You are here

6. Renewal


– Chapter 6 –


Renewal is an important concept in the New Testament. In Colossians 3:9-10 we read:

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.

“Do not lie to one another.” For people of the world, the practice of lying is so ingrained that it becomes a habit of the mind. People lie when­ever it is to their advantage. But when we become new people in Christ, this is one of the evil habits that must be removed in the process of renewal. Christians are sometimes tempted to lie because they want others to think better of them than they really are.

In God’s eyes, lying is not a minor misconduct. Its serious­ness is seen in the fact that no liar will gain entry into the hea­venly city, New Jerusalem, for “no one who practices abomination and lying shall ever come into it” (Rev.21:27). Notice that “abomination” (a word general­ly associated with idol worship, which God detests) and “lying” stand on the same level. Far from being a minor sin, lying, which is untruth­fulness or deceit, is dangerous enough to rob us of a place in New Jerusalem.

Wrong notions about sin

When discussing the serious matter of sin, it is of the greatest import­ance for us to have an accurate understanding of it. For this reason, it is important to be sure that any discussion of sin is based on definitions of sin according to Scripture, not definitions accord­ing to Christian moral teaching or tradition, or else people will be burdened with a sense of guilt over some­thing that the Bible does not define as sin. There is often a vast gulf between the Bible’s definition of sin and the understanding of sin held by many Christians.

In some Christian circles, taking a glass of wine is considered sin. This definition is unbiblical. While we do not encourage people to drink, we must also be faithful to God’s word. Nowhere in Scripture is drinking a glass of wine declared to be a sin. John’s statement, “No one who is born of God practices sin” (1Jn.3:9), must not be twisted to mean, “No one who is born of God drinks wine.” These are not equivalent except in the thinking of legalistic Christians.

Some Christians say it is a sin for women to wear short skirts, as if John had said, “No one who is born of God wears short skirts.” While we do not promote short skirts, we must be true to God’s word. It may true that wearing short skirts is immodest, but would it be Scriptural to ban all swimwear on the same grounds?

Yet the same people who frown upon immodest clothing do not seem to consider rudeness, arrogance, inconsiderateness, loss of tem­per, or slanderous speech, as sin! Some who are particular about exter­nal things (and would never be seen buying a newspaper on Sunday) are not half as particular about the spiritual condition of their hearts. We are reminded of Jesus’ words:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. (Mt.23:23)

But there is an important difference: at least the scribes and Pharisees obeyed the requirement to pay their tithes. Yet some Christians, who may be meticulous about external things, don’t consider them­selves to be under any obligation to give a tithe or, for that matter, anything at all, as an offering to God. Hence, there are Christians who are not even on the level of the scribes and Phar­isees! We need to heed Jesus’ warning: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:20).

Man-made definitions of sin give people a sense of guilt over things which are not defined as sin in Scripture. I know of people who consider drinking tea or coffee a sin!

Wrong notions about sex

Some Christians feel guilty about their sexual desires. Whether these desires are right or wrong depends on how they are handled and expressed. Nothing in my study of Scripture indicates that sexual desire is intrin­sically sinful. Yet Augustine regarded sexual desire as something bad or even evil, and used the term concupiscence (with strong connot­ations of lust) in this connection. In this kind of thinking, a young and healthy person would inevitably be considered bad because he or she would most certainly have sexual desires.

Let us be frank in discussing sex, or we will complicate the matter. It is natural for a young and healthy person to think about sex from time to time and perhaps even quite often. To deny this would be ludicrous. It is equally ridiculous to say that Scripture regards any thought of sex as sinful. We don’t find that anywhere in Scripture.

Uncontrolled sexual desire is, of course, sinful. But sexual desire is not sinful in itself. Right from the beginning, in Genesis, God created human beings as male and female, and intended that they marry and be united as one flesh. How could that be done if they had no sexual desires or if sexual desires are sinful? Not only are sexual desires not evil in Scripture, Paul even says that husband and wife ought not to deprive each other except for a short time for the purpose of prayer (1Cor.7:5).

The idea that sexual desire is undesirable — or even bad — has led to the notion that the unmarried state is holier than the married state. This kind of thinking has insidiously pervaded some sectors of the church. But it must be rejected because it creates un­necessary guilt complexes that hinder the spiritual life. We must not feel guilty about thinking of sex in a proper, Spirit-controlled way.

You may find it surprising to speak of a Spirit-controlled way of thinking about sex, but that is entirely possible. Meditate on Genesis and on God’s purpose in the sexual union, and if you know how to think on the spiritual level, it can draw the heart closer to God. Consider how many devotional and spiritual books have been written on the Song of Solomon. It is spiritually edifying to meditate on God’s purposes in creating male and female. Nothing that God does is shameful. Do not let Satan claim sex as his territory when it was God who created sex in the first place.

Having said that, it must be pointed out that any ungodly, un­con­trolled, licentious, pornographic or depraved thinking about sex is sinful. Sex must never be separated from love. When sex is separated from genuine self-giving love, it degen­erates into self-gratifying lust.

We must unlearn our man-made, pseudo-religious thinking, and learn to appreciate the things that God included in His creation. Think about sex in a pure and holy way. As Script­ures says, “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbeliev­ing, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15).

I am saying all this because many young people have come to me with feelings of guilt for having thought about sexual relation­ships. They wonder if they are regenerate because 1 John 3:9 does say, “No one who is born of God practices sin … he cannot sin because he is born of God”.

Brothers and sisters, if you think about sex in a Spirit-controlled way, and meditate on God’s beautiful purposes for humankind, you have not sinned; your thinking is under control. You need not reject all sexual thoughts and desires as sinful. Of course, if you are think­ing of adultery or fornication or illicit sexual relationships, then you are sinning.

There are many young people in the church, so we must be frank about this topic because it has to do with regeneration and renewal. No one should feel that he or she is unregenerate for having thought about sex, when he or she is in fact regenerate and doing what is perfectly normal in a healthy person.

Traditional views of sin are often at variance with Biblical definit­ions of sin. Already in the second and third centuries in church history, a strong tendency began to develop in Christian thinking which regarded the sexual relation as essentially bad or even evil. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), whose negative view of sex derived partly from his personal struggle with his own sexual desires, endorsed this view and gave it a stamp of authority. He was an influential teacher and the leader of the church in the North African city of Hippo. His views were accepted by a substantial part of the Western church.

Many people, like Augustine, see sexual desires as a deadly threat to their own spiritual lives. On the other hand, there are also many for whom sexual desires pose no danger. Our personal experiences will inevitably affect the way we think about a parti­cular thing, but what is true for us must not be generalized into a universal truth. It is Scripture and not personal experience alone that is deter­minative of how we ought to think in regard to any subject.

We reject the negative view of the sexual relation­ship because this view is contrary to God’s Word. Don’t be trapped in an unjustified guilt that enslaves you and leaves you wondering if you are regenerate or not. Turn to the Word of God at all times, and check with Scripture whether your words or deeds are sinful or not. Don’t be swayed by human opinion and tradition. We need to bear this in mind when considering the subject of renewal.

Paul speaks of “renewal” in a surprising way

As regards the Christian life, Paul speaks of a new beginning but also of renewal. As we have seen, he speaks of two things: “the washing of regenerat­ion and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Regeneration is the initial event in the Christian life, whereas renewal is the process that follows it. Regen­eration, then, is the starting point of renewal.

Many Christians are somewhat familiar with the concept of regen­eration, albeit often with a flawed understanding of it. The concept of renewal, by contrast, is virtually unknown to Christ­ians despite the fact that renewal is an impor­tant concept in Biblical teaching.

We recall (in chapter 3 of this book) that Paul uses two related Greek words for renewal: the verb anakainoō (renew) and the noun anakainōsis (renewal).[1] Something is remarkable about Paul’s use of these words: These two words did not exist in all the extant Greek literature prior to Paul! And that is an immense body of literature.

Equally surprising, the Greek literature prior to Paul already had an established word for “renew” (anakainizō, ἀνακαινίζω), yet Paul did not use this word at all!

How do we explain this? Why didn’t Paul use the established word for “renew”? And why did he choose two new words which hitherto had not appeared in Greek literature? This unusual choice of words must have been inten­tional because Paul knew the Greek language well.

Some Greek scholars like Moulton and Milligan believe that these two words, the verb anakainoō and the noun anakainōsis, were coined by Paul himself. This is certainly plausible, and it would indicate that the concept of renewal must have been important to Paul.

This fascinated me, so I investigated the estab­lished word which Paul does not use (anakainizō), and found out that it occurs three times in the Septuagint.[2] When we examine its usage, we see that anakainizō basically means to return to an original state from which one had fallen. It is a restoration to a former, more desirable state, which has since been altered, lost, ruined, or destroyed. Paul does not use this word.

An in­stance of this word in the LXX is found in Lam.5:21 where Jeremiah prays, “Restore us to Thee, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew (anakainizō) our days as of old”. “Renew our days as of old” is a plea for a return to a former state which is better than the present state. In effect Jeremiah is praying, “Restore us to the state we were in before our nation was destroyed by our enemies and our people were exiled by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Renew us, O Lord, to the days when we were safe in the land of Israel before Jerusalem was destroyed. Restore us so that the Temple may be rebuilt.”

(1) Renewal is not a return to Adam’s original state

Paul does not use the established word ana­kainizō, but uses two new words instead. There must have been a compelling reason for his unusual choice of words, and this would help us understand what Paul means by renewal.

In not using the established word anakainizō, Paul is saying that renewal is not a return to an original state of affairs, not even to the state before the fall of man, when Adam sinned. The re­newal that Paul talks about is something totally new. It is not a restoration of something old, not even of the Garden of Eden. Paul has in mind a complete renewal: a new birth, a new person, a whole new creation, which must surely include new hea­vens and a new earth.

In the work of salvation, God is not re­storing us to Adam’s orig­inal state or the way things were before he fell, but to a new spiritual existence that Adam did not know.

Try to capture Paul’s God-given vision. Many theo­logians speak of a return to Adam’s original state as if that is the hope and sub­stance of our salvation. But Paul is telling us, “My friend, your vision is too small. God through Christ has achieved something far greater than the forgive­ness of our sins and a return to Adam’s state before the Fall. He has something better for you. You were once in Adam and were like him, but Christ has redeemed you so that you may be like Christ, not like Adam.”

Have we caught the vision? Do we see why Paul’s heart burned with a passion to preach the gospel where it hadn’t been preached before, be it Spain or anywhere else? We lack fire when we lack vision. Our vision is so limited that we are content to be restored to Adam’s state before he sinned, whereas God’s plans are far grander.

(2) “Renew” is in the passive voice

We note a few things about the two words that Paul uses, anakainoō and anakainōsis. We have already noted that these could have been coined by Paul himself, and that this would reveal the importance of renewal in his teaching.

The second observation is that Paul uses the verb anakai­noō in the passive voice (2Cor.4:16; Col.3:10), never in the active or middle voice. That Paul uses “renew” only in the passive shows that renewal is something that God accomplishes in us. We cannot renew ourselves. That is why Paul speaks of being “saved by grace”. Grace is God’s renewing power that comes into our lives, making us new peo­ple. Therefore any teaching of salvation by works must be rejected. We can reform our­selves, but never renew our­selves. We must not confuse reform and renewal. Self-reform is making improvements here and there, even moral improvements, but that is hardly any more significant than mak­ing New Year’s resolutions.

The Bible speaks of renewal, not reform. It speaks of a re-creation in which God recreates and remakes us. Only God’s power in all its wisdom, glory and grandeur can achieve this. God’s creative power is magnif­icently displayed in the universe. But Paul would say to us, “Yes, that power is wonderful, but there is a power far more glorious: God’s power to recreate and to renew — to make a person new.”

Now we see why Paul uses anakainoō in the passive voice. Renewal is accomplished by God through His Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5 speaks of “renewal by the Holy Spirit”. We cannot be regenerated or renewed except by the Spirit of God.

(3) “Renew” is in the present tense

The third observation is that Paul uses the verb anakainoō in the present tense. Combin­ing this with the previous point, the verb is always used in the present passive.

The present tense shows that renewal is a present event, not a past event or an exclusively future event. At the present, right now, we are being renewed and in the pro­cess of being saved. In the Bible, salvat­ion is not a once-for-all event but an ongoing process. That’s why Paul speaks of salvation in several tenses: the perfect tense (we have been saved), the present tense (we are being saved) and the future tense (we shall be saved). In the past we were saved at regeneration, but now we are in the process of being saved (renewal), and are heading towards a future completion of salvation.

Paul speaks of salvation in all three tenses. An example of the perfect tense is, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph.2:8). Examples of the present tense are, “To us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1Cor.1:18), and “We are to God a fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved” (2Cor.2:15). An example of the future tense is, “Much more, having been recon­ciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Rom.5:10). The state­ment, “Now salvation is near­er to us than when we believed” (Rom.13:11) shows that salvation is a process that has its final future consum­mation in view.

Regeneration, then renewal

The church today tends to stress regeneration (the new birth) to the exclu­sion of things beyond it. Many Christians think that salvation is fully accomplished at regeneration, yet Paul sees regeneration as the starting point of salvation. The newly regenerated per­son is just a new­born infant who must go through a process of growth called renewal. Salvation is not just about the new birth but also renewal, just as human life is not just about physical birth but also growing up to physical maturity.

If you have been born again, right now you should be in the process of renewal. Picture the Christian life as a timeline whose starting point is regen­eration. When you pass that point, you cross over from death to life, and become a Christian. But regeneration is just the starting point, when you are a newborn baby. In the ongoing process of renewal, you go from infancy to maturity:

Until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)

Our church does not give out baptismal certifi­cates (unless re­quired for official purposes) because the new birth is the starting point, not the complet­ion, of the new life. I was once in a church in which the pastor gave out baptismal certificates that had red ribbons like those of graduation diplomas. He would call out a name, and someone would come forward to receive a certificate with congratulations. I was asking myself, “Is this a grad­uation ceremony?”

Renewal is vital for survival

The new birth is only the starting point, and there is still a long way to go before we reach spiritual maturity. How important is it to grow to mature manhood? It is like asking, “Is it important for a baby to grow physi­cally?”

Remember this important fact: Unless you grow, you may not be able to survive. Scripture says that we need to keep on growing towards maturity; this is absolutely essential if we are to survive spiritually. Many have accepted Jesus Christ by raising their hands, and some got baptized, but many didn’t survive because they didn’t grow.

In some cases, they didn’t have life in the first place. Without life there would be no growth to talk about. An inan­imate object such as a stone cannot grow, but a seed can grow because it has life. If you aren’t growing, either you don’t have life, or you don’t know what it means to live as a Christian.

The verse under discussion, Ephesians 4:13, talks about becoming a “mature man” and about the “stature of the fullness of Christ.” But what will happen if we don’t move on to matur­ity? The answer is found in the next verse:

We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceit­ful scheming. (Ephesians 4:14)

Those who remain in spiritual infancy will have great difficulty sur­viving. Paul is con­cerned that we should “no longer be children,” but that we grow to maturity. Children are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, being unable to dis­cern who is speaking the truth and who is speaking falsehood. Someone tells them something and they accept it, but when they hear a different teaching, they are confused. Many Christians cry out, “We’re confused. One person says one thing, and another says another thing. Who’s speaking the truth?” They are tossed about by every wind of doctrine.

The word “tossed” comes from the Greek kludōnizomai (κλυδωνί­ζο­μαι), which means to be tossed about by the waves of the sea. The waves toss you this way and that way, in every direct­ion. You are in a precarious situation, clinging to something for dear life.

Paul chose the word “tossed” advisedly be­cause he was familiar with shipwreck (2Cor.11:25). He knew what it was like to be tossed about by surging waves. He had seen boats being smashed to pieces. He almost certainly knew how to swim, for he might not have survived so many shipwrecks if he didn’t. There were no life jackets in his day, so presumably he would have to swim or cling to a piece of wood. Paul knew what it was like to bob up and down, moving to and fro, in angry waters. He survived by God’s grace. Those who want to preach the gospel should perhaps take up swimming lessons!

Paul’s experiences of shipwreck had left such a deep impression on him that he speaks of those who make “shipwreck of their faith” (1Tim.1:19). He is concerned that newborn babes in Christ should grow out of infancy and avoid spiritual disaster.

Spiritual growth

In the new birth — the starting point of the Christian life — you become a babe in Christ. But remaining in spiritual infancy will leave you in a precarious position. A baby is depend­ent on those around him. His mother cares for him, his father cares for him, his brothers and sisters care for him. But what will happen to him if those around him are themselves blown about by different winds of doctrine? His situation would be extremely perilous.

Paul’s concern about spiritual growth is seen in what he writes to the churches. For example, he says in Colossians 1:28-29:

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wis­dom, so that we may present everyone perfect (or mature) in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so power­fully works in me. (NIV)

Why does Paul toil so hard to present every man mature or perfect in Christ? Today we are only concerned to get people con­verted, then we leave them on their own. In many cases, if the new converts get so much as one follow-up session, they could be considered fortunate. In most cases, they get no solid teaching that helps them grow.

This is in stark contrast to the apostle Paul, who strives with all the energy that God mightily inspires in him, to present to God every person fully grown in Christ. He knows that growth is vital for survi­val, and that the infant mortal­ity rate in the spiritual life is alarmingly high if there is little or no growth.

Many are uncomfortable with the fact that the Bible states, quite explicitly, that maturity is vital to salvation. No assurance of salvation is given to those who have no desire to grow in Christ, being con­tent to remain in spiritual infan­cy. 1Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it for your salvation” (HCSB). This translation is a faithful rendering of the Greek original text, “That you may grow up to salvation” (cf. ESV).

Salvation is some­thing that we “grow up” to. In other words, we must grow spiritually in order to attain our final and complete salvat­ion. This finds an echo in Ephesians 4:13 which says that we are to grow or progress in the body of Christ (v.12): “until we all … become mature (teleios, ‘complete, perfect’), attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV).

The statement in 1 Peter 2:2 about growing up to salva­tion is so clear and striking that some copyists, perhaps because of their theolo­gical bias or predilection, were disturbed enough about it to delete the words “to salvation”. Was it because they were uncomfortable with the teaching that it is those who press on to maturity, and thus become mature, who will be saved? [3]

We hope that the omission was due to a copying error and not an intent­ional tampering with the text of Script­ure. Even so, the error is serious, as can be seen from the fact that the words “to salvation” in 1Peter 2:2 does not appear in the King James Version (which is based on the Textus Receptus; cf. foot­note). For many centuries Christians who only had the King James Bible never knew of the existence of those important words, nor had the opportunity to grasp their significance for salvation.

When Paul says, “that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col.1:28), the Greek word translated “mature” is the same Greek word for “perfect”. In fact, it is translated as “perfect” in most of the major versions. Hence Paul is simply but vigorously imple­menting in the church the Lord’s instruction in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Be perfect” is an imperative. Perfection or maturity is not optional. We cannot say, “I’m happy to be saved but I won’t press on like the over-zealous Christians or fanatics who have gone into the full-time training to serve God, the same people who study the Bible from morning to night. It’s better to remain an ord­inary Christian, because if I read too much of the Bible, I won’t be able to see straight!”

How to grow

To grow, we must “long for the pure milk of the word” (1Pet. 2:2), which is the word of God. We must study the Bible dili­gently with our hearts, not only with our heads, to grow to maturity.

There are two reasons for this. First, God’s word teaches us how to discern right and wrong, righteousness and sin. Second, God’s word shows us what Christ is like. We can­not grow into the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph.4:13) unless we know what Christ is like.

The other aspect of growth is seen in Ephesians 4:12-16: We grow through the church. In fact the whole passage is about the growth of the body of Christ, the church. Relevant statements include: “the building up of the body of Christ” (v.12); “the fullness of Christ” (v.13); “we are no longer to be children” (v.14); “we are to grow up in all aspects into him” (v.15); “the growth of the body for the build­ing up of itself in love” (v.16).

In Paul’s teaching, the church is the primary means of growth. Anyone who doesn’t know how to fellowship with his brothers and sisters in Christ, or who stays away from them, will have great diffi­culty in growing. The members who together constitute the church, like the members of a human body, grow together. In that process we build up one another; I build you up, you build me up. That is why living and working as a team is so effective for growth. If we cannot commit to one another in a church, or in a team within the church, we won’t learn to commit at all. Without mutual commitment we won’t grow in the Christian life, and our spiritual future will be bleak.

Ephesians 4:16: “From Christ the whole body, joined and held toge­ther by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (NIV). This body is the body of Christ, the church.

Why “total commitment”?

God renews us by His grace, a grace that becomes effective through faith (Eph.2:8). Hence it requires faith on our part. We don’t just sit back and say, “God will do everything.” God saves us indeed, but not without our cooperation. We are “God’s fellow workers” (1Cor.3:9; cf. 1Thess.3:2). Cooperation with God is an expression of faith.

Because the meaning of faith is so often misun­derstood today, let us consider why “total commitment” is useful as a definition of faith. Of course, we are not obliged to use only these two words to define faith. We can use synonymous terms such as “uncondi­tional commit­ment” or “unlimited com­mitment” or “unreserved com­mitment” instead of “total commitment”. Nor are we obliged to use “commit­ment”. We can use more tradit­ional words such as “submission” or “obedience”. Terms such as “unlim­ited submiss­ion” or “uncon­ditional obedience” or “total response” essentially mean the same thing. We are concerned about the substance of the definition, not merely the words themselves.

More importantly, we can define Biblical faith in terms of com­mitment because that definition is lexicographically correct, i.e., correct according to the dictionary meaning. S.C. Woodhouse, in his well-known English-Greek Dictionary, lists pisteuein (πιστεύειν, infinitive of πιστεύω pisteuō) as a definition of “com­mit”.

Pisteuō is the common Greek word for “believe,” “have faith,” “have confidence” in someone or something, “to trust” or “entrust” (or “commit”) something or oneself to another person. These definit­ions can be found in any standard Greek-English dictionary. Like many common words, pisteuō has a fairly wide range of related mean­ings in popular usage. Besides those already mentioned, it can also mean “confide in, rely on” a person or thing; “to comply, obey”; “feel sure or confident” about something (Liddell-Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged, Oxford, 1972).

Two radically different kinds of “believing” or “faith”

There is another reason for using the word “commit”. We need to distinguish two radically different things which are called “faith” or “belief” today. The failure to distinguish the two will result in great confusion. Here is an example: If you tell me it is snowing out­side, I might say, “Really? I believe you. I believe it’s snowing out­side.” But the snowfall makes no difference to me because I am not going out anyway. I believe you, but the snowfall has no impact on my life. It does not matter to me, and does not require any practical response.

If anyone thinks that this kind of believing or faith will save him, then he doesn’t understand the Bible’s teaching. Many Christians say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again.” You believe all these things and think that you have faith. Yes, it is some kind of faith, but it is not saving faith, for it requires no response on your part. It is like saying, “Yes, I believe it’s snowing outside.” You accept it, and accept it sincerely, but it has no practical effect or impact on your life. If he is right about the snow, fine. If he is wrong, it doesn’t matter. It costs you nothing whatever to believe him. There is no danger, risk, or cost involved in believing it. Go ahead and believe it!

This kind of “faith” is not saving faith, as is well known among New Testa­ment scholars, yet many Christians generally are unaware of this. This kind of faith is called “intellectual assent”. If you tell me it is snowing outside, I intellectually assent to your state­ment, but that is not saving faith (see footnote 4 in chapter 1 of the present book for faith as total commitment in NT scholarship).

Commitment is the kind of faith that God calls for

Saving faith is a faith that expresses itself in commitment. Sup­pose that some­body rushes in and shouts, “The church building’s on fire!” You look around and you say, “I don’t see any fire or smell any smoke.” But the person contin­ues shouting, “The church’s on fire!” That declarat­ion calls for a response. It would be ludicrous for me to say, “Okay, it’s on fire. Please let me return to my cup of tea.” The state­ment, “The church’s on fire,” means in effect, “If you don’t get out, you will die!” It calls for a total response. It is a matter of life and death. If I truly believe the statement, I will run for the nearest exit. Commitment is essentially “faith working” or “faith expressing itself” through action (Gal.5:6).

That active total response is commitment. It affects the way I live, the way I think, the way I behave. Saving faith is a response of commitment to what someone has said. You are not saved simply by believing intellectually that Jesus came into the world; the devil believes that too. Neither are you saved simply by believing that Jesus died for your sins; the devil believes that too (cf. James 2:19). Intellectual faith makes no difference to your life whereas saving faith is a wholehearted response to God’s call which changes your life.

If we understand the statement, “He died for my sins” as signify­ing “I must sin no more,” then we are responding in commit­ment. We make a committed response when we say, “Jesus died for my sins; therefore I repent of my sins.” You heard a statement, and you made a commitment.

Why do we use the word “total” as in “total commitment”? It is because Scripture repeatedly teaches a total response: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength” (Mk.12:30,33; Mt.22:37; Lk.10:27; Dt.6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:3; 30:6; Josh.22:5). If you prefer “all” to “total,” feel free to say, “all commit­ment”. That might not be natural English but at least the concept is Scriptural. How can we respond with anything less than total commit­ment to God “who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Rom.8:32)?

In fact “commitment” means “total commitment”; “total” simply brings out what is already in “commitment”. If I make a commit­ment to do some­thing, either I do it or I don’t. There are no half measures. If I don’t do it, I have failed in my commitment. If I do it, I do it totally. If I agree to install four wheels on your car but I install only three, I have not fulfilled my commit­ment to you. Commitment by definition means that you keep your word com­pletely. “Total” is added to ensure that this essential character of commitment is not overlooked, since people often use words in a devalued way.

Let us summarize: To the confusion of many Christians, “believe” (and “faith”) can mean two radically different things. In both cases, the word “believe” is correctly used according to the lexical (dictionary) meaning of the word, but one has to do with saving faith, and the other does not. To differentiate between them, we speak of saving faith as “total commitment”.

The meaning of Biblical words derives from their use with reference to God

There is another important fact about understanding key words in Scripture, namely, that their meaning cannot be fully es­tablished solely on the basis of lexical definitions. Take, for example, the word agapē (ἀγάπη),“love”. There are several Greek words which can be translated “love,” each with a differ­ent nuance. It is well-known that agapē, once it was adopted into New Testa­ment, took on a whole new signifi­cance which it didn’t have in secular Greek. That new significance derives from the message of the New Testament.

To derive the meaning of agapē solely from its lexical definition without regard for the meaning which the New Testament infuses into it, is to misunderstand its intended meaning. That is because God’s love is so far above human love that it cannot properly be understood in purely human terms.

We have no choice but to use the human vocabulary of love when speaking of God’s love. But in so doing we must constantly bear in mind that it is God’s love, the unique expression of God’s self-giving character, which we are talking about.

Likewise, when speaking of faith or believing, we misrepre­sent these terms when we use them in a purely secular lexical sense in special reference to God. This reference to God as the object of a word is what makes the difference between the Biblical and the secular meanings of the word. I can believe or trust a human being who is trustworthy; but I cannot trust him in the same way and to the same extent as I trust God. Man, even at his best, may fail. But God never fails. How then can one have faith in man and in God in the same way? That is why the object of faith also defines the content of faith.

The same is true of love. We are to love God and man. But we don’t love them in the same way or on the same level. Not even the dearest and most honored of men can be loved in the same way, or on the same level, as God is to be loved. The same is true of our Lord Jesus, as he made clear when he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt.10:37). If we love anyone more than Jesus, we show thereby that we have failed to recognize who he is, and are unworthy of him.

The same is true of obedience. We are to obey those in authority (Rom.13:1). But if the same authorities compel us to do something against God’s will, then “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

This principle is true in everything, whether it is faith, trust, love, obedience, or commitment. We are committed to both God and man, but commitment to God always takes pre­cedence.

As for saving faith, we need to bear in mind that it is the eternal God Himself and not just any human being, who in Christ is the Object of our faith. Can any response to the eternal God, our Creator and Redeemer, be anything less than total? Can faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, be anything less than total trust, obedience, and commit­ment?

[1] The first is used in, “Our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16) and in, “Put on the new self which is being renewed” (Col.3:10). The second is used in, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom.12:2) and, “the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

[2] The Septuagint (LXX) is an important Greek translation of the Old Testament. The three occurrences of anakainizō in the LXX are Psalm 102:5; 103:30; Lam.5:21. In English Bibles, the two verses in the Psalms are 103:5 and 104:30, due to a slight difference in the verse numbering system.

[3] “Textus Receptus, following L [9th century] and most minuscules, omits εἰς σωτερίαν [to (or, into) salvation] either through an oversight in copy­ing or because the idea of ‘growing into salvation’ was theologically unacceptable.” A Textual Com­mentary on the Greek New Testament, B.M. Metzger, United Bible Societies, 1971.


(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church