Saving Faith: What it is and What it is Not

By: Rev. Rob Roy McGregor Jr., Retired Minister in Second Presbytery

Upon examining the answer to the first question of the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we justifiably conclude that man’s chief end is to glorify God by learning from Holy Scripture who he is and what his will is so that we who have the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) can know and declare his glory by experiencing it in doing righteous deeds (Rev. 19:7-8) and revealing it in our lives by our righteous actions, that is, by “the fruit of [our] righteousness” (Phil. 1:11), as Jesus did on Earth.

That conclusion is totally in keeping with our understanding of what Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, means when we read that “the righteous will live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Heb. 10:37). A quick observation here is that a righteous man’s life is an expression of his faith in action. He lives his life by doing what is righteous. Deeds follow faith.

It is remarkable here that the apostle John does not use, as scholars point out, the noun “faith/belief” (pistis) in his Gospel but insists upon the action inherent in the verb (pisteuein): “to faith,” to believe. Let us then read John 3:16 this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever does faith things/does believing things, does righteous things in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Understood this way, John 3:16 provides a brief summary of God’s work in Christ to give eternal life to his people through reconciliation! Stated differently, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever does righteous things in (union with) him shall live forever.

Where, then, does this power to live in union with the Son of God from? (Note: I have chosen to emphasize the translation of the Authorized Version and the New Revised Standard Version, for example, as opposed to “the right to become the children of God” found in some other versions, because it is truer to Scripture to say, “I have the power to live a Christlike life,” than it is to say, “I have the right to live a Christlike life.”)

The power comes from the Holy Spirit, who works to bring unbelievers to faith in God and help them to mature spiritually. Only through the Spirit’s power can individuals first receive God’s word as divine (1 Thess. 1:5–6). Once the Holy Spirit enters an unbeliever, he gives the unbeliever the power to accept the knowledge of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, understand its meaning for his life, repent, and commit his life to Christ through holy living. Such is the full and restricted limit of what it means to have saving faith, to be a believer.

From the day of Pentecost forward, everyone of any color or stripe, ethnicity or gender who received the Holy Spirit became a person of faith within that full and restricted limit. Consequently, every Christian’s focus should be on the quality of life lived and follow the Spirit’s leading for holiness of life. That is the only thing saving faith requires of the believer!

Saving faith, then, does not include whatever we may opt to believe even on the basis of sound scriptural interpretation! That means that all other teachings of Scripture that make Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and all other Christian denominations distinct from one another are matters of denominational interpretation, emphasis, and choice. Those beliefs and practices are open for discussion and modification at any time and are distinct from saving faith.

Let us rejoice that God in his wisdom has limited the requirements for being his children to the initial work of the Holy Spirit in bringing unbelievers to God and to spiritual likeness of Jesus. We can now emphasize our Christian calling to be “people of faith,” which is to engage in righteous living with the gracious assistance of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us (1 Cor. 3:16), making us indissolubly one with the Father and the Son (John 14:20).

Consequently, inasmuch as there are differences of “faith and practice” within Christian religious bodies, it behooves us for Christ’s sake and the sake of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) not to disturb needlessly the peace of our people with conflictive matters that deal with non-saving-faith practices within congregations of our denomination, whatever they may be. We have in fact enough to do exercising saving faith, which is restricted to the indispensable sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to produce within us “the fruit of [our] righteousness” (Phil. 1:11).

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