The cartoonist Charles Schulz, who created Peanuts, was a keen Christian. One Christmas he featured Linus having a conversation with himself: “It is hard to understand how someone can visit every house in a single night, and fly through the air behind reindeer, but…” [screwing up his face in conviction and his fists in determination] “…I believe it!”
Some Christians think they need this Linus-style faith – they are saved by believing something with enough conviction.
In the Bible, the faith that saves us is completely different. Actually the Greek word for faith in the Bible, pistis, means three things, so translations often use three different words when interpreting it: “faith”, “trust” and “belief”. These represent the three distinct concepts. We believe a statement, such as “Jesus died for everyone”; we trust a person, such as Jesus; and we have faith in an ability, such as the ability of Jesus to remove our sins. Put like this they sound very similar, but there are big differences between them.
SATAN THE BELIEVER
The devil is a believer according to James 2:19. He knows a lot more theology with much more certainty than any Bible expert or saint. He believes what the Bible says and believes all the Church creedal statements – apart from those that we’ll discover were wrong! The devil believes them because he knows the truth that we can’t see clearly till we get to heaven. He also has faith in Jesus’ ability to save sinners by the power of his victory on the cross – he knows about this because of his own defeat. What he doesn’t do is trust Jesus to save him!
We would use the same three concepts at a more mundane level if we were invited to sit on an antique chair. You may believe that old wood doesn’t weaken, so that you have faith in the ability of the old chair to support your weight. Or you could simply trust the person who invited you to sit. Faith is the gap between evidence and knowledge, and generally the more evidence you have, the less faith you need. Old Testament believers had only the evidence of their own spiritual discernment and later they had stories of events such as the Exodus. We are more fortunate because we have the life of Jesus – his life and death are facts acknowledged by all reputable historians. But of course historians don’t talk about the ‘fact’ of the resurrection because extraordinary events require extraordinary amounts of evidence, and there isn’t anything more extraordinary than a three-day corpse reviving itself. So we have to add a little faith to the equation.
BELIEF VS FAITH
Calvin got it right about faith, though many Calvinists get it wrong. The great rediscovery by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century was that our salvation is because of a gift of God: “You have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). We aren’t saved by any good we do, or by asserting a particular belief system, or even by our faith in God’s ability to save us. We are saved simply by God.
So what is the “gift” in Ephesians 2:8? Calvin said it is “salvation”, but some modern Calvinists say that the gift is “faith”. They say that faith in God is too hard for a fallen human – they are thinking about it in the same way as Schultz's Linus.
Our modern idea of faith has changed a lot since the time of Calvin and the Bible. Athletes are encouraged to have faith in their abilities to win a race. They work hard at visualising themselves running well and crossing the line first. If their conviction is strong enough, their mental resolve helps them to run harder, so the depth and strength of their faith can help them to win. Most of us don’t have the mental discipline for that kind of faith, but in any case, it isn’t what the Bible actually meant.
"None of us are saved by belief in theological statements"
The concept of belief has changed too. Historical theological disputes have gradually created longer and more detailed statements of belief. The ancient creeds have been supplemented by statements about evolution, predestination, tribulation, gender, tongues, transubstantiation and many other doctrines that divide us into multitudinous denominational groups. Most of us don’t know enough theology to assent to all those beliefs.
But none of us are saved by belief in theological statements, by faith in I own ability or even by our faith in the ability of God. We are not saved by our faith at all, but by God. All we need is the merest trust/faith/belief that he will save us. We need to accept God’s offer.
FAITH WITHOUT WORKS
Just when we think everything is simple, along comes James, who understood faith in a slightly different way. He was influenced by the Greek translation of the Old Testament where the Hebrew word amen, meaning “true” or “faithful”, was translated as pistis. For example, “the workers laboured faithfully” and “great is your faithfulness” (2 Chronicles 34:12; Lamentations 3:23).
This gave him an insight into some people’s belief that they didn’t need to be righteous because they were misunderstanding Paul’s teaching on being saved by faith. To correct them he explained, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…I will show you my faith by my deeds" (James 2:17-18) i.e. the proof of faith is in the doing.
The word pistis may not be straightforward to translate, but the concept of salvation by faith is simple. All that God requires is our trust. Faith in God and belief in God are merely other ways of saying that we trust him to save us.
God wants to save sinners, and if they trust him to save them, he will. Of course those who trust God will want to try to do his will and grow closer to him – so this trust leads to a whole lot more. But when you pick apart the details, in the end it all comes down to simple trust.
So is it correct to say that “we are saved by faith”? Yes! But not a Linus-style faith based on the strength of our convictions: we are saved by faith solely and simply because we are saved by God, whom we trust.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge