The clear teaching of the Bible is that we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our own supposed good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Given that faith is the essential prerequisite for the reception of saving grace, I want to briefly explore its precise nature.
“Pistis” (πίστις, the Greek word for faith) and its cognates occurs 239 times in the New Testament, and even a cursory study of its usage indicates that saving faith has two distinct elements: propositional faith and personal faith. Furthermore, it is equally apparent that both of these elements must be present and active within a person in order to have efficacious saving faith.
Propositional faith simply refers to belief in stated truths or propositions. In Christian faith, these propositions take the form of foundational doctrines, central to which are doctrines pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ. For example, in Romans 10:8-9, we read:
“This is the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Here we find that in order to be saved, one must believe at least two doctrinal propositions: that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. But a careful reading of the New Testament reveals that there are additional doctrinal propositions which appear to be equally essential for salvation. The two propositions mentioned in Romans 10, above, are merely a summary of this larger cohort. Other essential concomitant propositional truths include belief in God’s existence, the divinity of Christ, his Sonship, his atoning sacrifice for sin and mankind’s universal need for forgiveness.
Significantly, propositional faith, as it is explained in the New Testament, is almost always expressed with the phrase “believe that” (pisteuo hoti). Propositional faith is to believe that something is true. Hence, in the previously cited Romans 10:9, we are told we must “believe … that God raised him from the dead.”
John’s Gospel is full of similar exhortations toward propositional faith:
“If you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins”, (a statement by Jesus in John 8:24 exhorting people to believe that he is the Saviour).
“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).
In both these instances, the essential nature of propositional faith is being stressed: If we do not believe that Jesus is the Saviour, we will die in our sins and we will not have life in his name. Thus, the first (and arguably the foundational) element of saving faith is propositional faith: subscribing to a set of doctrinal propositions which God’s Word declares are essential points of belief if we are to be saved.
The second element of saving faith is personal faith (also referred to philosophically as fiducial faith). This moves beyond mere belief, even passionate belief, to encompass the essential characteristics of personal trust and commitment. Whereas propositional faith involves cognitive belief in propositional truths, personal faith involves placing your trust in something or someone. In the case of Christian faith, that someone is Jesus. Personal faith moves beyond a mere intellectual agreement with a concept or proposition. It is a deeply person commitment that involves an exercise of trust with life-changing consequences.
There is a stark lexical and grammatical contrast between the expressions of propositional faith and personal faith in the New Testament. Whereas propositional faith is almost always expressed with the phrase “believe that”, personal faith is expressed with the phrases “believe in”, “trust in” or “have faith in” (employing the various Greek prepositions: en, eis or epi). Consider these two statements, for example:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:18)
Believing in Jesus involves more than merely believing the right doctrine about him. It involves a life-changing commitment to him at a deeply personal level. This is evident in the juxtaposition expressed in John 3:36:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” (John 3:36)
Here we see that believing in Jesus is juxtaposed with rejecting him. Thus, believing in Jesus is more than mere belief in a propositional doctrinal truth, otherwise the appropriate juxtaposition would be “but whoever disbelieves the Son ...” The fact that “rejection” of Jesus is the appropriate juxtaposition indicates that this is not merely a contrast between cognitive belief and disbelief, but a contrast between committed trust and wilful rejection.
This essentially active characteristic of personal faith is evident from the teaching of Jesus. For example:
– “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t do the things I say?” (Luke 6:46). Thus, to exercise personal faith in Jesus means to obey him and repent of our sins.
– “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19). Thus, to exercise personal faith in Jesus means to follow him and have your life’s priorities and purposes transformed by him.
– “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [value less highly] his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26). Thus, to exercise personal faith in Jesus means to be absolutely committed to him above everything and anyone else.
– “… the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who trusts in him may have eternal life.” (John 314-15). Thus, to exercise personal faith in Jesus means to trust in his atonement alone for your salvation.
From these verses alone, it can be seen that personal faith in Jesus necessarily involves obedience, repentance, transformation, total commitment and complete trust. This is not passive believism. Personal faith is active and deeply transformative.
BOTH ARE ESSENTIAL
Saving faith, then, involves both types of faith: propositional faith and personal faith. They go hand in hand. In fact, the latter flows from the former. The reason we are prepared to place such a deep personal faith in Jesus, with its life-changing consequences, is that we have firstly come to believe certain things about him. The reason we are willing to trust him so deeply and be committed to him so completely, is that we have become convinced of certain propositional truths that describe his person and character. It is because of our propositional faith in such things as his divinity, Lordship, messiahship, atoning sacrifice, physical resurrection, ascension into heaven, rulership over all creation and coming judgement that we are willing to commit ourselves to him so deeply, obey him so completely and follow him so closely.
For example, it is because we have come to believe in the propositional truth that Jesus is Lord, that we are moved to commit ourselves to him as Lord. Similarly, it is because we are convinced of the propositional truth that Jesus is the Saviour of mankind that we are able to trust him completely as our Saviour.
Both propositional and personal faith, therefore, are essential elements of saving faith. Without either one, it is not saving faith you are exercising, but something much less: a poor and ineffectual shadow of the real thing.
Consider the example of a chair. Propositional faith might describe my belief that the chair I am standing in front of is well constructed and appears to be capable of bearing my weight. Propositionally, I might believe that it is a sturdy, well-made chair. But I am not exercising personal faith in the chair until I trust myself to it and actually sit on it. Until personal faith is exercised, there is no commitment. I am simply subscribing to a set of propositional concepts that do not yet have a practical bearing upon my life. At best, all I have is a half-hearted, uncommitted faith which is really no faith at all.
PROPOSITIONAL FAITH WITHOUT PERSONAL FAITH
Yet when it comes to Christianity, some people have such a half-hearted faith. The most common form of this aberration is embracing propositional faith without any accompanying personal faith: without a personal commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour. Churches and communities are full of people in this category. They believe a lot of the propositional truths about Jesus – his divinity, atonement and resurrection – but it is clear from their lives that this propositional faith has not translated into personal faith. The absence of personal faith manifests itself in various ways:
– Lack of submission to Jesus as Lord. Lack of repentance. Continuing to live in gross, habitual disobedience to Christ and his commandments.
– Lack of commitment to following and serving Jesus. Lack of transformation of priorities and values. Instead of placing Christ first above all else, the person compartmentalises Jesus into a religious sector of their lives and lives the rest of the time with themselves at the centre, seeking their own welfare rather than seeking to serve Christ.
– Lack of trust in Jesus as Saviour. Although mental assent is given to the atoning work of Christ, the person continues to rely on their own supposed good works to earn favour with God. They do not truly trust Jesus for their salvation.
There are plenty of people like this in church: well-meaning people who have been faithful members of the church for decades. They attend regularly. They concur with the central tenets of the Christian faith. They believe all the right stuff. But at no point have they been transformed by that belief. Propositional faith has not yet become personal faith. They believe all the right stuff about Jesus, but they do not personally believe in Jesus – not in the sense that Jesus taught. They have not personally and fully committed themselves to Jesus in submission, repentance and deep, abiding trust in him for their salvation. They have not yet sat upon the chair.
People in this category are in good (or perhaps, bad) company. The devil himself is in the same situation. He believes all the right stuff about Jesus (James 2:19). In fact, he knows unquestionably who Jesus is. He knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind and the resurrected King who now sits enthroned in Heaven. The devil could pass a theological test about Jesus with flying colours! He has an excellent understanding of the propositional truths about Jesus. But his propositional understanding has not resulted in personal faith. He refuses to submit to Jesus and he continues to live in defiance of Jesus’ rule.
Propositional faith without personal faith, therefore, cannot save you. It is a half-baked faith: a faith with only half the ingredients necessary for salvation. And that is no faith at all.
PERSONAL FAITH WITHOUT PROPOSITIONAL FAITH
Strangely, there are also those who claim to have personal faith without propositional faith (or who hold to an extremely diluted propositional faith). This is a somewhat bizarre and counter-intuitive position to hold, but I will try to explain it. It centres around the concept of non-doxastic propositional faith.
Non-doxastic propositional faith refers to adopting and valuing propositional truths while simultaneously believing that they are not true. It is benign acceptance of propositional truths, rather than actually believing them. It is celebrating propositional truths for their religious symbolism, while regarding them as mere myths. Thus, propositional biblical statements are valued as beautiful, noble principles, while not believed to be actually true.
For example, there are liberal ‘Christians’ who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus or in his resurrection from the dead. Yet they affirm and celebrate the beauty of these religious ‘myths’ and regard them as having a central place in Christian teaching because of the symbolism they have for our lives. It is claimed that these scriptural propositions, while actually not historically or evidentially true, still portray the beautiful symbolism that we can all experience a resurrection of hope from the ashes of despair and that we can all, in some way, aspire to be partakers of God’s divine nature. I have even encountered liberal clergy who do not believe in God, yet value the ‘God-myth’ as a beautiful, aspirational notion that can lift our spirits and give us a sense of purpose and enlightenment.
The attitude of liberal Christians toward Jesus is a strangely conflicted one. On the one hand, the list of propositional truths about Jesus that they commonly disbelieve is staggering:
– his virgin birth (a story made up by later followers)
– his divinity (he was just a good religious teacher)
– his miracles (these stories were invented and embellished by later followers)
– his atoning sacrifice (his death was simply a tragic end to a promising life)
– his resurrection (later disciples probably made this story up too)
– his ascension back into heaven (another myth)
– his imminent return and coming judgment (not going to happen – another myth)
Liberal Christians reject almost ALL the foundational propositional truths about Jesus found in the Bible. Their propositional faith in Jesus is basically non-existent. Yet, despite this, they openly profess to be followers of Jesus. They profess some kind of ethereal, groundless personal faith in him. They celebrate all the Christian festivals throughout the year – Christmas, Easter, Ascension Sunday, etc. They sing songs of praise, adoring Jesus. They engage in liturgy that honours Jesus. And, at an individual level, they claim to be followers of his teaching.
How is this possible? What sort of mental gymnastics are being employed here that allow them to engage in such obvious confliction?
It comes back to the notion of non-doxastic propositional faith. According to this, you can admire and value propositional truth without actually believing it to be true. You can simply celebrate it as a beautiful myth with inspiring meaning, without it needing to have any basis in historical reality or evidential fact. And this is precisely what Liberal Christians do. Jesus becomes a mythological symbol of the kind of grace, forgiveness, new birth and hope that we can all experience in our own lives. On this view, it doesn’t matter that most of what we read about Jesus supposedly didn’t happen or isn’t actually true; it’s the meaning behind the stories that is important.
The great tragedy of liberal Christianity, however, is that by deconstructing biblical propositional truth – effectively rejecting it entirely – there is nothing of substance left to base any kind of personal faith upon. The chair has been completely destroyed and there is nothing left to sit on. Whatever kind of personal faith one tries to have, it is suspended in mid-air with no visible means of support. If Jesus did not die as an atoning sacrifice for sin, then our sins are not forgiven and we are still under God’s judgment. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then there is no hope for us beyond the grave. If Jesus is not the Son of God, but merely one more in a long line of disappointing, dead religious leaders, why should we give any more credence to his teachings than to the teachings of anyone else? What basis in FACT is there for any kind of faith in Jesus and his teachings? Without a solid basis for our propositional faith, any personal faith we attempt to dredge up is merely a set of vague religious platitudes based on esoteric wishful thinking.
In the end, liberal Christianity is a faith without substance. It is not grounded in the truth of the past and, therefore, offers no real hope for the future. By dismantling propositional faith as they do, liberal Christians have no remaining basis for personal faith. All that is left is empty religious rhetoric that purports to offer comfort and inspiration but, instead, leaves one grasping thin air.
THE FULL RECIPE
A half-baked cake is no cake at all. Saving faith requires BOTH types of faith: propositional and personal. Remove either ingredient and you no longer have genuine saving faith. Without personal faith, all you have is intellectual assent. And without propositional faith, all you are left with is vague, empty religious platitudes.
What about you? Do you believe the propositional truths of the Bible? And having exercised faith in them, have you trusted yourself to the One to whom those truths point? Have you exercised personal, life-changing faith in Jesus, the Lord of the Universe, the risen Saviour and the coming judge of all mankind? Don’t stop with just a half-baked cake.