Doctrine Ch.27 - Saving Faith

The Greek word pistis has a broad meaning, so it can be translated as “faith,” “trust,” or “belief.” What do they each mean? And which one do we need for salvation?


The cartoonist Charles Schulz, who created Peanuts, was a keen Christian. One Christmas he featured Lucy telling her little brother Linus, “Santa Claus stops at every house in the whole world, and he climbs down every chimney, and leaves a present for every boy and every girl!” Linus thinks for a moment, saying, “That's hard to believe … that's awfully hard to believe …” Then he raises his fist in determination and shouts, “But I believe it!!!”

       Some Christians think they need this Linus-style faith—they are saved by believing something with enough conviction. But in the Bible, the faith that saves us is completely different. Actually, the Greek word for faith, pistis, means three things, so most English Bibles use three different words when translating it: “belief,” “faith,” and “trust.” These represent three distinct concepts. We believe a statement, such as “Jesus died for everyone”; we have faith in an ability or institution, such as the ability of Jesus to remove our sins or in the teaching of the church; and we trust a person, such as Jesus. We use the same three concepts at a more mundane level when we are invited to sit on an antique chair. We may believe that old wood doesn’t weaken, so we have faith in the ability of the old chair to support our weight. Or we could simply trust the person who invited us to sit.

       Put like this, they sound very similar, but there are big differences between them.

5-minute summary

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Belief in a fact

Belief is the gap between evidence and knowledge. Generally the more evidence you have, the less belief you need. Early Old Testament believers had only the evidence of their own spiritual discernment, and later they had the stories of events such as the exodus. We are more fortunate because we have the life of Jesus—his life and death are facts acknowledged by all reputable historians. But of course historians don’t agree on the resurrection, because extraordinary events require extraordinary amounts of evidence, and there isn’t anything more extraordinary than a three-day-old corpse reviving itself. So we have to add some belief to the equation.

       But James said that we need more than belief. Writing to believers who were proud that they believed in God, he said he wasn’t impressed: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (Jas 2:18). This is a salutary reminder that faith doesn’t save us if it doesn’t transform us. Faith is not merely a matter of assenting to a set of beliefs. To make sure that his readers had got the point, James then said something startling: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (v. 19).

       Clearly, demons aren’t saved by believing there is one God. But they certainly know who and what God is. They believe there is only one God, just as we believe there is only one sun in our solar system.

       The church has gradually emphasized faith as an assent to a set of beliefs because theological disputes have led to the creation of longer and more detailed statements of doctrine. The ancient creeds have been supplemented by statements about evolution, predestination, tribulation, gender, tongues, transubstantiation, and many other doctrines that divide us into multitudinous denominational groups. Most of us don’t know enough theology to assent to all those beliefs. But these beliefs aren’t necessary for salvation, and they certainly don’t result in salvation.

       The devil presumably believes everything that the Bible says and believes all the church creedal statements—unless there is something that we’ve got wrong! The devil believes them because he knows the truth better than we can—until we get to heaven. He even believes that Jesus can save sinners by the power of his victory on the cross—he knows about this because he was the one who was defeated. What the devil doesn’t do is trust Jesus to save him!

Faith in an ability or institution

Faith is a foundation of the modern world, because it is needed by anyone who uses money. On every UK banknote it says “I promise to pay the bearer …” This used to mean you could theoretically demand its value in gold at a bank counter. Now, according to an official response by the Bank of England, “public faith in the pound is maintained in a different way—through the Bank’s operation of monetary policy.”1 Whether or not we have a strong faith in national banks, we all exhibit some faith when we accept these pretty pieces of paper or plastic in return for our labor. We need even more faith in the monetary system if our wages turn up as a number in our online bank account. We, in turn, demand faith from others when we swap this otherwise worthless piece of paper for a cup of coffee or a taxi ride.

       Our idea of faith has changed a lot since the time of the Bible. Athletes are encouraged to have faith in their abilities to win a race. They work hard at visualizing themselves running well and crossing the line first. If their conviction is strong enough, their mental resolve helps them run harder, so the depth and strength of their faith can help them to win. Most of us don’t have the mental discipline for that kind of faith, but in any case, it isn’t what the Bible meant.

       The whole world relies on and revolves around faith. But it doesn’t save people, because it isn’t faith that saves. The important factor is who or what that faith lies in. Faith in the monetary system or faith in yourself may get you through life, but only faith in God will get you beyond this life.

Trust in a person

The great rediscovery of Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century was that our salvation is only possible because of a gift of God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). We aren’t saved by any good we do, or by asserting a particular belief system, or even by our faith in God’s ability to save us. We are saved simply by God.

       So what is the “gift” in Ephesians 2:8? Calvin said it is “salvation”: “salvation is of grace … ‘it is the gift of God’ … and is received by faith alone, without the merit of works.”2 But some Calvinists (later interpreters of Calvin) said that the gift is faith itself, because faith in God is too hard for a fallen human. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, this was the way that the Peanuts character Linus thought about faith, as if you need to generate enough faith to be saved—except, unlike Linus, nobody is capable of generating this faith. However, if the gift is God’s salvation, we simply have to trust God and receive the gift.

       No Bible text says that salvation comes by belief in certain theological statements, by faith in our own ability, or even by our faith in the ability of God. We are not saved by our faith at all, but by God—so we trust he’ll save us. All we need is the merest trust/faith/belief that he will save us. We need to accept God’s offer and trust him.

Faithfulness

Just when everything appears to be straightforward, James undermines this by understanding faith in a slightly different way. As we saw above, he was openly critical of those who claimed they were saved by “faith” alone. He realized that some people had misunderstood what this “faith” meant. His own understanding of the Greek word pistis was influenced by its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it translates the Hebrew word amen, meaning “true” or “faithful.” For example, “the workers labored faithfully” and “great is your faithfulness” (2 Chr 34:12; Lam 3:23).

       James realized that some people thought they didn’t need to try and live righteous lives because they had misunderstood Paul’s teaching about being saved by faith. They thought that faith by itself saved them. To correct them he explained, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … I will show you my faith by my deeds” (Jas 2:17-18), that is, the proof of faith is in the doing. So if James were translating pistis into English, he’d use the word “faithful”—that is, letting faith change you so you are living “faithful” to God.

       Actually, recent scholarship has found that Paul likewise sometimes used pistis to mean “faithfulness,” though with a slightly different meaning. Paul referred to “the faithfulness of Jesus,” but this hadn’t been noticed before because the phrase was usually translated as “faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:21-22; Gal 2:16; 3:22-23; Phil 3:8-9). I think it’s likely that this new interpretation is genuine Pauline theology that had been lost: that Jesus remained faithful throughout his life and especially during his tortured death. Paul was pointing out that the faithfulness of Jesus has saved us, because he was unwavering to the end, despite his suffering, which he could have avoided. So here too, the emphasis is not on being saved by our own faith, because Paul is highlighting that we are saved by Jesus.

       The word pistis may not be straightforward to translate, but the concept of salvation by faith is simple. All that God requires is our trust. Faith in God and belief in God are merely other ways of saying that we trust him to save us. God wants to save sinners, and if they trust him to save them, he will. Of course, those who trust God will want to try to do his will and grow closer to him—so this trust leads to a whole lot more. But when you pick apart the details, in the end it all comes down to simple trust.

       So is it correct to say that “we are saved by faith”? Yes! But it is not a Linus-style faith based on the strength of our convictions; we are saved by faith solely and simply because we are saved by God, whom we trust.



1^ See Bank of England, “What Is the Value of the Sterling Currency?” (TinyURL.com/PayBanknote).
2^ John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, CCEL (TinyURL.com/CalvinEph2-8).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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