Faith vs. Works?


Faith vs. Works?

For centuries, the debate between emphasizing faith or works has raged in Christian circles. Some argue that our faith needs to be tempered by good works, so that we can discipline and train our sinful natures to get “used to” the idea of doing good. Then, as habits are formed, good works will eventually become a part of us as we mature. Others have chosen to look solely at faith, saying that works are the natural result of having faith. They have the right idea, but then they get bogged down by all of the supposedly contradictory behavioral “commandments” given in the Bible by Jesus, Paul and the other pillars of the early church. Once again we are caught in the never-ending circle of faith and works, seemingly so well matched in scripture, yet frustrating to reconcile in practicality. The above views have labored to conceive animals that cannot possibly survive against the test of scripture. They are theological constructs created by men who seek to put the God of the universe into a box, who they are comfortable dealing with. Fortunately, there are answers. Reading the book of Galatians is a wonderful place to start and I recommend that you start there. Hopefully, you will also find that the insights in this article make things as clear as Paul says that they really are.

So let’s start with the basics. As a result of man’s sin, some sort of vehicle was needed for his salvation. God gave us the law as that vehicle. He gave us the law for the purpose of revealing our sin. In Romans 7, Paul states that he would have not known what sin was apart from the law. Earlier on in 5:20 he even says that the law was added so that the trespass might increase. Galatians 3:19 states that “it (the law) was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” Namely, that Seed is Christ. Christ was sent to fulfill the law. However, Paul does not stop there. He goes on to explain that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In Galatians 2:15-16 it says, “We who are Jews by birth and not ?Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” In saying all of this Paul does not say that the law is unspiritual, but rather it is we who are unspiritual. The law was a perfect means to become righteous, but one that we, as imperfect sinful people, were unable to use. The law was given to reveal that very inadequacy. And yes, it took thousands of years for people to understand, and many still do not. The law paved the way for our salvation by Christ.

Christ is the only one that can set us free from the law of sin and death. The perfect law showed just how far away we were from the ideal. Christ is the only one who could meet the righteous requirements of the law. In love, He made that free gift of God’s grace available to all through faith. Now here is the kicker that many know with their minds yet do not believe with their hearts. We are changed by Christ alone. We do not change what we do simply because we know that Christ died for our sins. We are changed by Him as we come to know Him. We cannot will our selves to act righteous, only Christ is righteous. Only He can change us. Paul illustrates this change by the most permanent of states, death. Galatians 2:19 says, “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Our sinful nature is crucified with Christ and we live a new life with Him. The old is gone, the new has come! Paul further expounds on this in Ephesians 4:22-24. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” We are “made new” by Christ. We cannot effect real change in ourselves. It says in Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faithand this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works so that no one can boast.”

“That’s all very well and good,” you might say. “You still haven’t really moved to the heart of the issue.” It is necessary to lay this foundation before directly examining the relationship between faith and works. Despite all of this, the question that I was unable to resolve in my heart was “Why then do all of the New Testament writers give lists of behavioral guidelines, almost a second law as it were?” One minute they are talking about the free gift of God’s grace, and the next minute they are talking about how our behavior should be different. Is there a contradiction here? I mean, there seems to be an airtight line of reasoning in the Bible that says that faith produces works, that is the flow of things. First you have faith and then works come out of that. But why then do you have whole books like James that say that faith without works is useless? Why do we have lists of do’s and don’ts. Have we just been given a whole new book of rules to struggle with? To some, scripture like the Sermon on the Mount has become a “holy grail” for modifying one’s behavior.

Here’s the explanation. Just as the law revealed to us what our sin was, so what we do reveals who we are. Sound complicated? It’s very simple. Since through Christ our old selves have been crucified and we now live new lives, the law doesn’t apply to us any more. We have been set free from the law of sin and death and we live new lives in Christ! For that reason, we have been given new guidelines that are evidence of the presence of God in our lives. It is very important to note that this is a one-way road only. You cannot impersonate or invoke having the presence of God in your life simply by doing these things. There is nothing that you can do to take hold of righteousness. To do so is to elevate the written word above the Person who wrote it. The Jews exalted the law to point of worshiping it above Yahweh, and the problem continued on in the early church. In Galatians 3:1-5 Paul wrote,”You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothingif it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” Trying to be good is struggling by the flesh, and is a clear insult to the awesome gift of God’s grace in our lives, no different than being under the law again. If you have faith you are already being made into this kind of person by the presence of His Spirit in your life. If you struggle to wrestle your behavior until it resembles that of Christ by using the limited, flawed strength of the flesh, you are worse off than someone who doesn’t know freedom in Christ at all! You are a hapless prisoner who despondently goes back into his cell and sits in it while the door is standing wide open. There is nothing noble or profitable about making one’s lifestyle agree with a bunch of rules and principles, no matter how good they may be. It is wrong to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Only Christ can make these principles a reality in your life. Christ came to give us freedom!

The very nature of such things as the fruit of the Spirit argue for themselves. They aren’t called “the things that Christians should do to indicate that they are filled with the Spirit.” They are the fruit of the Spirit. Those that have the spirit, have these things in their life. A tree is recognized by its fruit.

Even James does not speak of doing good works apart from faith. He speaks of Abraham in 2:22, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” James had no interest in laying down a second law to hold us in failure and bondage. 2:12, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom”! Freedom! Paul speaks in Philippians 2, that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. He doesn’t tell us to act like we have Christ Jesus! In the same book, he goes on to say what is really important, 3:10 “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Paul was motivated to act in line with who he was in Christ, not what he knew he should be doing. There was a definite change. Otherwise, he might as well be wearing a bracelet on his wrist with 4 letters to remind him that his behavior should be in line with the person that he claimed that he believed in! He acted different because HE WAS DIFFERENT!

Paul recognized the fact that he hadn’t achieved all of this, he just wanted to live up to what he already had. He wasn’t motivated by the fact that others were watching him, he didn’t do it because he felt guilty about doing bad things, he didn’t have an accountability partner that he would have to tell, he did it because he wanted to. He wanted to because he knew how much God loved him and genuinely loved Him back! We have turned into the very people that Paul describes in Romans 9:30-32, “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.”

It is ridiculous that as followers of Christ, we are still hung up on the basic truth of faith and works. Let’s not lay this foundation over and over again, but let’s move on to becoming mature! Faith in Christ produces works because Christ is the only one who effects real change in our lives. Otherwise we are doomed to the endless downward spiral of what we want to do and what we don’t want to do, just as Paul experienced. Seek to know Christ, not simply appear like you do. It is a new life that you are living. LIVE IT! Leave behind the old law, and the counterfeit lifestyle. Christ will change you if you allow Him. There is no magic prayer or secret formula. He has already done the work, just let Him.

Faith vs. works, they are not in conflict, but rather the two are inseparable. Faith produces the works that Jesus and Paul talk about. Why? Because we are new creations. The old is gone, the new has come! Leave your bondage and your bracelet behind, and embrace Christ!

Jeremy Kliever

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