In the first six verses of Mark 6, it is clear that the people of Nazareth are familiar with Jesus. From verse 3 alone, we see three things with which they are familiar. First, they recognize that His teaching is astonishing, beyond anything they normally receive in the synagogues. Second, they understand that the wisdom He expresses is unique...it is God's wisdom. Finally, they are familiar with the mighty works that He does. Yet, this familiarity with Jesus' words and deeds did not lead the Nazarenes to faith...it led them to offense and stumbling (v. 3b). So widespread was this response that Jesus marveled at the unbelief (v. 6).
The word 'unbelief' raises a question, then. What is saving faith? In our culture, words like 'faith' and 'believe' and 'Christian' and 'prayer' are thrown around quite often. Unfortunately, these words often do not mean what the Scripture says they mean. For example, one may talk about 'having faith' without any idea of what the object of that faith is. Because of this, many seem to have faith in 'faith.' In an attempt to approach life in some kind of spiritual manner, those who use these words in an empty fashion are, themselves, spiritually empty.
So, let's get to the task of defining saving faith. Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology is very helpful in piecing together three components which make up saving faith. They are (1) knowledge of the gospel, (2) agreement with the gospel, and (3) a personal trust in Jesus to save me. Let's walk through these briefly.
First, one must have knowledge of the gospel. Apart from the gospel, nobody can be saved. Paul asks the question in Romans 10:14 - "And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?" The assumed answer to this question is this: "It's impossible to believe without hearing." After all, as Paul goes on to say, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (10:17). However, as we can see in the text from Mark, knowledge does not equal faith. The crowd in the Nazarene synagogue were astonished at the power of Jesus' teaching and the wisdom that was obviously given from God, yet they were offended...not converted.
In addition to having knowledge of the gospel, one must agree with the gospel. This takes the first element a step further. Rattling off facts is one thing, but agreeing with facts that you can recite is another. Think about those people who feel an inner compulsion to be in a church for Easter Sunday morning. It is quite possible that they hear a similar message every year, depending on the church they attend. They hear about the crucifixion of Jesus for sin, His burial, and His resurrection on the third day. They could recite the facts to you. However, over the years, they have heard different pastors give historical defenses of these events, and they have come to believe that it really did happen. Jesus really did die, and He really was raised from the dead. Does this agreement with the facts mean they are Christians? No. They may concur with the historicity of the events, but this is not saving faith. They may even say they 'believe' in the gospel, but this may simply mean they think the facts are true.
To better illustrate this, think about bungee jumping. You know...it's where daring individuals attach a large bungee rope to their bodies, jump off a bridge or a specially constructed tower, and get the thrill of free falling until the rope pulls them back from severe injury or even death. Now, think about what it means to be a bungee jumper. If I understand the physics behind bungee jumping and believe that the physics are true (i.e.- that a human being really can be sustained by that rope), does that make me a bungee jumper? No. It's only when I strap on the rope and trust it to save me from my own death that I am a real bungee jumper. I may have bungee jumping T-shirts, read the magazines, and follow the professional bungee jumping tour...all the while thrilled to see the physics work every time. Yet, I am no bungee jumper...I am a mere observer.
It's the same with being a Christian (i.e.- having saving faith). I may know the facts and believe the facts to be true, but apart from the third component of our definition, I am not actually a Christian...I do not actually have saving faith. I must put my trust in Jesus to save me. Wayne Grudem puts it this way: "In doing this [i.e.- depending on Jesus to save me] I move from being an interested observer of the facts of salvation and the teachings of the Bible to being someone who enters into a new relationship with Jesus Christ as a living person." In trusting in Jesus, I am solely relying on His death on the cross as the sufficient payment for my sin and my only hope of reconciliation with God.
So, saving faith means knowing the gospel, agreeing with the gospel, and personally trusting Jesus Christ to save me. This may seem very elementary...so why think about all of this? The first reason we must understand saving faith is in order to see whether we possess it or not. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith" (2 Cor. 13:5). Do you know the facts? Do you agree that the gospel facts are true? Are you personally trusting in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for sin alone to save you? The question is not whether we once prayed a prayer or had a religious experience, though many of us have vivid memories of our conversion. The question is now...as you read this blog...are you trusting in Jesus Christ alone to save you from the penalty of sin?
The second reason to understand saving faith is to help us talk about faith with our friends. The words 'faith' and 'belief' are tossed around in our society without real, biblical meaning behind them. We hear things like "Just have faith" and "You just have to believe" and other vague statements that empty these precious words of their significance. If we don't understand saving faith, then we may hear these 'buzz words' and assume that those who use them are truly believers. That being said, we must beware of becoming judge and jury of the spiritual lives of those around us. That's not the goal at all.
Imagine you have been praying for a co-worker, hoping to find out whether he is a believer or not. One day, you are at lunch with him, and he talks about a difficulty he is facing. He includes a couple of things like this: "Everything happens for a purpose...I've just gotta keep the faith and trust that everything will work out for the best...I've really been praying about this." How do you respond? Do you give an internal sigh and think, "He must be a believer...he talked about faith and trust and purpose and prayer"?
Remember, all these words are not identifiable only to a believer. Rather than making any assumptions, why not ask your co-worker a question or two? Ask questions about what he says, so you understand what he means by these words. He may be a believer who is timid about mentioning Jesus' name to a co-worker, and you will be able to encourage him. He may not be a believer and is in need of real hope. Either way, a firm understanding of saving faith can help you discover whether your friend is a Christian or not.
So, understanding saving faith is critical to us. It is the goal we have in mind as we share the gospel. We do not want to merely transmit information or convince someone that Jesus really lived and died, though knowledge and agreement are necessary. We long to see people understand the gospel, acknowledge the gospel's truth, and receive the Christ of the gospel.