THE ELUSIVE FAITH WHICH SAVES
Jesus Christ, speaking to His disciples on the value of being persistent in prayer, closed His remarks with this startling question: "...when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8.) [The Greek text is more definite here, rendering it as the faith.] It appears implicit here that the faith of which Jesus spoke would be on the wane as we approach the time of His second coming. However, contrast this with Jude 3, which admonishes Christians of all ages to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints".
So, in spite of the biblical forecast of latter-day, weak faith in the Church, the duty of every Christian generation has been, and is, to provide a clear answer to the question — What is saving faith? The unsaved need to know what to believe, the weak-and-confused saved need clarification of the truth, and the growing saved need to remain steadfast and fervent in what they believe.
Therefore, there are three main premises to this book:
(1) It is important for people to have the essentials of the Gospel message made as simple and plain as possible. Indeed, at stake is one's very hope of eternal life to be spent with God, His holy angels and others God will redeem out of this world.
(2) Today there are many 'gospels' from which the unsaved can choose. Because some beliefs and doctrines are so radically different, surely not all of them can represent true, saving faith.
(3) It is also timely to take a stand here because of the stir going on in Christian circles on this very important subject.
Surprisingly, the confusion is occurring right in the middle of the camps one would expect to find great conformity: the conservative-fundamentalist groups! There are at least two possible explanations for the present controversy, and I believe both are applicable:
(1) Satan always attempts to confuse and/or destroy any work God is doing. His chief tactic could be called diversion through diversity. Satan's strategies typically involve a variety of ploys to split and divide the true Church. This often comes about by introducing doctrines which appeal to mankind's fallen nature (even using the Bible to do it), but just different enough from the truth that the mainspring of the real, saving Gospel message gets lost in the shuffle.
(2) But also, and more importantly, God is never silent when activities are going on which concern the very body through which He plans to call out of the world a people for Himself. Jesus said He would build His Church and that even the "gates of hell" would not prevail against it. (See Matthew 16:18.) This promise has always been one of the Church's primary anchors.
So, some of what we are seeing today is God's work, designed to clean up the Gospel just prior to the end of the age. In fact, God specifically told us that this would occur someday:
"...Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven. And this word, 'Yet once more,' indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain." (Hebrews 12:26&27)
Thus, we are currently witnessing a double-sided power demonstration: one is satanic, designed for destruction; the other is Godly, designed for purification.
Fully-understood, biblical faith cannot be reduced to a sentence. It involves the whole Gospel of God as given in the Bible. Today we hear a lot about growing in the faith, becoming a mature Christian, spiritual progression, sanctification, etc. It is true that all these terms refer to important post-new-birth processes. Surely God has designed certain steps for the believer to pursue after one is saved. And I will be addressing this subject a lot in the pages ahead. But, if the bottom-line first-stepping-stone is missed (the new birth), what later might be presumed to be Christian growth will actually be nothing more than worthless religious practices. It is pseudo-Christianity. Such people may then actually be harder to reach than if they had never heard any gospel! To really grow in God, the true message of saving faith must first be internalized. Then, other building blocks can be added to the foundation of initial faith.
NOW, WHAT IS THE BIG STIR?
The arguments about salvation among certain teachers and scholars are broad and far-reaching. However, the main conflict seems to center around this question: What are the minimum, essential requirements that are necessary for an individual to apply before it can be said to represent true, saving faith? Or more simply put — How can one be saved?
The less-demanding side of today's argument would say that becoming a Christian simply requires "inviting Jesus into your heart", or to "receive Jesus as your Savior", or some other similar act of faith in Jesus. I think it's accurate to say these generally lean more heavily on the all-encompassing work of Jesus at Calvary and less on the size or degree of a new believer's response.
This group apparently feels it is not necessary to initially accentuate that one must enter into the 'lordship gospel' upon the first act of belief in order to have assurance of salvation. I presume, to them, saving grace and lordship grace are two separate entities. For identification purposes only, let's think of these as the Grace Group (abbr. G-G.)
The banner on the other side has been coined lordship salvation. As I see it, they insist on immediate understanding and submission to their definition of Jesus' lordship in conjunction with receiving Him as Savior. And, if this isn't so, one remains in his sins and thus, hell-bound. Let's call these the Lordship Lauders (abbr. L-L).
According to L-L thinking, belief in Jesus, total-surrender, obedience-to-follow-Jesus, righteous fruits, etc., are all necessary parts of the saving faith message. This group claims this is the faith which was proclaimed by Jesus and the apostles from the start, continuing up until modern times. They feel the simple faith gospel (i.e., simply receiving Jesus as one’s Savior) has come about recently and should not be regarded as constituting true, saving faith.
The L-L position is appealing in some ways. But, we must realize that they are insistent on the unbeliever's initial understanding and willful submission to Jesus' total rulership in one's life, not mere acknowledgment of Jesus' right and ability to save a confessing sinner.
Presumably, the L-Ls primary fear is that a new gospel has risen — one which says all a person needs to do is "accept" Jesus, after which he can go on living in willful carnality (with no doubts about his heavenly destiny) regardless of his conduct here on earth. Some call this "cheap grace", or "easy believism". (Surely God would not allow inconsequential permissiveness for believers to sin after being saved. But of the G-G works I have studied, I don't see this as being their teaching.)
L-Ls also teach that once the Holy Spirit is in the life of a believer, there is a resultant, "inevitable" willingness for the Christian to become obedient. Furthermore, if this and fruitful-righteousness aren't present, one has strong reason to believe the individual was never saved. Much of their case seems to be built upon Jesus' parables and certain teachings concerning discipleship. To reiterate, L-Ls seem to be saying that belief in Jesus as Savior demands the sinner's full understanding and total agreement to become a lordship-ruled disciple from the outset.
On the other side of the isle, the G-G maintains that saving faith and maturing faith are two, distinctly-different parts of God's grace through Christ. Their position seems to be that steps into discipleship training, sanctification, etc., are post-new birth ventures based on willingness of the believer.
Both groups would probably deny it, but I think some of the disagreements occur because of blurred semantics. I think both sides would agree that if the message being proclaimed is one of literally asking the hearer to merely assent to the facts of history concerning Jesus' life, death, burial and resurrection, that this may not represent saving faith. For we know that the demons have demonstrated that possessing knowledge of Who Jesus was, did not save them. (James 2:19 says they even believed with "fear and trembling".) Similarly, an individual's mere acknowledgment that a set of certain facts may be correct doesn't necessarily represent saving faith. A “saved” person will believe the Gospel.
MY POSITION ON THE ARGUMENT
I do not wholeheartedly endorse or totally condemn either the L-Ls or the G-Gs. Both perspectives present acceptable points, but sometimes seem to confuse parts of biblical truth. In support of L-L teaching, I believe a full Gospel should certainly be preached. But on the other hand, I also lean towards God's willingness to save to the uttermost, a strong G-G belief. I am persuaded that God receives and saves anyone who places God-given faith in Jesus and His sacrificial death, even if the message heard omits some important truths which may later affect the Christian way of life. (A group of key messages of how people are often led to initial salvation will be discussed in Part III.)
A MATTER OF TRUST
We must differentiate between hearing and non-hearing hearts. While a complete picture of everything the Gospel entails is always desirable, when one has been prepared by the Holy Spirit to hear the truth, a brief presentation can surely bring one to initial saving faith in Jesus Christ.
No one who has truly received Jesus would immediately desire to go back and live a life of sin and carelessness. But I must add that some, after receiving Christ, do stray back into the world to live as they did formerly. Sometimes even worse. This is not because they intend to do so from the beginning of their salvation, but because they yield to lust, worldly and prideful temptations. This reality shows that Christians continue to exercise choice in post-new-birth activities. (Much more on this later.)
We must introduce the word “trust” here in order to understand what the Bible teaches about salvation. When someone hears the proclamation that Jesus was sacrificed because of humanity's sinful ways, a God-sensitized heart senses this is true. Then, if a person believes this without doubting [whether or not he yet knows everything which may eventually be expected of him in future days regarding discipleship, obedience, etc.], I'm persuaded this person has exercised saving faith. Indeed, according to the Bible, he has sought refuge (trusted) in the only power and Person that truly saves.
The Gospel message should always be stated as clearly and completely as is possible. However, there is a great difference in saying what ought to be included in the Gospel than saying what must be included. If only one person has ever been saved contrary to the stringent demands of the lordship principles, then this gospel is overstated. It's that simple. I underscore this point because some teachers repeatedly and dogmatically use phrases like "always", "absolutely", "inevitably", etc., when stating what must be presented in order for one to be truly saved. The danger here is one being motivated by his own good works to produce salvation rather than by trusting in God’s gift.
I believe Jesus saves little children who may understand nothing about complete surrender. We know Jesus saved a dying thief who was crucified alongside Him. It is likely that this man had little understanding of discipleship and obedience. However, quite clearly he trusted Christ, for he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. We know of few we can say with certainty who will go to heaven when they die, but this one is unquestionable because Jesus said the thief would be with Him THAT DAY in Paradise. (See Luke 23:43.) Thus, the definition of God's saving grace must be such that it will include these exceptional cases God saw fit to be recorded in His Word. That is probably why He put them there.
JESUS' CALL TO BELIEVER-RESPONSIBILITY
We cannot deny Jesus' emphasis on obedience and His call to discipleship. He made very clear that to walk His walk would not be easy. But Jesus' call to deeper consecration often (perhaps usually) occurs post-regeneration. This being so, it cannot be considered an absolute essential to initial saving faith.
Now I admit that it may sometimes be especially good to speak of discipleship as the plan of salvation is being explained to certain hearers. Many people are so caught up in their former allegiances that, right from the start, they may need to hear that part of the Gospel which entails obedience and discipleship. Let me explain why:
Not all sinners are the blatantly-obvious kind — i.e., such as hardened criminals, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunkards, sodomites, etc. I'm referring to 'good' people who think they are saved, but aren’t, when the true Gospel of Christ is being presented to them. (Their unsaved state is proven by the fact they had believed a false gospel). In Jesus' day, this could be said of Pharisaical Jews, who obeyed twisted rules and doctrines they had added to God's Laws. Today, we could include members of certain cultic organizations who are obedient disciples of rigid standards, but which are quite different and contrary to true Christianity.
It might be essential for these kinds of groups to be exposed to cost-of-discipleship teaching before they are willing to let go of their former, wrong, un-saving beliefs. But in these instances, this must be thought of only as prep-work — i.e., teaching which helps lead these particular lost and wandering souls out of their 'wilderness', preparing them for new, truly-saving ground.
Many religious people (though unsaved) understand authority. The message preached to them must be very accurate and thorough. This is required, not because they are spiritually-different from anyone else (they are simply lost sinners), but because they are already so tenaciously locked up in complicated, erroneous beliefs. However, this kind of message should not be thought of as a requirement in order to be saved.
The point is, these individuals need to be freed before they are able to see that salvation is simply a gift of God. Used in this sense then, it can be said that surrender, cost-of-discipleship, obedience, (i.e., lordship theology) could be thought of as "loosing" information designed to lead certain "religious" fanatics to break free from false faith and turn towards true faith. The scriptures that the lordship teachers use to establish their beliefs should be limited to these exceptional cases. But, if I understand them correctly, L-Ls insist that all these things must always be an integral part of the gospel if salvation is to occur.
In terms of separation from God, one depth of sin is just as deadly as another. But we must recognize that, on a practical scale here in this world, there are different depths of depravity manifested in humanity. The sin-nature alone separates one from God. If this isn't removed by the blood of Jesus, even in the case of a 'good' person, he will go to hell. On the other extreme, many unsaved people have backgrounds encumbered by gross sins and rebellious practices, which always lead to severely-hardened hearts. The content and nature of the Gospel which is presented to the variety of sinners is best geared to specific needs. Remember, God knows precisely the position of each of us and, thus, the Holy Spirit directs the exact messages one needs to hear to lead him/her to see where salvation truly lies.
We must also remember that saving faith is a work of God in the life of an individual. It is not self-motivated or self-generated. God seeks man. Man does not seek God. A hearer of the Gospel perceives, understands and applies the message because of the Holy Spirit's influence on him. To repeat, some folks need to hear a full message in order to penetrate their particular sin-bent nature. But others may exercise their faith with the slightest amount of input. What's the difference here? Again, it has to do with where the person is spiritually, when he/she hears it. Some come easily, like a child. Some come with great difficulty. Let's all agree on one thing: the important thing for confessing sinners to do is to come to Jesus, believing that on the cross He took care of the penalty of their sin. (We'll talk much more about this later.)
Thus, Christians who desire to be an effective witness for the Lord, must learn how to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as they approach the unsaved because God knows exactly where they are and what they need to hear. For some, a simple testimony of what Jesus means to you may be all that is necessary. Others may need bathing with the Gospel message for days, months, or even years, before they are ready to really believe. But no matter what method the Holy Spirit uses to get an individual prepared, when the heart is ready, the saving faith that comes from God will be a decision to lean on the everlasting, simple, Gospel truth — to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as one's Savior.
Some Christians may not like my choice of words in the heading of this chapter — “elusive faith”. But the facts are that our sin-prone nature, plus the sins we commit, the attraction of worldly influences, false philosophies and false religions, and Satan, do combine to make the faith which saves seem somewhat difficult to detect. I’m very much aware that God is always present to make sure His faith can be found by willing believers. And it is certainly worth every bit of time and energy we expend in search of this treasure. The joyful experience of God’s gift of salvation (eternal life) begins the day “the faith” — i.e., biblical faith — is found and correctly applied. Exercising God's gift of faith is the most important action of one's entire lifetime. The part that’s hard for most of us to believe is that God had already made the choice of us to be saved. We have the tendency of believing we initiate salvation. But we don’t. God does.
SUMMARY OF PART I
The controversy surrounding the topic of saving faith seems to center around three questions: (1) Just how extensive is God's grace? (2) How comprehensive must be the sinner's response to receive God's gracious salvation? (3) How much and what kind of spiritual fruit must be seen in one's life before he/she can be considered saved?
Understanding how we get to the point of initial saving faith obviously varies among teachers, but once we are there I think most would agree on this practical definition of saving faith:
Certainly there are more complex, and/or simpler, definitions which could be given. My chief objective here is not to provide the only workable definition for saving faith, but to present a general statement that reflects why and how God saves. I'm convinced this definition is sound, as understood in the light of Scripture and confirmed by having personally experienced it.