There is a chilling phrase tucked away in a well-known passage in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. You know the passage. He gives "the gospel I preached to you," how Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again and appeared to lots and lots of witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-9). Good stuff. And really important.
Almost buried in that text is this interesting and ominous comment. He says that he is reminding them of the gospel they were taught and by which they were being saved "unless you believed in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:2). Wait, what? Is it possible to believe ... in vain? Paul refers to it like it is a thing.
Paul gives an example of vain faith. He says later in this same chapter, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). That would be a faith with no effect. Vain. James speaks of dead faith (James 2:7). Vain faith. It exists and its a bad thing. If you have vain faith, "you are still in your sins."
You know this doesn't sit well with us. You know that it smacks of heresy with us. The common concept is "If he/she said he/she was a Christian, he/she is a Christian." Not "but they might have believed in vain." Frankly, we don't even know how to think about this. James talks about the hearer but not a doer of the Word (James 1:23-25), but that would suggest that salvation is oriented around works, and we know that's not right (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Jesus talked in the Parable of the Sower about "rocky soil" in which "they hear the word" and "receive it with joy," but they have no root and fall away (Luke 8:13). Received the Word with joy, but they die without being saved. How does that work?
Paul actually explains it. He says that the gospel is what saves "if you hold fast to the word I preached to you" (1 Corinthians 15:2). That's a big "if". Now, remember, we're walking a tight line here. We must not violate Scripture by suggesting that we're saved by works, but apparently there is an ongoing requirement of some sort ("hold fast") which is echoed in other places that we must not ignore. So it is apparently possible to "believe" in some sense that is not "saving faith" but, as James puts it, "dead faith." This dead faith is marked by the failure to hold fast. But again, that cannot be a premise -- a cause -- of salvation. If Paul was certain that "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6) and Jesus was confident that "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:28), then salvation is not something gained and lost, something acquired and then given up. So holding fast to the word must be an indicator of a reality rather than a cause, like good works are an indicator of a new nature, not a cause. If we are to "work out your salvation" (Philippians 2:12) on the basis of "it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13), then this "hold fast" concept is something that God does in us and the absence of "hold fast" indicates (not causes) the absence of God's work and, therefore, saving faith.
We -- I -- don't like this. We would prefer to think that the profession of faith is all that is required to save. We'd prefer to think that if they say they're a believer, they're a believer. If they say they have saving faith, they have saving faith. We prefer to be generous rather than "fruit inspectors." And for good reason. But what we prefer is not always what is best. And if you have someone who has professed a saving faith that they don't actually have, it is not best that you don't notice and you don't assist. I'm sure you've come across people who you thought were saved -- they were in the church, ministering, participating, doing and saying all the right things -- and then bailed entirely. They don't hold fast the Word. Paul would classify that as vain faith. And if we are to be loving believers, we should, I think, be vigilant about this rather than dismayed and dismissive. Paul thought it was important enough to warn about. We should likely keep it in mind ... for others and for ourselves. "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves" (2 Corinthians 13:5).
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