Inadequacy of Isolated Words
For a long time, I have been troubled by the inadequacy of the words faith and belief and trust (or any other single words) to make clear what is required in order to be saved. One might object, “But those are the very words that Scripture uses to describe how to be saved. ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). Are you saying that God doesn’t know how best to communicate the way of salvation?”
No, I am not saying that. I am saying that in the Scriptures these words are not isolated. They are bricks embedded in the beautiful building of God-inspired truth. Words by themselves cannot carry the reality they are intended to carry unless we see the design that the skillful brick masons were creating when they put the bricks together the way they did. Or to say it more prosaically, we will not know what faith and belief and trust mean unless we press into the way they are used in the most illuminating biblical contexts.
Even our own experience impels us to probe into those contexts for more depth and precision. Experience teaches us to probe for distinctions. We know there are different kinds of faith and different ways of trusting. For example, experience teaches us that it is possible, even necessary at times, to trust a person with our lives whom we neither love, nor admire, nor even want to be around. Which of these two would we trust for our brain surgery: a foulmouthed, dishonest, lustful, highly skilled, highly effective surgeon at the top of his profession, or a kind, honest, chaste young surgeon with little actual experience? We would trust the lecher with our life. Which means what?
Something Has Been Assumed
The traditional way of describing saving faith has always assumed something. For centuries, theologians have assumed that saving faith includes more than the confidence that Christ is competent, like the lecherous surgeon. When the three traditional descriptions of faith were used, there was an assumption that the word fiducia (cordial trust) alongside notitia (knowledge) and assensus (mental assent) included more than trusting Jesus as an ignominious but effective rescuer from hell. None of those who used the word fiducia (trust) to describe the heart of saving faith intended a kind of trust that views Jesus as disliked, unadmirable, undesired, distasteful, repugnant. They would have said, “Saving faith does not experience Christ that way.”
Theologians and pastors and thoughtful laypeople have always known that the isolated words faith and believe contain ambiguities that need clarification. And they have endeavored to see these words embedded in the biblical texts designed by God to clarify and fill up their meaning. I will try to show from some of these texts that part of that fullness is the affectional dimension of saving faith.
Treasuring Is Not Just One Thing
I use the term treasuring Christ as my default summary expression of the affectional nature of saving faith. I take the verb treasure to be a fitting experiential counterpart to the noun treasure. I argue that Christ is the essence of the treasure in texts like Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”; and 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.”
When I say that treasuring Christ is my summary expression of the affectional nature of saving faith, I mean to imply that there are diverse affections in the nature of saving faith, not just one. The heart experiences treasuring Christ differently as it embraces different aspects of Christ’s greatness and beauty and worth.
There is joyful treasuring, because we taste the substance of the joy set before us (Heb. 11:1; 12:2). There is treasuring like the satisfying of hunger, because Christ is the bread of life (John 6:35, 51). There is treasuring like the pleasure of quenched thirst, because Christ is the fountain of living water (John 4:10–11). There is treasuring like the love of light after darkness, because Christ is the radiance of divine glory (John 1:14; 3:19). There is treasuring like the love of truth, because Christ in the gospel is the preciousness of true reality (2 Thess. 2:10–12). And this list could be extended as far as there are glories of Christ to be known. Saving faith treasures them all, as each is known. All are precious. All are treasured. But the affectional experience is not the same in each case. So it is in the way Christ is received by saving faith.
Christ Treasured in All His Excellencies
Perhaps I should clarify an important implication lest I be misunderstood in speaking of Jesus as our treasure. In calling Jesus a treasure, I do not mean that he is a treasure alongside other roles or excellencies. I mean that he is a treasure in all his roles and excellencies. We may speak loosely about receiving Christ as Lord and Savior and treasure. I regularly use that way of speaking. But I do not mean that his worth is like a third role he plays alongside Lord and Savior.
Saving faith always views Christ as having supreme value.
Rather, when we focus on Jesus as our treasure, we include all that he is: treasured Savior, treasured Lord, treasured wisdom, treasured righteousness, treasured friend, treasured living water, treasured bread of heaven, and more. Christ as a treasure is not a slice of Christ. It is every dimension of Christ—all of Christ—making up the totality of his infinite value.
Saving faith has in it the affectional dimension of treasuring Christ. Where Christ is not received as treasure, he is being used. This is not saving faith. It is tragic that many think it is. Saving faith always views Christ as having supreme value. That is how he is received. To embrace Christ as a second- or third-tier treasure is not saving faith. It is an affront.
Jesus told a story to illustrate how it offends him when we fail to treasure him above the things of this world:
A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry. (Luke 14:16–21)
Real estate. Possessions. Family. To prefer these over the treasure of Christ makes him angry. It is an affront to him and destruction to us. Of course, the story doesn’t end there. It gets better and worse.
The anger of the host is transposed into the compassion of the Great Commission. If my people will not treasure what I offer, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame. . . . Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:21, 23). But for those who would not treasure the Master, judgment falls: “I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:24).
Saving faith receives Christ as a treasure, but not as second to lands, oxen, or spouses. He is valued above them. Or he is rejected. Embracing him as one among many useful treasures is worse than useless. It is worse because it gives the impression that he is willing to be used. He is not. He will be received as our supreme treasure, or not at all.
This article is adapted from What Is Saving Faith?: Reflections on Receiving Christ as a Treasure by John Piper.
The aim of God’s work in redemption is not that through Christ we might have salvation, but that through salvation we might have Christ—the all-satisfying treasure.
Paul underlines repeatedly the crucial and powerful relationship between faith and the good works of love.
Are you ready to receive him and believe in him as your supreme treasure, even if it costs you the loss of your family and your life?
John Piper discusses how he came to saving faith in Jesus and how his view of that faith has changed over the years.