Saving Faith

The question has sometimes been raised about which comes first, faith or repentance. The two concepts, however, are really twins that are linked together. Our faith is a repenting faith and our repentance is a believing repentance. In Acts 20:21, in the middle of Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders, he states, “. . . solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul sees faith and repentance as concomitants. While they are linked together, they are different concepts.


The teaching of Scripture strongly affirms that faith is a gift from God. In the previous chapters, we have examined the fact that man is dead in sin and that God is the Divine initiator of our salvation (Eph. 2:1-5; Col. 2:13; John 6:44,45, 63-65). We have observed that regeneration precedes faith (John 1:12,13; 3:3-10). While this implies that faith is a gift from God, there are also direct Scriptures that state that it is God who grants faith. Ephesians 2:8 states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” In English, the phrase, “and that not of yourselves” could be said to modify “grace,” “have been saved,” or “faith.” However, the Greek is clear that “faith” is the antecedent of the phrase “and that not of yourselves.” Robert Reymond writes:

Even though “faith” is a feminine noun in the Greek and “this” is a neuter demonstrative pronoun, it is still entirely possible that Paul intended to teach that “faith,” the nearest possible antecedent, is the antecedent of the pronoun “this,” and accordingly that saving faith is the gift of God. It is permissible in Greek syntax for the neuter pronoun to refer antecedently to a feminine noun, particularly when it serves to render more prominent the matter previously referred to (see, for example, ‘your salvation [. . . soterias], and this [. . . touto] from God’ – Phil. 1:28; see also 1 Cor. 6:6, 8).1

Therefore, this passage states that it is of God’s free mercy (grace) that we have been saved through the instrumentality of faith and even our faith is a gift from God. Our faith is a gift from God that flows out of God’s work of regeneration. Ephesians 2:8-10 is the capstone to the previous statements in Ephesians 2 concerning our being dead in sin and being made alive by God.

Philippians 1:29 also states that faith is a gift from God: “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” This verse mentions two things that have been granted or given to the Philippians, faith and suffering for Christ. While we might not be excited about a call to suffer for Christ, this passage again affirms that faith is a gift from God.

Three times in the book of Acts God is said to be the source of faith. In Acts 13:48, Paul announced that because of Jewish persecution he was turning to the Gentiles: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Notice the last phrase of this verse. Faith is said to have its source is God’s eternal plan of salvation and election. Simon Kistemaker writes concerning the last phrase of this verse:

“And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Luke adds a sentence in which he uses the passive voice were ordained. The implication is that God is the agent, for only he grants eternal life (Matt. 25:46; John 10:28; 17:2). In the Greek, the form were ordained is a passive participle in the perfect tense. The perfect denotes action that took place in the past but is relevant for the present. In the past,, God predestined the salvation of the Gentiles.2

Acts 16:14 states: “And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” As we observed earlier, the phrase “worshiper of God” was an expression used to describe a Jewish proselyte. Lydia had some information concerning God, but notice that it was the Lord who opened her heart to respond; her faith in Christ was a gift from God.

Acts 18:27 speaks of Apollos and his work: “And when he [Apollos] wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he helped greatly those who had believed through grace.” They had believed through the grace of God. Again, the idea of faith being a gift of God is set forth. When a person believes in Christ, it is the result of God giving that faith and opening their heart to respond; faith flows out of a heart that has been made spiritually alive through the sovereign action of God. Faith and repentance are the natural actions of a heart that has been regenerated by God. John Murray writes:

Regeneration is inseparable from its effects and one of the effects is faith. Without regeneration it is morally and spiritually impossible for a person to believe in Christ, but when a person is regenerated it is morally and spiritually impossible for that person not to believe. Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me” (John 6:37), and he was referring in this case surely to the giving of the Father in the efficacious drawing of the Father mentioned in the same context (John 6:44, 65). Regeneration is the renewing of the heart and mind, and the renewed heart and mind must act according to their nature.3


The Bible presents three main aspects to true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. These aspects of faith are logical components of faith. An understanding of each of these aspects of saving faith is important.

Knowledge (notitia) is the cognitive foundation of true saving faith. In order to believe or trust in someone or something, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the object of trust and it is necessary to believe that the content of the knowledge is true. Romans 10:14 states: “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Romans 10:17 summarizes this thought: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” The logic of these statements is simple: in order to call upon Christ or have faith in Christ and his work of salvation, a person must have some knowledge content concerning the person and work of Christ. This also means that faith has content; it is not a blind leap into the darkness. We are not justified by believing anything. The statement is often made, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” However, it is possible to be sincerely wrong. Justification is not by sincerity alone; it is by faith in the biblical Christ alone. The content of faith focuses on the nature of man’s sin, his need before a holy and just God, and the person and work of Christ for the salvation of sinners. Robert Reymond writes,

In sum, saving faith is based upon divine testimony. It knows nothing of the modern notion that faith is the enemy of knowledge and that it repudiates all grounding in propositional truth, expressed in such sentiments as “It is when one cannot or does not know that one can or must believe” and “It does not matter what one believes as long as one is sincere.” These sentiments, of course, are simply empty superstitions and amount to salvation by ignorance and/or by sincerity, which is no salvation at all. They also fatally wound Christianity in the heart. To the contrary, the Bible glories and delights in knowledge and propositional truth as the foundation of true faith and characterizes “faith” devoid of knowledge as ‘believing the lie’ which leads to condemnation (2 Thess. 2:11-12).”4

The following Scriptures also set forth the idea of content or propositional truth in saving faith:

Heb. 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

John 8:24: “‘I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.’”

John 16:27: “for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father.”

Romans 10:9: “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved;”

1 Thessalonians 4:14: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”

1 John 5:1: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.”

1 John 5:4, 5: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”5

On April 30, 1976 Evelyn Mooers attached a rappelling rope to a drain pipe grating on the roof of the Mark Twain South County Bank. Mooers, an experienced climber, had once scaled 14,410- foot Mt. Rainier in Washington State. The rappelling exercise from the bank building would have been routine but for one miscalculation. The drain pipe grating wasn’t anchored. Numerous bank officials and their friends watched as Mooers plummeted to her death. Her so-called faith in the grating was fatally misplaced. She did not have proper knowledge concerning the grating that was to be her support.

The second aspect of faith is assent (assensus). A person must believe that the knowledge concerning Christ is true. Assent is the conviction that the knowledge of Christ’s work of salvation is true. It is possible for someone to study the Bible and to read theology and have a great deal of knowledge concerning what the Bible says about God, man, Christ, and salvation. However, if he does not believe the content of the knowledge to be true, if he does not assent to the knowledge, he will not trust in Christ for salvation; he will not trust in that which he does not believe to be true. While assent is a necessary part of saving faith, true faith does not contain only knowledge and assent. A person may have knowledge concerning his sin and Christ’s work of salvation, assent to that knowledge, but not take the final step of trusting in Christ for his salvation. For example, Satan and demons know there is a God, they know of Christ’s work and they assent to that knowledge, they know it is true. James 2:19 states: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe and shudder.” The demons know there is a God and tremble at that knowledge. If a person only has knowledge and assent, that does not mean he is a Christian, but he is at least qualified to be a demon (see also: Matthew 8:28,29). Suppose I am in New York City and I want to reach Chicago by midnight. I phone my travel agency and learn that the last plane to reach Chicago before midnight leaves LaGuardia at 10:00 p.m. To check the information I secure a time-table, verify the 10:00 p.m. departure and make a reservation. I buy a ticket. In plenty of time I take a limousine to the airport, check in, and get my boarding pass. To make sure I’m at the right gate area, I ask a passenger or two if this is the 10:00 p.m. flight to Chicago. I am told that it is. I mentally review the situation. The travel agency, the timetable, the airline clerk, the passengers, all assure me this is the 10:00 p.m. flight to Chicago. Suddenly, the airline clerk announces the flight is ready to board. Passengers begin moving through the doorway to the plane. I stand there nodding my head in sincere assent – this is the 10:00 p.m. flight to Chicago. I keep nodding my head in genuine agreement while the gate is shut and the plane begins to move toward the takeoff area. I even watch as it accelerates down the runway and takes off into the night without me. I had knowledge that it was the right plane, I assented to the knowledge that it was the right plane, but I didn’t take action and enter the plane. Consequently, my knowledge and assent were worthless.

The third aspect of faith is trust (fiducia). A person knows that he is a sinner and Christ is the only way of salvation, he assents to that knowledge, and he places a reliant trust in Christ alone for salvation. John Murray writes: “Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is a receiving and resting upon him.”6 People either trust in something in themselves or in Christ for salvation. They trust in their past works, present works, or something they plan to do in the future. This last crucial aspect of faith is the transfer of trust from oneself to Christ alone. Many Scriptures express this idea of trusting in Christ as a crucial element of saving faith (John 1:12; 2:11, 23; 3:16, 18 [twice], 36; 4:39; 6:29, 35, 40; &;5, 31, 38, 39, 48; Acts 10:43; 14:23; 16:31; 19:4; 22:19; Romans 4:5, 24; 10:14; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:8; 1 John 5:10 [twice], 13. Robert Reymond writes, “But all these expressions of believing ‘in’ or ‘upon’ or ‘into’ Jesus connote, at the very least, that one believes that Jesus always tells the truth and that what the Bible teaches about him is also always true, for saving faith necessarily entails believing propositional truths about him.”7

Do you trust in Christ alone for salvation? Do you recognize that he is your only hope of salvation and you rely only on him? D. James Kennedy writes:

It was a dark night on the Mississippi highway from Jackson to Vicksburg. The sky was overcast, but at least the heavy rains of the last few days had stopped. The truck driver relaxed in the cab of his truck and watched the broken line of the road disappear monotonously beneath his cab, thankful that at least now the roads were dry and much safer. Suddenly the twin tail lights of the car in front of him melted into the road and disappeared! He sat bolt upright in his cab. That was inexplicable. It could not happen, and yet it just had. That thought went through his mind in a fraction of a second. In the next fraction of a second he saw the gaping black hole where a bridge had stood over the river. He slammed on his brakes. The wheels stopped instantly, but there was no longer any road beneath them. His truck sailed silently and eerily into the black void. Breaking glass, he extricated himself and managed to swim to shore. He scrambled up the embankment, all the while hearing one car after another zoom smoothly into the gap, and disappear, followed by shrieks and a booming splash. Finally, he reached the road and frantically waved his hands at oncoming cars. They were no doubt surprised by this dripping scarecrow, but at least three passed him before he was able to stop a driver from speeding over the edge. Sixteen people died that night. Each had faith in a bridge that the swollen river had torn away – a bridge that was out.

Many suppose that by the bridge of good works – morality, piety, church membership, good character, and religiosity – they can somehow make their way across that dark river safely into paradise. That bridge is out. The abyss is real, and it is eternal. I cannot imagine how frightening it must be to feel yourself, at the end of life, silently slipping over the edge into eternity without heeding God’s call – without being justified, adopted, and sanctified.”9


Works Cited

1 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. 732. See also: Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian, 424-425.
2 Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, 496.
3 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 106.
4 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 727.
5 See also: John 11:42; 14:11; 17:8, 21; 20:31.
6 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 111.
7 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 729.
9 Kennedy, How Do I Live For God?, 114-115.

Next article in this series: Repentance unto Life

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.