Sola Fide, II. The Nature of Saving Faith and the Potential Fallacy Inherent in the So-Called “Sinner’s Prayer”

Before we continue further in our text in Romans 10, it would beneficial to look at the essence of belief and faith (which shall for all intents and purposes be here considered synonymous, for they are English variations of a single root in the Greek). As my Theology professor, Dr. David Hogg, accurately pointed out in a lecture, faith and belief cannot be reduced to a list of mental assents to the nature of the work and person of Jesus Christ. In other words, granting our natural state, belief in Jesus Christ is by necessity a supernatural work of God that brings about genuine change, not a checklist of doctrinal affirmations. This by no means diminishes the necessity for doctrinal orthodoxy by the renewal of one’s mind by the Spirit to the Scriptures, but it does highlight the simplicity of original faith in Jesus Christ.

In a beautiful analogy, John Piper likened original faith to the cry of baby at birth. Just as a baby springs forth from his mother’s womb into new life and cries because he is alive, so the child of God at regeneration simultaneously cries out in faith, believing with his fleshly heart upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as it could be said on the one hand that a baby is alive because his mother borne him and on the other that a baby is alive because he cries, so on the one hand it is said that we are alive in Christ because the Spirit borne us and on the other that we are alive in Christ because we believe in Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord.

Granting then that regeneration and faith are likened to being born of God and crying out in faith upon his Son, we must then confirm that the one who has faith in Jesus Christ by necessity will be different essentially than he who does not have faith in Jesus Christ. To put it another way, the one who has faith in Jesus Christ is alive in him, and the one who does not have faith in Jesus Christ is dead apart from him. Therefore, granting that a living man is different essentially from a dead man, one must concede that he who is alive will act differently than he who is dead.

This is all to bring us back to my former point that faith in Jesus Christ cannot simply be a confirmation of orthodox doctrines, for even the demons who confirm such doctrines remain reprobate. And it is this end to which I believe the apostle tends in Romans 10:8-13. For in these verses, the apostle directly links faith to salvation four times and three of those times include some form of the modifier “with the heart.” In v. 10:9, he writes, “[If[ you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved,” and in v. 10:10, “For with the heart one believes and is justified.” Therefore, it is quite clear that it is with the heart that one believes in Jesus Christ and is saved, which is to say in the least that pure mental assent to doctrinal truths cannot be salvific alone.

To think that we must have this discussion on belief and faith is somewhat absurd, because, rightly understood, belief is always demonstrative. If, for example, a man believes a television meteorologist who declares that there is to be a torrential downpour at precisely the time he is intending to go out, the man will, save some forgetfulness or madness on his part, put on his rain jacket and grab his umbrella before he leaves his home. If then a man believes that Jesus Christ is Lord and was killed and raised from the dead and now rules the Universe at the right hand of his Father, do you not think that his life would be different than everyone who did not claim such a fact? The Lordship of Jesus Christ and the Gospel have exuberant implications for him who affirms them, and if those affirmations are not demonstrated by his life then it is questionable in the least whether he who claims to affirm such things genuinely affirms them. Thus the apostle writes, “If you believe with your heart … you will be saved.”

For this reason, faith by its nature does not need to be complex and profound to be salvific. The apostle declares quite clearly that everyone who both believes in his heart that Jesus was raised from the dead and confesses vocally that he is Lord, that that person will be saved at the judgment. These components are seen in perhaps the simplest of conversions recorded in holy Scripture–the salvation of the criminal on the cross. There the evangelist writes recording the criminal’s words, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but his man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:40-42). In these few words we are allowed to see the outpouring of a condemned man’s heart at the most intense moment of his life. Unlike the criminal who mocked Jesus as the crowds did, our criminal rebukes said criminal, demonstrating his genuine belief in Jesus Christ and declaring him to be Lord when he asks for his remembrance when he enters his kingdom.¹

Obviously, since the criminal on the cross was deep in the process of dying, the demonstration of his faith was quite limited. Those of us who are more fortunate (or less fortunate if you are Pauline) must demonstrate our faith by our lives. Christ says it this way:

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Mt. 7:16-20).²

Faith in Christ in demonstrated in fruits done, which Paul later defines as fruits of the Spirit–evidences that a person is indwelt by the Spirit of God and is through him putting to death the deeds of the body.

This is all to say, opposed to the abuses of Romans 10:9-13, that some “sinner’s prayer,” which includes some reference to Jesus as Lord and a cognitive repetition of the doctrine of the resurrection, is not a magic formula for salvation. Belief in Jesus Christ originates in the heart by the creative Word of Christ (v. 10:17) and demonstrates itself in borne fruit. Apart from fruit, claimed faith is not genuine faith, for as James clearly puts it, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). While original faith is as simple to the newly regenerate Christian as a cry is to a newborn, it is always substantial, for he who is the Author of our faith is, by necessity and power, also the Finisher (cf. Heb. 12:2).

¹ Compare the criminal’s request in the Vulgate “Iesum Domine memento mei cum veneris in regnum tuum” to “et ingressae non invenerunt corpus Domini Iesu in v. 24:3 at the discovery of Lord Jesus’ missing body. The Latin etymologically highlights the connection between kingdom and lordship–between “Domine” in v. 23:42 and “Domini” in v. 24:3.

² Though Christ is speaking directly of false teachers in these particular verses, it can be assumed quite easily in the context of the passage that the same can be said of all who claim to be in Christ. The next verse Christ declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). Therefore, it can be concluded that he who believes in the Lord will do the will of the Father.



Categories: Fridy Night Bible Study

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2 replies

  1. As Paul Washer points out; When Jesus says "Repent and believe in the Gospel" in Mark 1:15, the verb tenses that He uses imply continuing action. You don't repent once and continue living the way you did before, and likewise you don't believe the Gospel once (as in, "pray the sinner's prayer") and live as though the Gospel is meaningless. An encounter with the living God is a life-changing experience, and if your life hasn't been changed by Him, you haven't truly encountered Him. Of course I'm not talking about legalism here, I'm talking about the biblical fact that bearing fruit is a sign of regeneration (Matt. 6:16-20, dealing specifically with false teachers but can easily be applied to anyone who claims to be born again who really isn't).

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  2. I thought that was a good point that Washer made about repentance, and it is similar to something that I read in Calvin (I think in his commentary on Romans), that we are to live a life characterized by repentence. That idea is also inherent in the word "repent" for it is an about-face in life. One cannot repent and then return to his former ways, for that is essentially him repenting of his repentance.

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