The nature of saving faith

Is justification the result of intellectually accepting certain propositions in Scripture, or is the heart involved?

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Introduction

The greatest heresy responsible for many of the problems in the life of modern churches today is the Sandemanian heresy. This teaching is named after the 18th century Scottish theologian Robert Sandeman (c. 1718-1771), and is a direct assault on the nature of saving faith.

Sandemanianism has influenced Christians of all stripes today, from Arminians to Calvinists, and those in-between. Essentially, this heresy is a form of what is commonly called “Easy Believism,” or a mere intellectual ascent to belief in what Scripture says.

Sandemanianism Defined

According to Sandeman, justification has nothing at all to do with a person’s feelings or whether he or she has turned in sorrow from sin. Justification is solely based on the intellect; he said:

[T]he whole benefit of this event is conveyed to men only by the Apostolic report concerning it, that everyone who understands this report to be true, or is persuaded that the event actually happened as testified by the Apostles, is justified and finds relief to his guilty conscience. That he is relieved not by finding any favourable symptoms about his own heart, but by finding their report to be true.

Such teaching is contrary to the emphasis of Scripture as outlined in the Westminster Confession, that justification results from a “trust of the heart,” not merely an intellectual acceptance of facts. James also tells his readers, “Even the demons believe” in the true God; the demons know all the facts of who Jesus is and what He did, and they shudder (James 2:19). The Sandemanian teaching is in practice a return to the teaching of Roman Catholicism, that all one must do is believe and accept the teaching of the Church. Consequently, Sandemanianism holds itself coldly aloof from any display of feelings in the exercises of a religious life. Andrew Fuller defined Sandemanianism as, “a bare belief of the bare truth. It excludes from it all pertaining to the will and the affections except as ‘fruits’ produced by it.” That is, everything that happens in the will and in the affections is only the “fruit” of a notional belief and not a part of it. The great hymn-writer from Pantycelyn, William Williams, described it as a “naked faith,” or “believing without power, making little of conviction and of a broken heart.”

Jesus says to us, however, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” (Matthew 7:21-22). These are preachers, deacons, and church-people, people who know who Jesus is as Lord. They know and intellectually ascribe to all the facts about him and his crucifixion and resurrection, and it is to these people that Jesus says “plainly” in the next verse, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Perhaps the best example of Sandemanianism in churches today is the idea of “the sinner’s prayer,” in which sinners are persuaded to intellectually ascribe to what is said as a means of salvation. Now, do not misunderstand me; the sinner’s prayer can be a good evangelistic tool to lead one to Christ, but there will be many in hell who only intellectually believed the content of that prayer.

Key Prooftexts for Sandemanianism

Of course, the object that led to the Sandemanian heresy was an attempt to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Thus, they denounced the introduction of any kind of feeling or any kind of holy affections or desires, saying that if justification is by faith alone then faith must be solely in the intellect – “naked” belief by the intellect. A key passage in the Sandemanian controversy is Romans 10:9-10, which says:

If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Although Sandeman interpreted “heart” to refer to the mind, Scripture consistently uses the heart in reference to the center of the personality. The heart is the center of man’s being and includes all of the various faculties, not exclusively the mind or the emotions, but the entire person. Although “confession” is made with the mouth, you must “believe in your heart.” It is not mere intellectual ascent, but a whole-hearted belief that is vital to the Christian’s whole being. We also see this in Philip’s reply to the Ethiopian eunuch’s request for baptism; Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” (Romans 8:37). Furthermore, we see in John 8:37-42 the whole unbelief of Jesus’s opponents was based upon their not loving Him, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God.” This parallels the phrase in Hebrews 3 which tells of “an evil heart of unbelief.” According to Scripture, unbelief always results from a state of the heart, not merely from an error of the understanding. The trouble with the unbeliever is not simply intellectual; it is much deeper, “hostile to God” (Romans 8:7).

Another Sandemanian prooftext is Romans 4:5 which says, “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Here, Sandemanians interpret the word “ungodly” to mean “those who were enemies of God” at the very time they believed. Yet, the very cases quoted by Paul in the text make this interpretation erroneous; the apostle is dealing with the case of Abraham. As you read what he goes on to say, this all happened not when Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees, but long afterwards when, for some time, he had been following God. Therefore, it is quite wrong to say that the term “ungodly” refers to Abraham as an enemy of God. Furthermore, Paul also quotes the case of David in this same chapter as a parallel example with Abraham. Paul’s concern is to emphasize that Abraham and David were not justified by their own works; he is not saying that they were, at the point of belief, enemies of God. Verse 20 of this chapter finally settles the matter in which Paul returns to the case of Abraham, saying about him, “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20). He gave glory to God! In no sense can this be described as “notional,” “purely intellectual,” or “naked faith,” but includes the heart, man’s center of being and all his faculties.

Sandemanians also point to 1 John 5:1, however, which says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” Yet, this is merely John’s consistent manner of writing; he places the consequence before the cause. He is not saying that mere intellectual belief causes one to be born of God; he says “is born,” not “shall be born.” The fact that one believes, trusts in and relies upon that “Jesus is the Christ”, is the proof that one has indeed been born of God.

The Effects of Sandemanianism

Sandemanianism says that evangelism is to merely introduce people to Jesus and should have nothing to do with preaching the Law or trying to create feelings or holy desires or aspirations or any sense of grieving for sin. The Sandemanian calls people to believe “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…,” and to accept Him as one’s Savior without any kind of contrition, sorrow, or turning from sin. This teaching has a terrible effect on the type of Christian that it produces. It was this that most concerned William Williams, who said, “It chills one’s feelings until they despise Heaven’s pure breezes.” The teaching is against emotions, particularly at the point of believing, to the point that one Sandemanian minister of old gloried in the fact that people had been streaming forward in a series of evangelical meetings to register their decision without showing any emotion at all. It is here that this teaching becomes very serious; can one have saving faith without any emotion, even gratitude? It creates nothing but cold intellects who think they are all right because they have accepted the bare facts but have not incorporated those facts into the essence of their being, their lives unchanged.

The great Baptist minister of the 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas Evans, who is usually considered the greatest Baptist preacher that Britain ever produced (beyond even Spurgeon), was influenced by Sandemanianism and fell into it for a number of years. Yet, by God’s grace, he came out of the heresy and said about it:

The Sandemanian heresy affected me so far as to quench the spirit of prayer for the conversion of sinners, and it induced in my mind a greater regard for the smaller things of the Kingdom of Heaven than for the greater. I lost the strength which clothed my mind with zeal, confidence and earnestness in the pulpit for the conversion of souls to Christ. My heart retrograded in a manner, and I could not realize the testimony of a good conscience. Sabbath nights, after having been in the day exposing and vilifying with all bitterness the errors that prevailed, my conscience felt as if displeased, and reproached me that I had lost nearness to and walking with God. It would intimate that something exceedingly precious was now wanting in me. I would reply that I was acting in obedience to the Word, but it continued to accuse me of the want of some precious article. I had been robbed to a great degree of the spirit of prayer and of the spirit of preaching.

One can preach or pray mechanically and coldly. This was the effect that Christmas Evans said this teaching had on him. He still prayed and he still preached, but he had been robbed of the spirit of prayer and of preaching. He had been robbed of the warmth and the feeling and the urgency which he had known, a terrible coldness introduced into his being, a coldness that appears to have gripped the majority of American Christians today. William Williams, echoing the apostle Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 13, said, “Love is the greatest thing in religion, and if that is forgotten nothing can take its place.”

Conclusion

When did you last see someone weeping because of sinfulness? Is there any evidence of brokenness of spirit and humility among us? Most Christians today seem very healthy and glib; can what we have today truly be called piety when compared with the piety of the 17th and 18th centuries?

Christianity today has for the most part degenerated into a mere intellectual acceptance of certain propositions, accompanied by hardness, an absence of feeling, a distrust of feeling, a dislike of feeling. Consequently, many Christians have been drawn into heresies at the other end of the spectrum such as the New Apostolic Reformation. Since salvation is seen as merely an intellectual acceptance of certain facts apart from any change in the heart, they look for churches that adhere to the bare facts of the gospel while seeming to fill the emotional void in their hearts. The fact is, though, not everyone who intellectually accepts Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection is truly saved; the one who is saved wholeheartedly trusts in those facts, having repented (turned to the Lord). The apostle says, “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

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