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Faith is not a thing

A while back Matt Jenson wrote a brilliant short essay entitled: Faith is nothing at all.  Do read it if you haven't already, it won't take long.

We must constantly remind ourselves that faith is not a thing.  It is not a possession by which we make claim to salvation.  Faith is the absence of a thing - it is the confession of a complete lack.  To even ask 'Am I having faith?' is already an unbelieving question for faith is looking away to Christ.

If you make faith into a thing you run into problems.  Either you have to make it an imputed substance which God grants arbitrarily (in order to uphold sovereign grace).  Or you make it a legitimate factor contributing to our salvation. Sounds quite like many Calvinist-Arminian debates right? In many (certainly not all, but in many) of these debates you can see both sides making this mistake: they begin by considering faith to be a thing.  And from this premise, one side is in danger of making salvation a matter of divine caprice unrelated to Christ.  The other side begins from the same premise and makes salvation a matter of self-effort (and again Christ's position is diminished).  But both have begun down the wrong track.  They've thought of faith as a thing and then they've got into trouble figuring out how a gracious salvation can be 'by' this thing.  We must remember though: Faith is not a thing.  

Alan Torrance is fond of pointing out that reformers like John Knox spoke very little about 'salvation by faith alone.' Instead he spoke of salvation 'by the blood of Christ alone.'  Why?  Because he didn't want anyone thinking that faith was the 'thing' that saved.  'Faith alone' makes sense only in the context of 'Christ alone.'  'Faith alone' is the subjective correlate of the objective salvation in Christ alone - it cannot be considered apart from it.  To do so is to risk seeing faith as a thing.

Similarly Mike Reeves points out that Martin Luther's favourite phrase for declaring our gracious salvation was not salvation 'by faith alone' but salvation 'by God's Word' alone.  Again, faith is not the 'thing' that saves and 'faith alone' is not possession of the single savingly significant substance.  (I suspect Luther would have trouble saying this phrase - especially after his fifth Wittenberg ale!).

Faith is, in Anders Nygren's memorable phrase, 'being conquered by the gospel.'  Note how passive this image is.  Faith is a description of what has happened to the person who's been overwhelmed by Christ in His word.  It is not a thing.

Anyway, check out Matt Jenson's article.


8 thoughts on “Faith is not a thing

  1. kc

    Glen I appreciate your understanding on this. I think many would consider that “being conquered by the gospel” is being persuaded to believe.

    Would you be opposed to my perception that while grace is inherantly divine that faith is inherently human? To be more specific would you object to my definition that faith is a value based determination and that faith in Christ is based on our value of God’s word, as revealed in us by His Spirit, over and above our understanding and experience?

  2. Glen

    Hi Missy,
    Glad I've brought joy. The comic on your site has me laughing roughly every 23 seconds! Tragically funny.

    Hi KC,
    I remember Bobby saying something very helpful in one of his comments sections a few weeks ago. He said grace and faith are personified in Christ. I think that's really important to hold onto. If someone says 'I'm saved by grace' or 'I'm saved by faith' both of those statements could be way off beam unless what they really mean is 'I'm saved by Christ.' The 'grace alone' statement might be understood to mean I'm saved by divine sovereignty (simpliciter). The 'faith alone' statement might be understood to mean I contribute my trust in order to be saved.

    Now from this you can see why grace describes the gift of salvation (Christ) as it comes from God, faith describes it as it comes home to us. To speak crudely (and probably inaccurately) I don't have grace so much as God has grace. He does not have faith so much as I have faith. But what this is describing is the fact that God has Christ and I have Christ. It's just that we just speak of having Christ from the divine side as 'grace' and the human side as 'faith'. I guess this corresponds to your 'inherently divine / inherently human' distinction. I would only question what you mean by 'inherently' human. Surely not that faith's origin lies within us. We have no capacity for faith within us - it comes from outside us. Specifically in 'God's word, as revealed in us by His Spirit' as you say.

    I think this is why Paul is able to say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that the *whole* 'by-grace-through-faith' dynamic is the gift of God (NB: in the greek the 'this' in 'this is not from yourselves it is the gift of God' is neuter and does not refer to faith only but to the grace-through-faith complex). There is clearly an objective/subjective dynamic going on (grace through faith). But this whole dynamic is itself the gift of God (since it comes by the word in the Spirit). I think those who neglect the divine perspective need to remember: "Grace-through-faith is a GIFT" Those who neglect the human perspective need to remember: "Grace-THROUGH-FAITH is a gift."

    If your final sentence means 'faith comes by hearing' then I'm all for it. It is a 'valuation' in that it is truly our faculties, will, affections etc that are engaged in trusting Christ in His word. And it is a valuation made 'over and above our understanding and experience.' This nicely captures the point that faith comes from outside ourselves and yet is properly our responsible response to Christ in His word.

  3. kc

    Glen thanks so much for the kind response. I really do appreciate much of what you wrote. I especially favor these thoughts:

    "I don't have grace so much as God has grace. He does not have faith so much as I have faith. But what this is describing is the fact that God has Christ and I have Christ. It's just that we just speak of having Christ from the divine side as 'grace' and the human side as 'faith'. "

    When I say that faith is inherently human I intend to point out that we all posses the capacity to form beliefs. Beliefs are a human necessity born in the absence of omniscience whereas God has no use for faith at all. With regard to the origin of faith I would say that if the origin is inherent to us then it is no longer faith but knowledge. So it is with the knowledge of God in Christ. We know God because Christ is “in” us but we first believe in Christ (faith) based on divine revelation (grace), something that is not part of us. I then say that the origin of our faith in Christ is divine (God is the author of salvation) but the determination to believe must come from within (it is we who must obey the Gospel and believe). The spirit birth is then consequential to the conception of God’s grace and our faith.

    I think my only contention would be in the perception that either grace or faith could be considered the gift being referenced in Ephesians 2:8. It seems to me that to do so would be to objectify them both; the very thing you have argued against here! ;-) I have always understood that being “saved” is the gift of God referred to in that verse.

  4. glenscriv

    Hi KC,

    Let me just list a few points I want to hold onto.

    * Faith = certainty and surety (Heb 11:1) Can we not also say knowledge?

    * I think Jesus still has faith. He trusts His Father - therefore faith is not something you exercise in the absence of knowledge. It is a personal trust resting on sure and certain knowledge.

    * We all form beliefs all the time - everyone has faith (of a kind). But faith in the sense in which I am speaking (faith in Christ) can only be awakened by the power of the Spirit.

    * I'm uncertain about the phrase 'determination to believe'. That seems to presuppose a will lying behind the act of faith that is capable of determining to believe. I don't want to grant the unregenerate will such freedom. (I like your position on these things: 'The freed will' position!). Rather the believer is someone who finds themselves overwhelmed by Revelation. They find that they now do trust Christ, not because their determination was sufficiently sound but because He proved irresistible in His presentation in the gospel. Such a response is not the correct determination of their unregenerate will but now that they do believe, their faith is not now against their will. It is, rather, a willing yes to an utterly compelling Revelation. I realise that when pushed on the logic of this position at some point I'm liable to cry 'Miracle!' - so watch out for that! ;-)

    * Eph 2:8 - I think the 'this' refers back to the whole complex of salvation by grace through faith. I don't think this objectifies (or reifies (latin for 'thing-ifies')) faith but places faith within it's dynamic context of response to grace.

    Thanks for the interaction. Always a pleasure!


  5. Bobby Grow


    I agree Matt Jenson's article is a good one . . . I read this awhile ago, I think upon your recommendation.

    Anyway, I like Barth's idea on objective, and subjective relative to knowledge of God (i.e. faith). Christ is and His work as the objective side of redemption, the Holy Spirit (who is that inseparably related link in the God-Man btw) as the subjective side of redemption bringing us to union with God through Christ's humanity (prototypical humanity).

    I think faith is indeed personified within Jesus of Nazareth . . . who is both our reprobation (negation), and election (positive orientation and reconciliation to God).

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