Faith vs. Works

“Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” _ Romans 1:5

We’ve had almost two thousand years since the resurrection of Christ and the writing of the New Testament for our understanding to percolate through the human experience, perfecting our theology and focusing our faith.  Yet, spiritual maturity remains uniquely an individual experience, and the technologically sophisticated age of information still witnesses believers’ ignorance on a massive scale.

Hebrews 4:12 likens the word of God to a double-edged sword that can cut between soul and spirit.  But rather than letting the Word do the dissecting, some have chosen inappropriately to cut the things of God into little bits themselves.  Perhaps they are being overly analytical.  True, taking things apart is often a good way of studying them, but not always.  In the spiritual realm, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  I think this is the case, when we think of faith.

Faith has often been separated out from its holistic role in our relationship to the LORD.  Dissectionists point to Matthew 17:20 where Jesus said that with faith the size of a mustard seed, one can move mountains.  So some believers try really hard to build up their faith or make it grow, so they can see the powerful results of their faith.  But they are skipping over something.  First of all, Jesus also compared the entire kingdom of God to a mustard seed (Luke 13:19).  It isn’t so much the size or amount of faith that Jesus was teaching about, as it was the essence of faith.  In Luke 17:5 the apostles asked Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  I think the fact that Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed tells us that it wasn’t the size of their faith that mattered, but whether or not they chose to use it.  Secondly, Jesus is “the author and finisher” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), not the individual believer.  While it can be said that our faith is strengthened by our exercising it, we cannot claim we are actually increasing our own faith.  God is doing that.  All we are doing is saying, “Yes.” to God.  When we act on our faith, we are merely being obedient to the LORD.

James 2:18b challenges the believer, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”  Some pastors want this verse to create some “holy guilt” in their congregations, motivating the “pew warmers” to be “doers of the word and not just hearers of the word” (James 1:22).   But whenever someone can take credit for something because of actions they have taken, pride has a way of coming in and making some feel they are better Christians, based on those actions.  Others may feel they are inferior Christians because they don’t take such actions.  This too is pride working.  Spiritual pride puts a real damper on the movements of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ.  One believer certainly doesn’t have a better faith than someone else.  There is one faith (Romans 3:30) and all believers have it.

Historically, this fractionalized look at faith vs. works has resulted in some misunderstandings.  During the Reformation, Protestants declared “sola fide”, which presents a major theological rift between most Protestant denominations and Catholics, Eastern Christian churches and those in the Restoration movement.  “Sola fide” basically refers to justification by faith alone.  This doctrine was the key to breaking away from the “works” required by the Catholic church for salvation, particularly the practice of selling “indulgences”.  But a negative take on this point of theology is to think of one’s faith (or how one believes) as separate from one’s actions (or “works”).  From such a perspective, it becomes difficult to sort out the meaning of Philippians 2:12.   “Working out” our salvation doesn’t mean our works are saving (justifying) us.  It means our relationship to God in Christ is an expression or “out-working” of our faithful obedience.

Similarly, Antinomianism (literally meaning “against the law”) misapplies Scripture to say that once a person becomes “saved by grace” (Ephesians 2:8) they are no longer bound by the “law” (Torah).  The difficulty with such a broad brush stroke is that there is no Scriptural basis for separating the state of righteousness from righteous behavior.  If we believe that God does not change (Hebrews 13:8; Malachi 3:6) and that He does not change His mind (Hebrews 7:21; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Romans 11:29) then we can only believe that the New Covenant fulfills the Old Covenant (the “Law”), rather than abrogating it.  Jesus said, he came to fulfill the “Law” (Matthew 5:17) not abolish it.  Most importantly, repeated throughout the Old Testament is the phrase, “everlasting covenant”.  Are we to accept that God really didn’t mean “everlasting”?  Did God lie?

Prophecy explains the “new” covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) by saying, “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.”  [And for those doubters who say this prophecy is speaking of Jews, rather than Christians, I would remind them that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews.  He came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16) and in Christ, there is no differentiation between the two (Galations 3:28)].  It is important to notice in that verse that even though in Christ we are not differentiated, we nevertheless retain those outward differences: male, female, Jews etc.  Messianic Jews are still Jews.  But whether Gentile Christian or Jewish Christian, all believers have God’s law in our minds and in our hearts.  God’s law works in us as we walk in faith.  It works from the inside out.  Therefore, the outward expression of our faith walk can be described as “works of the law”.

In short, faith and works should not and cannot be separated.  I John 4:15 tells us, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.”  This statement defies the limitations of our finite brains to teach us a spiritual truth.  It is impossible to grasp in the physical or mathematical sense what this means.  If A is in B, B cannot be in A.  Neither A nor B can be in two places at once, can they?  So we must accept that this spiritual reality is beyond our grasp.  In Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17, we see a similar concept that defies normal reason.  He prays (verse 21), “… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us …”  We accept the Trinity, the unity of the Godhead.  So we accept on faith that the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son.  But now he is placing us into the mix.  “May they be in us” implies “as we are in them”.  Well, as it turns out, John 1:12 describes believers as those who “received” Christ.  And Romans 8:9-11 is clear that the Holy Spirit is in believers.

1 John 4:15 describes faith.  Verse 16 says that because of this faith, we know and rely on the love of God.  “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him”.  Verse 19 tells us, “We love because he first loved us.”  We only came to know this love when we believed in Christ.  Now, we live in this love.  What did we “do” to merit this love?  We acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet even that one thing we did (and continue to do) isn’t something we can take credit for (Hebrews 12:2).   So, if we have faith, we love God.  But the text continues in chapter 5 by saying if we love God, we will obey God.  And there we have a clear picture of how faith cannot be separated from works.  Faith leads to love.  Love leads to obedience.  And obedience produces righteous works.

1 John 5:1-4:  “Everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.  This is love for God: to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”

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About retiredday

I am Michael D. Day, a regular, everyday guy -- retired. I stand for God-given freedom, which means I think for myself. I believe in being civil, because the Bible teaches that we should love our enemies. But I also believe in saying it how I see it, and explaining just why I see it that way, sort of like 2 Timothy 4:2.
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6 Responses to Faith vs. Works

  1. retiredday says:

    There is a missing comment (See last comment on bottom.)

    Perhaps my point needs clarification. The “faith vs. works” argument is fruitless. If you have authentic faith, that faith automatically produces “works” because it is God that gives you the faith and it is God who is working through you. As believers, our responsibility is to obey. That obedience is a matter between you and the LORD. It is not for one person to say whether or not another person is producing “works” of faith.

    The problem with others judging your faith, based on what they see you doing or not doing is that they are not God. Many believers become victimized by religious rules or criteria by which they are made to feel inferior or rejected because of their failure to “measure up” to someone else’s standards. But God sees the “works” of our faith, and it is God who is the judge.

    We all have different capacities to please the LORD in different ways by being obedient. We shouldn’t expect everyone else to be like us (see 1 Corinthians 12:11-26). And we shouldn’t be quick to point out the perceived faults of others, but deal with our own faults first (Luke 6:42 and elsewhere).

    God has given us this precious gift of faith. Stop considering it in human terms, whether technical, legal, religious or what have you. Have in mind the things of God, not the things of man.

    As far as Romans 4 is concerned, if you are interested, the Jewish New Testament Commentary provides an eye-opening perspective on the faith/Law issue. If you are an ideologue you may not welcome this information.

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    • Nick says:

      Hi,

      I’d like to add some comments:

      The “faith vs. works” argument can confuse people if they don’t understand what’s behind it, but it’s not fruitless. If Paul is not teaching “faith alone,” then there’s no grounds to say “faith alone” in the first place.

      You said: “If you have authentic faith, that faith automatically produces “works” ”
      >>Where does the Bible say good works are guarnateed to automatically be produced? I don’t see that. In fact, I see in the Bible Christians turning to sin at various times, which is the opposite of good works guaranteed. Peter even says that’s false in 2 Pt 1:9.

      I *DO* welcome your commentary on Romans 4 from a Jewish New Testament commentary, and in fact I’ll bet I’ll find some helpful info in it.

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      • retiredday says:

        >>Where does the Bible say good works are guarnateed to automatically be produced?

        The same question may be asked about the Trinity. One needs to study the entirety of Scripture in context.

        In my posting of July 14 I presented the Scriptural basis for this idea, as well as in my subsequent comment to you. I will try this one last time to describe to you what the Holy Spirit has revealed to me in my personal Bible study. This is not the product of any formal dogma of any denomination. In my walk as a Christian, I have learned that Christians may disagree on many “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) that do not disqualify them from their position in Christ. What we must agree on is the identity of Jesus Christ and our faith in him.

        I understand the statement, “Faith without works is as dead…” (James 2:26) to mean that faith without works really isn’t faith at all. Dead faith is no different than false faith or no faith. And the profession of faith is only part of the picture. Our confession (Romans 10:10) is meaningless unless the faith we confess is real (in our hearts). When it is real, our confession of that faith becomes our first “work” of faith.

        Any works that I do on my own, that aren’t produced by the Holy Spirit, are considered as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). So works acceptable to God are those things produced by faith. Faith produces obedience because faith is the love relationship we have with God. No obedience means no faith. But faith means obedience and obedience leads to righteous acts.

        1 John 4:15 “When anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him and he in God.”

        This is a description of faith. It is a relationship between humans and God that cannot be comprehended at the human level. God is in me and I am in God. That is impossible to comprehend, yet it is a spiritual reality. This faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8), not something we can take credit for. When we receive this gift we become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17) because it is really Christ living in us (Galatians 2:20). If we are “in Christ” we cannot help but live as he would have us live, for he is causing us to live.

        1 John 4:16b “…God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”

        This is basically reinforcing the previous verse, but adds the concept of love, as being descriptive of our faith relationship to God through Christ. Simplifying to make the point, these two verses taken together are saying in part: If I have faith, God dwells in me, and I in him; God loves me, and I love God.

        1 John 5:3 goes even further and says, “The love of God consists in this: that we keep his commandments — and his commandments are not burdensome.”

        So, I can add to my previous paraphrase and conclude: If I have faith, God dwells in me and I in him; God loves me, and I love God, which means I obey his commandments.

        Given that those commandments are in my heart and mind (Jeremiah 31:33) and that it’s God who’s doing all the work anyway (John 15:1-17), how can we separate our faith from so-called works? We are but branches. He is the true vine.

        On the other hand, when people separate “faith” from “works” they are leaving themselves open to take credit for their conscious efforts to do good deeds in their own strength. That is how pride can contaminate ministry, because pride is sin.

        Further, if we are not to perform “religious acts for people to see” (Matthew 6:1) then they are not subject to approval by others. That means no person, including the religious clergy, has the right to oversee or evaluate in any way our “works” of faith. God alone has that right.

        When James said, “My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it?” (James 2:14), he was in effect saying that simply professing faith isn’t faith at all because real faith begins as a gift of God’s presence in the believer and then is “practiced” or “worked out” (Philippians 2:12) through obedience. In essence, “faith alone” includes the practicing of it, because without obedience that comes from love, those branches that do not produce will be pruned (and not by church authorities, but by Jesus).

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      • retiredday says:

        “I see in the Bible Christians turning to sin at various times, which is the opposite of good works guaranteed.”

        I purposefully stayed away from the issue of sin and how it relates to law because that is the issue that confuses most people when they try to understand the faith vs. works discussion (the faith-works-law-sin connection). First off, in a sense, I see how faith may be seen as the opposite of sin. However, I cannot say that if you have faith you will not sin, nor that if you sin, you have no faith. It is our faith that gives us victory over sin. Sin does not nullify works of faith.
        Paul wrote of his struggle with sin (Romans 7) which we can all relate to. But in verse 25 he writes, “All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” because we have been given a solution to our dilemma. It is found in 1 John 1:9 (and elsewhere): “But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong.” And it’s also good to remember that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
        Many Christians try to “prove” their faith in their own attempt to atone for their own sins. They feel by over achieving in “works of faith” they tip the scales in their favor, against their sins. But that does not solve the sin problem. Neither does the fact that we sin prove our faith is weak or in error. We are in this good fight for the duration. It’s not about appearances or what others think. It’s all about our obedient response to God.

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  2. Nick says:

    Hi,

    Your primary argument seems to be assuming James is teaching that if faith doesn’t produce works, then it’s not true faith – thus true faith automatically produces good works. I would respond to this on two fronts: first, the comments I originally made; second, I would say the “dead faith = fake faith” analogy doesn’t fit James’ analogy of a dead body. James says a body without a spirit is dead, but this does not mesh with a body without a spirit being a *fake* body.

    I would agree with your comments about faith being tied to obedience, though not that obedience is guaranteed, but I’d add that this notion of faith doesn’t fit the “faith alone” picture.

    I also agree with your claim that faith makes God dwell in us and us in Him, but I’d add that this goes against the notion salvation is ‘forensic’ or ‘imputation’.

    You said: “So, I can add to my previous paraphrase and conclude: If I have faith, God dwells in me and I in him; God loves me, and I love God, which means I obey his commandments.”

    >>I would agree with this with one exception, the keeping of His Commandments is not guaranteed in this verse or anywhere else. The fact we still sin proves this as well.

    I would agree with a lot of what you said in the rest of your post except for the points which are built from the above objections I have.

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  3. retiredday says:

    For some reason, a comment made by Michael Gormley on this post is located in the comments on another post, “The Liberal Brain”. To read his comment, please go to that post. In his comment, he refers to a previous comment he made. It appears that is what I am replying to in my comment of July 17, 2010. I don’t know how his comment was lost and I apologize for losing it, because it was a thoughtful comment. I am not a very computer-savy person.

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