If our aim is to understand the true nature of saving faith, who better to look to than Jesus Christ Himself, “the author and perfecter of [our] faith” (Hebrews 12:2)? And while the Lord had much to say about the quality and characteristics of saving faith throughout His public ministry, the Sermon on the Mount is His most comprehensive and definitive statement.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12) reveal the character of true faith as well as any passage in Scripture. These traits—poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, and so on—are not just an unobtainable legal standard. These are characteristics common to all who believe. The first of the Beatitudes leaves no doubt about whom the Lord is speaking: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, emphasis added). He is describing redeemed people, those who have believed, those who are part of the kingdom.
Their foundational characteristic is humility—a poverty of spirit, a brokenness that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. Genuine believers see themselves as sinners; they know they have nothing to offer God that will buy His favor. That is why they mourn (Matthew 5:4) with the sorrow that accompanies true repentance. It crushes the believer into meekness (Matthew 5:5). He hungers and thirsts for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). As the Lord satisfies that hunger, He makes the believing one merciful (Matthew 5:7), pure in heart (Matthew 5:6), and a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). The believer is ultimately persecuted and reviled for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5:10).
That is Jesus’ description of the genuine believer. Each of the characteristics He names—starting with humility and reaching fruition in obedience—is a consequence of true faith. And note that the obedience of faith is more than external; it issues from the heart. That is one reason their righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Jesus goes on to characterize true righteousness—the righteousness that is born of faith (cf.Romans 10:6)—as obedience not just to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the law as well (Matthew 5:21–48). This kind of righteousness does not merely avoid acts of adultery; it goes so far as to avoid adulterous thoughts (cf. Matthew 5:27–28). It eschews hatred the same as murder (cf. Matthew 5:21–22).
If you see that God’s standard is higher than you can possibly attain, you are on the road to the blessedness Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. It begins with the humility that grows out of a sense of utter spiritual poverty, the knowledge that we are poor in spirit. And it consummates inevitably in righteous obedience. Those are characteristics of a supernatural life. They are impossible apart from faith, and it is impossible that someone with true faith might be utterly lacking these characteristics that are common to everyone in the kingdom (Matthew 5:3).
When Jesus wanted to illustrate the character of saving faith, He took a little child, stood him in the midst of the disciples, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). A child was the perfect picture of obedient humility—under the authority of another and chastened when they do disobey—an object lesson about saving faith.
Jesus used this illustration to teach that if we insist on retaining the privileges of adulthood—if we want to be our own boss, do our own thing, govern our own lives—we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. But if we are willing to come on the basis of childlike faith and receive salvation with the humility of a child, with a willingness to surrender to Christ’s authority, then we are coming with the right attitude.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish” (John 10:27–28, emphasis added). Who are the true sheep? The ones who follow. Who are the ones who follow? The ones who are given eternal life.
Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The direction of one’s life should reveal whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever. There is no middle ground. Merely knowing and affirming facts apart from obedience to the truth is not believing in the biblical sense. Those who cling to the memory of a one-time decision of “faith” but lack any evidence of the outworking of faith had better heed the clear and solemn warning of Scripture: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
Note the contrast there—it’s not belief versus unbelief, but belief versus disobedience. Today’s church is full of people who claim to believe in Christ, but you would never know it by simply looking at their lives. God’s people need to hold up the biblical standard of what truly constitutes saving faith to the watching world. But we must likewise exhort those in our midst who tarnish the testimony of God’s truth by living lives that betray their claims to faith.
By God’s grace we have been saved, and by His sovereign plan we have been set apart to live lives of obedience that testify to His saving work. That is saving faith.
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