In the course of an ongoing conversation with a good friend concerning so-called “Lordship Salvation,” my friend pointed me to a blog entry posted by Justin Taylor. The post quotes renowned Reformed Anglican J.I. Packer, in a discussion of the “two-tone” nature of Christian faith. My friend was interested to see my response. After finally having the chance to read the post, here are my thoughts:
The object of the Christian faith, Packer writes, is threefold:
first, God the Three-in-One, the Creator-become-Redeemer, who throughout history has been, and still is, transforming sinners into a new humanity in Christ;
second, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate and Saviour, now absent from us in the flesh but personally and powerfully present with us through the Holy Spirit; and
third, the many invitations, promises, commands and assurances that the Father and the Son extend to all who will receive Jesus as their Saviour and Lord and become his disciples, living henceforth by his teaching in his fellowship under his authority.
Packer is confused about the nature of generic faith, which leads to confusion about Christian (or “saving”) faith. If we want to get technical, the “object” of any faith must be a proposition, or set of propositions. Only propositions have truth value (either true or false), and thus only propositions can be believed.
However, language also permits us to say that we believe a person, or that we believe “in” or “on” a person. This is all well and good, as long as we recognize that this merely means that we believe what that person says. Thus, even when we say “I believe Jim,” the object of our faith is still the propositions that Jim speaks.
The word “trust” is very similar. If I trust a man, it is the same as saying that I believe what that man says.
All that being said, I typically won’t split hairs when somebody (like Packer) states that God, or Christ, is the object of our faith. We must believe God (that is, we believe His Words). However, Packer confuses the matter because he says that there are three objects of the Christian faith, namely, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and “the many invitations, promises, commands and assurances that the Father and the Son extend to all who will receive Jesus as their Saviour and Lord and become his disciples, living henceforth by his teaching in his fellowship under his authority.”
First, the Trinity. No problem here yet.
Second, Jesus Christ. This is a simple redundancy, since Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, and thus already included in Packer’s first point. Other than this odd redundancy, no real problem yet.
The problem with Packer’s third point is twofold. First, another redundancy: Packer has separated the Trinity and Christ from their words (the invitations, promises, commands, and assurances). In other words, Packer says we must believe the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, in addition to believing their words. As explained above, to believe a person and to believe that person’s words is the same thing, making Packer’s threefold object of faith an unnecessary redundancy. Instead of a threefold object, I would simply state that the object of a Christian’s faith is the propositions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ’s finished work on our behalf.
The second problem with Packer’s third point is that he includes “commands” as objects of faith. Commands are imperative sentences; they are neither true nor false; they are not propositions; they cannot be believed, only obeyed. Obedience is not faith; it is doing something/acting as one has been instructed.
This naturally leads to confusion regarding how we receive the blessings of the “promises” and “assurances”. Packer’s paragraph seems to imply that it is a combination of believing and obeying – living righteously – which earns us the promises. Read it carefully: Packer states that the promises etc. are extended to all who 1.) receive Jesus as Savior & Lord, and 2.) become His disciples, living by His teaching. The biblical & Reformed teaching is that someone who believes the propositions of the gospel, and is therefore justified, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to him (thus *already* having received the promise of eternal life) will only *then* proceed to live by Jesus’ teaching.
Biblically, then, faith is a matter of
knowing the facts of the gospel (the person, place and work of Jesus Christ),
welcoming the terms of the gospel (salvation from sin and a new life with God) and
receiving the Christ of the gospel (setting oneself to live as his follower, by self-denial, cross-bearing, and sacrificial service).
In this next section, Packer writes that “faith is a matter of knowing… welcoming… and receiving…” Here we find more redundancy. Packer uses the word “know” where he means “understand”. Knowing implies believing. One cannot know something unless he believes it. One can be informed that 2+2=4, and can understand that proposition, but if he does not believe it, he can hardly be said to know it. Thus, if one “knows” the facts of the gospel, he believes the gospel, and is justified, according to John’s Gospel.
“Welcoming… salvation from sin and a new life with God” likewise is already included in the “knowing” section. In order to know the gospel, one must already believe that he is a sinner in need of salvation, and that a new life with God is promised to him. So, is Packer in error here? I think it would be more accurate to say that he is merely confused, attempting to create a distinction which does not exist. Such redundancy is a common error, the result of an incorrect philosophy of mind & thought imposing itself onto one’s theology.
The term Packer uses for his third part of faith, “receiving,” is commonly used, but rarely is it defined clearly. Packer defines “receiving the Christ of the gospel” as “setting oneself to live as his follower, by self-denial, cross-bearing, and sacrificial service.” But these things are results of one’s sanctification. Yet Packer’s discussion is about faith, the instrument of our justification before God. The biblical & Reformed teaching is that man is justified through belief apart from works, not by “self-denial, cross-bearing,… sacrificial service,” and/or setting oneself to live according to Christ’s commands.
Believing the biblically revealed facts and truths about God, and trusting the living Lord to whom these facts and truths lead us, are the two “tones,” the intellectual and relational aspects, of real faith, blending like a chord in music.
This is the understanding of faith that needs to be re-established.
Packer, like so many otherwise orthodox theologians, attempts to distinguish God from His Word. Like the redundancy described above, here Packer says we must believe Scripture, in addition to trusting the Lord. In reality, these are one and the same.
The vast majority of theological discussion of faith seems to revolve around the “two” or “three” parts of faith, giving much emphasis on our response of obedience to Christ’s commands, in order to enliven our faith and thus make it saving. “Mere intellectual faith,” we are told, doesn’t save anyone – it must be accompanied by works of obedience if it is to be “authentic,” saving faith. However, Scripture tells us that belief – assent to understood propositions; an intellectual act – is the instrument of our salvation (Acts 16:31; Note that Packer’s mesh of belief & sacrificial service is not given. Perhaps the apostles erred in failing to explain all three parts of “biblical” faith?). This faith is presented as being apart from works (Romans 3:28), including works of self-denial and sacrificial service.
Scripture presents the gospel as good news – propositions about sin, our need for a Savior, Christ’s sacrifice, etc. What is saving faith? It’s not complicated: Faith is understanding the truth of the gospel, and believing that truth. Through this belief, God justifies sinners. Sanctification follows, yes (Romans 8:28-30). But this is produced by God in one who has already been justified through faith. Thus, faith cannot include acts resulting from sanctification. This is the biblical understanding of faith that needs to be re-established among today’s Reformed teachers.