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The Faith That Saves

Although the college does not have creeds or written doctrines on individual special topics of interest, some sense of the kind of views likely to be encountered may be deduced from professor publications.

The following is an excerpt from professor Gareth Reese’s New Testament History:

A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Acts (1976), p 109-116

One of the fundamental differences separating the various bodies of the Christian world arises from the way they each explain and define what is involved in the “faith” that is a condition of salvation. Catholic, Protestant and Christian each have a different explanation of what faith is.

Some passages in the Bible attribute salvation to “faith” (or belief), while others specifically exclude works. What does the Bible mean when it uses faith (belief) in passages such as “we are justified by faith” and “whosoever believes in me shall have eternal life”?

Our proposition is that the faith that saves is composed of four constituent parts: knowledge, assent, confidence, and obedience.



The early church understood the four constituent parts to faith, but controversies that raged caused each of the parts to fall into disuse or to be ignored. The problem with Gnosticism and Origen’s assertion that knowledge was greater than faith, led to a loss of emphasis on the knowledge element of faith. In many circles, Stoic morality with its emphasis on self-reliance led to a decline of emphasis on confidence (trust, dependence on another). Then the idea of a mystical approach to God (it was Neo-Platonism being assimilated into the theology of the church) brought on a de-emphasis of the element of obedience. “Faith” had been reduced merely to “assent.”


By the time of Thomas Aquinas, Rome had given its own definition to faith. All the elements but “assent” had been cancelled, and then “assent” had been redefined as being (not assent to what one knows of Christ and His will) blanket assent to whatever Rome might say about Christ and the Word. Further, mere “assent” was not enough to procure salvation. Mere assent was the Roman fides informata (faith with no shape or form). In order to procure justification, in Roman thinking, it had to become fides formata. And what gave the fides its forma? Works of love (Galatians 5:6). Rome constantly redefined just what constituted a “work of love” or a “work of charity.” If Rome said that the giving of an offering to help build St. Peter’s Cathedral would result in the forgiveness of a certain number of sins, then such an offering was one of the “works of charity” which gave faith its form so that it was looked on as being saving faith.


The Reformers restored one or more of the Biblical perspectives to the word “faith.” Luther urged that instead of being assent to Rome, it had to be assent to the Bible. If it could be found in the Bible, he’d believe it! The Reformers also restored the element of confidence. They insisted that faith was not fides merely, but fiducia (trust). It was at Romans 3:28 that Luther added the word sola (“only”), when he insisted that a man is justified by fides sola (by “faith only”). So that Luther is not unjustly condemned, it should be pointed out that the cause for which he was contending was correct. His sola was opposed to the Roman system of giving fides its firma by works of charity (indulgences). Luther was right in denying the Roman doctrine, but it is a dangerous thing to add a word to the text in order to prove a point. John Calvin’s contribution to Protestant thought came from his emphasis on the knowledge element of faith. Protestants who have inherited their theology from Luther and the other Reformers, now define the faith that saves as being made up of three parts: knowledge, assent, and confidence (flducia).


During the time when the newly developing interest in science and the corresponding doubts about the literal accuracy of the Bible (especially where it claims to be supernatural), “faith” was redefined as being one’s religious feelings that had been put into words. Instead of being knowledge learned by testimony and assented to, and acted upon, faith was viewed as something entirely subjective. Though the more contemporary theologians (the neo-orthodox) use language that sounds almost orthodox, they mean something entirely different than orthodox theologians do when they speak of faith. To the neo-orthodox theologians, the Bible becomes the Word of God only when one of its passages makes an impression on the reader. Then if some kind of response is made to that impression, that is “faith.Ó”


In English we have two words, “faith” and “belief,” and they have different connotations. “Belief” is assent to testimony; “faith” includes both assent and trust. The Bible translator has a problem, then, when he finds the words for faith/belief in the Scriptures. Which English word shall he use? He must decide if the original writer had emphasis on the earlier stages of faith — the belief element — or to the later stages of faith — the trust and obedience elements.

Lightfoot has shown that the translator does get some help from both the original languages and from the Latin translations. The Hebrew did have the verb ‘aman for “believe” but had no corresponding noun for “faith.” ‘Emunah was sometimes used as a noun, but it meant something more like “truth, genuineness” (i.e., it was more nearly akin to “faith” than to “belief”). The Greek verb pisteuo and the corresponding noun pistis, depending on the context, can have either connotation (i.e., it can emphasize either the assent element or the trust-obedience element). So in the LXX, since there was no Hebrew equivalent for “belief (assent),” pistis always has the connotation of “faith (trust and obedience).” In the New Testament, however, pisteuo and pistis are found in both senses. When the Bible was translated into Latin, the translators faced an old problem. The Latin had a verb for “belief (assent),” credo, but this verb had no word that would express “faith (trust and obedience)” since credulus had a bad connotation. So the Latin scholars used fides or fidelis for this latter idea. These words of background give the English translators some help, though even in English there is no verb corresponding to the noun faith, like there is (believe) for the noun belief.

These words of background prepare us for what we find in the lexicons of the Greek as we attempt to find out exactly what the “faith” is that saves. Let us observe a few of these.

Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament gives this definition of pisteuo when used of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus:

“A conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah -the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ.”

James M. Whiton abridged Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, and under pisteuo gives these possible meanings:

“1. To believe, trust in, put faith in, confide in, rely on a person or thing. –2. to believe, comply, obey.”

Bultmann has the article on pisteuo in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. After giving a history of the use of the word in the Old Testament, he outlines its use in the New Testament.

“II. General Christian Usage: 1. The Continuation of the Old Testament and Jewish Tradition: a. pistetto as to Believe; b. as to Obey; c. as to Trust; d. as to Hope; e. as Faithfulness…”

The Lexicons reflect the idea advanced earlier in this study that any of the elements of pisteuo (knowledge, assent, confidence, obedience) may be emphasized, and that the context or the construction (certain prepositional phrases) in which it appears will often determine the exact meaning.



This “miraculous faith” was in addition to the “faith” that every Christian possesses, and was received as a gift of the Spirit by the laying on of an apostle’s hands. It was the kind of “faith” that could move mountains and sycamore trees. This was one of the temporary spiritual gifts that graced the early church.

At this point it should be noted that there is, according to Calvin’s theology, a “faith” that is given to every Christian. “Faith is a saving grace miraculously wrought in the soul by the Spirit, whereby we receive Christ and rely upon Him and His righteousness alone for justification and salvation,” is a good summary of Calvinistic beliefs. By this view man is entirely passive in conversion, and is utterly unable to make a single response toward God because of total depravity. He has no ability to believe or repent because he is dead in sin, and must therefore wait until God in some miraculous way gives him “saving faith.” A misinterpretation of Ephesians 2:8 which makes “faith” to be the “it” which is a gift of God is one of the key verses used to prove that the faith that saves is a gift given to men by God. E. V. Zollars, in The Great Salvation, has shown that the faith that saves (as distinguished from miraculous faith) comes by hearing the Word of God, and is not a gift from God wrought in the heart by the direct operation of the Spirit (as Calvin taught it). George Stevens has shown that there is no Scriptural justification for the old theory of total depravity and clearly brings out that Paul did not teach Calvinism as John Calvin proclaimed it.

There was a “faith” that was given by God in the New Testament times. It was one of the “spiritual gifts” and should be clearly distinguished from the faith that saves.


Paul calls Titus his son according to “the common faith.” The Gospel is referred to as many as thirty times as “the faith.” Some of these thirty are Jude 3Acts 13:8, and Acts 14:22.

“Faith” used in this sense is in accord with the dictionary definition: “A system of religious belief of any kind, as the Jewish faith; and especially the system of truth taught by Christ, as the Christian faith.”

At times “faith” is used of the body of doctrine that is believed. Again, the context and the special construction in the Greek (“the faith”) is the clue that it is a body of doctrine that is in the writer’s mind, rather than the act of believing.


Under this heading we are examining the word “faith” as it is found in verses which have to do with salvation. As set forth in the proposition earlier, the word can have a number of shades of meaning, ranging from mere mental assent to faith in the highest and fullest meaning.

1. Saving “faith” includes knowledge. Verses that suggest this are Romans 10:17 and Hebrews 11:6. According to these verses there is something that must be heard in order for faith to exist; there are objective facts to be believed. This is another way of saying that there is a certain amount of knowledge involved in faith.

If a man’s “faith” includes no more than knowledge of certain facts, his faith is not sufficient for salvation. A man can say he believes there is a God, and even that Christ lived on earth about 2000 years ago. However, by his daily life he shows that he pays no allegiance to either. The knowledge that there is a God has no relevance to his daily habits and thoughts. Because he makes no further response to his “knowledge,” he is lost forever. This illustration helps us to see that faith that is mere intellectual knowledge is not the faith that saves.

2. Saving “faith” includes mental assent.

Sometimes the idea of mental assent is indicated by the verb pisteuo followed by the simple dative case. Acts 8:1213 is an example where the Samaritans “believed” Philip (and their obedience followed), and Acts 26:27 is another example where Agrippa “believes” the prophets (though there is no obedience). These are clear-cut cases where “believe” means only mental assent, and does not involve trust or obedience.

There are times also where just the verb “believe” (without any dative case following) implies only mental assent. Acts 11:21 is an example where they “believed” and then “turned” to the Lord. Acts 18:8 is another example where Luke tells us the people heard, believed, and were baptized. Belief in these cases indicates mental assent.

Just as saving faith includes “knowledge” but must include more than mere knowledge, so saving faith includes “mental assent,” but it also must include more.

If a man’s “faith” includes no more than mental assent, he does not have the faith to be saved. James 2:19 would show this, for there James tells us the demons “believe,” but they certainly are not saved thereby. So would Acts 26:27, where Agrippa believed the prophets, yet was not saved. So wouldJohn 12:42, where we are told that many of the rulers of the Jews believed on Jesus, but did not confess Him for fear of being put out of the synagogue. They give assent to Jesus’ claims, and would like to confess Him, but don’t. Mental assent is not the kind of faith that saves. This passage has given much trouble to faith-only advocates who believe in an instantaneous conversion the moment one has faith. To be consistent they must admit that these rulers were saved even though they did not confess Jesus. Instead of forcing ourselves into such an absurd position, if we will just recognize that “believe” sometimes means no more than mental assent, and that mental assent is not sufficient for salvation, we’ll be able to harmonize the Scriptures much more easily.

Sometimes an attempt is made to show that all that is necessary to salvation is mental assent, and appeal is made to Romans 4:3-5 where Genesis 15:6 is quoted. We are told that “Abraham believed God (pisteuo followed by the dative case) and it was counted for righteousness.” At first sight this would seem to say that all the verses where the Greek has “believe” followed by a word in the dative case are examples that must mean the person was saved just by faith (mental assent). But it must be remembered that James also quotes Genesis 15:6, and argues that Abraham’s obedience was the thing that completed his faith so that it was counted for righteousness. It must be insisted in the light of James’ argument that the faith that saves, while it includes mental assent, must include more elements than knowledge and assent if it is to be “perfected” as far as righteousness is concerned.

3. Saving “faith” includes confidence (trust). The Greek construction which has pisteuo followed by the preposition epi and the dative case seems to be the way that this idea of confidence was particularly expressed. I Timothy 1: 16 speaks of relying on Christ for salvation. Romans 9:33 and I Peter 2:6 both quote Isaiah 28:16, and use this particular construction. Luke 24:25 is an encouragement to rely implicitly en all the prophets have spoken. See also Romans 10:11.

Just as saving faith must include knowledge and assent, so it must include confidence. However, the last quoted passage is in a context that shows that confession and calling on the name of the Lord are also necessary to salvation, and hence it must be that in order for “faith” to be saving faith, it must include more than confidence.

4. Saving “faith” includes obedience.

In addition to the fact that the lexicons quoted above show that obedience is included in the “faith” that saves, the following lines of evidence point in the same direction.

a. The fact that pisteuo is followed by one or another of three different prepositional phrases all of which indicate obedience. First, there is the phrase eis and the accusative, which is used some 49 times. Acts 10:43 and 24:24 are two examples of this use, the latter of which shows by the context that righteousness, self-control, and awareness of the judgment to come are included in “faith in Christ.” Second, there is the phrase en and the dative. John 3:15 and 16 are verses that must be studied in this place. In 3:15 “believe in him” is en and the dative, but in verse 16, “believe in him” is eis and the accusative. The two phrases must be synonymous in order to be used interchangeably by John. Other passages where it is plain that en and the dative speaks of obedience are Ephesians 1:13 and Mark 1:15. Third, there is the prepositional phrase epi and the accusative. Every place this construction appears it speaks of an obedient faith. Consider Romans 4:525 where Abraham’s obedient faith in the Lord, rather than trusting his own meritorious works, was the way of salvation for the father of the faithful.

b. The fact that there are passages where belief and obedience are synonymous (or belief and disobedience are antonyms). If belief that saves includes only three elements (knowledge, assent, confidence), then it is hard to explain how pisteuo (believe) and apeitho (disobey) can be antonyms. 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. And there is one passage where “unbelief” and “disobedience” are synonymous. The faith that saves (the opposite of “unbelief “) must include obedience (the opposite of disobedience).

c. The passages that speak of the “obedience of faith” show that there is an obedience that belongs to the very essence of faith. Such language has been met in Acts 6:7, and also appears twice in Romans, which gives help toward knowing what the faith is on the condition of which a man is justified. Peter too talks about how his readers have purified their souls by obedience to the truth, and Peter throughout his letters shows the close connection between obedience and forgiveness. If there is an obedience that belongs to the very essence of faith, the faith that saves must involve obedience to what God requires.

d. Passages in which baptism is a constituent part of believing indicate that the faith that saves is an obedient faith. In Acts 19:1ff, as Paul speaks to the followers of John the Baptist, his language is such that it shows he assumed that baptism is part of believing. See how he asks them about the time when they believed, and immediately asks about their baptism, indicating that the two were part and parcel of the same thing.

In Acts 16:31-34, after the jailer showed his repentance and was immersed, Luke summarizes it all by stating that he “had believed.” Galatians 3:26 and 27 show that baptism is involved in the faith on which God justifies. See how verse 27 begins with “for,” which means that verse 27 is a further explanation of how they are sons of God through “faith.” There are many passages, especially in Acts, where “believed” includes everything that was done (repentance, confession, baptism) in order to become a Christian.

e. Saving faith must include obedience because many times pistis may be translated faithfulness. Justification is a thing that happens over and over in a man’s life. God counts him just because of his faithfulness, just as in the case of Abraham, Romans 4:24John 3:36, referred to earlier, might be looked at again in this connection. It says that if a man is not faithful, he will lose eternal life. All these lines of evidence converge to strongly indicate that the faith that saves includes all four elements — knowledge, assent, confidence, and obedience.


In the New Testament, different answers are given to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” How do you account for the fact that different answers were given to different people? If a man wanted to know what to do to be saved, there could be no plainer, no wiser, no surer way to answer the question than to turn to the New Testament and find the answer given there. If the question is found 100 times, then read the answer given to each of the 100 questions; and what is found would be the Scriptural and right answer. Furthermore, it would present the whole truth of the New Testament on the subject. But we do not find the question 100 times. We find it, substantially, only four times in the New Testament; and one of those was under the Mosaic dispensation.

The question was first put forth by the rich young ruler who came to Jesus. Jesus referred him to the Ten Commandments, for the Mosaic Law was still in force at the time Jesus spoke to this man. Christ had not yet died and nailed the Law to the cross. It was the Jew’s duty, therefore, to keep the Commandments. When the young man replied that he had kept the Law from his youth up, Jesus said, “One thing you lack; go, and sell all you possess, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (The Law of Moses had not been abrogated and the young man was to keep it. Also, he needed to free himself from his riches that were a stumbling block to him. And in addition, he was directed to follow Christ, as the disciples did; and he would be better trained for work in the coming Kingdom.) This answer would not be given today, because Jesus was speaking before the New Testament became effective.

The question (“What must I do…?”) has been recorded and answered three times in the book of Acts. Strangely enough, three different answers are given to the question. Each answer was given by the authority of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 2:38, the answer is given, “Repent and be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of sins.” Check the comments at Acts 2:3738. Those Jews who believed the message that Peter had been preaching – they were pricked in their hearts – asked what to do to be saved; and Peter by inspiration told them what to do. Note, also, that according to Peter’s answer, salvation requires more than faith. The Jerusalem Jews believed the message that Peter had preached to them. Was faith (mental assent and confidence) all that was necessary to save those Jews? NO! Peter told them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

After Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, when he saw the risen Lord, Jesus told him to “rise and enter into the city, and it shall be told to you what you must do.” Obviously, there was something that Paul had to do. He lacked something. It was not faith that he lacked. He was convinced he had seen Jesus, and that sight caused him to believe in the deity and lordship of Jesus. It was not repentance that Paul lacked. He was so penitent that he spent three days fasting and praying. He lacked something, but it was not faith or repentance. What was it he lacked? Christ had said he would be told what to do. Ananias came and said, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins.” This is the second answer to the question. It is somewhat different than the answer given on the day of Pentecost by Peter. However, it is plain from Ananias’ instructions that something more than faith (mental assent and confidence) and repentance are needed to save a man!

In the case of the Philippian jailer, we have the third place in Acts where the question (“What must I do . . .?”) is asked; and we are given still a different answer. The pagan jailer is told to “Believe on the Lord Jesus.”

We have read three different answers to the very same question. How are these different answers to be explained? The jailer was an unbeliever. He was told to believe. They preached to him for the purpose of producing faith. He then repented and was baptized. The people on Pentecost already believed. So they were told to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Paul was a believing, penitent man. He therefore was told to be baptized. These men were given different answers because they were at different places on the road to salvation. But they all did the same things and traveled over the same road. For instance, a man asks how far it is to the next town, and is told 30 miles. He drives 10 miles and asks again. He is then told 20 miles. He travels up the road another 10 miles, and he is now told he has 10 miles to go. He has been given a different answer each time he asked, In fact, he was given three different answers to the same question; but all the answers were correct. The same is true of the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The unbeliever has not begun to travel the road to pardon. He is told to believe, repent, and be baptized. The believers are not told to believe, but to repent and be baptized. The penitent believer was not told to believe and repent, but was told to be baptized and wash away his sins. All traveled over the same road; all were converted alike.

Furthermore, all three answers are correct, only if the faith that saves includes obedience to commands such as repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. If the faith that saves is composed of less than all four elements, it is not possible to explain the different answers satisfactorily.


There are two conditions necessary to an accurate and complete statement of any Bible doctrine. First, it must harmonize with every other statement in the Bible on the same subject. This is necessary to accuracy. Second, it must provide for a reconciliation of all Bible statements on the subject with each other. This is necessary to completeness.

These two conditions will suggest the true method of ascertaining the teaching of the Bible on any given subject. Too often, however, instead of using this method, men have formed their doctrines as a result of opposing some error, or by deducing them from some preconceived notion. Thus, the doctrine of the miraculous operation of the Spirit in conversion is derived, not from any plain statement in the Bible, but from the previously held theory of total depravity. The popularly taught idea that baptism is merely an outward sign of an inward grace and therefore has nothing to do with salvation is the result of extreme opposition to the Catholic doctrine of “baptismal regeneration.” The theory of justification by faith-only arose from opposition to the Catholic doctrine of meritorious works. Such a route to a doctrine is always a dangerous one, and usually leads to incorrect conclusions, conclusions which have just enough truth in them to give the appearance of being Biblical.

The point of this section of the special study is to round out our study of the “faith” that saves, while at the same time putting the theory of “faith-only” to the test, and likewise answering a few of the popular objections to the position set forth earlier in this study that the faith that saves is an obedient faith.

To get a clear perspective of the problem, let us put side by side the statements of Paul and James on the subject.

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28)

You see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (James 2:24, ASV)

At first sight there is a striking contradiction between these two statements. They both admit that man is justified by faith; but Paul adds “without works of law,” and James adds “not without works.” If the terms “justified,” “faith,” and “works” are used alike in both propositions, then there is a real and irreconcilable contradiction. But if either of these leading terms is used in a different sense, then the statements may both be true. Because we believe both books to be inspired, we cannot do as Luther did, and discard the book of James simply because it contradicted his doctrine of “faith-only.” What we must do is find out which of the terms is ambiguous and used in a different sense.

Some have suggested the ambiguity is in the word “faith.” The faith of which James speaks requires accompanying works, while that of Paul does not. Or the ambiguity may be in the term “justified.” Perhaps one speaks of initial salvation, and the other speaks of continuing justification after one is first saved. Or perhaps the ambiguity is in the word “works.” The works of which James speaks are necessary to justification, while those of Paul are not.

The first alternative gets the faith-only advocates in deep trouble. The moment they admit that James teaches there is a faith (an obedient faith) that justifies, they have lost their whole case for salvation by faith-only (knowledge, assent, and trust).

An elaborate argument is given by some faith-only advocates to show that the word “justification” is used in two different senses. Paul uses the word of Abraham’s initial salvation, they affirm, while James uses it of a justification that happened many years later, at the time he offered his son Isaac. This is true; and if it were all James says on the matter of justification, the argument could be substantiated. But notice that James uses two examples of people who were justified by works, and Rahab’s in no way can be anything other than initial salvation (justification). So it is evident that Paul and James are using “justified” in the same sense.

The third alternative is resorted to by many writers as they would explain this apparent contradiction between Paul and James. Paul and James use “works” in two different senses. The works that Paul speaks of are works that make faith void” (Romans 4:14). The works that James speaks about are works that “make faith perfect” (James 2:2122). Actually, Paul and James are saying the same things. Paul is arguing against the “meritorious works” system. James is arguing against the “faith-only” idea. In the Romans passage, the contrast is between an “obedient faith” and meritorious works. In the James passage, the contrast is between an “obedient faith” and “faith only.” Both insist that an obedient faith is the condition of justification, rather than meritorious works being the condition, or faith-only being the condition.

As it was in Abraham’s life, so it is in ours – justification was a continuing thing. He was justified several times, as a harmony of all the passages that speak of his justification clearly show. The condition of this justification is an obedient faith. For the alien sinner, immersion is one of the acts of obedience that is required for forgiveness. For the erring saint, confession of his sin is one of the acts of obedience that is required. As James and Paul both insist, the faith that saves, whether it be initial or continuing justification, is an obedient faith!


It is our position that the faith that saves is made up of four constituent elements -knowledge, assent, confidence, and obedience. It is further maintained that only if “faith” is so defined is it possible to harmonize all the passages in the Word that have to do with salvation.

We suggest once more that Paul’s own conversion is a perfect illustration of the thesis we are proposing. Writing in the fifth chapter of Romans, he says, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He includes himself in this statement. Now let us remember the record of his conversion. His trip to Damascus to persecute the Christians was interrupted by the risen Lord appearing to him. He came to see himself as the chief of sinners, desperately in need of forgiveness and peace with God. In submission to Jesus, he says, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” and passes the next three days in prayer and fasting. It would be idle to search for an example of more undoubting faith and heart-broken repentance than praying, fasting Paul. If saving, faith includes but three elements (as faith-only advocates affirm), Paul ought to already be justified and have peace with God. But he doesn’t! Can there be found a clearer demonstration of the impotency of “faith-only” to secure justification and peace? Not till after Ananias the preacher comes and explains to him about the need for immersion and having his sins washed away, and he complies with this command, does he find peace with God! Only when his faith became an obedient faith was he justified!

And thus it is through the whole book of Acts, and through the whole Christian dispensation.

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