Head Faith, Heart Faith,
and Mind Games
By Bob Wilkin
Editor’s note: The following article is adapted from Chapter One of the book Confident in Christ: Living by Faith Really Works (Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999).
When many people evangelize, they attempt to persuade their listener that saving faith is unlike any other kind of faith. It is unique in that it includes things like commitment, turning from sins, and obedience. If those elements are lacking, then the individual in question doesn’t have true saving faith. If they are present now, but they cease to be present in the future, then the person never really had true saving faith in the first place.
People are taught this by well-meaning pastors, authors, and evangelists. For example, one author writes: “faith is inseparable from obedience.”1 And again, “Faith is not true faith if it lacks this attitude of surrender to Christ’s authority.”2
Another writes, “The third element [of saving faith] is fiducia, or trust and commitment…[It] is a real yielding of oneself to Christ which goes beyond knowledge, however full or accurate that knowledge may be, and even beyond agreeing with or being personally moved by the gospel.”3
How would you convince someone that saving faith is not simply faith in the gospel, that it includes commitment, turning from sins, and obedience? Since there is no verse in Scripture that identifies saving faith as anything other than believing the gospel, you’d have a hard time proving your view from the Bible. However, there is an easier way.
The best way to sell the idea that saving faith includes more than the conviction that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him is through the use of pejorative terms like intellectual faith or head faith. Some preachers and teachers tell people that simply believing the gospel facts is intellectual faith or head faith. Then they espouse the idea that the Bible teaches that the faith that truly saves is heart faith.4
Heart faith can include almost anything. However, heart faith raises potential problems. How much commitment, turning from sins, obedience, and the like is enough? The biblical evidence demonstrates that this supposed distinction between head faith and heart faith is really a mind game.
First, the Scriptures never refer to the head as the source of thinking and feeling. In addition, the word head is never associated with faith in the Bible.5
Second, of the two remaining words, heart and mind, the Scriptures often use them interchangeably.6 Both refer to the inner self where one thinks and believes and feels.
Third, the mind is not viewed as being inferior to the heart in Scripture. In one of the most famous verses on sanctification in the Bible, Paul exhorted the believers in Rome, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Similarly, he exhorted the Ephesian believers, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” Paul spoke to the Corinthian believers of having “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Luke said that the Lord “opened [the disciples’] understanding [literally mind in Greek], that they might comprehend the Scriptures,” that is, the Old Testament Scriptures, concerning His resurrection (Luke 24:45).
Fourth, while the words believe and faith occur approximately 450 times in the Bible, all but a handful of usages7 do not specify where belief takes place. They simply speak of believing as though the reader of Scripture knows what that means and where it occurs.
Believing in Christ is the sole condition of eternal life. There is no such thing as special types of faith called heart faith and head faith. Saving faith doesn’t include commitment, obedience, or turning from sins. It is simply the conviction that Jesus is speaking the truth when He says, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47).
During the Cold War the expression brainwashing was used to refer to the efforts of the Communists to get our captured soldiers to expouse Communism. People sometimes spoke of the work of the cults as brainwashing as well.
While I mean no disrespect here, the head faith/heart faith teaching is, I believe, a subtle form of brainwashing. I find it difficult to believe that a person reading the Bible on his own would ever come up with such a bizarre suggestion. However, if you can ever get a person to accept this supposed distinction as biblical, you can get them to include whatever you want in saving faith: commitment, obedience, turning from sins, walking an aisle, submitting to Christian baptism, or whatever you think is important to please God. Think about it. If faith includes commitment and obedience, then faith includes commitment and obedience to anything which is found in the Bible. Ultimately this would be saying that no one has saving faith until he is fully committed and obedient to all that God says in His Word.
Don’t play mind games. When you share your faith, call people to believe in Jesus for everlasting life (1 Timothy 1:16). That is, call them to accept as true Jesus’ promise to grant everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him for it. Don’t bring in unrelated issues that take the focus off Jesus and put it on the listener and his works.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). Evangelism, biblically speaking, really is that simple!
1MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Expanded and Revised Edition, p. 190.
3Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? p. 140, italics his.
4There is a tract called “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.” It argues that you would miss heaven if you believed the gospel with your head rather than with your heart. Head faith is dangerous, it suggests, because you may think you are saved simply because you believe the facts of the gospel. Yet without the heart commitment, that “faith” is not saving faith at all.
5The word head occurs approximately 330 times in the Bible. Of those, the vast majority refers literally to the head, which sits on the neck. There is absolutely no biblical warrant for speaking of head faith.
6For example, “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was vexed in my mind” (Psalm 73:21). There is synonymous parallelism here. To be grieved in your heart is to be vexed in your mind. Compare also Hebrews 8:10, “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts.” Mind and hearts are used synonymously there.
7For consideration of those passages, see Confident in Christ, p. 250, notes 20 and 21