The Gospel and Faith
By William Webster
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The companion truth to repentance in the divine call to lost men and women is faith. It is the means God has ordained for an individual to enter into salvation:
Therefore having been justifed by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:28).
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 2:16).
The righteous man shall live by faith (Rom. 1:17).
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Eph. 2:8–9).
Salvation and justification are gifts of God received by faith. But what does scripture mean when it says we are saved and justified by faith? Does it teach that faith is somehow the grounds of our justification? No. We are not saved by faith but through faith. The object of our faith is Christ. It is not faith then, but Christ who saves. Faith is not the basis of justification. Faith is the means God has ordained for appropriating salvation by appropriating Christ himself. Joel Beeke gives a very helpful description of the use of the Greek terms in the New Testament to describe the relationship of faith to salvation and justification:
The Old Testament affirms that justification is ‘by faith.’ Of Abraham’s faith Genesis 15:6 states: ‘And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.’…Paul confirms in Romans 4 and Galatians 3:6–14 that the imputed (i.e. reckoned) righteousness of Genesis 15:6 is to be understood in terms of ‘by or through faith.’…But the objection may be raised: Does not the preposition eis as used in Romans 4:5, 9, 22 (Abraham’s ‘faith is counted for righteousness…faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness…It was imputed to him for righteousness’) imply that the act of believing is imputed to the believer for righteousness? In these verses the Greek preposition eis does not signify ‘in the stead of,’ but always means ‘with a view to’ or ‘in order to.’ It could be translated ‘towards’ or ‘unto.’ Its meaning is clear in Romans 10:10, ‘with the heart man believeth unto [eis] righteousness’—i.e. faith moves toward and lays hold of Christ Himself.
What then is the precise relationship of faith to justification? How does faith effect or accomplish the believer’s justification? The answer lies in what is entailed in the preposition ‘by.’…The New Testament writers commonly employ three expressions: pistei, ek pisteos, and dia pisteos. The Christian is justified ‘by faith’ (pistei or ek pisteos) or ‘through faith’ (dia pisteos). For example pistei (the dative case of the noun pistis) is used in Romans 3:28: ‘Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’ Ek Pisteos is used in Romans 5:1: ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Dia pisteos is used in Ephesians 2:8: ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.’
Each of these three usages has its own special emphasis or significance. The use of the simple dative (pistei) calls attention to the necessity and importance of faith. The use of the preposition dia (‘through’ or ‘by means of’) describes faith as the instrument of justification, i.e., the means by which the righteousness of Christ is received and appropriated by the sinner unto justification. The use of the preposition ek (‘from,’ ‘out of,’ or ‘by’) describes faith as the occasion of justification, though never as the efficient or ultimate cause of justification.
It is critical to note that in none of these cases, nor anywhere else in Scripture, is faith (or any other grace) represented as constituting some ground of merit for justification. And this is all the more remarkable when one considers that dia with the accusative would mean ‘on the ground of’ or ‘on account of.’ Thus, dia ten pisten would convey the notion of ‘on the ground of or on account of faith,’ thereby making faith the meritorious reason for the believer’s acceptance with God. Yet such is the precision of the Spirit’s oversight of the new Testament scriptures that nowhere does any writer ever slip into using this prepositional phrase. On every occasion faith is presented as the means of justification. Justification by faith alone is never justification on account of faith (propter fidem), but always justification on account of Christ (propter Christum), i.e. on account of the blood–satisfaction of the Lamb of God being graciously imputed to and received by an undeserving sinner (Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). Ultimately, the ground of justification is Christ and His righteousness.
Faith is not an agent (i.e. an efficient cause), but an instrument (i.e. a means) of justification. It is the believer’s sole means by which he receives justification. This means is not as mechanical as the word ‘instrument’ unfortunately implies; rather, this means is itself the saving work of the Holy Spirit through the Word whereby a sinner is brought into a living, personal relationship with the triune God (Don Kistler, Ed., Justification By Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), pp. 55–56, 58–61).
God has provided salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ which must be appropriated by faith. As we have seen, inherent in this faith is a turning from all human works to trust in Christ and his finished work alone for justification. Scripture tells us that salvation is not merited by human works of any kind (Cf. Gal. 2:16–21; Eph. 2:8–9; Tit. 3:5; Rom. 3:19–28) and any attempts to add human merit and works to justification will nullify grace and the gospel. Romans 11:6 says, ‘But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.’ And Romans 4 says that if salvation is in accordance with grace, it must be by faith, for if it is in any way related to works then faith is made void and the promise is nullified: ‘For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified…For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace’ (Rom. 4:14, 16). As they relate to justification, grace and works are anithetical. They cannot coexist. Thus, saving faith relies solely upon the person of Christ and his merits (his holy life and death on the cross) for forgiveness and acceptance with God. The Reformation teaching of sola fide or faith alone affirms the biblical teaching that justification is the exclusive work of Christ alone through grace alone. Martin Luther expresses this truth in defending his use of the word alone in his German translation of the scriptures:
In Romans iii, I know right well that the word solum was not in the Greek or Latin text…It is a fact that these four letters s–o–l–a are not there…At the same time…the sense of them is there and…the word belongs there if the translation is to be clear and strong. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since I had undertaken to speak German in the translation…It is the way of the German language to add the word ‘only,’ in order that the word ‘not’ or ‘no’ may be more complete or clearer…I was not only relying on the nature of the languages and following that when, in Romans iii, I inserted the word solum, ‘only,’ but the text itself and the sense of St. Paul demanded it and forced it upon me. He is dealing, in that passage, with the main point of Christian doctrine, viz., that we are justified by faith in Christ, without any works of the law, and he cuts away all works so completely, as even to say that the works of the law, though it is God’s law and His Word, do not help us to righteousness…But when works are so completely cut away, the meaning of it must be that faith alone justifies, and one who would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of all works, must say, ‘Faith alone justifies us, and not works.’ The matter itself, and not the nature of the language only, compels this translation…Paul’s words are too strong; they endure no works, none at all; and if it is not a work, it must be by faith alone. How could it be such a fine, improving inoffensive doctrine, if people were taught that they might become righteous by works, beside faith? That would be as much as to say that it was not Christ’s death alone that takes away our sins, but that our works, too, did something toward it; and it would be a fine honoring of Christ’s death to say that our works helped it and could do that which He does, and that we were good and strong like Him. This is of the devil, who cannot leave the blood of Christ without abuse! (Martin Luther, On Translating: An Open Letter. Found in A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), pp. 100–102).
Trust in Christ as Savior is a key element of saving faith. But this faith is more than an intellectual assent to truth. Faith is based on the knowledge God has given us of his truth in Christ. There must be an assent to that knowledge, that is, an implicit acceptance of the truth. However, truth must then become personalized in a relationship with Christ. A response of personal trust in and commitment to Christ is called for in scripture. Faith involves the whole man: the mind, emotions and will. It means entering into a personal relationship with Christ through an act of personal commitment to him. It involves the receiving of Christ as well as the giving of oneself to him.
To limit the definition of faith, as some do—to believing and accepting truth only—is to undermine its biblical meaning. Salvation must be appropriated and that is done by appropriating the person of Christ. Scripture states that we must receive Christ: ‘But as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in Him’ (Jn. 1:12; Col. 2:6). We cannot appropriate a particular aspect of Christ’s work independent of Christ himself. We are to receive Christ the person as our Lord and Savior. In receiving him we receive salvation. It is not only our belief in the doctrine of justification that saves us but the receiving of Christ. It is Christ who justifies, Christ who saves. And out of our union with him we receive the benefits of salvation. As John Gerstner puts it:
Eternal life depends on Christ alone—nothing, but nothing else. Predestination will not bring it. Providence cannot produce it. It does not rest on foreknowledge, divine decrees, or even the atonement itself. Eternal life is Christ dwelling in His righteousness in the soul of the justified person. So eternal life is union with Jesus Christ. And the word for that union with Jesus Christ is faith…Strictly speaking, the true Christian church does not teach justification by faith. It teaches justification by Christ. Where does faith come in? It is simply the uniting with, joining with, becoming one with, the Lord Jesus Christ (Don Kistler, Ed., Justification by Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), pp. 106, 110).
That faith means the appropriation of the person of Christ is expounded by the following theologians:
John Calvin: Faith of itself does not possess the power of justifying, but only in so far as it receives Christ…From this it is to be inferred that, in teaching that before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith, we do not take the power of justifying away from Christ….Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace…Faith embraces Christ, as offered to us by the Father (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Book III, Ch. XI.7, p. 733; Book III, Ch. XI.1, p. 725; Book III, Ch. II.8, p. 552).
John Flavel: Christ and his benefits go inseparably and undividedly together: it is Christ himself who is made all this (wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption) unto us: we can have no saving benefit separate and apart from the person of Christ: many would willingly receive his privileges, who will not receive his person; but it cannot be; if we will have one, we must take the other too: Yea, we must accept his person first, and then his benefits (John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner, 1968), Volume II, Sermon I, The Method of Grace, p. 17).
A.A. Hodge: The Scriptures make it plain that the condition of its effectual application (redemption) is an act of faith, involving real spiritual repentance and the turning from sin and the acceptance and self–appropriation of Christ and his redemption as the only remedy (A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1976), p. 120).
Louis Berkhof: Finally there are also the figures of coming to Christ and receiving Him, John 5:40; 7:37 (cf. vs. 38); 6:44,65; 1:12. The figure of coming to Christ pictures faith as an action in which man looks away from himself and his own merits, to be clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ; and that of receiving Christ stresses the fact that faith is an appropriating organ…Faith is the instrument by which we appropriate Christ and His righteousness…Faith justifies in so far as it takes possession of Christ…Faith is not merely a matter of the intellect, nor of the intellect and the emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will, determining the direction of the soul, an act of the soul going out towards its object and appropriating this. Without this activity the object of faith, which the sinner recognizes as true and real and entirely applicable to his present needs, remains outside of him. And in saving faith it is a matter of life and death that the object be appropriated (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), pp. 495-496; 520; 522; 505).
The Westminster Confession of Faith: 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 (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XIV, Section II. Found in A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), p. 204).
These comments have direct bearing on the ongoing debate over the nature of saving faith and lordship salvation within evangelicalism today. Since salvation is experienced through being rightly related to the person of Christ and since Christ is Lord as well as Savior, then an important aspect of saving faith will be commitment to Christ as Lord since he cannot be divided in his person. There are some who suggest that lordship salvation is a perversion of the teaching of the Reformation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Reformers consistently defined saving faith as the receiving of Christ (the whole person) in all of his offices as Prophet, Priest and King. They speak of his indwelling the human heart. They teach that this saving relationship cannot be separated from repentance and sanctification of the heart. Unless the individual submits his heart to Christ as Lord, the heart is not sanctified. Saving faith, therefore, involves not only trust in Christ but commitment and submission of life to him as well. He cannot be received as Priest ( Savior), and not be received as King (Lord) and Prophet. His person cannot be divided. John Flavel says this:
The very essence of saving faith consists in our receiving Christ…Christ is offered us in the gospel entirely and undividedly, as clothed with all his offices, priestly, prophetical, and regal; as Christ Jesus the Lord, Acts xv.31, and so the true believer receives him;…As without any of these offices, the work of our salvation could not be completed, so without acceptance of Christ in them all, our union with him by faith cannot be completed…The gospel offer of Christ includes all his offices, and gospel–faith just so receives him; to submit to him, as well as to be redeemed by him; to imitate him in the holiness of life, as well as to reap the purchases and fruits of his death. It must be an entire receiving of the Lord Jesus Christ…See that you receive all Christ, with all your heart. To receive all Christ is to receive his person, clothed with all his offices; and to receive him with all your heart, is to receive him into your understanding, will and affections, Acts viii.37. As there is nothing in Christ that may be refused, so there is nothing in you from which he must be excluded (John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner, 1968), Volume 2, pp. 102-105, 107-112, 115, 122-123, 140).
So, although saving faith will include knowledge of and assent to the facts of the gospel and trust in Christ as Savior, it also means a commitment of the life to him as Lord. Berkhof, for example, states:
Faith…consists in a personal trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, including the surrender of the soul…to Christ, and a recognition and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and of spiritual life.’ (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), pp. 503-505).
He speaks here of a surrender of the soul to Christ as Lord. Calvin teaches that obedience is inherent in the nature of saving faith:
That very assent itself—as I have already partially suggested, and will reiterate more fully—is more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding. For this reason it is called ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5), and the Lord prefers no other obedience to it—and justly, since nothing is more precious to him than this truth…But another much clearer argument now offers itself. Since faith embraces Christ, as offered to us by the Father (cf. John 6:29)—that is, since he is offered not only for righteousness, forgiveness of sins, and peace, but also for sanctification (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30) and the fountain of the water of life (John 7:38; cf. ch. 4:14)—without a doubt, no one can truly know him without at the same time apprehending the sanctification of the Spirit. Or, if anyone desires some plainer statement, faith rests upon the knowledge of Christ. And Christ cannot be known apart from the sanctification of his Spirit. It follows that faith can in no wise be separated from a devout disposition (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Book III, Ch. II.8, pp. 552-553).
A.A. Hodge makes it clear that saving faith is not only trust in Christ as Savior but submission of the life to him as Lord:
The Scriptures make it plain that the condition of its effectual application (redemption) is an act of faith, involving real spiritual repentance and the turning from sin and the acceptance and self-appropriation of Christ and of His redemption as the only remedy…From within, the God–man reigns supreme in every Christian heart. It is impossible to accept Christ as our Sacrifice and Priest without at the same time cordially accepting him as our Prophet, absolutely submitting our understanding to his teaching, and accepting him as our King, submitting implicitly our hearts and wills and lives to his sovereign control. Paul delights to call himself the doulos, purchased servant, of Jesus Christ. Every Christian spontaneously calls him our Lord Jesus. His will is our law, his love our motive, his glory our end. To obey his will, to work in his service, to fight his battles, to triumph in his victories, is our whole life and joy (A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1976), pp. 120, 233).
In his book, Faith Alone, R.C. Sproul documents the teaching of the seventeenth century Reformed theologians, Herman Witsius and Francis Turretin. He points out that their concept of saving faith includes knowledge, assent and trust, and commitment to Christ as Lord:
Of this aspect (act of reception and union) Turretin declares that it is the act ‘by which we not only seek Christ through a desire of the soul and fly to him, but apprehend and receive him offered, embrace him found, apply him to ourselves and adhere to and unite ourselves to him.’ Witsius calls this the formal and principal act of faith. By this act of faith the believer becomes united with Christ. This act is what the New Testament speaks of as ‘receiving’ Christ. Witsius says: ‘By this act, Christ becomes, so to speak, the peculiar property of the believing soul. All that belongs to Christ being exhibited together with him, the believer claims to himself whatever is Christ’s, and especially his righteousness, which is the foundation of salvation.’
Witsius says of surrender: ‘…when the believer thus receives Christ and rests upon him, he considers him not merely as SAVIOR, but also as LORD. He receives a whole Christ, and acquiesces in him in all those characters which he sustains: but he is not less a Lord than a Savior; nay, he cannot be a Savior, unless he be also a Lord’ (R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), pp. 88-90).
Sproul goes on to say that while the Reformed understanding of faith is usually defined by the three main categories of knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus) and trust (fiducia), these do not negate commitment to Christ as Lord. He says that commitment to Christ’s Lordship comes under the heading of trust or fiducia. In other words, it is an essential part of what it means to trust in Christ. As Sproul puts it:
These further elaborations of aspects of faith, whose number varies among Reformed theologians like Turretin and Witsius, may also be subsumed under the heading of fiducia (R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), p. 90).
John Murray makes the point that inherent in the nature of faith is a renunciation of sin. He says it is exercised in conjunction with repentance. Thus, the essence of faith is commitment to Christ:
Justification is by faith and therefore can never be separated from it. What is this faith? It is trust in Christ for salvation from sin. It is to contradict the very nature of faith to regard it as anything else than a sin–hating, sin–condemning, and sin–renouncing principle. Since faith is a whole–souled movement of trust in Christ its very spring and motive is salvation from sin…As regeneration is the fountain of faith and faith is the logical pre–condition of justification, we can never think of justification apart from regeneration. And, again, the faith that justifies is faith conjoined with repentance….Faith is in its essence commitment to Christ that we may be saved. The premise of that commitment is that we are unsaved and we believe on Christ in order that we may be saved…It is to lost sinners that Christ is offered, and the demand of that overture is simply and solely that we commit ourselves to him in order that we may be saved (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), Volume 2., pp. 220-221; 257-260).
R.L. Dabney issues this warning:
Faith embraces Christ substantially in all His offices. This must be urged as of prime practical importance…Our Catechism defines faith, as embracing Christ ‘as He is offered in the gospel.’ Our Confession (chap. xiv.2) says: ‘the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life.’ How Christ is offered us in the gospel, may be seen in Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 5:25-27; Titus 1:14. The tendency of human selfishness is ever to degrade Christ’s sacrifice into a mere expedient for bestowing impunity. The pastor can never be too explicit in teaching that this is a travesty of the gospel; and that no one rises above the faith of the stony–ground hearer, until he desires and embraces Christ as deliverer from the depravity of sin, as well as hell (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1871) p. 601).
Thomas Watson says:
How shall I know that I am making a right application of Christ? A hypocrite may think he applies when he does not. Balaam, though a sorcerer, still said, ‘my God (Numb. 22:18). Answer: He who rightly applies Christ puts these two together, Jesus and Lord: ‘Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil. 3:8). Many take Christ as Jesus, but refuse him as Lord. Do you join ‘Prince and Saviour’ (Acts 5:31)? Would you as well be ruled by Christ’s laws as saved by his blood? Christ is ‘a priest upon his throne’ (Zech. 6:13). He will never be a priest to intercede unless your heart is the throne where he sways his sceptre. A true applying of Christ is when we take him as a husband that we give ourselves to him as Lord (Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner, 1992), p. 22).
These comments make it clear that saving faith involves more than trusting in Christ for imputed righteousness and forgiveness of sin only. As we have seen, the call of God to sinful man is a call to faith and repentance. The biblical teaching of faith alone (sola fide) is always put in contrast to works in scripture. But it is never placed in opposition to repentance. Faith alone means Christ alone by grace alone. But the faith that saves is always accompanied by evangelical repentance. This underscores again the crucial importance of a relationship with Christ. Salvation is knowing a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said: ‘This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent’ (Jn. 17:3). All doctrine is to lead us to and leave us with the person of God.
There is a potential danger which needs to be addressed here. The Protestant Reformers stressed the biblical teaching of the grace of God in salvation. Historically this teaching has come to be known as the Doctrines of Grace. The inherent danger here is that of defining Christianity by a system of doctrine to the neglect of the centerpiece of true Christianity: a relationship with the person of Christ. We must be careful that a system of doctrine does not become an end in itself and displace the relationship. Our focus must be on the person of Christ, not on the Doctrines of Grace. This danger is subtle but can be deadly. We can know doctrine and not know Christ. We can be completely orthodox doctrinally and yet have a dead faith. We can end up with another form of scholasticism, dressed in Reformed clothing. Doctrine is both foundational and essential to faith, but it is not the essence of it. The heart of Christianity is Christ. We cannot separate a true relationship with Christ from doctrine because doctrine forms the foundation of knowledge necessary for entering that relationship. Unfortunately, though, it is possible to separate doctrine from the relationship resulting in dead orthodoxy.
Let me illustrate. As mentioned in the chapter on justification, a commonly used term for the imputed righteousness of Christ is ‘an alien righteousness’. This means that the righteousness that justifies is a righteousness that is achieved completely outside of us and is not to be confused with regeneration or sanctification. Out of genuine concern for safeguarding this truth some have fallen into error regarding it. For example, I was told by a member of a Reformed Church recently that salvation has nothing to do with the consecration of the believer or with the work of Christ inside the believer but only with faith in the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer. He does not believe that it is the indwelling Christ that gives us favor and acceptance with God. His focus on salvation is totally and exclusively on justification and imputed righteousness. But this is a repudiation of the Reformation teaching. John Calvin himself insists on the absolute necessity for the indwelling Christ for salvation:
I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are grafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him (emphasis mine) (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Book III, Ch. XI.10, pp. 736-737).
Imputed righteousness is a glorious truth but to preach it to the exclusion of the other aspects of salvation is wrong and dangerous. Men are exhorted to look outside of themselves to Christ for the righteousness they need to stand before God. However, though the righteousness that saves is external to the individual who receives Christ, Christ himself is not. We do not receive righteousness apart from receiving the person of Christ himself. The Reformers stressed the importance of the indwelling Christ relative to justification. They taught that an elemental aspect of saving faith is the appropriation of Christ as a person and it is his indwelling that secures salvation for us. Martyn Lloyd–Jones makes these perceptive and penetrating observations about the dangers of knowledge and doctrine divorced from this vital relationship with Christ:
There is no need, of course, to emphasize the fact that knowledge is all–important. We can never know too much. Knowledge is essential, doctrine is vital. The Bible is full of doctrine, and the New Testament particularly so. The epistles are mighty, glorious expositions of doctrine and of truth…Knowledge, therefore, is in and of itself absolutely essential; indeed we must give it priority, and see to it that it always comes first…But, it is possible for us to develop a false notion of knowledge…to take a purely theoretical and academic interest in truth and knowledge, to make knowledge an end in itself—the purely theoretical and academic approach…This danger is one of knowing ‘about’ a subject rather than knowing it. ‘Knowing about’! What a vital distinction this is. What a difference there is between preaching about the gospel and preaching the gospel! It is possible to preach round the gospel and say things about it without ever presenting it. That is quite useless—indeed it can be very dangerous. It may be true of us that we know ‘about’ these things, but do not really know them. And this, of course, becomes all–important when we realize that the whole end and object of theology is to know God! A Person! Not a collection of abstract truths, not a number of philosophical propositions, but God! a Person! To know Him!—‘the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent!’
If you just go in for that sort of theoretical intellectual knowledge, the devil will let you talk of doctrine enough; you will turn from Arminianism to Calvinism, you shall be orthodox enough, if you will be content to live without Christ’s living in you. The devil does not care at all whether you change from being an Arminian to being a Calvinist if you do not know Christ and if you do not know God. One is as bad as the other. A theoretical Calvinism is of no more value than a theoretical Arminianism—not the slightest…Doctrine after all is a foundation, and no more. It is not an end, it is only a beginning. It is the means. We must never stop at it. It is always designed to bring us, by faith, into that knowledge, that intimacy, that deep experience of the Living God, in which we really meet with Him, know that He is present, and are conscious of the energies of the Spirit in us and amongst us…And if it does not do that we shall merely have been turning round in circles, giving a good deal of satisfaction to the flesh. We shall go away proud of our knowledge and our understanding, but it will be of no help to anybody at all (D.M. Lloyd Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner, 1987), pp. 27, 31-32, 36, 51, 49).
We must have both a doctrinal and an experiential knowledge of Christ. This is just another way of saying there must be true conversion. Conversion is the theological term that describes the human role of appropriation and commitment in salvation. We are commanded in scripture to convert to Christ. Matthew 18:3 states: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Peter says: ‘Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out’ (Acts 3:19). It is a part of the gospel call to sinful men and the evidence of regeneration. As John Murray states:
The response to the call is a whole–souled movement of loving subjection and trust in God. It is a totality act of man’s soul…It is a turning to God with the whole heart and soul and strength and mind…This change of heart manifests itself in faith and repentance, which are the responses of our whole inner man to the revelation of the gospel, away from sin and towards God (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 170, 202).
Repentance and faith are defined by the word turn. We are commanded in scripture to turn from sin to God in Christ to be saved. Turning to God is, as Murray puts it: ‘a whole–souled movement of loving subjection and trust in God.’ In 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul describes the conversion experience of those at Thessalonica: ‘And how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.’ The Reformers stressed the necessity for conversion. This is also the consistent teaching of those theologians who have remained true to the heritage of the Reformation. Berkhof states:
The most common (Old Testament) word for conversion, means to turn, to turn about, and to return…The word clearly shows that, what the Old Testament calls conversion, is a return to Him from whom sin has separated man…True conversion is born of godly sorrow, and issues in a life of devotion to God, II Cor. 7:10…Conversion marks the conscious beginning, not only of the putting away of the old man, a fleeing from sin, but also of the putting on of the new man, a striving for holiness of life. In regeneration the sinful principle of the old life is already replaced by the holy principle of the new life. But it is only in conversion that this transition penetrates into the conscious life, turning it into a new and Godward direction. The sinner consciously forsakes the old sinful life and turns to a life in communion with and devoted to God…(Conversion is) a conscious turning from sin unto God…In the case of adults…conversion is absolutely essential (for salvation)…Conversion is necessary in the case of adults in the sense that its elements, namely, repentance and faith must be present in their lives.
If we take the word conversion in its most specific sense, it denotes a change that takes place once and cannot be repeated…Conversion consists in repentance and faith, so that faith is really a part of conversion…There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precedes the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), pp. 480-481, 483, 485, 491-492).
This truth is also seen in the words of Christ to the apostle Paul when he describes the nature of the gospel ministry to which he was being called:
And I said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. ‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me’ (Acts 26:15–18).
Jesus stressed the necessity for conversion. As we have seen, man apart from Christ in his unregenerate state, is under the authority and power of Satan. Part of Christ’s work in salvation is to deliver us from this state. In Acts 26, Jesus describes how this takes place. The apostle Paul is commissioned to preach the gospel—to bring men truth—to open their eyes. The objective of this spiritual enlightenment is that they might be saved; turned from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to God in order that they might receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified through faith in Christ. Here is beautifully pictured for us the process of conversion, the negative and positive aspects of salvation—the turning from sin to Christ, from darkness to light (from sin to righteousness)and from the dominion of Satan to (the dominion of) God. Men are called upon to renounce the authority and dominion of Satan in their lives by submitting themselves to the authority or dominion of God. Authority is the ultimate issue.
Conversion is the work of regeneration and definitive sanctification whereby one enters the kingdom of God through saving faith. It results in a radical change in the heart, nature, life purpose and direction of an individual. Prior to conversion there was a preoccupation with and the promotion of selfish interests. The new convert is now submitted to God, filled with love for him, pursues holiness and the promotion of the kingdom of God. Paul sums it up when he says: ‘He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf’ (2 Cor. 5:15). Christ’s purpose in salvation is to effect not only our forgiveness but to bring us into a relationship with God that we might fulfil his purpose for us: glorifying him, loving him, trusting him and living for him.
Scripture teaches that conversion is a thing of the heart. The question is not how orthodox are our beliefs, how much biblical knowledge we possess, or how active we are in ministry, but are we a new creation—a servant of God? The proof of our profession is in how we live. The ultimate test of true Christianity is a changed and sanctified life. As the apostle John put it: ‘The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked’ (1 Jn. 2:6). Only a new nature and a changed life are adequate proofs of the presence of God’s saving grace. Jonathan Edwards points out the danger of having a sound knowledge of the Christian faith without true conversion:
In a legal humiliation men are made sensible that they are nothing before the great and terrible God, and that they are undone, and wholly insufficient to help themselves….but they have not an answerable frame of heart, consisting in a disposition to abase themselves, and exalt God alone. This disposition is given only in evangelical humiliation, by overcoming the heart, and changing its inclination….In a legal humiliation the conscience is convinced….but because there is no spiritual understanding, the will is not bowed, nor the inclination altered….In legal humiliation, men are brought to despair of helping themselves; in evangelical, they are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves: in the former they are subdued and brought to the ground; in the latter, they are brought sweetly to yield, and freely and with delight to prostrate themselves at the feet of God.
Men may be legally humbled and have no humility….they may be thoroughly convinced that they have no righteousness, but are altogether sinful, exceedingly guilty, and justly exposed to eternal damnation—and be fully sensible of their own helplessness—without the least mortification of the pride of their hearts…But the essence of evangelical humiliation consists in a mean esteem of himself, as in himself nothing, and altogether contemptible and odious….and….in denying his natural self–exaltation, and renouncing his own dignity and glory, and in being emptied of himself; so that he does freely, and from his very heart, as it were renounce, and annihilate himself. Thus the Christian doth in evangelical humiliation….This is a great and most essential thing in true religion. The whole frame of the gospel, every thing appertaining to the new covenant and all God’s dispensations towards fallen men, are calculated to bring to pass this effect. They that are destitute of this, have no true religion, whatever profession they may make, and how high soever their religious affections….God has abundantly manifested in his word, that this is what he has a peculiar respect to in his saints and that nothing is acceptable to him without it….As we would therefore make the Holy Scriptures our rule, in judging of….our own religious qualifications and state; it concerns us greatly to look at this humiliation, as one of the most essential things pertaining to true Christianity (Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), Volume I, pp. 294–295).
In light of the need for conversion there are a number of important points which need to be emphasized. God is absolutely sovereign in the work of salvation. It is he who accomplishes the work and applies it to man. From beginning to end it is a gift received from God. However, when presenting this truth we must be careful not to minimize human responsibility. Repentance and faith are the human responses demanded by God to the proclamation of his gospel. They are both gifts of God but also the activities of man. In the appropriation of salvation men are not passive. John Murray emphasizes that repentance and faith are duties to be pressed upon men with great earnestness:
Faith is not regeneration, for it is the person who believes. But it is by the washing and renewal of regeneration that the person is enabled to believe. Faith is of God, but faith itself is the whole–souled movement of the person in entrustment to Christ…It is at this point of faith that our responsibility enters…It is truly our responsibility to be what regeneration effects, namely, new creatures, trusting, loving, and obeying God with all our heart and soul and mind…Faith is the activity of the person and him alone. And every Godward response is, of course, our responsibility. This needs to be pressed home with the utmost emphasis (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 262-263).
Obviously, then, this has important implications for the preaching of the gospel. In conversion, a man turns wholly from sin to God. He is very active in this process even though it is a gift of God from start to finish. This is a mystery, but we must beware lest we so exalt the truth of the sovereignty of God that we denigrate the scriptural emphasis on the responsibility of man. B.B. Warfield expresses it this way:
As it is the single duty laid by the Ascended Christ on His messengers that they shall open men’s eyes, the single duty He lays on their hearers is correspondingly that they should turn from the darkness to the light, and (what is the same thing) from the power of Satan to God. It is, of course, as evident that men cannot turn from darkness to light, from the tyranny of Satan to God, in their own strength, as it is that men cannot open other people’s eyes by their own power. As in the one case, so in the other, the immanent work of the Holy Spirit is not excluded because it is not mentioned. But as in the one case, so in the other, the action of man is required. Christ requires His apostle to ‘open men’s eyes’—that is, to proclaim the truth which opens their eyes. Christ requires their hearers to turn from darkness to light, to shake off their bondage to Satan and to turn to God. In both cases, He requires the ‘sowing’ and ‘watering,’ while it is He alone who gives the increase (B.B. Warfield, Faith & Life (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), p. 176).
We must not back away from the strong demands of the scriptures and the teaching of Christ. We must preach to men about sin and about Christ (his person and work). We are to impress upon them their solemn responsibility to respond—to come to Christ in true repentance and faith. In this we are to rely solely upon our sovereign God to enable them to do so. But we must hold before men the truth—salvation means receiving the person of Christ as Lord and Savior. If we fail to do this we have failed to present the biblical gospel to lost men. As J.I. Packer has commented:
In the last analysis there is only one method of evangelism, namely the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message…We have to ask: is the way we present the gospel calculated to convey to people the application of the gospel and not just part of it, but the whole of it—the summons to see and know oneself as God sees and knows one, that is as a sinful creature and to face the breadth and depth of the need into which a wrong relationship with God has brought one, and to face too the cost and consequences of turning to receive Christ as Savior and Lord? Or is it likely to be deficient here and to gloss over some of this, and to give an inadequate distorted impression of what the gospel requires?…Will it leave people supposing that all they have to do is to trust Christ as sin–bearer not realizing that they must also deny themselves and enthrone Him as their Lord (the error which we might call only–believisim)? (J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1961), pp. 71-73, 88-89).
Divine sovereignty, regeneration, union with Christ, the finished work of the atonement, justification by imputed righteousness, sanctification, adoption, repentance, faith (as trust in and commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior), conversion—salvation by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone—these are the essentials of the Reformation gospel. It is this teaching which we find confirmed by Jesus himself.