Chapter 41 of Systematic Theololgy: An Introduction to Christian Belief by Dr. John M. Frame, posted with permission.
THE TERMS OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE are frequently used in discussions of the ordo salutis, the application of redemption. In one sense all these blessings are subjective, because they are given to each individual believer and they have major implications for our individual spiritual lives. But it is confusing to describe, particularly, justification and adoption as subjective. An important aspect of justification and adoption is that they convey to us a new status: as righteous (justification) and as sons and daughters (adoption). These are not matters of degree; they do not describe our inner feelings or dispositions. So theologians generally describe them as objective, not subjective.
Other blessings in the ordo salutis are inward, subjective, including regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. In one sense, however, these blessings are also objective. Those who are regenerate really are regenerate, objectively so; and those who are unregenerate really are unregenerate. Same for conversion and sanctification, although the latter admits of degrees.
So all the blessings of the application of redemption are objective in the sense that they are real blessings, not dependent on our interpretations or feelings. All are subjective in the sense that they all bring about major changes in our individual lives. And some (regeneration, conversion, sanctification) are subjective in a further sense: they change us within. They change the heart of the believer. These are the blessings that, in the previous chapter, I aligned with the existential perspective.
Some writers have claimed that the gospel is entirely objective and not at all subjective in this second sense. It is true that in some biblical passages the term gospel refers to objective events in the sense of things that happen outside us rather than inside us. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, Paul expounds his “gospel” (v. 1) by referring to Jesus’ death for us according to the Scriptures (v. 3), his burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances (vv. 4–9). But it is clear in this passage as in many others that these objective events have huge subjective consequences. In verse 10 of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Objectively, Christ appeared to Paul; but when he appeared, he wrought great changes in Paul’s mind and heart, creating within him a new disposition to work hard in the preaching of the gospel that he had once opposed. Indeed, throughout the NT, the gospel brings about profound subjective change. Not only did Christ die and rise again, but when he died, his people died to sin, and when he rose, we rose with him to new life (Rom. 6:4; cf. Col. 3:12–14). It is “Christ in you” who is our hope of glory (Col. 1:27; cf. Rom. 8:10). The doctrine of union with Christ (chapter 38) is not only about ourselves in Christ, but also about Christ in us (2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 4:19).
So the gospel not only narrates the objective events of the history of redemption. It says that these events happened for us (“for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor. 15:3) and promises that those who believe will experience the inward blessings of those events. Indeed, gospel is even broader than that. The gospel announces the coming of the kingdom of God, God’s victory over sin and all its effects in the creation (Matt. 3:1–2; 4:17; Acts 8:12; 20:25; 28:31).
In the previous chapter, we considered effectual calling, the first event of the application of redemption, or ordo salutis. Now we come to the second event, namely, regeneration, or the new birth. When God calls us into fellowship with Christ, he gives us a new life, a new heart. Regeneration is the first effect of effectual calling. And regeneration is the first item on the list that occurs inside of us. It is a subjective blessing, in the second sense of subjective noted above.
The presupposition of Scripture is that apart from God’s grace, we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1–3), as we saw in chapter 36. This means that in and of ourselves, we can do nothing to please God. So just as conception and birth bring new physical life, so the work of regeneration brings new spiritual life. Through the new birth, we gain new desire and new ability to serve God. So my definition of regeneration is this: a sovereign act of God, beginning a new spiritual life in us.
Regeneration in the Old Testament
The most familiar references to regeneration are in the NT, but we can expect that since man’s need is the same in both Testaments, the OT teaches the same thing, from its own perspective. When Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the new birth in John 3, he expresses amazement that Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” does not understand his teaching (v. 10). And indeed the OT does speak of the new birth in a number of ways.
As I indicated in chapter 4, God’s covenants commanded his people to write the law on their hearts (Deut. 6:6; 11:18; 32:46). It is the heart, the core of man himself, that is “deceitful” and “desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), so in redemption God must change the heart. In another figure, God calls the people to “circumcise” their hearts (Deut. 10:16; 30:6). The people cannot, of course, accomplish this change through their own strength. God, rather, promises grace to them (Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:39; Ezek. 11:19; 36:25–27). Note also the prophecies of abundant,sufficient grace for God’s people when the Messiah comes (Isa. 32:15; 34:16; 44:3; 59:21; etc.). God seeks regeneration among the people as a whole, and to secure that result he deals graciously with individuals:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa. 57:15)
So Paul rightly describes the nature of OT Judaism when he says:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom. 2:28–29; cf. 9:6–8)
God’s intention for the Israelites was that they should be a regenerate people, inwardly righteous, circumcised of heart, the law written on their hearts. As I indicated in chapter 4, the new covenant in Christ (Jer. 31:31–34) applied to elect Israelites retroactively. In terms of that covenant, God himself indeed wrote his law on their hearts, circumcised their hearts, and created in them new spiritual life.
The teaching of Jesus, similarly, flows from the understanding that man’s righteousness does not suffice to please God:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20)
Unless God himself does a work of grace in a man, he can do only evil (Matt. 12:33–35; cf. 19:16–26; John 6:63–65).
The Johannine Teaching
The familiar NT language of new birth comes from the writings of John. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless a man is born again,1234 he cannot see the kingdom of God (v. 3) or enter the kingdom of God (v. 5). John Murray distinguishes these:
“To see” may express the idea of intelligent understanding, cognition, appreciation, not mere observation in the sense of being spectator; and “entering into” means actual entrance into the kingdom as members in the realm of life and privilege.1235
This passage, then, reinforces the frequent emphasis of this book (especially chapters 28–32) that our knowledge of God is part of redemption. The intellect, with the rest of our faculties, must be redeemed from the distortions of sin. In Paul’s language, our new self is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). The new birth turns back the repression of the truth that Paul describes in Romans 1:18. And of course, the new birth is also a qualification for entering the kingdom (see chapter 5), enlisting on God’s side in the cosmic battle.
In John 3:4, Nicodemus literalizes Jesus’ saying, exposing his failure to understand.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Much has been written about the phrase “water and the Spirit.” Since “Spirit” obviously refers to the Holy Spirit, the discussion has focused on “water.” Many have thought that this term is an allusion to Christian baptism, and it is possible that Jesus provides an advance reference to that here, as he may provide an advance reference to the Lord’s Supper in John 6:25–65. But the Christian sacraments did not exist as such in the setting of these passages. So we must ask the likely meaning of “water” to Nicodemus himself in his context. We do not have to look far to answer this question, since the OT was replete with the use of water as a redemptive symbol. Note the symbolism of water as purification from sin and defilement in the following: Ex. 30:18–21; Ps. 51:2f.; Isa. 1:16; Jer. 33:8; Ezek. 36:25; Zech. 13:1. Jewish proselyte baptism cannot be excluded from this reference, nor the early baptizing of John and Jesus. Pharisees like Nicodemus resisted the notion that they needed to be purified of sin (cf. Luke 7:30), but God frequently used water to teach his people their need for cleansing, and the new birth is a definitive cleansing from sin.1236
With the reference to the Spirit, we may distinguish in the new birth a negative and a positive aspect: negatively purification from sin, and positively creation of new life through the Spirit. Compare the coordination of these aspects in Ezekiel 36:25–26:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Cf. Ps. 51:2, 7, 10; Titus 3:5.
John 3:6 expands the imagery of birth: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” “Flesh” here has a negative moral connotation, as elsewhere in the NT. So the old birth, from sinful parents, gives rise to a sinful child. Ordinary birth does not deal with sin. But birth by the Spirit creates children with the qualities of the Spirit, children with a new life.
John 3:7–8 emphasizes the mysteriousness of the event:
Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
How do you know whether someone is born again? It’s not a visible event. Jesus says that the regenerating work of the Spirit is like the blowing of the wind: you don’t see it; you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. But as with the wind, you can see the results, though you cannot be infallibly sure that regeneration has taken place. Faith and good works are the effects of regeneration, and these show that we have been born of God. In his first letter, John speaks about being born of God and its results:
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)
That new birth is like a seed that God plants in believers that grows into a holy life that resists temptation:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9)
Love is evidence that a person is born of God:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
Faith in Christ is also evidence of the new birth (1 John 5:1).
Similarly with all the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
When people’s lives are changed from disobedience to obedience to God, we can know, though not infallibly, that the Spirit has been at work, giving new birth.
Those who are born of God will surely overcome the world (1 John 5:4). The new birth protects the believer against sin and the devil (5:18).
Paul on Regeneration
Paul’s writings also teach that God acts to bring new spiritual life in his people. As we have seen, Paul also recognizes that sin makes us totally unable to please God through our works (Rom. 3:10–18; 6:23; 8:8). Only God’s grace in Christ is able to produce good works in us (Eph. 2:8–10).
Paul uses the language of “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10; cf. James 1:18) or the theme of giving life (Gal. 3:21), as well as the term “regeneration” itself (Titus 3:5), to describe God’s way of bringing new spiritual life. We also find the idea of resurrection in passages such as Romans 6, which speak of us as dying and rising with Christ: we die with him unto sin, and we are raised with him unto righteousness. As effectual calling calls us into union with Christ, so regeneration is our union with him in his resurrection life. So new birth, new creation, life from the dead are alternative ways of speaking of the ways in which God gives us new life.
All these expressions emphasize God’s sovereignty. New birth is obviously an act of God (note Ezek. 36:26–27; John 3:8). You didn’t give birth to yourself; you didn’t have anything to do with your own birth. Others gave birth to you. Your birth was a gift of grace. So your new birth was a gift of God, in this case God the Holy Spirit. (As effectual calling is an act of the Father, so regeneration is an act of the Holy Spirit, as Scripture usually represents it.)
Similarly with new creation. Creation is “out of nothing,” as we saw in chapter 10. Before creation, there was nothing. Nothing can’t produce anything. Reality all comes by the creative act of God. Same with resurrection. Before resurrection, there is death. Death can’t produce life. Only God can. So in the new birth we are passive.
Since regeneration enables us to see the kingdom of God and to stop repressing the truth that he has revealed, it comes before our faith, bringing it about. People sometimes say, “Believe in Jesus, and you will be born again.” This expression is biblically inaccurate. It’s true that believing in Jesus is the path to blessing. But the new birth is the cause of faith, rather than the other way around. Again, you can’t give birth to yourself, even by faith. Rather, God gives new birth to you and enables you to have faith. It’s always God’s sovereignty, isn’t it?
A Second Meaning of Regeneration
Like effectual calling, regeneration usually occurs when we hear the gospel. First Peter 1:23 reads, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (cf. v. 25). The Spirit’s great power to give us new birth typically comes through the power of the Word of God. James 1:18 says, “Of his own will he brought us forth [that’s the idea of regeneration] by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
There is, however, a distinction between regeneration as it appears in these two passages and the more common descriptions of regeneration that we have considered in the NT. In 1 Peter 1:23 and James 1:18, it would naturally seem that our new birth comes through a faithful appropriation of the Word of God, while in John 3 and other passages, regeneration clearly precedes and causes any such faithful hearing of God’s Word. We should remember (what Nicodemus did not originally understand) that regeneration is a metaphor of spiritual renewal. As a metaphor, it can be applied to several phases of the redeemed life. In the main Johannine and Pauline passages, regeneration is the absolute beginning of new life, coming before anything we do to grow in Christ. But in these verses of Peter and James, regeneration is a broader concept indicating the process of spiritual growth through the Word of God.
This ambiguity of two senses of regeneration shows a weakness in the concept of an ordo salutis. Regeneration is “prior to faith” in John 3, but in 1 Peter 1:23 and James 1:18 it is subsequent to faith, or possibly a way of describing the activity of faith as it appropriates God’s revelation.
Regeneration in the Johannine and Pauline senses, then, is “prior to faith” and does not presuppose any intellectual deliberation on the part of the person. In that respect, it is different from regeneration in 1 Peter 1:23 and James 1:18. It is a divine act, causally and temporally prior to any human thought or act. So there is no reason to suppose that this blessing is given only to adults or to people of a certain level of intellectual maturity.
It is in this context that we should understand the leaping “for joy” of the unborn John the Baptist when his mother met Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:41, 44). This passage does not describe a typical random movement of an unborn baby. Rather, it imputes to that baby a significant motive in making that movement: he leaped for joy. And one who rejoices in the coming of the Messiah, because of the coming of the Messiah, is certainly regenerate.
Nothing can stop God from bringing an infant to newness of life. Scripture doesn’t tell us how regeneration affects such a child’s experience, feelings, and understanding. Certainly we should not assume that regeneration immediately gives the child the intellectual ability to confess creedal doctrine. For him, then, regeneration is prior to any kind of profession of faith. But if that child has the new life of Christ within him, then he has what John Murray used to call a new “dispositional complex.” That child will have the inclination (despite remaining sin) to love righteousness and hate wickedness. And he will tend to appropriate God’s revelation in nature and Scripture without wickedly resisting it and working against it. And when he comes of age, he will have an inner disposition to receive with joy the teaching of the Word and to profess his faith in it.
Thus, we can understand more clearly this statement of WCF 10.3:
Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
The confession does not specify who these “other elect persons” might be. I assume the divines had in mind people lacking in intellectual competence or with defective sense organs. But it is interesting to consider how wide this provision may in fact extend, and I will return to this subject later in the chapter.
Regeneration confers on the elect person a desire to live a holy and righteous life. We saw that this new disposition embraces all the fruit of the Holy Spirit, such as it is described in Galatians 5:22–23, and it includes all the Christian virtues. Among those virtues, three of the most prominent in the NT are faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 4:1–5; 1 Thess. 1:3; cf. Rom. 5:2; Gal. 5:5; Eph. 1:15; 3:17; 6:23; Col. 1:4, 23; 1 Thess. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:14; 6:11–12; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 3:15; Philem. 5; James 2:5; 1 Peter 1:21). But even though “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13), Paul gives to faith a special distinction within the ordo salutis: faith is the means by which we receive the grace of God. As we will see, Paul teaches that we are justified by faith, and by faith alone.
Faith and repentance together are often called conversion. Faith and repentance are gifts of God, but they are nevertheless also something we do. We choose to believe, or not to believe, to repent or not to repent. In this respect, faith and repentance differ from those elements of the ordo salutis that we have already considered: effectual calling and regeneration.
Let’s look first at faith. As you study the Bible, notice that faith and belief are closely related. Usually the English translations use “faith” for the Greek noun pistis, and “believe” for the Greek verb pisteuo. So believe is the verb form of faith, and faith is the noun form of believe.
In this chapter, we will focus on saving faith, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. There are, of course, other kinds of faith—faith in our friends, faith in the regularity of nature, and so on—which are similar to and different from saving faith in different ways. It is useful to know that all our actions in the world, and all our knowledge of the world, involve some kind of faith. When you get out of bed in the morning, you believe, you have faith, that the floor will be beneath your feet and will stay there. This is sometimes called general faith. But we will instead be talking in this chapter about a specifically biblical, theological concept: special faith or saving faith.
Definition of Saving Faith
Theologians have traditionally analyzed faith according to three elements: knowledge, belief, and trust. Knowledge in this context is simply a knowledge of God’s revelation, either special or general (Rom. 1:32; 10:14). It is a knowledge about God, not a personal knowledge, or friendship, with God. Nor is it a knowledge that the revelation is true. Rather, it’s simply a knowledge of what the revelation says.
Now, it is good to emphasize that faith is based on knowledge. Some people think faith is a leap in the dark, or believing something without any evidence. But it is a knowledge of the Word, and the Word provides evidence of its truth. Faith does sometimes call us to go against the evidence of our senses, as Abraham did, according to Romans 4:19–21:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Cf. 2 Cor. 5:5. So far as Abraham’s senses were concerned, God’s promise seemed to go against the evidence. God had promised a son, but both Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. But remember that the best evidence is the word of God itself. Abraham knew that if God told him that he would have a child, he could rely on that. So in the most important sense, Abraham’s faith was based on evidence, the highest evidence. Or as we are saying at this point, it is based on knowledge. Compare my argument in chapters 23–28.
The second element of faith in the traditional analysis is belief (John 3:2; Acts 26:27). That is, faith is not only knowing what God’s revelation says. It is also believing that that revelation is true. This is sometimes called assent. Theologians have been known to say that assent is not important; in other words, it doesn’t matter what you believe in your head, as long as you love God in your heart. That idea is not biblical. Scripturally, assent is necessary for true faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
But is assent sufficient for true faith? James 2:19 says that the devils believe that God is one, and they tremble. It is possible to assent to some of the truths of the Bible and not be saved. But is it possible to assent to all the truths of the Bible and to be lost? Hard question to answer. I suspect that Satan believes in all the truths of the Bible in some sense, yet he is not saved.
I think it depends somewhat on the strength of assent. That is, if you assent to the truths of Scripture, not feebly or forgetfully, but in a way that determines your behavior, thoughts, and feelings, then it seems to me that you have all that is needed for true faith. But then your faith is better described not merely as assent, but according to the third component of faith, trust. Trustincludes knowledge and assent. But it is a richer concept. Satan believes quite a lot of God’s revelation, maybe all of it. But he doesn’t allow his knowledge of God’s Word to govern his thoughts, actions, and behavior. If he did, he would plead for God’s mercy and ask forgiveness. But he doesn’t do that. In other words, he doesn’t trust in God.
Trust (the Latin word is fiducia) is trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. We trust him as Savior to save us from sin and to give us eternal life (John 3:16). Many Scripture verses present this trust in other terms, such as receiving Christ (John 1:12), coming to him (Matt. 11:28–30; John 6:37; 7:37), drawing near to God through him (Heb. 7:25). Notice that the primary meaning of this is not believing that I am saved, but believing in Jesus, trusting him for salvation. Not only believing that, but believing in. This is what the devils can never do. They can believe abstractly that Jesus is the Savior of his people, but they cannot trust him for salvation.
The second element of trust is subjection to Christ as Lord, a willingness to obey. As James 2:14–26 says, faith must be living faith, obedient faith, faith that works, or else it is dead. “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11; cf. John 20:28) is, as we’ve seen, the most fundamental confession of the NT people of God. And it is to be not only a confession of the mouth, but a commitment that directs all of life.
So true saving faith involves knowledge, belief, and trust in Christ. I should warn you, however, that Scripture sometimes speaks about believing, about faith, in lesser senses. For example, in John 8:31, Jesus begins a dialogue with some Jews who, says John, “believed in him.” But their responses to him indicate anything but true faith. By verse 44 he tells them, “You are of your father the devil.” These Jews are like the devils who give assent to certain Christian teachings, but in the end set themselves against the kingdom of God.
Here I put knowledge as the situational perspective because in the traditional understanding, knowledge is simply the data that we are acquainted with. Belief is normative because it involves commitment to a right understanding of that data. And of course, trust is existential, since it grasps the heart.
Saving Faith Is a Gift of God
So much for the definition of saving faith. Now let’s look at some more biblical teachings about faith. First, saving faith is a gift of God. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (cf. Phil. 1:29). In John 6:44, Jesus says that nobody can believe in him unless the Father draws him. No one, indeed, has any spiritual understanding without God’s grace (Matt. 11:25–27; John 3:3; 1 Cor. 2:14; 1 John 5:20). Apart from grace, we repress the truth of God (Rom. 1:18, 21, 23, 25). So in Scripture, when people believe in Christ, they do it because God appointed them to eternal life (Acts 13:48) or because he opens their hearts, as with Lydia in Acts 16:14. We have seen that the gospel is a word of God that has power to save. That power works to make people believe, and it comes from God himself (1 Cor. 2:4–5, 12–16; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 2:14).
Faith and Good Works
Next, saving faith and good works are closely related. Paul does emphasize that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 2:16). Salvation, in other words, comes through trusting Jesus, not by trying to earn your salvation through good works. But since saving faith is living, not dead (James 2:14–26), some works will be present. They don’t earn you anything, but they always accompany true faith. Paul, who contrasts faith and works, understood that faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). And those who love Jesus keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21; 15:10; Titus 3:8). So works are an evidence of faith.1237
The Role of Faith in Salvation
Now, we say that we are “saved by faith” or “justified by faith.” What does that mean? Faith, after all, is something we do. We are the ones who believe, not God. But isn’t salvation entirely of God? Isn’t it entirely by God’s grace? Or is faith the one thing we do, in order to merit God’s forgiveness?
Certainly not. It’s important to be precise about this, to see what faith does and what it doesn’t do for us. First, it is not the ground of our salvation. The ground is what entitles us to eternal life. The sacrifice of Christ is the only ground of our salvation. His righteousness, not ours, entitles us to fellowship with God. Nothing we do is good enough to gain God’s forgiveness and fellowship. Not even our faith is worthy of him.
Nor is our faith the cause of our salvation, for the same reason.1238 The cause is the power that brings us into relation with Christ. But as we’ve seen, this power does not come from ourselves; it comes from the power of the Spirit, making us believe the Word and trust in Christ. We cannot do anything to save ourselves, to bring about our own salvation.
So what is the role of faith? Theologians struggle for words here, but Reformed theology has settled on the word instrument. By this we mean to say that faith, even though imperfect and unworthy, is the means (instrument = means) by which we reach out and receive God’s grace. Some have compared it to an empty hand, reaching out to be filled. As the hymn “Rock of Ages” puts it, “nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”
But rather than tying yourself in knots trying to understand these technical expressions, it’s better to just remember that faith is trust. Jesus has died for you; that’s your only hope, the only means by which you can be saved. Your faith is simply trust in him. Your trust is not going to earn you anything, but it connects you with Christ, who has earned everything for you.
Faith in the Christian Life
We’ve been speaking so far mainly of faith at the beginning of the Christian life. That’s quite important: faith as that first moment of trust in Christ that brings us into eternal fellowship with God. But faith doesn’t stop after that first moment. It persists throughout the Christian life and is important in our day-to-day relationship with God. Paul says that faith, hope, and love “abide”; they remain throughout life (1 Cor. 13:13).
We see in Hebrews 11 how the great saints of the OT acted again and again “by faith.” In this passage and elsewhere, there is a contrast between faith and sight (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7). Don’t take this the wrong way. Walking by faith is not walking in the dark. The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 had a good understanding of where they were going. God’s word had promised them the blessings of the covenant, and they knew they could trust those promises. As we have seen, faith is based on knowledge. But it’s the knowledge of God’s word, not the knowledge of the eyes. God told Abraham that he would have a son, but that didn’t appear possible, since Abraham and Sarah were far too old. Yet he believed anyway (Rom. 4:19–21). His faith was based on knowledge of God’s promise. But until Isaac was born, he didn’t see the fulfillment of the promise. Similarly the saints of Hebrews 11: they didn’t see the city that God had promised his people. They didn’t see the fulfillment. But they continued believing, because they knew that God’s promise was sure—more sure, even, than the evidence of their eyes.
So the Lord calls all believers to walk by faith. As Paul says, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Faith, Hope, and Love
As we have seen, NT writers frequently combine faith with two other virtues, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 4:1–5; 1 Thess. 1:3; cf. Rom. 5:2; Gal. 5:5; Eph. 1:15; 3:17; 6:23; Col. 1:4, 23; 1 Thess. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:14; 6:11–12; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 3:15; Philem. 5; James 2:5; 1 Peter 1:21). Hope is not something radically different from faith, but it is a kind of faith: faith directed toward the future fulfillment of the promises of God. Since it is based on God’s promises, it is not something tentative, uncertain, the way in which we usually use the word hope in modern life. Rather, it is firm and certain. The words faith and hope differ only in that hope has more of a futuristic emphasis. Or we can think of it in terms of the lordship attributes: faith is directed toward God’s authority, because it focuses on the Word. Hope focuses on God’s control, which will bring his words to pass in the future. But of course, you can’t have faith without hope, or hope without faith.
The third and highest of the three central virtues is love. Love focuses on the third lordship attribute, God’s personal presence. We can think of love as faith and hope dwelling in the heart to produce the deepest personal commitment. Love is a commitment of the whole person. God calls us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.
So love is commitment, loyalty, or allegiance. In marriage, when we pledge our love, we at the same time pledge an exclusive loyalty to that person over against all others. Covenant love to God is the same. It is exclusive. We are to worship God alone, not in competition with other gods, or with our money, ambition, pride, or anything else.
But love is also action. It is doing something to show your loyalty. In marriage, if you love your wife, you will take out the trash and such like. With Jesus, if you love him, you will keep his commandments. And third, love is affection. When you love someone, you have feelings of love. You rejoice in your wife’s presence, her beauty, all that she is. That’s true in marriage, and it’s also true with God. As John Piper has often told us,1239 God wants us to delight in him, to desire him, to find him sweet and lovely.
So love is allegiance, action, and affection. I line these up as normative, situational, and existential, respectively.
The Necessity of Faith
Now, many today don’t think that we must have faith in Jesus in order to be saved. Some of these are pluralists, who think that one can be saved through any number of religions. Others areuniversalists, who believe that everybody will be saved, whether or not he believes in Jesus. Others believe that some people who never hear of Jesus will be saved because they would have believed if they had had a chance. We might say that these believe in the salvation of all potential believers.
But Scripture is clear that nobody is saved apart from Jesus Christ. He is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” so that he can say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; cf. John 1:12; 3:16, 18, 36). On the last day, everyone in heaven will confess that he was saved by Jesus Christ and him alone. He is the exclusive Lord and the exclusive Savior.
Does this mean that no one can be saved unless he makes a verbal confession of Christ in this life? Well, that is a different question, and it is more difficult. Reformed Christians believe, for example, that children who die in the womb, or before being able to talk, may nevertheless be saved by God’s grace. As we saw earlier in this chapter, WCF 10.3 says this:
Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
Is this statement biblical? I believe so. Luke 1:15 says that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb,” and in verse 41, John, then in his mother’s womb, leaped for joy in the presence of Mary the mother of Jesus. I believe also that in Luke 18:15, when Jesus laid his hands on the infants, he meant to place God’s name on them and identify them with the kingdom of God.
If God saves children who are too young to make a public profession of faith, says the confession, he may save others, too, who are unable for some other reason to make a confession. We can’t be dogmatic about what classes of people fall into that category. We naturally think about people who are handicapped so as to be unable to think or speak normally.
But it is certain that however wide the divine net might be, it never reaches outside the grace of Christ. When the Spirit regenerates a person, that person will eventually come to faith in Christ. And if and when he is able to profess faith in Christ, he will do so. The confession’s statement should not encourage anybody to think that he can be saved without trusting in Christ. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” said Peter in Acts 4:12.
So Christ alone is the name by which we may be saved. It is vitally important to proclaim the name of Christ throughout the world, so that people of all nations may believe in him.
In the theological tradition, both repentance and faith are part of conversion. Salvation comes through faith, but also through repentance. That may sound strange, since we are accustomed to thinking of faith alone as the instrument of salvation. Where does repentance fit in?
Wayne Grudem defines repentance as “a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.”1240 As with faith, this definition has three elements. First, as faith is based on knowledge, so repentance is based on an understanding that we have sinned and our sins are hateful to God. So the first element of repentance is sorrow. In Scripture, there is a difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:9–10; Heb. 12:17). Worldly sorrow is like the sorrow of Judas, who had no hope. Godly sorrow recognizes how terrible I must look to God and confesses that honestly. But it is hopeful. It recognizes sin in its true light, because it knows that God is able and ready to forgive.
Then, just as faith involves assent, belief, so repentance involves renunciation. In assent, I say that I believe, I agree with what God says. So renunciation goes beyond sorrow. It is agreeing with God’s evaluation of my sin.
And finally, repentance is actually turning away from sin, just as faith is turning to Christ. As faith makes a personal commitment to Christ, repentance makes a personal commitment against sin.
You can see, then, that repentance and faith are inseparable. They are two sides of a coin. You cannot turn from sin without turning to Christ, or vice versa. Turning from sin points you in the direction of Christ. You don’t need to turn twice, only once. So faith and repentance are the same thing, viewed positively and negatively. Neither exists before the other, and neither exists without the other. The two are simultaneous and perspectival.
This means, in turn, that you cannot accept Christ as Savior without accepting him as Lord. Jesus says that if we love him, we must keep his commandments (John 14:15; many other texts cited earlier). To receive Jesus as Lord is to make a commitment to keeping his commandments. This is to say that to trust Jesus for forgiveness is to repent of sin. So it is unbiblical to say as some people do that you can accept Christ as Savior without accepting him as Lord. The Bible teaches what is called lordship salvation. To be saved, we call upon the Lord (Rom. 10:13); Paul has said in verse 9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So our salvation begins with the confession “Jesus is Lord.”
Some have said that lordship salvation means that you must be sinlessly perfect, obedient to the Lord, from the first moment of your Christian life. That is not the case. It does mean that from the beginning of our life with God, we must be committed to Jesus’ lordship (Rom. 10:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11).
Repentance and Salvation
Does this mean that repentance, as well as faith, is necessary for salvation? In a word, yes. But it’s not as though there were two different things that are necessary. Faith and repentanceare two names for the same heart-attitude. The gospel of the NT includes a demand for repentance, as many texts indicate. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 24:46–47; Acts 2:37–38; 3:19; 5:31; 17:30; 20:21; 2 Cor. 7:10; Heb. 6:1). To believe the gospel is to repent. WCF 15.3 also teaches that repentance is necessary for salvation:
Although repentance is not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.
This is the same thing the confession says about faith. Repentance is not the ground or cause of salvation. It does not make satisfaction for our sins; only Jesus does. It does not cause us to receive pardon; only God’s grace does. But it is necessary for us, so much so that we will not receive pardon without it. Scripture cannot imagine anyone believing in Christ who wants at the same time to cling to his sin.
Repentance and the Christian Life
I said earlier that the Christian life does not just begin with faith, but continues by faith. It is a life of faith. Similarly, the Christian life is a life of repentance. When Jesus saves us, we do not instantly become sinlessly perfect, and indeed we will not become perfect until the consummation. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12; cf. 2 Cor. 7:10). Jesus tells those he loves to “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, Peter resisted at first, but then asked Jesus to wash everything: his head, his whole body. Jesus replied that “the one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13:10). By his death for us, Jesus has cleansed us completely from sin. But as one’s feet accumulate dust on the paths of Palestine, so we accumulate sin in the Christian life, and we need to ask God’s forgiveness on a regular basis. This sin does not affect our eternal salvation. You needn’t worry that if you die with sin you haven’t repented of, you will go to hell. But if you love Jesus, your daily sin will grieve you, as it grieves him, and you will run to him, saying that you are sorry, you renounce it, and you intend to act differently. And of course, Scripture also says that when you sin against another human being, you should also go to him, express your sorrow, renounce your sin, and promise to do better (Matt. 5:23–26; 18:15–20). You may also need to make restitution, to make up for the wrong that you did to the other person.
The other person might or might not forgive you. But God will. We have his promise that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He is faithful, and also just. He is just to forgive our daily sins, because Jesus has borne the penalty for all our sin, past, present, and future.
We need more Christians who will lead lives of repentance. For repentance always challenges pride. If you’re coming to God daily to confess to him how much you have sinned, you will find it hard to pretend that you are holier than everybody else. You’ll find it hard to put on airs, to pose as the perfect Christian. When others accuse you of sin, you won’t immediately jump to defend yourself, as if of course you could never do wrong and any accusation must spring from a misunderstanding. Rather, when someone accuses you of sin, you’ll respond by thinking there is a high probability that the accusation is true, and you won’t be embarrassed to say, “Oh, yes, I did do that, and I am terribly sorry. Will you forgive me?” If we are able to humble ourselves before God, we will be humble before men as well. And the church will be far better off if there are more of us like that.
Knowledge (in faith)
Belief (in faith)
Trust (in faith)
Ground (of salvation)
Cause (of salvation)
Instrument (of salvation)
1. Distinguish various meanings of objective and subjective in understanding the blessings of the application of redemption.
2. Summarize the teaching of the OT that bears on regeneration.
3. Explain from John 3 in what ways the new birth deals with sin in our lives.
4. What is meant by “born of water” in John 3:5?
5. Frame says that the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3:5 distinguishes “in the new birth a negative and a positive aspect.” What are these? Are these aspects distinguished elsewhere in Scripture? Evaluate.
6. How do you know when someone is born again? Or can you know? Discuss.
7. How does Paul describe the new birth? Why are these terms appropriate?
8. “Believe in Jesus, and you will be born again.” Is this exhortation biblically legitimate? Why or why not?
9. What is meant by the regeneration language in 1 Peter 1:23 and James 1:18? How does this concept differ from that in John 3?
10. Is it possible for infants to be regenerate? Present biblical evidence.
11. Expound the traditional definition of faith in terms of knowledge, belief, and trust. Explain Frame’s triperspectival interpretation of it.
12. “Saving faith is a gift of God.” Show biblical evidence.
13. What is the relation between faith and good works? Support your answer from Scripture.
14. Describe the relation of saving faith to salvation, defining the terminology used.
15. What does it mean to lead a life of faith?
16. Why are faith, hope, and love linked to one another in the NT? Expound the meaning of love.
17. Can someone be saved without faith in Christ? Give biblical grounds for your answer.
18. Can one have faith without repentance? Can one be saved without repentance? Discuss.
19. Describe a life of repentance.
Isa. 57:15: For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,to revive the spirit of the lowly,and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
John 3:1–8: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Acts 4:12: And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
Rom. 2:28–29: For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
1 Cor. 15:10: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Col. 1:27: To [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Resources for Further Study
Miller, C. John. Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender. Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 2009.
Murray, John. MCW, 2:167–201.
Piper, John. Desiring God. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1986, 2003.
Chapter 41 of Systematic Theololgy: An Introduction to Christian Belief by Dr. John M. Frame