Augustine on Saving Faith

In What is Saving Faith, Gordon Clark defines faith as assent to an understood proposition and saving faith as assent to the understood propositions of the gospel. For Clark, what differentiates ordinary faith from saving faith is not some elusive and ill-defined third element which, or so we’re told, completes faith.  Rather, what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed.  Clark further critiques the popular three fold definition of faith as a combination of understanding, assent, and trust (or notitia, assensus and fiducia for those who get all warm and fuzzy when they see Latin) showing that it has historically resulted in nothing but confusion and should be abandoned.  Central to Clark’s critique is that the addition of trust (or fiducia) adds precisely nothing to faith’s definition and is rather an unnecessary redundancy that is equivalent to defining a word with itself.  This is a form of the fallacy of definition and, as anyone with any familiarity with Clark knows, Clark did not like to have his theology mixed with fallacies.

For example, under Fallacies of Definition Wikipedia lists defining a word with a synonym:

A definition is no good if it simply gives a one-word synonym. For example, suppose we define the word “virtue”—an important word in ethic— by just using the word “excellence.” It might be perfectly true that all virtues are excellences and all excellences are virtues, but the word “excellence” itself is not a good definition of “virtue” in philosophy. One can always simply ask, “But what does ‘excellence’ mean?” Surely, if one has a basic confusion about what “virtue” means, then one may also have a basic philosophical confusion about what “excellence” might mean.

Now, Clark wrote What is Saving Faith long before there was a Federal Vision controversy, but what he pointed out, and what a lot of people on both sides of the FV divide continually fail to grasp, is that faith or belief (which are both translations in Scripture of the same Greek word pistis) is synonymous with the word trust.  Seems obvious enough to anyone who speaks English, which explains why English is not the preferred language of Theologians.  That’s because to believe someone or to have faith in someone is to trust in what they say and to trust someone is to believe or have faith in what they say.  Simply put the words “trust” and “believe” are synonymous.  In response to R.C. Sproul’s confused but typical (mis)understanding of saving faith, John Robbins argued:

Notice that Sproul here uses the verbs “believe” and “trust” interchangeably, as synonyms. This is both good English and sound theology. Belief, that is to say, faith (there is only one word in the New Testament for belief, pistis) and trust are the same; they are synonyms. If you believe what a person says, you trust him. If you trust a person, you believe what he says. If you have faith in him, you believe what he says and trust his words. If you trust a bank, you believe its claims to be safe and secure. Strictly speaking, trust is belief of propositions in the future tense, such as “he will be good to me” or “this bank will keep my money safe.” This is important, because Sproul’s incorrect analysis of saving faith, his splitting it up into three parts, the third part being trust, depends on denying that belief and trust are the same thing. But here he correctly implies they are the same by using the words interchangeably.

In contrast, a man who is unconcerned with having fallacies litter his theology and who I am quite sure gets all tingly at the sound of Latin (after all it is the traditional language of the religious elites particularly those members of the Roman priesthood), is Federal Visionist James Jordan.   Jordan, like all Federal Visionists, makes good use of the tautological nature of the three fold definition of faith by attaching a meaning to the idea of “trust” or “fiducia” which is not  synonymous with the word “faith.”  Writing on Doug Wilson’s blog, Jordon stews:

The followers of Gordon Clark say that faith is notitia and assensus, but not fiducia. They have been objecting to historical Calvinism ever since the 1930s. They object to the so-called FV for the same reason: We say that faith involves loyalty, fiducia.

Notice, for Jordon  trust is not belief in propositions in the future tense, such as “he will be good to me” or “this bank will keep my money safe.”  No, for Jordon and his fellow FVists to trust means to be loyal.  And, for Federal Visionists being loyal means to live our lives in conformity to the demands of the covenant that God has imposed on us by virtue of the magic waters of baptism and the mumblings of an FV priestling.  It’s not receiving and resting on Christ’s righteousness alone — His covenant faithfulness — completely outside of us or apart from anything that might be wrought in us as a result of our own ongoing sanctification.  Rather, justification by faith — even faith alone — includes our ongoing sanctification which is the instrument of our justification (something the FV men divide into two part; initial justification via the waters of baptism and final justification on the basis of our works or ongoing loyalty).

Well, in contrast to the FV false teachers who eagerly exploit the popular confusion over saving faith, Augustine very much shared Clark’s definition of faith (a fact that only got passing mention in Clark’s book).  While reading Augustine’s treatise, The Predestination of the Saints, I came across the following:

For who cannot see that thinking is prior to believing? For no one believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed. For however suddenly, however rapidly, some thoughts fly before the will to believe, and this presently follows in such wise as to attend them, as it were, in closest conjunction, it is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded; although even belief itself is nothing else than to think with assent. For it is not every one who thinks that believes, since many think in order that they may not believe; but everybody who believes, thinks,—both thinks in believing, and believes in thinking. Therefore in what pertains to religion and piety (of which the apostle was speaking), if we are not capable of thinking anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, we are certainly not capable of believing anything as of ourselves, since we cannot do this without thinking; but our sufficiency, by which we begin to believe, is of God.

The above is Clark in a nutshell.  Augustine like Clark clearly distinguish between understanding or thinking as that which precedes belief (simply because one cannot believe what they don’t first understand) and thinking with assent is to believe.   Of course, a person can understand or think correctly about many things and not believe them, and concerning the gospel Augustine notes that “many think in order that they may not believe.”  But no one can think correctly concerning the truth of the gospel and believe it without God first causing them to  assent to that truth.  That’s because as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 belief (or faith for those who prefer the Latin translation of the Greek word pistis)  “is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  And, as John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel:

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:  who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

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38 Comments on “Augustine on Saving Faith”

  1. Hugh McCann Says:

    Here, in a nutshell, is our battle cry: what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed.

    what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed!

    what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed!!

    what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed!!!

    what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed!!!!

    what separates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed!!!!!

    Ah…..that indeed felt good. Thank you, Sean, for the lovely Christmas present.

    And I have to write the word “tautology,” or it just wouldn’t be Christmas!

  2. Sean Gerety Says:

    Merry Christmas Hugh. 🙂

    I understand why the three fold notion is attractive to many. They don’t want belief to be “easy.” What they fail to grasp is that apart from the immediate work of God belief is impossible.

  3. Gus gianello Says:

    Dear Sean,

    Thank you so very much for being a good friend and serving god with your wonderful blog. Happy New Year to you and your family


  4. Steve M Says:

    Those who hold to the three fold notion generally also hold that belief (of the Gospel) is easy enough that even the unregenerate can do it. This is why they add an unintelligible (if it is not, in fact, works) element to simple belief when formulating a definition of faith (as if an unintelligible definition is a definition at all).

    These lovers of paradox on the one hand admit that understanding and assent are necessary elements of faith, but hold to the unintelligibility (they call it incomprehensibility) of God (who is truth itself) and His revelation. They, thereby, ask their followers to believe what they do not and presumably can not understand. This is at odds with even their own shoddy definition, which admits to the necessity of understanding.

  5. Sean Gerety Says:

    Thanks Gus. Happy New Year to you and yours too. 🙂

  6. David Reece Says:

    Happy New Year Sean and your house and all the rest of you and your houses.

    Thanks for sharing some of the treasures scattered through Augustine that you find.

  7. LJ Says:

    Sean: “What they fail to grasp is that apart from the immediate work of God belief is impossible.”

    This seems to me the clinching argument or rebuttal to the three-folders. I think I’ll try it and see if the lights come on.

    Happy New Year! Ron Paul in 2012 🙂

  8. MikeD Says:

    I couldn’t agree more… in fact here’s a comment from over a year and half ago regarding Lane Keister and the FV @

    MikeD Says:

    March 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Perhaps this is the wrong place for this post, but besides monoconvenantalism being at the root of the denial of sola fide, we should also see how the traditional tripartite definition of faith has contributed. It’s a lengthy discussion to be sure with many aspects, but tell your average Reformed Christian (or Lutheran) that justifying faith is assent to the propositions of the gospel and you’ll get a firestorm coming your way regarding personal trust and knowing a person. A favorite text of theirs in rebuttal is James 2 which, oddly enough, has nothing to mention of trust, but rather the outward manifestation of a living faith. In other words the text referred to to defend fiducia and define a necessary attribute of saving faith is really about deeds.

    It’s good to have like-minded brothers.

  9. Since this seems to have become the Happy New Year thread, I’ll happily add my own wish for all y’all to have a great year in 2012 🙂

  10. Steve Matthews Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Sean. For my part, I think and believe that three folders are all wet.

    And, in keeping with the spirit of the thread, happy New Year to all.

  11. Denson Dube Says:

    Considering also that the Latin word “fides” from which the English word “faith” is derived does not have the same meaning as the New Testament Greek, “pistis”, is it any wonder that the Latin derived threefold definition is so confused!

    Definition: Fides is a Latin word encompassing the concepts of honesty, uprightness, and trustworthiness. Fides is also a Roman personification of good faith, with a temple on the Capitoline. As a legal term, fides refers to honoring the terms of the agreement.
    “FIDES” is often (and wrongly) translated ‘faith’, but it has nothing to do with the word as used by Christians writing in Latin about the Christian virute (St. Paul Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13). For the Romans, FIDES was an essential element in the character of a man of public affairs, and a necessary constituent element of all social and political transactions (perhaps = ‘good faith’). FIDES meant ‘reliablilty’, a sense of trust between two parties if a relationship between them was to exist. FIDES was always reciprocal and mutual, and implied both privileges and responsibilities on both sides. In both public and private life the violation of FIDES was considered a serious matter, with both legal and religious consequences. FIDES, in fact, was one of the first of the ‘virtues’ to be considered an actual divinity at Rome. The Romans had a saying, “Punica fides” (the reliability of a Carthaginian) which for them represented the highest degree of treachery: the word of a Carthaginian (like Hannibal) was not to be trusted, nor could a Carthaginian be relied on to maintain his political elationships.

  12. Denson Dube Says:

    “The attempt to obliterate the Biblical concept of belief (pistis) by saying it means faithfulness or obedience is a direct attack on the Gospel, on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and an integral part of the “union with Christ” mysticism.”(John Robbins,

  13. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved…” No, wait, let me **** it all up first.

    Great post. Thank you so much.

  14. P.S. My computer wouldn’t type “mess” so it gave me the ****. 🙂

  15. ray Says:

    Happy New Year Sean … hope your family is doing well … much to be thankful for,

  16. AZTexan Says:

    Sean, finally I’ve stumbled upon the very item I want to send you for Christmas: Hot Tips for the Writing Life

    Just need your mailing address.

    Hey, better late than never, amirite? 😉

  17. Sean Gerety Says:

    “Wilson has wisdom only a wise man knows.” Save your money AZ. Maybe you can think of something nice for my birthday instead. =8-)

  18. AZTexan Says:

    I just figure, y’know, who among us couldn’t benefit from instruction in the fine art of Wordnifty Blogsmithy at the feet of one of the great masters of our age, right? Journeymen though we shall yet be in several decades’ time, why not aim high?

    If you don’t want the book, then I’ll get right to work learning how to be profound yet pithy…yet profound. Wordniftiness at my command! Hot dog and shazaaayum!

  19. Sean Gerety Says:

    Thanks Denson for the Piper link. A great example of why I dislike religious gobble-de-goop:

    “Believing in Jesus is a soul coming to Jesus to be satisfied in all that he is. That is my definition of faith on the basis of John 6:35. This is not…a decision.”

    Instead of explaining Jesus’ metaphor he just uses another metaphor. Yet, Jesus says “eating” is coming to Christ — choosing Him — and “drinking” is believing. Piper has no definition of belief, but he sure sounds flowery. .

  20. Hugh McCann Says:

    Sean, I don’t like his “definition,” either, but in Piper’s defense, Jesus (as you quote) used some pretty cryptic language, with metaphors abounding.

    Plus, Piper does say that “seeing & savoring = satisfaction = trusting.”

    No doubt carp-n-dunc would re-anathematize me here, but J.P.’s not that bad for a hypo-calvinist. From the piece:

    ‘Believing in Jesus is a soul coming to Jesus to be satisfied in all that he is. That is my definition of faith on the basis of John 6:35. This is not…a decision,” he said.

    ‘Piper gave his definition of salvation, explaining one concept in three different ways. He said that saving faith is
    “Seeing and savoring Jesus,
    being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, and
    trusting Jesus,”
    and that those three things are “equivalent realities.”

    ‘But those realities should also be apparent in our actions, Piper said, because “God did not come into the world in Jesus or create the world in order to be glorified invisibly.”

    ‘When you treasure God in your soul, “you outwardly are set free from the slavery of sins, which people can start to see, and you are set free for the sacrifices of love, which people can see. So the root of your salvation glorifies God privately, and the fruit of your salvation glorifies God publicly.”

    ‘Piper also said that humans are not born morally neutral, so they can’t simply choose to believe in and follow God. We are born “so corrupt in our hearts, so bent toward sin, so in love with ourselves and our worldly pleasures [that] we cannot believe,” he said.

    ‘Because of this spiritual corruption, Piper added, people cannot choose to believe in God and receive salvation unless God gives that gift to them.’

  21. Sean Gerety Says:

    Sean, I don’t like his “definition,” either, but in Piper’s defense, Jesus (as you quote) used some pretty cryptic language, with metaphors abounding.

    Jesus wasn’t providing a definition of belief. Piper says he’s providing a definition and doesn’t. I’ve never understood what so many people see in Piper.

  22. Hugh McCann Says:

    Ah, so. JP DID say he’d define, and he only described with more metaphor. True enough.

    I don’t see what people drool over, either, except that he gets them excited about drooling, I guess.

  23. Hugh McCann Says:

    The post about DW’s Wordsmithy from AZT reminds me of a lecture on C.S. Lewis by our friend Richard Bennett.

    He made the point that while you might learn a thing or two from Lewis on writing well, this is outweighed by his atrocious theology.

    Likewise, Herr Wilson is crafty @ his craft as well.

  24. What’s this? You mean Lewis isn’t a bastion of evangelical orthodoxy?!

  25. Denson Dube Says:

    Scripture tells us why Jesus used metaphor and cryptic language. It was deliberate, so that people would not understand, thus putting paid to the popular belief that “god loves everybody”.
    We are not to copy how Jesus communicated since we are explicitly instructed in the bible to communicate intelligibly. Paul, correcting the Corinthian church said he would rather speak 5 intelligible words than a whole flurry of unintelligible speech(in a strange language). We know what to do in the bible from didactic passages, not descriptive or narrative passages. JP’s flowery language is therefore not an example of Jesus’ use of language since the bible instructs us on how to speak.
    “What’s this? You mean Lewis isn’t a bastion of evangelical orthodoxy?!”
    Thanks for the comic relief!

  26. Hugh McCann Says:

    Thanks, 2D. Good points.

    I get it; I’m just trying to read Piper more charitably than many of us have in the past.

    I am slogging through Future Grace,* and finding that while it is generally horrendous,** it is not devoid of some real gems here and there. Not to recommend the book, but neither can I get on the Carp-n-Dunc/ RedBeetle bandwagon just yet.

    I agree with you & Sean that JP is not as clear as he ought to be (esp. being a fan of Edwards!).

    Again, as quoted on Jan 11 at 12:08pm:

    Piper gave his definition of salvation, explaining one concept in three different ways. He said that saving faith is “Seeing and savoring Jesus, being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, and trusting Jesus,” and that those three things are “equivalent realities.”

    The Christian Post writer might better have called these “descriptions” rather than a definition. But Piper is being quoted sans full context speaking (not from a written systematic theology).


    * W/ Robbins’ review in hand, I note that JR must have gotten understandably sick of reading the thing (as well as having better things to do with his time!), as he dealt only with about the first half. Anyone know of a more thorough critical review?

    ** His Fullerian covenantal confusion is most troubling.

  27. stephenb927 Says:

    Is it not true that the demons believe the truth propositions about Christ (and shudder)? Wouldn’t this article’s claims mean the demons are saved?

  28. Sean Gerety Says:

    @stephenb927 – James said demons believe in monotheism, that God is one, and shudder. The point being, belief that God is one, a true proposition about the nature of God, saves no one. No doubt demons also believe many other true propositions about Jesus Christ. Today many Roman Catholics and even Mormons do too. Are you suggesting that demons believe the Gospel or that Jesus died for them too? FWIW I think you’d be hard pressed to find that anywhere in Scripture, but I’m happy to watch you try. 🙂

  29. stephenb927 Says:

    I wasn’t just referring to James. In fact, many of the dealings Jesus had with demons shows acquiescence to more truth claims about Jesus by the demons than the disciples had. The point being, knowledge of the gospel and ascent to that knowledge cannot save. Saving faith is given by grace from God (Ephesians 2). I can know and ascent to the fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States, but I can still fight against it (not trying to get political, just using an analogy).

  30. Sean Gerety Says:

    I wasn’t referring to just James either. And, of course, saving faith in the Gospel is a gift from God, but you’re wrong when you say this faith cannot save. It alone is the only means by which anyone can be saved. Besides, Christ’s death wasn’t intended to atone for the sins of demons. It was designed to propitiate God’s wrath against sin for those, and only those, given to Jesus Christ by the Father.

  31. stephenb927 Says:

    So the paralytic in Mark 2 didn’t need to go through the roof to receive remission of sin? All he needed to do was know about Jesus and understand who he was and what Jesus did? No personal application whatsoever? He could have stayed in his bed at home?

    The thief on the cross didn’t need to rebuke the others for mocking Jesus and ask that Jesus remember him? He certainly had knowledge and understood what was going on to a limited extent, but when did Jesus respond? There are numerous examples of this in scripture.

    Is forgiveness of others an inactive task? And yet Jesus requires us that, if we are to be forgiven in His teaching on prayer. Also, He says if you confess me before men, He will confess you before His Father, but if you deny Him, He will deny you. He doesn’t leave a third choice, where you are in contemplation about Him. If you are not confessing Him, you are denying Him. The context of this passage in Matthew 10 is an encouragement to action and not of fear of confession.

    There are many in the world who claim to have faith, even in Jesus, but do not live in hope, and have no characteristics of a saving faith as found in 1st John.

  32. Hugh McCann Says:

    Posting something with “Augustine” in the title has apparently flushed out at least one papist, Sean.

    Yes, stephen927, we must keep ALL the law perfectly if we would get to heaven at the last.

    Best the Pharisees, be perfect, forgive everyone, never look on a woman with lust, never hate your brother w/o a cause, be perfect, love God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, love your neighbor as yourself, be perfect, and sell all you have, take up your cross & follow JESUS CHRIST.

  33. Sean Gerety Says:

    @stpehnb927 – A person’s life, his behavior, will certainly tend to demonstrate to others that a person is in fact a believer. That is, after all, what the book of James specifically addresses. However, it’s not always the case as I’m sure most wouldn’t see the thief on the cross next to Jesus as a shining example of the Christian life. OTOH it is, because man cannot contribute anything to his justification before a Holy God. So, in that sense, a person’s life has no bearing at all on the means by which a sinner might be justified which is by belief alone.

    So, it is false to imply that a person is saved through the life he leads. Paul said; “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

    And, again, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

    And, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.”

    Would you like more?

  34. stephenb927 Says:

    Who is suggesting that works equals justification? I’m merely suggesting what the Bible says, that the faith that justifies necessarily leads us to works. Your suggesting that it doesn’t. You’re going against James, John, Peter, Paul, and even Jesus.

  35. Sean Gerety Says:

    We were discussing justification, not sanctification. You seem to have confused the two. So, I’ll ask, are you a Roman Catholic?

  36. Hugh McCann Says:

    Amen, StephenB927!

    And Sts James, John, Peter, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus all said that any single violation of the law is a violation of all the law.

    “Be perfect, etc.” is not graded on a curve!

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