Dr. Abraham Kuyper defined an approach to understanding that is based upon a “two-fold starting point”: regeneration (Greek – palingenesis) and the Scripture as the Word of God.1 These points determine whether saving faith is present or not. According to the Bible, there are only two groups of people on earth: Christians and non-Christians. Kuyper’s two-fold starting point is another means by which to express this division. The difference cannot be minimized: in the final analysis, the difference is between heaven and hell!
Using the definition that was developed in the last chapter and what the Bible teaches about faith, saving faith is the process whereby decisions that result in action are controlled by the state of regeneration (subjective) and Biblical principles (objective) with secondary consideration given to extra-Biblical knowledge (objective). Let us examine in some detail the various parts of this definition.
Objective: Knowledge That Is Outside of the Person, or “No Creed But Christ”
We begin with the familiar passage of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but has eternal life.” Other verses also state that one must believe “in” Jesus Christ in order to be saved: Acts 10:43, Galatians 2:16. (It should be noted that “faith” and “belief” or “believe” – verb form – are the same in meaning.2) In other verses, we find “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 11:17, 16:31; Romans 9:33; Philippians 1:29). In all these, the object of the preposition is Jesus Christ, a person. Unfortunately, however, the culture in which we live distorts the significance of belief in His person because almost everyone at least knows the name, Jesus Christ. To get beyond this cultural familiarity, place yourself in the situation of a missionary among a people who do not know Him. How would you explain who He is? Since you are asking them to give up long traditions of worship to other gods, and possibly to be disowned by their own people, you had better have a good argument or you may end up staying for dinner as the main course!
Likely, you would tell this people of Jesus’ virgin birth, life of teaching and miracles, unjust death, and resurrection that included numerous eyewitness accounts. A more complete story would begin with Adam and Eve and their Fall (an ancestry and event common to you and to them), man’s sinfulness that caused God to send the flood, God’s choice of the Jews (an unlikely people to be chosen) beginning with Abraham, His giving of the law to Moses, the greatness of Israel under David and Solomon, and the hope of a future Messiah or Savior who would be Jesus Christ.
Reflect upon what you are doing. You are making statements that tell who Jesus Christ is. Philosophers call such statements, “propositions”, because they are the simplest expression of facts or truth. Thus, they refer to “propositional” truth. In our missionary situation we have been telling a foreign people propositional truths about Jesus Christ. Obviously, this process is not very “deep” or complex, but it should be identified with the terms that philosophers use. The importance and practical application of propositional truth is revealed if we try to tell our foreign tribe to believe in or on Christ without propositional truths about Him! They will walk away thinking you need the help of their “head shrinkers.” No, we must tell propositional truths about Christ. Groups of these propositions are by definition a creed. Thus, all Christians have a creed if they believe in Jesus Christ whether they identify themselves as acknowledging whether they have creeds or not.
Our conclusion, then, is that a person (including Jesus Christ) cannot be known without some information or “propositional truths” about that person. Would you trust any person to handle your finances, to baby-sit your children, or even to work on your car without some knowledge of who he is and what kind of work that he or she does? This knowledge is “objective” because it comes from outside yourself who receives the knowledge. Relative to saving faith, objective knowledge must be known about Jesus Christ. With the brief review above, it is easy to see that this knowledge of Him can be quite extensive – all that the Bible says about Him!
Let us continue by considering formal education. Teachers develop extensive lesson plans. They do not proceed haphazardly. Indeed, anyone who has taught knows that little can be comprehensively taught without some degree of organization. Then, the student must learn the content as it is systematically given. When tested, the student must answer according to the information that he was given. The more complex is the subject, the more is the necessity of detailed organization. Calculus and other mathematics require very precise and often lengthy arguments. The higher level of college requires high standards and considerable knowledge that must be satisfied in order to graduate.
Is it not strange that few churches have systematic teaching, either from the pulpit, Sunday School, or elsewhere, especially since such education involves knowledge that is more important than any other? Where is a defined core curriculum by which a Christian may know that he has completed “basic training” for his Christian life? How many “Christians in the pew” advance to study systematic theology and hermeneutics (principles by which the Bible is interpreted)? Both initial Membership requirements and expectations of continuing members in a church are quite minimal and sometimes non-existent!
Thus, Christians make a serious error when they limit knowledge about the Christian life to knowledge about Jesus Christ, and that, in vaguely understood terms. How many Christians can make a clear presentation of the gospel at any time and in any place with no preparation? Not just “sharing” their personal experience, but comprehensively telling the Biblical story as he would have to do in our missionary situation, starting with Adam and Eve and covering the basics of Biblical teaching and history? Further, who can give reasons (an apologetic) why his faith is valid in such areas as science and history?
This objective component of faith, is at least an understanding of the gospel, that is, the propositional truths about Jesus Christ that describe God’s plan for man’s salvation (Romans 10:9, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 1:15, etc.). Other verses clearly identify faith as knowledge that is the whole of Scripture (I Timothy 3:9, 4:6; II Timothy 3:15; Jude 3). In these contexts, it is referred to as “the faith.”
Does God really expect us to know so much? There is no doubt from Biblical teaching that He does. He expects every Christian to teach and consume solid food (Hebrews 5:12-6:2). Repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment are considered “elementary” in this passage in Hebrews! Most Christians, however, would panic if they had to teach anything on any Christian subject, much less one of these “elementary” topics. Christians cannot be mature until their objective knowledge is comprehensive and systematic, a requirement that is no greater than that of successful school performance at any level of education or the demands of a job environment.
The Subjective State of Regeneration
This part of the definition may be a little difficult. It will be helpful for you to consider this section within the context of other chapters of this book (the previous chapter on generic faith, philosophy and worldview, and the arguments against free will) because regeneration is what produces saving faith. This matter involves some disagreement among evangelicals both currently and historically (see Chapter 9). I certainly will not resolve the debate, but perhaps I can shed some light upon it. Few have identified the issue as clearly as Dr. Kuyper when he said that regeneration one part of a two-fold starting point. The other part, objective knowledge or knowledge that come from the Word of God, we have just examined.
Palingenesis occurs only twice in the Bible: once concerning individual believers, “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) and once concerning the future state of the physical universe, “in the regeneration” (Matthew 19:28). The concept, however, is prevalent in the New Testament by other descriptions that include: being “born again” (John 3:3), “renewal” (Romans12:2, II Corinthians 4:16, Tit. 3:5), “a new creature” (II Corinthians 5:17), “transformation” (Romans 12:2, II Corinthians 3:18), “a change of mind” or repentance (II Corinthians 7:10, Hebrews 6:1), and the most important description, “made alive” or “quickened” (Ephesians 2:5). All these concepts refer to the change within a person who has been acted upon by the Holy Spirit.
That change occurs is not the basis of disagreement. Virtually all are agreed on the inward change that should cause outward changes when a person moves from unbelief to saving faith. Disagreement occurs over the order in which these changes take place. Does saving faith precede regeneration, that is, does a person choose to be born again or does regeneration precede saving faith and cause it? This latter view describes regeneration as a passive process. That is, this act is something that God does in the person without his participation.
Because our present concern is with the definition of faith, I shall not discuss which order is more likely to be correct. An understanding about this matter, however, determines one’s concept of faith, so that an entire chapter must be given later to present the position of passive regeneration. Our concern for the present, however, is “what it is” the change that takes place within the person? To begin, we refer back to our definition of faith. Subjective premises are prior to conscious thought. They are a part of the inner person; they involve the mysterious, subconscious core of our beings that the Bible refers to as the heart or inner man.
John Laidlaw has a clearly described regeneration.3 In quoting other authors, as well as developing his own thoughts, he uses these descriptions: “a vital principle,” “a new habit,” “the dominant tendency,” ” the prevailing character,” ” one’s bias,” “disposition and ability,” and “a new kind of exercise of the same faculty of understanding.” Further, he states that “Regeneration lies deeper than consciousness.”
Herein, we see our definition of saving faith. What was generic faith becomes “a new kind of exercise,” that is, the object (source or knowledge) of one’s faith becomes the Word of God as the source of truth that one has been searching for all of his life. The regenerated person has had his premises changed from trusting in himself to trusting in the Word of God. It is clear that the change does not remain “deeper than consciousness,” as the regenerated person begins to understand what he is in Christ and live the Christian life that the Bible describes, as follows.
- “Unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God” are attained by the exercise of the various spiritual gifts among believers (Eph. 4:13).
- Being in the light means a “knowledge the glory of God” (II Corinthians 4:6).
- “…in whom (Christ) are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
- Paul prays that the Colossians may be “filled with the knowledge of His will” (Col. 1:9).
- The “new self” is “being renewed to a true knowledge” of God (Col. 3:10).
And these are only a few of the pertinent verses!4 Thus, the New Testament clearly indicates that a change in knowledge is the primary outworking of regeneration. And, that knowledge cannot be obtained without “hearing” or “reading” the Word of God.
To summarize, regeneration results in a new subjective premise that the Bible is truth (knowledge) that one can trust for his earthly life, as well as eternal life. The knowledge in the subject (the believer) increases toward a more complete understanding of the object (the Triune God and His purpose for man). Abraham Kuyper in his chapter, “Regeneration and Faith,” summarizes in this way.
The faculty of faith (the disposition to believe) is implanted in the first stage of regeneration — i.e., in quickening; the power of faith is implanted in the second stage of regeneration — i.e., in conversion; and the working of faith is wrought in the third stage – that is., sanctification.5
Experience and Acquired Knowledge
Saving faith, then, becomes a unique form of generic faith. Whereas, generic faith is limited to earthly knowledge, saving faith is based upon God’s special revelation. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Bible has become “our only infallible rule of faith and practice” or in the words of Robertson McQuilkin, the Bible is given “functional control of our lives.”6
For example, young Christians (and sometimes old ones too!) are faced with the decision of whom to marry. To keep this example simple, we will consider that the person has not been called and gifted to remain single, (I Corinthians 7:7-9, 17-40). In our society, any man or woman may marry whomever they wish. Parents do not choose a mate for their children as they do in some cultures. Parents have input only to the extent that their counsel is asked or that they exercise some form of external control. For example, they may not continue to pay for a higher education if their son or daughter marries. Christians, however, have only one “functional control” on their choice, they are forbidden to marry anyone who is not a Christian (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1). It does not matter what the qualities of the other person may be, if he or she is not a Christian: a Christian who marries a non-Christian disobeys God. Christians may and should seek the advice of their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3), the advice of their church leaders (who are appointed to be overseers of local congregations by their exhortation “in sound doctrine,” Titus 5, 9), and that they should pray for wisdom (James 1:5-8). But, the only absolute in this situation is that they must marry a believer.
While Scripture maintains “functional control” of all that a Christian does, but the experience of the Christian may also become valuable. As Christian’s become aware of his or her own strengths and weaknesses, a spouse is sought who will complement these qualities. Personal preferences, such as athletics and music, may influence one’s decision. There is a great deal of freedom within these functional controls. Christians overlook this great freedom that God gives to us while they focus on the limitations only. And, this supposed control by God’s design promotes the fullest life that we could possibly experience (Matthew 7:9-12).
This Biblical process should be present in every decision that the Christian makes. His first and most important task is to determine what Biblical principles apply to a decision, that is, the Biblical principles that are to exercise functional control. Our definition of faith does not ignore one’s experience and knowledge, but places it in a secondary position. A major problem among Christians is decision-making that does not systematically search the Scripture to determine what principles apply. Biblical knowledge must be primary for the directions of one’s life because the will must be directed by the understanding of the mind or in the words of theologians, “the primacy of the intellect.”
Saving Faith as the Most Certain Knowledge That Can Be Known
Our definition of faith in Chapter 1 included “decisions that are made with certainty” where certainty is defined by the action that results from the decision. The action is not part of the process of faith but proves the whether the decision was based upon valid knowledge or not. To understand faith in this process is to avoid much confusion about “degrees of faith.”
Have you wondered what went wrong when you act inconsistent with what you thought your faith was? Did you have insufficient faith? Are your prayers not answered because you do not have enough faith? The point here is that faith is clearly revealed by your thoughts, speech, and action. The extent or degree of your faith is not a mystery, it is revealed by your actions! Whether our prayers are answered or not depends upon God’s decretive will, not our faith! We exercise our faith when we pray, and we exercise our faith when we rest in God’s answer. But, His answer is not dependent on our welling up something inside of us to convince Him to act in our favor.
What about the prayers of the persistent widow? What about other verses that seem to indicate that His answer is determined by our efforts? These are instructions on how to pray, not how to influence God. Answers to our prayers always have to be left up to Him because “Father knows best!” In fact, our faith is more clearly revealed by our acceptance of His answer or being patient for Him to answer than by our effort in prayer. We have faith in prayer backwards. We should pray as He taught us, “Your will be done.” Anything less is actually weak faith! Strong faith is asking and resting in His Sovereignty. Weak faith is persisting that what we are asking is best. The only exception to this method of praying is when God give “miraculous faith” which will be dealt with in a later chapter. (Link)
The Bible is clear is clear that faith is revealed in this way. The heart is the innermost dimension of the person upon which his faith depends. “… out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). “… as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, KJV). “… For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and … (all the evil actions that follow)” (Mark 7:21).
With the introduction of lies by Adam and Eve in the Garden, man lost the ability to have absolute certainty or in New Testament terms “to walk by sight.” In a later chapter, we will develop more fully this relativity of faith to falsehood. Our principle here is that the certainty of one’s faith is revealed by his thoughts, speech, and behavior. To know what we should or should not do and fail to act consistent with that knowledge, is to reveal that we have deceived ourselves as to our true belief. Were it not for our behavior, we could fool ourselves and others by our thoughts and speech (these will also give away our unbelief). Our actions distinctly reveal our true selves. In the words of our definition of faith, our actions reveal the knowledge about which we are certain.
Do we have faith, that is, believe with certainty, that Bible study is important? The answer is whether or not we do it. Do we believe that evangelism is important? The answer is whether we do it or not. Do husbands believe that they should love their wives “as Christ also loved the church” (Ephesians 5:2)? The answer lies in their day to day treatment of their wives. Do wives believe that they should win their husbands with silence and submission (I Peter 3:1-2)? The answer is in their behavior. Do congregations believe that elders should be “able to teach” (I Timothy 3:2b)? The answer is revealed in the men whom they choose. Failure at any point to do what is right is ultimately a result of unbelief. Is it any wonder that we need God’s constant forgiveness and cleansing (I John 1:9)?7
Thus, personal faith is increased by an increase in the Biblical knowledge that directly and consciously controls all decisions upon which actions are based. Faith is not mysterious except as it mysteriously results from regeneration, but it is simply the application of Biblical principles to concrete situations. Faith is not increased by more prayer, church or seminar attendance, or resolutions to do better, but action clearly and consciously based upon Biblical instruction in every decision, no matter how big or how small. The degree to which we are certain is revealed by our actions. In fact, we will never have any greater degree of certainty than to understand what the Bible says and to act upon it!
- Kuyper, Abraham,Principles of Sacred TheologyTrans. by J. Hendrik De Vries, Reprint, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its Principles, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 183ff, 567ff, 665.
- The Greek word,pistis,may be translated with either word except that “faith” in English does not have a verb form. It is extremely important to recognize synonyms in the Bible. Quite often distinctions are made by Christians that are misleading and wrong. Some of these synonyms will be discussed in a later chapter.
- Laidlaw, John,The Biblical Doctrine of Man. Reprint Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1895, Klock and Klock, 1983, p. 247-267.
- Obviously, the change extends beyond knowledge, for example, the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
- Kuyper, Abraham,The Work of the Holy Spirit. Trans. by J. Hendrik De Vries, Reprint, Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 320. Also, see Appendix.
- McQuilkin, J. Robertson, “The Behavioral Sciences Under the Authority of Scripture,”Journal of the Theological Society, March, 1977, pp. 31-43.
- This observation is how the Bible means for us to judge (Matthew 7:1-6). We judge speech and behavior because we cannot know thoughts unless they are told to us or they are our own. Speech and behavior are compared (“judged”) to the standards that the Bible presents. Also, we never judge hearts as to whether they are regenerated or not, that is, whether persons are Christians or not because we cannot see the heart and its judgment is the province of God alone.