Here is a short list of adjectives that pastors have actually used to describe faith in Jesus that will not save: non-genuine, professing, superficial, alleged, dead, demon, false, head, non-heartfelt, intellectual, temporary, spurious, implicit, historic, delusive, counterfeit, sign, miracle, easy, cheap, and non-confessing.
What is the effect on the person in the pew when he hears a steady barrage of warnings about non-genuine faith, spurious faith, head faith, temporary faith, and so on? Clearly the desired effect is that the listener will question his own faith. Do I have head faith or heart faith? How do I know if I have temporary faith or persevering faith?
In his ground-breaking work The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur repeatedly warned his readers about the danger of faith in Jesus that is not saving. His conclusion of a chapter entitled, “The Nature of True Faith,” is telling:
Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The direction of one’s life should reveal whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever. There is no middle ground. Merely knowing and affirming facts apart from obedience to the truth is not believing in the biblical sense.1
In a message entitled “Assurance of Salvation,” Pastor John Piper similarly says,
The most agonizing problem about the assurance of salvation is not the problem of whether the objective facts of Christianity are true (God exists, Christ is God, Christ died for sinners, Christ rose from the dead, Christ saves forever all who believe, etc.). Those facts are the utterly crucial bedrock of our faith. But the really agonizing problem of assurance is whether I personally am saved by those facts.
This boils down to whether I have saving faith. What makes this agonizing—for many in the history of the church and today—is that there are people who think they have saving faith but don’t. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”
So the agonizing question for some is:
- Do I really have saving faith?
- Is my faith real? Am I self-deceived?
Some well-intentioned people try to lessen the problem by making faith a mere decision to affirm certain truths, like the truth: Jesus is God, and he died for my sins. Some also try to assist assurance by denying that any kind of life-change is really necessary to demonstrate the reality of faith. So they find a way to make James 2:17 mean something other than what is seems to mean: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead.” But these strategies to help assurance backfire. They deny some Scripture; and even the minimal faith they preserve can be agonized over and doubted by the tormented soul. They don’t solve the problem, and they lose truth. And, perhaps worst of all, they sometimes give assurance to people who should not have it.2
Of course, the reader or listener, if he is in agreement with what the pastor is saying, naturally comes to doubt his own eternal destiny. He will be left hoping that he has persevering, genuine, heart faith, but fearing that he does not.
But how does he get deliverance from this concern? How does the person sitting under this teaching gain assurance that he has everlasting life?
He doesn’t. The preaching isn’t designed to give him that. In fact, it is designed to keep him in perpetual, yet manageable, fear of eternal condemnation.
This sounds odd to those of us who haven’t sat under such preaching in many years. But for many people, it is what they have grown accustomed to hearing. They have come to believe that good Christian preaching gets the listeners to wonder about their salvation. Fear of hell is seen as a good thing—as long as it not obsessive—since it motivates “professing believers” to persevere to the end so that they might obtain what is called “final salvation.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. In my home church in Dallas, Victor Street Bible Chapel, we never hear such qualifiers for faith. We simply hear that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ have everlasting life that can never be lost (e.g., John 3:16; 11:26). We actually encourage assurance of one’s eternal destiny. And guess what? Instead of producing spiritual lethargy, it produces spiritual zeal and gratitude that produces godliness.
2See Assurance of Salvation (Part 1) – John Piper. Accessed August 19, 2010.