|1. At the very commencement of the investigation, we are met by a question upon which has originated much controversy among theologians in different ages of the Church--"Is faith the gift of God, or is it the act of the creature?"|
|2. According to the Antinomian theory, faith is the gift of God in the same sense as was the manna from heaven, above referred to--that is, Antinomians understand that faith is a grace, or a something possessing an abstract existence, as separate and distinct from the existence and operations of the believer as the manna in question was from the existence and operations of the people who gathered and used it.|
|3. Perhaps after all we have said, some may yet think there are a few passages of Scripture which seem to present faith as the gift of God, to the exclusion of the agency of the creature.|
|4. The next point which we will present for consideration, is the progressive nature of faith.|
|5. We will next consider the channel through which faith is derived.|
|6.In the next place, we remark, that faith is not a blind assent of the mind, resting upon
no rational foundation; but it is a well-grounded conviction, and a reasonable confidence, based
upon good and sufficient evidence.
|1. Our first argument on this point is based upon what is said in reference to the faith of devils.|
|2. It appears from the Scriptures that many were convinced in their understandings of the Messiahship of Christ, and of the truth of the gospel, who, nevertheless, did not "believe to the saving of their souls."|
|3. The Scriptures explicitly present justifying faith as implying trust or reliance, as well as mental assent.|
|4. In the last place, we remark, that the notion that saving, or justifying, faith implies no more than the assent of the understanding resulting from the force of testimony, is encumbered by serious difficulties, in view of reason, experience, and the general tenor or revelation.|
Faith, the subject now proposed for discussion, is one of the most prominent and important doctrines of the Bible. We find it presented in almost every part of both the Old and New Testament; and it occupies a conspicuous place under the Patriarchal, Jewish, and Christian dispensations. It appears in the confessions and standards of all Christian denominations, and has been extensively discussed by theological writers in every age. From all these considerations, as well as from the intimate connection between faith and salvation which the Scriptures exhibit, we might be led to infer that it is a subject well understood, and one in reference to which Christians are generally agreed. But such is far from being the case. The discordant systems of theology which men have adopted have produced a great diversity of sentiment on the subject of faith; and many of the different denominations, and perhaps some in all, are either under the influence of sentiments exceedingly erroneous, or have no clear and satisfactory views in reference to this important doctrine.
We propose, in the present chapter, to examine with as much care, and present with as much clearness, as our ability will allow, the various aspects of this doctrine, as exhibited in Holy Writ.
I. We consider the General Import of Faith (Back)The Greek word rendered faith in the New Testament is (pistis), from the verb (peitho), which means to persuade. Therefore the proper definition of faith, according to the etymology of the word, is, belief of the truth; or, that persuasion by which a proposition is received as true. This is the general meaning of the term; and whatever modifications it may receive, or whatever different aspects it may properly assume, the Scriptures themselves must determine. Let it, however, be borne in mine, that the above is the proper meaning of the word, and however much it may be qualified, limited or extended in signification, according to the peculiar aspect in which the subject may be presented in the Scripture, it cannot be understood in any sense contradictory to the above. It must imply the belief of the truth; but it may imply this to a greater or less degree, and under a diversity of circumstances. In perfect consistency with the literal meaning of the term, we are furnished with a definition of faith by Paul, in the eleventh chapter of his Epistle to the Hebrews: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The Greek word (hupostasis), here rendered substance, is by Macknight and other critics, rendered confidence; and we find the same original word in Heb. iii. 14, rendered confidence in the common translation, This perfectly accords with the etymological meaning of faith above given--that is, faith is the belief, or the confidence-- the strong persuasion--of the truth or reality of things hoped for. In the latter clause of the verse, the word (elegchos), rendered evidence, is, by many critics, translated conviction. It signifies a strict proof or demonstration. The apostle's definition of faith, therefore, may be stated as follows: Faith is the strong persuasion and clear demonstration of things hoped for, and of things invisible.
II. With these remarks concerning the general definition of faith, we proceed to the farther investigation of the doctrine, as presented in the Scriptures. (Back)
1. At the very commencement of the investigation, we are met by a question upon which has originated much controversy among theologians in different ages of the Church--"Is faith the gift of God, or is it the act of the creature?"
This question , which is far from being free from ambiguity in itself, has been thrust forth by many as a kind of talisman for the detection of heresy--as something possessing extraordinary powers, by which the orthodoxy of an individual may at once be tested. And with many persons, assuming high claims to soundness in the faith, what they conceived to be an improper answer to the above question, has furnished legitimate ground for non-fellowship or excommunication.
We think, however, it will be seen, upon a slight examination, that the question itself needs explanation, before any inference of serious importance can be made from the answer. The proper answer to the question must depend upon the meaning attached to the terms used. The words "gift of God," and "act of the creature," may be taken in a diversity of acceptations. Thus the manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness, and the rich harvest produced by the field of Boaz, were both the gift of God; but no one can say that they were the "gift of God" in the same sense. In the former case, the gift was absolute and direct from Heaven, without the agency of man. In the latter case, the agency of man was required for the cultivation of the field. Likewise there are different senses in which a thing may be understood to be "an act of the creature." Thus, what Saul of Tarsus did, when he "held the clothes of them that stoned Stephen, " and what the "man with the withered hand" did, when, at he bidding of Christ, he "stretched forth his hand," were both acts of the creature; but no one can say that they were such in the same sense. In the former case, an act was performed in the exercise of the native powers, without the assistance of divine grace. In the latter case, the act was performed by the assistance of divine aid imparted at the time. We will now endeavor to determine in what sense "faith is the gift of God,: and in what sense it is "the act of the creature."
2. According to the Antinomian theory, faith is the gift of God in the same sense as was the manna from heaven, above referred to--that is, Antinomians understand that faith is a grace, or a something possessing an abstract existence, as separate and distinct from the existence and operations of the believer as the manna in question was from the existence and operations of the people who gathered and used it.
This has been the avowed sentiment of Antinomian Calvinists during the last and present century; and, indeed, it is difficult for any interpretation of the subject, essentially variant from this, to be reconciled with Calvinism even in the mildest forms it has assumed.
An idea so absurd and unscriptural as the above, and which has been so frequently disproved by arguments perfectly unanswerable, requires, on the present occasion, but a brief notice. Suffice it to say that, according to this notion of faith, to call upon men to believe, and to hold them responsible for their unbelief, would be just as consistent with reason and Scripture as to call upon them to stop the planets in their course, and to hold them responsible for the rotation of the seasons.
Such a view of the subject is not only inconsistent with the whole tenor of Scripture, which enjoins upon man the exercise of faith as a duty, but it is irreconcilable with the very nature of faith. What is faith? It is no abstract entity which God has treasured up in the magazines of heaven, to be conveyed down to man without any agency of his, as the olive-leaf was borne to the window of the ark by Noah's dove. Faith has no existence in the abstract. We might as well suppose that there can be thought, without an intelligent being to think as that faith can exist separate from the agent who believes. Faith is the act of believing; it is an exercise of the mind; and, in the very nature of things, much be dependent on the agency of the believer for its existence.
There is, however, a sense in which we think faith may with propriety by called the gift of God. What we have already said is sufficient to show that it cannot be the gift of God in such sense as to exclude the appropriate means, or the proper agency of man. The doings and the gifts of God may be performed or imparted either directly or indirectly. God may carry on his works, and confer his favors, either directly, by the exertion of his own immediate agency, or indirectly, by the employment of such agencies or instrumentalities as his wisdom may select. Thus the harvest, which has been the product of much toil on the part of the husbandman, is really the gift of God, though not so directly as the manna from heaven, or even "the showers that water the earth." Whatsoever is the result of a merciful arrangement of God, although our own agency may be requisite to our enjoyment of the blessing, is, in an important sense, the gift of God. For example, the sight of external objects results from a merciful arrangement of God, by which the surrounding rays of light are adapted to the organization of the human eye. Thus sight may be called the gift of God, but not so as to exclude human agency; for we may either open or close our eyes at pleasure; we may look upward to the stars or downward to the earth; we may turn to the right or left at will.
Even so, faith results from a merciful arrangement of God, not independent of, but in connection with, the free moral agency of man. It is of God's merciful arrangement that we are presented with a Saviour, the proper object of faith; that we have access to his word and gospel, unfolding the plan of salvation, and exhibiting the subject-matter of faith; that we are presented with the proper evidences of the truth of our holy religion, serving as the ground or reason of our faith; that we have minds and hearts susceptible of divine illumination and gracious influence, enabling us to engage in the exercise of faith; and, lastly, that the gracious influence, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, is vouchsafed unto us, by which we may, in the exercise of the ability which God giveth, in connection with all these privileges, "believe to the salvation of our souls."
In reference to all these particulars, so far as they are connected with, or enter into, the composition of faith, it si properly the gift of God. And as God is the proper "author and finisher of our faith," because it is thus through his merciful arrangement, and by the aid of divine grace imparted, that we are enabled to believe, we may therefore say with propriety that in these acceptations faith is the gift of God. But all this is far from admitting that faith is in so sense the act of the creature. Indeed, that it is the act of the creature in an important sense, is implied clearly in what we have just presented. For, after all that God has done, man must act--his agency must be put forth, or faith cannot exist. Not that he can of himself do any good thing-- his "sufficiency is of God;" but "through Christ strengthening him," he can and must exert an agency in believing. God has never promised to believe for any man; nor can any man ever possess faith till through grace he exercise the ability with which God has endowed him. From what has been said, we think it evident wherein faith is both the gift of God and the act of the creature.
It may be objected by some, that, according to the view presented, it is an inaccuracy to term faith the gift of God; for it is only the grace and ability to believe that are the gift of God; and this grace and ability are not faith, but something distinct from it, and from which it results. To which we reply, that although it is true that the grace and ability to believe are not faith, yet, as faith results from the exercise of that grace and ability, and flows from that merciful arrangement of God by which man is enabled to believe, we think there is the same propriety in styling faith the gift of God that there is for so considering the food we eat, and the raiment we put on, for the securing of which our agency in the use of the appropriate means is indispensably requisite.
3. Perhaps after all we have said, some may yet think there are a few passages of Scripture which seem to present faith as the gift of God, to the exclusion of the agency of the creature.
The two texts principally relied on for the purpose we will briefly notice. The first is Col. ii. 12, where it is said, "Ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God." Here, it is true, faith is said to be "of the operation of God." But does this imply that the agency of the creature is excluded? Surely not. God is said to " work in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure;" yet we are commanded to " work out our own salvation with fear and trembling." According to the scheme we have presented concerning the connection of the gift of God with the agency of man in the work of faith, these texts are perfectly consistent with each other; but if we interpret the one so as to make faith the gift of God independent of man's agency, the other can only be interpreted in direct opposition.
The next text relied upon is Eph. ii. 8: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." Doddridge, and other commentators of the Calvinistic school, take the relative (touta) (that) to refer to (pistis) (faith) for its antecedent; and thereby make the apostle say directly that faith is "the gift of God." But Chandler, Macknight, Clarke, and many of the best critics, contend that (touta), which is neuter gender, cannot naturally refer to (pistis), which is feminine; but that the antecedent is the preceding part of the sentence, or the salvation spoken of as being "by grace and through faith." Macknight has supplied (to prugma) (this affair) as the antecedent--that is, "this salvation by grace and through faith is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." So that we may be well satisfied that this passage affirms nothing in reference to the question whether faith is the gift of God or not. But even if it did, it cannot invalidate the view of the subject which we have presented; for we have shown wherein it is the gift of God, and wherein it is the act of the creature.
4. The next point which we will present for consideration, is the progressive nature of faith.
According to the Scriptures, there are degrees in faith. Faith may not only take a more extensive range in relation to the things embraced, but the degree of confidence with which they are embraced may also be increased. In Matt. vi. 30, our Saviour addresses his disciples, saying, " O ye of little faith." In Matt. viii. 10 he says, in reference to the centurion's faith, "I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel." Here "little faith" and "great faith" are both spoken of; hence it must consist of degrees.
In Matt. xvii. 20, the disciples are exhorted to "have faith as a grain of mustard-seed"--clearly implying that, like as that diminutive seed grows to a large tree, so their faith should expand and increase more and more. In Luke xvii. 5, we find the disciples praying, "Lord, increase our faith"--clearly implying that it might become greater than it was. In Rom. i. 17, we read: "For therein is the righteous of God revealed from faith to faith." This can only be understood to mean from one degree of faith to another. In 2 Thess. i. 3, Paul says to his brethren, "your faith growth exceedingly." And in 2 Cor. x. 15, the apostle says to his brethren, "But having hope, when your faith is increased," etc. From all which passages the idea is clearly taught that there are degrees in faith; but, as this is a point so plain as scarcely to admit of controversy, we dismiss it without farther comment.
5. We will next consider the channel through which faith is derived.
This is the hearing of the word. In Rom. x. 14-17, the apostle says: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."
The great appositeness of the preceding passage to the point in hand will justify the length of the quotation. That the hearing of the word is the medium of faith, will farther appear from the following passages. In John xvii. 20, our Saviour says: "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word." John xx. 30,31: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." Many other texts, having the same general bearing, might be added; but the above will show that the hearing of the gospel, or the acquiring of the knowledge of the great truths of God's word, is the appointed channel of saving faith.
6. In the next place, we remark, that faith is not a blind assent of the mind, resting upon no rational foundation; but it is a well-grounded conviction, and a reasonable confidence, based upon good and sufficient evidence.
God has never enjoined upon man the duty of faith, without first presenting before him a reasonable foundation for the same. Christ never arbitrarily assumed the prerogatives of the Messiahship, but he appealed for the confirmation of his claims to honorable and weighty testimony; nor are we required to believe the gospel, independent of the evidence it affords of its own divinity.
The proper ground or reason of faith will appear from the following scriptures:--John x. 37, 38: "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works; that ye may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in him." John v. 36.: "But I have greater witness than that of John; for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me." Acts ii. 22: "Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know." Heb. ii. 3,4: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?" 2 Pet. i. 16,17: "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." In all these scriptures, the proper evidences are appealed to as the foundation of faith.
III. We now consider Justifying Faith. (Back)
Faith, by theological writer, has been divided into different kinds, such as divine faith, human faith, historical faith, the faith of miracles, justifying faith, etc. A particular explanation of each of these kinds of faith we deem unnecessary, as the terms in which they are expressed are sufficiently explicit.
We will close the present chapter by a special consideration of that faith, which in the gospel is presented as saving or justifying in its nature. St. Paul declares the gospel to be "The power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;" and he said to the jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.: These passages clearly exhibit that prominent feature of the gospel--that faith is connected with salvation. The point now before us is to inquire what is implied in that faith.
We know of but two leading views in reference to the nature or degree of the faith in question.
The first is a notion which has found favor with Socinians, Arians, Unitarians, etc., in different ages of the Church; and in modern times, also, with the Rationalists of Germany, and with some New School Presbyterians and some classes of Baptists of the United States. The view referred to is this: that the faith which the gospel enjoins is simply the assent of the mind, or a mental conviction of the truth of the facts and doctrines of the gospel, resulting from an examination and intellectual apprehension of the evidences of Christianity, without any direct communication of supernatural aid or divine influence, or any trust or reliance of the soul on Christ, farther than what is necessarily implied in the conviction produced in the understanding by rational investigation, that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God," and that the gospel is true.
The other view upon subject is that which has been advocated by the great body of orthodox Christians in all ages. It embraces all that is implied in the preceding definition, together with a special trust or reliance of the soul on Christ for salvation, farther than what is implied in the simple assent of the understanding.
The former view, it will be perceived, reduces the exercise of faith to a mere intellectual process, the latter, in addition to this, requires a trust or reliance of the heart. The vital importance of settling this question correctly must be apparent to every one. It is intimately connected with the salvation of the soul. A mistake here may be fatal; and certainly no one can be interested in being in error where so much is at stake. We think the honest inquirer after truth may easily find in the inspired volume a satisfactory decision on the point at issue,
1. Our first argument on this point is based upon what is said in reference to the faith of devils.
St. James, in speaking of a dead, inoperative faith, which can only imply the assent of the understanding to the truth of Scripture, says: "The devils also believe and tremble." In accordance with this is the language of a devil, when our Lord was about to expel him from the man possessed: "I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God." Thus it appears that, so far as theoretical faith is concerned, the devils are possessed of faith; and if the gospel only required of men the belief of the truth with the understanding, it would be enjoin the faith of devils; but as we suppose none will admit that the faith which justifies sinners is such as devils possess, we infer that justifying faith must imply more than the bare assent of the understanding. If gospel faith be the assent of the understanding only, we may with propriety ask, who is stronger believer that Satan himself?
2. It appears from the Scriptures that many were convinced in their understandings of the Messiahship of Christ, and of the truth of the gospel, who, nevertheless, did not "believe to the saving of their souls."
As instances of such, we might name Nicodemus and Simon Magus. We have the faith of the former in the following orthodox confession: "We know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." Here, so far as the mere mental conviction of the truth is concerned, it would be difficult to invalidate the faith of Nicodemus. he acknowledged the divinity of the Saviour's mission, and he based his faith on the proper evidence--"the miracles" the Saviour performed. Yet he was not saved; for the Saviour declares unto him, "Ye must be born again."
And what can we think of Simon Magus? In the eighth chapter of The Acts, we learn the "Simon himself believed also," and "was baptized"--that is, he "believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ." Yet, immediately afterward, he is said to have "Neither part nor lot in the matter;" but to be "in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity." Yet there is no charge brought against the character of his belief; it is not intimated that his mind was not informed in reference to the character and claims of Christ; or that his understanding was not convinced of the truth of what he had heard. The charge affects not his understanding, or his reasoning, but his moral character. The apostle declares: "Thy heart is not right in the sight of God." The defect was evidently in the heart, not the head. So far as the mere assent of the understanding is concerned, it does not appear that there was any defect in the faith of Nicodemus or Simon; but, as neither of them believed "to the saving of the soul," we fairly infer that gospel faith implies more than a mental conviction of the truth from the force of testimony. The head may be as orthodox, and at the same time the heart as wicked, as Satan himself.
3. The Scriptures explicitly present justifying faith as implying trust or reliance, as well as mental assent.
Ps. xxii. 4: "Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them." This is evidently the character of the faith by which "the elders obtained a good report." Again, St. Paul says: "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness"--clearly implying that faith reaches beyond the mere intellect, and lays hold on the moral powers. In Eph. i, 12, we read: "That we should be to the praise of his glory who first trusted in Christ," etc. Here the apostle is evidently speaking of embracing Christ by saving faith, and he expresses it by the word trust--implying more than the cold assent of the mind. Rom. iii. 25: "Whom God hath set forth as a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare is righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." "It is not surely that we may merely believe that the death of Christ is a sacrifice for sin, that his is set forth as a propitiation, but that we may trust in its efficacy. It is not that we may merely believe that God has made promises to us, that his merciful engagements in our favor are recorded, but that we may have confidence in them, and thus be supported by them. This was the faith of the saints of the Old Testament. 'By faith Abraham when he was called to go out into a place, which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed, and he went out, not knowing whiter he went.' His faith was confidence. 'Though he slay me, yet will trust in him.' "Who is among you that feareth the Lord? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.' 'Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.' It is under this notion of trust that faith is continually represented to us also in the New Testament. 'In his name shall the Gentiles trust.' 'For, therefore, we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God,' etc. 'For I how whom I have believed,' (trusted,) etc. 'If we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.'" (Watson's Institutes.)
4. In the last place, we remark, that the notion that saving, or justifying, faith implies no more than the assent of the understanding resulting from the force of testimony, is encumbered by serious difficulties, in view of reason, experience, and the general tenor or revelation.
(1) From this doctrine it would follow, either that all whose judgments are convinced of the truth of Christianity, by Christ and his apostles, immediately embrace salvation, or some genuine believers are not saved. The former position is contrary to the historic fact; the latter is contrary to the gospel promise.
(2) This doctrine appears to be inconsistent with the depravity and the native inability of man to do any thing toward salvation, without divine grace imparted. For if faith be the condition of salvation, as all admit, and if it be the natural result of a mental exercise in the examination of testimony, then it will follow that, as man can exercise his intellect at pleasure, independent of aid from divine influence, he may believe of himself, and be saved by the mere exercise of his natural powers. According to this idea, to pray for faith, or for the increase of faith, would be absurd; for all that would be necessary would be an increase of diligence in the study of the evidences of Christianity, which might be effected as well without prayer as with it.
(3) Again: this view of the subject would imply that no man can examine the evidences of Christianity so as to perceive their force, and study the doctrines of revelation so as to gain a general theoretical knowledge of their character, without being an evangelical believer or genuine Christian. This is contrary to the experience of thousands. To say that no man in Christendom has ever examined the evidences of Christianity, so as to arrive at the satisfactory conclusion in his mind that the gospel is true, except such as have embraced salvation, is to manifest a far greater regard for a favorite theory than for the plain testimony of experience, observation, and Scripture.
The great Bible truth is, that man is a being possessed of moral as well as intellectual powers. He has a heart as well as a head; and God requires both in the exercise of evangelical faith. That faith which has its seat in the head, without reaching the heart, will never reform the life or save the soul. It will be as "sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal;" it may embrace "the form," but will be destitute of "the power" of religion. The faith which consists in the assent of the understanding alone is the "dead faith" spoken of by St. James, which includes no works of obedience. The faith which, passing through the understanding, fixes its seat deep in the heart, and trusts or relies on Christ for present salvation, is that faith which alone can justify and save a sinful soul.