Many schools and pastors teach that saving faith is not mere persuasion. They call that easy believism or cheap grace.
Many teach that saving faith includes turning from sins, surrender, commitment to serve Christ, and even perseverance in obedience that must follow the commitment.
The words “whoever believes in Him” in John 3:16 thus become about one’s works, not believing in the Giver for the gift of salvation.
At the Grace to You website in an article entitled “Saving Faith” (see here), Pastor John MacArthur writes:
What is saving faith? It is believing in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ to the degree that you are completely satisfied with Him so as to commit your life to Him in loyalty, faithfulness, allegiance, submission, duty, fidelity, obligation; and it is not mere intellectual assent…Faith cannot be placed in opposition to commitment, to surrender, to repentance, to delighting in the Lord.
Ligonier ministries concurs,
Mere knowledge and belief, as John Calvin comments, “can no more connect man with God, than the sight of the sun carry him up to heaven.” We also need to place our trust in Christ personally to save us. We must believe that Jesus came to save us personally. We must place our lives in His hands, pledging ourselves to follow Him no matter the cost (see here, emphasis added).
If faith is understood as something other than persuasion, then the Lord’s promise of everlasting life to whoever believes in Him for it is lost. The message of John 3:16 is transformed into something that the Lord Jesus never intended.
But why? Why is the distorted view of saving faith so prevalent in Evangelical circles today?
There are two main reasons for this error. It is hard to say what comes first. First, there are plenty of difficult warning passages in Scripture. If a person misunderstands these passages to be saying that those who fail to persevere are eternally condemned, then a person will read that false theology into clear passages like John 3:16 and Eph 2:8-9. The person ends up understanding all the faith-alone-apart-from-works texts in light of his mistaken understanding of difficult texts. Second, many people do not think it would be just of God to give everlasting life to people who merely believed in Jesus for it. In their minds, God must require more than persuasion. It seems obvious to them that God also requires turning from sins, surrender, and commitment to obey and follow for life.
If you want to say you believe in justification by faith alone and yet also say that turning from sins, surrender, and commitment are required to be justified, then you must define faith to include those elements. If justification is truly by faith alone, then it would be by faith alone. How simple. How refreshing. And yet how foreign to the thinking of most Evangelicals today.