Recently, a school of thought has grown up within evangelicalism that insists that repentance and acceptance of the lordship of Christ is not necessary for salvation. All that is required is faith, defined as belief and acceptance. Repentance is a necessity for discipleship. This distinction between salvation and discipleship, however, is very difficult to sustain, as for instance, in the Great Commission, in Matthew 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to "go and make disciples." [Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 949-950.]
"Heresy," simply defined, is that which denies the fundamentals of Christianity. In the above quote, Erickson mentions a new "school of thought." This new "school of thought" contradicts three fundamentals of Christianity: the doctrine of saving faith, the doctrine of sin, and the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Biblical Definition of Faith
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." [Romans 1:16-17 NASB]
The gospel- or "good news"- message of Christianity is, as the verse above instructs us, a revelation of the righteousness of God. This message proclaims the righteousness of God Himself and also how sinful people can become righteous in His sight. The gospel is the power of God for salvation from the wrath of God (cf. Rom. 1:18), but it only grants salvation to those who believe: to those who have faith. It should be obvious, then, that a proper understanding of how God has defined "faith" in His Word is absolutely crucial for people's eternal destiny. The new "school of thought" mentioned at the beginning of this post defines faith as "belief and acceptance". This may sound like a fine definition of faith at first, until we understand what people holding to this new view are denying in light of Scriptural teaching.
In discussing the biblical definition of faith, it is helpful to understand the teaching of the Reformers on this issue. The Protestant Reformation, in a very real sense, was primarily concerned with the role and definition of faith in an individual's life. In debating against false teachers, the Reformers had to carefully search all of the Scriptures in order to understand the fullness of the biblical teaching on faith and to be able to give clear, concise statements of how we should properly understand "faith". During the time of the Protestant Reformation, when people were challenging the traditional Roman Catholic religion that was based on rituals and were asserting that favor with God came through faith in Christ alone, "the Reformers delimited three essential elements of saving faith. [These elements of faith are]: notitia (knowledge of the data or content of the gospel), assensus (the intellectual acceptance or assent to the truth of the gospel's content), and fiducia (personal reliance on or trust in Christ and his gospel)" [R.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 167-169].
The categories mentioned above are drawn out from Scriptures such as the following:
Now faith is the assurance [as in acceptance or assensus] of things hoped for, the conviction [as in trust or fiducia] of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. By faith we understand [as in "knowledge" or notitia] that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. [Hebrews 11:1-3 NASB]
Faith As More Than Intellectual Assent
The new "school of thought" mentioned at the outset of this post primarily denies the fiducia aspect of saving faith. People that teach according to this "school of thought" make statements such as:
Saving faith is simply being convinced or giving credence to the truth of the gospel. It is confidence that Christ can remove guilt and give eternal life, not a personal commitment to Him. [Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor, 1989), 156, 119. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word, 2000), 27.]
To "believe" unto salvation is to believe the facts of the gospel. "Trusting Jesus" means believing the "saving facts" about Him, and to believe those facts is to appropriate the gift of eternal life. Those who add any suggestion of commitment have departed from the New Testament idea of salvation. [Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 27, 37-40. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles. (Nashville: Word, 2000), 28.]
But notice that the way in which the men quoted above define "faith" would not preclude each and every demon in Hell from automatically partaking in salvation. For if "faith" is only knowledge of "saving facts" and acceptance that those facts are true without any love for or trust in the Savior, then how could we avoid the conclusion that the fallen angels have all been saved? The devil certainly knows the Scripture as demonstrated in his temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:3-13). Furthermore, the demons were among the first to recognize Jesus' true nature as the Son of God and the Messiah (Mark 5:6-10). These evil spirits knew the facts about Jesus and accepted the truth of who He was, for they begged Him, knowing that He had power over them. But they were not saved, for they desired to depart from Jesus rather than follow Him, and their master, the devil, is still "prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour" (1 Pet 5:8 HCSB).
Faith in What?
After attacking this fiducia, or "trust", aspect of saving faith, the new "school of thought" goes on to undermine the notitia, or "knowledge", aspect of saving faith. The biblical presentation of the gospel is very clear in the assertion that there is a certain core of knowledge that is crucial to saving faith. As the Apostle Paul writes of the gospel,
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, [1 Corinthians 15:1-4 NASB]
In defining "faith" as only "acceptance" or "assurance," and in their attempt to grant this "assurance" to the greatest number of people possible, professors of the new "school of thought" present a sub-biblical view of the content of the Christian Good News message. As one leading proponent of this view has written,
[I]t is possible to believe savingly in Christ without understanding the reality of His resurrection. [Bob Wilkin, "Tough Questions About Saving Faith," The Grace Evangelical Society News (June 1990):1. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word, 2000), 46.]
By this statement, Wilkin has denied one of the doctrines that the Apostle declared to be of "first importance:" one of the doctrines that Paul clearly proclaims as necessary for salvation in the passage quoted above.
Faith As More Than Momentary Assurance
Having defined "faith" as "acceptance" or "assurance" in certain "saving facts" (which facts have been shown to be rather dubious in light of the above quote by Bob Wilkin), the new "school of thought" being examined here must account for the reality that many people, having accepted certain facts about Jesus and having come to assurance of their salvation, later reject the gospel message or lack assurance as to their salvation. So the question is, 'according to the new view, do these people who now reject the gospel or lack assurance then lose their salvation?' The answer of the new "school of thought" would be that these people do not lose their salvation. And many of us would agree that indeed, anyone coming to true faith in Christ cannot lose their salvation. So then the question becomes, 'according to the new view do these people who now reject the gospel or lack assurance then prove that they never had true faith?' The answer of the new "school of thought" would be that we should not question the salvation of those who utterly lack assurance or who have even completely rejected the gospel, for in their view, if a person has ever had an intellectual assent to facts about Jesus, then they are eternally secure.
As Bob Wilkin, who was quoted above, has clearly stated,
There is no time requirement on saving faith, the moment of faith, the believer receives eternal life once and for all, whether he dies shortly thereafter, or whether he lives for 100 more years, even if a person believes only for a while, he still has eternal life. [Bob Wilkin, Confident in Christ, quoted by Dr. James White; Dr. James White vs Dr. Robert Wilkin, "The Regeneration and Perserverance Debate"]
In the debate quoted above, Bob Wilkin gives a snapshot of how he presents the Jesus to a non-believer, saying,
One of the things that I like to do when I’m talking to people is I will say, ‘Jesus said, -He who believes in Me has everlasting life- Do you believe in Jesus?’ Oftentimes in America, people say, ‘yes,’ right? So I say, ‘well, what do you have?’ Y’know, Jesus says, -He who believes in Me has everlasting life.’ [People say,] ‘I don’t know.’ So then I say, ‘well, this isn’t rocket science- you say you believe in Jesus, and Jesus says (John 6:47) -He who believes in Me has everlasting life.’
According to Bob Wilkin, if at any time the person to whom he was speaking were to say, ‘well, I believe in Jesus, so I have everlasting life,’ then they would undoubtedly possess eternal life, no matter if they were to profess similar belief in Buddha or if they were later to become an atheist. Other proponents of this view have stated this position very clearly. Charles Ryrie wrote,
A believer may utterly forsake Christ and come to the point of not believing. God has guaranteed that He will not disown those who thus abandon the faith. Those who have once believed are secure forever, even if they turn away. [Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor, 1989), 141, 143. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word, 2000), 27.]
Likewise, Zane Hodges wrote,
It is possible to experience a moment of faith that guarantees heaven for eternity, then to turn away permanently and live a life that is utterly barren of any spiritual fruit. Genuine believers might even cease to name the name of Christ or confess Christianity.[Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 107, 111, 118-119. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word, 2000), 28.]
But in direct contradiction to these statements, Jesus declared,
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." [Mark 8:34b-38 NASB emphasis added]
Also, the Apostle John clearly stated,
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. [1 John 2:19 NASB]
Notice that the fact that the ones spoken about in the verse above left the fellowship of the body of believers is taken as absolute proof that "they were not really of us." The view of faith as momentary assurance, as mere intellectual assent, which guarantees salvation even to those who eventually become atheists, does not agree with the biblical presentation of a persevering faith.
The Protestant Reformers were used by God to proclaim the gospel message- the good news that justification is by faith alone- to a lifeless, ritualistic church. But we must understand that the Reformers consciously made the distinction between dead rituals and what they called vives fide
, or "living faith". The doctrine of sola fide
- or "faith alone," preached by the early Protestants- and taught in Scripture passages such as Romans 4:1-8
or Galatians 3:6-14
- was not something at which the Roman Catholic Church could merely nod her head and go on her merry way, for faith is something that utterly transforms the life of the one in whom it resides. As a blind man who has just been given sight or a deaf man who has just been granted ears to hear cannot help but to change his lifestyle, so the man who has been given faith- who has formerly possessed a heart of unbelief, yet now trusts in Christ as his only Savior- will inevitably act in a manner fundamentally different than he ever imagined.
For this reason the Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote,
True faith, of which we speak, cannot be manufactured by our own thoughts, for it is solely a work of God in us,
without any assistance on our part. As Paul said to the Romans, it is God's gift and grace, obtained by one man, Christ. Therefore, faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing.
For just as natural as it is for a tree to produce fruit, so natural is it for faith to produce good works. [Martin Luther, "Justification by Faith" in Classic Sermons on Faith and Doubt, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1985) 78. Quoted in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word, 2000), 236.]
Finally, I would like to simply close with the following statement by the apologist James White
I’m going to gladly accept the characterization that I believe that saving faith is more than mere intellectual assent because the Protestant Reformation has condemned as a heresy that perspective from the very beginning and I join with that. [Dr. James White vs Dr. Robert Wilkin, "The Regeneration and Perserverance Debate"]
[The above article is adapted from a blogpost that I originally published on 2/24/06