Saving Faith - an article by Phillip Hook

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    A Biblical Definition of Saving Faith — H. Phillip Hook
    [H. Phillip Hook, Assistant Professor of Bible and Philosophy, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.]

    Probably the greatest contribution of the Reformation to theology was its clarification of the doctrine of justification by faith. Although this doctrine has continued to be the cornerstone of Reformed and Protestant theology, the definition of the position has been the continuing responsibility of theologians. In light of the vast amount of literature on the subject, it seems that the problem would be settled, but it remains a crucial issue. While this article does not expect to add to the findings of the Reformers and those who have written since that time, it is hoped that a review of some of these thoughts applied to the contemporary problems will be of value in clarifying the issues at present.

    There seem to be three erroneous approaches to saving faith on the theological front today. One, while seeking to emphasize the importance of faith, is unwilling to define its object. This may take two forms, the liberal who really believes in ultimate goodness or human reason, or the neo-orthodox who cannot allow for propositional truth in relation to the object of faith. The second approach finds faith in the gospel alone an “easy believism” and seeks to add something to faith in order to accomplish salvation. Third, the contemporary Arminian view holds that faith accomplishes salvation only if it continues; thus, to depart from faith or to fail to continue to believe is to be severed from Christ.1 Each of these views seems to miss part of the teaching of Scripture concerning faith.

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    The Biblical Use of the Word Faith
    Apparently some of the confusion about the meaning of faith has arisen from the way the word is used in its nonreligious sense. In English such statements as “I believe it is going to rain tomorrow” imply little more than a calculated hope, and “I believe in God” may be only mental assent to a deity. To suggest that the Biblical use of the word parallels either of these instances is to fall far short of a true understanding of Scripture.

    While it is not within the scope of the study to consider all the forms and uses of the Greek word faith, it should be observed that both in Biblical and extra-Biblical sources there is no radical departure from the way it is used in the nonreligious sense in English.2 It retains the sense of hope or supposition, as well as assent and trust. But, the big difference in Biblical usage is the description of relationship to God. Here the word takes on a much greater significance in the Scriptures. A Greek did not customarily use pisteuo to describe his relationship with his gods. Warfield has observed: “It had the slightest possible connection with religious faith in classical speech…. For this nomizo was the usual term.”3 He adds: “In the Greek of the Septuagint pisteuein takes its place as the regular rendering of האמן and is very rarely set aside in favor of another word expressing trust…. It was only by its adoption by the writers of the Septuagint to express the faith of the Old Testament that it was fitted to take its place in the New Testament as the standing designation of the attitude of the man of faith towards God.”4 In this instance, Christianity had some influence on the development of the Greek use, since the use of pisteuo became common among religions and a common part of the proselyting process.5 Therefore, the Biblical concept of faith in relation to God is not an adaptation of a Greek concept of faith in God, but is unique to Scripture.

    Within the text itself the word or its related forms may be used to describe men or God as being faithful and thus trustworthy, dependable, and reliable (Rom 3:3; 1 Cor 10:13).

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    It is used to describe a pledge or oath (1 Tim 5:12). Both the Christian virtue of faith (1 Cor 13:13) and the whole of the scope of that which is to be believed (Jude 3) are other uses of the same word, but it is when the word is used to describe man’s relation to God or his response to God that it takes on particular significance. Thus, in the Old Testament, while it may mean simply to count as true or untrue a report (Gen 45:26), it usually goes beyond this in regard to God, and expects acknowledgment of the promise and of the power of God to perform it, and includes the honoring of God as the mighty Lord (Num 20:12).6 The New Testament as well makes this kind of faith “the acceptance of the Christian kerygma and consequently of the saving faith which recognizes and appropriates God’s work of salvation brought about by ChriSt.”7 It is this element of faith that becomes the basis for salvation and the solution of the problems at hand.

    Elements of a Biblical Faith

    In attempting to define faith it would be well to start by analyzing the elements that compose such a faith. There seem to be at least three of these elements clearly set forth in Scripture. The first of these is knowledge and assent to that knowledge. A second element is trust or dependence which appropriates the knowledge to one’s self. The final element is the product of faith, thus demonstrating its reality. These three in proper relationship are of considerable value in understanding the whole.

    Knowledge and assent. Fundamental to the concept of faith in Scripture is its object. The governing passage is Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.” Therefore, two facts must be a part of the knowledge of anyone who would come unto God. First, there is involved a basic theism or belief in the existence of God, and, second, one must accept as fact that God will do His part in the relationship.

    As foundational as these facts are, they are insufficient knowledge for saving faith; according to Paul’s definition of

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    the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, further facts are added to the knowledge aspect of faith. First, one must know the fact that the death of Christ was for sins according to the Scriptures; second, that He was buried; and, third, that He arose from the dead, again according to the Scriptures. In this account, facts of two kinds are involved in the knowledge necessary. Certain of the information required is available just because it is a part of factual history. The fact of Christ who lived on this earth, who died and who rose again, can be established from the normal method of establishing historical events. The Gospels, among other things, are historical documents recorded by eye-witnesses or those who did adequate research along approved methodological lines. There is evidence as well from extra-Biblical sources as well as the testimony of church history to establish this as clearly as any other event of early history. Yet, the knowledge involved in saving faith goes beyond the facts of history. God’s interpretaton of these events is of utmost importance. God, through revelation, has made clear that the death of Christ was not just another death, but that it has a significance beyond this. The Lord Himself said, “For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Again, the fact that He was “raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25) is a part of revelation.

    To know these statements and their interpretation is not enough though; continually the Lord sought agreement or assent to the statements He made. One of the clearest illustrations of this is found in His conversation with Martha in John 11:25ff. “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me, shall never die. Believest thou this?” While admittedly the use of the word believe here goes on to the next step, it very clearly illustrates that Christ spoke in propositional form and expected that there would be positive reaction to the statement.
    This first element of faith goes to the heart of the problem raised by the person who would like to assert the necessity of faith, but who really believes in ultimate goodness, and that somehow, somewhere things will turn out all right. Faith that really means something must have a proper object. This object

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    then becomes God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and described in inspired Scripture. This God is neither a God so immanent that revelation is unnecessary nor a God who is so transcendant that propositional revelation is impossible, but a God revealed both in history and in the propositional statements of Scripture.
    Appropriation and trust. Knowledge alone, however, is insufficient to saving faith. There are many who know the facts that are involved in the gospel, but do not possess salvation. James gives an example of this: “Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well; the demons also believe and shudder” (Jas 2:19). Satan and his emissaries are not ignorant of God’s existence or the facts of the gospel, yet this alone does not help them. All of mankind has the potential knowledge of a powerful, personal God (Rom 1:18ff), but most of mankind does not even produce the reaction that is found among the demons. Thus, for the knowledge of salvation to become real to an individual, it must be appropriated and trusted. John’s introduction to Christ as the word illustrated this: “He came unto his own and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11–12). The message of Christ to the church at Laodicea includes this same picture. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20). The message had to be received.
    This appropriating faith by its very nature is also faith that is dependent and trusting. The gospel message starts with the realization of need on the part of man. For the person who has no consciousness of sin, there is no realization of the need of the provision of God in Christ. The individual who comes to Christ must realize that he cannot save himself, and that he is dependent upon the provision of God. The publican’s prayer, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” becomes a graphic illustration of this need. The faith that saves is that which can then implicitly trust God’s revelation. Abraham is an example of this: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance;

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    and he went out not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11:8). This same picture of Abraham is developed by Paul in using Abraham as an illustration of faith. He had received a revelation from God, and on the basis of this revelation, “he believed in Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abraham put his trust in God, and this changed the direction of his life. It is here that faith and repentance are so closely aligned. To repent is to “change one’s mind,” and to believe is to remove one’s trust from that in which it has rested and to place it in Christ.

    This kind of faith is not “easy-believism.” It is not easy to say, “I cannot save myself, I must recognize that there is something wrong with me, and I must seek help from someone else.” God’s provision of salvation is a gracious gift, but for egocentric man, it is completely against his nature to deny his sufficiency and cast his hope for eternity on another. This kind of trust is not just a “fire escape from hell,” but is implicit dependence upon another after realizing one cannot help oneself. The Psalmist has said, “I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God” (Ps 31:14).

    Results and confirmation. The picture is not complete without certain results that become a testimony to its reality and a proof of its existence. Sometimes it seems easier to separate this aspect of faith from appropriating faith, and yet this does not seem to be the case in Scripture. James’s testimony is that a real faith has a quality that sets it apart from all others; this quality is works. By works there is both demonstration that the faith is real and evidence of completion or maturation of faith.
    This becomes clear in the passage in James 2 where the author sets up a contrast between two kinds of faith. A faith that only talks (Jas 2:14–17), and a faith that walks (Jas 2:18–26). The talking faith acknowledges the facts and may even assent to their truth (v. 16 ), but it never produces the results of that knowledge. James then says that a real faith is a faith that can be seen. His illustration is the same one that Paul uses in Romans, Abraham. This man who believed God and was justified was not simply justified by a faith that assented to facts, but by a faith that acted upon the facts and produced certain results. It was these results that “made faith

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    perfect” (v. 22 ). Therefore, a very real part of faith is this visible result. It is probably this very fact that Peter has in mind when, after listing some of the results of salvation, he reminds his readers, “he that lacketh these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Wherefore, brethren, give more diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if ye do these things, ye shall never stumble” (2 Pet 1:9–10). The assurance of the reality of faith comes with its product.

    John reasons along these same lines when he describes those who are “antichrists.” He states: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). In this epistle of the knowledge of eternal life, one of the signs of eternal life is that its faith has a product—its continuance. These who have been described as departing were really not of the faith in the first place or they would have remained “pro-christ” rather than becoming antichrist.
    It is this aspect of faith that drives at the heart of an Arminian problem. For the Arminian, faith must be retained and continued; it is the responsibility of the believer to maintain this faith in order to participate in eternal life. This misses the very reality of faith and its accomplishment. When faith is real, it produces results and it abides. This does not deny sin, ity, or the backslidden person as demonstrated in Scripture, but it does maintain that real faith brings salvation, and that this salvation produces results which confirm and complete that faith. The realization of this becomes even more graphic when the opposite of faith is observed. To fail to believe is not just ignorance, but it is to depart (Heb 3:12), to displease (Heb 2:17), to disobey (Heb 3:18; Rom 11:20, 30).8 Therefore, the security of the believer is based on the quality of his faith. It is never based on quantity or how much faith he has. The quality of faith that provides redemption is that kind of faith that produces works.


    To analyze faith in this way is almost to do it despite. It is not usually a conscious three-step process in experience.

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    The acquisition of the knowledge involved may consume a considerable period of time or it may be very brief. The time when this knowledge becomes existential probably is the time of salvation, but the results of faith may not be immediately seen. Certain results such as the leading of the Spirit (Rom 8:14) can be manifest immediately, but many of the works of faith may await a maturation of faith. Nonetheless, it is the response that God demands of those who turn to Him and who would come unto Him in salvation. To omit any of these parts would be failure to realize all that God expects, yet to attempt to analyze each person’s faith individually is something that only God and that person can do.
    If there is one verse that sums up the definition of faith in Scripture from this writer’s perspective it would be Hebrews 11:13: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” It seems that all three elements are found here. The faithful ones acknowledged the existence and the validity of the promises; they greeted them (and here the word is that which would describe the greeting or welcoming of a guest), and then they confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims in this world. They acted and lived on the basis of their knowledge and appropriation.

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    Dallas Theological Seminary. 1964; 2002. Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 121 . Dallas Theological Seminary

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