The word of God is made effectual in the heart
The gospel is preached and people hear the message of Christ dying for sinners. They listen to the command to repent and trust Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins and salvation, but not everyone that hears will obey and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? God must work in the sinner’s heart. The Holy Spirit makes the word effectual. A conversion has to take place, and then, the sinner sees his need and the sufficiency of Christ to meet that need. The Spirit convicts of sin and convinces one of the veracity of the gospel. He calls sinners; he draws them and they come.
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). “He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:14).
The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.4
The effectual call results in saving faith in Christ
Those whom God has called know, rest in, accept, believe on, and treasure Christ alone for salvation. The gospel was heard, made effective by the Holy Spirit, and the sinner repents and trusts in Christ for deliverance. The renewed sinner can do nothing less; he must run to Christ, cling to Christ, beg Christ for mercy.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8). “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14, 17). “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21:22). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “ Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14-15).
Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful in defining saving faith:
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.5
John Calvin defined faith as:
A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.6
Michael Horton has written:
Evangelical faith— that is, faith as defined by the gospel— is the specific conviction of the heart, mind, and will that God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ on the basis of God’s word. Faith is clinging to Christ.7
This is how Jonathan Edwards expressed it:
It is this sight of the divine beauty of Christ, that bows the wills, and draws the hearts of men. A sight of the greatness of God in his attributes, may overwhelm men, and be more than they can endure; but the enmity and opposition of the heart may remain in its full strength, and the will remain inflexible. Whereas one glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God, and the supreme amiableness of Jesus Christ shining into the heart, overcomes and abolishes this opposition, and inclines the soul to Christ, as it were, by an omnipotent power. So that now, not only the understanding, but the will and the whole soul, receives and embraces the Saviour.8
John Owen wrote:
He who hath been convinced of sin, who hath been weaned with the burden of it, who hath really designed to fly from the wrath to come, and hath heard the voice of Christ in the gospel inviting him to come unto him for help and relief, will tell you that this coming unto Christ consisteth in a man’s going out of himself, in a complete renunciation of all his own duties and righteousness, and betaking himself with all his trust and confidence unto Christ alone, and his righteousness, for pardon of sin, acceptation with God, and a right unto the heavenly inheritance.9
Faith must go beyond mere knowledge. Many, including demons, know about God, Christ, and salvation, yet they are unconverted. These truths must be known and assented to, but Christ must be trusted. Trusting Christ by faith for salvation is the dividing factor. The gospel has to be known and accepted, but it cannot end there. Christ, who is the good news of the gospel, needs to be believed upon. Without Christ, a person is doomed. He may be educated and have a vast knowledge of the Bible, but apart from Christ, there is no salvation. All of the wisdom and intelligence in the world cannot save a person. Christ saves.
L. Berkhof discusses these three aspects of faith. He refers to them as the intellectual, emotional, and volitional elements of faith:
The knowledge of faith [intellectual element] consists in a positive recognition of the truth, in which man accepts as true whatsoever God says in His word, and especially what He says respecting the deep depravity of man and the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
The emotional element... a deep conviction of the truth and reality of the object of faith, feels that it meets an important need in his life, and is conscious of an absorbing interest in it.
The volitional element... Faith is not merely a matter of the intellect, nor of the intellect and the emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will... This third element consists in a personal trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord, including a surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and a reception and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and of spiritual life.10
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn. 17:3). “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20). A stunning example of the contrast of knowledge and true saving faith is given by Paul. He knew much about religion and the law, but he was lost. His knowledge and supposed righteousness could not deliver him from the penalty of sin. Oh, but Christ can. Here is Paul’s testimony:
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:3-11).
5Chapter XIV. I,II.
6John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.2.7.
7Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 585.
8Jonathan Edwards, “True Grace Distinguished From The Experience Of Devils” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Hendrickson, 2004), 2:48.
9John Owen, “The Doctrine of Justification By Faith” in The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (Banner of Truth, 2000), 5:293.
10L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 503-505.