What is Faith?
Ephesians Series #60
February 9, 2020
Dr. Robert L. Dean, Jr.
“Our Father, we’re thankful for all that You have done for us, all that You have provided for us. Father, we’re thankful that we can come together now to study Your Word, that You have revealed Yourself to us, and You have given us everything we need for life and godliness.
“You have blessed us in so many different ways. Father, we pray that You will continue to enlighten us to Your Word, as we study today, to understand faith and that we can understand that which is necessary for salvation.
“We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ephesians 2:8. We’re going to look at the phrase “faith” that it is through faith that we are saved and understanding what that means. There’s a lot of controversy over what it means to have faith. Let me give you just some ideas of where there are problems.
We have to define the term “believe.” We have to understand what the Greek term means, not just the English. For some it means to commit your life to Christ. For others it means to invite Jesus into your life or into your heart. For others it means to have a relationship with Jesus.
You have heard people present the gospel using these terms and using these phrases, and I suggest that if you’re going to give somebody the gospel using one of those terms or phrases you ought to find a verse that uses it, because you will not find a verse that uses any of that terminology for the gospel and for the good news of Jesus Christ.
Another thing that is often heard about faith—usually in the context of seeing somebody who has failed morally or spiritually in their Christian life—they will say, “Well, he had a head belief but not a heart belief. He missed heaven by 12 inches.” That used to be a very common thing. I think it still is in some circles.
One that crops up even among those who have an understanding of the free grace gospel, is the idea that faith is not volitional. These are just some of the ways in which people just get confused about faith, and some of the ways in which it is explained can also confuse people.
We’re going to address some of this this morning, and it will probably run over into the next lesson after I return from Kiev.
Ephesians 2:8–9 states, “For by grace you …” What does “you” mean? It means that Paul is talking to the Gentiles. All through this section, as we get down into this chapter especially, “you” refers to Gentiles, “we” refers mostly to “we Jews who were saved first,” but it can also in a couple of places refer to us together now.
But here, Paul is singling out the Gentile audience and saying, “For by grace you Gentiles … He’s not saying it’s not true for the Jews also, but he is specifically pointing out “you Gentiles have been saved.” It’s a perfect tense verb indicating present reality, so it can also be translated legitimately “you are saved,” because this is an action that happened in the past, was completed in the past, and the results are still in effect.
“… you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.”
Another part of this problem, which I didn’t get to last time, is what does “that” mean?
- Some people think that “that” refers to grace, that grace is not of yourselves.
- Some people think it refers to “saved,” that salvation is not of yourselves.
- Others—and this is dominant among many Calvinists—“that faith” is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.
That is a confusion on faith because that makes saving faith a different kind of faith than everyday faith. Let me suggest that if it is a different kind of faith than the everyday faith that we experience, then what kind of faith is it?
This indeed leads to confusion, for there are a number of leaders within the Calvinist thought who have suggested that you can believe in Jesus for salvation and not be saved, because unless your works demonstrate a true saving faith, then you are not truly saved.
That destroys any assurance of salvation, because it places assurance in your post-salvation works and not in the promise of God and our assurances in the promise of God.
The Problem, stated in Ephesians 2:1–3, is that we are spiritually dead: “… we were dead in trespasses and sins,” Paul says. This is not nonexistence or inability, which is how many Calvinists interpret that term; and we must define it contextually.
In the context of Ephesians 4:18 it is described as being alienated from the life of God, so it means to be separated from the life of God. It doesn’t mean that you can’t hear the gospel. It doesn’t mean you can’t respond to the gospel. It means that you’re alienated from the life of God.
The reason I emphasize that is that in strict Calvinism, you have the teaching that regeneration precedes faith, because a dead person: can’t believe, can’t hear, can’t read, can’t understand; a dead person can’t do anything because they’re dead. It’s a wrong definition of death for spiritual death.
It is a different definition than being alienated from the life of God, which makes perfect sense in the context because it states that the solution to being dead in your trespasses and sins is given in Ephesians 2:5 when it says that He “… made us alive together with Christ.” That’s the solution—to be made alive together with Christ. It’s that alienation from God’s life that is the problem with spiritual death.
The Solution: defined in Ephesians 2:4–9, is that it’s based upon God’s love: “… but God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved.)”
- “Being saved” = a synonym for being “made alive together with Christ.”
- “Made alive together” in this context = being saved.
When we read the repeat of this phrase in Ephesians 2:8 “for by grace you have been saved …”
- Saved = to be regenerated = to be made alive together with Him.
That may be a difficult logic chain for some people to follow. That’s why I put these things up on the board. It’s very, very clear that “being made alive together” in this context is the same as being saved, so when Paul says, “for by grace you have been saved” in Ephesians 2:8, he means “for by grace you have been made alive together with Him.”
Being “made alive together with Him” in Ephesians 2:8 means that it is through faith. The text says, “you’ve been made alive together with Him—or been saved, the same thing—through faith.” That means that faith must precede regeneration. It’s very clear based on the grammar.
As someone asked me yesterday when we were at the gym getting our CPR training, “Where’s the bathroom?” I said, “It’s through the door.” Now to get to the bathroom what comes first, going through the door or getting to the bathroom? If I say you have to go through the door to get to the bathroom, what’s first? Through the door. So “through faith” has to precede “being made alive together.”
What does that mean? It means dead men can believe. It means dead men can understand the gospel. I’m not saying that they don’t need help—illumination—from the Holy Spirit, but that dead men can believe. They do not have to have God give them the faith as a special kind of faith.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that …” “That” refers to the “by grace through faith salvation.” We will get to why I say that in just a minute. It’s not a “that” that refers to one of these nouns: grace, saved, or through faith.
In this illustration faith is like the pipeline. It is through faith, the pipe that the water of life comes, we have to turn on the valve with our volition. Volition is a part of it.
Augustine said that faith is voluntary assent, which in that statement wasn’t a bad start. It is voluntary; that emphasizes volition. Assent is to agree that something is true. We will deal with that more eventually.
The spiritually dead sinner is separated from the life of God, which is the water of life. When he turns on the volition valve of faith and trusts in God, the water comes to him. So it has to go through faith before he drinks the water of life and is saved.
The question that I put off a minute ago is, what does the “that” describe? Is it faith, is it grace, or is it saved?
The problem is that in the Greek the relative pronoun that is translated “that” is a neuter gender pronoun. There’s no gender confusion there. It can only refer to something that is also neuter.
The problem with this is that the noun “grace” and the noun “faith” are feminine nouns, so it cannot refer to grace and it cannot refer to faith. That’s impossible. The word “saved” is a masculine participle. It can’t refer to a masculine participle. A neuter pronoun has to refer to a neuter noun, so it can’t refer to any of those.
We learn in a study of the Greek language and phrases that when there are phrases or clauses or sentences or even entire letters or books of literature that the pronoun is going to be in the neuter gender. That’s a huge observation!
So that when we’re saved, it says, “and that not of yourselves,” it is referring to this entire clause, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
That is picked up from the end of Ephesians 2:5, and now Paul restates it and is saying that it is that “by grace through faith salvation” that is not of yourselves. It’s the whole package, and it is focusing on this plan of salvation that God has given us.
This is God’s salvation, and that gift is ours, so belief is something that we do in response.
Ephesians 2:9, “… and not of works …” What are the works?
There is debate over this. There is a group, “The New Perspectives of Paul” that had their origin about in the late 70s. N.T. Wright was a bishop in the Anglican Church, and there are a number of others, but what they tried to do was claim that these works are talking just about the works of the Law.
For example, they will use a verse like Galatians 2:16, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith—through faith; it’s the same language here that’s used in Ephesians 2:8—but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified through faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
The problem in Galatia was these so-called Judaizers who came in and said, “It’s not faith alone. You have to add works in obedience to the law. You have to have circumcision, you have other obedience to the Law.”
The issue here that Paul is addressing is this Jewish issue. This is the same thing that happens in Romans. He’s dealing with those who have a primarily Jewish background congregation, and there he also talks about the works of the law, but he makes it clear that,
Romans 3:22, “… the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference.”
Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law—or the works of the law.”
He uses” the works of the law” because that’s the issue in those congregations.
Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham was justified by works …” Notice he doesn’t say “by the works of the Law.” Why does he not say Abraham was not justified by the works of the Law? There was no law at that time. Abraham is around 2050 BC, some 600 years before the giving of the Law.
Romans 4:3, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ ”
Romans 4:4, “Now to him who works—notice he doesn’t say who does the works of the law—the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.”
It applies to ANY work, not just the works of the Law—any effort that you think somehow impresses God.
The works of the Law in those Epistles relates to Jewish legalism. But in the books like Titus, which were written to a Gentile who is pastoring Gentiles, he just says it’s “not by works of righteousness which we have done …” Titus 3:5, it would cover any form of righteousness.
That’s an interesting phrase because that would also apply to Jews who thought they had righteousness from the works of the Law. But non-Jews might also think they could get righteousness from the works of the Law, so it emphasizes that it’s not by works of any kind of righteousness—law righteousness or any other kind—that we have done, “but according to His mercy He saved us.”
We understand as we look at Ephesians 2:8–9 that the faith is the means by which we are saved. That tells us that grammatically faith precedes regeneration.
It also tells us that works—that is any kind of work. That’s the issue here, he’s talking to Gentiles, “You’ve been saved through faith and not of works.” He doesn’t bring in the Law because he’s talking about works as a whole. That’s very important.
It is this new perspective of Paul and there are many others who are redefining what Paul is saying here in order to get Jews saved by something other than faith in Christ. When they redefine the works of the Law—it’s just specific ritual and not the Law as a whole—then they really pervert the gospel.
At the heart of all of this is an understanding of what faith means. In the first edition of his book The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur completely misidentified the meaning of the word here. The word here in the Greek is PISTIS—it means faith; and he treated it as if it said PISTOS, which means faithful, and that fits the Calvinist perseverance model.
I wrote a book review of that. I don’t know that he read mine. I’m probably not the only person who commented on it, but I did comment on that. When the second edition came out, he changed it. Still came to the same conclusion, but at least he tried to avoid the etymological error there.
What does the Bible teach about saving faith? What is faith? What does it mean to believe something?
This is where Christians get into a lot of confusion. One reason is because we have a heritage, and by “we” I mean within the evangelical tradition of an anti-intellectualism. Perhaps when you hear that you may think of some country preacher out on the stump, or you may think of some revivalist evangelist on television, and they’re not very intellectual, they’re not very scholarly.
That’s not what we mean by the term “anti-intellectual.” Anti-intellectual at its core has the idea that faith is not a product of the intellect, but is a product of the emotions. It is a feeling. Many evangelicals do this, and when you start defining faith as something related to emotion or feeling, then you are saying that it is not rational.
You are saying that it is not a product of the mind, but is a product of the feeling. That’s part of the problem with the phrase that distinguishes between the so-called head belief and a heart belief. The heart belief is one that has emotion attached to it.
We have to break this down. I’m making it simple, but it is not simple. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of books written by secular authors and philosophers trying to understand what faith is.
To understand what faith is, you have to also understand and write about what you think knowledge is: how a person comes to know anything, whether something as true knowledge exists—which gets it into the whole realm of discussing whether there is universal truth or only relative truth.
If you’re living in a relativistic postmodern society like we are, well if all truth is relative, then you can’t have any certain knowledge, and if you can’t have certain knowledge, then faith becomes a problem, and it gets reduced to just a matter of opinion.
People will say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” That always irritated me when people said that it was just my opinion! Yes, it is my opinion, but it is a well-studied thought-through opinion when I have stated things. I may have a thousand hours behind it, and you’re minimizing it by calling it opinion, as if I just had a feeling and that’s what I think is true, and I’ve never given it any more thought than that.
We have to be careful with that word “opinion” because there are opinions that are based on thousands of hours of research, thought and study; and there are opinions that are based on a nano second’s worth of thought and opinion and study. And to equate them as the same thing is a real problem.
Let’s look at what faith means—Basic definition:
It has two primary meanings.
1. Faith is understanding something and then accepting it to be true. In that definition I’m identifying two components:
- First of all, it’s understanding something.
You can’t—I’ll say this two or three times and I’ll explain it later—you can’t believe what you don’t understand. This is talking about the act of believing, which is the verb or the noun describing the act of believing.
In Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith …” it is a noun.
But in John 20:30-31, “these are written that you might believe …” it is a verb.
These two related words, the verb and the noun, are very close to one another. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the verb PISTEUO; and “saved through faith” is the noun PISTIS, but they refer to the same thing, but we have to understand that part of it.
Faith is understanding something and then accepting it to be true.
- Faith describes what you believe: the content of a person’s belief system; that body of truth that somebody believes:
Roman Catholic faith
Greek Orthodox faith
Scripture uses faith that way as well.
Galatians 1:23, “But they were hearing only, ‘He’—what other Christians had heard about the Apostle Paul’s conversion—‘He who formally persecuted us now preaches the faith—that’s the content of Christian doctrine of the gospel—which he once tried to destroy.’ ”
Ephesians 4:5 says that there is “one Lord, one faith—one body of truth, one faith—one baptism …” Fundamentally faith refers to the act of believing something or it can refer to what is believed. It is used both ways in Scripture.
2. Faith is fundamental to all knowledge, an extremely controversial position. But biblically faith is fundamental to all knowledge, and without faith there is no knowledge whatsoever—which we need to probe a little bit.
- Human viewpoint: Faith is non-rational or goes beyond reason or empiricism and is thus non-verifiable.
You go to college, you take a philosophy course, a sociology course, a history course, science courses— whatever it may be—they are going to say, “Well, we believe this because it’s fact. We can see it, we can measure it, we can quantify it, and so we know it. It’s not faith. Faith is something when you don’t have any evidence whatsoever, then you believe it in spite of the evidence.”
I’ve heard people say that too, “Faith is when you believe things in spite of the evidence.” They’re contrasting all other kinds of knowledge with faith. Once you hear somebody say that, you know of several things:
They haven’t thought very deeply about the subject
They’re propagandizing you, and
They are dead wrong.
- Divine viewpoint: Faith is rational. Biblical faith is rational. It’s based on reason. The Scriptures talk about on the basis of faith we know things. It is a way to know things, just as reason or rationalism or empiricism are ways to know things. We believe with the mind things we understand. It is with the intellect we believe the things that we have learned from others.
I bet not one person here—you might have, I may be wrong—had any schoolteacher of physical science, talking about the law of gravity, who duplicated the apple experiment of Isaac Newton, stood up there and dropped an apple. You just took it by faith that he was right. You never did any experiment, you didn’t do any investigation, you didn’t work it through mentally, you just heard a teacher tell you that, and you believed it by faith.
There a lot of things that we take by faith based on authority. If the authority is the Bible, we take it by faith from the Bible. Faith is intellectual, it has to do with knowing. But when we think about everything, faith is either:
- Faith is in the human ability to reason, to correctly interpret the sense data
- Faith focuses on the fact that we can correctly interpret intuitive insights that we have in our own mind.
- Faith is in some external authority.
The point that I’m making is that we either have faith in human ability to reason correctly; we have faith in human ability to correctly interpret the sense data—the experiences that he has outside of himself.
In mysticism, the experience is inside the person, so they say, “God spoke to me in a dream last night.” So we believe that he has the ability to correctly interpret the dream. It’s all based on faith. All knowledge, one way or the other, is based on faith.
I’ve taught from this chart for years:
There are different ways of perception that’s related to how we learn what we learn. Divine Viewpoint will fill in the bottom of the chart, and the Human Systems on the top. Because the human systems claim that human reason, human empiricism, or human mysticism is the ultimate authority. It’s human viewpoint versus divine view. Three aspects in the chart: The name of the system, the starting point of the system, and the method.
Rationalism starts with the idea that man is born with certain innate ideas, then on the basis of those innate ideas, he uses logic to develop arguments for the existence of everything else. This was Plato’s and Descartes’ approach.
He started off, “I think; therefore I am.” Because I have consciousness in my thinking; therefore, I must exist. I’m not sure about anything else, but I must exist. That’s his starting point, then he developed volumes of arguments for the existence of everything else, starting there.
But his faith was in his own innate ability to reason from his starting point, from his first principles, but it was still starting with faith.
Empiricism starts with sense perceptions: what we see, taste, touch, feel, hear. This is typical in the science methodology, to observe things, then from those observations we extrapolate to conclusion.
Both of these use the same method of logic and reason. Historically, both could not provide the answers to life. What is life? What is meaning? What’s out there? Is there a God?
You can’t live on the basis of skepticism, so you have to jump to Mysticism: you just believe it in spite of the evidence. The evidence can’t prove that God exists. The evidence can’t prove if there’s eternal life. The evidence can’t prove what happens after death. We can’t live as if there’s no meaning, so we’re just going to adopt something to give us meaning and purpose.
It’s completely irrational, and it’s based on this inner private experience of some sort. Again, it’s still faith in human ability, and it is independent of any external authority—that’s what I mean by independent in each of these—independent of any external authority like the Bible. It’s nonlogical, nonrational, non-verifiable.
The Bible in contrast provides revelation from God. And God’s revelation according to the Bible is self-authenticating. When God shows up and starts speaking to Moses from the burning bush, Moses knows that it is God. He didn’t have to say, “Prove that you’re God,” he knows it’s God. The sound of God’s voice is self-authenticating. When God speaks, we know it is God.
In scriptural views, faith is in the objective revelation of God. We use logic and reason, but it is dependent upon God’s revelation. It is subordinate to God’s revelation. It doesn’t judge God’s revelation.
That is the starting point: rationalism and empiricism. Mysticism is predominant today. That’s why so many people look at what is going on in Washington and say, “This just doesn’t make sense. It is not rational.” That’s because you’re dealing with a culture that is grounded in the irrationalism of mysticism, and it impacts the church.
Gordon Clark in his classic work on faith and saving faith says, “Unfortunately, at least in the present writer’s opinion, many Christians, motivated by an irrational pragmatism or by an even more extremely irrational mysticism, consider belief to be an emotion or feeling.” A great statement; a great observation. Faith in the Bible is not an emotion or feeling.
3. Biblical faith is a response to what is taught in the Bible, Romans 10:17.
Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
It’s a response to what God says and how God speaks in the Bible.
This lays the groundwork; we will go further next time. I hope that you can sit there at night, as you close your eyes and think through that chart, as many times as I’ve given it to you. It is repetition in order to learn that.
It is so important to take that grid and be able to put it on so many different areas of life dealing with current events, dealing with it when you go to school, or you’re reading something dealing with history, dealing with science, whatever.
What is their ultimate source of authority? How do they know what they know? So important: foundational!
“Father, we’re thankful for this opportunity to study Your Word, to think carefully about what You say in Your Word about belief, about believing, about faith. It is the means by which not only do we come to salvation, but also how we live the spiritual life: by believing what You’ve said in Your Word, by trusting in Who You are in Your promises in the Word. Everything comes down to knowing, applying Your Word.
“Father, we pray that if there’s anyone here that is unsure of their salvation or uncertain of their eternal destiny, that they would recognize that consistently the Bible teaches that it is by faith alone, believing in Jesus Christ and His death on the Cross, that He died for our sins and paid the penalty.
“Father, we pray that You would strengthen us in our faith—that is in what we believe— that we may live more consistently and that we may have a more consistent walk by faith, by means of the Spirit.
“We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.”