The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: F

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Faith acting through works

The question of whether a person is saved by faith or by works has been the subject of great debate in Christendom down the ages. It formed the basis of the great split which occurred in the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches, for the clarion call of the leader of the Protestant movement, Martin Luther, was 'salvation by faith alone'. In this he rejected the teaching of Roman Catholicism that salvation was to be obtained by doing works imposed by the church, and substituted for it salvation by an individual calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scripture is quite clear on the matter: there is such a thing as salvation by faith and there is such a thing as salvation by works. They are not alternatives; both are necessary. However, there is an order of priority: salvation by faith comes first, and salvation by works comes second. The works or deeds that are required are those which flow from faith; they are the deeds which provide the evidence that faith truly exists in a person.

The above concept is both Scriptural and simple, but, like many such concepts, is not generally followed in Christendom. For many, salvation is a matter of a once-off profession of belief in Jesus Christ; whilst for many others the carrying out of acts of benevolence towards one's fellows is all that is required. These concepts fall a long way short of the teaching of Scripture. Moreover, they are not the only ways in which wrong ideas are held about faith and works.

What is faith?

The word 'faith' in ordinary English usage has a slightly mystical aura about it. In ordinary speech the word 'belief' can be used in quite trivial contexts, but not 'faith'. One believes that a bus will shortly turn up; one has faith that everything will ultimately be all right even though the present is dark.

This distinction does not, however, occur in Scripture, where 'belief' and 'faith' are interchangeable for the same Greek original. In fact it is usually 'believe' when it is a verb and 'faith' when it is a noun. There is nothing mystical about faith in the Bible; it simply means belief.

There is a common teaching of Christendom that faith is imparted by God directly into man's heart through the Holy Spirit... Heb 11:6 says: "But without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him". Faith here is defined as believing in the existence of God, and believing what God has declared in His Word about what lies in store in His Kingdom. It must also involve believing in the work of Jesus Christ in overcoming sin and death, for this is the only way in which as sinners we are enabled to enjoy what God has promised for the future. The phrase "diligently seek" reminds us that there is more to faith than just acquiescing to something said; it goes much further than that, which is where works come in, as we shall see.

In Act 8:12 we read concerning the people of Samaria: "when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women". These Samaritans showed the faith which saves; that is what faith is: believing the gospel. The faith that they had immediately led to 'works', however, for they were baptized; they did something which was commanded by God, because they believed God.

Abraham believed God

"And [Abram] believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen 15:6). This is a key passage. Abraham was showing the faith that saves, the faith which must be shown if a person is to be counted righteous by God and live for ever in His Kingdom, and so these words are quoted three times in the New Testament.

The previous chapter records that Abram (for his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) had routed the forces of the five kings who had captured Sodom and Gomorrah. He then turned down the offer of the king of Sodom to give him all the spoil recovered in Abram's great victory. Abram must have wondered if bigger armies might come against him, and if he had done the right thing in turning down the spoils. God reassured him in the words, "Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield [against vengeful armies], and thy exceeding great reward [not the king of Sodom]". The promises of the seed, both singular (v 4) and multitudinous (v 5), were then repeated to him. These things were what Abram believed, and this belief or faith which he showed enabled God to count him as righteous. The faith which he had was nothing mysterious, nor was it a mere intellectual assent to the truth of what he had been told; it was a wholehearted trust in God to do what He had said He would do, a trust in God which controlled his life.

In Rom 4 Paul is dealing with Jews who thought that they were righteous in God's sight because of their efforts to keep the laws which He had given them. Many elements later incorporated into the Law of Moses were to be found in patriarchal society, and Abraham and the other patriarchs would have kept these. It was not this that caused God to count Abraham as righteous, however, as has been shown, and God's statement in Gen 15:6 is the key element in Paul's argument that salvation comes through faith, not works (v 3). In Rom 4 Paul is especially concerned with Abraham's faith in the promise of a seed, as is shown by his quotation in v 18 of the words of Gen 15:5: "So shall thy seed be". The chapter then sets out how he showed this faith in the promise: "And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what He had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness" (vv. 19-22).

Abraham's faith, by which he was counted righteous by God, and which stands for all time as an example of what faith is all about, consisted in "being fully persuaded that, what [God] had promised, He was able also to perform", namely, that he and Sarah would have a son. Humanly it was not possible, but he knew God could do all things. The essence of our faith, if we would be counted as righteous before God, is that we should believe that what God has promised He will do through His Son Jesus Christ, namely, set up His Kingdom and give us an everlasting place in it, cleansed from our sins.

To illustrate the simplicity of this concept we refer to an extract from Elpis Israel. The writings of Brother Thomas, with good reason at times, are said to be hard to understand, but the concept of justification (being made righteous) by faith has surely never been put with greater clarity than in these words:

"There is no true religion without faith; nor any true faith without the belief of the truth. Now, although a scriptural faith is the scarcest thing among men. it is exceedingiy simple, and by no means difficult to acquire, when it is sought for aright. Paul gives the best definition of faith extant. He says, 'Faith is a confident anticipation... of things hoped for, a full persuasion... of things not seen' (Heb 11:1). This is the faith without which, he tells us afterwards, God is not, and cannot by any possibility be pleased. It is a faith which lays hold of the past and the future. The person who possesses it knows what is testified concerning Jesus by the apostles, and is fully persuaded of its truth; he also knows the exceeding great and precious promises which God has made concerning things to come, and he confidently anticipates the literal fulfilment of them. Laying hold of these things with a firm faith, he acquires a mode of thinking and a disposition which are estimable in the sight of God; and being like Abraham in these particulars, he is prepared, by induction into Christ, to become a son of the father of the faithful and of the friend of God.

"This faith comes by studying the scriptures; as it is written, 'Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God' (Rom 10:17). This word contains the 'testimony of God'. When this testimony is understood, and allowed to make its own impression in 'a good and honest heart', faith establishes itself there. There is no more mystery in this, than how one man comes to believe another guilty of a crime when he is made acquainted with all the testimony in the case. The ability to believe lies in a sound understanding, a candid disposition, and knowledge of the testimony of God. Where there is ignorance of this there can be no faith. It is as impossible for a man ignorant of God's word to have faith, as it is for a man to believe another guilty of an alleged crime who knows nothing at all about the matter" (Elp 162,163).

Abraham's works

It must never be forgotten that all Scripture must be interpreted in context, not just verses within chapters but chapters within books.

Rom 4 is part of an argument by Paul against Jews who thought that God was obliged to give them eternal life because they kept His law. Paul shows that sinful mankind can only earn death, and the only thing a person can do to obtain life eternal is believe what God says. The statement about Abraham's faith in Gen 15:6 is crucial to his argument.

In James 2 the apostle is dealing with a different matter. There were those who apparently thought of faith as being some inner quality that one had quite apart from anything one actually did. This is not so, says Jam 2:17: "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being by itself" (AV mg). If a person's life does not show forth works then that person does not have the faith which saves; in reality he does not have faith at all.

Like Paul, James turns to Abraham to illustrate what he means. When God told Abraham to go to a certain place and offer up his son Isaac, he went, and would have offered him if God had not intervened. He knew God's power and therefore believed that God would still be able to fulfil His promise that from Isaac would come a great multitude, because He could raise him from the dead. The comment is: "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God" (vv 22,23). The NEB rendering, "faith was at work in his actions", seems to give the idea best.

Initially it is by faith that a person is justified before God. He (or she) believes God's Word, repents of sin, and by baptism is associated with Jesus Christ's victory over sin. From then on there is justification by works, for if there is truly a belief in what God has said in His Word then that belief will result in a certain way of life, summed up in the word "works".

Yet the newly baptized believer is but a 'newborn babe' (1Pe 2:2). Faith grows, and so do the works. When Abraham was prepared to offer up Isaac, "by works was faith made perfect". The word translated "perfect" does not mean 'flawless' -- it means 'mature'. It was many years after the events of Gen 15 that Abraham obeyed the command to offer Isaac. During this time his faith in God grew, and as a result so did his obedience, until the time came when it could be said to be mature.

Again the position is put with great clarity in Elpis Israel:

"I would direct the reader's attention to the fact, that Abraham was the subject of a twofold justification, as it were; first, of a justification by faith; and secondly, of a justification by works. PAUL SAYS, he was justified by faith; and James, that he was 'justified by works'. They are both right. As a sinner he was justified from his past sins when his faith was counted to him for righteousness; and as a saint, he was justified by works when he offered up Isaac. Of his justification as a saint James writes, 'Abraham our father was justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar. Faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect. And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and NOT by faith alone' (Jam 2:21-24).

"I have termed it a twofold justification by way of illustration; but it is, in fact, only one. The two stand related as cause and effect; faith being the motive principle it is a justification which begins with the remission of sins that are past, and is perfected in obedience unto death. The idea may be simplified thus. No exaltation without probation. If a man believe and obey the gospel his past sins are forgiven him in Christ; but, if after this he walk in the course of the world his faith is proved to be dead, and he forfeits his title to eternal life. But if, on the other hand, a man become an adopted son of Abraham, and 'by a patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honour, and incorruptibility' (Rom 2:7), he will find everlasting life in the Paradise of God" (Elp 260,261).
What we are reinforcing in this article is one of the foundation principles of the Christadelphian body, established very clearly from the very beginning of our community.

What are works?

There can easily be confusion about what works are. The phrase 'good works' is often used to indicate the sort of things which a 'Christian' does. These 'good works' are said to consist of acts of benevolence to others, both those done individually in the course of everyday life, and those done through charitable organisations set up to help others. Many people think that if they do acts of kindness towards others then they will be rewarded in the 'next life', whatever that may consist of.

To think like this is to believe in salvation by works, for it means that God is thought to be under obligation to a person to give a future reward in return for good deeds done now. Such a view completely overlooks all that we have already said in this article: that salvation is primarily by faith, not by works, and that faith means believing what God has said in His Word. Many people who expect a future reward for works done now have no idea what God has said in His Word, let alone believe it.

It is instructive to consider the 'works' which are used as examples in Jam 2. In the case of Abraham it was being prepared to kill his own son, a deed which in every civilised society is regarded as murder of the vilest sort. It is the fact that Abraham was acting in obedience to God's command that transforms being prepared to commit a horrible crime into a great example of faith.

The other example given in James 2 is that of Rahab. What Rahab did was to hide her country's enemies in a time of war -- an act of treason which brings severe punishment, often death, in any country. What transformed her act of treason into an example of faith for all time is the fact that she did what she did because she believed in the God of Israel, and in God's purpose with Israel, and chose to identify herself with this purpose.

Heb 11 is full of examples of faith. If the chapter is studied carefully it will be seen that all the examples given showed their faith by what they did; their belief in God resulted in certain actions in their lives. The predominant theme is that of association with God's people. God's promises. God's coming Kingdom. To do such inevitably has consequences for a person's way of life, and this comes out in the chapter:

"Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain"; "Noah... prepared an ark to the saving of his house"; "Abraham... went out, not knowing whither he went"; "Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come"; "Joseph... gave commandment concerning his bones"; "Moses... refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter"; "Rahab... received the spies with peace".

Besides these examples there are hosts of others referred to at the end of the chapter whose faith was shown in the way they lived their lives.

It is particularly noticeable that the things that were done arose out of a belief that God would do what He said He would do. Abel surely offered a lamb (Gen 4:2,4) because he believed that God would one day send the promised seed who would die as a lamb for the sins of the world. Noah built the ark because he believed what God had said about the coming Flood. Abraham left his native land because he believed in God's promises about the land of Canaan. Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, believing that God would bring about these blessings. Joseph gave command concerning his bones because he believed that God would bring Israel to the Promised Land one day. Moses associated himself with Israel, not Egypt, because he believed in Israel's great future under God's good hand. Rahab likewise believed that the future lay with Israel, not her own people. The faith that pleases God is a belief that He will surely fulfil His promises of the Kingdom through the Lord Jesus Christ.

We do not, of course, deny that believers in Christ should do good deeds to their fellow men. Elsewhere in James we read: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (Jam 1:27). We read in Gal 6:10: "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith". However, it is obedience to God that makes works acceptable to God, not benevolence to man. Even though the commands of God do involve benevolence to man, such good deeds can be and are shown by those with no belief in God at all, let alone in the gospel of the Kingdom. It takes a belief in the gospel of the Kingdom to make works acceptable to God.

A distorted view

It is undoubtedly true that the Apostle Paul lays great stress on the fact that justification is by faith, not works. However, if what the Scriptures say about works being necessary to demonstrate a true faith is not taken into account, a distorted picture can emerge.

Faith, as we have seen, means believing what God has said in His Word. If all that God had given us was a list of do's and don'ts then all we could do would be to hang it up somewhere, remind ourselves of them regularly, and try hard to obey them. However, what God has done is to teach us of His ways in a large volume containing an immense variety of material which is capable of occupying the finest minds for a lifetime without anywhere near exhausting its depths. We are told to treat this as our spiritual food: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Mat 4:4); we are told that it "effectually worketh also in you that believe" (1Th 2:13).

The Apostle Paul says: "be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2); he says the new man (or woman) in Christ "is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him" (Col 3:10). The Word of God will change our thinking if we will let it, but only if we read it and believe implicitly that it is true, that is, have faith. If our thinking is changed to be more and more in accordance with God's thoughts then what we do in our lives will be affected, and we will more and more do what is in accordance with the will of God, that is, perform works. So, while we do not deny that determination to do better is a Scriptural concept -- what else does Peter mean when he says, "gird up the loins of your mind" (1Pe 1:13)? -- there is certainly a lot more to living the Truth than that.

We do not forget that one who believes God's Word and tries to act on it will nevertheless through the weakness of the flesh fall far short of full obedience to the Word of God. Forgiveness for such failures is of course available through Christ. Nor would we fail to mention that God is active in the lives of believers to help them in their efforts to obey His Word, although this is not done by direct action on the mind but by control of external

In the early part of the article we laid much emphasis on a firm belief in God's declared purpose being the faith which saves. How does this square with what we have said above about belief in God's Word transforming our thinking to be in accordance with God's? God's ultimate purpose, to which He is working, is that a multitude of people will manifest His character perfectly and live for ever. This is what His work in Christ is all about; this is what His Kingdom is all about. Belief in God's purpose in Christ, and belief in the gospel of the Kingdom, entails believing what God has to say about how His character should be shown in His people. Taking into the mind the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom means taking into the mind the moral teaching concerning the Kingdom, and showing it in a way of life. If we believe God's promises and want to be part of them we have to show in our lives that they mean something to us now.


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