by Sherman Isbell
We read in scripture of those who believe the word of God, and yet are not saved, as in Luke 8:13: "They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away," or in Acts 26:27–28: "King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." Or James 2:19: "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble." Faith of a certain kind, constrained by evidence, will be found even in those who hate the truth with which they are confronted. Gardiner Spring comments, "We receive, compound, and compare ideas, whether we wish to or not. When we see the evidence of a religious doctrine to be clear and convincing, we cannot withhold our assent from it, while at the same time we may hate what we believe and love what we reject." 1
Though this kind of believing of the Word of God manifests the generic character of faith as a state of mind induced by evidence, it is worth considering how it is to be distinguished from saving faith. It is usually referred to by theologians as 'historical faith,' because, as John Owen observes, it has no spiritual life in it, but is nothing more than that assent "such as we give unto historical things that are credibly testified unto us." 2 That an inquirer would get no further than historical faith has always been a great peril for many associated with the Christian church. What is pertinent to observe in regard to our own age, when infidel principles predominate in society, is that we must not encourage anyone to conclude that if they abandon worldliness to the extent of opposing such distinctive forms of modern infidelity as evolution, and assent to many biblical and even Reformed doctrines, that this necessarily implies that they have saving faith.
Owen speaks of the varied effects of this historical faith. "With some it doth no way, or very little, influence the will or the affections, or work any change in the lives of men. So is it with them that profess they believe the gospel, and yet live in all manner of sins . . . . and is an assent of the very same nature and kind with that which devils are compelled to give; and this faith abounds in the world." But with others this historical faith has produced such significant changes in their thinking and behavior that, in Owen's judgment, their neighbors ought, in the judgment of charity, to look on them as true believers. Nevertheless, known perhaps only to God, their faith is something other than saving faith, because it is unaccompanied by any "spiritually vital principle of obedience," such as would always be found in a heart purified by faith (Acts 15:9).3 Let us look more closely at these two groups. Those who have experienced only a minimal effect from this historical faith, whose "assent unto all divine revelation may be true and sincere" but who do not have the root of the matter in them, are often identified by the absence of conviction of sin. Owen insists that the dislike of sin, a shame for sin, a fear of the wrath of God, and restlessness to be delivered from a lost condition, necessarily come prior to justification, because the sinner will not seek deliverance from an evil of which he is not convicted. If saving faith is "the flight of a penitent sinner unto the mercy of God in Christ," something essential is missing from the faith of those who have no distress about sin and so have not been moved to flee for refuge. A faith which is not concerned with relieving the souls of men from the sentence and curse of the law is not the faith whereby we are justified.4 Thomas Halyburton points out the fallacy of those who, because they are not troubled by doubts about the Christian religion, imagine that they have faith. A more likely explanation for their lack of doubt, he says, is that they judge that little is at stake for them in the matter. They find it easy to believe the gospel, because they feel that it would be no inconvenience to them if the gospel were found to be untrue. They are in fact ignorant of any experimental acquaintance with God's holiness and their own sinfulness. "They think sin no great matter, and therefore think God may be soon reconciled to them." But if once they saw the danger in which they stand, and how much their personal interest depends upon whether the gospel is true, they would be more scrupulous about identifying the way of reconciliation, and eager to be reassured that they had found it.5
John Howe unmasks the thoughtless way in which many claim to be Christians. He remarks that while they profess that Jesus is Christ, they have never considered whether there are valid and sufficient grounds for making such an affirmation. What I profess may be itself true, and there may be clear grounds on which that truth is founded, but if I myself am without any intelligent appreciation of why it can be affirmed as true, this is not faith. Faith entails a knowledgeable assent to testimony supported by evidence, and Christian faith is a conviction born of reflection on the claims of truth found in Scripture. "I pray consider this well; ungrounded faith is no faith: . . . if I believe this at random, if men will call that believing when I believe and I cannot tell why, and I care not why, I believe as a matter of common hearsay or of uncertain report, I take it up from the people amongst whom I live. Such an ungrounded faith as this is a nullity, a perfect nullity, it goes for nothing; it is not believing, it is but a hovering, fluttering opination, a vague opinion only I met with by chance, a thing that falls in my way . . . . And this is all that the most have to say for their being Christians: that religion which was the religion of my forefathers, which is the religion of the country where I live, which is the religion established by law, which is the religion that most suits my external conveniences to profess." Howe goes on to note that not only are these the grounds on which many claim to have adopted the Christian faith, but they are the same grounds that furnish the pagan world with its faith.6
Turning now to those in whose lives historical faith has had a profounder effect, Charles Hodge notes that an inward experience confirming to them that the Scriptures are true may issue only in an unsettling conviction about guilt and hell. "Men who all their lives have neglected or reviled the truth . . . are often brought to believe by a power which they cannot resist. An awakened conscience affirms the truth with an authority before which they quail. . . . To disbelieve is now impossible. That there is a God, that he is holy and just, and that there is a hell, they would give the world to doubt, but cannot. . . . The truth, therefore, has great power over them. It destroys their former peace. It forces them to self-denial and the performance of religious duties. Sometimes this influence soon wears off, as conscience subsides into its accustomed slumber. At others, it continues long, even to the end of life. It then constitutes that spirit of bondage and fear under which its unhappy subjects endeavour to work out a way to heaven, without embracing the gospel of the grace of God." 7 Those who never progress beyond historical faith either have had little experiential appreciation
of their danger, or if once awakened have never come to rest in Christ alone for their acceptance with God. They have never finished with self-complacency and self-reliance, and found Christ as the anchor of their soul. Thoughts of the mediation of Christ have been shallow and presumptuous, and the treasure of their heart lies elsewhere. They have never known Jesus the forerunner to take them by the hand and bring them trembling into the presence of God within the veil, with hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience by the blood of Jesus.
When we read in Scripture of those who receive the Word of God, but who for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away, the reference will be to those who have an enthusiastic interest in religion, but who never have that experimental acquaintance with God's holiness and their own sin which empties them of their own self-righteousness and brings them to an entire dependence upon the redemption procured by the Mediator. Their profession does not reflect an inward coming to terms with the extent of their need for a divine Savior. Then when difficulty arises for the gospel's sake, they have no real attachment and fall away under the pressure. Owen comments, "When once they enter into temptation they are gone for ever. Temptation withers all their profession, and slays their souls. We see this accomplished every day. Men who have attended on the preaching of the gospel, been affected and delighted with it, that have made profession of it, and have been looked on, it may be, as believers, and thus have continued for some years; no sooner doth temptation befall them that hath vigour and permanency in it, but they are turned out of the way, and are gone for ever. They fall to hate the word they have delighted in, despise the professors of it, and are hardened by sin. So Matt. 7:26, 'He that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, is like unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.' But what doth this house of profession do? It shelters him, keeps him warm, and stands for a while. . . . Demas will preach the gospel until the love of the world befall him, and he is utterly turned aside. . . . Entrance into temptation is, with this sort of men, an entrance into apostacy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not." 8 Saving faith yields a different kind of enthusiasm. It produces a joy in Christ as the heart's only treasure. William Guthrie gives us "three great essentials of religion and true Christianity" by which hypocrites are excluded. "(1) They are not broken in heart, and emptied of their own righteousness, so as to loathe themselves. . . . (2) They never took up Christ Jesus as the only treasure and jewel that can enrich and satisfy. . . . 'The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.' (3) They never in earnest close with Christ's whole yoke without exception, judging all His 'will just and good, holy and spiritual'; and therefore no rest is given to them by Christ—'Take my yoke upon you, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.' " 9
1 Gardiner Spring, The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, n.p.), 10.
2 John Owen, "The Doctrine of Justification by Faith," The Works of John Owen (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965–1968), 5:71–73 (quotation on p. 72). Cf. John Murray, "Faith," Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976–1982), 2: 235–237; William Cunningham, Theological Lectures (London: James Nisbet & Company, 1878), 312–314.
3 Owen, "Doctrine of Justification by Faith," 5:72–73. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 554–558 (III.ii.10–12).
4 Owen, "Doctrine of Justification by Faith," 5:74–83, 98–99 (quotations on pp. 82 and 75). Cf. 5:99: "There is nothing in this whole doctrine that I will more firmly adhere unto than the necessity of the convictions mentioned previous unto true believing; without which not one line of it can be understood aright, and men do but beat the air in their contentions about it."
5 Thomas Halyburton, "The Great Concern of Salvation," Works of Thomas Halyburton (London: Thomas Tegg & Son, 1835), 158–159 (quotation on p. 159); cf. 167–170. Cf. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992–1997), 2:587–593 (2:589: "Accordingly it is an empty presumption and confidence rather than a true trust; such as was exhibited in the young man (Mt. 19:16–22) and in various hypocrites rashly glorying in the grace and salvation of God. . . . while without any examination of themselves (which they avoid as too troublesome and inconvenient), they proudly claim for themselves the grace of Christ and securely sink into a vain sleep, not inquiring, or wishing to inquire, what is the foundation of their imagination.").
6 John Howe, "Sermon XXXVIII" (on 1 John 5:1), The Works of John Howe (New York: John P. Haven, 1838), 2:885, 888–890 (quotation on p. 885). Cf. Charles Hodge, The Way of Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 139. Robert Riccaltoun, A Sober Enquiry Into the Grounds of the Present Differences in the Church of Scotland (n.p.: n.p., 1723), 168–169, identifies the defects in false faiths, and notes that there are what he calls "partial or half believers" (quotation on p. 168): "These are such, as either regard only the history, leaving out both the law and the gospel; or, the law without the gospel; or, even the gospel without the law, which men may sometimes seem to do; but, in reality, believe nothing when they believe not all. Those who regard only the history, turn the Word of God into the same rank with human composures. Those who believe the law without the gospel, . . . make the Word of God a mere covenant of works; and these who believe the gospel without the law, turn the grace of God into wantonness, and in reality believe neither."
7 Hodge, Way of Lif e, 139–140, 142–143 (quotation on pp. 139–140). Cf. Halyburton, "Great Concern of Salvation," 165–167.
8 John Owen, "Of Temptation," Works of John Owen, 6:102–103 (quotation on p. 103).
9 William Guthrie, The Christian's Great Interest (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 93