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Faith is not a thing [Thawed out Thursday]

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.


15 thoughts on “Faith is not a thing [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Josh

    But those that don't have faith ultimately don't get saved, right?

    I understand what you're saying, but it seems like salvation is a 2-part process: Christ's sacrifice providing salvation for all, but also, the faith to believe this is true. Those that don't accept Christ through faith aren't saved, just as we weren't saved prior to Christ's sacrifice -- we were dead in sin and the law.

    I don't think this elevates faith beyond Christ's sacrifice, though.

  2. Glen

    Hi Josh,

    Welcome to the blog (if I haven't welcomed you before)

    You're raising really key issues here, thanks.

    When you speak of salvation as a "2-part process" some alarm bells go off for me. Not sure this is in the ball park of what you're saying but....

    What we don't want to say is that Christ's sacrifice brings 99 units of salvific merit and my faith brings 1 unit of salvific merit and between His contribution and mine I have accumulated the necessary 100 units.

    Even if we say the blood of Christ is 999,999 units and ours is only 1 (i.e. even if we elevate Christ's sacrifice far above our faith) we have put our faith up where it doesn't belong. We have made our faith into a work - a contribution towards salvation.

    (I'm not saying that this is your argument, I'm just pointing out the dangers that seem very much in the vicinity).

    To say "faith alone" is another way of saying "Christ alone" - it is to say our salvation lies entirely outside of us (and therefore outside of our 'works'). Instead salvation lies entirely in Christ. A 'faith alone' person rests in the fact that the blood of Jesus has done *everything*. But of course we're not resting in the blood of Jesus alone if we have added our faith into the salvific equation. In that case we would be trusting in "Christ plus our trust." We then become (to some degree) the objects of our saving faith and not Christ *alone*! Do you see the problem?

    Let me reiterate. Faith is absolutely essential. A person is not saved if they are not resting in Jesus. But this 'faith', this 'resting in Jesus' is not our contribution to the equation. It's a description of what happens when Jesus 'sweeps you off your feet.' It's falling in love. It's being conquered by the gospel.

    I like what you say when you wrote:

    "we weren’t saved prior to Christ’s sacrifice"

    That is a very interesting (and true!) way of putting things. Of course you and I have never lived prior to Christ's sacrifice - and yet in a deeper sense there was a day when Christ's sacrifice came to us (in the word of the gospel) and it overwhelmed us. That was the day we believed. It wasn't the day when we decided to add our vote of approval to His saving act. It's the day we 'got saved'. His sacrifice did it all - His blood won us and purchased us and reconciled us. As we reflect back on this we call it 'faith', but we didn't *produce* it or *contribute* it.

    Know what I mean?

  3. Josh

    Indeed! That makes wonderful sense, and coincides greatly with a book I've been reading by John Piper entitled "Finally Alive."

    Thanks for the welcoming, by the way :) You write some interesting things, especially about marriage -- I'll be getting married in June!

  4. Duane

    Interesting Josh,

    Isn't Piper a "regenerated into faith" kind of guy anyhow?
    IOW doesn't he believe that the Lord elects, and regenerates whom he chooses, which enables them to believe, or even leap tall buildings in a single bound, or whatever the Lord requires. Again, if the order of salvation is "regeneration, then...." It does not matter what the "then..." is, because the Lord enables us and makes it happen in, or subsequent to our regen.


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  6. Will

    Yes I read "Finally alive" last month and Piper certainly says that regeneration causes a sinner to believe. But he is adamant that faith alone is the means by which a person receives salvation. He carefully distinguishes faith from both love (as an inward attitude) and any sort of outward activity by the sinner (for example baptism).

    So Piper would say that you are justified and regenerated the moment you believe, and not when you later leap a tall building in a single bound (!).

    Piper shouldn't be our authority here of course, but I just wanted to make sure we don't take him as support for things which he would certainly refute.

  7. Josh

    Now I'm confused again.

    Will: Piper would refute the things Glen is saying? Or did I misunderstand you?

    I think the best summary of that aspect from "Finally Alive" is Piper's explanation of fire and heat. Once you have fire, you have heat. You don't have fire THEN heat. They occur simultaneously. So once you're saved, you believe and have faith. God is the initiator, however. That seems to mesh well with what Glen has said, unless I've misunderstood him as well.

  8. Will

    Hi Josh,

    Sorry to confuse you. I was more responding to what Duane said.

    I just wanted to point out that even if we believe that God initiates faith (and that therefore every element of salvation is his doing) we still need to be clear about what faith is.

    So if someone said "make a piligrimage to the Vatican and you will be saved", they would be preaching salvation through works, even if they believed that your pilgrimage was an act of enabling grace that was only possible through trusting in Jesus.

    I agree with everything Glen said in his post and comment , except I think it's possibly unhelpful to say that faith is "falling in love". I think Jesus calls people who do not love him to come him as they are - even in their complete lack of love. If they call upon his name, however (which they must do when they come) he will regenerate them in an instant, and they will suddenly love him. Glory!


  9. Duane

    Hi Will and Josh!

    It is my contention that if regeneration enables, no, irresistably causes one to do what is required for salvation, then that whatever it is is relatively immaterial.
    Superhero movies bore me. Why? because whatever the obstacle, the superhero will magically come up with the strength or the tricks to prevail.
    If God by regeneration enables us and us only to believe, then the belief could be necessarily followed by works as Rome and Theodore Beza argue, because God is doing it anyhow. If swimming the atlantic is required, and you are elect, praise the Lord! It is no more of a requirement than belief, because He is doing the work.
    In fact, why even make faith a gateway? Why not just say:
    "You are regenerate, you are not, you are, and.. sorry chump". It's not like He's going to give someone life and they aren't going to believe, so what's the point of mentioning faith eh? Except that for some God effort wasting reason, God decided to lead us believe we are responsible to do, decide or believe something. Or so far at least, He has decreed that I believe that He left some portion of acceptance or rejection up to me:
    I have to fall off the fence. I can fall into my own works, or I can fall into the arms of Jesus. Absolutely no work involved in the falling, and no work to fall to the left or the right. I see eternal salvation to the right, self preservation and life. In an entirely soul serving way, I fall into the arms of Jesus. Without citing Augustine or his offspring, can you see a problem?

  10. Will

    Hi Duane!

    I think faith is the gateway (and alone is the gateway) because by the very nature of it it takes the glory away from ourselves and puts it onto Jesus.

    I think many people who hold to some sort of salvation through works still try to give all the glory to God. But they are making it much harder for themselves. Why not just say that salvation come through the helpless cry of the sinner? It's much easier to stay humble that way!

    Notice how the the Pharisee in Luke 18 is trying to give all the glory to God ("I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that tax collector"). But he is trying to do this at the same time as pursuing a salvation through works. And so he ends up becoming proud.

    But the tax collector who says "have mercy on me, the sinner" is commended for his humility. He's just done the most humbling thing there is!


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