While any Bible student can loosely define “grace,” faith is a little harder. At the most basic, faith is believing. Yet, even the demons believe and they shudder (James 2:19). So, faith must be something more. But, if we’re not careful we can easily describe the essence faith such that it sounds like we’re doing something, somehow contributing to our salvation. Faith then becomes a human work that Paul was so careful to exclude from salvation (Eph 2:8).
As the Bible is so careful to describe faith so as to not encroach about God’s unmerited favor, so to must we proceed with caution. We Christians need to understand faith in its proper context, avoiding the dual dangers of elevating faith to a sacramental work or denigrating it to the level of simple knowledge. Thus, the Reformers and their successors were right to pronounce boldly the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in light of God’s grace alone.
So what is saving faith? Saving faith is not, as the theologians label it in Latin, notitia. Faith is more than knowing the facts of the Gospel. Likewise faith is more than assensus, the acknowledgment of the facts of the Gospel as being true. Saving faith is fiducia, a trusting in and leaning upon Christ and his works for one’s salvation. More than that, faith is a uniting with Christ, throwing your hat into the ring, so to speak, with Christ and so identifying with him that your entire being is bound up with him. If he lives, you live. If he dies, you die. In true saving faith you are either completely sold out or you are a sell out.
What about works? Do our efforts contribute to our salvation? The Bible is quite clear that they do not. The works of man lead to man’s pride. God owes us something rather than God gave us something. Our works are as filthy rags, Isaiah said, when compared to the perfect holiness of God and his demand for holiness. Works before faith are useless in terms of producing our salvation.
When we have faith, when we place our entire hope in Christ, and not ourselves, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to our account. We are declared not guilty, justified. Our sin debt has been erased, paid in full by Christ on the cross. Without faith salvation is impossible, not because our faith adds anything to the work of Christ but because God has determined that by faith Christ’s righteousness will become our own. Get this one wrong and we have no hope. Get this one right and Christ is our hope.
On the other hand, we would do well not to err as some did and do by suggesting that works play no role in faith. Faith precedes works in the salvific process, but faith always produces works. As Paul says in Ephesians, just after his statement regarding the futility of pre-salvation works, that we were created for good works (Eph 2:10). That is, we have been saved by God’s grace that we might do those things that bring God the glory he is due.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone stood at the crux of the Protestant Reformation. Without it, would-be believers struggle to save themselves by their own effort. With it, blessed hope is secure in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must cling to this wondrous doctrine. We must reject the works based righteousness professed by other religions and denominations. We must keep the Reformation alive. If we don’t, our hope is dead.
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