To give intellectual assent is to agree with something on a factual basis. Faith involves intellectual assent, and intellectual assent is an important part of faith, but faith is much more than knowing facts. Faith does not mean that you suspend your intellect. Someone once defined faith as “believing what you know isn’t true.” Such a suspension of the intellect is not faith! Rather, faith is committing yourself to something that you believe to be true.
Many people intellectually agree with something but never commit to it. If you randomly asked people on the street if it is important to eat healthy and exercise, most of them would probably say that it is. They agree with this intellectually. They believe it is a true statement.
However, if you asked the same people if they make an effort to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, many would have to admit that they do not. It is possible to believe something to be true intellectually without committing to it. This is why James 2:17 says that faith without works is dead. Real faith commits to truth and takes appropriate action.
Faith involves commitment or trust. Many people fly on planes every day. Some of them may be intimately acquainted with the laws of physics and engineering that allow a passenger plane to fly. Others who fly may have very little knowledge about it, and some actually have a fear of flying. However, every passenger who makes the decision to get on the plane is committing himself to the plane. Someone else watching from the ground may have great confidence that the plane will arrive safely at its destination, but, unless he gets on the plane, he has not committed himself to it—he is not entrusting his life to the plane.
A woman may have a completely curable disease that, if left untreated, will kill her. She may give intellectual assent to the fact that she has the disease, that it could kill her, and that a cure is readily available. But until this becomes a real problem in her own estimation—a problem “real” enough to cause her to go to the doctor and submit to the prescribed treatment—she is not exercising faith. (Often, becoming a “real problem” is not the result of more information but of something non-intellectual. Maybe a close friend dies of the same condition, or the sick woman begins to realize how much her family needs her.) When she admits her dire need and goes to the doctor to receive the necessary treatment, then she is exercising faith—she putting her life in the doctor’s hands even though she may not fully understand all the scientific and medical principles at work.
Many people give intellectual assent to the facts in the Bible. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose again. They may even believe that His death was “for sinners.” But saving faith builds on those facts and says, “My sin separates me from God. This condition, if left untreated, will be fatal. However, there is a cure. I will go to Jesus who died for my sins and ask Him to take away my sins. I will rely on Him to make me acceptable of the Father, and I will let Him take control of my life.”
Intellectual assent is a necessary part of saving faith. No one can be saved who denies the basic facts about Jesus recorded in the New Testament. But saving faith goes beyond acceptance of the facts to embrace the significance of those facts and entrust one’s life to them. This faith—this wholehearted trust—will inevitably change a person’s behavior.