Three lessons on faith and works

Alan Stanley

Dr Alan Stanley, Director of Postgraduate Studies, Lecturer in Bible and Theology.

I have been interested in this subject for the last 20 years. It began when I was studying the Gospels at seminary. Jesus seemed to speak a different language, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, than what I was used to.

For instance, to a lawyer who believed one must love God and one’s neighbour in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “Correct. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:26). I’m not sure that would have been my answer. I could get my head around loving God but to love your neighbour made me uncomfortable. A rich young man asked the same question and Jesus told him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22). I definitely wouldn’t have given that answer. These aren’t isolated examples; there are many passages in the Gospels that enforce what Jesus tells these two men. And so I began my doctoral dissertation which sought to explain The Relationship Between Works and Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels.

This is the kind of thing Dr Brad Green will be looking at in the MA intensive during 13-17 February 2017. If this is a subject that you’re interested in, don’t miss it.

So what have I learned since being engrossed in this area of study for the last 20 years?

Lesson #1: The relationship between faith and works can’t be reduced to one scenario.  It’s fairly common to think that the “works” Jesus wants nothing to do with are bad or sinful. However, the New Testament is replete with scenarios where people claim to know Jesus do seemingly good things, like perform miracles, cast out demons, and prophesy. Hardly evil! And yet they will be excluded from Jesus’ eternal presence (Matt. 7:21-23). Paul addresses a similar scenario in Corinth. The Corinthians often get stereotyped as backslidden apostates wallowing in the mud of the world. But nothing could be further from the truth: they are zealous to hear good sermons—by the right preacher of course (can we not relate to that today?); they have had great spiritual experiences, they are turning up for the Lord’s supper, they are zealous for spiritual gifts, and keen to experience the Spirit. Sure there are issues of immorality in the church, but that’s the point—it’s in the church! These are hardly prodigal-son-type-people. And yet Paul dares to warn them that it is possible for such people to miss out on the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The scenario in James is similar in some respects but quite different in others. These people, like the Corinthians, have not turned their backs on the word or church, but there is little indication they are even seeking an experience of the Spirit. They are, however, in love with the world. James, like Paul, warns that this must not continue (James 2:14-26). The seven churches in Revelation 2–3 provide a good example of the variety of scenarios within Scripture on this subject, from people who have kept the world out (Rev. 2:1-7) to those who have let the world in (Rev. 3:14-22); from those who have a reputation for good works (Rev. 3:1-6) to those who tolerate heresy and idolatry (Rev. 2:18-29). In every single one of these cases, these people have not left the church. There are of course other scenarios: people who decide to no longer follow Christ—Hebrews warns against this; people who once confessed Christ but have since run a muck theologically, even claiming to be without sin—1 John addresses such a situation; and there are those who “never stop sinning” turning their backs on righteousness (2 Pet. 2:13-22). The point is that we must avoid simplistic scenarios when discussing this topic. To do so is to collapse what the Scripture says about the relationship between faith and works into one or two pithy maxims that in all likelihood do not do justice to the complexity of the scenarios life will invariably throw up.

Lesson #2: The emphasis in the relationship between faith and works must be on faith. Over time I have found myself speaking less about works and more about faith. The reason for this is quite simple: “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Because of the context some commentators suggest that “everything” here is not in fact everything. But Paul often makes the point that obedience in general arises from faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; 1 Thess. 1:3). “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). Love is the product of faith and faith is the source of love (1 Tim. 1:5). Now if, as Paul argues, every command in Scripture can be summed up in “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:10), then logically every kind of obedience must, and indeed can only arise from faith. If it does not, it is sin—which explains why God hated Israel’s offerings and prayers; good things in themselves, things that even the law commanded, but they did not arise from faith.

Why is faith so important? Because “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). When we exercise faith our hearts are saying in effect that God is our hope, confidence, and assurance (Heb. 11:1), he is our satisfaction (John 6:35), and the One in whom we glory (Rom. 4:20). Paul says that it is with the heart that we exercise faith (Rom. 10:10). Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure (Matt. 6:21). If we put these three things together—heart, faith, treasure—to have faith in Jesus means no less than to treasure him. To have faith is to trust him more than anything else that is competing for the allegiance of our heart. This explains why Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (John 14:23). “Mere duty will not generate obedience to Christ; only love for him can do that.”[1]

Many at this point will want to talk about “faith alone.” I’m okay with that but I prefer not to use the phrase for the only time it occurs in Scripture it does so pejoratively (James 2:24). It would be more biblical, in my view, to speak of “faith in Christ alone.” It matters where we put alone. When faith is in Christ alone our hearts are persuaded that Christ will satisfy more than those things that are saying “trust me”—money, success, career, reputation, possessions, education, approval, and so on. When we trust in Jesus alone ‘works’ will inevitably follow and he is glorified (2 Thess. 1:11-12).

Lesson #3: We must communicate the relationship between faith and works with pastoral sensitivity. This subject tends to engender a variety of emotions. Some will worry about their salvation while others will be angry that the subject of works is even being broached in the same sentence as salvation. Some won’t care; they’re saved and that’s that. Others will anxiously wonder if they’ve done ‘enough.’ We must be able to speak to each person where they are at. But there is no one-size-fits-all-answer just as there is no one-size-fits-all-scenario.  This is where pastoral sensitivity comes in. This is not a doctrine that we simply drop on people irrespective of their circumstances. We need to understand who we are talking to and not merely what we are saying to them. Years ago I spoke at an event where I broached this subject. After the message, a lady came to me in tears because a year earlier unimaginable tragedy had struck her family that left her feeling abandoned. She was struggling! And she heard my one-size-fits-all-doctrine and was now wondering if God had abandoned her. Lesson learned Alan! This subject, like any other, requires pastoral sensitivity.

And here is a lesson that I have learned recently. Not only must we approach others with pastoral sensitivity, we must do the same with ourselves. I know that I am my harshest critic. However, there is no one who loves me as much as God does—without condition (1 John 4:8). If God is able to look at me—all of me—and love me—all of me—then I must, therefore, see myself as he sees me. But too often we are disappointment with ourselves and we tend to think that God must be disappointed with us too. All too subtly though we have made our relationship with him about works. Once works become the driving force we are in danger of thinking we can redeem ourselves. John Coe, the director of Spiritual Formation at Biola University, articulates this well:

the attempt to deal with our spiritual failure, guilt and shame by means of spiritual efforts . . . is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience—being good in general—as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love and the guilt and shame that results.[2]

That is what it looks like to be driven by works rather than faith. But faith means trusting the God when he says, I love you—as you are (John 3:16; 15:13; 1 John 3:16; 4:10). We all know it, but how often do we run to any number of ‘works’ to make up for the disappointment we feel with ourselves and we imagine God probably does too? That is not faith producing works.

Think about Peter. Peter had failed in the worst possible way. He had not merely missed an opportunity to talk about Jesus, he had actively confessed that he didn’t know him. And yet at the empty tomb, the angel tells the women, “go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7). Why single out Peter? He could have simply said, “go, tell his disciples.” To answer that, put yourselves in Peter’s shoes and just imagine the women rushing up to you, “He said, ‘go tell his disciples and ________!”

 

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 505.

[2] John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1 (Spring 2008), 55.

 

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