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.