In Romans, Paul encourages us to confess and believe so that we might be saved. Over the last two weeks, we looked a little at what it means to confess. But Paul says that when we’re Christian, we believe as well as confess. Sounds simple enough, right?
But what, exactly, does it mean to believe?
Well, a lot of folks take “believing” to mean intellectual agreement with a certain set of beliefs. That’s the way it works, right? You’re saved once you understand who Jesus is and what He’s done for you. And that’s something that you have to figure out and decide on your own, right?
Not so fast.
I (and other folks of my theological bent) have a problem with defining “saving faith” like that. For starters, does it really make sense to say that being saved is dependent on what I understand?
Think about it this way: are you still a Christian when you’re asleep? Are you still saved when you’re in a coma with minimal brain activity? At what point does faith stop working and the believing falters?
Then there’s the question of how that understanding of faith jibes with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, namely:
[B]y grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
If we aren’t saved by what we do, if we can’t be saved by what we do, then what does that mean in terms of believing to be saved?
Well, that’s the thing. I think there are two kinds of faith that a Christian has. One is reflective faith, the kind that can be intellectual and reflect on doctrine and so on. This is the kind of faith that can ruminate and speculate and cogitate on deeper spiritual mysteries.
Then there’s what I call “funnel faith.” This kind of faith is relational, one that God uses to pour His saving grace into our lives. This is faith that exists apart from our own intellectual activity, one that stays with us when we’re asleep or sick or whatever. Yes, we can appreciate this faith through the intellectual rigors of reflective faith. And our funnel faith can grow stronger as we come to understand God and His character better. But it is relational faith that saves us. It is the relationship that draws us together with God. And that’s not something that can be dependent on us (because we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by anything we do). Instead, this is something that is initiated by God Himself, an act of pure and undeserved grace.
Allow me to illustrate what I mean by talking about my younger son.My wife and I met our younger son’s birthmother four days before she went into labor. When our son was born, he had never really heard our voices. He had no clue who we were. So far as he knew, we were big things that would hold him and make noises at him and feed him and clean him up. Eventually, he started to learn that one of those things could be called “Dada” and the other one “Mama.” Now that he’s older, he calls us “Mommy” and “Daddy.” He knows that we love him and he loves us. He knows that he’s “‘dopted,” but he doesn’t really understand fully what that means.
Eventually, he’ll know his adoption story by heart. He’ll understand what his mother and I did so he could be a part of our family. And I would hope that, with that understanding, our relationship with him will be even stronger.But here’s my question: will our relationship with our son only truly begin when he has that full understanding of what it means to be an adopted son?
A ridiculous question, right? It certainly seems like one to me. Our relationship with our son began the moment he was placed into our arms. No, it actually began before that, when we met his birthmother and we agreed that her child would be placed with us. He had no clue that this had happened. He had no intellectual understanding of it at all. And yet, that familial relationship began in that moment.
I believe that our saving faith relationship with God works in the same way. God initiates it through the Holy Spirit (after all, Paul tells us that no one can say that “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit), founds it upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a relationship that continues to exist, even when we’re not ruminating on it. Yes, that rumination can enhance and strengthen the relationship. But it doesn’t create it. It’s not something that we can create in ourselves.
No, like everything, what we confess and what we believe is all a free gift from God. And at Christmastime, that’s the best gift to have.