Saving Faith
(What must one believe to be saved?)

QUESTION: [In some detail, the writer explained the conflicting beliefs of two friends. The gist of his question seemed to be: what is the content of saving faith? Must we believe in the deity of Christ, or other important doctrines, in order to be saved?]

ANSWER: Good question. How many things does a person have to believe in order to be saved? Some swing the pendulum far in one direction or the other. They either cut the matter down to simple faith, without an adequate consideration of related questions (e.g. What is saving faith? And, faith in what or whom?). Others go to the opposite extreme, adding a great deal of doctrinal content to what a person must believe in order to be saved.

What is the good news (the gospel)?  "I declare to you the gospel," says Paul, "that Christ died for our sins...and that He rose again" (I Cor. 15:1, 3, 4). The cross and the empty tomb are the foundation of the gospel of grace. And how does one appropriate Christ's saving Calvary work personally? It is by faith, apart from relying on any works or merit of our own (Eph. 2:8-9).

Various forms of words such as believe, and faith, are used in the New Testament over 500 times. They suggest such things as: an inner conviction, persuasion, and assurance about Christ, and trust in, confidence in, dependence and reliance on Him. Saving faith requires some knowledge of what the Lord Jesus did for us on the cross, an assent to what the Bible says about that, and dependence on Him alone for eternal salvation.

"What must I do to be saved?" asked the Philippian jailer. And the answer came back, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30-31). Everlasting life is granted to "whoever believes in Him" (Jn. 3:16). And it is through faith in Christ that the individual is born again into the family of God. "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born...of God" (Jn. 1:12-13).

But you raise a good point. Many members of cults and isms claim faith in Christ in some way. Jesus is certainly significant to theological liberals in Christendom–at least as a good man and a wise teacher. Mormons will say they believe on Christ. Moslems believe on Him too. Even demons believe–in a limited way–and tremble (Jas. 2:19).

But the precise content and outworking of these beliefs is quite different from what is found in God's Word, and what is needed for salvation. Is there a conviction of sin and desperate need, a realization that Christ is the only answer, and an understanding of the "by grace through faith" principle which rules out human merit (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6)?

Further, there are what we might call implied or underlying doctrines associated with the call to trust in Christ for salvation. How do we know about Christ and God's saving work? We learn about the plan of salvation from the God-breathed revelation in the Scriptures. So the one who turns to Christ for salvation is accepting that the gospel content of the Bible is a message from God.

And if Jesus were merely a man who died, then He could not be our Saviour. He would, of necessity, have to die for His own sins (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), and could not die for those of others. To see Him as the Saviour implies at least an elementary understanding of His deity. Other important doctrines relate to that–His virgin birth, His sinless life, His bodily resurrection.

Clearly we have a cluster of interrelated doctrines behind the substitutionary death of Christ. And we must also ask: Is my list complete, or are there other things that should be included? What all must I accept to be saved? And how clear and thorough an understanding of these things is required? And who is going to "grade" the person's comprehension in order to give him or her a pass or failure?

I know of adults whose testimony, consistent lifestyle, and sacrificial service for the Lord, convince me they are born again believers, but they would have a difficult time articulating some of the doctrines I've mentioned.

What about young children? Speaking personally, when I was seven years old I understood that I was a sinner, and that Jesus died to take the punishment for my sins. In the evening of August 14th, 1948, I put my faith in Him. Could I explain total depravity, or the doctrine of the Trinity? No. But I'm confident that I received God's salvation at that time, though I did not know much about what I've termed the implied doctrines behind my decision.

Or consider what happens to those facing imminent death. Would we say they are not saved, if they cannot comprehend and articulate all the right things? Must we deny there are any true children of God who do not accept our particular list of doctrines? (And who's got the correct and complete list?)

Such a stance puts us in danger of going beyond what the Word of God requires, and substituting man-made rules for the gospel of grace and an inner working of the Holy Spirit. So is there any way to resolve the matter? Is it possible to be biblically doctrinal without becoming rigidly doctrinaire?  Let me suggest several things I believe it is wise to keep in mind.

1) There is a significant difference between a lack of knowledge and understanding on the one hand, and an outright denial of the truth on the other. The latter implies knowledge that has been wilfully rejected. I would agree that doing so with key doctrines would certainly put the individuals claim to saving faith in doubt.

2) Salvation is a sovereign work of God (Jn. 6:37, 44, 65). It is also an inner work of the Holy Spirit, and as such is invisible to us (Jn. 3:6, 8). Also, the new birth is instantaneous (a person is either dead or alive), but there will usually follow the new birth a maturing process, and growth in enlightenment and understanding.

Some cannot pinpoint a precise point in time when they were saved. They received Christian teaching at home, or at church, and grew into faith, over time. From God's perspective, there was a definite time of rebirth, but such individuals may find it difficult to identify it. Are they any less saved?

3) Over time, we would expect to see evidence of growth, and spiritual fruit. To use the analogy of the Lord Jesus, we cannot see the wind, but we can see the physical results when it blows. The indwelling Holy Spirit will bring about such things as: the development of Christlike character; a love for God's Word, and a desire to learn more; a love for the Lord and a desire to praise Him and please Him; a love for the people of God and a desire to meet with them, and so on.

4) Finally, we must not discount the tender mercies of God. When the individual is a small child, or a person with a mental disability, or someone on the brink of death, an elementary understanding of the gospel may be all that is possible. When they reach out in faith to Jesus, they are looking to One who has infinite love and concern for them. And keep in mind that it's childlike trust that the Lord desires (Mk. 10:14-15). Will He deny such an approach?

At some point, we must leave the matter with God. In the words of Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25).