The assurance or trust that is ascribed to faith and is referred to as “truly saving faith” is not a spiritual assurance or trust but an earthly one, if it is a matter of faith alone. Spiritual assurance or trust derives its essence and life from the good that love does but not from the truth that faith discloses apart from that good. The assurance that belongs to faith separated from good is dead, so real assurance is not possible for us when we are leading evil lives. An assurance that we are saved, no matter how we have lived, because of the Lord’s merit with the Father does not come from truth either.
Everyone who has spiritual faith has an assurance that we are saved by the Lord. That is, we believe that the Lord came into the world to give eternal life to those who believe and live by the principles that he taught, that he regenerates us and fits us for heaven, and that he does this all by himself without our help, out of pure mercy.
Believing what the Word or the theology of the church teaches and not living by it may look like faith, and some may even believe that they are saved by it; but no one is saved by this alone. This is in fact a veneer of faith. It is necessary to describe this veneer of faith at this juncture.
A veneer of faith is when we believe and love the Word and the theology of the church not for the sake of its truth or in order to live by it but for the sake of profit and reputation and for the sake of being considered learned. As a result, when we are devoted to this kind of faith we are not focusing on the Lord or heaven but on ourselves and this world. People who are intensely ambitious and acquisitive in this world are more strongly convinced of the truth of what the church’s theology teaches than people who are not intensely ambitious and acquisitive. This is because for them the church’s theology is nothing but a means to their own ends, and the more they love those ends, the more they love—and trust—the means.
Essentially, though, the fact is that they are caught up in this conviction to the extent that they are on fire with their love for themselves and the world and are speaking and preaching and acting from that fire. At such times they are completely convinced that what they are saying is true. However, when they are not caught up in the fire of those loves they believe very little—some do not believe at all. This shows that a veneer of faith is a faith of the lips and not of the heart, so it is really no faith at all.
People whose faith is just a veneer do not know from any inner enlightenment whether what they are teaching is true or false, and as long as average people believe them, they do not care. In fact, they are not moved in the least by truth for its own sake. As a result, if they cannot obtain status or profit they abandon their faith (or at least if they can do so without putting their reputation in jeopardy), because the veneer of faith does not dwell inside us. Rather, it stands outside, in our memory alone, so we can call on it when we are teaching. This means that this faith and its truths vanish after death because the only elements of faith that remain then are the ones that have a place inside us—that is, the elements of faith that have taken root in doing what is good, and that have therefore been made part of our life.
The following passage in Matthew is about people whose faith is just a veneer:
Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, haven’t we prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and done many worthwhile things in your name?” But then I will declare to them, “I do not recognize you, workers of iniquity.” (Matthew 7:22–23)
Then it says in Luke:
Then you will begin to say, “We have eaten with you and drunk, and you have taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Go away from me, all you workers of iniquity.” (Luke 13:26–27)
They are also described as the five foolish young women in Matthew who did not have oil for their lamps:
Finally those young women arrived, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he will say in response, “I tell you in truth, I do not recognize you.” (Matthew 25:11–12)
[In the Word,] oil in lamps symbolizes the good that love does in faith.
from Regeneration, Pages 18-20