Calvinists and nonCalvinists have fought about the origin of saving faith for centuries. Calvinists insist God grants saving faith to the elect at the moment of conversion. NonCalvinists insist God has granted everyone the ability to believe the gospel and must be rightly persuaded. No one has any ability or everyone has some ability. Important distinctions, to be sure.
But have we missed the forest for the trees? While we skirmish on the periphery the enemy has invaded the Bible Belt buckle. We nitpick the when and who of saving faith: who gets it and when? In the meantime, the enemy has nibbled away the what. We dissect the minutia of “whosoever” while the church hemorrhages on the table from an anemic understanding of “believes.”
These days, Southern Baptist churches especially fight tooth-and-nail over Calvinism. However, most show very little concern if their members are actually Christians. Regenerate church membership is one of the key Baptist distinctives. Only those with demonstrable, robust, persevering faith in Jesus are to be baptized and considered church members. Yet, we care more about who reads John Piper or quotes Adrian Rogers than who is actually persevering in Jesus. With upturned noses we caricature one another. We sucker punch the relatively few theological rabble-rousers while knowingly thousands of church members persist in false faith.
The most important question for the church in our day is not the origin of saving faith, but the nature of saving faith. Regardless of who gets faith and when, what exactly is it? Confusion about the source/timing of saving faith does far less damage than confusion about what it actually means to believe the gospel. However it is and whenever it is one is made able to believe, what exactly does it mean to believe?
Let’s have a brotherly debate about the timing of saving faith. But let’s first make sure we are actually brothers. Before we brew another pot over how and when we believed the gospel, let’s be absolutely sure we actually believe it.
What is saving faith? How do we know we have actually believed the gospel?
Were we saved after a “sinner’s prayer” or “making a decision” at the end of an aisle? Does saving faith mean coming to church more than not? Is saving faith appreciating right things about Jesus? Have we believed the gospel because we get goose bumps while listening to KLove or the soloist? Are we saved because we rededicate our lives and/or get (re)baptized again every so often?
Consider two quotes:
“Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,’ or, in one word, our salvation.”
“Since faith embraces Christ as he is offered by the Father, and he is offered not only for justification, for forgiveness of sins and peace, but also for sanctification, as the fountain of living waters, it is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit; or, to express the matter more plainly, faith consists in the knowledge of Christ; Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of his Spirit: therefore faith cannot possibly be disjoined from pious affection.”
One of the above quotes is from John Calvin and the other from John Wesley. Wesley and Calvin certainly disagreed about the origin of saving faith. But the nature of it was not in question. Is our first impulse wanting to know who said what so we’re in the right camp? Or is it wanting to know we actually have “full reliance on the blood of Christ” and “pious affection”? Let’s stop fearing whether or not we are Calvinists and fear whether or not we are actually Christians.
Infinitely more important that what Calvin or Wesley thought is what Jesus taught about the nature of saving faith. To him we turn in Part 2.