The Nature of Saving Faith and Galatians

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The first time “faith” is used in Galatians it is actually used to refer to the truth of the gospel message (Gal. 1:23). This “faith” must be believed, taught, and defended. The faith to be defended is the truth that we are saved only by putting our trust in the divine-human Christ, who died and rose bodily from the grave.

To properly defend this “faith” that salvation only comes through faith (as Galatians emphasizes), I think it is important to bring a full-orbed biblical understanding of the nature of saving faith to the text in Galatians. This will help keep us from making the mistake of thinking Paul was teaching that Christian liberty was the freedom to sin.

Saving faith includes the following three aspects, described as 3 different forms of faith. All three are essential to true faith in Christ. We will use the Latin terms:

Assentia means mental assent. This is believing the truth about Christ, the truth of the gospel. This means that with one’s mind, he accepts the fact that Jesus is fully God and fully man, and the fact that Jesus died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave so that we can be forgiven.

Fidelity is the Latin word for faithfulness. When a person exercises saving faith, she is submitting to the demands of Christ and is fully intent on being faithful to Christ.

When a person exercises saving faith, she is submitting to the demands of Christ and is fully intent on being faithful to Christ.

This does not mean that someone needs to live in obedience to Christ for a while before he can be saved. At the moment of faith, he simply needs to be willing to follow the leadership of Christ. After the conversion experience, God enables the new Christian to live a life of faithful obedience. This enablement can of course be rejected, but not without endangering the relationship.

Fiducia means trust. When one is trusting Christ, he is resting fully on the Person and Work of Christ for his salvation. He accepts the Person of Christ, trusting Him to forgive him. He is not resting on his own goodness, or his own works, to be saved, but resting completely on the merits of Christ. This is called full recumbency.

All three forms of faith must be present for one to be truly saved. To put in a simple way, salvation comes when someone accepts the truth about Christ with his mind, accepts the demands of Christ with his will (is willing to obey), and accepts the Person of Christ into the center of his being, trusting Christ to forgive him of his sins.

In Galatians, Paul makes it clear that our only hope for salvation is to embrace Christ. To put our hope in our own righteousness, or in our keeping of the law, would be futile.

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:16).

We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, not by keeping the law. But what is the nature of this faith in Christ? It must include not only accepting the truth about who Christ is and what he did, but also an embracing of Christ as one’s Lord and one’s Savior. This saving faith is a commitment to Christ (the right Person) and a full resting in him for salvation. Otherwise, the faith is misplaced and to no avail.

If I have true faith in Christ, I am crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20a). As Galatians 5:24 says, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with its affections and lusts.” If I am crucified with Christ, then Christ is living out his life through me (Gal. 2:20b), and I am evidencing my commitment to him. If the life that I live is not by faith in Christ, any faith that I do have is not genuine saving faith.

Genuine faith in Christ is inconsistent with both self-reliance and self-gratification.

Paul forcefully points out that genuine faith in Christ is inconsistent with both self-reliance (Gal. 5:1-4) and self-gratification (Gal. 5:19-21).

I’m not sure what others have chosen as a key text for Galatians but I think Galatians 5:6 may be a good candidate: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” It’s only faith in Christ that counts, and this faith, if genuine, will work through love. We will live in the Spirit and keep in step by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25) through this faith that fully embraces Christ with every part of our being. This is living out the gospel truth that Paul expresses in Galatians.

Mark Bird
Mark Bird is Professor of Theology and Apologetics at God's Bible School and College.