Monday, 25 May 2009

A personal faith in a personal God

I've often taught that biblical faith consists of 3 'steps': first, I must know something about the truth; second, I must believe that it is true; third, I must act upon what I believe - entrust myself to it. This is all fine and good (which isn't surprising, since I think I got it from Grudem!) but reading Calvin on faith this morning has made me spot a potential danger with using this scheme alone.

It seems to me that there is a danger of making faith sound like it's simply assent to biblical doctrines. Of course, if I thoroughly work through the third step with the teachings of Scripture I will avoid this pitfall, but perhaps more emphasis ought to be given that this is something personal - faith in God through Christ. After all, 'this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (John 17:3); it is not eternal life to live wholeheartedly according to a system of doctrine per se.

In particular, Calvin insists on the necessity of knowing God as a merciful God, rather than simply knowing something about his will (I take it that by 'knowing God's will' Calvin is talking about something not a million miles from what I've said above).

'It is plain... [that] merely to know something of God's will is not to be accounted faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will, the tidings of which are often sad and the proclamation frightening? Thus, surely, we shall more closely approach the nature of faith; for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him. This fact is confirmed for us when he declares that our salvation is his care and concern. Accordingly, we need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest.' (Institutes, III.ii.7)

In trying to avoid the dangers of a vague, woolly mystical approach the equal and opposite danger must also be avoided of reducing faith to simply believing the right things. Real faith is knowing the true and living God, revealed in all his grace in Christ! Anything else will bring spiritual famine and poverty, however good my doctrine is.


  1. I suppose faith generically could be your previous definition - you can trust a system, or a chair, impersonally. But truly Christian, Trinitarian, gospel faith (that is, saving faith) is necessarily personal knowledge of God through Christ by the Spirit. I'm sure joy should come into the definition somewhere too :)

  2. Sure - I think my original definition is fine in one sense. If you worked it through you would arrive at the same answer, since the 'system' the Bible teaches includes John 17:3 and many other similar passages. But it does obscure the personal element somewhat.

    I'm not sure about putting joy into a definition of faith. I can't think off-hand of any passages that link the two like that (though happy to be corrected!). Surely affections should follow where faith leads, rather than being an integral part of it? You can easily envisage a situation where someone may genuinely put their faith in Christ with fear and trembling - so overwhelmed with a sense of unworthiness, sinfulness etc. Joy would follow in the experience of forgiveness of sins etc, but was not a part of the initial exercise of faith.

  3. Yes I suppose so. But even in 'taking refuge in Him' who can rule with a rod of iron and wrath flare up in a moment, where there is trust there is some joy in the fear, no? Not necessarily emotional, but affections as you say. Still, it was only a momentary pondering, not much Scriptural basis - partly that my faith consents to sign a DB with joy not just assent. But probably following, rather than initial, as you say: Taste & see that the LORD is good, who trusts in Him is blessed :)