Some folks base their salvation on emotion. “I am sure I am saved because – I feel saved … I had a riveting spiritual experience … I cried – Actually, I wept … I had a vision of Jesus. He was 25’ tall … I had a dream.” So did Joseph Smith and Mohammed. And both started false religions. Others insist, “I was called out by an evangelist … I was slain in the spirit.” On and on go the descriptions of valid and invalid, deceptive and legitimate spiritual experiences. Your conversion may involve an enthralling and even life-changing spiritual experience, but spiritual experiences don’t save.
Paul warned about angels that brought other gospels. He warned about men that might change or alter the gospel in some way. “If we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Sadly, anyone believing such a gospel would also be condemned. It isn’t a spellbinding, exhilarating experience that saves. It isn’t an angelic visit. It is the gospel itself that has in it the power of salvation.
You and I are saved by God – not something we do! In hearing the gospel message, grace quickens faith (Romans 10:17; Gal. 3:2, 5)! Spiritual realities come to life. Awareness of both sin, and our need for salvation, floods into the soul. Our only reasonable choice is to trust God. You and I are not saved by faith in faith. You are saved by faith in “the faith” (Jude 1:3) “once delivered to the saints.” “The faith” is that set of propositional truths that are found in the gospel story. People who don’t know the story can’t be saved. People who don’t believe the story are not saved. Salvation involves a mental comprehension of basic gospel facts – and those facts, understood, are what move us at an emotional and not merely cognitive level. The story is not myth. It is compelling. It is alive. There is a wonderful line in The Lord of the Rings. Sam asks Frodo, “I wonder what sort of tale we have fallen into?” The gospel story is cognitive – and yet it also is a living, continuing story. True Christians join the story. It is bigger than the little lives we live.
In Acts 6:7, it is the faith to which a great number of the disciples were obedient. In Acts 3:8, Elymas the sorcerer is condemned for his attempt to turn others away from the faith. In Acts 14:22, the saints are exhorted to “continue in the faith … and through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” In Acts 16:5, the churches were “strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.” In 1 Corinthians 16:13, it is “the faith” Paul has in mind when he urges them to “watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.” And in the passage we are considering, it is “the faith” he has in mind when he urges – “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith.”
To the Ephesians he urges persistence, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel … [so that] I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith … ” (Phil. 1:26-28). And he urges the Colossians to “continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast … not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:22-24). It is the faith that Paul wants them “rooted and built up in” as they “have been taught” (Col. 2:6-8).
It is the faith from which some will depart in latter times “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Anyone who has “denied the faith … is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:7-9). It is “the love of money [that] is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (I Tim. 6:9-11). To Timothy, Paul charges, “Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:19-21). There is a “pattern of sound words” which defines the faith. Straying from “the truth” results in the “overthrow the faith” of others (I Tim. 2:17-19). Men who “resist the truth: men of corrupt minds” are “disapproved concerning the faith (2 Tim. 3:7-9).
In the end, salvation is being able to say, as did Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Along the way, those who depart from the faith are to be sharply rebuked, not to win a rude trophy, but in order “that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-14). It is for the faith that we are to contend! (Jude 1:3).
A hundred and fifty years ago, as well as in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, one could not simply join a church. He had to be approved. Applicants for membership came to a church and often had to wait up to a year before baptism or communion. They had to present proof of their conversion. They had to submit themselves to discipleship training. They had to learn the doctrine of the church. In some cases, they had to present letters that gave evidence of their changed lives. Interviews with neighbors might be conducted, “Have you seen any change in …?” Restitution for things committed while they were in sin had to be effected. Such a process seems harsh and graceless to us! And yet, now such easy believism triumphs that the church is filling up with sinners – people who admire Jesus, but are not transformed by him.
We are called to approve those who labor among us (II Cor. 11:13). And we are to present ourselves for approval. The idea today that church membership is a kind of approval process is viewed as ludicrous, as presumptuous on the part of the church. And so too are many ministry ordination processes. Ordination is too often a quick and valueless rubber stamp (I Cor. 11:19; II Cor. 10:18) that looses unqualified and unsound men and women on the Church.
We are saved by God, through faith in “the” faith, not by just believing. You have to believe in something – in someone. This means real salvation demands a mind transformation. Salvation means a completely different world view. It is radical change in your ideas. Ezekiel exhorted, “Change the way you think and act. Turn away from rebellious things … lest you fall into sin” (18:30).
It is possible for the same gospel to be preached and heard – and not have a saving, transforming impact! “Indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Heb. 4:2).
Salvation is more than a feeling. It is more than faith-in-faith. It involves a rational grasp of salvation’s source and implication, a rational wrestling with the glorious truths of man’s sin, and Christ’s redemption.
Read more writings by P. Douglas Small and find prayer resources at www.alivepublications.org>