Shallow enough for a child to play at the shore, and deep enough for an elephant to drown.
As has often been said, such is true of the Christian gospel and Scriptures and doctrine. So in the cascading recovery and resurgence of Reformed theology in recent decades, many stripped off their socks and waded into the tides. As they did, memorable slogans served as great entry points for new students, but also became potentially distorting categories for those who never matured beyond the basics.
Many of us learned the past, present, and future aspects of salvation: I was saved. I am being saved. I will be saved. Of course, we came as well into TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. So too we learned the “five solas” (as they came to be known in the twentieth century): faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
Of the five, “faith alone” might be the most frequently distorted — both caricatured by foes and misunderstood by friends. “Faith alone” for what?
How to Be Accepted by God
Often the instinctive response of new initiates to the question, “‘Faith alone’ for what?” has been “for salvation.” However, salvation is often a more general category, as we see in the past, present, and future aspects above. The more particular focus we’re looking for is justification.
It was specifically justification that was the material principle of the Reformation — that is, How does a sinner have right-standing with God Almighty? Or, how do the ungodly come to be fully accepted by the holy God? The Reformers answered that such a fundamental divine embrace, justification, rests on the basis of Christ’s person and work alone (not ours), and is received by sinners through the instrument of faith alone, not our own doing, whether in whole or in part. Basis: Christ. Instrument: faith.
Again and again, Protestants opened, as Luther had, to the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans. They sought to follow and explain his overall argument. And they pointed to particular verses, like Romans 3:28: “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Here “works of the law” is not a loophole but an intensifier: “works of the law” are acts commanded by God himself under the terms of the old covenant. What works could be more good and righteous than those expressly issued by the mouth of God? And yet, Paul writes, God’s full acceptance of sinners, in Christ, is by faith, not by obedience even to the best of commands. In Christ, we are justified by faith, “not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5; so also, among others, Galatians 2:16, 21; 5:1–3; Philippians 3:9).
“Faith is an expression of the whole inner person, not the intellect alone.”
Note well that “faith alone” as a Reformation slogan has a particular referent: justification. Faith is the sole instrument of justification. And “faith alone” does not mean that our attitudes and actions do not matter in the whole of the Christian life. Genuine faith, which alone justifies, is a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Nor does “faith alone” mean — and this may need fresh emphasis in some circles — that faith is less than an act of the whole soul, we might say, including the will and what we call “the heart” or the emotions. To put a point on it, faith is an expression of the whole inner person, not the intellect alone. As Paul himself says in Romans 10:10, “with the heart one believes and is justified.”
Not Only True but Desirable
Luther and Calvin both spoke of such whole-souled faith, exercised not only in the reason but in the will and emotions. Groping for language, Luther preached in a sermon on Luke 16:1–9, “Faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing.” Faith does not amount to solely the calculus of the bare intellect but expresses more and affects more.
Calvin too saw justifying faith as manifestly more than an exercise of the mind, referring to justifying faith as a “warm embrace” and “pious affection.” “By faith,” he writes,
we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered and rose from the dead on our account, but, accepting the offers which he makes of himself, we possess and enjoy him as our Savior. . . . In a word, faith is not a distant view, but a warm embrace of Christ, by which he dwells in us, and we are filled with the Divine Spirit. (Commentaries of the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, translated by William Pringle, 262, emphasis added)
“Saving faith not only reckons Christ’s person and work to be true but also receives him as desirable and good.”
Saving faith not only reckons Christ’s person and work to be true but also receives him as desirable and good. For Calvin, even the concept of assent “is more a matter of the heart than the head, of the affection than the intellect.” “Pious affection,” he claims, is not “an accessory to assent.” Rather, assent “consists in pious affection” (Institutes, translated by Henry Beveridge, 3.2.8).
Treasure Versus Ticket
So too some contemporary Reformed voices, in the wake of late twentieth-century “easy-believism,” have freshly emphasized that saving faith includes more than intellectual assent. John Piper’s recent What Is Saving Faith? argues the point at book length, while R.C. Sproul’s 2010 Justified by Faith Alone claims that saving faith
is usually understood as involving something in addition to the cognitive or purely intellectual element. It involves the volitional and affective elements of human response. It includes an awareness (which is also intellectual and cognitive) of the sweetness and excellence of Christ. It involves a change in us wrought by regeneration, which change includes a change in affection, disposition, inclination, and volition. We now choose Christ. We embrace Christ. We gladly receive Christ. (4)
Indeed saving faith gladly receives Christ. It is not disinterested in Jesus or apathetic about him and his gospel. It welcomes him, embraces him, gladly receives him — that is, as Piper says, not as one would receive a blow, or a gift you need but don’t want, or help from someone you dislike, or a package from a postman you scarcely know or care to:
Receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him. . . . Justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him.
With Luther, we grope for language that will not overlook something vital, or overstate the case. Saving faith gladly receives Christ. Which can make some confessors of “faith alone” uncomfortable. Some might simply be living with Sunday school caricatures of “faith alone”; others genuinely may be concerned that this emphasis on gladly receiving might upset the frail faith of some. Will not some be misled that the “receiving grace” of faith is actually a kind of “giving grace” through leaning on themselves to generate adequate gladness?
In stressing that the nature of faith is not indifference or apathy toward Christ but, conversely, a “warm embrace” or “glad reception” of him and his work, we might ask, How warm does our embrace need to be? How glad our reception? That is, must the believer consciously reckon (and declare) Christ to be the soul’s supreme treasure, as implied in Piper’s words above (“preferring Christ over all other persons and things”)?
In other words, if faith merely receives Christ gladly and delights in him but does not deliberately count him greater than all other treasures and joys, is that “faith” not justifying? We close with three distinctions that might help those hung up on such preferring of Christ being superlative.
1. Joy in God grows with time.
According to the nature of saving faith as “treasuring trust” (not indifference or apathy), the Christian, as he grows in faith, will grow in “the joy of faith” (as Paul refers to such progress in Philippians 1:25). The “joy of faith,” while there at inception, may be relatively small and underwhelming. Or the emotional discernment of the new Christian may be undeveloped. Not consciously experiencing, and testifying to, what one might call “joy” does not warrant altering our understanding of the nature of faith from the biblical testimony.
2. We all still battle sin.
Sin, in its nature, is the preferring of other things to God. And at the heart of holiness is the heart’s valuing Christ more in accord with his true value. The joy or gladness we look for in saving faith that gladly receives Christ need not be grown and mature gladness. It’s not fully formed and manifestly dominant. Nor is it absent. The acorn may be small and overlooked by untrained eyes, but when grown it will be an oak, not a weed.
To profess Christ as supreme treasure is not to deny the reality of our indwelling sin, and the fickleness of our hearts, but it is to declare (1) his value and worth quite apart from my fluctuations and (2) my settled profession, in my right mind, by virtue of the new birth.
3. Jesus is never safely second.
We would be wise to make a distinction between a new believer professing such supreme gladness unprompted, and being pressed to respond to the question. There is no necessary fault to find in a believer expressing warm embrace without clarifying it to be the warmest of embraces. However, if someone were to call the question, would a soul with saving faith in such a moment of reflection profess Christ to be a treasure worth less than any other? To do so would be to betray such a deep misunderstanding of the God-man and his work as to call the reality of faith into question.
While the new believer might not yet declare, of his own, the supremacy of Christ over other loves, when pressed the heart that receives Christ as Lord and Savior will not deny him as supreme treasure. Given who he is as God, and given what he has accomplished in our own flesh as man, and given who he is right now, seated in glory at the Father’s right hand, how could he be professed as anything other than supreme?
With such distinctions in mind, perhaps those of us who rally to the slogan “faith alone” will together both guard justification from the addition of works and protect saving faith from the subtraction of the heart.