Filling the Breach — Justification By Belief Alone
You might think the seemingly innocuous phrase “justification by belief alone” would be music to a Christian’s ear. But, you would be wrong. What you say? Don’t the Scriptures teach; “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” Didn’t the Apostle John say; “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” And, didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say; “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Well, yes, but you see according to a majority of Reformed elders in the PCA, OPC and elsewhere belief saves no one. What you need is faith.
But, wait. Aren’t the words belief and faith just English translations of the single word pistis in the Greek New Testament?
Indeed they are and in fact while most translators prefer the Latin-based faith, if the word belief were used in its place it would do no violence to the meaning of any verse in Scripture. Consider the following examples where belief is used in place of faith:
Mark 11:22: And Jesus answered them, “Have belief in God.
Luke 18:42: And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your belief has made you well.”
Acts 26:18: to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by belief in me.’
Romans 4:5: And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his belief is counted as righteousness,
Romans 4:9: Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that belief was counted to Abraham as righteousness.
Romans 4:11-13: He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by belief while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the belief that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of belief.
Galatians 2:16: yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through belief in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by belief in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Ephesians 1:15: For this reason, because I have heard of your belief in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.
Colossians 2:12: having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through belief in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
1 Peter 1:21: who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your belief and hope are in God.
The attentive reader would no doubt have noticed in a number of the above examples that the verb form of belief is also used repeatedly and in fact can only be used simply because there is no verb form for the word faith. For this reason alone you would think that belief would be a preferable translation of pistis to the Latin-based faith.
But, there is another reason why belief is preferable to faith as Gordon Clark explains:
Because fides or faith permits, though it does not necessitate, a non-intellectual interpretation, the liberals today want us to have “faith” in a god who is unknowable and silent because he is impotent to give us any information to believe. This Latin anti-intellectualism, permitted by the noun fides, undermines all good news and makes Gospel information useless. Although the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have repudiated twentieth-century anti-intellectualism, their Latin heritage adversely affected some of their views.
Sadly, it’s not just theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries or even those wicked modern liberals for that matter who have been adversely affected by this Latin heritage. Even purportedly conservative and Reformed theologians of today prefer the Latin-based faith precisely because of the anti-intellectualism “permitted by the noun fides.”
Dr. Alan Strange, who is an OPC minister and full-time professor of church history at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, affirms this anti-intellectualism and accuses those who don’t of departing “from the historic confessions and catechisms of the Reformation as well as the theologians of the Reformation.” In addition, he pronounces anathemas on those who maintain we are justified by belief alone in the propositions of the Gospel alone and accuses them of grave heresy on par with the infamous Arius and Eutyches. Strange writes:
That what is at the heart of saving faith requires rich metaphorical description and cannot be rationistically[sic] reduced to “propositional belief” seems galling to some, but that is the Reformed faith. Maybe you think the Bible teaches something far more “simple.” That’s what Arius, on the one hand, and Eutyches, on the other, thought about the person of Christ. But their Christianity (teaching that Christ was not truly God or Christ was not truly man) was not orthodoxy, the latter teaching something more full: Christ was God and man in one person, a profound mystery (even as was that of the blessed Holy Undivided Trinity), not amenable to rationalistic reduction. Such attempts to rationalistically reduce the faith have always ended unhappily for their promoters.
Saving faith is not simply propositonal belief but is what … our Dutch brethren, and others herein have described it as, consonant with the Word of God as understood in the Reformation: a receiving and resting upon Christ, a coming to Christ, a personal trust in Christ, a leaning upon Christ that means that one looks away from all that one is and has and does and looks to Christ and Him alone, hoping, resting and trusting in no other. That is the response to the good news of the person and work of Christ that the Reformation sought (together with repentance and the fruits of faith) and that all gospel preachers call for today.
For Strange belief in the Gospel message, the Gospel propositions, saves no one. Rather, sinners are saved through something that defies definition and that can only be expressed in metaphorical language which cannot be to “propositional belief.” That’s because if this “rich metaphorical description” on which he relies, and that is required in addition to mere “propositional belief,” were to signify some additional truth that we are to believe, it could be stated in literal language; i.e., it could be reduced to a “propositional belief.” But Strange can’t and won’t allow that.
Notice too, for Strange the Confessional figure of speech that we are to “receive and rest” on Christ (WLC 72) is explained with even more figures of speech like “coming to” and “leaning upon” that only moves the problem further back. He even includes the idea of “personal trust” as if trust could be anything but personal. Strange can’t distinguish belief from receiving and receiving simply because the latter are figures of speech describing the former. He can only assert “justifying faith is something more than merely belief: not something less, but something more.” He never explains exactly what this “something more” is or even why it is necessary in order for a sinner to be saved.
Think about this. When asked to explain what this additional element is, this respected professor of church history can only respond with more figures of speech to explain the one he was asked to define. Further, according to Strange, someone can believe the Gospel, believe that Christ alone died for his sins and is his only righteousness, and still be lost. Yet, the Scriptures say “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved” and Jesus said, “He that believes has eternal life.” Dr. Strange makes Christ a liar by insisting “justifying faith is something more than merely belief.”
Dr. Strange, along with many like-minded and similarly confused teaching and ruling elders and others who side with him, provide a great example of the profound confusion and darkness that has triumphed in the Presbyterian and Reformed world. A world where men actually deny salvation by belief alone while thinking they are defending the biblical doctrine of salvation when nothing could be further from the truth. For these men faith, as opposed to belief, provides the vehicle by which they can attach an intangible and undefinable something-they-know-not-what that must first be wrought in the sinner before they can be saved. It is not Christ’s work alone completely outside of us that saves, but rather it is some anti-intellectual psychological state of mind that completes mere belief making it saving and this is their doctrine of faith. For these self-styled Reformed stalwarts, faith is beyond logic. In fact, it is opposed to logic.
Worse, these men, at least those who have a comprehensive theology like Dr. Strange, rest their un-Scriptural doctrine of faith on the equally un-Scriptural epistemology of Cornelius Van Til. As an example of this, and after proving himself unable to define this additional element to simple belief which alone is able to save sinners, Dr. Strange appeals to “mystery.” Strange maintains that to clearly define faith so that that it might be understood is like trying to plumb the depths of “the Trinity, the Incarnation, divine sovereignty and human responsibility,” as if these doctrines too defied human logic and explanation. This is pure Van Til.
Men like Dr. Strange aren’t defending the historic Reformed faith; they’re defending the religion of the Dark Ages.
Yet, rather than recognize the dark path Dr. Strange is leading others down, he doubled down asserting: “this intellectualized definition of faith [i.e., Clark’s definition] is a significant departure from the teaching of the Reformation on the matter and rather deadly for our faith.” Deadly to his Vantillian and distorted conception of the Reformed faith perhaps.
Just consider how scandalous this is. Here we have a situation where the key term in the doctrine on which the church stands or falls cannot be clearly defined so as to be unambiguously understood. No wonder heretics like those of the Federal Vision, to include Peter Leithart, Doug Wilson, Jeffry Meyers, Steve Wilkins (remember him), and the others, have kept these imagined defenders of justification by faith chasing their tails these many years. Even worse, here we have a pastor and professor openly contradicting the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. He rejects justification by belief alone and insists that belief alone is not enough, yet he’s at a loss to clearly explain what more is needed in order for a sinner to be saved.
This is a gaping hole that needs to be filled.
Gordon Clark exposed this sad situation and dangerous weakness in the foundation of the historic Reformed faith years ago and proposed a simple solution to plug this hole. But, because it was a position first advanced by Gordon Clark, being a pastor in the OPC and a committed Vantillian, men like Dr. Strange, with knee-jerk predictability, reject Clark’s solution out of hand.
In addition to Dr. Clark, the late Dr. Robbins recognized this breach in the foundation of the Reformed faith and spent his final years attempting to repair it. Recently I was struck by the following passage Dr. Robbins wrote in the forward of Clark’s What is Saving Faith:
Unintentionally and unwittingly, the defenders of justification by faith alone, by their un-Scriptural doctrine of faith (which makes faith a complex psychological act rather than simple assent to the truth) have created and sustained the theological climate in which those who deny justification by faith alone can flourish. The defenders of justification by faith alone have asserted that it is not enough to believe the Gospel, for even the demons believe the Gospel, and the demons are lost. Belief is not enough, they say. In order to be saved, one must do more than believe; one must commit, surrender, trust, encounter, relate, or emote.
The deniers of justification by faith alone agree: It is not enough to believe the Gospel in order to be saved. But rather than urging people to perform some further psychological task in addition to belief, they tell them to do good works in order to be saved. Their works (or their baptism) will complete what is lacking in belief alone. In this way, both the defenders and the deniers of justification by faith alone have lost sight of what in fact saves: The perfect, imputed righteousness of Christ completely outside the sinner, and received by the simple instrument of belief alone.
The current controversy over justification has broken out in conservative churches because Christians recognize that the Bible denies justification by works, whether works are regarded as a ground, condition, or an instrument of justification. But what most Christians have not yet recognized is that the common Protestant view of saving faith as something more than belief of the Gospel has fueled and will continue to fuel denials of justification by faith alone so long as it prevails. Until faith is understood as mere belief – the Bible makes no distinction between the two words – the justification controversy will continue, and those defending justification by faith alone will continue to be embarrassed by their agreement with the deniers of justification, that belief of the Gospel is not enough for salvation.
Dr. Robbins provides a scathing rebuke. Too bad so few have listened.
Dr. Robbins’ rebuke doesn’t stop there. The addition of some undefinable psychological element to faith, which is clearly absent from the unambiguously and positively intellectual term belief, has allowed these so-called stalwarts and defenders of the faith to rob Christians of the one true source of their assurance.
For those who haven’t read What is Saving Faith and Clark’s examination of faith simpliciter, of which saving faith is but a subspecies, I highly recommend that you do. When I first read Clark’s volume I found his simple solution and clear definition of faith and saving faith liberating. No longer was my faith in Christ tied to the ebb and flow of my emotions or to some unfathomable and mysterious psychological state mind, but rather it was now directly tied to the truths of Scripture; the mind of Christ. Which makes sense since our justification doesn’t rest on anything in us, despite the aggressive and unfounded claims of Dr. Strange to the contrary.