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Statement on the nature of saving faith

What is the nature of saving faith, and how may we speak about the relationship between faith, works, and justification?

Our approach, while self-consciously Reformed, prefers to formulate the doctrine of Sola Fide (faith alone) using natural, scriptural language. We offer this statement in the hope of alleviating any concerns or confusion among those accustomed to the more familiar language of Reformed systematic theology. We wish to clarify what we are (and are not) saying—and why it matters to allow Christians to explain Sola Fide in this way.

Section 1: The suitability of scriptural language

  1. We affirm that, in examining this subject, our resort must be to scripture alone to learn what it means by faith, and that scripture was written in popular or natural language; so that, as a general rule, “its statements about exercises of the soul are not intended to be analytical, but practical” (R. L. Dabney).
  2. We affirm that the language of scripture is suitable for the task of explaining the doctrines of scripture.
  3. We affirm that the systematic Reformed formulations of justification, saving faith, and good works, are true and accurate explanations of scripture’s teaching on these topics. We uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith articles xi, xiv and xvi, along with the Three Forms of Unity and their respective statements on these doctrines.
  4. We deny that the framers of these formulations intended to seal up scripture’s truths with them, as if their formulations were the only valid ways of explaining these truths. Their own example, captured in the principle of semper reformanda (always reforming), was to seek ways to refine how we explain doctrine, and to fit these explanations to the pastoral needs of the time. They did this with the Church Fathers, without dishonouring their contribution to the church, and without changing the essential truths found in their words. They would have expected us to do the same with them.
  5. We affirm that, while the conventional language of Reformed systematics should be used at times, there is an unparalleled potency and utility in presenting the truths of scripture in the words that God himself used—especially when communicating matters of practical piety to people untrained in systematic theology, or when a holistic rather than analytical understanding of doctrine is pastorally required.
  6. We deny that we should avoid the words of scripture because they might be misunderstood or cause confusion next to the language of Reformed systematics. We cannot and ought not rescue the Holy Spirit from his own explanations of how he saves us, but instead trust that his words will work powerfully when we present them as he formulated them (cf. Mt 15:6; Is 55:11).
  7. We affirm that our formulations are driven by genuine pastoral concerns about reductionistic, pietistic, gnostic, and antinomian approaches to scripture that minimise embodying our faith. Our concern is not just receiving the righteousness of Christ, but applying it. The church’s ongoing failure to integrate the Reformed doctrines of grace with practical piety is manifest in, e.g., its weakness at upholding what God requires in the face of cultural pressures. We have seen the conventional formulations of Reformed systematics used to justify these failures, so it is our desire to breathe new life into the essence of these formulations with scriptural language. (See also § 3.10 and Appendix 1.)

Section 2: The nature of saving faith

  1. We affirm that faith is the exercise of belief, assent, and trust towards Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
  2. We deny that man in his natural state can produce faith, but rather, this ability is received wholly from Christ, through union with him by his Spirit in the work of re­gene­ration.
  3. We affirm that the object of faith is the whole person of Christ as Lord and Savior, and that faith is therefore the instrument of receiving Christ himself, in whom is every benefit of salvation, including justification.
  4. We deny that the object of faith can or should be reduced to the righteousness of Christ, or that faith is the instrument of receiving only justification.
  5. We affirm that while faith is an invisible operation of our spirit, it is also a necessarily embodied one, since we are embodied spirits. This is why scripture speaks of faith working or doing work (Ga 5:6; 1 Th 1:3).
  6. We deny that these works of faith are produced from anything within our own nature, but rather, they too are received as gifts of grace from Christ by his Spirit.
  7. We affirm that while it is God who prepared these works for us, and works them in us, it is we ourselves who must do them in participation with the Spirit of Christ (Eph 2:10).

Section 3: Connecting faith & works with scriptural language

  1. We affirm that it is natural and scriptural to speak of faith as identical with its visible embodiment or works. For example, Abraham offering Isaac was an act of belief, assent, and trust toward God as Lord and Saviour; thus by definition it was the exercise of faith (cf. He 11:17–19). Similarly, lowering the paralytic down to Jesus was an act of belief, assent, and trust toward him as Lord and Saviour—which is why scripture says that this work which Jesus saw was faith (Mk 2:5).
  2. We affirm that it is natural and scriptural to say that we are justified by faith (Ro 5:1), in that faith receives Christ’s justification.
  3. We deny that it is fair or reasonable to interpret such a natural formulation to mean that faith earns or grounds our justification.
  4. We affirm that, in the same way, it is natural and scriptural to say that we are justified by works (Jas 2:21, 24), in that works are the exercise of the faith which receives Christ’s justification—which is why Jesus told the paralytic that he was justified after seeing what he did (cf. Lk 7:47, 50).
  5. We affirm that also, in the same way, it is natural and reasonable to say that works are part of faith, in that acts of belief, assent, and trust toward Jesus as Lord and Saviour are self-evidently part of our overall belief, assent, and trust toward him.
  6. We deny that it is fair or reasonable to interpret such natural formulations to mean that we are justified by our own effort, or that we can add anything to Christ. Since no one thinks that faith earns or grounds our justification, no one should think that its exercise or parts earn or ground our justification. Rather, works fulfil and bring to maturity the faith which receives our justification from Christ as a gift, for the scripture says of Abra­ham, “you see that faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made complete” (Jas 2:22).
  7. We affirm, with Paul, that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law, and that faith is entirely passive in receiving Christ. Explaining this is pastorally important: the sheep must understand that works do not earn, ground, or add to our justification, lest they vainly work to be declared righteous, rather than relying wholly on Christ as Lord and Saviour (Ro 3:19–28).
  8. We affirm, with James, that faith apart from its works is dead, and that faith is active in its cleaving to Christ. Explaining this is pastorally important: the sheep must understand that belief and works make a whole and justifying faith, lest they vainly rely on a theoretical trust of the mind, rather than exercising a true and living trust in Christ as Lord and Saviour (Jas 2:15–17).
  9. We deny that anyone can reject such formulations as unorthodox without simultaneously nullifying God’s own words, from which they are derived.
  10. We affirm that such formulations are not only scriptural, but in our experience necessary at times for effective discipleship. Scriptural language, which describes works as faith, obedience as belief, is powerful and effective for equipping us to do what God requires, despite fleshly fears and temptations (cf. He 3:6, 18–19). Conversely, conventional Reformed language, which describes works as evidences of faith, obedience as the fruit of belief, is today often misused to reduce faith to an essentially passive, internal disposition towards Christ; and obedience to an occasional proof of faith, rather than an essential embodiment of it. This ought not to be so: saving faith in Reformed theology is passive in receiving Christ, but active in cleaving to him, and therefore should consume the whole person. Using scriptural language can be useful and necessary for explaining this, correcting reductionist errors, and exhorting the faithful in the upward call of Christ.

Section 4: The nature of justification

  1. We affirm that justification is a legal status where God acquits us of sin and declares us righteous and acceptable in his sight.
  2. We affirm that this status is entirely that of Christ, reckoned or imputed to us, and received solely by faith.
  3. We affirm that as our union with Christ occurs only once, unchangeably and irrevocably, so the imputation of his legal status occurs only once, unchangeably and irrevocably: received by the one-time exercise of faith.
  4. We affirm that as our union with Christ continues forever, so the imputation of his legal status continues forever: received by the continual exercise of faith (e.g., Ps 32:5; 51:1–2; 1 Jn 1:9).
  5. We deny that as our faith matures, our justification increases, but rather, since our union with Christ is whole and complete from the first moment, even the most immature faith receives Christ and his righteousness to the fullest degree.

Section 5: Our hope for future discussion

  1. We affirm that if anyone finds genuine fault with our formulations, the fitting and biblical response is to explain this fault via good-faith dialogue, so that we may be given the opportunity to understand and repent of our error.
  2. We deny that scripture permits us, in the absence of such dialogue, to anathematise or shun other Christians for differences over how to communicate shared doctrines. If our difference in formulating Sola Fide warrants separation, per 2 Corinthians 6:14ff, then consistency demands separation from Arminians also, since their theology unquestionably differs in the kind of substance that we are accused of.
  3. We affirm our earnest hope for better things, and our desire for unity within the Reformed churches of New Zealand, that we may work together as fellow-labourers in building up God’s kingdom, rather than tearing it down. We offer this statement as an overture in good faith toward that end.


If you think this statement is reasonable and orthodox, we invite you to indicate as such by adding your own signature. If you have questions or wish to engage critically, we invite that also.

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Appendix 1: The Reformed pedigree of our views

Our forefathers had similar disagreements over the nature of faith. Back then, the holistic conception of faith was the truly Reformed one, and reductionistic views, while tolerated, came later. Robert Dabney (easily one of the top five American Reformed theologians of all time) makes the point well:

But we now approach an inquiry concerning faith, on which our own divines are more divided. Is faith a perfectly simple exercise of the soul, by its single faculty of intellect; or is it a complex act of both intellect and active moral powers, when stripped of all antecedent or consequent elements, which do not properly belong to it? The older divines, with the confession, evidently make it a complex act of soul, consisting of an intellectual, and a voluntary element. (R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, Chapter 11: Faith, “4. Is faith simple of complex?”)

Dabney goes on to argue that faith involves both receptive and obediential components—the exact distinction we draw in this statement—and he dismisses the concern that this entails justification by works:

True faith is obediential, it involves the will; it has moral quality, but its receptive nature is what fits it to be the organ of our justification. Hence it does not follow that we introduce justification by our own moral merit. (Ibid, “Answers,” emphasis ours)

Despite the modern popularity of reductionistic approaches to faith, Dabney shows that it is the holistic view—where faith involves the will—which the Reformers took for granted. John Owen (easily one of the top five English theologians of all time) is another good representative of this classic view, describing obedience as one half of the work of faith, and sharply rebuking those who would deny it:

And we should always consider how we ought to act faith on Christ with respect unto this end. Let none be guilty practically of what some ware falsely charged withal as to doctrine;—let none divide in the work of faith, and exercise themselves but in the one half of it. To believe in Christ for redemption, for justification, for sanctification, is but one half of the duty of faith;—it respects Christ only as he died and suffered for us, as he made atonement for our sins, peace with God, and reconciliation for us, as his righteousness is imputed unto us unto justification. Unto these ends, indeed, is he firstly and principally proposed unto us in the gospel, and with respect unto them are we exhorted to receive him and to believe in him; but this is not all that is required of us. Christ in the gospel is proposed unto us as our pattern and example of holiness; and as it is a cursed imagination that this was the whole end of his life and death,—namely, to exemplify and confirm the doctrine of holiness which he taught,—so to neglect his so being our example, in considering him by faith to that end, and labouring after conformity to him, is evil and pernicious. (John Owen, The Holy Spirit: Its Gifts and Power)

We are not suggesting that Dabney or Owen would have formulated Sola Fide exactly as we have. But how they conceived of the nature of faith, and how they described its relationship with works, is plainly in the same spirit as us—and they represent the original, broad, and central stream of thought on this matter in Reformed tradition.

Appendix 2: Further reading

This statement is intended only as a summary of our views on Sola Fide. For a fuller explanation and justification of these, please refer to the following articles: