Both Calvinists and Arminians (including Arminian Pentecostals and Charismatics) agree that a person must have faith in Christ instead of seeking to earn salvation by works of obedience to God’s moral law—which can never be done.
But we must not think of faith as an alternative kind of work—a mental or spiritual work.
The apostle Paul teaches that God saves people through sending Jesus Christ to die for them, and that through this substitutionary sacrifice God imputes Christ’s righteousness to them. It is not that their faith justifies them, but that God justifies them by Christ’s blood (Romans 5.9).
Faith in Christ (i.e. believing in Christ), sometimes known as saving faith,1 plays an instrumental part in salvation—but this faith, too, is a gift from God to the sinner being saved (Ephesians 2.8; Philippians 1.29).
Saving faith involves a desisting from all “works”—that is, from all self-conceited attempts at saving yourself through religious acts or good deeds (compare Romans 10.3).
Saving faith is not the “exercise of your spiritual muscles,” as I have heard faith-prosperity preachers describe it.2
Saving faith is not an altered state of consciousness, as some “Christian mystics” teach. They think that faith is essentially a trance-state in which the practitioner “extinguishes the self” through “spiritual exercises” such as:
- By depriving themselves of food, hydration or sleep for long periods;
- By becoming hypnotically fixated upon an image (a statue or icon) of Christ or of an exalted “saint;”
- By deeply imagining and meditating upon Christ’s passion (i.e. his pain-filled sufferings and crucifixion);
- By being enchanted by the repetitive singing of choruses or inhaling incense;
- By being engrossed in a great ceremony or pageant.
All these religious practices (and more) have been adopted from paganism.
True saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a simple trusting in (or, as is sometimes helpfully described, resting upon) Christ alone for salvation.
Paul made this clear when he referred to Abraham as our example. He said of the believer, not only that he “worketh not” (i.e. he stops attempting to save himself by doing the works of the law), but also that God reckons this “reward” of imputed righteousness (i.e. justification) to be his entirely “of grace” and not at all “of debt” (Romans 4.4-5).
Clearly, believing in the Saviour for salvation involves no attempt at working to save yourself. It is a total desisting from such work, and instead resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone.3 This is the opposite of all kinds of self-salvation.
We cannot save ourselves by law-keeping, “spiritual exercises,” door-knocking “evangelism,” “being good”—or by “faith.” Saving faith is not a kind of meritorious work.
All attempts at self-salvation will end in failure—and this means damnation to Hell. This is because there is nothing that we can do (and nothing we can think, believe in, or “positively confess”) that can earn, merit, or deserve salvation as its wage or reward.
And we cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (as he really is: as revealed in the Bible) unless God gifts us with this faith—such is our fallen, totally depraved, God-rejecting, Christ-rejecting nature.
The apostle Paul could not have put it more clearly: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11.6).
God’s saving grace is his totally unmerited favour, which he bestows upon his people. We are not saved by our works but saved by God’s grace alone.
The good news is this: God, of his sovereign and free grace alone, imputes the righteousness of Christ (his works of obedience and atoning sacrifice on the cross) to the believer, in the salvation of his or her soul.
“Saving faith” is phrase that is familiar in some churches. It is also used as the title of the 14th chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some theologians also go so far as to distinguish saving faith from justifying faith—see Fisher’s Catechism, Q.33.56-63. ↩︎
Christ alone (Solus Christus) is one of the Five Solas of the Reformation, where it means that we should look to Christ alone and not to any other or additional mediator or priest. But here we also point out that we should trust in Christ alone for our salvation and not imagine that our own works or faith contribute synergistically toward our salvation. ↩︎