Biblical Christianity is an exclusive religion. There is a proper sense in which the religion of the Bible may be termed intolerant, because it sets itself apart from all others. This note of exclusivity was well formulated at the Reformation, with its Latin tags, 'by Scripture alone, by grace alone, by faith alone'.
Why was faith given this prominent position in Reformed theology? Perhaps we can begin to discover something of the significance of faith, if we ask why is it not, 'by love alone', which is accorded such a basic position? Why is it salvation by faith, and not salvation by love?
One primary feature of the situation is that love is essentially a bilateral phenomenon whereas faith is not. Unrequited love is by its nature incomplete and unsatisfactory; love demands two-way interaction. The message of Scripture is that God loves us and we are to love God, so that love has a symmetry which faith lacks. We are called on to have faith in Christ, but the reciprocal is not true: Christ does not have faith in us. "But Jesus would not entrust himself (the same verb as 'believe') to them, for he knew all men" (John 2:24).
While it is not saying everything about love or faith to say that love is active and faith is passive, it does point to an essential aspect of what is involved. Faith does indeed impel to action, but that is as a consequence of its existence, not a vital aspect of its constitution. Faith brings nothing to the table at which it eats; it accepts what another has put there for its benefit and trusts in the adequacy of the provision which has been made for it.
The operation of faith is asymmetrical, whereas love has a symmetry which faith lacks. It is from that fact that the superiority of love arises. It is God-like in that our love mirrors the love of God towards us. Faith, on the other hand, is foundational because the initial situation in which we find ourselves is one of need and incapacity. To say that salvation is by faith alone is to say that it is by God alone. Our recovery is not in any way a human achievement, but a tribute to divine grace, wisdom and power.
So the beginning of the Christian life is not an achievement, but an experience. The individual who is saved is not active but passive; not a doer but a recipient. It is not, of course, that the case that the individual is unconscious and unwilling. It is the person who is willing who is saved, but the power and energy, the efficacy in imparting new life to the soul, is divine not human.
Now that Biblical conception of faith stands in stark opposition to the paganism of our day. We often say that our country has returned to a state that is little better than heathen. But what do we mean by that? You see it is the essence of paganism to be confident in the abilities and potential of humankind. Paganism is not all witchcraft and druids, witchdoctors and idolatry, incantations and spells and morally dubious behaviour. Paganism may have a very suave and attractive face. It can be urbane and morally sensitive; it can be socially aware, environmentally conscious and politically correct. It can seem to say all the right things and even do all the right things, but it is pagan to the core if it is all grounded on a belief in the essential goodness of mankind and of some inherent potential in mankind to right the world's wrongs, save the human race, and redeem individuals from whatever forces are perceived to be restraining them from personal fulfillment and from achieving their full potential.
The sophisticated pagan may well admit that society needs more knowledge or more resources, but argues that if these are forthcoming then there is no limit to what mankind can do.
Biblical Christianity stands opposed to all that. It agrees that mankind has great potential, but refuses to concede that mankind can unlock that potential. The way forward is not by some grand gesture we make, but by relying on what another has done for us. There is a sense in which we are saved by love, but it is by a greater love than anything that can be generated within cold, lost, sinful human hearts.
We are saved by love, not our love for God, but his love for us. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (3 John 4:10). That love alone is the love that saves, and the means by which it saves an individual is that person's faith.
It is useful to note also how Biblical faith inherently differs from popular conceptions of faith which amount to nothing more than a vague optimism, some belief that in the face of trouble or difficulty that things will somehow, we know not quite how, turn out all right in the end if only we keep persevering in believing in something.
Nor is it faith to have a blind optimism in the face of evidence to the contrary. That is the form of faith without the substance; the face of faith without the heart. Believing in and of itself is a caricature – an abandonment – of Biblical teaching. Faith without a corresponding object of faith is no faith at all. Yet that sort of faith is often presented as Biblical. Faith as a man-centred existential commitment. It is what I do. It is my attitude deep within my soul. I believe: don't ask me what; that's not important. What matters is that I perceive myself as a believing person. Such subjectivity is a travesty of Biblical faith.
Biblically faith involves both belief and commitment. It is a positive response to the revelation of God and his saving truth. It involves knowledge. "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Rom 10:14). But it goes beyond mere knowledge of that truth. Even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19).
Facts may be known but rejected. "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them" (Rom 1:32).
It goes beyond acceptance and approval of those facts as true. Agrippa knew and apparently viewed with approval the Old Testament, but he did not have saving faith. "King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do" (Acts 26:27). But still he had not personal trust. Saving faith involves trusting commitment to and reliance upon the living God and his living Son. This is an attitude that went beyond anything that the paganism of the ancient world ever conceived of. For once the Greeks did not have a word for it. It is laying hold of and having confidence in one specific individual, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man.
Bishop Ryle in "Old Paths" expressed in his own inimical fashion how faith functions:
Saving faith is the hand of the soul. The sinner is like a drowning man at the point of sinking. He sees the Lord Jesus Christ holding out his hand to help him. He grasps it and is saved. This is faith.
Saving faith is the eye of the soul. The sinner is like the Israelite bitten by the fiery serpent in the wilderness, and at the point of death. The Lord Jesus Christ is offered to him as the brazen serpent, set up for his cure. He looks and is healed. This is faith. Saving faith is the mouth of the soul. The sinner is starving for want of food, and sick of a sore disease. The Lord Jesus is set before him as the bread of life, and the universal medicine. He receives it, and is made well and strong. This is faith. Saving faith is the foot of the soul. The sinner is pursued by a deadly enemy, and is in fear of being overtaken. The Lord Jesus Christ is put before him as a strong tower, a hiding place, and a refuge. He runs into it and is safe. This is faith.
And of course Ryle there has the balance just right: the helplessness of the individual and the fullness of the provision made by Christ to remedy our dire situation.
In his Systematic Theology Wayne Grudem argues that because belief and faith can have a meaning contrary to the biblical sense, in an evangelistic context it promotes better communication to use the word 'trust' instead of 'believe' or
The word trust is closer to the biblical idea, since we are familiar with trusting persons in everyday life. The more we come to know a person, and the more we see in that person a pattern of life that warrants trust, the more we find ourselves able to place trust in that person to do what he or she promises, or to act in ways that we can rely on. This fuller sense of personal trust is indicated in several passages of Scripture in which initial saving faith is spoken of in very personal terms, often using analogies drawn from personal relationships.
Grutlem points to John 1:12 "To all who received him, who believed in his name." "Much as we would receive a guest into our homes, John speaks of receiving Christ."
Now it is a mistake to view faith as something that is central only as the start of the Christian life. Faith is involved throughout. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Furthermore not only is faith on-going, it is also increasing. It is not a static deposit of truth, a commitment to be made and treated as a permanent trophy. It is not to be likened to a statue, but to an organism. It is not, to develop Grudem's analogy, like having a spiritual visitor's book which records that Jesus Christ once stayed here for the night. It is an ongoing relationship that does not just depend on memories from the past.
It is not something that is made stronger by ignorance as one popular perception of faith would have it. Faith is somehow more truly faith if there is no evidence to support what is believed, or if it is in the face of evidence to the contrary. Rather faith grows and becomes stronger by being fed. "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17).
It therefore follows that as our knowledge increases so should our faith. Notice that faith grows by hearing the word of God, by learning more about Christ. Faith is not an exercise in introspection, but an exercise in Christ-centredness. That is why faith is central to Christian experience. It derives all its strength and effectiveness from another, and in attributing all that is ours to him, faith gives all the glory for what we are and do to him. It is therefore the case that the life of faith involves growing faith.
It is also the case with faith that it is one of the three that 'remain' or 'abide'. "And now these three remain" (1 Cor. 13:13). Certainly Paul means that these three remain throughout this life, but I consider that the 'now' is logical rather than temporal, and that Paul means those three abide for all eternity. I feel that the AV with its singular verb reflects not just a grammatical feature of the original, but a significant aspect of Paul's thought: "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three." They are to be viewed as a unity which "abideth", but at the same time it is love that is supreme because in exercising it we bear the image of God.
Repentance is the obverse of faith. It is the same reorientation of the soul away from sin and towards Christ, but now looked at from the point of view of where it is turning from rather than what it is turning to. I do not think we can say in the same way that repentance remains or abides. The days of turning from sin will be over, and faith will receive its consummation in glory. There are those who, like Matthew Henry, think that faith will be swallowed up in actual sight. Perhaps it is a matter of definition. Faith in the sense of trust in God remains. Since faith is the attitude of trust in God to supply all our needs, it will not be eclipsed but perfected in glory.
If we think back to Adam in his unfallen glory, there was no need for repentance as a spiritual exercise. It would have been incongruous for one who had never sinned. But it was proper, indeed it was obligatory, for Adam to trust in God for his continuing provision for him. So too in the perfection that awaits God's children in heaven there will be on going faith, in the sense of absolute trust in God and complete acceptance of all that he has provided for us. Heaven's table, no less than the provision made for the church on earth, is divinely purveyed. Faith remains, but yields pride of place to love.