There has been some interest in “Faith vs Works”, posted July 2010. Most readers have responded with concepts like “Sola Fide” (saved by faith alone) and “Faith without works is dead” so firmly cemented in their minds they are prevented from seeing an essential component of Biblical faith which I have tried to explain. Apparently, most Christians let the theologians do their thinking for them.
While there are many good reasons to acknowledge the virtues of systematic theology, it must be remembered that theology is the formal, intellectual structure of our faith — a structure created by human scholarship. Regardless of the giftedness of the minds of the scholars who have passed on their theological wisdom, regardless of the greatness of their own faith or inspiration, theology is not the ultimate authority for our faith.
The fact that theology is secondary to Scripture is borne out by the theological differences between various denominations. I have no desire to defend any denominational position, so I do not rely on theological authority. Defending denominational theology is like using someone else’s understanding of Scripture as your authority. My authority is the Bible and how I understand God’s revelation to me, personally. Christ, himself, is the ultimate authority for my faith, and if my understanding needs correction, his word will suffice (2 Timothy 3:16).
Each believer has the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). This means that as we read the Bible, his Holy Spirit is teaching us (John 14:26). When a Christian reads the Bible, it’s not the same as reading a text-book, which conveys the writer’s knowledge through language, by means of the reader’s intellect. For a believer, reading the Bible is as much a spiritual exercise as it is an intellectual one because God is using it to reveal his truth to us by his Spirit.
With that in mind, I will again try to point out the fallacy of looking at faith as one thing and works as another thing. While on the natural, human level, it is possible to have some “faith” without “works,” in Christ, no such separation exists. In fact, even James, the author of the phrase, “faith without works”, describes such faith as “dead”. Death is the end of a thing. Dead means it has ceased to exist. It is no more. Dead faith is faith that does not exist.
There cannot be two faiths — one that produces works and one that is dead. There is only one faith (Ephesians 4:5). Dead faith isn’t faith at all. So there can be no separation between true Christian faith and the works it produces.
“Now, wait a minute!”, I can hear the prisoners of theology saying. “James said, ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works’ (James 2:18)”. “And anyway, in verse 24 he says, we’re ‘justified by works and not by faith alone.'”
This response makes two assumptions: 1.) that the phrase “not by faith alone” means it’s possible for someone to have authentic faith in Christ without ever allowing that faith to be expressed in works – in effect nullifying James’ earlier statement that such a “faith” was dead; and 2.) that the works of faith can be seen (shown) and thereby used to demonstrate or prove one’s faith. Since basic logic disproves the first assumption, I will focus on the second one.
Proving One’s Faith
There is the notion that if a person is “producing good works” that such good works are evident to all. We can look at Parson Jones and see for ourselves that he is a great man of faith. It’s obvious. “Look at all the good things he does. Then look at Dora Doolittle. We never see her doing any good works. She hardly says anything at all. You never see her pitching in and helping out. Oh, she says she’s a believer, but she doesn’t convince me.”
I had a pastor once who regularly challenged the congregation to prove their faith to him. His point was that anyone can claim to be a Christian, but authentic faith is expressed in actions, not just words. There is a real danger here. If we need to “prove” our faith at all, we need to prove it to the LORD — no one else. The danger in thinking we must prove our faith to one another is in placing human beings on God’s throne. He alone is our judge (James 4:12).
When I Corinthians 5:12 says, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”, it is specifically referring to judging sin, not faith. Scripture is clear that the church is to identify sin and disassociate itself from it. But proving one’s faith is not the same. Scripture is equally clear that we should do our good works in secret, not to be seen by others (Matthew 6:4, 6 & 18). Whenever we get caught up in trying to prove our faith to one another, we become slaves to religious performance, beholden to the standards of a church or denomination and subject to the authority and hierarchy of that group’s leadership. Our focus has turned from faith to religion; from being a “new creature” in Christ to something we do on the outside for the approval of others.
Works vs Fruit
The discussion of faith and works includes a mental image of a laborer whose efforts have produced good things, which can be seen by all. But this is only a partial image, and misleading. If it were completely accurate, then faith wouldn’t have to include the Holy Spirit working through us. Neither the work of faith nor the fruit of faith is about us. It’s about Emmanuel (God in us).
In Colossians 1:10 Paul prayed that the faithful in Christ be “bearing fruit in every good work”. This indicates that bearing fruit is differentiated from good works, in that Paul’s prayer implies the possibility that a good work may not bear fruit. That’s why he prays it will. We are reminded from 1 Corinthians 3:5, “the Lord has assigned to each his task.” But verse 7 says, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Yet even though these workers are not “anything”, verse 8 tells us “each will be rewarded according to his own labor”.
Our “labor” (or “work”) is our obedience. First, God assigns tasks. Later He will reward us for our labors. Why? Will our reward be for the fruit we produce? No. Only God makes things grow. This is a well-established concept from the Old Testament. Just this morning I was reading in Hosea 14:5-8 where an obedient Israel is described as a beautiful olive tree, shooting down its roots, fragrant and blossoming and branching out. But that section ends with the LORD saying, “…your fruitfulness comes from me”.
I realize there are two different metaphors here: the metaphor of farmers planting crops that produce fruit and the metaphor of a tree that produces fruit. That is why I said the mental image of the laborer is only partial. The important link between the two metaphors is that the farmers were obedient in applying themselves to their assigned tasks, and the olive tree (Israel) was obedient, in that it turned from idolatry to worship the one true God. The workers in the first case are described as nothing. They didn’t produce the crop. God did. And yet God will reward them for their labor. The fruitfulness of the olive tree came from God, who rewarded it by allowing it to flourish.
John 15:1-8 gives us yet another metaphor: “I am the true vine and my father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Verse 4 says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Believers are parts of the vine. The true Vine being Jesus, we are in the vine. We are in Jesus. Remaining in jesus is a way of describing our faith. What work are we doing as part of the vine? The answer is: being in the vine. True faith and works are not separate from each other.
In this metaphor, we are not the gardener, God is. How can part of a vine “work”? It just sits there, connected to the other parts, being part of the vine. That’s the whole point. Since Jesus is the vine, he wants us to remain in him, as part of the vine. He doesn’t want us to be or do anything else. He wants us to remain in Christ. John 15:10 says, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love,” which is echoed in 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands.” Loving God is obeying God, which is our work of faith.
Finally, for those who can’t get past the idea that faith is more than words, it’s what you do that matters — I couldn’t agree more! All I’m saying is that no human being has the right (or ability) to judge what other person is doing, in terms of faith. We can’t know what works others do in secret. And that’s good, otherwise faith wouldn’t be supernatural. It would be social or political. Even pastors, who often think they have a particularly advantageous view of their congregation’s faith, don’t know every prayer that’s prayed. And when we hear of answers to prayer, who should get the glory? Those who prayed? Who but God knows about gifts given in secret? And then who should get the glory? Those who gave?
Just keep obeying the LORD’s commands. Just continue loving God with all your heart. Remain in Christ. He will remain in you (John 15:4). He will pick you up when you stumble. He will remind you when you fall. He will forgive you when you ask (1 John 1:9). Faith isn’t about you. It’s about him.