In a previous post where I wrote about Derek Webb and his loss of faith, I suggested that the reason why some fall away from the faith is because their faith was man-made and not God-made. That is, their belief in and allegiance to Christianity were based on human conditioning and reasoning but were not the product of new birth; thus they are able to be moved by experience and human reason away from Christ. What is wrought in human strength can be changed by human strength.
Does the Bible make such a distinction? Is this a desperate grab at a flimsy argument in hopes of salvaging a predetermined theological system that does not square with real experience? In short, can we support a category of non-saving faith made by mere human decision rather than by God’s action from the Bible itself? I contend that we can and offer two texts as proof.
In this text, we are picking up the middle of a conversation between Jesus and Jews in Jerusalem who had come for a feast. Jesus is describing his person and work and we are told in verse 30, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.”
But the way the conversation unfolds is striking. Verse 31 says, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (emphasis mine). This statement irks his audience and they begin to push back, arguing they are not slaves to anyone. In essence, they don’t continue in his word but reject this further teaching. Jesus’ words to them in the ensuing debate make it clear that in whatever sense they have believed in him, it was not a saving belief that made them true children of God.
Jesus says their father is the devil (verse 38, 41, 44), that God is not their Father (verse 42), and they are not of God (verse 47). These Jews had believed in Jesus and yet they still were ensnared by the devil, had not become true children of God, and they were not of God. Whatever faith they had was not saving faith.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2
In this text Paul says this: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.”
Paul is speaking to the established church in Corinth, a church that had heard the gospel, received the gospel, staked their lives on the gospel, and had begun to see deliverance by the gospel. And yet Paul could still tell them that if their faith was not the kind of faith that endured, then their prior belief was in vain.
I am convinced that this means that it is possible to hear the gospel, receive it, stake your life on it, and even taste the benefits of true conversion in the form of freedom from sin–and still not have genuine saving faith. This same Paul–the one through whom God revealed that those whom God foreknew, he predestined, and those he predestined his called, and those he called he justified, and those he justified, he glorified–could also say that one could build their life on the gospel and still have a kind of belief that was ultimately empty.
My reason in contending this is not to defend a particular theological system. It is to join the Bible’s pleading that we continually examine our hearts, not rest on religious pedigree or prior acts of obedience, and always strive to press on for current faithfulness to Jesus, his teaching, and his commands.
Why else would Paul exhort the church in 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves”? Why does Peter entreat his audience to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election”?
Not all faith in Jesus is saving faith and we need to make every effort to examine the kind of faith we have, lest we find ourselves with a faith that is empty.