Something that’s come up for me in my study and discussions with other Christians is the old and classic question of faith versus works. I’m troubled sometimes about how many misconceptions, and poor assumptions there are on this subject, and while the last thing I want to do is start an argument, there’s some things that need to be said. I put it this way:
There is nothing you can do on your own to save yourself… absolutely nothing. Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nothing human beings do can earn this in any way.
But if you think that your actions (or lack of action) don’t matter, you’re wrong.
Does that sound contradictory? Ok, let’s dig a bit deeper. And if you want to comment, go down the bottom of this post…
What is Faith?
First of all, I need to make it clear that I’m a card-carrying righteousness-by-faith protestant Christian. Hebrews 10:38 is unambiguous: “The just shall live by faith”, and if anyone thinks they can reach some plane of righteous perfection, where they’ve earned salvation, Paul’s assertion that “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” ought to burst that illusion. Many of us are familiar with these texts, but I wanted to include them so that the discussion is clear.
So we know that faith is essential and sufficient for salvation, but before we close the discussion with that, it’s probably worth asking ourselves whether we really know what faith is.
What is faith?
The classic definition comes from the beginning of the great ‘faith chapter’—Hebrews 11. Verse 1 says “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (NKJV). The NIV puts it like this: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” We need to recognise that this is much more than simply agreeing that something exists. You may know that you have a dining room table—that the table exists—but you don’t ‘have faith in’ the table, that it died for your sins, and can save you.
Depending on your translation, Hebrews 11:1 uses words like ‘substance’, ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ to talk about faith. These are not passive words, and I want to assert here and now that faith is not a passive thing. Faith is active. I made this point in an earlier post on this blog (click on this link if you want to review it in full), so I won’t repeat myself too much. To summarise, James make it very clear that “faith without works is dead” (2:20) and that we need to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).
What it boils down to is that if faith is not backed up by deeds, it’s not faith at all—just a meaningless statement.
Faith in the Old and New Testaments
While we’re on the subject, let’s debunk a myth related to the subjects of faith and works. I’ve heard it said more than once that the Old Testament was about works, while the New Testament is about faith. At best, this is a very shallow and facile reading of scripture, perhaps because of the passages devoted to God’s law, the sacrificial system, and so on. At worst, it suggests a fundamental change in God’s character over time.
The fact is that salvation has always been by faith alone, and God’s people in old testament times knew that very well. Paul knew that. When he said that “The just shall live by faith”, he was actually quoting the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4), and if we go back to Hebrews 11, we see Paul repeatedly making the point that the Old Testament patriarchs’ greatest moments were when they acted in faith.
So the principle of active faith is a strong underlying truth throughout the scriptures. Faith drives us to action, and if it doesn’t, it isn’t faith. When Christ called to Peter to step out of the boat in Matthew 14, it was obviously faith that allowed him to do so, and it was a failure in that faith that caused him to sink. But consider that moment just before Peter stepped out. Did standing there in the boat require him to have faith? Of course not. There was no faith involved while Peter was safely on the deck of the boat. It was only in the action of stepping onto the water, and letting go of the boat that faith came into play.
Are We Devaluing God’s Grace?
The idea that faith need not be backed up by actions, simply because our actions cannot save us is a comfortable heresy. It is every bit as dangerous as preaching righteousness by works, and I think it’s a lot more tempting in this increasingly permissive age. It suggests that everything is okay—that a Christian’s way of life need not be transformed—that it’s okay to keep sinning, because God’s grace wipes away all sin.
Perhaps dealing with this very thing in the early Roman church, Paul was quite emphatic. Romans 6:1,2 says “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”
It’s certainly true that our actions, and our obedience to God’s law will never be perfect. We’re sinners, and that’s why we need God’s grace. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking—because our sins are forgiven—that sin is okay. To say is to cheapen and devalue God’s grace. If it was okay to sin, then we never needed grace in the first place, and Christ died for nothing.
Sin is never okay. We do need a saviour.
Lord, help me to put my faith into action every day. Help me to be obedient to Your instructions, and please forgive me when I fail.