Faith, Works, and Setting Aside My Concerns

Yesterday at a home school co-op class my 13-year-old daughter, Leilani, overheard some kids talking about faith and works. They were telling someone that there was no way to do enough works to go to heaven. Going to heaven, they said, was based on faith in Jesus only.

My daughter was puzzled, and she came to me and asked two things.

  1. Doesn’t this mean that a person can live however they want and go to heaven?
  2. Does this mean that a person like Gandhi, who did so much good, is going to hell?

I will leave the Gandhi discussion for a different blog. I just want to pass on the conversation we had about “faith only.”

Me: Your friends probably believe that works are necessary, but that they are produced by faith, so only faith is necessary.

Leilani: That doesn’t make any sense. Doesn’t that mean that works are still necessary? After all, a person without works won’t be saved, and a person with works will be saved. So works are still necessary.

Me: I am not going to try to defend their doctrine. I tried to do that with your grandmother (my mom) thirty years ago, and I ended up feeling like an idiot at the end of the conversation. The conversation went like this.

Me (thirty years ago): I’ve learned that we are saved by faith alone, mom.

Grandma/Mom: So you’re telling me that a person can do whatever they want and still go to heaven because they have faith?

Me (thirty years ago): No, of course not. Faith will produce good works. So if you don’t have works, you don’t have faith.

Grandma/Mom: So good works are necessary.

Me (thirty years ago): No, we’re saved by faith only.

Grandma/Mom: So a person can do whatever they want and still go to heaven because they have faith?

Me (yesteday to my daughter): That conversation with grandma went on in circles, and I felt more and more like an idiot. I had to stick to “faith alone,” though, because that’s what we believed. I am not going to repeat the conversation and feel like an idiot again.

Leilani: Does the Bible really say we go to heaven if we just believe? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Me: Here, read this. (I handed her my phone with its Bible app opened to James 2:14.) Read verses 14 through 26.

Leilani: Here’s the answer! It says it right here in verse 17! “Faith without works is dead.” Boom! Faith alone doesn’t work! What do they say about this verse?

Me: Don’t stop there. Jump down to verse 24.

Leilani: I’m using this verse from now on! We’re “justified by works and not by faith alone.” What do they say about this?

Me: Are you ready?

Leilani: Yes.

Me: They say that we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.

Leilani: (confused look on her face) What?

Me: James was just saying we’re not saved by faith that IS alone, but we are saved by faith alone.

Leilani: (Begins laughing loudly, then continues in a condescending tone.) Dad, adding a verb does not change the meaning of this verse.

Me: What do you mean?

Leilani: (laughing again) Faith that is alone and faith alone are the same thing.

Me: (Can’t think of anything to say because I agree, so I laugh, too.) Martin Luther found a better way to get past James 2:24.

Leilani: What did he say?

Me: He said James’ letter is an epistle of straw that has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

I suppose a lot of Protestants would want me to find a way to explain to my daughter that we are saved by faith alone, but that faith will always produce works. The problem is that Protestants are the only Christian religion in history to believe such a thing, so I’m not going to do that.

Leilani understands that faith obtains forgiveness of sins for us (Acts 10:43), but she also understands that if we live according to the flesh we will die spiritually (Rom. 8:12), that we will reap corruption rather than eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9), and that we will not receive any inheritance in the kingdom of God and his King (Eph. 5:5).

Thus, as James says, if we are talking about “going to heaven” (which isn’t correct terminology, either), we are justified by works and not by faith only.

Like Paul says, if we are talking about being born again only, then we are justified by faith apart from works. Of course, even Paul, when talking about “going to heaven” (correct terminology, “inheriting the kingdom”), says we need to patiently continue to do good (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:8-9).

Setting Aside My Concerns

While this is all true, here’s the word God has for me (or at least what I think God has for me) this week:

You are fond of contention and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation. In the Scriptures you will never find righteous men being rejected by those who are holy. The righteous were rejected, but only by the unholy and wicked. (Clement of Rome. c. AD 95. Paraphrased)

I could argue that this subject does pertain to salvation, but that’s not really true. What pertains to salvation is whether or not you do good works. Just because a person chooses an unbiblcal method of expressing our requirement to do good works doesn’t mean that person is not doing good works. It is the good works that matter, not the way we express the need for good works. One can contradict both the Bible and church history and say, “We go to heaven by faith alone,” but as long as that person is actually doing the good works that are required to inherit the kingdom of God—and teaching others to do the same—they will inherit the kingdom of God.

Faith, if it does not have works, is dead because it is alone. … Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”—James, brother of Jesus

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9 Responses to Faith, Works, and Setting Aside My Concerns

  1. Evan says:

    Your 13 year-old daughter is blessed to understand the gospel accurately. I wish I could go back some 35 years ago and learn the correct gospel message right the first time around. My guess is that it might have saved me a lot of grief and regret. It didn’t help that I later went on to seminary and all my professors were Reformed in their theology and the overriding theme of sola fide was inculcated in my brain. The result was that I had a cognitive faith but no saving faith – just like the demons who believe but don’t obey. When I read the Bible, my false paradigm caused me to perceive all the warning passages in the scriptures as directed to unbelievers, not believers. After all, we were saved by faith alone and nothing could change that; salvation was a done deal. God did it all so we don’t have to do anything. I bought into the bumper sticker mentality that Christians are not perfect; just forgiven. As a result I excused and minimized ongoing sin in my life; repeatedly asking God for forgiveness but not really repenting. I did not heed the gospel message that Paul himself preached of works befitting repentance (Acts 26:20). The last institutional church that I was a part of taught that God loves his children unconditionally. However the last time I checked Jn 14:21 it still reads that God loves those who keep his commandments and obey. Faith and works are two sides of the same coin; can’t have one without the other.
    Long story short is that I am now trying to navigate “the road less traveled,” trying to stay out of the ditch of legalism on one side of the road and staying out of the ditch of licentiousness on the other side of the road – in other words – staying on the narrow road that leads to life.

  2. Jon says:

    (it’s been a while)

    Somehow I feel there is a sort of false dichotomy here. Maybe that happens when faith is mentioned without including repentance. The problem with ‘What pertains to salvation is whether or not you do good works’ is that it makes it sounds like works are some kind of currency that we use to buy our place in the new creation. You can therefore imagine a kind of judgement scenario where some are told “sorry, you’re about 9 works short” etc. One can also imagine some having more works (those who have lived longer) than others. Some even have none yet still get it (e.g.the dying thief).

    Anyway, sometimes I find it helpful to ask a very specific question such as this:

    Take a passage such as Titus 3:4-7

    “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

    Could you, according to your understanding, describe what is meant here by rebirth, renewal and justification (past tense) by grace? What do you say it looks like in practice?

    • paulfpavao says:

      Good thing they email me. It’s a pain to get to the comments on this blog. I wish I knew how to make the comments button more prominent.

      Anyway, to your question. By now, it seems like you could answer a question like that for me! More likely, I suppose, I’m overestimating the ability to communicate by purely written word. So, on to Titus 3:4-7.

      “Washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” for anyone familiar with early church history, is an obvious reference to baptism and the laying on of hands that followed baptism. Baptism and laying on of hands, in the description of Scripture and the eyes of the church, result in an individual that has repented, been forgiven, and who is freed from sin in the way that Romans 6:3-11 describes.

      That person lives in grace (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14), and has the hope of eternal life. He expects to inherit eternal life at the judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) because he/she is “washed, set aside, and justfied in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”

      In practice, that person gets up everyday looking for the will of God. He/she is trained by God because that person lives in God’s favor and has the Spirit of God living in him/her. They do a good or bad job of this based on many factors, the greatest one (based on my experience) being what they are taught about themselves. If they know who they are, partakers of the divine nature and recipients of great, precious promises that deliver from the lust of this world, then they are almost certainly going to grow in the grace of God from start to finish, becoming deeper and deeper in their knowledge of God, their peace, their “settledness,” their kindness, and above all their ability to be unmoved by the circumstances of life.

      If they are taught that they are “poor sinners,” no different or better than the sinners of this world except for being forgiven, then they will probably live like westerners, loving the world and pursuing worldly treasures, worldly pleasures, and worldly safety, but possibly without cussing, smoking, stealing from their bosses, fornicating before or outside of marrigage, and they will avoid being democrat or violating the second amendment. They will also attend church and probably tithe.

      I fear for the latter group, that they will all perish in the lake of fire. I have utmost confidence that God will finish the work he began in almost all of the former group, and they will make it to their inheritance. If the former group could enter into church life with one another, then I would be really confident they would continue to the end and be saved because they would have built-up, spiritual help around them for their difficult times. Relying on just Jesus, the head in the heavens, is not enough. We also need Jesus, the body on earth (Heb. 3:12-13).

      That’s my practical outlook on Tit. 3:4-7.

      • Jon says:

        Thanks –

        I think that’s the kind of thing I thought you’d have said, I just wanted to clarify.
        I suppose that the issue for me, as usual, is an experiential one.

        The life of the person you described sounds good and right, though still alien to my experience 😦

  3. Justina says:

    if you have faith you will not just “live any way you want” because faith in Jesus means obedience to Him as Lord and you don’t want to displease Him, also because you love Him, so you avoid sin.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Justina: Then you think when someone says Jesus is wrong because God will forgive sin even if we don’t forgive our brother from our heart, then that someone doesn’t have faith? You think that someone who is a drunk doesn’t have faith? You think that someone living in adultery doesn’t have faith? Maybe never had faith?

      • Jon says:

        I think some lutherans would say exactly those things – that those sins being persisted in evidence a lack of faith.

        • paulfpavao says:

          Perhaps I should flag my posts as applying best in the US. I talked with a Baptist pastor in Liverpool once about faith and works. He told me that believers are only about 2% of the population there, so they’re a lot more serious about their faith than Americans. Some of what I write does not apply in the UK.

          I also think you’re right about the Lutherans, though they have plenty of nominal people here in the US like most other denominations. I have Luther’s complete sermons, and he is very quick to tell people who are not serious about their faith that they are not Christians.

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