This question may seem trivial, but I can assure you it is not. Conflicting answers have divided churches, torn families, and wrenched the hearts of many Christians. The particulars of faith, grace, and salvation often spark tense discussions. Why? Because their definitions either make or break biblical Christianity.
So what is it? What is faith?
Johnny Beiler presented us with quite the dilemma a couple months back. Man, dead in sin, hopelessly destitute and depraved. Timothy Reitz gave us a solution a month later, the glorious God-man, Jesus Christ, our perfect sacrifice. We must now deal with the means of this solution. How does this process transpire? What means has God ordained to apply this salvation to the heart of man? That means is faith.
But faith in what? We can have faith in God as arbitrarily benevolent and gracious, too “good” and “loving” to ever condemn someone to hell. We can trust in our own good intentions, upstanding morals, or airtight theology. We sometimes will even trust our own faithfulness to God in things like daily devotional time or acts of Christian love and service. And though these things are not wrong, are they faith?
This may pop a couple bubbles and step on some toes, but none of the things we do day to day ever gain us any merit before God. “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20).1 Our morality? Worthless. Our righteousness? Filthy rags. Our devotion? Nothing apart from the grace of Christ. This is the thrust of the very first sentence of Article 6 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith of 1963. “Men are saved, not by character, law, good works, or ceremonies, but by the grace of God.”2
There we have the substance of faith. Our faith must be in the saving grace of God. And that faith, the one that saves, is essentially an appeal to the goodness of God. Faith says, “I give up.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Saving faith realizes that we have no appeal apart from an appeal to grace. We are not saved by our goodness but by God’s. Faith in anything else is not only a compromise, it is entirely inadequate. Our faith must be solely in God’s grace.
Just grace. God’s grace. His unmerited favor. Unmerited. Not grace given because of our works, our goodness, or anything within us. Simply God’s pleasure to redeem us because of his own goodness. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We were rebels, and yet God still granted us his love and grace. He is not drawn by our attractiveness, but rather draws near to us because of his own goodness and love.
We began by sketching grace and faith because we must understand their substance before we can properly understand how they are applied to our lives. You see, the gospel of grace was and is never about us; it is about God glorifying himself by loving unworthy sinners. Our faith cannot be in anything we ourselves bring, for “in [us] (that is, in [our] flesh) nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18). We bring nothing to the table but an appeal to God to look on us in grace. Our faith cannot even be in our own faith, but solely in God’s promise to redeem those who appeal to him.
Here things get especially delicate. The confession states that “Saving faith involves the giving of the self to Christ, a full surrender of the will, a confident trust in Him, a joyful obedience to His Word as a faithful disciple, and an attitude of love to all men.” Whether or not the writers intended to emphasize anything beyond faith in Christ alone, I’m not sure. But the matter deserves clarification at this point. Yes, all the things in this list are necessary, but necessary only as indicators of faith, not as the faith itself. The moment our faith is in our obedience to Christ rather than Christ’s atonement itself we have lost our grip on true faith. Now, if these indicators are absent, we are not truly saved. Faith requires obedience (1 John 2:4). But obedience is not faith itself, it is a result of faith.
What, then, initiates faith? If salvation is based entirely on the work of Christ, not anything in us, how can it be applied to our lives by anything but the grace of God? (I realize I am treading on sensitive territory, but this issue deserves discussion. My aim here is not controversy, but faithfulness to Scripture.) We have to remember two things here. First, all who truly confess Christ as Savior can and will be saved (John 3:16, Rom. 10:9, John 5:24). Second, none can be saved without a divine work of grace (John 15:16, John 6:44, Eph. 2:1-10). The moment we lose either of those we have erred. We must not distort truth to fit it into our neat little definitions. God’s ways are higher than ours, who are we to claim to understand his ways? But we do know that both of these truths must be true based on what the Bible teaches. And we must not minimize either of these glorious truths.
I do believe, however, that this article’s definition of election is one of its greatest weaknesses. The authors mistakenly minimize the glorious work of God in salvation when they overemphasize individual responsibility. The language Scripture uses is strong; we were slaves to sin (Rom. 6:20), sold under sin (Rom. 7:14), and dead (Eph. 2:1-5). This last word is the most vivid, and most applicable. A dead man has no way to resurrect himself. He, like Lazarus, can only be brought to faith by the word of the Life-giver. God must work, or no salvation is possible. We must not redefine election to comply with our understanding of salvation lest we minimize the majesty of God’s redeeming work.
Before this detonates, I’d like to remind you of the two truths I gave earlier. All who call on the name of Christ will be saved. The spiritual deadness of all does not restrict universality of the free gift. But divine involvement is required; no redemption can happen apart from it.
Recognizing the divine element of salvation brings glorious assurance. God is faithful to finish his good work in us (Phil. 1:6). The One who gave us his grace in Christ will confirm us until the end (1 Cor. 1:4-9), and he will keep us from falling (Jude 24). Just as he was faithful in salvation, so also will he be faithful to complete his work. If we weaken his involvement in the initial work of salvation we also diminish our confidence in his ability to preserve us to the end. True assurance only comes when we acknowledge God’s sovereign hand in the entire process.
We can be assured that God has worked salvation when we see him also working sanctification. Sanctification comes as the Holy Spirit teaches us the gospel and continually applies it to our lives. The confession reminds us; “As long as the believer lives, he stands in need of the forgiveness, cleansing, and grace of Christ.” Many mistakenly reduce the gospel to a single act, but biblically, Christ’s work extends to every area of our lives. We continually relate to him, not based on our recent faithfulness (or sinfulness), but exclusively through the merit of Christ. Our goodness makes us no more worthy before God, and our brokenness no less. Christians only ever relate with God based on the righteousness of Christ. Faith in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice is not only necessary for salvation but is vital for our entire lives.
So what is faith? Faith is an appeal to the grace and mercy of God. Faith is surrender to the Life-giver. Faith is assurance that he who has begun a good work in us will continually complete it until the day of Christ. But most of all, faith is unwavering confidence in Christ as our only hope. Faith releases all else and moors itself securely to Christ. Faith loses all but Christ, but in him it finds everything.
|Julian Stoltzfus currently resides in Elnora, IN and is taking part in a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014. When not working at K&K Industries, he enjoys diving into a good read, exploring the diverse beauties of music, or fortifying relationships with family and friends. The 5th of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the Gospel.
- The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. Print.
- Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963. GAMEO. Web. 1 August 2016.