“If you would like to receive Christ into your life, just pray this prayer with me, and you will be saved,” intoned the speaker at our state-wide youth convention. I knew right away that there would be trouble. Sure enough, before the “amen” was spoken, I was confronted by an angry minister. “What is he doing?” demanded my friend. “It sounds to me like he is leading them in the sinner’s prayer,” I responded. It was not my first encounter with those who hold a “faith only” position for salvation, and it has not been my last.
Fact is, I’ve become faith only, too. No, I haven’t decided repentance is unnecessary, that confessing faith in Christ is superfluous, or that baptism is merely an “outward expression of an inward grace.” What has changed is my understanding of the word “faith,” and what it means. Still, it’s easy to see why there is such disagreement between our fellowship of churches and denominations over this issue. After all, faith only has been the predominant protestant position since the sixteenth century.
“Faith only” as Luther saw it
In his tower office in Wittenburg, Martin Luther read Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” From that text, Luther developed his sola fide doctrine (Latin for “faith alone”). As a monk, Luther had witnessed first-hand the attempts at faithful Catholics to be justified by good works. Attending mass, reciting prayers, making pilgrimage to Rome, and even purchasing “indulgences” which promised forgiveness of sins in exchange for money were all means of obtaining righteousness in Luther’s day. Luther came to believe that many of these practices were not merely unnecessary but were abuses of power by the church. Luther determined that scripture – not the Pope – would be his sole authority in matters of faith and practice. These two beliefs, sola fide and sola scriptura, became Luther’s legacy and the defining doctrines of the Protestant Reformation.1 Our convention speaker’s prayer was evidence of Luther’s enduring influence.
A website for a translation services company details some of the funny mistakes that well-meaning translators sometimes make. A sign in a Scandinavian airport reads, “We’ll take your bags and send them in all directions.” This sign hangs in a Hong Kong dentist’s office: "Teeth extracted by latest methodists."2
When translating from one language to another, some of the original meaning can be lost. Such is the case with the Greek words that are translated as “faith.” Pisteuo (pronounced pis-tyoo-oh), and its root word, pistis, are translated predominately two ways in most modern translations – as “belief” and “faith.” But like many English words, “belief” and “faith” are somewhat inadequate translations for pisteuo and pistis.
According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, pisteuo carries with it more than one connotation. It can mean a) to believe; b) to obey; c) to trust; d) to hope and e) as faithfulness.3 Faith, as understood by Paul’s readers, was (and is) a multi-faceted concept.
Faith is belief
“Faith is about believing certain things are true. . .,” writes the British apologist Alister McGrath. When a person says, “I believe in God,” often what they mean is something like, “I believe there is a God.” In that sense, faith is a mental affirmation or cognitive assent to a fact or set of facts.4 Affirming my belief in God is somewhat akin to saying “I believe in George Washington.” Although I have no first-hand knowledge that he lived, based on the evidence presented me by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Parks, I believe that the father of our country existed.
Sadly, this is as far as some people ever come. They mistakenly believe that an acknowledgement that God exists is a faith that is sufficient to save. James 2:19 shows the folly of that sort of “faith.” “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.” Obviously, merely assenting that God exists isn’t enough, for if it were, demons would be saved. There must be something more to faith.
Faith is trust
Fifteen years ago, my wife and I vowed to each other that we would love, honor and cherish one another until parted by death. We accepted each other’s promises; we put our faith in one another. We trusted each other.
Trust is the second facet of faith. Merely believing God exists is not enough. We must also trust that He is able to do that which He says He can do. Both Paul and Peter quote the prophet Isaiah: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."5 Trust is part and parcel to faith. Many believe that God exists, but, for whatever reason, they are unable to trust Him. Maybe their trust has been violated by a parent or a spouse. Maybe someone in authority abused their trust, and although they believe God exists, they never manage to trust Him. Without trust, there is no faith. But is trust enough? While many say, “yes,” scripture indicates that faith has a third facet.
Faith is response
Faith is also response. “Trust and obey,” sings the old hymn, and rightly so. In his commentary on the book of Acts, Gareth Reese points out five reasons why faith requires obedience. Most of them require an understanding of Greek grammar. Suffice it to say that the original Greek supports the idea, and that in several scripture passages, belief and obedience are synonymous. Reese writes: “There are at least two places in the New Testament where ‘belief’ and ‘disobedience’ are contrasted, and these show convincingly that the faith that saves includes obedience as one of its constituent elements.”6
Belief alone is not enough. Demons believe, but are not saved. Trust is not enough. Trust is necessary, but without action, it cannot save. Only faith which includes belief, trust and an obedient response is sufficient to save.
McGrath uses a medical analogy to explain the nature of saving faith. Imagine that I am suffering from deadly blood poisoning, and that the cure, a bottle of penicillin is available to me. I have three options. First, I can believe that the bottle of penicillin exists. This requires no great leap. After all, seeing is believing, and I am looking at the bottle of pills. Second, I may trust that the medicine is sufficient to cure my illness, which would quite probably kill me otherwise. But, third, unless I respond by taking the medicine, I will die, “believing and trusting, but having failed to benefit at all from the resource which could have saved me.”
Faith requires a response, or it is not faith. If my denominational brothers and I can agree on this principle, then the gap in our doctrine becomes much more narrow and focused. Instead of debating what is or what is not necessary for salvation, the debate shifts to “what is the biblical response?”. Is it praying the sinner’s prayer? Is it raising a hand or coming forward during the altar call? Is it signing a commitment card? These are all responses and are acts of faith. Yet none of them are found in scripture. The only scriptural response that accompanies belief and trust is repentance, confession and baptism. That is the response saving faith requires.
Yes, I am faith only – if we are talking about the faith that is believing, trusting and responding. Given that definition of faith, I suspect I am not alone.
Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1954-1981) pp. 289-290.
G. Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:174-175.
Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), pp. 48-52.
Romans 9:33 & 1 Peter 2:6.
Gareth L. Reese, New Testament History: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Acts (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1976): pp. 604-605.