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Saving Faith Is Not Like Sitting in a Chair

by Bob Wilkin

Many theologians say that saving faith has three elements: understanding, acceptance, and trust. Unless all three elements are present, they say, a person does not have saving faith.

This is sometimes illustrated by means of a chair. A person can understand that a chair claims to support a person who sits in it. The person can go a step further and accept that claim. That is, he can be convinced that the chair would hold him up if he chose to sit in it. However (so the illustration goes), unless and until a person actually chooses to sit in the chair he will not gain its benefit.

Actually sitting in the chair is likened to trusting in Christ for eternal life. One can understand and even accept the claims of Christ concerning the Gospel, yet not be saved because he has not yet personalized the Gospel for himself. Before anyone can obtain the gift of eternal life, he must go beyond understanding and acceptance of Christ's claims and actually trust Him.

At one time I used that illustration. I have stopped doing so because I believe it presents a confusing view of saving faith.

Faith is not, in my opinion, made up of three elements. Indeed, I think it is misleading to speak of elements of faith. Let me explain.

Understanding Is Necessary for Faith

Understanding is necessary for faith to occur. However, that is not exactly the same as saying that it is an element of faith.

Understanding is a precondition of faith inasmuch as one cannot believe what he does not understand. If I told you that ptaff will mlarc in the year 2000, you would not be able to believe that because you wouldn't understand it. Only by understanding the meaning of the noun ptaff and the verb mlarc would you be able to evaluate that proposition as to its trustworthiness.

To grasp what I am saying an illustration might help. For example, design plans are necessary to build a car. Yet that does not mean that the plans are an element of a car. Elements of a car include tires, axles, engine, drive train, and the like-but not the plans. The plans are a necessary precondition to a car.

Of course, while understanding is necessary for faith to occur, understanding does not ensure that faith will occur, any more than design plans ensure the building of a car. A person can understand a proposition and yet not believe it. I understand the U.S. government's promise to improve the economy, yet I do not believe that the government will fulfill its promise. Similarly, a car company may understand a given set of design plans and yet reject them.

It is thus better and more accurate to think of understanding as a precondition of faith and not an element of it.

Trust Is Faith

Another proposed element of faith is trust. However, it is wrong to call trust an element of faith because trust is actually a synonym for faith.

A synonym is another way of saying the same thing. Car and automobile, for example, are synonyms. It would obviously be wrong to say that one element of a car is an automobile. A car is an automobile.

So, too, faith and trust are synonyms. Trust is not an element of faith. Trust is faith.

Let's consider an illustration.

You are a juror in a murder case. Three policemen and four ordinary citizens testify that they saw Mr. Jones shoot his wife in broad daylight. If you believe their testimony, you trust that they are telling the truth. If you trust that they are telling the truth, then you believe them. It is impossible to separate trust and belief.

Acceptance is Faith

Acceptance, too, is a synonym for faith and not an element of it. When a person accepts that the testimony of someone is true, they believe or trust it. That is exactly what the Apostle John said in 1 John 5:9-11:
    "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater... He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself... And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son."

To accept the testimony of God about His Son is to trust it, to believe it, to have faith in it. Acceptance is not an element of faith; it is faith.

What's Wrong with the Chair Illustration?

Well, one might ask, what about the chair illustration?

The chair illustration introduces a false bottom which confuses rather than clarifies.

The problem with the chair illustration is that chairs don't give support simply on the basis of faith. A person can wholeheartedly believe that a chair is trustworthy and want its support, yet not have it due to an inability or a failure to sit in it.

This past weekend I spoke for four hours at a seminar (on saving faith, by the way). My back began to hurt as the hours wore on. I continued to stand while I taught, however, because I felt that my effectiveness would have been greatly reduced if I sat down.

When the seminar was over I found relief by plopping my tired bones into a chair. Long before I actually sat in the chair I believed in its ability to support me. I even longed for its support. However, gaining the chair's support required more than faith. In addition to faith, I had to walk and plop.

If chairs were like Jesus Christ they would be omnipresent and you wouldn't have to walk and plop to gain their support. In that case chairs would promise something like this: "He who believes in me has eternal support." The moment a person believed in that promise, a chair would appear and would instantly (and eternally) support him.


The chair illustration would be fine if it were modified so that the chair promised eternal support on the sole basis of faith. Then, once a person believed what the chair had promised, he would immediately gain that benefit and never lose it. There would be, of course, no need to walk and plop in the chair because the chair would appear and give you support the moment you believed it!

Jesus said, "He who believes in Me has everlasting life."

Do you believe that?

That is, do you accept that as being true?

Do you have faith in that promise?

Do you trust that He will do what He said He would do?

There is no other step to take. To believe is to trust, to have faith in, to accept as true. There is no walkin' and floppin' involved.

Trust is not a part of faith. Trust is faith. Trust me on that.

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