“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.”