Recently I had the honor of baptizing four new converts at our church, and the words I recite when baptizing individuals stirred up some discussion between myself and a fellow church member—a good, healthy, and friendly discussion. When baptizing new converts, I ask two questions: (1) Do you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he died on the cross to pay for your sins and was raised from the dead for your justification? (2) Do you hereby commit to strive to live your life in obedience to the Word of God and for the glory of God? After answering “I do” to both those questions, I then baptize them “my brother [or sister] in Christ in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
That second question caused a bit of concern for one of my church members who was gracious enough to reach out to me to discuss it. I am always appreciative of those who give me an opportunity to explain my words or actions. The concern went something like this (I am paraphrasing): If salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone and it is solely on the basis of one’s faith in Christ that believers are baptized, then it seems a confusing, possibly even misleading, to ask the second question. It seems to imply that works are somehow necessary for salvation or that their baptism is to some extent based upon their commitment to live in obedience to God’s word.
This is a valid concern and one which Protestants have wrestled with, at least since the time of the Reformation, but certainly the relationship between faith and works reaches back to the New Testament (NT) church. In the first five chapters of the book of Romans, Paul drives home the fact that all are condemned under the Law (chaps. 1-3) and that justification before God is by faith alone based on the imputed righteousness of Christ (chaps. 4-5). That being the case, he then must deal with an obvious question at the beginning of chapter 6: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” If justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, then why do good works matter? Why does it matter how we live so long as we have faith?
This article hopes to answer that question. But going a bit further, this article hopes to answer the question of why we should care? Why should we care about this topic? What difference can it possibly make in the believer’s life? For one, a biblical understanding of this topic will prevent us from slipping into legalism, from believing that somehow our works and how we live contributes something to our salvation. On the other hand, a biblical understanding of this topic will prevent us from sliding into licentiousness, believing that since justification is by faith alone in Christ alone then it matters not how we live. However, the biblical teaching on this topic is not either/or but both/and. Justification before God is by faith alone in Christ alone and it matters to God and for eternity how we live. These two truths must be held in tension.
The Meaning of Faith
To begin with, it is important to understand the meaning of faith. What is faith? What does it mean to have faith? We tend to think of faith as a noun, as a substance, something we can hold or handle, something we can put in our pocket and take with us. This is seen in the kind of language we use when talking about faith. ‘I have faith.’ ‘Do you have faith?’ ‘Where is your faith?’ To make things more confusing, we see this kind of language used in scripture. “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matt. 17:20). “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” (Jas. 2:18). What does it mean to have faith, to possess faith?
The Greek word for faith found in the NT is the word pistis, verb form pisteuō: to believe. The word most literally means to trust, to trust in, to rely on, or to lean on. It means to trust in Christ the way a tightrope walker places his trust in the rope he is walking on to prevent him from falling to his death or to trust in the way a skyrise window washer places his trust in the harness to prevent him from plummeting hundreds of feet. Thus, faith is something we do. It is an action. Faith is not something God does for us and it is not something the Holy Spirit makes us do. We trust, place faith, in something or someone outside of ourselves--namely Christ. In this sense, faith is always a verb. Thus, to have faith in Christ, to possess faith in Christ, is to possess the ability and the desire to trust in Christ’s saving work for us. To exercise faith in Christ is to put that ability into practice and to place our soul, our life, our eternal destiny into the care of Christ.
How Faith Works in Regeneration
What is the relationship between faith and regeneration (becoming born again)? Is our faith, our trusting and believing, the cause of our regeneration? Scripture makes clear that in our unbelieving state, all people are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). In the same way a physically dead person is non-responsive to the physical world, so also a spiritually dead person is non-responsive to the spiritual world—to the things of God. Unbelievers, those who are spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins, are incapable of responding to God in any meaningful sense. Thus, we are told in Ephesians 2:5-6 that when God saves sinners, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Eph. 2:5-6, emphasis added). Notice scripture uses resurrection language to speak of the believer’s regeneration. We once were dead, then God made us alive.
Like Lazarus in the tomb who at one moment was dead, then Christ spoke to his lifeless body saying, “Lazarus, come forth!”, then suddenly he came to life and began to walk toward Christ. The faith of Lazarus did not make him alive. Dead people cannot exercise faith. So also, Lazarus had to be made alive before he could walk to Christ.
How then does one become born again? Scripture goes on to say that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The phrase “this is not your own doing” is referencing the entire clause “by grace you have been saved through faith.” That is, grace and faith are not your own doing; they are gifts from God. Just as Lazarus first had to be made alive before he was able to walk to Christ, unbelievers who are dead in trespasses and sins must first be made alive before they are able to lean on Christ in faith.
Thus, when we speak of faith as a noun, when we talk about possessing faith, we are talking about possessing the ability and the desire to trust Christ. By being made physically alive, Lazarus was given the ability and desire to walk toward Christ. By being made spiritually alive, believers are given the ability and desire (faith) to walk toward Christ and fully trust him and lean on him for salvation.
How Faith Works in Sanctification
Where things start to become confusing is when we begin to read certain biblical texts. For example, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), “by faith Abraham obeyed” (Heb. 11:8), “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith” (Gal. 2:20). What do these verses mean? We tend to think that faith is some power or tool or power-tool that if we hold on to it tightly enough, it will enable us or empower us to live the Christian life. Rather, the power which enables believers to live the Christian life is the Holy Spirit and Christ living in us (Gal 2:20a; 5:16). Faith is the ability and desire, which we possess, given to us by the Holy Spirit, to walk by the Spirit and to follow in the steps of Christ (1 Peter 2:21). The Holy Spirit leads us in the right direction, speaks to our conscience through God’s word, and prods us to do the right thing but it is we who must, of our own free-will, obey the leading of the Holy Spirit. We do this by faith, by exercising the God-given ability and desire to follow in obedience to Christ. Hence, whereas regeneration is monergistic—a work of God alone—sanctification is synergistic—we work with the Holy Spirit to become Christlike.
The Meaning of Works
When we talk about works in relation to faith, we must ask the question what is meant by works? Essentially, a work is anything we do, think, speak, or feel. When we talk about works, there are three types: works pleasing to God, works displeasing to God, and works which are morally neutral.
Works which are pleasing to God are those which are done by faith and for God’s glory. All people, in fact, everything that exist has been created for God’s glory (Is. 43:6-7; Rom. 11:36; Rev. 4:11). Thus, everything we do, say, and think should be for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). Anything not done for God’s glory is sin, because if it is not done for God’s glory, for God’s honor, or to exalt God, then it is being done for our glory, our honor, and to exalt ourselves. Things are either done for God’s glory or for ours.
So also, works which are done for God’s glory are carried out by faith in Christ. Anyone who does not possess faith in Christ alone for justification cannot possibly be doing these works for God’s glory. Thus, works which are pleasing to God are those which are done in faith and for God’s glory. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Works not carried out by faith alone in Christ alone and for God’s glory are displeasing to God. This is the second kind of works.
Then there are works which are morally neutral in and of themselves. These are activities which, by themselves, are neither pleasing nor displeasing to God. The game of chess, for example, is morally neutral. It is just a game which is neither morally good nor morally evil. How the game is played or why the game is played can be good or evil. If one is playing the game out of a sense of pride, to demonstrate one’s skill or intelligence, or to humiliate one’s opponent, that would be sinful. However, the act of moving pieces around a board is neither good nor evil. In comparison, theft is evil on two levels. One’s motives for stealing and the act of stealing itself are both evil. However, when it comes to the game of chess, one’s motives for playing can be good (to spend time with my son) or evil (to humiliate my opponent), but the act of moving a chess piece morally neutral.
Why Good Works Are Necessary
If regeneration is a monergistic—work of God alone—then why do good works matter? Why not simply live in sin while believing Christ died to pay for our sin? The first answer to this question is that God requires good works from all people, and especially from those who would call themselves disciples of Christ.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commands his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” According to Jesus, being his disciple means (1) having faith, demonstrated by being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and (2) living in obedience to all of God’s commands. Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. Without saving faith there can be no obedience which is pleasing to God (Rom 14:23b). However, without obedience to God’s commands, there is no saving faith (James 2:17). These two truths must always be held in tension. This is not to say that works somehow contribute to our eternal security. We must never blur the line between justification and sanctification. The former being definitive while the latter being progressive.
The second reason good works are necessary for the Christian life is that they provide the evidence of regeneration and the assurance of our salvation (Matt 3:10; 7:17-19; Gal 5:22-24; James 2:14-18; 1 John 2:4-6). When a person has been converted by the power of the gospel, there must be of necessity a transformation of one’s life. If there is not transformation in the way a person thinks, behaves, speaks, and prioritizes their life, then how can we rightly speak of any conversion having taken place? From what have they been converted if their lifestyle remains unchanged? Thus, the change wrought in our lives by the Holy Spirit is the assurance of one’s salvation. While the primary means of our assurance should be derived from the promises of God, from his word, God intends for our sanctification, a transformed life, to be a secondary means of assurance. Hence, it has been rightly said that while justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, it is not by a faith that is alone. Faith without a life lived for God’s glory is no faith at all (James 2:14-18).
The third reason believers should strive to produce good works in their lives is for the promise of greater rewards in the next life. In Luke’s parable of the “Ten Minas” (Lk 19:11-27). We are given the story of a master who is about to go away on a long journey and so he calls to himself ten of his servants and gives one mina to each of them. Upon his return, he calls three of them to account for how they invested his money. The first tells the master that with the one mina he received, he made ten more minas. The second informs the master that with the one mina he received, he earned five more. However, the third servant says to the master, “'Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” Of course, the third servant is condemned by the master. What must be noted, however, is that while the first and second servants receive the same amount (one mina), they do not each receive the same reward. They both hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” However, their rewards are commensurate with what they achieved for the master. The one who earned ten minas is given charge over ten cities. The one who earned five minas for his master is given charge over five cities. In one sense, they both receive the same reward—commendation from their master—but in another sense, they do not receive the same reward—one receives then cities while the other is given five.
This truth is supported by the apostle Paul when he warns against wasting our lives building on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, and straw, rather than building on the foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:12-17). Paul is describing two kinds of believers. Those whose works in this life have no eternal value and will not hold up to scrutiny at the Day of Judgement, and believers whose works are done by faith and for God’s glory and, therefore, have eternal value. Of these two groups of saints he says, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Both sets of believers receive heaven; however, the first group “will receive a reward” while the second group will only “be saved.” While all those who possess faith alone in Christ alone will most certainly receive eternal life, some will receive greater rewards in heaven for the work they have done on earth for their master’s glory.
The Bible does not tell us what these greater rewards are or what that will look, but most assuredly the believer’s reward in heaven is commensurate with works done for God’s glory here on earth. This makes sense when we consider that hell is not the same for every unbeliever as well. In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus tells his disciples that when he returns, at the Day of Judgement, “that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.” In other words, those who have heard the gospel or were raised in a Christian home and yet lived in rebellious sin will be punished more severely than unbelievers who have never heard the gospel or were never exposed to Christianity. God is just. Each one’s punishment will fit the crime.
In the end, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Those who recognize the incredible price that was paid for their sins and for their salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ should be transformed by God’s redeeming grace. They should possess an overwhelming desire to live in obedience to God’s word and for His glory. This desire and striving for obedience provide a means of assurance regarding our covenantal relationship with God, but it also assures the believer of greater rewards in heaven and on the new earth.
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