Faith vs. Belief: A Study on Salvation

 In Articles, Faith, Grace, Salvation, Theology

Ever since 1517 and the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, Protestants have been known for a commitment to salvation by grace through faith alone. This Reformation was a call for the Church to return to its roots because it recognized that biblical salvation is a direct result of faith alone as it is attributed to faith alone over 50 times within the New Testament. Despite the beauty of this biblical doctrine, “Sola Fide” has been often marred and manipulated by a modernized Western church seeking a “cheap faith” that is, in reality, a mere form of intellectual assent. 

Regardless, the Bible preaches salvation by faith alone, so we must also. Again, we preach salvation by faith alone. Not belief alone. We, as Americans, have been inadvertently and falsely taught that faith and belief are, for all practical purposes, in fact one in the same. But maybe there’s more to “faith” than simply the acknowledgement of what is true.

Faith From the Perspective of a New Testament Writer

In the Greek, the word that translates into the English as “faith” is πίστις. As defined by the NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, πίστις is understood to be “conviction of the truth of anything” and includes with it the idea of “trust and holy fervor.” Surprisingly, the technical modern day definition has hardly changed, and it is generally defined by Merriam Webster as a type of “allegiance” or “loyalty.” 

However, because the word “faith” in everyday conversation has become so overused in referring to a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, this is the way we typically envision it. More significantly, this is the way we read the word “faith” when we see it in Scripture, but this was not the intention of the writer then and therefore is still not the intention today. 

With this in mind, “faith alone” and “conviction of the truth, trust, and holy fervor alone” should theoretically invoke the same mental image when we hear each phrase. So yes, salvation is by faith alone, but it is extremely important to know what the writer originally meant when he said “faith.” A misunderstanding here can be dangerous.

Scripture’s Definition of Faith

It’s always a good idea to enlist the services of the Almighty God who possesses all the authority, wisdom, and knowledge necessary to define a word, especially when that word is the central theme of His own book. So what’s the Holy Spirit’s definition of faith? 

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
-Hebrews 11:1

Based upon this verse, I believe that faith is where intellectual acknowledgement and desperation collide. Not only is it the convicted assurance of what we do not physically see, but it is also the assurance of something we are genuinely hoping for – something we genuinely need. This passage assumes that there exists a large capsule of hope within the heart that truly possesses faith, and this kind of hope implies a thirst and desire for something we do not yet have. Paul more fully explains this hope in his letter to the Romans.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
-Romans 8:22-25

To put these things together, biblical faith could be described as hope for the redemption of all creation, including one’s own soul, from the effects of sin and death’s decay, brought about by the convicted assurance of something not yet physically present (2 Cor. 4:16-18). My question is once again this: Does this define the faith of the American church?

Salvation Throughout Scripture

For this section, I have chosen what I believe to be three of the most commonly used “Salvation Verses” in the Bible for further analysis. Upon participating in some brief exploration of each, I quickly discovered the remarkable depth to these verses that we are blinded from seeing by the bright lights of familiarity and cliché. As it has been wisely noted, “the greatest enemy of faith is not fear; it is familiarity.”

because, if you confess with your mouth that “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
-Romans 10:9-10

Sounds simple enough right? Initially, it seems like Paul is saying that to be saved, you must simply say a few words and then acknowledge the validity of a historical event, namely, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. However, with this interpretation, what we miss in the passage is the word “heart.” 

When the word “believe” is used, it is typically defined as an intellectual function of the brain. But if Scripture was trying to communicate academic agreement, it would have instead said “believe in your mind” or maybe even “be fully convinced in your mind” or something more along those lines. 

However, that is not what the passage says. It actually attaches the word “belief” with the word “heart.” The clear distinction we must make is that believing in your heart is in fact different from believing in your head. 

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
-James 2:19

Now, I am under the impression that demons do not possess the faith necessary to obtain eternal life in heaven, and I hope you would agree. So in order to grasp what this kind of heartfelt belief looks like, let’s look at perhaps the most quoted Bible verse in America:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
-John 3:16

As the most popular verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16 has certainly received its fair share of air time, but what most people have never read are the two verses directly before.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
-John 3:14-15

To figure out what the belief in the Son of Man that leads to salvation actually is, we must look at the story that Christ is referencing in the Old Testament. The story occurs within Numbers 21 in verses 4 through 9, while the Israelites are in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land after recently being freed from their slavery to Egypt. The people begin to doubt the goodness of God and sin against Him by complaining that the food that God has given to them is not good enough. Because of this, God sends judgement upon the people in the form of what the Bible calls “fiery serpents.” The serpents bring death to many of the Israelites while also bringing about repentant hearts within others. The members of this second group confess their sin, and God provides a path for their healing by asking Moses to set up a pole with a bronze serpent on it. With one glance at this bronze serpent, those seeking healing will be healed from the effects of the fiery snakes.

From this passage, there are three brief things that are important to notice when interpreting the meaning of John 3:14-16. These three things are repentance of sin, willful seeking of healing, and a trusting in the provision of God as the source of redemption. The people actually felt guilty and understood their need for rescue, they sought healing in something outside of themselves, and they found this forgiveness, mercy, and love from the God who freely offers it to those who seek it. This is the kind of faith and belief that Jesus is teaching in John 3:16, and it is the basis for all other Scriptural teaching on salvation. 

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
-Ephesians 2:8-9

Other than an explicit teaching against a “faith plus works” theology on salvation, this passage reveals that even the faith we have is a gift from God. Now, does intellectual agreement require an act of God? Certainly not, because, as we have seen, demons believe in God. No work gets us into heaven, including the “work” of believing that no work will get us into heaven. 

It is the faith itself, a gift of God, and not the belief in “salvation by faith” that saves. Belief in something does not require anything supernatural, but Scripture teaches that the faith that brings about salvation does. So what’s the difference? What does the Christian saved through faith possess that the nominal Christian who supposedly believes does not?

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
-Romans 8:14-16

The true child of the living God has the Spirit of God within them and a new heart that cries out “Abba,” the Hebrew word signifying personal intimacy between father and child. As Charles Simeon puts it, 

For a nominal Christian is content with proving the way of salvation by a crucified Redeemer. But the true Christian loves it, delights in it, glories in it, and shudders at the very thought of glorying in anything else.

So, faith is a gift of God. It is planted into the contrite heart and broken spirit that seeks redemption, through the Father’s provision, from the condemnation brought about by sin. It is the point where a correct understanding of truth and heartfelt desperation meet. This truth is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this desperation finds its fulfillment in the Christian’s hope for future vindication – the freedom of all creation from its temporal bondage to death. 

Faith is expressly seen through an inexplicable trust in God and fervor for his Kingdom that flow from the Spirit of God within the Christian’s new heart that inevitably leads to good works for the glory of God. This is biblical faith (Phil. 4:7).

But What About James 2:24?

This is totally a fair question. After all, the only place in the entire New Testament where you can find the phrase “faith alone” is actually in this verse:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
-James 2:24

First, we must interpret Scripture with other Scripture by using the 50+ verses attributing salvation to an act of faith. Second, we must interpret Scripture within the context of that specific passage. When James uses the word “faith” in verse 24, he has already defined what he means by this in verse 14, and this is not the kind of faith that we have seen so far throughout the New Testament. The faith that will alone never justify anyone is a “dead faith”, a faith without works. While a “dead faith” justifies no one (with or without works), real faith is a “living faith” that justifies man before God, and good works are simply what externally reveal the inward reality of the faith’s condition.

It is also abundantly clear within Scripture that even the good works you do after receiving salvation are the acts of God working through you (Phil 2:12-13, Eph 2:10, John 15:4-5, Heb 13:21, etc.). So, if you believe that your works justify you before God, remember that your works are not even your own. These righteous works are simply the Spirit’s gift of “faith working itself out through love” (Gal 5:6). While belief has to work, faith longs to do so.

So Then How Is One Saved?

Well, it is definitely worth noting that this conversation is only happening because most people who call themselves Christians today are not actually internally bothered and grieved by their own sin. Instead, they are merely bothered by the idea of going to hell. Faith, therefore, looks to them more like belief, because there is nothing within their heart truly begging for healing. In other words, the good news is just news to those who are not poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3-6). But, when this type of pleading is indeed the case, the gospel is much more simple:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
-Matthew 11:28

So, to those who are weary from the seemingly hopeless fight against sin; to those who are weary from the burdens of bad decisions made in the past; to those who are weary from relentless attempts to be good enough, nice enough, righteous enough, kind enough, perfect enough, or whatever enough; and to those who are heavy laden upon discovering that you will never be; come find rest in Jesus. 

Though the world lies to you in an attempt to ignore the problem by telling you that “You are enough,” Christ instead chooses to love you regardless of the fact that you are not enough. He has paid for all your sin on the cross and has defeated sin, death, and the grave on your behalf. Now, He calls out to you under one simple condition: Follow me. And what a privilege it is to do so.

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