper was titled, “Many experience rebirth of faith at Easter time.” It seems a man was returning from his faith in the “material world” to a “sense of freedom and comfort” in his Catholic church. He said, “It’s not a change in belief but a change in the method of adoration.”2 The troubling fact is that such a faith has no object. Faith becomes its own object! It is faith in the ability to have faith which, of course, is not faith but works.
When the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) document appeared in 1994, the only good news was that the issue of saving faith was pushed to center stage. Sadly, many who call themselves “evangelical” have lost the distinctive of their name by proposing that the “good news” is that salvation is in one’s content of faith rather than in one’s object of faith. But I would also suggest that fundamentalists have often been as guilty in proposing that salvation is in one’s confession of faith. That, as well, is a trust in trust rather than in Christ. It seems to me that both errors can pack the pews with pious pretenders.
The Bible basis of saving faith
The New Testament furnishes us not only with examples of genuine faith, but with examples of unsaving faith. John 2:23-25 shows us a group of people who “believed” in the content of Jesus’ message, but John makes it clear that they were not regenerated (James reminds us that the devils “believe” in this way). Acts 8:13-24 shows us a man, Simon, who “believed” and was baptized but, it turned out, his public confession was not enough to bring him to salvation. On the other hand, Hebrews 4:3 speaks of “We which have believed” and have entered into rest. Alexander Maclaren commented, “He does not mean, ‘we which acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world,’ but we who, acknowledging, let our hearts go out to Him in trust, and our wills bow down before Him in obedience and submission.”3
When I say that saving faith is not in the content alone I mean that it takes more than just believing that the facts are true regarding Jesus Christ to get saved. When I say that saving faith is not in the confession alone I mean that it takes more than just mouthing some words about Jesus Christ to get saved. The liturgical churches have often been guilty of the former, and the non-liturgical churches have often been guilty of the latter. One error creates an evangelism where faith, or trust, is in the ability to understand, while the other is in the ability to say so.
The vocabulary of saving faith
One biblical (and historic) way of defining saving faith is by using the three Latin words notitia, assensus and fiducia. The Baptist theologian, Augustus Strong, reminded us of these in his 1907 Systematic Theology.4 Recently, R.C. Sproul has defended saving faith against the ECT agenda by using these words.5 I find the three-fold (four, counting confession) definition in the New Testament.
Notitia means knowledge. One must hear of Jesus Christ before he will ever be saved. Faith cannot come before “hearing” (Rom 10:17). Heb 11:13 describes the saints as “having seen them afar off,” i.e., the promises which told of salvation. Obviously, no one can believe if they do not know that salvation is available.
Assensus means to give assent to something or agree. After one hears the message, he may or may not agree as to its validity. Many have never believed that the gospel story is actually true. Heb 11:13 (in KJV & TR) reads, “and were persuaded.” Rev 1:3 has, “Blessed is he that readeth (notitia) and they that hear (assensus). In 1 Cor 14:25 Paul said that prophecy was better than tongues because then someone can interpret and give the meaning so that a visitor may be “convinced of all” that is said.
Fiducia is trust or what Strong calls the “voluntary element.” Heb 11:13 says that they “embraced” the message of salvation which they had “seen” and were “persuaded of.” J.O. Buswell, in his Systematic Theology, stresses at length what he calls this “cognitive element” of faith.6 This is not just a hearing of the gospel and is more than just admitting that the gospel story is true. It is to realize that Jesus Christ can be your Savior and for you to want that more than anything else. (Note: This is where repentance comes in this progression. Paul, in 1 Cor 14:25, says that at this point the man will “fall down on his face.” The Thessalonians, in 1 Th 1:9, “turned to God from idols.”) Sproul speaks of this moment as a change in “perceived value.”7 Now, for the first time, the sinner sees Christ as something to be desired and to grasp with his whole heart.
The confession of saving faith
The Bible adds one more concept to these three, and that is confession. Hebrews 11:13 says that at this point “they confessed.” Rom 10:10 (a passage that deserves a fresh study) says that “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto (‘because of’) salvation.” Obviously there are no magic formulas for saving faith. Confession is just that, a public display of what the heart secretly has believed. If the belief is real, the confession will definitely follow.
True saving faith takes place when a sinner has exercised fiducia. After having learned of Christ and become convinced that His claims are true, he is willing to give up anything and pay any price to have Him. When this kind of faith takes place, confession will not only follow but will be impossible to silence; invitations will not have to rely on trickery; lordship will not be a problem; godly living and separation from the world will come naturally because a selfish nature has been overcome by a new nature in love with Christ.
The outgrowth of saving faith
Why does Peter (2 Peter 1:5-7) tell us to “add to your faith virtue?” Because a person who has true faith wants, first and foremost, to please the One with whom he has fallen in love. This simple obedience is virtue. Why does he then say to add “to virtue knowledge?” Because now this person wants to know what he should do to produce such virtue. And the progression continues through agape love.
If you think I am suggesting that a real problem in Christendom today is not that we are becoming too exclusive of all “faiths,” but rather that we have become too inclusive of any partial expression of faith, you happen to be right. And could this not be a vital reason why we see so many saying they have faith but having no interest in virtue? And because there is no virtue, there is little interest in knowledge?
This unsaving kind of faith is simply trust in trust, a faith in faith, but it does not have Jesus Christ as the lovely object and desire of reception. I don’t know how widely this may be the case in our church, but it must cause us some concern. A.W. Tozer wrote, “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.”8Notes: 1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdman’s, 1959) 141. 2. Fort Collins Coloradoan, April 3, 1994. 3. Alexander Maclaren, Exposition of Holy Scripture, Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1959) 304. 4. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1907) 836-844. 5. R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) 75-88. 6. J.O. Buswell, Systematic Theology (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) II, 175-186. 7. Sproul, 86. 8. A.W. Tozer, The Best of A.W. Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978) 100.