The Nature of Justifying Faith
Justifying faith is not a simple assent to the truths of the gospel. Judas knew the Scriptures, and without doubt assented to the truth of them when he was a zealous preacher of the gospel; but he never had so much as one ounce of justifying faith in his soul…
Even Judas’ master, the devil himself — one far enough, I suppose, from justifying faith — assents to the truth of the Word. He goes against his conscience when he denies it. When he tempted Christ he did not dispute against Scripture, but from Scripture, drawing his arrows out of this very quiver (Matt. 4:6). And at another time, he makes as full a confession of Christ as Peter himself did (Matt. 8:29, compared with Matt.16:17). Assent to the truth of the Word is but an act of the understanding, which reprobates and devils may exercise. But justifying faith has its substance both in the understanding and the will; therefore it is called a believing “with the heart” (Rom. 10:10). “Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest” (Acts 8:37). It takes in all the powers of the soul.
There is a double object in the promise, which relates to both the understanding and the will. As the promise is true, so it calls for an act of assent from the understanding; as it is good as well as true, so it calls for an act of the will to embrace it. Therefore, the person who knows the truth of the promise only intellectually, without clinging to it, does not believe savingly. That person no more receives benefit from the promise than a person who realizes food is nourishing but refuses to eat.
Justifying faith is not assurance. If it were, John might have spared himself the trouble of writing to “you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye might know that ye have eternal life,” (1 John 5:13). His readers might then have said, “We already do this. Is it not faith to believe that we are among those pardoned through Christ, and that we shall be saved through Him?” But this cannot be so. If faith were assurance, then a man’s sins would be pardoned before he believes, for surely he must be pardoned before he can know he is pardoned. The candle must be lighted before I can see it is lighted. The child must be born before I can be assured it is born. The object must be before the act.
Assurance is not faith itself, but rather the fruit of faith. Assurance is in faith as the flower is in the root. Faith, in time after much communion with God, acquaintance with the Word, and experience of His fellowship with the soul may flourish into assurance. But as the root truly lives before the flower appears, and continues after it and its beautiful petal are gone, so does true justifying faith live before assurance comes, and live on after it disappears. Assurance is like the sunflower, which opens with the day and shuts with the night. But faith is a plant that can grow in the shade, a grace that can find the way to heaven in a dark night. It “walketh in darkness,” and yet will “trust in the name of the Lord” (Isa. 50:10).
Now, to state it positively, justifying faith is the act of the soul by which it rests on Christ crucified for pardon and life, and trusts the guarantee of that promise. The whole truth of God is the object of justifying faith. It deals with the whole Word of God and firmly assents to it; but in its justifying act, it singles out Christ crucified for its object. Assurance says, “I believe my sins are pardoned through Christ.” Faith’s language is, “I believe on Christ for the pardon of them.” The Word of God directs our faith to Christ and terminates it upon him; it is called, therefore, a “coming to Christ' (Matt. 11:28), a “receiving of him” (John 1:12), a “believing on him” (John 17:20).
The promise is only the dish in which Christ, the true food of the soul, is served up; and if faith’s hand is on that promise, it is as one that draws the dish to him so he can be fed. The promise is the marriage ring on the hand of faith. Now we are not married to the ring but joined to Christ with it. “For the promises of God,” Paul says, “in him are yea, and in him Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20)…
When we say Christ is the primary object of faith, we mean Christ crucified. Not Christ in all His personal excellence — for as such He is the end of our love rather than of our faith — but as bleeding to death, under the hand of divine justice to make atonement by God’s own appointment for the sins of the world. As the handmaid’s eye watches he mistress’s hand for direction, faith’s eye is on God revealing Himself in His Word; and wherever God’s Word points the soul, that is where it goes. In the Word, faith finds God ready to save sinners and clings to Christ for the transacting and accomplishing of that salvation. Faith, then, chooses to lay her burden of confidence upon that divine Man whom God has entrusted with His work.
Excerpted from a modernized abridgement of the Puritan classic: “The Christian in Complete Armour” by Willian Gurnall