Jesus once remarked that unless we have the faith of a child we will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. A childlike faith is a prerequisite for membership in God’s kingdom. There is a difference, however, between a childlike faith and a childish faith. The Bible calls us to be babes in evil but mature in our understanding. Saving faith is simple, but not simplistic.
Since the Bible teaches that justification is by faith alone, and that faith is a necessary condition for salvation, it is imperative that we understand what comprises saving faith. James explains clearly what saving faith is not: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). Here James distinguishes between a profession of faith and the reality of faith. Anyone can say that he has faith. Though we are certainly called to profess our faith, the bare profession itself saves no one. The Bible makes it clear that people are capable of honoring Christ with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. Lip service, with no manifestation of the fruit of faith, is not saving faith.
James goes on to say, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Dead faith is described by James as a faith that does not profit. It is futile and vain and doesn’t justify anyone.
When Luther and the Reformers declared that justification is by faith alone, they realized that it was necessary to give careful definition to saving faith. They defined saving faith as including necessary constituent elements. Saving faith is composed of information, intellectual assent, and personal trust.
Saving faith involves content. We are not justified by believing just anything. Some have said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sentiment is radically opposed to the teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches that it matters profoundly what we believe. Justification is not by sincerity alone. We may be sincerely wrong. Right doctrine, at least in the essential truths of the gospel, is a necessary ingredient of saving faith. We believe in the gospel, in the person and work of Christ. That is integral to saving faith. If our doctrine is heretical in the essentials, we will not be saved. If, for example, we say we believe in Christ but deny His deity, we do not possess the faith that justifies.
Though it is necessary to have a correct understanding of the essential truths of the gospel in order to be saved, a correct understanding of them is not enough to be saved. A student can earn an A on a Christian theology exam, grasping the truths of Christianity, without himself affirming that they are true. Saving faith includes the mind’s assent to the truth of the gospel.
Even if people understand the gospel and affirm or assent to its truth, they may still fall short of saving faith. The devil knows the gospel is true, but he hates it with every fiber of his being. There is an element of trust in saving faith. It involves personal reliance and dependence upon the gospel. We can believe that a chair will bear our weight, but we do not exhibit personal trust in the chair until we sit on it.
Trust involves the will as well as the mind. To have saving faith requires that we love the truth of the gospel and desire to live it out. We embrace with our hearts the sweetness and loveliness of Christ.
Technically considered, personal trust could be made a subpoint or further delineation under intellectual assent. The devil may give assent to the truth of certain facts about Jesus, but he does not assent to all of them. He does not assent to the loveliness or the desirability of Christ. But whether we distinguish or combine intellectual assent and personal trust, the fact remains that saving faith requires what Luther called a living faith—a vital and personal trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.
- Saving faith is childlike but not childish.
- A person is not justified by a mere profession of faith.
- Saving faith requires intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel.
- Saving faith involves a personal trust in and love for Christ.