Does Faith Need Dressing Up?
by Bob Wilkin
Less than two weeks from the time I am writing this I will be debating Dr. James White, an apologist for a form of 5-point Calvinism, on regeneration, faith, and perseverance.1 On his website he recently criticized my view of saving faith, saying I believed in what he termed “naked faith” as the sole condition of justification.2 While I plead guilty, I’d like you to see precisely what he wrote.
Does Faith Include Repentance and Discipleship?
One of the upcoming debates that is sort of “flying below the radar” is my encounter in April in Oklahoma City with Dr. Robert Wilkin…
Dr. Wilkin is a leading anti-Lordship advocate. From my perspective, his position is grossly imbalanced because it insists upon only a single element of the truth to the exclusion of everything else. “Faith alone” becomes “faith separated from the work of regeneration, the Spirit, the new nature,” etc. Faith without repentance (all repentance passages are consigned to “discipleship”), belief without discipleship, etc. It is a very imbalanced perspective, one that comes from an over- reaction to a works-salvation mindset.
I know of no one in the Free Grace camp who advocates “anti-Lordship.” I surely advocate the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I tire of such pejorative language. We don’t call their view the “anti-grace” view. We call it what they call it, Lordship Salvation.
It is White, not I, who separates faith from the work of regeneration. He specifically says that regeneration precedes faith. Thus for him faith is the result of regeneration, not the condition of it.
Additionally I do not separate faith from the work of the Spirit. No one would come to faith if the Spirit were not convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:9-11). And before anyone can believe the saving message, the Spirit must remove the Satanic blinders that cause all to see the good news as a fiction (Acts 16:14).
I plead guilty to the charge that I do not believe that repentance, defined in the sense of turning from sins, is a condition of regeneration or justification.
I also plead guilty to saying that following Christ in discipleship is not the same as believing in Him for eternal life. Jesus had unregenerate disciples (John 6:64). He also led people to faith in Him who did not follow Him (John 2:23-25; 6:66).
Finally, how does one have an overreaction to a works-salvation mindset? Paul certainly was more worked up about that mindset than White accuses me of being. In Gal 5:12 he said he wished that the Judaizers wouldn’t stop at circumcision but “would even cut themselves off.” The fact that those in the Lordship Salvation camp are not too concerned about a works-salvation mindset is quite troubling.
Does Faith Include Perseverance?
Today I ministered the Word in both the morning and evening service… and I spoke from John 8:12-59. One of the passages that struck me, in light of the upcoming debate with Dr. Wilkin, was John 8:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word He will never see death.” Keeping Christ’s word is surely more than a naked faith (faith without regeneration, faith without a new nature), and yet surely we see the parallel to John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one hearing My word and believing in the One who sent Me has eternal life and shall not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
There are so many passages that are utterly unintelligible, outside of special pleading, in the anti-Lordship “naked faith” position. Two come to mind immediately [Acts 20:20-21 & Titus 2:11-14]…3
White sees a parallel with John 5:24, which is fine. But instead of letting the clear passage guide him in understanding the more difficult one, he uses 8:51 to explain 5:24.
We know from 5:24 that the one who believes in Jesus has passed from death to life. Thus if the two are parallel, to believe in Jesus is to keep His word.
Why do I say that 5:24 is clearer? The reason is simple. Repeatedly in John’s Gospel we read that all who believe in Jesus have everlasting life (e.g., 1:12; 3:14-16, 36; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35-40, 47; 11:25-27; 20:31). That is a simple point anyone reading John should see.
Keeping Jesus’ word, however, is a rare concept in John’s Gospel. We only find it here (8:51- 55) and in the upper room discourse (14:23-24; 15:20). Clearly in the latter contexts discipleship is in view. But not so in John 8:51ff.
White misses something important. Jesus says that if anyone keeps His word “he shall never see death again” (8:51) and “shall never taste death” (8:52). That expression is found in only one other place in John’s Gospel. It is John 11:26. It reads, “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Since believing in Jesus is the condition of never dying in 11:26, that should inform our understanding of keeping Jesus’ word in 8:51ff. That White puts works into faith out of a passage like John 8:51 is a measure of how far some Reformed theologians have moved from sola fide (by faith alone).
Reformed theology cuts the ground out from underneath the position presented by Wilkin, for the faith that saves is the work of the Spirit in regeneration itself, and hence cannot possibly be separated from the rest of the work of the Spirit. Hence, there is no contradiction between saying that a person who believes has eternal life and saying that a person who keeps Christ’s word has [sic] will never see death. Only the synergist has to struggle to explain the relationship: the monergist has a consistent understanding.
I will be noting many more problems with the non-Lordship position in future commentaries.4
What does White mean when he speaks of “the faith that saves”? He says it is the work of the Spirit in regeneration itself. In other words, he is saying that before a person can believe, the Spirit of God must first regenerate him.
But if that is true, then how can faith “save”? Isn’t a regenerate person already saved, if by salvation we mean having everlasting life, which is the way the term is used in John 3:16-17?
White wants it both ways. He wants regeneration to precede faith and yet faith to be that which saves. But he can’t have it both ways.
Additionally, when he says that saving faith “cannot possibly be separated from the rest of the work of the Spirit,” he is making the entire Christian life a condition of eternal life. “The rest of the work of the Spirit” refers to perseverance in faith and good works. Anyone who fails to persevere in White’s thinking will not be saved.
Like the finale in a fireworks display, White ends with this theological bang, “There is no contradiction between saying that a person who believes has eternal life and saying that a person who keeps Christ’s word has [sic] will never see death.” Now if he meant that keeping Christ’s word is a figure of speech for believing in Him for eternal life, that would be fine. But he is crystal clear in the context that he means something quite different. He means that to persevere in obedience to Christ’s commands is equal to believing in Jesus for eternal life! How sad.
Let me say that White does not represent all five-point Calvinists. People like John Robbins of the Trinity Foundation are deeply offended by comments like these.
God Says Faith Doesn’t Need Dressing Up to Justify
That White calls the Free Grace view of saving faith “naked faith” is quite revealing. Whatever he means by faith alone is not faith that is alone. Faith, according to White, must be dressed up.
And what clothes must be put on faith to make it saving? White says we must put on discipleship and perseverance in keeping Jesus’ commands.
Call me crazy but I always understood sola fide, by faith alone, to mean faith apart from anything else, or “naked faith,” to use White’s expression.
Faith doesn’t need dressing up in any way. Tell people that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life and will never die spiritually. If they think you are saying that our works after the new birth are in no way part of saving faith, and that a person might gain eternal life and then live in a manner that is not pleasing to God, then you should rejoice, for they understand the saving message. Why anyone would want to rebel against the creator of the universe who is omnipotent is beyond me. That’s just plain dumb. But to change the good news in order to eliminate the possibility of stupidity on the part of believers is theological perversion (Gal 1:7-9).
I urge each reader to beware of people who claim to believe in justification by faith alone, yet who in reality believe in justification by faith plus works.