(See Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 14)
I think the Apostles spoke for all of us when they said to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). But what exactly is faith? Well, faith has to do with the mind, the emotions, and the will. Our understanding is based on faith. Our feelings are based on faith. And our desires are based on faith. In other words, every reasoning human being operates in accordance with his faith. Faith is what drives us to get out of bed in the morning. Faith is what makes us passionate about things. And faith is what causes us to think about things.
Faith includes assent to the truth of things not seen by the naked eye. Faith knows where the kettle is when you get out of bed in the morning. Faith knows that you will feel better when you have your breakfast. Faith knows that you will feel more like doing things once you’ve got out of bed and had breakfast.
When you think about it, there is no rational-being who does not have faith. Therefore, there is a general faith that all mankind enjoys. So, unlike animals that work on instinct, all reasoning beings operate by faith. Perhaps all of that sounds a little confusing to you, but all we’re trying to say is that everyone believes in something. No one believes in nothing, not even the atheist.
Even though we may never think about it, each one of us (whether Christian or not) goes about our daily lives operating in accordance with a basic set of principles or convictions. Our basic set of principles or convictions is summed up in one word: Faith. I suppose at its most fundamental level faith is the belief or conviction that you are – i.e., that you exist. You have faith, which is to say that you are convinced that you exist because you think, feel, and will.
Now, that might all sound a bit too “Rene Descartes” for you. He’s the man who said, “I think, therefore, I am.” Well, let me point out that that’s the place where fallen man’s faith begins. Fallen man begins with himself – thinking, feeling, and willing. In a word fallen man believes that it’s all about him. But in the following, among other things, we’re going to see that it’s really all about God.
You, and I, the universe and all that is in it, didn’t begin with you or me. You and I, the universe and all that is in it began with God. It’s on account of God alone that anyone thinks, feels, or wills. And what we need to look at is not just the faith that every human being has, but rather, we’ll be looking at the type of faith the elect of God have, which faith comes only after they have been regenerated by God.
The Grace of Faith
Just as the ordinary or general faith every reasonable human being has is a gift from God, so is saving faith a gift from God. But saving faith is God’s gift only to His elect, i.e., those He has chosen from before the foundation of the world. Saving faith is what enables the elect person to believe in (or have faith in) the things God has revealed – to the saving of his soul. In other words, the faith in saving faith is the instrument God uses, through which to convince the elect person that God’s remedy for sin is true.
Think about it, without saving faith man is as a rifle without the firing pin. He is as a chainsaw without the motor. He is as white bread without yeast. He is as a way-out-of-tune piano. Now, these things might be useful for something, but they cannot be used in the way they were designed or intended without that vital ingredient or component. And to be sure, it’s not until a person receives the grace of saving faith that he realises – that he becomes convinced – that he hasn’t been using his life properly.
As a youngster I brought a wooden object home from school for my mum. I had made it in the woodwork class. She thanked me and said it was lovely and placed it on the mantelpiece and stuck a couple of ornaments on it. I explained that it was actually supposed to be a string-winder – a flat bobbin of sorts. But she was having none of it – it was an ornament holder! So she sat on it two plastic elephants sitting on their hind legs facing each other with their trunks in the air!
Without saving faith human beings function in all sorts of ways other than they were designed. But, as every Presbyterian knows, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Therefore God designed Man to give God glory while enjoying a joyful rapport with Him. God is the Creator. Man is a creature. Therefore if man the creature is ignoring God his Creator he is functioning improperly, which is to say that fallen man is not glorifying God, and therefore is not enjoying a joyful relationship with Him.
The grace or gift of saving faith to God’s elect is God’s way of restoring the originally intended relationship. This He has done through Jesus Christ. That original relationship was broken when man’s representative, Adam, ate the forbidden fruit. But it’s through faith, saving faith that a person realises and acknowledges that it’s not all about me. Therefore, unlike general faith, saving faith is an objective faith. Saving faith is not a faith based upon your thinking, feeling, and willing – i.e., you. Rather it’s a faith based upon some object outside and apart from you.
The object of saving faith is God. But this isn’t to say that there is no subjective aspect to saving faith, of course there is. For how else can a man glorify God and enjoy Him if there was no subjective or personal aspect? But it is only through saving faith that man realises his full potential. It’s through saving faith that the person learns to live life to its fullest. No longer is he like the string-winder collecting dust on the mantelpiece, now he, as it were, can be used to go fishing, flying kites, building brick walls, tying parcels etc. Now he can be used by God to do all those things God designed him to do, even things that bring great joy. And he is no longer in danger of falling off the mantelpiece into the fire!
Saving faith, therefore, is a gift of God. And how does saving faith come to us, if it is a gift and not something we ask for? Well, saving faith is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of Christ who works this faith in the elect person. And He ordinarily does it by bringing the Word of God to that elect person. Saving faith is spoken of in Romans 10:17 where the Apostle says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Yet there are some people who read the Bible and hear the Gospel preached but don’t have saving faith. Why is this? It’s because the Holy Spirit has yet to convict or convince them of the truth of the Gospel. For isn’t that what the Holy Spirit was coming into the world to do? It’s as Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in John 16:8, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…” If saving faith is about being convicted about God and the truth of God, then those who are not convicted about these things have not been given the gift of saving faith. In other words, saving faith is more than just acknowledging God and the things of God. It is more than assent. For as James says, “Even the demons believe—and tremble!” James 2:19.
So, the gift of saving faith brings with it conviction. For the elect person it brings with it a change of thinking, feeling, and willing. He then becomes a doing-hearer of God’s Word – not just a hearer only. In other words he seeks to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
When ducklings hatch they follow the first object they see. Sometimes that object might be something other than the mother duck! When we are born again by the Spirit, we stop following the wrong object (self) and start to follow the object of saving faith – God in Jesus Christ.
And the three main ways his saving faith is strengthened are by the Word, by the administration of the Sacraments, and by Prayer. Therefore the true Christian loves God’s Word because it is God’s Word. In other words, God speaks to him through His Word. Therefore the true Christian loves to hear God’s Word expounded in sermons, and in books. He’ll do personal Bible study, and even attend Bible Studies to find out more about his God. He’ll enjoy the company of other Christians who love talking about God and the things of God. This is one of the ways his saving faith is strengthened.
Another way his saving faith is strengthened is by his paying close attention to the two the Sacraments as they are administered in church. He knows that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the Gospel visualised. So, as he peers into these with the eyes of saving faith, his faith is nourished.
And not only does God speak to the believer, but the believer is also permitted to speak to God. This speaking to God is what we call prayer. His faith is strengthened through prayer because in prayer he is talking to the object of his faith. In prayer the person acknowledges who God is, His Person, His exalted station. As the one praying more and more considers the nature and character of the One being prayed to, i.e., the sovereign Lord who is able to answer prayer, his faith is strengthened.
But as it is with the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, so it is with prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who continues to convince and strengthen the saving faith in the person. We’ve seen then that saving faith is a gift of God – it’s of grace.
The Grip of Faith
Though God in Jesus Christ is the object of saving faith, and as such would seem to be your grip on God, saving faith is actually God’s grip on you. Sometimes we say that a thing has “really grabbed hold of us.” This is simply another way of saying that we are really convicted or convinced about a thing. We might be gripped by a piece of music, a painting, a scenic view! Well, the person with saving faith has been gripped by the Word of God. He likes the sound of God’s Word. It has a clear sounding ring of truth to it. It’s music to his ears! In a word, the person with saving faith hears God speaking in the Scriptures. And why should this surprise us since it was God the Holy Spirit who wrote the Scriptures. He’s the One who is working effectually in the believer’s heart. Therefore when the Spirit works with the Word in the believer’s heart, the believer hears the voice of authority.
The Scriptures (all sixty-six books) are the voice of authority in the believer’s life, which is another way of saying that God is the authority in the believer’s life. For God speaks to fallen men through His Word. Voices and visions are no longer needed now that we have the full canon of Scripture. But, how do you know which parts of the Bible are the Word of God? Well, Paul gives us the clear answer to that question in 2 Timothy 3:16a where he says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…”
So we see then that saving faith accepts all the Scriptures, i.e., the whole Bible. This is another way of saying that the believer accepts everything in the Bible. But it’s not to say that the believer understands everything in the Bible clearly and all at once. For the Bible Itself says, for example, that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16).
But there is a vast difference between saying that a thing is hard to understand and a thing is impossible to understand. How can God be three Persons yet one God? How can the 2nd Person in the Trinity become also a man? How can the Holy Spirit dwell in a believer? These things are revealed in the Bible, but they’re not easy to understand. If the Bible says that in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, then why would I invent the Theory of Evolution?
If God says He created each of the creatures “according to their kind” then why would I come up with a view that has slime changing into birds and fish, and even men? It’s because of saving faith that the Christian believes to be true whatever is revealed in the Word. And he believes it to be true because of the authority of God who speaks therein. It’s God, remember, who is the object of his faith. His own understanding, feelings, or desires are no longer the object of his faith. As the hymn writer writes, My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary.
But is this saving faith anything to do with blind faith? No! It’s the person who cannot see God in Jesus Christ who is blind! For he is walking in darkness! Think about it: the Sovereign God does not and cannot lie. The Bible claims to be the Word of the Sovereign God. Therefore His Word is truth – all of it! Jesus confirms this in John 17:17b when He says to His Father, “Your Word is truth.”
And, saving faith gives obedience to the commands in God’s Word. Saving faith trembles at the threatenings in God’s Word. Saving faith embraces the promises about this world and the world to come in God’s Word. In short the person with saving faith responds appropriately to everything in the Word of God. We shudder at the mere thought of Hell. We rejoice at the thought of Heaven.
Now, the main principles of saving faith are the accepting, receiving, and resting upon the risen Saviour Jesus Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and everlasting life. For these are revealed in the Covenant of Grace of which the whole Bible is the exposition. For God has been pleased to reveal Himself by way of covenant, even the Covenant of Grace. The Gospel, which is the Good News of salvation to all men, is the articulation of the Covenant of Grace.
The Gospel today is God’s Covenant of Grace being shouted from the rooftops! “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” Romans 10:15b. “Behold, on the mountains the feet of him who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!” Nahum 1:15a. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” Isaiah 52:7.
Does your God reign? Has the Good News gripped you? Do you have saving faith?
The Growth of Faith
Now, if the Apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith”, this must mean that there are different degrees of faith. It must mean that even saving faith must need to undergo some kind of growth. So, we’re talking about a growing conviction in the believer. And since the Holy Spirit is the One who convicts, we’re talking about being full of the Holy Spirit.
Now, how does a hot air balloon ascend and descend? It fills itself with hot air to rise; cool air to come down again. It’s all to do with convection. It’s all to do with heat transference. You hear about people who are “on fire for the Lord.” To be on fire for the Lord is to be full of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18b). It is to be enjoying a real close relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
So, how does one get full of the Holy Spirit? Aren’t all Christians in a sense “full of the Holy Spirit”? Well, if the Spirit indwells you then you are full of the Holy Spirit. But, if you blow air into a balloon you’ll see that it is full at many different stages of expansion. It always has air in it, but it has room to grow. Well, likewise the Christian always has room to grow.
So how does the Christian’s saving faith grow? How does he generate the heat that lifts him closer to God? Well, he avails himself of the means of grace we mentioned earlier: the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. The ministry of the Word is what goes on when you hear a Biblical sermon in church. Then there are the church Bible Studies, and your own personal Bible study. There are recorded messages you can listen to, there are books you can read. All of these help to kindle the fire of saving faith within you.
Then there is the administration of the sacraments in church. They are given also for the strengthening of our faith. In church Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the Good News of Jesus Christ coming into us through the eye gate. They have been given by God also for the strengthening of the faith of those who are spiritually discerning.
And don’t forget to pray! Pray without ceasing! Be in constant contact with God through Jesus Christ.
All these things have been given to us by God for the building up of our faith, our saving faith. And if you involve yourself in these things, then your spiritual growth will lead to full assurance. Even though our saving faith takes a battering at times, by seeking the Lord in His Word, Sacraments, and Prayer, our faith will mature like sweet grapes on the vine. Neglect these things, and you will start to wither on the vine – until you seek the Lord again.
To be sure, some days our faith is strong, others it is weak. But we should know that if our faith is true saving faith, then we will persevere with the Lord, because He will persevere with us. This is because Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. He is the source or the beginner of our faith, and He is the completer or perfecter of our faith. Therefore He is the One who, by His Spirit, grows our saving faith.
May He be pleased to increase our faith as a gardener might grow giant water melons!
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to be “…looking unto to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” Hebrews 12:2a. He is the object of our faith because He is God, i.e., God and Man in one Divine Person forever. He is the One who went to the cross to redeem those elected by the Father. He is the One who (with His Father) sent the Holy Spirit to those chosen ones. The Holy Spirit comes to us with the Word. That’s why Paul says in Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
If you have heard the Word of God, what now is your attitude to it? Are you convinced that it is the very Word of God? Are you convinced of its Divine authority? Are you convicted about the things revealed in the Gospel? Do you believe Jesus lived a perfect life for sinners? Do you believe that Jesus died for sinners? Do you believe that you are a sinner? Do you believe that you have transgressed God’s Commandments? Do you believe that Jesus is your Saviour personally?
Have you accepted Him for who He is? Have you received Him as your Saviour? Are you resting upon Him alone for Justification, Sanctification, and everlasting life? If you are, if you are turning your back on your sins and believing in Jesus Christ and His righteousness alone to save you, then you have saving faith. It means that you have all the benefits of God’s Covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ.
And it means that it is the Spirit of Christ in you who is driving your understanding, your feelings, and your desires. It means that though your faith may at times be weak or strong, your faith will get the victory!
As the Apostle Peter says, “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” 1 Peter 2:1-3.
And we, along with the Apostles, say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”