Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. – Acts 16:31
A friend recently gave me a copy of Grace, Salvation & Discipleship by Charles C. Bing to review. The author, a strong advocate of the Free Grace movement, wrote this book to defend the idea that the term disciple is not a synonym for a Christian (or believer).
A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for sins, rose again, and guarantees eternal salvation. … A disciple is someone committed to following Jesus Christ and learning from Him.
The Grace Evangelical Society, a ministry dedicated to advancing Free Grace teaching, declares that its “aim is to promote the clear proclamation of God’s free salvation through faith alone in Christ, which is properly correlated with and distinguished from issues relating to discipleship.” Bing is a frequent contributor to their journal (link).
The first part of the book, Bing explores the importance of good Bible interpretation. He also defines various terms where he feels there has been confusion across various theological circles. Most of the book is dedicated to exploring the passages dealing with salvation and discipleship with the goal of presenting the Free Grace understanding of each.
I don’t intend to blog through the entire book, but will be writing on various topics that are dealt with. In this post we will examine how we are to define faith, as this is one of the terms tackled in the book Grace, Salvation & Discipleship (GSD).
Faith is incredibly important.Without it we cannot be reconciled to God (John 3:36). But what does it mean to believe?
In the book GSD, Bing does not provide a very detailed definition of faith. On page 50 he simply writes:
The word faith means to be persuaded or convinced that something is true.
In Lordship Salvation, Bing presents Machen’s definition of faith.
Certainly, at bottom, faith is in one sense a very simple thing; it simply means that abandoning the vain effort of earning one’s way into God’s presence we accept the gift of salvation which Christ offers so full and free.
These definitions are good starting points on describing faith. All Christians should be able to agree with these descriptions of faith.
Before looking in further detail at Bing’s understanding of faith, I thought through some of the questions that our definition of faith might attempt to answer. How we think about these questions, and our answers to them, will help us understand how we view faith.
- What must I believe to be saved? Faith is a belief in something (and/or someone). This necessarily entails some set of information about a person or event that is accepted (or rejected) as true. Christians often debate what information (or set of doctrines) must be accepted as true in order to receive eternal life.
- Is faith rational? On what basis are we going to accept a set of doctrines as true? Some argue that faith is a blind trust that does not require evidence or reasons to believe. Others argue for a faith that is reasonable, consistent with history and science, and can be defended.
- Is faith a gift? Christians readily acknowledge that salvation (being forgiven of sins, declared just, and reconciled to God) is a gift from God. But some argue that faith, the condition that one must meet to receive salvation, is itself also a gift imparted to people from God. An important tenet of Christianity is that man cannot save himself and needs a Savior. Understanding faith as a gift emphasizes that salvation is all of God and avoids any confusion with salvation being attributed to a work of man.
- If faith is a verb, what acts does it entail? Some argue that faith, is not a gift, but an active verb that is performed by a person. For most the active part of faith includes a volitional trusting in the information that is accepted as true. But what is the volitional part of faith? Does it include repentance, loyalty, or accepting Jesus as both King and Savior?
- Is faith a one time decision or a life time commitment? For some being saved is based on whether one can point to a moment in the past where one made a decision to believe in Jesus. The need to persevere (remain) in the faith is not seen as a characteristic of true saving faith. To require enduring faith is seen as adding a work to the gift of salvation. Others argue that without an enduring faith one cannot expect to receive eternal life. The act of rejecting the faith (apostasy) is either (1) an indication that one was never truly saved despite a past decision, or (2) that one has forsaken their Savior and the eternal life that was once theirs.
As we dig into the Free Grace view of faith, it would seem that Bing wants to avoid any appearance of faith being a work. On page 19 he contrasts faith with works and describes faith as a passive non action.
Properly speaking, faith is a passive response to a proposition or a person. In other words it does not involve any action by the one who believes. Faith is the persuasion or inner conviction that something is true and trustworthy. There is no action involved when I believe something is true. … the response of faith is distinct from the act of obedience.
In reading this definition, it might seem like Bing is advocating that faith is a gift of God. However, in a separate book, Lordship Salvation, Bing writes that he does not accept this view (link).
… the view that faith is not a gift of God is preferred by this writer …
In the appendix of GSD, Bing gives another definition of faith, which again emphasizes faith as an intellectual assent.
By faith we mean the human response of accepting something as true and trustworthy. It is a conviction, an inner persuasion. This definition precludes any other conditions of works, performance, or merit.
Faith, within the Free Grace movement, is limited to expressing trust in Jesus and a set of information about Him. It however does not involve a commitment to follow Jesus (John 10:27). Nor does saving faith necessarily include abiding in Christ (John 15:5-6; 1 John 4:16) or loving others (John13:35; 14:15 ; 1 John 3:14). These other aspects would be considered characteristics of a disciple, but not a Christian.
To further understand a Free Grace view of faith we need to return to the book, Lordship Salvation. Here Bing explores a definition of faith along its classic three parts (link).
Both sides of the Lordship debate would agree that faith is the necessary response required of a person for eternal salvation. The debate exists over the definition and content of the volitional aspect of faith. The classic three-fold definition of faith as notitia (knowledge, understanding), assensus (assent, agreement), and fiducia (the volitional aspect) is accepted by some on both sides, but does not resolve the debate; it simply focuses the debate on the nature of the volitional aspect.
When dealing with the volitional aspect of faith, Bing rejects any understanding of faith as including a “deeper commitment that includes surrender and obedience.” If the volitional aspect involves obedience to any command, it is only the command to believe in Jesus.
Saving facts are necessary to saving faith, so is agreement with the facts, but the response to the command to believe those facts is also essential.
And if the volitional aspect involves any form of commitment, it is only “the commitment of one’s eternal destiny to Christ for salvation.” It is not inclusive of any commitment to follow Christ. Bing, quoting Machen, writes that “faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something.”
In a separate article Bing explores the idea of apostasy, which he rightly defines as “a departure from or denial of the Christian faith by someone who once held to it” (link). In this article Bind concludes that saving faith does not need to endure.
As Christians we can depart from the faith, deny the faith, or stop believing in Christ as our Savior. But since the security of our salvation depends on God’s faithfulness, not our own, we can never lose eternal life. A Christian may leave the faith, but God never leaves the Christian. Apostasy from the faith does not forfeit salvation, though it will forfeit future rewards.
If I understand Bing’s definition of faith correctly, it could be summarized as follows:
- faith is not a gift from God but a human response by which the gift of salvation is received.
- faith is a simple but passive response to a set of propositions not an action.
- faith is knowing Jesus as Savior but not necessarily as King.
- the volitional aspect of faith is not a commitment to follow Jesus.
- faith is a moment in time decision that need not persevere in order for the person to receive eternal life.
Apart from the first point, I would disagree with these as rightly defining saving faith.
With the free grace definition of faith, it seems we are perpetually engaged, but never married. A faith that stops short of loving, self-giving to the Other is shallow at best.
Your analogy of marriage is a good & interesting one if faith were to be considered analogous to marriage vows. Faith is a commitment as is making marriage vows. Once we make the vows we are a disciple/spouse. However, the vows are not a work, just as faith is not. But the result of making them means we must work toward the goal of being a good disciple/spouse. And should we get a divorce it would be rather odd to view ourselves as still married.
You cited Bing as saying: “Certainly, at bottom, faith is in one sense a very simple thing; it simply means that abandoning the vain effort of earning one’s way into God’s presence we accept the gift of salvation which Christ offers so full and free.”
You then said, “All Christians should be able to agree with these descriptions of faith.”
I hope you don’t mind me strongly disagreeing. The only place that describes the teaching of the apostles to the lost is the book of Acts. You might throw in their preaching the first time Jesus sent them out two-by-two (Matt. 10:5-7), but that passage just emphasizes the point I am about to make.
Where did the apostles ever tell lost people that they should “abandon the vain effort of earning one’s way into God’s presence and accept the gift of salvation which Christ offers so full and free”?
I think you’ll find they didn’t. They told people to repent and believe that Jesus rose from the dead to prove that he is Lord, King, Judge, etc. There’s no mention of free gifts, of man being a sinner unable to save himself, nor even a mention of Jesus dying or paying for their sins. All those subjects, no matter what we believe about them, are reserved for letters to Christians. In Acts, in the preaching of the Gospel to the lost, there is just the annoucement of the resurrection to prove that Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Judge.
Therefore, I argue that it is important that all Christians, first and foremost before all things, believe that Jesus rose from the dead to prove that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. If you believe that, then you should repent, be baptized, and God will give you the Holy Spirit that is promised to us and all our descendants.
Later, after you have bowed your knee in repentance to the Messiah, King, and Judge–Jesus–then the church will instruct you in other things to believe.
I hope that by pointing you and others to the apostles preaching to the lost in Acts, I need no other proof of what I am saying above. I will add just one more thing.
Since Peter tells us to “dilingently” do things, things involving adding to our faith, in order to gain an abundant entrance into Jesus’ everlasting kingdom (2 Pet. 1:3-11), do we really want to tell Christians that they all should believe that they should abandon vain effort and simply accept full and free salvation?
Yes, we can’t earn our way into being born again, and we can’t “earn” salvation, but we do have to be worthy of our reward (Rev. 3:4-5), and we also have to diligently add to our faith if we except to have an abundant entrance into the kingdom of Jesus.
I think our confusion about our having been born again and saved, which happened in the past apart from works, and the judgment that awaits us, which will be according to works, is why we evangelicals have so much trouble reconciling passages like 2 Pet. 1:3-11 with Paul’s “apart from works” teaching. Then we end up teaching the falsehoods taught by men like Bing.
I don’t mind disagreements, even strong ones. Iron sharpens iron. Thanks for being willing to offer your thoughts.
I’ve read your comment a couple of times, along with Acts 13. I think your disagreement is with the wording that one must “abandon earning” salvation as part of the definition of faith.
However, from your ending, you note that “we can’t earn our way into being born again” and that we can’t “earn” salvation. You also rightly note that our rewards will be based on how we live our lives. I agree with these points.
It’s early and I had a long day yesterday so I may not be operating on a full tank. But can you clarify a bit more where the disagreement is?
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Somehow it seems that works must affect faith as faith affects works. Else how can I understand the following verse as consistent with salvation by faith: “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” – 1 Timothy 2:15.
Welcome to DHDS. Appreciate you stopping by and joining the discussion.
Read through your comment but you are going to have to expand on the idea that works affects faith and more importantly what implication that has on the OP?
I’m not sure how you are interpreting 1 Tim 2:15, which is an interesting passage to try and grapple with. Can you explain how you interpret this and explain how it relates to the OP?
Thanks for the response. Just trying to talk out what I believe not really add a substantive comment to the overall point of the post.
I have struggled with what tradition/church to belong to. I am high-church Anglican but have become interested in Arminian theology. I am a layman not a theologian.
When I read the NT, particularly the Epistles, I am constantly struck by verses that suggest that authentic Christians (the target audience of the Epistles) retain the ability to sin willfully and that such willful sin can lead to loss of salvation. At the same time, it is clear that we are saved by God’s grace alone. I cannot accept the full Catholic understanding so how do I reconcile these sorts of verses with saved by grace through faith. The best I can come up with is that in addition to faith leading to good works, intentional sin can affect faith. I think there is a verse in Hebrews about sin hardening hearts and it seems that a hardened heart is not a faithful heart.
The quoted verse is one example of a verse where Paul seems to be saying that works matter for salvation. Childbirth is the sign of woman’s fallen nature. The quoted verse seems to be a conditional statement. They (fallen) woman is saved IF she continues with faith, love and holiness i.e. turning from sin.
Anyway, just some random thoughts – any feedback would be appreciated.
Most of my favorite theologians are Anglican – John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and N. T. Wright. There is a diversity of views within that tradition including Arminianism. If you are interested in learning more about Arminianism, I recommend checking out the SEA site and the FACTS article.
I’ll try to briefly address some of your thoughts and concerns, though each of these is a rather deep topic.
With regards to works, they do not save. The Scriptures make that clear. But they are indicators to our heart and thoughts. And they are evidences of a person seeking to be a disciple of Christ.
With regards to sin and salvation, I would hold that sin itself does not mean one is not saved. Though a life style centered on sin can be an indicator that one was never saved, has committed apostasy, or is on a path that leads to the commission of apostasy (See this post for more). We are known by our fruit, but we must show some patience and humility, avoiding being too judgmental when trying to understand another’s journey.
We are saved by grace through faith. But we have to wrestle with some questions:
What is grace?
What aspects of God’s gracious work is being referenced by Paul here?
What is faith?
How does a person believe?
What part does man plan in accepting the gift of salvation in Christ?
Here are few places to begin exploring that:
Is Faith a Gift?
What is Election?
Is Faith a moment in time decision?
A Faith that stays on Target
With regards to the Timothy passage, I had to write a paper on it in seminary. There are a variety of views on how best to interpret that passage. These are some of the questions that must be addressed in order to properly interpret the passage.
What woman is Paul referring to?
What is the woman saved from?
How is childbearing a means of saving?
Is there a particular issue in Ephesus that Paul is addressing or does the instruction impact women in every age and culture?
A good rule of thumb is to build one’s theology on clearer passages rather than obscure passages. I took the view that the term “childbearing” is a synecdoche representing various activities related to God’s ordained role for women. These activities are the evidence of salvation that comes from faith, but do not in themselves save.
Some Anglicans differentiate between initial justification (what happens when we repent, believe and are baptized) and final justification.
Here are some verses that seem to me to suggest works affect faith and salvation. 1 John 1: 6, Ephesians 5:1-7, Hebrews 10:26-29, Hebrews 12:14-17, 1 Corinthians 9:27, 2 Peter 2:20-21, I Corinthians 10:8-12,1 Timothy 6:17-19, Hebrews 3:12.
I guess I understand 1 Timothy 2 very differently. It seems to me like it’s a plain, conditional statement about salvation “if” …
Paul is instructing Timothy on how to instruct the women on their role and behavior. The woman became a transgressor but can be saved through the natural consequence of her transgression.
You seem to suggest discipleship is required. Isn’t discipleship obedience? If so the Catholics and Orthodox are soteriologically correct.
Mk 8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Mk 8:35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Mk 8:36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Mk 8:37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
These passages seem to plainly indicate that Jesus saw discipleship as a salvation issue.
I would totally agree with you and Jesus that discipleship is a salvation issue. Anyone that is saved is a disciple of Jesus. Did you think that the OP argued that it was not?
No. I was just leaving a Scripture that seems to plainly contradict the claim of Bing who is claiming that one can be saved and not a disciple.