HOW DOES FAITH SAVE?
by Winford Claiborne
The New Testament uses some form of the word “I believe” or “faith” 558 times. That fact shows just how vital faith is in the scheme of human redemption. The verb form (pisteuo) appears 248 times and the noun form (pistis) is used 244 times. Another form of the word “faithful” (pistos) is used 66 times. The book of John alone uses the word “believe” (pisteuo) 98 times. When one considers all the times the New Testament uses the words “believe,” faith,” and “faithful,” he can readily understand why Christianity is often described as a system of faith. Inspired writers speak of “the faith,” meaning Christianity or the system of faith. Jude urged his fellow Christians to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Paul wrote of his commitment to the cause of Christ: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).
There is great confusion regarding how faith saves, but very little over whether faith saves. A person can pick up almost any book on conversion or salvation and find an emphasis on faith. The book can be written by a Protestant or a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox or a Jehovah’s Witness, but there will be considerable stress on faith. Some of those preachers will teach salvation by faith alone; others will argue for faith plus obedience to the word. But all will point out the absolute necessity of having faith in God, in his word and in his Son. The majority of them will probably quote these well-known words from the book of Hebrews. “But without faith it is impossible to please him; for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them who diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
My question for all of us to consider today is: “How Does Faith Save?” That faith is essential for salvation under the Christian system finds almost universal agreement. But the real conflict arises over how faith saves. Does faith alone save, as our Calvinist friends teach? Or must faith be combined with obedience to the Lord? I want to examine with you several conversions in Acts to ascertain how faith saved in the first century. Then I shall discuss briefly some of the passages which deal specifically with faith.
Since faith is not mentioned in Acts 2 until the Jews on Pentecost had been converted to Christ, then I shall pass over that great chapter and examine Acts 8. Philip the evangelist “went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them” (Acts 8:5). Now please take careful note of verse 12. “And when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”
We do not know exactly what Philip said about the kingdom and the name of Christ. We do know that he discussed those topics, but the inspired writer does not tell us what he said. But we know this: When they heard Philip’s preaching about Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Did the Samaritans’ faith lead them to obey the Lord in baptism? If they had not been baptized, could they have been saved anyway? They could not have, if Jesus meant what he said in the Great Commission. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who does not believe shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). How did the faith of the Samaritans save them? It saved them when they obeyed the Lord in baptism and not until then.
In the city of Samaria, there was a sorcerer whose name was Simon. He had been deceiving the Samaritans into believing that he had some supernatural power from God. When he heard the preaching of Philip and saw the miracles he performed, Simon “believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done” (Acts 8:13). Was Simon’s faith genuine? How did Simon’s faith save him? It led him to obey the Lord in baptism? But was he really saved? He believed and he was baptized -- God's plan for saving man (Mk. 16:16). But he sinned grievously just shortly after he obeyed the gospel. Does that prove he was not really converted? It proves it only if you believe a child of God cannot fall from grace.
Cornelius was the very first Gentile convert. The story of his conversion is one of the most intriguing and challenging in the book of Acts. Time does not permit a full discussion of his conversion, but I want to look carefully at a few points. The Jews were absolutely astonished that a Gentile could be brought into the kingdom of God (Acts 10:45). The apostle Peter, who had preached the first recorded sermon to anyone asked, “Can any man forbid water that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” (Acts 10:47). That the Gentiles believed, is plainly stated in the context (Acts 11:17). So were they who believed to be baptized for the remission of their sins? Please listen to what occurred. “And Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days” (Acts 10:48).
The Jews on Pentecost had heard the word, believed it and were baptized into Christ for the remission of sins. The household of Cornelius heard the word, believed it, and were baptized for the remission of sins. These two conversions followed the plan which God himself ordained for the entire Christian era. Jews and Gentiles were sinners before God. They had to believe and to obey the word. God did not have one plan for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. His one way of saving man was initiated on the day of Pentecost and continued throughout Acts and will continue to the end of the age. He has no other plan, and that includes what is so-called “the sinner’s prayer.” In the book of Acts, faith never led anyone to offer the sinner’s prayer -- never.
The book of Acts records Saul’s conversion in three different chapters -- 8, 22, 26. These three chapters provide us a great amount of information about this great man’s conversion. Very simply stated, Saul met the Lord Jesus Christ and became convinced that he was indeed the Messiah of the Jewish prophecies. He asked the Lord what he was to do. The Lord instructed Saul to go into the city and it would be told him what he had to do. Saul and his companions went to Damascus. God sent a preacher by the name of Ananias to give Saul the plan of salvation (Acts 9:3-6). Ananias, the heaven-sent preacher, found Saul and asked him, “Why are you waiting?” He then commanded him: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
Saul apparently believed on the Lord when he learned who Jesus was. Otherwise, he would not have inquired of the Lord, “What wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). If men are saved at the point of faith, there was nothing more Saul needed to do to be saved. But neither the Lord nor Saul understood the doctrine of faith only. Jesus told Saul to go to Damascus and there it would be told you what you must do. The word “must” means “it is necessary.” When Ananias instructed Saul to arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, he was telling him that his faith would save him only if he obeyed the Lord in baptism.
What I have just summarized for you from the book of Acts connects baptism to salvation. But even if it did not, these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians do. “For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). The faith of the Galatians was essential to their salvation, but their faith alone was not sufficient. Otherwise, Paul would not have said what he did about baptism. They put on Christ in their baptism. Again, I emphasize: God has no other plan.
Paul gives additional information about baptism in his great letter to the Romans. He says the Romans were buried with Christ in baptism. They were raised up from the watery grave of baptism to a new life. He then wrote: “God be thanked that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered unto you. Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:4, 17-18). If the Romans had not been buried with the Lord by baptism into the death of Christ, would they have been saved anyway? They would not have been free from sin and would not have become the servants of righteousness. Can those who have not had their sins forgiven and have not become the servants of righteousness be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ?
Paul’s missionary journeys carried him to the city of Philippi where he met with a group of women. One of the women in that meeting was a woman named Lydia from the city of Thyatira. The women were meeting to worship God. When Lydia heard the word of the Lord, the Lord opened her heart and she did what Paul was urging her to do. “And when she was baptized and her household, she besought us, saying, If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us” (Acts 16:13-15). The word “faith” is not used of Lydia, but who can doubt her faith? The inspired record says, “She attended unto the things which were spoken by Paul.” That indicates her faith in the Lord. But her faith was not adequate. She had to be baptized. Her faith saved her when she obeyed the gospel by being baptized into Christ and not before then.
Acts 16 also records the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his household. The Philippian jailer witnessed some most unusual events. An earthquake opened the doors of the prison he was keeping, but the prisoners did not escape. He knew something beyond the ordinary was occurring. He asked for a light and went before Paul and Silas, and asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house” (Acts 16:25-31). What was the Philippian jailer to believe? He was a pagan who knew nothing about Jesus Christ. So Paul and Silas spoke unto him the word of the Lord and to all who were in his house. Since he now heard the word, he can believe on the Lord Jesus. Then what happened? “And the Philippian jailer took Paul and Silas the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes, and was baptized, he and all his, immediately” (Acts 16:32-33).
Can you not readily see how faith saved the Philippian jailer and his household? He heard the word of God, he believed that word, he repented of his sins, as indicated by his washing of these preachers’ stripes, and he was baptized. Did faith alone save the jailer and his household? It did not, if Jesus meant what he said in the Great Commission: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who does not believe shall be condemned.” And you know Jesus always meant what he said.
The conversion of the Corinthians was a momentous event. They had lived in ways most of us cannot even begin to understand. Sins you can imagine and some you cannot were rampant in Corinth. But that did not keep Paul, Silas, and Timothy from preaching there. Paul preached that Jesus was Christ. We do not know the full extent of his preaching, but we know the major thrust. “And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:5,8). What did the faith of the Corinthians motivate them to do? You cannot miss the import of this passage. They believed and were baptized. Was their baptism necessary for their salvation? You know it was.
Tragically and inexplicably, some theologians and preachers take one verse or a few verses at most and build their beliefs and practices on that basis. That, dear friends, is not honest. Let me illustrate what often happens. Preachers have been known to tell their audiences: “For the scripture says, Whosoever believes on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all who call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:11-13). They teach that believing and calling on the name of the Lord have absolutely nothing to do with being baptized into Christ for the remission of sins. Is that what Paul is teaching in this context? If nothing more were said in this context and in other passages, one might conclude that we are saved by simply calling on the name of the Lord or by what some preachers call “the sinner’s prayer.” But honesty demands that we examine the entire context to see what Paul was teaching.
What does it mean to call upon the name of the Lord? We know it means more than just saying, “Lord, Lord” (Mt. 7:21). Paul places all of this in the proper light when he asks a series of questions. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them who preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things? But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our report? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:13-17).
If belief alone saves, why does Paul accuse some of not having obeyed the gospel? Calling on the name of the Lord involves having faith in God, in his Son, and in his word. It also involves obeying the gospel. Is Paul arguing that if a man believes or says he believes but does not obey the Lord he is not saved? You know that is the meaning of this powerful passage. You also know how that principle worked out in every single case of conversion in the book of Acts. Now please listen to the author of Hebrews. “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation to those who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). Jesus Christ is not the author of salvation to those who do not obey him, regardless of their pretensions to the contrary.
The biblical principle involved in salvation -- both for the alien sinner and for the Christian -- is the same. Both the alien sinner and the Christian must believe and obey the Lord. Faith is essential every step of the way; so is obedience. Is that not what James had in mind when he wrote: “Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone” (Jas. 2:17). The tense of the verb “has” has tremendous force in this verse. It literally means, “If faith keeps on not having works.” Can we correctly refer to such faith as “faith”? Yes, since James does, but it is dead faith. James asks, “But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:20)? Finally, James writes: “You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24).
Perhaps one of the best examples of how faith saves comes from the book of Hebrews. These words are surely familiar to all Bible students, but think of them in conjunction with our question for today: “How does faith save?” “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Did you notice the main clause in that sentence? “By faith Abraham…obeyed.” Would his faith have saved him if he had not obeyed? Will your faith save you if you do not obey the gospel of Christ?