True Faith

Michael S. Horton
Friday, June 30th 2017
Jul/Aug 2017

According to reports, Prince Charles intends—if he ever ascends the British throne—to change his title from “Defender of the Faith” to “Defender of Faith.” What’s the loss in dropping a definite article? Everything, actually—the traditional title refers to the defense of a particular confession, a body of doctrine concerning the Triune God who has rescued us from our sins by the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. With the proposed change, the intention is to encourage the act of faith—regardless of the object. Better by far to drop the title entirely, if you ask me (Bucking-ham Palace has not returned my calls). The point isn’t what you believe or the one in whom you trust, but your own believing. “You gotta have faith,” as the unroyal George Michael put it. Everyone has to believe in something, even if it’s just yourself.

In fact, making faith itself the object of faith is just another way of believing in yourself. The important thing is the integrity, sincerity and strength of your believing. “But she really believes it,” we say when someone challenges the view of a friend. Well, then, if she really believes it, who am I to question?

From “the Faith” to “Faith”

This shift from “the faith” (the object) to “faith” (the act) is due to a variety of factors. One is that since the Enlightenment, faith became unhinged from knowledge. In the old days, people believed that what you believed was important. It mattered whether you believed in God or Fate. It mattered whether you worshipped the Triune God or denied the deity of the Son and the Spirit. These truths were revealed miraculously by God through his prophets and apostles. So they were above reason, but not against it. How we know what we know depends on what it is that we want to know. In other words, knowing my wife is different from knowing the second law of thermodynamics. And knowing God is different from knowing atomic particles or mathematical theorems. But this isn’t a difference between faith and knowledge, but between knowing different things. In the modern age, faith came to be identified with the realm of the unknowable. You cannot really know anything about God, but you should assume that there is some sort of creator and judge in order to affirm a moral order. Eventually, even Christian colleges and universities changed the name of the theology department to the religion department. Theology, of course, is the study of God. But if God himself cannot be the object of a discipline—that is, if God has not truly revealed himself to us, then we cannot know God; we can only know what people have said about God. The study of God, in this view, is actually the study of humans and their religious experience, ideas, and rituals.

Where all religions agree is on morality. That’s what’s really important and universal, moderns have insisted. Of course, every religion makes additional claims, wrapping this universal moral faith in the garments of various myths. That’s where religions part ways. For instance, Christians alone believe that Jesus rose from the dead. If this is intended to be a literal historical claim, then who can judge whether it is true? In any case, it is not important. In fact, it is when religions emphasize these historical claims, as if their myths were actually real events, that things heat up. The more convinced one is on such points, the more likely a religious war is around the corner. So let’s just emphasize the moral core of religious faith that transcends particular creeds. It’s this principle—love your neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so forth—that is most valuable and reasonable. The rest of it is beyond our ability to test and therefore to know. Have faith, by all means—in whatever you want—but don’t call it knowledge. Faith is the realm of cuddly bears and the favorite blanket of childhood. Eventually, you grow up and learn to face life by acquiring real knowledge.

The tragedy is that many Christians have bought into this dichotomy as well. They will make a factual claim, such as “Jesus rose from the dead, liter-ally and bodily in history”; but then, when understandably challenged, they will resort to something like, “Are you questioning my personal experience?” or “I know he lives within my heart.” Pietistic Protestantism has perpetuated (in fact, helped lay the ground for) the modern opposition of faith and knowledge. But we cannot cut and run like this—anyone who makes a historical claim (especially one that counters our everyday experience) has an obligation to articulate reasons for believing that it actually occurred. Resurrections are by definition miracles and are therefore exceptions rather than the rule. Our questioner has every right to demand of us some account for such a large claim, especially when we add that everything—including our eternal destiny—rests on it.

Based on its pietistic heritage, liberal theology has depended on the split between faith and knowledge. We don’t really know anything about the Jesus of history, said Rudolf Bultmann, but that’s actually good news because we only meet the Christ of faith in a crisis decision here and now. He described faith as “venture.”1 Notice how this makes faith about me rather than Christ: my journey or venture instead of Christ’s person and work. “Faith is a ‘leap in the dark,’” he adds. “For man is not asked whether he will accept a theory about God that may possibly be false, but whether he is willing to obey God’s will.” Faith then slips into the category of a work that we perform. Justifying faith is no longer seen as throwing ourselves on God’s mercy as destitute sinners to be clothed with Christ, but is now our act of “crucifying the affections and lusts,… overcoming our natural dread of suffering,… and the perfection of our detachment from the world.” This constitutes “the judgment… and deliverance of man.”2 For Bultmann, as Julius Schniewind points out, “The ‘crucifixion of our passions’ is then no more than a striking euphemism for self-mastery, which is the quest of all the higher religions and philosophies.”3

So the first thing we have to do when talking to people today is move the central truths of the Christian faith from the category of “faith” (understood as a mere leap based on will) to “truth” (understood as an objective state of affairs). The apostle Paul did not say that the most important stuff in religion is true regardless of whether Christ was raised; on the contrary, he insisted that if Christ was not raised, then our faith is futile, we are still in our sins, we have lied about God, and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:12–19). There is nothing left of Christianity if Christ has not been raised and, consequently, no reason at all to be religious. The Christian faith is based not on faith—that is, on the subjective religiosity and sincerity of pious individuals—but on historical events of saving significance.

From “Faith” to “the Faith”

But there is another way of misunderstanding faith. The opposite of the previous view, this approach treats faith as nothing more than knowledge of certain doctrines. This was the view that the Protestant Reformers challenged in the sixteenth century. According to Roman Catholic teaching, faith is assent to everything the church teaches. Of course, the average person cannot know everything that the church teaches, so it all gets reduced to one: believe in the church and rely on its authority. Thomas Aquinas argued that assent is true faith (Summa Theologiae 2b.21; 3.69.5; 3.69.8). The same view was given dogmatic form at the Council of Trent. One may not know to what precisely one is yielding assent, but an unreserved and obedient acceptance of all that the church teaches is at least the beginning of justification. In response, Calvin thundered, “It would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’!”4 He says elsewhere,

Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind. The sum of the matter is this—that salvation depends on the keeping of the law, the soul can entertain no confidence respecting it, yea, that all the promises offered to us by God will become void: we must thus become wretched and lost, if we are sent back to works to find out the cause or the certainty of salvation . . . for as the law generates nothing but vengeance, it cannot bring grace.5

“I believe whatever the church teaches.” This is a view of faith one finds often not only in Roman Catholic circles but also among Protestants who surrender their personal responsibility for knowing God. “I believe whatever Lutherans believe.” “I just accept the Reformed confession.” “I don’t know, I’m a Baptist and we believe that…” These are lazy ways of substituting someone else’s faith for our own. Faith is never private, the Reformers insisted, but it is personal. It is true that our act of faith participates in the confession of the whole church in all times and places. The New Testament, however, repeatedly exhorts us, every person, to trust in Christ for salvation.

Faith in Christ as Known in the Faith

To counter both of these extremes, it is important to follow the classic distinction between the faith that is believed (fides quae creditur) and the faith that believes (fides qua creditur). Sometimes the Bible speaks of “the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3; cf. Acts 6:7; Phil. 1:27; 1 Tim. 6:12; Titus 1:4), and at other times understands faith as the human act of trusting in the gospel. In Scripture, our personal act of faith is directed to the objective person and work of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel. My faith is determined by the faith that is believed everywhere and at all times by all Christians. However, most people on the street today would say that one’s subjective act of faith has nothing to do with the object. The significance of faith becomes determined entirely by the quality of our choosing rather than on the quality of what is chosen.

So it is important to see that faith, according to Scripture, is not less than knowledge but is more than belief in the truth of certain doctrines. The Reformers recognized from Scripture that faith includes three elements: knowledge, assent, and trust. It involves knowledge, to be sure—even in our natural relationships, we can hardly claim to know loved ones without knowing anything about them. “I want to know Jesus, not about Jesus,” we sometimes hear. But we do not talk like that about anyone else we care about. We recognize that we grow in our relationships with people we love the more we know about them. The Reformers also acknowledged that faith involves assent. We not only know the claims that God is triune and that Jesus died for our sins, but we also acknowledge these claims as true. But the ultimate aim of such knowledge and assent is trust. Christ not only died and was raised, but he was crucified and rose again for me. As John Calvin put the matter, “Faith is not mere belief… but involves a relation to the Word of God that enables people to rest and trust in God.” Faith is not something we drum up inside of ourselves. It comes by hearing Christ speak his gospel to us through a preacher (Rom. 10:8–17).

The Reformers emphasized that faith is not just confidence in certain convictions but confidence in a person. In the Geneva Catechism, Calvin defines faith as “a sure and steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God toward us, as he declares in the gospel that for the sake of Christ he will be our Father and Savior.”6 It is not the quality of the act of faith, but of the object, that is saving. “Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel.”7 The object of faith is not merely “God,” Calvin argues against what he says is “taught in the schools.” Rather, the object is the Triune God. Yet even that target is not yet specific enough. Faith looks to the Triune God, revealed in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel.8

There is some danger in using the shorthand, “justification by faith.” We are not actually justified by faith, but by Christ through faith. Faith is not the easier little work we did that God then counts as our righteousness. “Righteousness,” Calvin continues, “is not something we have in ourselves but that we obtain by imputation, in that God accounts our faith as righteousness.” In other words, like Abraham, we are justified through faith apart from works, not because of the value of our belief but because of the sufficiency of Christ.

Scripture does not say that faith is our righteousness, but that Christ is our righteousness.

We are therefore said to be justified by faith, not because faith infuses into us some habit or quality but because we are accepted by God. Faith is only the instrumental cause of our justification. Properly speaking, our righteousness is nothing but God’s free acceptance of us, on which our salvation is founded. . . . Righteousness is not a quality inherent in human beings but the pure gift of God and it is possessed by faith only. It is not even a reward for our faith, because faith is only the means by which we receive what God freely gives. We are justified by the grace of God. Christ is our righteousness, the mercy of God is the cause of our righteousness, righteousness has been obtained for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, righteousness is bestowed on us through the gospel, we obtain righteousness by faith.9

Even the weakest faith embraces the strongest Savior. Similarly, Lutherans confess,

For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby. Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins.10

Faith is therefore knowledge, but it is personal knowledge—that is, it is a personal act of knowing another person. To trust an oncologist to diagnose and treat your cancer, you have to be convinced of his or her trustworthiness. You can’t just tell yourself, “I have to just believe.” If the physician is worthy of your trust, then the more you know about the doctor, the stronger your confidence in him or her. And, of course, the opposite is true as well: if the doctor is not worthy of your confidence, then your trust weakens by investigating his or her credentials and track record. Throughout the Psalms we discover reviews of God’s triumphs, which reveal his character and lead us to deeper confidence in his saving power. The more we learn about what God has done and who he is, the more our faith grows.

Therefore, we should avoid both extremes: on one hand, imagining that faith in God is possible apart from factual knowledge; on the other hand, reducing faith to factual knowledge.

Faith is not a leap. It is not the opposite of knowledge, turning off our brain. The will cannot (or at least should not) embrace anything or anyone the intellect has not approved. And yet, at some point, we have to make a decision. Can you recall the day you decided to ask or accept your marriage proposal? Of course, it would be foolish to ask the first person you saw at the mall to marry you—you need to get to know the person. But if you wait until you have absolutely no doubts, questions, or reservations, then you will never marry anyone. How much more urgent it is to commit ourselves to Christ. We are not given the luxury of standing aloof, treating the gospel’s central claims as interesting ideas we can investigate. Our salvation is at stake.

Faith is Not Our Work

Finally, we need to remind ourselves that faith is the gift of God. We are born into this world not merely sick but “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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. (Eph. 2:4–9; italics added)

Having recently pored over the writings of the church fathers on this point, it has struck me how unanimous they were in attributing even faith itself to God’s grace. This is true especially of Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Chrysostom, and, of course, Augustine. “It was not by your own pains that you found out God,” proclaimed Chrysostom, “but while you continued in error, He drew you to Himself.”11 Yet he adds, “So that the work of faith itself is not our own. ‘It is the gift,’ said he, ‘of God,’ it is ‘not of works.’” Thus faith saves apart from works because faith itself is not a work but a gift of grace, he concludes. “He did not reject us as having works, but as abandoned of works He has saved us by grace; so that no man henceforth may have whereof to boast.”12

According to Augustine, faith itself is the gift of God:

And lest men should arrogate to themselves the merit of their own faith at least, not understanding that this too is the gift of God, this same apostle, who says in another place that he had “obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful,” here also adds: “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”13

God’s sovereign grace does not efface but frees the will from bondage to sin. “It goes before the unwilling to make him willing; it follows the willing to make his will effectual.”14 Boniface, bishop of Rome and friend of Augustine, observes,

It appears obvious that our faith in Christ, like all good things, comes to individuals from the gift of divine grace and not from the power of human nature. We rejoice that your brotherhood perceived this truth in accordance with catholic faith, when a council of some bishops of Gaul was held. As you have indicated, they decided unanimously that our faith in Christ is conferred on men by the intervention of divine grace. They added that there is absolutely nothing good in God’s eyes that anyone can wish, begin, do, or complete without the grace of God, for as our Savior said, “Without me you can do nothing.” For it is both a certainty and an article of catholic faith that in all good things, the greatest of which is faith, divine mercy intervenes for us when we are not yet willing [to believe], so that we might become willing; it remains in us when we are willing [to believe]; and it follows us so that we remain in faith.15

Clearly, statements such as these represent the church’s better days.

We are so clever at transforming good news about something God has done into a work for us to perform in order to get God to do something, that we can even turn faith into the “one little thing” we did in order to help God save us. It is not surprising that Christians who have been taught this message eventually begin to question the adequacy of their faith. The irony is that faith actually becomes stronger when we look away from ourselves and our faith to Christ as the only proper object. The more we hear and understand concerning the gospel, the more our faith grows and strengthens. Nevertheless, the weakest faith clings to a sufficient Savior. Faith does not save us from judgment any more than it saves us from drowning when a lifeguard carries us to safety. In both cases, it is the rescuer, not the one rescued, who is praised.

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido

  1. Rudolf Bultmann, “Faith as Venture,” in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 57.
  2. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller, rev. ed. (NY: Harper and Row, 1961), 64–65.
  3. Julius Schniewind, “A Reply to Bultmann,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller, rev. ed. (NY: Harper and Row, 1961), 65–66.
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.2.3.
  5. John Calvin, Commentaries upon the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 19, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 171.
  6. Geneva Catechism, 1536, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 2:132.
  7. John Calvin, Commentaries upon the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 171.
  8. Calvin, Institutes 3.2.1, 32.
  9. John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, in Gerald Bray, ed., Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament X: Galatians, Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 95.
  10. Book of Concord, Solid Declaration III.13–14 at
  11. Saint Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. XII: Saint Chrysostom (repr., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988): 31, 4:9.
  12. Saint Chrysostom, Homily II, in Homilies on Ephesians in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. XII: Saint Chrysostom (repr., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 67–68; emphasis added.
  13. Augustine, The Enchiridion in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. III: St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises (repr., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), ch. 31, 247–48.
  14. Augustine, The Enchiridion, ch. 32, 248.
  15. Quoted in William E. Klingshirn, trans., Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament, Letters, Letter 20 – Pope Boniface to Caesarius 2 (Liverpool: University Press, 1994), 125.
Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, June 30th 2017

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