What Does Faith in Christ Mean?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/20/2013

The three aspects of faith—knowledge, assent, and trust—are all necessary for saving faith.

This issue has gotten me a little bit worked up, to be honest with you. It's one thing when you're dealing with a somewhat academic issue and you're talking about something that is important, but merely factual, as opposed to something that hits at the heart of who you are and also relationships that are close to you. I've been trying to sharpen my thinking (bring it into clearer focus) on this issue of salvation and lordship. The ironic thing is that characteristically I have argued against the idea of repentance/lordship in relationship to salvation on the air. The reason is that it just seems to me that it is not a prerequisite for a person who is not a Christian to somehow surrender their lives and turn from their sins as a condition to receive salvation. My view is that Jesus catches his fish first and then cleans them. So, I've kind of been resistant to that, but at the same time I've been very serious about the issue of obedience and holy living and having your life make a difference, and not just getting fire insurance by saying some magical prayer that never ultimately influences your life.

But recently I found myself in two conversations with family members that forced me to do some more work on this issue. I found myself sounding like I was arguing on both sides of this issue. By the way, it's no one here in Southern California so no one here knows them. But I want you to know they're family so you know that this was not merely an academic exercise.

One claimed she was a Christian because at some point, as I recall it was about eighteen years ago, she "received" Christ. When I questioned her she believed that Jesus died for her sins. That sounds like she's in. She's got the right answers on that issue. But I'll tell you quite frankly, from a practical point of view, she is living the life of an atheist. I asked her at one point, how would I know by looking at your life that you're a Christian? She said that she doesn't use the Lord's name in vain too often. I said, that sounds to me like you trying to convince me that you love your husband because you only call him an S.O.B. once a week. That to me is not a compelling argument that either you love your husband or you love Christ. She asked me if I thought she was a Christian and I said no. Now, I don't know what's in her heart. I don't know what God thinks about it. I've got to judge based on what I see, and except for this somewhat banal confession of faith, there is nothing that indicates to me that there is any more dimension to her Christian life than that one statement.

Now, another person in my family is leading a very thorough-going Christian life but he heard a tape in which John MacArthur was very exercised on this issue of lordship/salvation and he began doubting his faith. Now, how do I make sense out of this? Actually, my encouragement to both was quite different.

All sides on this issue, by the way, agree that salvation is by God's grace alone. I guess the question is: What is entailed in the notion of receiving the grace of God for salvation? One side is very sensitive to it being a free gift of grace; the other one doesn't want to turn grace into cheap grace that leads to licentiousness. How do you deal with it? The problem is this: How do we proclaim salvation by grace without implying that salvation is somehow isolated from the concept of obedience, that salvation is a prayer that you utter, and then everyone can breath a sigh of relief because you're in and we can always look back on that date no matter what happens afterwards because you said the magic words, even though you do not have any kind of emphasis on obedience. That does sound like cheap grace to me.

On the other hand, how do we give a proper emphasis to obedience without making such things as lordship an additional work? That's the question. The fact is that with every Christian there are different levels of lordship at any given time. People ask me, is Jesus Lord in your life? I say, yeah. Do you obey Him in every single thing? Well, no. According to the slogan, "If Jesus is not Lord of all, then He's not Lord at all." I think that slogan says nothing meaningful at all. It just gets people confused. By the way, one of the problems with reducing Christian truth and significant issues to a simple slogan is that it mutes the more refined tones necessary to make critical distinctions between important things. Some things cannot be reduced to slogans and Christians are often prone to do that because it makes theology easy. Some theology is not simple, though. This is one of those things that is not simple.

As one family member said: "It's impossible for me to obey completely; I'm always falling short. So how can you make obedience (lordship) a requirement at all?" That was a good point. And those were the horns of the dilemma that I was on.

One of the ways that I resolve this is understanding that there is faith and there is faith. There's a Biblical difference between two entirely different kinds of faith. You can see that in James 2 where James says, "Show me your faith without works and I'll show you my faith by my works." He says very directly at the end of that chapter that the first kind of faith is a dead faith. So there is a faith that is dead and a faith that is alive. Two entirely different kinds of faith. Jesus, in John 1:45-51, was addressed by Nathaniel as the Son of God. It says after that, you think you've seen something. Hang around and you'll see a lot more. It says that after that in John 8:30-45 "many were believing in Him, but Jesus did not entrust Himself to any of them because He knew what was in the heart of man." There's a section in there where it says that He was saying these things to those who had believed on Him, and He goes on and calls these people not Sons of Abraham, but Sons of their father the Devil. So it seems clear that there is a kind of faith and belief that just doesn't make it.

There are a number of ways of expressing this. The early church Fathers and Reformers recognized three aspects or types of faith. In Latin they call it notitia (knowledge) assensus (assent) fiducia (trust), which simply means that there is a knowledge element, an assent to the truth that you know. But it can't stop there. There also has to be trust. All three are necessary for saving faith.

My distinction is between belief vs. faith. In other words, it's possible to believe in something but not exercise faith in it. This is a critical distinction in what we're talking about. You can talk about belief in marriage all day long, but you never exercise faith in marriage until you walk down the aisle and say "I do." You can watch a guy push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope across Niagra Falls a hundred times. You have knowledge that he's capable of doing it. You assent to the fact that he can do that. But you don't exercise faith in his capability until you get into the wheelbarrow.

Do you see how there is a big difference between belief and faith? There is belief on the one hand and the faith on the other.

If you say "I do" what happens? You go on a honeymoon, then set up housekeeping. Why? Because that's what married people do. There is a life change that is connected with this act of faith and trust and belief. Remember, C.S. Lewis was married twice. He got married legally. But it wasn't a real marriage the first time because they signed the paper, they said the words and they went on to live separate lives. After that, though, we see a real marriage because they shared their lives.

If you get into the wheelbarrow then you get pushed across the high-wire. Why? Because that's the whole point of getting into the wheelbarrow to begin with, to put your life on the line for what you believe. If you don't get out on the wire, then nothing has been invested. No trust has been expressed. Trusting has measurable results. This is the critical different between the faith and the faith, the living faith and the dead faith of James 2, the knowledge and assent on the one hand, and the trust on the other.

Let me give you another illustration that I think really catches this idea. Have you ever played that game where you put your back to someone that you supposedly trust, close your eyes and fall backward and allow them to catch you? You can say that you know that they are capable of catching you. You agree that they will catch you. But of course, you don't exercise trust until you fall backwards. Then you trust.

Christianity is just like that. You can say, I know Jesus is the Savior. I believe and agree that He died for my sins and is coming back again. You can run through the whole list of doctrinal truth. But unless you fall back into His arms, you have not exercised trust. Now, watch this: the act of falling back in His arms leaves you in His arms. He's in control of you. The act of faith throws you into His Lordship. That's what Biblical faith is: an act of falling into the arms of Jesus. Lordship is not a separate condition in itself, but a logical and necessary and unavoidable result of fiducia , of trust. If we're actively trusting ( fiducia ) Jesus, such that His work of the cross is useful to us, we can't avoid being in Jesus' arms, and when we're in His arms and He's in control. As Ron Arnold said, the director of Christian Discount Bookstore, "We have to be in His arms or else we'd be on the ground."

So, merely accepting Jesus frequently has a merely one-dimensional and flat effect. We look back on those things and think, "It's okay because she made a decision." But this is not just fire insurance. That's why I think that Bible doesn't just say pray to receive Christ. The problem with praying to receive Christ is that it suggests that there's some magic in the words and after we've prayed it's all over.

Now, how much lordship is required to qualify? I don't know. But the fact is there's a wide gulf between those who are working out their salvation with fear and trembling and those who confess Christ privately in moments of guarded candor yet are practical atheists.

We shouldn't have to probe into the past to find out if someone made a decision or not. It should be plastered all over their lives. A Christian life is a life characterized by concern for the things which concern God. Call it lordship if you want. I don't care. But I don't see how a true Christian can be anything else.