Faith is Never Alone (Part Two)

Posted · Add Comment

At times we see Jesus and the apostles saying, “repent”[1] (cf. Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30) and Paul even told people to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with… repentance” (Acts 26:20). Jesus also said, “come to me (faith in action)… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30). In repentance, faith and works are tightly connected. You cannot repent without faith and you do not have real faith unless you repent. No one turns from sin to Jesus unless they truly believe, but if they truly believe then they must turn from their sin to Jesus. Faith and works are intricately woven together (We must remember, however, that it is God who grants both faith and works).

Paul calls this the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26 see also Acts 6:7) and we see this same concept throughout his writings. In Acts, Paul talks about performing deeds, or works, in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20). James and Paul do not contradict each other.[2] They simply address different audiences, employ their own style, and explain things using different concepts. For example, Paul talks about us being dead to sin and alive to God. He says we are slaves of righteousness, slaves of God. He says that we must sow (work) to the Spirit if we want to reap eternal life. Paul is not as different from James as many think he is; Paul just emphases the importance of works in a different way (see also 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal.5:19-25).

Also, notice that in the Gospels there are examples of people acting in faith and thus being healed and saved. For instance, the woman that reached out and touched Jesus (Luke 8:42-48 see also Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:36-50; Jn. 6:35, 51; Mark 2:1-5) demonstrated “works” and faith. Jesus in a sense equated the two, the woman “worked” (reached out and touched Jesus) and Jesus said your “faith has made you well.”[3] These passages demonstrate the unity between faith and works. We must also remember that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:17-20; 12:35; Luke 6:43-45) just as faith is known by its works. Jesus also talks about us bearing much fruit and thus proving to be one of His disciples (John 15:9). John the baptizer, inspired by the Spirit, equates belief and obedience in John 3:36. He says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey (you expect to see “believe” here cf. v. 16, 18 but note v. 20-21) the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” It is those who do the will of God that our heirs (Mark 3:35). We also see a similar thing in Hebrews, Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (5:10).[4]

Jesus teaches that those who merely say they believe by saying “Lord, Lord” will not enter the kingdom of heaven but those that do the will of the Father will enter in (cf. Matt. 7:21). However, Jesus by no means teaches us that we are justified by works (cf. Luke 18:9-14) but that the faith that justifies will be a faith that will unavoidably produce good works (cf. Matt. 7:17-18). Jesus is not merely concerned with right belief because, as we have seen, even the demons belief is orthodox but their belief is obviously not justifying faith for it does not lead to right action or repentance.

D.A. Carson has said,

“What, then, is the essential characteristic of the true believer, the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ? It is not loud profession, nor spectacular spiritual triumphs, nor protestations of great spiritual experience. Rather, his chief characteristic is obedience. The true believers perform the will of their Father… The Father’s will is not simply admired, discussed, praised, debated; it is done. It is not theologically analyzed, nor congratulated for its high ethical tones; it is done.”[5]

He goes on to say,

“It is true, of course, that no man enters the kingdom because of his obedience; but it is equally true that no man enters the kingdom who is not obedient. It is true that men are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ; but it is equally true that God’s grace in a man’s life inevitably results in obedience.”[6]

Mark 16:16 is also another passage to look at, it says, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”[7] This passage does not teach baptismal regeneration but it does show us that obedience must accompany saving faith. We must remember, however, that just as God speaks all things into existence, He also gives spiritual life ex nihilo, out of nothing. We were dead as dry bones and He spoke life into us through His word. We were dead in our trespasses and sins and desperately wicked and thus we can’t work for salvation (cf. John 1:13; 6:63; Rom. 9:16; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:1, 4-5; James 1:18; Ezek. 37:1-14) this is clear, but salvation will necessarily lead to good works. That is why obedience and belief can be so deeply tied together.

The Divines of the Westminster Confession of Faith accurately wrote that:

“Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone… Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”[8]

We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone, “it is ever accompanied by all other graces.” Or as question 64 of the Heidelberg Catechism says, “It is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

The last passage I want to look at here is John 13. Peter tells Jesus that he does not want Him to wash his feet (v. 6). It is striking to me that Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8) and then He goes on to say, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 14). So Jesus is saying don’t try and work for your salvation (you can’t) but follow my example and serve others because I have served you. 

Works do not save us. We are saved by accepting the work that Jesus did on our behalf, He washed us. And, in fact, if we try to work for our salvation we “have no share with [Jesus] (v. 8). However, that in no way negates the importance of works, to the contrary; it gives works deep significance. We are called to imitate Christ (v. 14-16). Jesus told Peter he could not work for salvation (v. 6-8) but works do have their place. Jesus served Peter (even enabling Peter to serve Him cf. John 1:13; 14:16; Gal. 5:16-24; 2 Peter 1:3; Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-27) through the cross and thus Peter served Jesus imitating Him, even to death (cf. John 13:14-16); tradition says, death by upside down crucifixion (cf. John 21:18-19). Peter was saved by trusting Jesus Christ’s all-sufficient service and yet Peter served and imitated Jesus out of a supreme joyous thankfulness (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9; 2:21-25; 4:13-14).

May we serve in the same way and with the same motivation that Peter did. May we work and serve Christ not to earn right standing before God but to demonstrate that through Christ’s atoning death we have right standing before God. If we have been declared righteous in Christ then let’s live righteously before Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). Let’s show our faith from our works, as Abraham did.

[1] Repent (metanoeite) and repentance (metanoia) means an alteration of mind and purpose that brings a change in life and practice. J. M. Lunde says, “The biblical notion of repentance refers to the radical turning away from anything which hinders one’s wholehearted devotion to God, and the corresponding turning to God in love and obedience” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 726. Italics mine). Here, once again, we see the all-encompassing nature of Christianity. Repentance in a sense is to convert mind, body, soul, and strength (i.e. total devotion) to Christ. Similarly, baptism partly represents living in and for Christ. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3 see also Rom. 6:4, 11; Gal. 3:27). Romans 7:4 says, we “have died… through the body of Christ… [and have] been raised from the dead (notice baptism language) in order that we may bear fruit for God.” Baptism symbolizes “not only the putting off of sinful habits and passions, but actual death to a former life of evil, and also resurrection to a new life of purity and holiness” (Charles R. Erdman, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to the Philemon [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, year unknown], 70.).

[2] John Macarthur says in his book Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles [(Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 153] that “James is not at odds with Paul. ‘They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel’” [Alexander Ross, “The Epistles of James and John,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1954), 53.].

[3] The Greek word seswken can mean “heal” or “save” but I believe it means both in this context; notice Jesus says “go in peace.”

[4] Jesus does say, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (Jn. 14:23) but we don’t keep his word merely through white-knuckling and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Jesus gives us a Helper and empowers us (v. 16). Jesus only says we will keep His word because He first says that He will give us a Helper to enable us to do so. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish (Heb. 12:2). It is only when we abide in Jesus and He abides in us by grace that we bear fruit (Jn. 15:4-5). So although we must bear the fruits of faith even that fruit is a gracious gift and work of God. It is the direct result of being connected to Christ and does not come from good that is intrinsically in us. As Paul reminds us we work with all the power that God works within us (Phil. 2:13). We must be reminded that if we are in Christ there will necessarily be a work within us but this work is by His power. We were made alive by God (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13) by connection to Jesus the “true vine” through whom we, the branches, can now bear fruit. Apart from Him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5)! Notice that we did not connect ourselves to the true vine, we were dead helpless branches on the ground, the vine dresser connected us (v. 1, 16). We did not chose God, He chose us (v. 16). Faith and fruit are both gracious gifts of God.

[5] D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 130.

[6] Ibid., 131.

[7] I realize that many people believe that the “long ending” of Mark was not included in the original autographs. Whether or not that is the case is not what I seek to answer here.

[8] Taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith (italics mine). For scriptural grounds for this statement see: Rom. 8:30; 3:24; 5:15–16;  4:5–8; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Rom. 3:22–28; Titus 3:5, 7; Eph. 1:7;  Jer. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:30–31; Rom. 5:17–19; John 1:12; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:38; Phil. 3:9; Eph. 2:7–8; John 6:44–45, 65; Phil. 1:29; John 3:18, 36; Rom. 3:28; 5:1; James 2:17, 22, 26; Gal. 5:6. See also article 4, 6, and 20 of the Augsburg Confession.