Monday, May 18, 2009

What is Saving Faith?

If The Pilgrim's Progress had been written today, the protagonist, Christian, would simply have recited the Sinner's Prayer and built a nice home in the City of Destruction. End of story.

"Listen to today's typical gospel presentation," says Bible scholar John MacArthur. "You will hear sinners entreated with such phrases as 'accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior'; 'ask Jesus into your heart'; 'invite Christ into your life'; or 'make a decision for Christ.' You may be so accustomed to hearing those phrases that it will surprise you to learn that none of them are based on biblical terminology. They are the products of a diluted gospel. It is not the gospel according to Jesus."

What is wrong with the gospel often preached today? There's rarely any mention of repentance. I'm not trying to be nit-picky here, but repentance is fundamental to saving faith. Without it we may have intellectual faith in the gospel and even be really nice people (as far as that goes), but we won't be saved. 

John the Baptist spent his entire ministry exhorting people to REPENT. I realize that word sounds very old-fashioned (and you may be picturing me wild-eyed on a street corner right now), but it was the way John prepared people for Jesus. Repentance is absolutely fundamental. Without it, saving faith is impossible. 

Why is that? Because repentance is recognizing, at the deepest level, our utter spiritual bankruptcy. We need to recognize this because it's true. And when we do, the gospel becomes good news and we are prepared to receive it in faith. Before that, it means nothing. 

To use an example: Martin Luther was a conscientious Catholic monk who took holiness very seriously. So every time he sinned, he'd go see one of the priests to confess. Luther spent most of his day in confession. "Oops! I had a sinful thought!" Off to confession. "Oh, no! Another one." One more trip. "I haven't checked off everything on my to-do list--a sin of omission! Aaargh!!" I don't think anyone was more relieved when Luther saw the light than the priests who had to listen to him.

As history tells us, Luther did see the light, in the book of Romans, where he learned that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by any good deeds on our part. Romans 8:1-2 says: "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." When we come to Jesus in true repentance, he fills us with his Holy Spirit and begins the process of sanctification, or transformation into his image. We are saved as soon as this re-birth takes place (Luke 23:33), but we still have to be led by the Holy Spirit throughout our lives. "All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." (Romans 8:14)

So what about good deeds? They are the fruit or evidence of salvation. If we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) we will behave like him. The more time we spend with him, abiding in his presence, the more we'll think and act like him. That is faith. 

Can we lose this salvation? This is a hotly disputed question, with most modern theologians saying "no." They say that if someone walks away from the faith, they were never saved to begin with. What then, do we make of 1 Cor. 9:27, where Paul says: "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified."? Is Paul saying that he is not sure that his conversion was real? Of course he isn't. He's talking about making sure that he finishes the race. What matters is whether we are still walking with God in faith when we draw our last breath. (Ezekiel 18:21-29)

But in the meantime, I like Brother Lawrence's thoughts on the issue: "He had been long troubled in mind from a certain belief that he should be damned . . . but that at last he had seen that this trouble arose from want of faith, and that since he had passed his life in perfect liberty and continual joy." Here was another monk who saw his own moral failure, but learned to trust that God would save him. Jesus is, after all, the Good Shepherd, who will do what he can to bring us back when we stray.

Let's trust in him without complacency. Because there is no room for complacency in the life of someone who has entered the race to receive that imperishable wreath. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

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