John Piper has a very deep and important book entitled “Future Grace”. This book, with many other books of the same author, are precious displays of the rich treasures of God’s Word. However, at the beginning of his second introduction to this book’s content — a section especially written “For Theologians” — John Piper quotes the following passage from Robert L. Dabney’s writings about which I want to make a brief comment in this article:
“Is it by the instrumentality of faith we receive Christ as our justification, without the merit of any of our works? Well. But this same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to ‘work by love,’ ‘to purify our hearts.’ This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”
(Robert L. Dabney, quoted from John Piper’s Future Grace, Introduction Two. Emphasis added)
I will comment about the part that I have emphasized.
Is it true that the faith by which we embrace Christ is vital before embracing Christ? How is it vital (living) before embracing Christ? Is not Jesus Christ the Life? Is not man dead in his sins without Christ?… If man can have life without Christ, then Salvation by Grace alone is something different from Salvation by Christ alone… Let me elaborate this…
God says that all humans are sinners: “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)
All men are dead (separated from God eternally) in their sins, because the wages of sin is death (spiritual eternal separation from God); and the only way to be saved from sin and death is by receiving the free Gift of God which is Salvation (eternal life) in Christ Jesus: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23); “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)
Thus we see that Salvation is defined as the eternal life, the passage from spiritual separation from God (death) to reconciliation and spiritual filial relationship with Him (life). So eternal life is a quality of life, and not merely a quanity or duration of existence. John MacArthur explains it well in the following quote:
“Well, the Jews understood eternal life. They understood that term or that concept. Simply stated, if life means–and it does mean–the ability to respond to your environment, that’s what life means, if you don’t think it means that, look at a dead person and see how well they respond, life basically means the ability to respond to your environment. Eternal life means the ability to permanently respond to your environment. And eternal life carries with it the divine environment. In physical life, we can respond to a physical environment. In eternal life, we have the ability to respond to the divine environment. In other words, we respond to the life of God. That’s why when we’re saved, Paul says we enter into the heavenlies. Our citizenship takes on a divine character and we all of a sudden come alive to God and that’s unending.
But it is a quality of existence, not a quantity of existence. It is the idea that I am sensitive to God, that I can respond to God. Before I was saved I was dead in sin, utterly unresponsive to the divine environment. When I became a Christian, I became capable of responding to the divine environment and I shall always be capable of responding to the divine environment.” (John MacArthur; How to Obtain Eternal Life)
Eternal life is not a mere duration of existence; in fact, even those who don’t have eternal life will have an eternal duration of existence, but in Hell… Eternal life is the quality of being in a good relationship with God in opposition to the death in our sins which separated us from God.
Now, in order to have this life, the eternal life, you need to receive it! You can’t make it; you can’t make your Salvation by any merit in you, not even by your faith; you need to receive it. As we have seen in Romans 6:23 (quoted above), eternal life is a free gift, and a gift is received for free and not deserved by anything we do, not even by the act of receiving it. And God’s Word explains that this life is a Person, JESUS CHRIST. Thus we read how the Lord said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father unless by me.” (John 14:6); “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) And Christ’s Apostle John explained how they had seen the eternal life (Jesus) with their eyes: “and the life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us” (1 John 1:2); the same Apostle later tells us again that Jesus Christ is the eternal life: “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20) So the eternal life is a Person: Jesus Christ. Therefore, when Jesus explained the gift of eternal life, He said that this gift (“gift” is from the verb to give) is God’s Only-Begotten Son Himself: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.” (John 3:16) As you see, the Lord said that this gift of eternal life is given to the whole world. He explained this same truth to the Jews when He told them: “Verily, verily, I say to you, [It is] not Moses that has given you the bread out of heaven; but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.” (John 6:32) It is to be noted that this gift is not just a simple giving, but it is a Person (Jesus Christ) given as a sacrifice of propitiation to the whole world (the true bread given by God to the whole world): Those who eat this bread (have Christ by faith), for them this propitiation is an atonement for their sins; those who refuse this bread, for them this propitiation is for their judgment or condemnation: “And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men have loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil.” (John 3:19) And thus, as this propitiation is presented to the whole world, the Apostle John says that Jesus Christ is given by God as a propitiation for the whole world, and not only to those who have already eaten that bread (the believers): “and he is the propitiation for our sins; but not for ours alone, but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
Thus no one has the life (or anything vital in himself) before he has Christ who Himself is the Life: “And this is the witness, that God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in his Son. He that has the Son has life: he that has not the Son of God has not life.” (1 John 5:11-12). Note how the structure of 1 John 5:12 is the same as John 3:36 where the expression “believes on the Son” is the equivalent of “has the Son”:
“He that has the Son has life: he that has not the Son of God has not life.” (1 John 5:12)
“He that believes on the Son has life eternal, and he that is not subject to the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him.” (John 3:36)
So real living faith means to HAVE the Son. Any other kind of faith cannot save, because what saves is not faith itself, but its Object. It is by receiving Jesus Christ by faith that you have the eternal life and thus become a child of God: “but as many as received him, to them gave he [the] right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name” (John 1:12) Your faith is not vital before you have Christ, because Christ is the Life. Before you have Christ you are dead in your sins, and nothing in you is spiritually vital. Theodore Beza clearly explains what vital or saving faith is and HOW it is vital:
Now, the faith of which we speak does not consist only in believing that God is God, and that the contents of His Word are true:- for the devils indeed have this faith, and it only makes them tremble (James 2:19) — But we call ‘faith’ a certain knowledge which, by His grace and goodness alone, the Holy Spirit engraves more and more in the hearts of the elect of God (I Cor. 2:6-8). By this knowledge, each of them, being assured in his heart of his election, appropriates to himself and applies to himself the promise of his salvation in Jesus Christ.
Faith, I say, does not only believe that Jesus Christ is dead and risen again for sinners, but it comes also to embrace Jesus Christ (Rom 8:16,39; Heb. 10:22, 23; 1 John 4:13; 5:19, etc). Whosoever truly believes trusts in Him alone and is assured of his salvation to the point of no longer doubting it (Eph. 3:12). That is why St. Bernard said, conformably to the whole of Scripture, what follows, “If you believe that your sins cannot be blotted out except by Him against whom alone you have sinned, you do well. But add yet one point: that you believe that your sins have been forgiven you by Him. This is the testimony that the Holy Spirit gives to our heart, saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’.”
Since Jesus Christ is the object of faith, and indeed Jesus Christ as He is held forth to us in the Word of God, there follow two points which should be noted well.
On the one side, where there is no Word of God but only the word of man, whoever he be, there is no faith there, but only a dream or an opinion which cannot fail to deceive us (Rom 10:2-4; Mark 16:15,16; Rom 1:28; Gal 1:8-9).
On the other side, faith embraces and appropriates Jesus Christ and all that is in Him, since He has been given to us on the condition of believing in Him (John 17:20,21; Rom 8:9). There follows one of two things: either all that is necessary for our salvation is not in Jesus Christ, or if all is indeed there, he who has Jesus Christ by faith has everything. Now, to say that all which is necessary for our salvation is not in Jesus Christ is a very horrible blasphemy, for this would only make Him a Saviour in part (Matt 1:21). There remains therefore the other part: in having Jesus Christ, by faith, we have in Him all that is required for our salvation (Rom 5:1).
This is what the Apostle says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ.” (Rom 8:1).
Here is the explanation of our justification by faith alone: faith is the instrument which receives Jesus Christ and, consequently, which receives His righteousness, that is to say, all perfection. When therefore, after St. Paul (Rom 1: 17; 3:21-27; 4:3; 5:1; 9:30-33; 11:6; Gal 2:16-21; 3:9,10,18; Phil 3:9; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5; Heb. 11:7) we say that we are justified by faith alone, or freely, or by faith without works (for all these ways of speaking give the same sense), we do not say that faith is a virtue which makes us righteous, in ourselves, before God. For this would be to put faith in the place of Jesus Christ who is, alone, our perfect and entire righteousness.
But we speak thus with the Apostle, and we say that by faith alone we are justified, insomuch as it embraces Him who justifies us, Jesus Christ, to whom it unites and joins us. We are then made partakers of Him and an the benefits which He possesses. These, being imputed and gifted to us, are more than sufficient to make us acquitted and accounted righteous before God. (Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, Chapter IV. This is quoted from Faith & Justification — emphases added)
The elect alone have this true faith (cf. Romans 8:30), and will never lose it, because they are predestined by God to become conformed to the image of His Son (cf. Romans 8:29). The elect are those who are chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4). They are chosen NOT in themselves, but in Christ. They are not chosen for any merit in them, but because of Christ. They are not even chosen for their faith, because faith has no merit in itself, but its merit is its Object, i.e. JESUS CHRIST the bread given by God to the world.¹
So only those who have Christ have life, and thus they have a vital faith that produces a practical life of righteousness. Salvation is by Grace alone, i.e. by Christ alone, because all graces (all included in the Grace of Salvation or eternal life) are received from the fullness of Christ: “for of his fulness we all have received, and grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) This “grace upon grace” means that all graces needed for our practical sanctification are included in that Grace of eternal life that we have in Christ. In other words, all graces spring from this Grace of eternal life which is Christ Himself, for those who have life will live and not die. Thus the Spirit says that the righteous shall LIVE by faith (cf. Romans 1:17), i.e. the righteous shall live by the life of Christ. And as Christ is the life of those who are justified by faith, therefore it is impossible that any of the elect may ever die (as the Lord also explained in John 11:26), because Christ having died once for our sins will not die again; and as we are united to Him, so we will not die again: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him, knowing that Christ having been raised up from among [the] dead dies no more: death has dominion over him no more.” (Romans 6:8-9)
Having understood this well, we see that saying that faith should be vital in order to embrace Christ means that Salvation (passage from death to life) is possible without having Christ… And this contradicts all the passages that we have seen above; it contradicts God’s Word. If faith is vital before having Christ, then we have passed from death to life without Christ! In other words, this means that we have been saved without Christ! Ephesians 2:8 says that it is by Grace that we are saved through faith, and that this is the Gift of God! If we have been saved (passed from death to life) before having faith in Christ, then Ephesians 2:8 will mean that Salvation by the free Grace or Gift of God alone is something different from Salvation by Christ alone… But this is contrary to what the Bible teaches, as we have seen.²
Grace be with you!
Disciple of Jesus Christ
1. In the limit of this article, I don’t intend to write a treatise about biblical Election and Predestination. But let me just note that Election is NOT about what happens before Salvation, but it is about Salvation itself. All those biblical passages that are related to Election should be understood in the light of this fact: that Election is about Salvation itself, and NOT about what happens before Salvation. Calvinists have misunderstood this point, therefore they think faith can be vital before embracing Christ. But in general, Calvinists are the closest to the biblical truth of Election, while Arminians have totally misunderstood the biblical Election and thus they deny it. Election means that only those who have Christ are saved, because Christ alone is the Chosen One (the true Elect), and we in Him. As to HOW the elect are born of God, the Bible only says that it is a supernatural birth done by the Spirit of God through God’s Word: “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23) The Lord explained to Nicodemus that humans should not inquire about the details of this “HOW”, and explained that humans can only see the fruit of this new birth and know that a new life has begun there: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) Calvinism and Arminianism are two human systems of theology, and they do the mistake of inquiring concerning this “HOW”, therefore they get to some unbiblical conclusions. These one-sided systems of theology do not give God credit for a wisdom and power far higher than man’s intellect can discern. They try to reconcile man’s responsibility with his slavery to sin and with what they think is God’s Election, and thus they are obliged to re-interpret the biblical passages that do not agree with their system of theology. This is very bad, because the Bible should not be interpreted by any human system of theology; the Bible interprets the Bible. Only the Holy Spirit can interpret His own Word. (For an introduction to the biblical truth of Election, you can read the following: Election and Conversion by L. M. Grant).
2. This is the misunderstanding that made a Calvinist say that faith should be vital in order to embrace Christ. Don Matzat explains this misunderstanding with an illustration from real life: “At the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathering this past April, a noted Reformed theologian presented a paper on “grace alone.” He defined “grace alone,” not by the cross of Jesus Christ, but by the doctrine of predestination or election.” (Don Matzat, Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Predestination). The fact is that Election and Predestination have no meaning separate from faith or the cross of Jesus Christ, because we are chosen IN CHRIST and not in ourselves.