Saturday, 25 July 2009

What does saving faith do?

Not sure that I can keep a discussion going as long as the last one, but here goes. If you had one shot at saying something about “saving faith,” particularly about its effect, what would it be? The reason I ask is that there is only one passage in the NT which brings those two words together. In fact there’s only one adjectival use of the word soterios “saving.” No peeking at a concordance now, but it would be very useful to come up with our answers, then compare them with the Bible’s. I’ll give you a couple of days to think about it. 

9 comments:

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for the challenge, John.

I do know that according to the Westminster Confession, saving faith is defined as an acceptance of the truth of the whole counsel of God (commands, threatenings, and promises). That definition is deliberately broader than Luther's definition that faith is simply trusting in the promises of God.

Apart from believing, the Confession also identifies six acts of faith: obeying the commands, trembling at the threatenings, believing the promises, and principally, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ for the benefits of salvation.

So, at least according to the Confession, saving faith believes (i.e., it accepts God's word) and acts (i.e., works).

Dave said...

Perhaps if I could share a bit of my understanding of 'saving faith' by responding to something Steven said.

I am not sure if the difference between Luther and the WCF is that great. If Luther was asked about the promises of God I am sure he would have seen them in the context of commands, threatenings and promises...it is hard not to.

I think Luther was referring to what the WCF describes as 'principal' acts of saving faith. Parhaps when we look at the WCF it depends on how we take the phrase, "But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace."

I take it as meaning that these things are fundamental, foundational and chronologically first. In fact the WCF says that it is "by this faith" that the "acts of faith" occur.

I do not believe that saving faith involves works...but I do believe that the faith that saves contains works.

John Davies said...

Slight error, sorry. I meant "saving grace" but somehow the related and perhaps more familiar phrase "saving faith" slipped out. (Students of textual criticism note well.) I was in any case interested primarily in the character of the salvation envisaged in the only adjectival use of soterios. The passage I have in mind (because I am preaching on it in chapel this week) is Titus 2:11-13 "For God's saving grace has appeared to all, training us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, as we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ."
OK, I don't mean to imply that any one passage is going to say all that could or should be said (see my earlier blog on Defining the Gospel). But it is instructive, I think, that the treatment of "saving grace" here is somewhat broader than we sometimes imagine when we think of either salvation or grace. Saving grace is not merely transactional, but educative and transformative. It is an outworking of the heart transplant and renewed devotion to the Lord promised by the OT prophets.
The salvation that Christ offers is not only release from the penalty of sin, but release from the power of sin in the prospect of the eschaton. As v.14 makes explicit, Christ "gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." Perhaps we need to recover something of this message of the transforming work of the gospel in our lives and the fulsome character and effects of the salvation which is both already and not yet.
I hadn't been thinking of the WCF definition of saving faith, but thanks Steven for drawing our attention to this and it does tie in well. Those old dead guys apparently read their Bibles.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for your comment. Just a quick response.

If you haven't already read Luther's The Freedom of the Christian, then I recommend you do so. In that treatise, Luther clearly divides the word of God up into two parts: command and promises. In his system, the content of faith is solely the promises of the gospel, whereas works are related to the commands. That twofold division is the basic hermeneutical axiom of his theological system.

The Reformed side of the Reformation had a broader definition of faith in that the content of faith was always viewed as being the whole of God's word. It's not a radical difference, but it's significant nonetheless. In fact, this difference was actually acknowledged at the time of the Reformation.

In terms of how WCF 14.2 should be understood, I would argue that faith is defined in the Confession as being the acceptance of God's word as true. Receiving and resting on Christ is obviously extremely important, but at least in terms of how the Confession puts it, receiving and resting on Christ is not faith per se but constitutes the principal act of faith, which itself precedes but is nevertheless on the same level with the other acts of faith mentioned in ch. 14. That makes sense in that you can't receive Christ unless you accept the gospel as being true. So it seems that the WCF actually defines faith as the acceptance of God's word, from which receiving and resting in Christ flows as an act or "work" of faith. That may sound strange to our ears, but that seems to be what they are saying. Either that, or it's poorly worded.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for the clarification, John.

In terms of the OT prophets, it is interesting that they do not stress the idea that the coming Messianic Servant was going to make full atonement for sin as much as they do the idea that the coming Messianic Servant was going to bring Israel and the nations back to God.

I guess that the idea of the full atonement to be achieved by the death of Christ was something that was already symbolized for them in the sacrificial system, so full atonement for sin was not a burning issue for them. But what was a issue was whether or not Israel would respond positively to the covenant such that they could benefit from the atonement graciously offered in the covenant sacrifice(s). Hence, the importance from their perspective of the transformation that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit would bring to both Israel and the nations. Under the new covenant, the law was going to be written in the heart (Jer 31:33). That stands at the center of Jeremiah's understanding of the new covenant. Think too Deut 30:1-14 and Ezek 36:26-27. These key OT prophecies are all about the moral transformation of Israel. And I gather that Paul was pretty impressed by this aspect too, as Rom 8:2-4 and your quote from Titus show.

Dave said...

Thanks for the further info on Luther, Steven. To focus on the WCF for a minute, I still struggle to grasp where you are coming from. I know we are off track with where John was heading...but if we can try and clarify that would be good.

Can you show me where the Confession backs up your statement “In terms of how WCF 14.2 should be understood, I would argue that faith is defined in the Confession as being the acceptance of God's word as true.”

You say, “you can't receive Christ unless you accept the gospel as being true”. In light of the fact that the Gospel is Christ, (and the greatest manifestation of God’s Word is also Christ) then receiving Christ and accepting the Gospel as true and “the acceptance of God’s word” are, on the whole, the same thing. You seem to differentiate them?

I cannot find where the WCF defines these as different but I am open to you pointing me to it, or for that matter to the WCF defining faith in the way you have.

sujomo said...

Thanks once again, John, for another thought provoking post.

Your posts are always a stimulating read for pastors in the midst of a busy day.

Your comment re "textual criticism" reminded me that it is about time for me to look closely again at the message of Titus as whole. I think that such an exercise reinforces Pauline authorship.

Let me briefly share a few things I thought about.

Paul seems to make a deliberate comparison in this epistle between eusebeia 1:1) and asebeia (2:11).

He also seems to focus on "good works" - kalon ergon in 2:6 and 2:14 as well as 3:8

2:14 has a clear reference to Exodus 19:5 and Deuteronomy 14:2 where periousios is used to translate sigullah in the LXX.

Your comment "saving grace is not merely transactional, but educative and transformative. It is an outworking of the heart transplant and renewed devotion to the Lord promised by the OT prophets." might indicate that Ezekiel 37:23 underlies 2:14.

cheers,

sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Dave,

Just a quick response. Yes, I personally hold that Christ is the gospel, the supreme revelation of God, so I agree with you. Personally I wouldn't want to differentiate between the two. But the Confession seems to do so, probably because they were thinking of receiving and resting on Christ in a more personal way, which we can only have through an initial knowledge and acceptance of God's word.

The closest that the Confession comes to defining faith is the first part of 14.2: "By [saving] faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word." If you say believing the word is not saving faith but a result of saving faith, then the problem is that the Confession doesn't end up defining saving faith. So despite the awkward language (i.e., by faith we believe), I take it that the first major clause in 14.2 is the Confession's definition of saving faith, and that the other things mentioned in 14.2 are "acts" which flow from that basic faith.

The other option is to go for the definition of saving faith as including the principal acts of accepting, receiving, and resting in Christ; but if you do that you have to include the other acts mentioned as well, such as obeying the commands. So that's why I go for "believ[ing]to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word" as the Confession's definition of saving faith, otherwise you'd have to conclude that the WCF's definition of saving faith includes receiving and resting on Christ along with obedience to God's commands, trembling at the threatenings, embracing the promises.

If you want receiving and resting in Christ as part of saving faith, then at least according to the Confession, you also have to include obedience to God's commands as part of saving faith. Do you see the problem?

If the Confession said "the acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ," I think your preferred understanding would accord with the Confession. The problem is, however, that the Confession says that receiving and resting on Christ are "the principal acts of saving faith," which implies there are other acts of saving faith as well, namely, the acts mentioned at the start of 14.2.

Of course, the other option is to say that the Confession is poorly worded at that point, which would be unfortunate given the importance of faith as a concept.

John Davies said...

Well that one took us to interesting places. I'm glad there are those whose exegetical skills can extend to the finer points of the WCF. I'm not much use once we move beyond about the 1C. Individuals may wish to pursue their discussions in other forums, but I'll rule off at this point on this post.