Saving Faith in the Views of Gordon H. Clark and Robert Sandeman
by Rev. Douglas J. Douma
The publication in 2004 of Gordon Clark’s What is Saving Faith, a combined edition of his Faith and Saving Faith (1983) and The Johannine Logos (1972), occasioned renewed discussion of Clark’s view of saving faith. In that same year, Orthodox Presbyterian Church minster Alan D. Strange reviewed the book in Mid-America Theological Journal. He praised aspects of Clark’s thought on faith but ultimately concluded that Clark’s position “falls short of a full, biblical definition.” Also before the year was out, Doug Barnes, a United Reformed Church pastor, followed with critical comments on Clark’s view of faith in a four-article series in Christian Renewal, the final part of which was soon republished in Banner of Truth along with a response letter from John Robbins.
Robbins’s letter was a response not only to Barnes’s four-part article, but also to the article “Sandemanianism at the Westminster Conference” by Geoff Thomas in Banner of Truth. There, Thomas seems to be the first in writing to suggest a Clark–Sandeman connection. He wrote:
Sandeman held that bare assent to the work of Christ is alone necessary. … His works are repetitive and of low intellectual worth. What form has Sandemanian’s understanding of faith as bare assent taken in the 21st century? Some in the Conference suggested the worst kinds of ‘History of Redemption’ preaching with its absolutising of exegesis. Also there are study groups, Protestant and Catholic, which assure those who say they now believe the teaching of the first few lessons that that believing has made them Christians. One also privately thinks that the late Gordon Clark’s definition of saving faith is too near Sandemanian ideas to be acceptable.
This is the entirety of the comment on a Clark–Sandeman connection; an opinion Thomas notes of an un-named person, and without any accompanying argumentation. Following this one comment, pandemonium has generally reigned on discussion of the topic.
While Banner of Truth titled their section publishing Robbins’s letter as “Further Development, ‘Gordon Clark was not a Sandemanian,’” Robbins never actually stated a conclusion on that question in his letter. Rather, he wrote that Sandeman is being used “as a bogeyman to scare people away from reading Dr. Clark” and that the true question should be “Does Clark agree with Scripture?” He then defended Clark on that point.
While the most important question with respect to Clark’s view of saving faith is whether it agrees with scripture, the question of whether Clark’s view is near Sandeman’s has intrigued me enough to research it. Thus, answering that question will be the main purpose of this article.
SAVING FAITH IN THE VIEW OF SANDEMAN AND GLAS
Robert Sandeman (1718-1771) was a Scottish minister perhaps most well-known for his view of saving faith. On this doctrine, like many others, Sandeman followed the teachings of his father-in-law, minister John Glas (1695-1773). Opposing the idea of a national church and favoring Congregationalism Glas was deposed in 1730 from the ministry of the established Church of Scotland. He went on to form a denomination known as the Glasites. Sandeman later served as an elder in multiple Glasite churches in Scotland and traveled to America to plant additional churches. Sandeman’s death in 1771, coupled with the denomination’s overly strict church discipline and Loyalist sympathies in the American War of Independence contributed to its stunted growth and slow but eventual demise.
Theologically, Sandeman got nearly all of his views from Glas. In fact, one dictionary biography of Sandeman claims, “Sandeman added nothing to the principles of theology and church polity adopted by Glas.” But because Sandeman’s Letters on Theron and Aspasio found a wide audience, the views he shared with Glas became more commonly known as Sandemanian. Since Sandeman and Glas held essential the same views—inclusive of their view of saving faith—it is worth noting Glas’s writings on the subject as well as Sandeman’s.
The view of saving faith held by John Glas is seen in his 1729 The Testimony of the King of Martyrs Concerning His Kingdom. There, Glas wrote:
“Thus the scripture notion of faith agrees with the common notion of faith and belief among men, a persuasion of a thing upon testimony, but that faith whereby we believe the gospel has been very much darkened, by the many things that have been said in the description of it, while that which is most properly faith has been either shut up in a narrow and dark corner of the description, or almost excluded from it, as a thing presupposed unto faith, and not that very faith itself, whereby we are justified and saved. And some have so defined faith, as to take into its own nature the whole gospel obedience. Agreeably to this, we have heard in sermons, that it has two hands, one to receive Christ, and another to give ourselves away to him; and when we are pressed and exhorted to believe in Christ, it is as if we were urged to put forth some (we do not know what act of the will) or to give forth something towards Christ by God’s help, by which we are to be saved, on account of the connection made in the promise betwixt salvation and that deed, whatever it be, which is called faith. By this means the hearers of the gospel are set on to seek to do that deed, that work, called faith, to save them, and entitle them to eternal life; and serious souls are perplexed with many fruitless inquiries in themselves whether they have this thing called faith, while that which lies at the bottom of the most part of their doubts, is either the weakness or the want of the persuasion of this truth, and their taking no notice of it, because it is not much noticed in the accounts of faith that are made to them; and it is foolishly reckoned by many, that the belief of the truth is a common thing, and that it is no great matter to attain unto it, tho’ the apostle hath said ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the spirit, and belief of the truth,’ 2 Thes. ii. 13. This glorious truth containing in it Christ the end of the law for righteousness unto every one that believe it, is able to give rest to the weary soul, to make a blessed calm in the most troubled conscience, and to raise up the most desperate sinner unto a lively hope.”
Sandeman followed this Glasite view in his Letters on Theron and Aspasio (1757). There, addressed to Anglican minister James Hervey (1714-1758), Sandeman wrote against “popular preachers” who “make offers of Christ and all his benefits unto men, upon certain terms, and to assure them of the benefits on their complying with the terms.” Sandeman’s driving purpose was to avoid adding anything of human merit to the Gospel of God’s grace. He wrote:
“I speak of those teachers, who, having largely insisted on the corruptions of human nature, concluded the world guilty before God, eloquently set forth the necessity of an atonement, zealously maintained the scriptural doctrine concerning the person and work of Christ; yet, after all, leave us as much in the dark as to our comfort, as if Jesus Christ had never appeared; and mark out as insuperable a task for us, as if he had not finished his work; while, with great assiduity and earnestness, they are busied in describing to us, animating us with various encouragements, and furnishing us with manifold instructions, how to perform that strange something which is to make out our connection with Christ, and bring his righteousness home to us; that something which has got many names, and includes divers considerations; all which have been supposed to be comprehended under the scriptural expression FAITH; as to which, after all they have told us about it, we are at a great loss to tell distinctly what it is, or what we are doing when we perform it, if not greater, than when they began.”
And he illustrated his point well in the following:
“Methinks I see first a decent respectable company advancing to the house of prayer, and then stepping forward with a graceful assurance, beginning their address thus: ‘We give thee thanks, O God, for the aversion we feel to sin, and for every other amiable qualification by which thou hast distinguished us from other men; we bless thee for every fine endowment wherewith thou has ornamented us, and more especially for the peculiar right thou has given us of advancing our claim to all the blessings of the kingdom of thy Messiah; whom we prize above all things, and to whose merits we are indebted for every advantage we enjoy. We humbly acknowledge that our qualifications are by no means the ground of our right. For, had it not been for thy grace assisting our feeble efforts, we might have been as yet like other men, drinking up iniquity like water. We acknowledge the righteousness of thy Messiah to be the only meritorious cause of all our happiness. For his sake, therefore, we earnestly beg the continuance of thy grace, that we may always come into thy house of prayer with a comfortable assurance, and may never be filled with confusion of face in thy presence. Behind them, at some distance, I see an abject company approaching, with remorse in their faces, as if they had just come from the gratification of some guilty passion. They dare not venture beyond the porch, as if afraid to pollute the sacred mansion, but pointing toward the inner recess where the propitiatory stand, they are encouraged to utter these words, “God be propitious to us sinners.”
Following these criticisms, some pages later Sandeman explained his own view:
“The testimony of the apostles, concerning God well pleased in his beloved Son, conveys to the ends of the earth the knowledge of what they saw. Every one who believes their testimony, or is persuaded that it is true, has the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, even as the apostles had the sight of it. And this knowledge gives light or a ray of good hope toward God in the heart, where nothing but darkness or despair took place before. So all who have this knowledge, are said to be called out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
Thus Sandeman held that saving faith was equivalent to belief. And he warned against adding anything else to it:
“But one thing in the general may be freely said, that where the faith necessary to justification is described, every epithet, word, name, or phrase, prefixed or subjoined to Faith, not meant as description of the truth believed, but of some good motion, disposition, or exercise of the human soul about it, is intended, and really serves, instead of clearing our way, to blindfold and decoy us; to impose upon us, and make us take brass for gold, and chaff for wheat; to lead us to establish our own, in opposition to the divine righteousness; even while our mouths and our ears are filled with high sounding words about the latter.”
Such additions Sandeman saws as fruits of faith rather than elements essential to faith. He wrote:
If in this, or any other part of the New Testament, more be meant by receiving Christ, than by knowing him, or believing on him, then I am ready to show, that more than faith is meant, namely, faith with its fruits and effects.13
GORDON CLARK’S VIEW OF SAVING FAITH
Looking at their theological views more broadly, Glas and Sandeman were, in some ways, precursors to the Restorationist Movement. While, unlike the Restorationists, they held to a Calvinist soteriology and were paedobaptists, they did hold to Congregationalism and were opposed to having written confessions; hallmarks of the later Restorationist Movement. Also like the Restorationists, the Glasites/Sandemanians looked to the New Testament church as a model for their own, and in so doing they settled on practices such as foot-washing, holy kissing, and communion as a meal.
As a confessional Presbyterian Clark would have naturally opposed many of the Sandemanian views. Other than the proposed similarity between Clark’s and Sandeman’s view of faith, there is no indication that Clark was influenced by Sandeman. Having gone through Clark’s published works, articles, personal papers, and correspondence, I’ve not found a single reference to Robert Sandeman or John Glas. If Clark’s view is in some way similar to Sandeman’s it is more likely coincidence than influence.
Evidence of Clark’s view of faith comes as early 1939 when, in a letter to J. Oliver Buswell, he equated faith and belief, and distinguished saving faith from the faith of the devil. He wrote,
By the time of Clark’s 1957 article “Faith and Reason” his view was definite. There in a section labeled “The Element of Trust,” he wrote:
“In describing the nature of faith, fundamentalists, evangelicals and even modernists in a certain way stress the element of trust. A preacher may draw a parallel between trusting in Christ and trusting in a chair. Belief that the chair is solid and comfortable, mere intellectual assent to such a proposition, will not rest your weary bones. You must, the preacher insists, actually sit in the chair. Similarly, so goes the argument, you can believe all that the Bible says about Christ and it will do you no good. Such illustrations as these are constantly used, in spite of the fact that the Bible says, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
Then in 1973, writing the entry for “Faith” in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, Clark noted:
“The early Reformers were inclined to include assurance of salvation in their definition of faith. But there were many variations. Cunningham (cf. bibliography) reports seven different views. Later Reformed theologians definitely excluded assurance (cf. the Westminster Confession), but came to add fiducia,as a third element in addition to knowledge and assent. They failed, however, to give an intelligible account of fiducia,restricting themselves to synonyms or illustrations (cf. Thomas Manton, Exposition of the Epistle of James, pp.216ff., Marshallton, Del., Sovereign Grace Book Club, 196-). This defective view is so common today that many ministers have never heard of the earlier Reformed views.”
He further critiqued the addition of fiducia to the definition of faith in an article on “Saving Faith” in the Trinity Review in 1979:
“The crux of the difficulty with the popular analysis of faith into notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust), is that fiducia comes from the same root as fides (faith). Hence this popular analysis reduces to the obviously absurd definition that faith consists of understanding, assent, and faith. Something better than this tautology must be found.”
The place where Clark’s views on faith are most thoroughly detailed however is his Faith and Saving Faith, published in 1983. There Clark surveyed the history of views of saving faith and brought together arguments for his own position. Some of these will be noted later in this article.
Having read the views of saving faith in Clark and Sandeman/Glas, I believe it is of value to list some elements in common in their views.
SOME ELEMENTS IN COMMON BETWEEN THE VIEW OF SAVING FAITH IN CLARK AND SANDEMAN
Common Element #1. Faith is belief.
That Sandeman held that faith is belief is evident not only in what I’ve quoted previously, but also noted by John Howard Smith in The Perfect Rule of the Christian Christian, A History of Sandemanianism in the Eighteenth Century. Smith wrote:
“No distinction is made between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ in Sandeman’s thought. The terms are used interchangeably and regarded as identical, regardless of whether they are found in the Synoptic Gospels, John’s writings, or the epistles of Paul.”
And likewise for Clark, in addition to quotes provided earlier, let this one from his Faith and Saving Faith suffice:
Common Element #2. Saving Faith is a species of generic faith to be distinguished in the object believed, not the psychology of the believer.
Rather than thinking the apostles had invented some new usage of the term “faith” when applying it to that saving instrument in the Scriptures, Clark, like Glas and Sandeman, held that the Biblical writers were using the term just as it was known in the common language of the day.
First, we see that John Glas wrote:
Likewise, John Howard Smith notes of Sandeman:
Clark’s view, matching Glas and Sandeman, is as clear if not more so:
Common Element #3. Opposition to a third term in the definition of faith.
Having defined faith as belief, Clark, like Sandeman and Glas, opposed adding any additional terms to the definition. It should be noted that they actually opposed not only the addition of a third term to the definition of faith, but a fourth term, a fifth term, etc., for theologians have added all sorts of additional terms (most often trust, assurance, love, or even “awe”).
We start again with Glas, repeating a quote from earlier:
“And some have so defined faith, as to take into its own nature the whole gospel obedience. Agreeably to this, we have heard in sermons, that it has two hands, one to receive Christ, and another to give ourselves away to him; and when we are pressed and exhorted to believe in Christ, it is as if we were urged to put forth some (we do not know what act of the will) or to give forth something towards Christ by God’s help, by which we are to be saved, on account of the connection made in the promise betwixt salvation and that deed, whatever it be, which is called faith. By this means the hearers of the gospel are set on to seek to do that deed, that work, called faith, to save them, and entitle them to eternal life; and serious souls are perplexed with many fruitless inquiries in themselves whether they have this thing called faith.”
And repeating a quote from Sandeman:
“they are busied in describing to us, animating us with various encouragements, and furnishing us with manifold instructions, how to perform that strange something which is to make out our connection with Christ, and bring his righteousness home to us; that somethng whch has got many names, and includes divers considerations; all which have been supposed to be comprehended under the scriptural expression FAITH; as to which, after all they have told us about it, we are at a great loss to tell distinctly what it is, or what we are doing when we perform it, if not greater, than when they began.”
And finally, repeating a quote from Clark:
“In describing the nature of faith, fundamentalists, evangelicals and even modernists in a certain way stress the element of trust. A preacher may draw a parallel between trusting in Christ and trusting in a chair. Belief that the chair is solid and comfortable, mere intellectual assent to such a proposition, will not rest your weary bones. You must, the preacher insists, actually sit in the chair. Similarly, so goes the argument, you can believe all that the Bible says about Christ and it will do you no good. Such illustrations as these are constantly used, in spite of the fact that the Bible says, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’”
While these three similarities between the views of saving faith in Clark and Sandeman might be the most notable, it is not an exhaustive list. One might add also that they each make a strong distinction between faith and the effects of faith.
While some elements in common between the view of saving faith in Clark and Sandeman have been noted that does not mean they are in agreement on all points. Without the rigorous analysis perhaps necessary, I might note that one difference might be that Glas held that the belief of devils is not saving because it is of a different nature than that of a saved man while Clark held that it was not saving because it is of a different object (or insufficient propositions). Other differences, though I haven’t been able to fully discern them, might be in the theologians’ respective views of the relationship of faith to assurance and repentance, and perhaps in the role in which they grant man in believing (Sandeman/Glas arguing man is entirely passive, and Clark perhaps holding that while passive in receiving faith, man is then made active in believing.)
While there are differences between the respective views of saving faith of Robert Sandeman and Gordon Clark, the elements in common are substantial and noteworthy. Yet while Clark‘s view of saving faith has significant elements in common with Sandeman, one could perhaps as easily note his many similarities to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or a number of other theologians.
Here we return to Robbin’s question: is Clark’s view of saving faith Biblical? Since I see so much confusion in those who have critiqued Clark, I recommend a very thorough study and consideration of Clark’s Faith and Saving Faith before you form your own conclusions.