Faith and Works: Sorting through the teachings

Some Popular Ways Faith has been described that are often mixed up and promoted today: (Quotes at the top and an explanation at the bottom)

Søren Kierkegaard

Christian dogma, according to Kierkegaard, embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.

Summary via https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

Martin Luther

Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. “Faith is not enough,” they say, “You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.” They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, “I believe.” That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn’t come from this `faith,’ either.

Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly.

Quote from Luther’s commentary on Romans found via https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/martin-luthers-definition-faith/

John Calvin

“Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Quote from Calvin’s Institutes found via http://christreformedrcus.org/?p=711

Paul and James on Faith

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness[b] of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”

Romans 4:13-22 ESV

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[b] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James 2:14-26 ESV

An Explanation

Now, the Apostles gave us a good hint when they wrote in their letters on what faith is and how we should think about it but that hint has often been ignored and faith has been pitted against works and reason as a result of it. In fact Martin Luther vehemently seperated Paul’s definition from James’ definition basing his doctrine of justification by faith alone strongly on Paul and of James saying

“that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.”

via Smith, Preserved. The Life And Letters Of Martin Luther. Kessinger Publishing LLC, 2007.

However, James hints at his agreement and explanation from a different angle of what Paul says in how they both use Genesis 15:6 and Abraham’s story to define faith. What we see is Paul on one hand stating that we are not justified before God by fufilling the law. Abraham did not receive the promise of God in reaction to his fufilling all the commandments of God (the law) instead he received the promise by putting his trust or faith in the fact that “God was able to do what he had promised”. In other words, Paul says Abraham did not fufill the whole law to be declared righteous as we learn he could not since all without Christ sin and have sinned (Romans 3:23). Here we see a defense against Kierkegaardian thinking, Abraham’s faith or trust is not just a leap or seperate from reason, it is not absurd, rather it is based in something wholly reliable and rationally justified to Abraham by this point in Gen. 15. Abraham has seen God’s faithfulness through several situations and has communicated with Him regularly prior to this moment. So Abraham is not putting blind trust but is putting a rationally justified trust in God to do something even beyond what Abraham has seen thus far but according to who God is and what Abraham knows of God, something that has not yet taken place but will in the future which is why it requires him to specifically put trust in God’s fufilling it.

What about James?

Now, James does not disagree with Paul, he does not try to say a person is justified only when they fufill the whole law. Again, this is Paul’s argument that a person cannot be justified by works or in other words declared just by keeping the whole law because a person can only be called righteous according to works if they do not depart from the law at any point as James later points out. Instead James continues on Paul’s line of thought and points out that Faith is not something seperatable from Works. You never have real faith if it is not displayed or shown via works, works and actions are the actualization of faith and indeed they solidify that faith making it real faith. This is what I believe Paul means when he says Abraham grew in his faith by giving glory to God, as James says Abraham gave glory to God by trusting Him through action even being willing to give up his son.

So, faith is something that takes place in action according to our trust in this faithful God and according to the evidence that He indeed is faithful.

The History behind Paul and James Explanations on Faith

It is important to understand the history behind both the letter of Galatians (where Paul first gives his Gen 15 explanation of faith) and the letter of James. At time Galatians was written Paul was dealing with Jewish false teachers who were teaching that the believers needed to go on and obey all the Jewish accepted commandments to be saved, instead Paul rebukes this teaching by showing it is faith and not simply fufilling the pharisaic list of actions that saves. Paul actually went to the counsel in Jerusalem with just this argument and was defended by James (Acts 15:13-21). So James agreed with Paul on his teaching of faith to the gentiles. Then why did James write his letter? Clearly from the letter it was a reaction against Jewish believers who were saying they had faith in Jesus but were acting in ways that were totally contrary to Jesus. They were mistreating the poor and highlighting the rich rather than being impartial in how they treated others in the church. So, James gives them a lesson on faith’s connection to works.

What is wrong with Luther and Calvin?

Calvin and Luther were very close to a right definition of faith but missed a crucial point. Luther’s dismissal of James is a clue here. Luther considered faith to be a gift and that after the gift of faith works would come automatically later. This however chronologically seperates faith and action in a way that the scriptures do not. Now, the scriptures do seperate justification by works from justification by faith which is different. We cannot fufill the law and the law was even given to show our inability to fufill it so we might humble ourselves and come to God in repentance. Calvin does not really correct Luther in his definition but instead offers an explanation of how the gift is imparted.

Now, Jesus indeed says that no one can come to Him except the Father draws him and to Peter that the knowledge that He is the Christ is not from Peter but was given to him by God but Jesus never states that the faith itself is simply a gift or that it is not interconnected to action. For instance, Peter was led by Jesus for some time before being able to come to this conclusion. God did not have to send Jesus to Peter and Jesus did not have to step by step reveal Himself to Peter as He did. Instead, God in His mercy dealt with Peter and the disciples in their sin and gave them abundant evidence (Evidence that is over what was simply required) and through discipleship in challenging their wrong thinking. This is a gift because God was in no way obligated to do it, indeed Jesus often chastised the disciples for their unbelief indicating they had enough evidence long before they took the step of believing. Logically, the scriptures do not either call faith the gift of God especially imparted to those who believe and it actually goes against the conclusion that faith and action are seperate.

In Defense of Luther and Calvin

Luther and Calvin were really the heart of the reformation and were reacting to a false teaching of work based salvation so I can really see why they so vehemently did not want to associate salvation with doing things. The Catholic church in their day made indulgences, public fasts, required tithes and pilgramages requirments for one to be forgiven and saved. Requiring these things is so contrary to scriptures picture of placing our trust wholly in Christ that it is of no wonder they took such a strong stance. This being said however, they did not need to go counter to scripture. Yet, Luther pushes back on James and even opposes him and makes a tiny seeming departure from scripture. Luther and Calvin both affirm that works will come if the faith is true, for instance. The issue is they both also affirm that faith can exist given no works at least at the very intial “gifting”. I have no doubt that there are some who have lived with their definition of faith and works and been true followers of Jesus BUT many in our generation and in previous generations have taken advantage of this unbiblical seperation to say “I believed” at such and such a time so I am a follower of Jesus and then go on not acting in faith but guard their pew sunday after sunday never entering into the sort of discipleship life Jesus calls us into (Matt 28:19-20). In our day we see this to epic proportions.

Be a Tester of the Truth not a Casual Hearer

So let’s define our terms Biblically whether the issue is faith, works, love, sin etc. Let’s see what God has said about it rather than look simply to people we have admired or who have done much for the cause of God. God speaks because He wants us to be in direct relationship to Him that requires us being testers of the truth not just casual hearers of it.

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