This is the final post in our series on biblical faith. Contrary to the way “faith” is typically defined in current conversation, I have tried to paint a more biblical picture of what the word means. Here are links to the previous entries in this series, in case you missed them or for review:
The Problem with Mental Assent
A lot of times, you’ll hear people say something like, “I believe that Jesus is God’s Son,” or “I believe what the Bible says,” but it becomes clear that those beliefs don’t really impact their daily lives in any real way: they don’t have anything to do with the church, they live their lives by their own moral code rather than that of the Bible they claim to believe in, they spend their lives chasing after the accumulation of material possessions, etc.
For people like this, what they really mean by believe is mental assent: “in my mind, I agree with the idea that Jesus is God’s Son,” or “I agree with the idea that the Bible is accurate in its claims.”
And to be fair, mental assent is one appropriate definition of the word “believe.” In fact, mental assent is exactly what I mean when I say something like, “I believe the 1927 Yankees were the greatest baseball team of all time.” I’m saying something like, “based on the information I have, I agree with the claim that the 1927 Yankees were the greatest baseball team of all time.”
But this idea of mental assent is not what the Bible is talking about when it talks about believing in something. It certainly involves agreeing with something (i.e. Jesus is God’s Son), but it involves much more than that: “Since I believe that Jesus is God’s Son, I will live my life according to his teachings and commandments.”
Biblical faith goes well beyond mental assent.
Faith vs. Works or Faith + Works?
Christians of different backgrounds have argued for hundreds of years over whether people are saved by faith or by works. To me, that’s an unfortunate argument, because the people who tend to dig their heels in around either element to the exclusion of the other are, well, wrong.
Look, the Bible teaches over and over again that we are incapable of saving ourselves through our good works. Isaiah 64.6 says that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags before God, and even bigger than that, if our salvation was accomplished by the good things we do, then there would have been no need for the atoning death of Christ in the first place.
It was in response to this erroneous viewpoint that the Reformers developed the mantra of “Faith Only”: we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ, and nothing we do has anything to do with that.
But once again, this is not the biblical perspective. Biblical faith, by definition, includes works. Consider the following verses (emphasis added):
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Or this passage from Ephesians 2, which is a favorite of faith-only types:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Both of these passages fundamentally link faith to action. Are we saved by faith? Absolutely! But in the Bible, the very idea of faith includes works! Biblical faith involves taking action and obeying God’s commandments. If you take away the works, you’re left with something other than what the Bible commands.
Biblically, it is unthinkable to talk about faith separate and apart from the actions that result because of that faith.
Or in other words, if you say that you believe in Jesus but you don’t actually obey his teachings or attempt to follow his example in your life, then you don’t really have faith at all. At least, not in a biblical sense.