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Faith and Saving Faith

by Rev. Thomas Halyburton

The James Begg Society publishes theWorks of Thomas Halyburton. Born near Perth, Halyburton (1674-1712) was a champion of Reformed theology, particularly in relation to the controversy over Deism that belief in God which is based on reason rather than revelation. The first volume of the Works is Faith and Justification, an excellent analysis of this important subject, containing also a number of sermons on various topics. As an introduction to this work, we give below the first two, brief, chapters concerning the nature of faith and saving faith respectively.

This article was published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 20, October-December 2000.


The nature of faith; containing some general remarks concerning knowledge, faith, and particularly divine faith, and that both as to the faculty and actings thereof.

A LL knowledge is commonly, and that not unfitly, referred to the understanding or intellective power of the mind of man, which is conversant about truth. Our assent to, or persuasion of, any truth, is founded either,

Firstly, Upon the immediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas, and so is called intuitive knowledge. Or,

Secondly, It results from a comparison of our ideas with some intermediate ones, which help us to discern their agreement or disagreement; and this goes under the name of rational knowledge. Or,

Thirdly, It leans upon the information of our senses, and this is sensible knowledge. Or,

Fourthly, It depends upon the testimony of credible witnesses. And this is faith.

Faith again, if it is founded upon the testimony of angels, may be termed angelical; if on the testimony of men, human; and if it is founded on the testimony of God, it is called divine faith. It is of this last we design to discourse, as what particularly belongs to our present purpose. When we speak of divine faith, we either mean the faculty or power whereby we assent unto divine testimony; or the assent given by that power. Both are signified by that name, and faith is promiscuously used for the one or the other. Faith, as it denotes the faculty, power, or ability of our minds to perceive the evidence of, and assent to, divine testimony, is again either natural or supernatural. That naturally, we have a faculty capable of assenting in some sort to divine testimony, is denied by none so far as I know. But that ability whereby we are at least habitually fitted, disposed and enabled to assent in a due manner to, and receive with just regard, the testimony of God no man by nature has. This is a supernatural gift. Several questions I know are moved concerning this ability. It belongs not to my subject, neither doth my inclination lead me to dip much in them at present. I shall only suggest the few remarks ensuing.

I. It seems unquestionably clear, that man originally had a power, ability, or faculty capable of perceiving, discerning, and assenting, to divine revelations upon their proper evidence; for it is plain, that God did reveal himself to man in innocency, and that he made man capable of converse with himself; but if such a faculty as this we speak of had been wanting, he had neither been capable of those revelations, nor fitted for converse with God.

II. It may most convincingly be made out, that all our faculties have suffered a dreadful shock, and are mightily impaired by the entrance of sin, and corruption of our natures thereon ensuing; and particularly our understandings are so far disabled, especially in things pertaining unto God, that we cannot in a due manner, perceive, discern, or entertain divine revelations upon their proper evidence, unto the glory of God, and our own advantage, unless our natures are supernaturally renewed. But this, notwithstanding the faculty of assenting to divine testimony is not quite lost, though it is impaired and rendered unfit for performing its proper work in a due manner. I know none who assert, that any of our faculties were entirely lost by the fall. In renovation our faculties are renewed, but there is no word of implanting new ones. It is certain, unrenewed men, such as Balaam, and others, have had revelations made to them, and did assent to those revelations. Nor is it less clear, 'that the devils believe and tremble.'

III. Whether men, in a state of nature, whose minds are not renewed may not so far discern and be affected by the characters and evidences of God impressed upon divine revelations, particularly the Scriptures, where those evidences shine brightly, as thereby to be obliged, and actually drawn to give some sort of assent unto the testimony of God, I shall not positively determine; though the affirmative seems probable to me. The impress of a deity is no less evident on the Scriptures than his other works. He has magnified this word above all his name. Besides, I do not see, how the very faculty itself can be thought to remain, if it is not capable of discerning anything of God, where he gives the most full and convincing evidence of himself, as unquestionably he doth in the Scriptures. Nor do I doubt but multitudes of sober persons, trained up within the church, and thereby drawn to a more attentive and less prejudicial perusal of the Scripture revelation, do upon sundry occasions find their minds affected with the evidence of God in them, and thereby are drawn to assent to them as his word, though not in a due manner, and that even where they remain strangers unto a work of renovation. And sure I am, if it is so, it will leave the rejecters of the Scripture remarkably without excuse.

IV. Whether some transient act of the Spirit of God is always necessary upon the mind, to draw forth even such an assent as that last mentioned, I shall not determine; that in some cases it is so, is not to be doubted. The faith of temporary believers undoubtedly requires such an action as its cause: and, where anything of this evidence affects the minds of persons, at present deeply prejudicial, as they were who were sent to apprehend Christ, and went away under a conviction, 'that never man spake as he did,' there such a transient work of the Spirit of God seems necessary to clear their minds of prejudices, and make them discern the evidences of a deity. But whether it is so in other cases, I shall not conclude positively.

V. But were it granted, that faith – that is the faculty or power of believing, which is nothing else save the mind of man considered as a subject capable of assenting to testimony – still remains; and that though woefully impaired, weakened and disabled it yet continues in so far able for its proper office or work, that either by the assistance of some transient operation of God's Spirit, breaking in some measure the power of its prejudices, and fixing it to the consideration of its proper objects, or even without this, upon a more sedate, sober, less prejudicial observation, it may, though less perfectly, perceive the impress and evidences of God, appearing in the revelations he makes of himself, and that thereon it may be actually so affected, as to give some sort of assent, and reach some conviction, 'that it is God who speaks.' Were, I say, all this granted, it will amount to no great matter; since it is certain, that every sort of faith or assent to divine testimony is not sufficient to answer our duty, obtain acceptance with God, and turn to our salvation. Nor is it so much of our concernment to inquire after that sort of faith, which fails of answering these ends, and therefore I shall dip no further into any questions about any faith of this sort, or our ability for it.

VI. It is more our interest to understand what that faith is, which God requires us to give to his word which he will accept of, and which therefore will turn to our salvation; and whence we have the power and ability for this faith. Of these things therefore we shall discourse at more length in the next chapter designed to that end.


Wherein the nature of that faith, which in duty we are obliged to give to the word of God, our obligation to, and our ability for answering our duty are inquired into.

W E have above insinuated, and of itself it is plain, that every sort of faith or assent to divine testimony answers not our duty, nor will amount to that regard which we owe to the authority and truth of God, when he speaks, or writes his mind to us. We must therefore, in the first place, inquire into the nature of that faith which will do so. Nor is there any other way wherein this may be better cleared, than by attending to the plain Scripture accounts of it.

Now if we look into the Scriptures, we find

Firstly, The apostle Paul, 1 Thess. 2:13, when he is commending the Thessalonians, and blessing God on their behalf, gives a clear description of that faith which is due unto the word of God. 'For this cause also', says he, 'thank we God without ceasing, because when ye received the word of God, which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men; but (as it is in truth) the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.' If we advert to this description, we cannot but see these things in it,

1. That some special sort of assent is here intended. The Thessalonians did not think it enough to give such credit, or yield such an assent as is due to the word of men, even the best of men.

2. In particular it is plain, that such an assent is intended as some way answers the unquestionable firmness of the testimony of the God of truth, which is the ground whereon it leans.

3. It is obvious, that somewhat more is intended than a mere assent of whatsoever sort it is. The words plainly import such an assent, or receiving of the word of God, as is attended with that reverence, submission of soul, resignation of will, and subjection of conscience which is due to God. This the use of the word elsewhere Scripture strongly pleads for, and the manner wherein the apostle expresses himself here is sufficient to convince any man that no less is intended. Less than this would scarcely have been a ground for the apostle's thanksgiving to God, and for his doing this without ceasing. And indeed we find that this expression elsewhere used, imports not only people's assent to, but their consent and approbation of the word of God; yea, and their embracing in practice the gospel, Acts 8:14 and 11:1.

Secondly, We are told in Heb. 11:1 that it is the evidence of things not seen; ελεγχω, which we render evidence, signifies properly a convincing demonstration, standing firm against, and repelling the force of contrary objections. Faith then is such an assent as this, it is a firm conviction leaning upon the strongest bottom, able to stand against, and withstand the strongest objections.

Thirdly, The apostle more particularly describes the ground whereon it rests, or what that demonstrative evidence is, whereon this conviction is founded, and that both negatively and positively, 1 Cor. 2:5. It stands not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. That is, it neither leans upon the eloquence, nor reasoning of men, but upon the powerful evidence of the Spirit's demonstration, as it is in the verse before.

Having given this short and plain account of faith from the Scripture, we must in the next place prove, that in duty we are bound to receive the word of God with a faith of this sort. Nor will this be found a matter of any difficulty; for,

I. The Scriptures hold themselves forth to us as the oracles of God which holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Spirit of God and wrote by divine inspiration, and the Holy Ghost is said to speak to us by them. Now the very light of nature teaches us that when God utters oracles, speaks, and writes his mind to us, we are in duty bound, readily to assent; give entire credit to, and rely with the firmest confidence on the veracity of the speaker; and further, we are obliged to attend to what is spoken with the deepest veneration, reverence and subjection of soul, and yield an unreserved practical compliance with every intimation of his mind.

II. The Scriptures were written for this very end, that we might so believe them as to have life by them, John 20:30,31; and again Rom. 16:25,26. The Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, are said to be made known to all nations for the obedience of faith. Certainly then we are in duty obliged to yield this obedience of faith.

III. The most dreadful judgements, yea, eternal ruin, and that of the most intolerable sort, are threatened against those, who do not thus receive the words of God from his servants, whether by word or writ, is no matter. 'Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet, Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that city', Matt. 10:14,15. Accordingly, we find the apostles preach the word at Antioch in Pisidia, Acts 13, demand acceptance of it both of Jews and Gentiles, and upon their refusal they testify against them in this way of the Lord's appointment, Acts 13:51. And all this severity they used without offering miracles or any other proof for their doctrine, so far as we can learn, besides the authoritative proposal of it in the name of God.

IV. We find the apostle, in the words above quoted, commending the Thessalonians for receiving the word in this manner, which is proof enough, that it was their duty to do so.

This much being clear, it remains yet to be inquired, whence we have power or ability for yielding such an assent, whether it is natural or supernatural? Now if we consult the Scripture upon this head, we find,

I. That this ability, to believe and receive the things of God to our salvation and his glory, is expressly denied to unrenewed man, or man in his natural estate, 2 Thess. 3:2, "All men have not faith;" 1 Cor. 2:14, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned;" John 8:47, "Ye therefore hear not God's words, because ye are not of God."

II. This is expressly denied to be of ourselves, and asserted to be a supernatural gift of God, Eph. 2:8. "By grace ye are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God."

III. The production of it is expressly ascribed unto God, he it is that "fulfils in his people the work of faith with power," 2 Thess. 1:11. He it is that gives them, that is, that enables them, "on the behalf of Christ to believe and suffer for his name," Phil. 1:29. It is one of "the fruits of the Spirit," Gal. 5:22. And of it Christ is the author, Heb. 12:2. The further proof and vindication of this truth I refer to polemical writers.

But here possibly some may inquire, how it can be our duty thus to believe the Scriptures, since we are not of ourselves able to do so? In answer to this, I shall only say,

Firstly, The very light of nature shows, that it is our duty to yield perfect obedience, but yet certain it is, we are unable to answer to our duty.

Secondly, The Scriptures plainly require us to "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear," and with the same breath tells us, we must have grace to enable us to do it, Heb. 12:28.

Thirdly, We have destroyed ourselves and by our own fault impaired the powers God originally gave us, and brought ourselves under innumerable prejudices and other evils, whereby the entrance of light is obstructed: but this cannot reasonably prejudge God's right to demand credit to his word, on which he has impressed sufficient objective evidence of himself, which any one that has not thus faultily lost his eyes, may upon attention discern.

Fourthly, It is therefore our duty to justify God, blame ourselves, and wait in the way he has prescribed for that grace which is necessary to enable us; and if thus we do his will, or aim at least at it, we have no reason to despair, but may expect in due time to be enabled to understand and know, whether these truths are of God, or they who spoke them did it of themselves, John 7:17 though yet we cannot claim this as what is our due.

From what has hitherto been discoursed it is evident, that this faith, whereby we assent to the Scripture, is supernatural, or may be so called upon a twofold account – because the power or ability for it is supernaturally given, and the evidence whereon it rests, is supernatural. In this chapter we have directly concerned ourselves only in the proof of the first of these, viz. "That our ability thus to believe is supernaturally given," and this has been the constant doctrine of the church of God, which we might confirm by testimonies of all sorts, did our designed brevity allow. But our modern rationalists do resolutely oppose this. The author of a late atheistical pamphlet, that truly subverts all religion, may be allowed to speak for all the rest; for he says no more than what they do assent to. He tells us, 'That when once the mystery of Christ Jesus was revealed, even human reason was able to behold and confess it; not that grace had altered the eye-sight of reason, but that it had drawn the objects nearer to it.' To the same purpose speak the Socinians; Schlichtingius tells us, 'man endued with understanding is no otherwise blind in divine mysteries, than as he who hath eyes, but sits in the dark: remove the darkness, and bring him a light, and he will see. The eyes of a man are his understanding, the light is Christ's doctrine.' To the same purpose doth the paradoxical Belgic exercitator [i.e., discourser], that sets up for philosophy as the interpreter of the Scripture, express himself frequently. Nor is his pretended answerer, Volzogius, differently minded; though he is not so constant to his opinion as the other.

But these gentlemen may talk as they please; we are not obliged to believe them in this matter, the Scriptures plainly teach us, that our minds are blind, our understandings impaired and obstructed in discerning the evidence of truth, by prejudices arising from the enmity of the will, and depravity of the affections. Nor were it difficult to demonstrate from Scripture, that no man can believe, or understand the word of God aright, till,

Firstly, The Spirit of God repair this defect of the faculty, or 'give us an understanding,' 1 John 5:20.

Secondly, Break the power of that enmity that rises up against the truths of God as foolishness.

Thirdly, Cure the disorder of our affections that blind our minds. And,

Fourthly, Fix our minds, otherwise vain and unstable, to attend to what God speaks, and the evidence he gives of himself. But this is not what we principally design, and therefore we shall insist no longer upon this head. Our present question is not about our ability or power to believe, but the ground whereon we do believe. What has been spoken of the former hitherto, is only to prepare the way for the consideration of the latter, to which we now proceed.

[The forgoing two discourses were excerpted from the first Volume ofThe Works of Thomas Halyburton, entitledFaith and Justification, which has been re-published by the James Begg Society.]