Various designations have been used for the faith of those people who profess to be Christians, but later “fall away.” A review of these designations will help us to further understand the reason for their departure. Any lengthy treatise on faith would be incomplete without this review. Some categories are common and others are mostly the designations of individual authors.
You should understand that none of these categories is saving faith. Each represents a variant of generic faith within the context or community of Christianity. They are the “tares” among the “wheat.” Many theologians make reference to these categories. The use of the word “faith” in these designations, however, does add confusion. We already have a difficult time understanding how professing Christians can later “fall away.” It is simpler to keep two distinct categories of faith: faith that man has naturally, as an unregenerate person, and saving faith that results from regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
Temporary faith is knowledge of and consent to the truths of the Gospel. This belief even causes some changes in the affections and passions of the soul, a confession of these truths in the Church, and an external walk in conformity to good works. But, there is no true regeneration, no true union with Christ or His justification, sanctification, and redemption …” (Matthew 13:20-21; Hebrews 6:4,5; II Pet. 2:20) 1
John Calvin devotes several pages to this subject. It is useful to quote him at length.2 He is clearly aware that such faith is a common experience and uses, a different label, “common faith.”3
Multitudes undoubtedly believe (in this way)… (p. 477)
… (some) regard the Word of God as an infallible oracle… (p. 477)
… experience shows that the reprobate (unbelievers) are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them …. (p. 478)
… there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith … (p.478)
He goes on to describe the severe limitations of this type of faith.
Let those who glory in such semblances of faith know that, in this respect, they are not a whit superior to devils. (p. 478)
… the elect alone have that full assurance which extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, “Abba Father. ” (p. 478)
… the reprobate never have any other than a confused sense of grace ,laying hold of the shadow of substance, because the Spirit properly seals the forgiveness of sins in the elect only … (p. 478)
… it is not strange that the sense of the divine love, which though akin to faith differs from it, vanishes in those who are temporarily impressed. (p. 479)
Faith to Move Mountains (Miraculous Faith)
A better designation for this category might be “miraculous faith. While its application is “temporary,” it is entirely different from the concept of “temporary faith” above. Miraculous faith is that certainty which God gives to a person that a miracle is going to occur. The proof of whether that faith actually came from God is the actual occurrence of the event predicted (believed). This faith would fall into the same category as prophecies in the Old Testament.
This type of faith is described by several theologians. Even the unregenerate can have faith to move mountains! (See John Calvin’s Commentary on I Corinthians 13:2). As some Christians stress the power of faith evidenced in such passages as Matthew 17:20, they should warn that miracles may be performed by one who is unregenerate and that such faith is not evidence for the presence of saving faith.
The clearest passage is Matthew 7:21-23. Here, Jesus describes how he will reject those who had performed miracles, but He does not deny that they had actually performed miracles. If they had been regenerate, he could not say for them to depart from him. In another passage, Paul says, “… if I have the faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2). Here we see that such faith can exist without love, that is, obedience to God’s requirements (John 14:15, 23, 15:9; Romans 13:10). Dr. J. I. Packer concludes, “No one should treat his gifts as proof that he pleases God or as guaranteeing his salvation. Spiritual gifts do neither of these things.”4 The reality of this type of faith is a sober warning in our day when Christians both Pentecostal and evangelical emphasize the identity and application of their spiritual gifts. A spectacular and successful ministry has no necessary correspondence with either the presence of saving faith or spiritual maturity in those who do have saving faith.
Historical faith is “a belief in the truth of historical events recorded in the Bible … (and) also in some, many, or perhaps all the Biblical norms of morality” 5 The rich young ruler likely fell into this category (Matthew 19:16-22), as well as Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24). Dr. Kuyper also classifies the belief found in James 2:19 and Paul’s reference to the belief of King Agrippa (in the prophets) as historical faith.6
Dr. Packer defines this type of faith as “belief of the Christian facts without response or commitment.” 7 He notes that William Tyndale called it “story-faith.”
This type of faith has more to do with personality than specific content. Dr. Kuyper, in describing it for us, provides an explanation for the marked disparity of demeanors among Christians. He says that these people are
…cheery, mirthful souls, who in spite of adversity never seem to beast down or harmed, who, however much suppressed, have always enough of elasticity in their happy spirits to let the mainspring of their inward life rebound into full activity.8
Probably all of us know Christians like this! You may be one yourself. If you are like me, such an attitude tends to make you feel like you are missing something. We may even ascribe a superior type of faith to them. Dr. Kuyper, however, helps us understand the origin of their cheerfulness.
Although he credits them with the ability to “pilot many a Christian craft, which otherwise might perish, into a safe harbor,”9 he goes on to state that this cheerfulness is not saving faith. It may be the fruit of saving faith, but it is not identical with it. I would add that this demeanor is mostly a manifestation of a particular personality, not a quality to be found nor developed in every believer.
Our conclusion about this faith would be that such cheerfulness has to do with personality or an expression of spiritual fruit, but it will not manifest itself in all Christians and neither does it certify the presence of saving faith or “super-spirituality.” The Christian who has it should rejoice in its personal and interpersonal ability to brighten all situations. The Christian who does not have it should rejoice that some have it but also understand that it primarily represents personality and its absence is not necessarily an absence of faith or spiritual maturity in themselves.
Assurance of Faith
These types of faith that mimic saving faith raise the problem of assurance. If the wheat and the tares exist together, saying and doing similar things, how can you be certain that you possess saving faith? The answer is difficult, but not impossible to understand. 10 Perhaps, there are some particulars, however, that we can review to help us in this matter.
Scripture implies that assurance is incomplete when it directs us to test ourselves to see if we are in the faith (II Corinthians 13:5), to make certain that we have been called and chosen (II Peter 1:10), and to look for the presence of certain characteristics to “know” whether we have eternal life (I John 5:13). Most conservative theologians seem to agree that saving faith can be present without the necessary accompaniment of assurance. Elsewhere, we have seen the Biblical condition that salvation depends on the presence of regeneration. Saving faith is not the necessary initial prerequisite to salvation because saving faith requires an understanding that you are lost because of your sins and that your only hope is the sacrificial substitution of the death of Jesus Christ. Both physical and spiritual immaturity can prevent this consciousness. Regeneration does not require understanding, so regeneration can exist at least for a period time without a clarity of what saving faith is. (You should review the section on regeneration, as the act itself conveys no knowledge.)
Saving faith is distinguished from the assurance of faith in that the former has to do with your need and its answer, and the latter has to do with the certainty that that need has been answered. Saving faith must include a knowledge that the Bible and the fundamentals of the gospel are true. These consist of matters already covered: the veracity of the Bible, the historical facts about Jesus Christ as God Incarnate, as the only means by which men may be saved. These fundamentals, however, may be known without one’s being certain that they apply to himself. If they are not known, the problem is not assurance but clarity of understanding the gospel.
It is likely that this lack of clarity is the major problem in those who lack assurance. Both John Murray and Bishop Ryle state that the first activity by which you gain certainty is “an intelligent understanding of the nature of salvation” (Murray) and correcting “a defective view of the doctrine of justification” (Ryle). Their directions are essentially the same: to study the gospel in its complete detail. Do you notice this similarity with the thrust of this book, that is, the subjective presence of regeneration and saving faith require detailed and clear knowledge for their fullest development? Here we find that assurance is a problem without knowledge. Check yourself with this question: before reading this book, could you list the various parts of salvation as they are covered in the appendix and explain how each was different and yet related to the others?
Once such knowledge is obtained, can assurance still be lacking? Possibly, it could, but you should not pass on too quickly. You are referred to previous discussions that concern systematic knowledge (p. __) which cannot be obtained without diligent study. And you must repeatedly study it, reading and re-reading the Scriptures. I am almost afraid to say anything else about assurance because this point will be missed. There is, however, more that needs to be said here.
The degree of assurance is affected by all the characteristics mentioned in Chapter 5, “Why We Differ.” Each of us is a unique combination of these factors and our assurance will be subjectively affected by them.
Assurance is also affected by the degree of our obedience to God’s commandments. One consequence of guilt is a feeling of estrangement from ourselves, from others, and especially from God. The entire book of I John was written for the believer to compare his obedience with specific commandments: attitude and actions toward other believers (2:9-11), toward the world (2:15-17), toward false prophets (4:1-3), and all the commandments (5:3). As we have seen, repetitious sins result in a heavy load of guilt. We will never be without sin (I John 1:8, 10), but our lives can be free of dominion by any sin or sins. Sanctification is progressive against all our sins!
Assurance is directly the work of the Holy Spirit. First, He gives us confidence to approach God and say, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). Second,
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:16-17)
The activity of this witness is not conscious but its effect is. It is difficult to consider that this activity is anything other than the Biblical knowledge that gives concrete identity to the condition of salvation in all its parts. We have seen that regeneration is not the imparting of knowledge, but the condition to accept Biblical knowledge as truth. This condition can be present for a time without the knowledge, as its acquisition will take some time.
It is like being in a dark room. You can be in it and not see anything. The reality of any furniture is not affected by your inability to see. When you turn on the light, the reality of the furniture becomes known. The light is not the condition of the reality, but gives concrete identity to the reality. The Holy Spirit both gives the condition of the reality (regeneration), that is, He places you into the room and gives salvation concrete identity through the Scriptures (identifies the furniture). Traditionally, this work has been called the inner witness of the Holy Spirit with the outer witness of the Scriptures written by the Spirit. The flaw in our analogy (all analogies of spiritual reality have some flaw or another) is that the light is turned on gradually, rather than instantaneously, and that we never know the total reality. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that the degree of assurance is conditional on knowing the “furniture” (concrete details of salvation).
Some theologians teach that assurance includes a feeling. I have great difficulty with that position. Our feelings are nebulous and fleeting. At the beginning of most days I feel like staying in bed; nothing could be worth leaving such comfort. Then, through the course of the day, I get angry, disappointed, elated, glad, fearful and unhappy as different situations and conditions occur. How can I maintain a feeling of salvation through all these emotions, much less when they become much more intense in the catastrophes of life? On the one hand, I would not want to say categorically that we are not given a feeling of assurance. On the other hand, a feeling seems insufficient to sustain us moment by moment, while a clear identity of salvation in all its parts can be re-called instantaneously in any situation.
Concerning concrete knowledge, I must again mention God’s character. Ultimately, God is perfectly just. We can trust Him regardless of our situation or our feelings. The bottom line is that assurance of salvation faces this test: Can we trust God with our eternal destiny? Implicit in that trust is the knowledge of God’s perfection. It is profoundly simple: Is He trustworthy? Is He unfair? Does He have infinite wisdom? You see, the right question does not begin with ourselves, but with God. Then, the whole issue rests upon our knowledge of God and our willingness to act upon that knowledge. Again, it is knowledge pursued, not knowledge gained haphazardly with little effort.
I am not saying that assurance should not be sought; in fact I am giving directions about how it should be sought. A great part of the assurance is a willingness to pursue the studies necessary for a more complete assurance (see quotes by Murray and Ryle above. Without this willingness the presence of saving faith remains doubtful. You may want what God will not give: assurance apart from an understanding of Himself and His plan of salvation. Honest doubt drives one to seek answers from the Word of God in diligent study, not to spend needless energy worrying.
It is simply amazing that professing Christians are so unwilling to do this study. They will do almost anything else: attend church every time the doors open, pray for hours, read (reading is not studying!) through their Bibles, go to seminars, listen to tapes of the best preachers, and even seek psychotherapy. Generally, however, they will not do systematic study. This situation is not so much an indictment on them, as on preachers who have not directed them in that study. Such is the situation of the modern church (see p. 88).
In conclusion there is only one saving faith; historical faith, miraculous faith, temporary faith, and cheerfulness are types of generic faith with Christian trappings. Their presence raises the question whether one can have assurance of saving faith. The answer is not in feelings, but lies in the knowledge that concretely identifies the character of God and His plan of salvation. Assurance comes from the consciously active life that gives priority to Biblical knowledge and practices the ethics of that knowledge. Assurance is the practice of faith: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Degrees of Faith
In the New Testament we find “little faith” (Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8), “great faith” (Matthew 8:10, 15:28), “weak and strong faith” (Romans 4:19-20), “growing faith” (II Thessalonians 1:3), “all faith” (I Corinthians 13:2) and men who are “full of faith” (Acts 6:5, 8, 11:24). We have seen that the two major kinds of faith are generic faith and saving faith. In these verses we cannot always be sure that it is saving faith that is being referred to. This observation is consistent with earlier discussion that miraculous works do not necessitate the presence of saving faith. In understanding these degrees, however, it is not necessary that we know the kind of faith. The variable is not the kind of faith, but the fullness of one’s knowledge of God, usually as the second Person of the Trinity. Two previous discussions are the basis of this conclusion. First, faith exercised in healing is primarily knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ, and only secondarily the conviction that healing was to take place (p. 77-79). Second, growth of faith is a growth of knowledge, not the quality of the faith. Faith (whether generic or saving) is either present or it is not. One either is certain and acts or he is not certain and does not act. So, the variable factor is always knowledge of God and His revealed will, that is, the variable is the objective dimension of faith, not the subjective dimension. If each of these passages is examined on this basis, it will be apparent that the degree of faith is the degree of knowledge. It is only logical that the greater the knowledge, the greater will be the consistency and the decisiveness of the action that results from faith.
- Kuyper, Abraham, The Work of the Holy Spirit.Trans. by J. Hendri De Vries., Reprint. Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 421.
- Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion.Vol. I. Trans. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 477-481.
- Ibid., p. 475.
- Packer, J. I., Keep in Step with Spirit,Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984, p. 32.
- Clark, Gordon H., Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1983 p. 33.
- Clark notes the confusion of John Owen on this point. Ibid., p. 53.
- Packer, J. I., Knowing God, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973, p. 203.
- Kuyper, Abraham, The Work of the Holy Spirit. Trans. by J. Hendri De Vries., Reprint. Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p.382.
- The reader is encouraged to read the three works that were my resources for this section.