Why must we have faith to be saved?

“The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). Salvation means being freed from all that disfigures, diminishes or destroys life. And the power that God uses to save is “the gospel of his Son” (Romans 1:9). This gospel, good news, reveals a God who gives everything—forgiveness, life, joy. That is why salvation is not limited to those who would fulfill certain conditions. It is for the good and the wicked, the wise and the foolish. God saves “everyone who has faith.”

Is faith then a precondition for receiving the gift of God? If that were true, then my life, my happiness and my salvation would depend in the final analysis on me. Everything would be decided by my acceptance or my refusal. This idea does not correspond to what the Bible understands by faith. Faith is not a means we make use of in order to obtain something. It is a much humbler reality, a simple trusting that is always astonished: although I have done nothing to deserve it, God brings me back to friendship with him.

Faith is almost nothing, scarcely discernable—as small as a mustard-seed, says Jesus (Luke 17:6). At the same time, it is “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7), “most holy” (Jude 20). Along with hope and love, it remains for ever (1 Corinthians 13:13). In the seventh century, Saint Maximus Confessor identified faith with the Kingdom of God. “Faith is the Kingdom of God with no visible form; the Kingdom is faith that has taken form according to God.” And he adds that faith realizes “the immediate and perfect union of the believer with the God in whom he believes.” Faith is not an entrance ticket to God’s Kingdom. In faith itself, God is present. Whoever believes and trusts in the gospel is already united to God.

Before Christ’s coming, faith was not the customary attitude to be related to God. There were extraordinary believers like Abraham, and at the key moment while crossing the Red Sea, “the people had faith in the Lord and his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). But in daily life, faithfulness counted more than faith. The community of the first covenant was not made up of “believers” but of “the lowly,” “the righteous,” “the holy ones” (Psalm 34). With the gospel of Christ faith became normal and no longer exceptional, so that Jesus’ disciples could call themselves simply “believers” (Acts 2:44).

For, now that the gospel has revealed God’s gift with no limits and with nothing held back, salvation is offered freely. There are no longer any conditions to fulfill; all that is necessary is to have faith in it. No one is excluded from God’s love, according to the words of the apostle Paul: “We have put our hope in the living God, the Saviour of all people, especially believers” (1 Timothy 4:10).

What can I do when I cannot believe?

The New Testament speaks almost as much of doubt as it does of faith. The apostles were not too surprised by how hard it was to believe, because they knew that the prophets had predicted this. Paul and John quote the words of Isaiah: “Lord, who has believed our message?” (John 12:38 & Romans 10:16). John adds, “And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said: He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart” (John 12:39-40). All four gospels refer to this passage of Isaiah 6. Faith is not automatic.

John’s Gospel shows faith against the background of its opposite. From the beginning, Christ was ignored: “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him” (John 1:10-11). It is true that there was a time when many followed Jesus. But very quickly, most stopped believing in him: “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). And Jesus does not try to keep them. He says, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6:65).

Christ did not try to persuade people to remain with him, because faith has a depth that goes beyond understanding and emotions. It is rooted in those places where “deep calls out to deep” (Psalm 42:7), where the depths of the human condition touch the depths of God. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44). Faith is inseparably born of God’s activity and human will. No one believes against his will. Likewise, no one believes unless God enables that person to believe.

If faith is a gift from God and all do not believe, is that because God has rejected some people? In the passage where John quotes Isaiah on the impossibility of believing he also transmits some hopeful words of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31). Raised up on the cross and raised up into the Father’s glory, Christ “draws” as the Father “draws.” How is he able to reach every human being? No one can say. But why should we not trust him in what is beyond our understanding?
Until its last page, John’s Gospel shows how fragile faith is. Thomas’ doubting has become proverbial. But what is decisive is that, without believing, he remains part of the community of believers—and they for their part do not throw him out! Thomas waits, the risen Christ shows himself to him, and he believes. Then Jesus says, “Happy those who believe without having seen” (John 20:29). Faith is not a feat of skill. It comes when least expected, no one knows how. It is a trust that is surprised at itself.

Letter from Taizé: 2004/6

Last updated: 18 November 2004