Though discussed briefly in a previous post about free will, it is important to once again emphasize the truth that faith is not a work.
To begin with, it helps to remember the definition of faith we learned earlier: Faith is being convinced or persuaded that something is true. As such, we cannot choose to believe. Faith is not a work and is not meritorious because faith happens to us. We are convinced, we are persuaded, as God reveals Himself to us through His various forms of revelation.
With this definition of faith in mind, it is absolutely true what most Calvinists say, that God must take the first step.
God has taken the first step
In fact, God has taken more than just the first step; He has taken the first billion steps. He provides revelation through creation, conscience, Scripture, dreams, visions, and angelic messengers. He sends prophets, missionaries, pastors, teachers, and evangelists to share the Gospel. He sent Jesus to fully reveal His character and nature to humanity. He sends the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and uses the Holy Spirit to draw all people to Himself (John 6:44; 12: 32; 16:7-11; Acts 16:14, 29-30; 24:25).
He sends forth His grace and mercy upon all people (John 1:9; Titus 2:11). He forgives all sin, and is patient, loving, and kind to all. These steps, and countless more specific steps in the life of each and every person, are the sorts of things God has done on our behalf to call each of us to believe in Jesus for eternal life. Human faith, then, is not the first step, or even the millionth step, in the process of coming to God or believing in Jesus for eternal life.
People are able to believe in Jesus for eternal life because God has first done absolutely everything that is within His power, made everything available to us by His grace, and flung open the door to eternal life by His will. It is only because of this multitude of “first steps” by God toward us that anyone and everyone who wants to receive God’s offer of eternal life may do so by simply and only believing in Jesus Christ for it.
Ongoing faith is also important
Once we have believed in Jesus for eternal life, this does not mean that faith has no more place in the life of the believer. Just as we have received Jesus Christ Jesus, so also we must continue to walk with Him (Col 2:6). And how is it that we received Jesus? By faith. Future faith builds upon our former faith. Believing simple and elementary things allows us to later believe more difficult and hard things. This is what the Bible means when it talks about going from “faith to faith” (cf. Rom 1:17). But even this ongoing, sanctifying faith is not a work.
In order to move from believing one truth to believing another truth, it is true that we must act upon the faith we already have, and pursue the truth that follows. But even this sort of ongoing, sanctifying faith is not meritorious (Rom 4:16). It is simply faith at work; faith that energizes our life.
We will talk more about James 2 in the chapter on Perseverance of the Saints, but as a bit of a preview, James has been widely misunderstood to be saying that an inactive faith is a non-existent faith, when in reality he is saying that an inactive faith still exists; it is simply unproductive. James does not want unproductive faith. He wants us to act upon our beliefs. James is not saying that faith is a work, nor is he saying the true faith always reveals itself through works. James and Paul are in full agreement: faith is the opposite of works (Rom 4:5), but faith energizes our works (Jas 2:14-26) and leads us on toward greater faith.
So no matter what stage of faith we are talking about, faith is not a work. There are different things people can believe which lead to different results. But no matter what is believed, the faith involved in that belief is not a good work. It is simply being persuaded and convinced about what we have been told. When we believing in Jesus for eternal life, we have become persuaded that Jesus, as the author and finisher of our faith, loves us, forgives us, and freely grants eternal life to us, not because of anything we have done but simply and only because of God’s grace toward us.
Doesn’t John 6:28-29 Teach that Faith is a Work?
Some people object that John 6:28-29 teaches that faith is a work. John MacArthur, for example, uses John 6:29 in The Gospel According to Jesus to teach that faith is a work, and therefore, not something human beings can accomplish. He says that since faith is a work, it cannot be “merely a human work, but a gracious work of God in us” (John MacArthur, Gospel According to Jesus, 33). Several things can be said against this, beginning with what Jesus was actually saying in John 6:29.
In this text, Jesus says “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” From a cursory reading of this text, it certainly seems that Jesus is equating faith with a work. But when the verse is read in context, it shows the opposite. In the immediately preceded context, Jesus has told some of His followers that they should “not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” (John 6:27). In response, some of the Jewish people who were listening to Him ask, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:27). Jesus answers by telling them that the work of God is to believe in Him, that is, in Jesus (John 6:28).
Jesus says this, not because He is trying to say that faith is a work, but because He is pointing out to the Jewish people that God was not looking for works, but was looking for faith. Many Jewish people of that day (like many Christians today) were overly focused on pleasing God through the works of the law.
By saying that the work God wants is for people to believe in Jesus, Jesus was saying that the work that God desires is not work at all, but the opposite of works, which is faith. God does not want us to “do” anything for Him, for He has already done everything for us. He simply wants people to believe in Jesus for eternal life, thereby recognizing that everything which needs to be done has been done in Jesus.
The Bible Contrasts Faith and Works
Beyond even this, however, the idea that faith is a work, and therefore a work of God in the heart of the unbeliever is “a theological fiction which cannot be supported from Scripture” (Kevin Butcher, “A Critique of The Gospel According to Jesus,” JOTGES 2 [Spring 1989], 38). The Bible everywhere contrasts faith and works so that if one attempts to accomplish something by faith, it cannot be said to have been done by works, and vice versa.
Faith involves the abandonment of any attempt to justify oneself and an openness to God which is willing to accept what he has done in Christ. The same applies here in regard to salvation. Faith is a human activity but a specific kind of activity, a response which allows salvation to become operative, which receives what has already been accomplished by God in Christ (Lincoln, Ephesians, 111).
So faith is not a special sort of human work, nor is it a divine work in the heart of the unbeliever. Rather, faith is not a work at all. Faith is the opposite of works. Just as we do not receive eternal life by faith and works, so also, we do not receive eternal life by faith that is a work. Just as faith cannot be part of the definition of works, so also, works cannot be part of the definition of faith. The two are not related in any way, but are polar opposites. Both faith and works, by definition, are mutually exclusive. Grant Hawley, in his book The Guts of Grace, says this:
Phrases like, “For by grace you have been saved through faith … not of works …” (Eph 2:8-9), and, “to him who does not work but believes” (Rom 4:5), are complete nonsense, if works are part of the definition of the words faith and believe. If a woman at a wedding reception said, “The one who does not move, but dances, enjoys the reception,” you would wonder if she had had too much to drink because moving is part of the definition of the word dances (Hawley, Guts of Grace, 124).
Faith is being persuaded or convinced that what God says is true. One of the things God says is that He gives eternal life to anyone who believe in Jesus for it. Because of all that God has done in history, through various forms of revelation, and by His Holy Spirit, people are able to believe in Jesus for eternal life.
Faith is not a work, but is the opposite of works, and as such, faith is in no way meritorious.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.
Brian Midmore says
We may not gain eternal life by works but God gives eternal life to those who do good. Rom 2.7 ; John 5 28-29. Its not ONLY about believing.
Jeremy Myers says
The problem, Brian, is that we cannot be 100% good, which is God’s standard for gaining righteousness by good works. So since 100% perfection is impossible, God makes eternal life available through faith in Jesus.
Brian Midmore says
This I feel is the perfectionist argument: Because we cannot be 100% good we don’t have to be good at all. In Rom 8 we find that there is no commendation to those who are in Christ Jesus…….who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. To walk according the flesh leads to death and condemnation and to walk according to the Spirit leads to eternal life. It is how we are walking that counts. We may sin every other moment, but if we are walking in the Spirit ( and in this circumstance the Spirit would convict us and we would confess our sins and seek repentance) we are on the path to life. At the end we will need to show some good as evidence that we are have walked in the Spirit even if this amounts to an agreement with God that we have sinned. God will give eternal life to those who have ‘patient continuance in doing good’ (Rom 2.7) and who walk in the Spirit with a contrite heart. Rom 8.
Respectfully I disagree. You must take all of Romans in context. Paul is writing to Christian brothers in Rome. In chapters one he basically says man will be judged by God. Chapter 2 tells that you must follow the law completely. Rom 2:7 is saying you can go to heaven by good works, but you have to do them always and forever. It is a setup for what comes in chapters 4 and 5. It is not an instruction for believers to assure themselves of their salvation. Chapter says that God is justified in his right to judge sinners and concludes that all of sinned and deserve death. In chapter 4 Paul pivots to the good news and says there is another way. It is by faith we are justified. If it were by works then it would not be by free grace, but a payment that is owed to the worker. One pastor or theologian (I forget) said that if you preach on Romans 4 and 5 and don’t get the response that Paul asks rhetorically to open Ch. 6 you haven’t preached grace is a way the listener fully understood.
Carl Bradley says
This is the crux of true Christianity-and is so important that Martin Luther called the Book of James an “Epistle of straw.” Does faith produce regenerstion? Or is faith the fruit of God’s regenerating influence on the sin-darkened heart of a man or woman? It is an important query, and one that has not yet been satisfactorialy proven in these s. The Lord said that of the two men who stood before God, the only one who went away justified was the one who pled for the mercy of God.
Jeremy Myers says
Great questions. I will deal with James 2 in later posts. Sorry about not satisfactorily proven that faith precedes regeneration. I did my best!
Nelson Banuchi says
Jeremy, I quickly read your blog and am not convinced that
faith is not a work or that we “cannot choose to believe.” Of course, maybe I am misunderstanding something here.
That “to believe” (=”have faith”) is not the “first step” does not mean it cannot be a work.
You say faith is not a work but then go on to say, “Human faith, then, is not the first step,” this admitting, at least to me, that it is a step, which is descriptive of an act, a work. Then you go on to say, we “must continue to walk in Him,” further describing faith as an act, a work.
You claim that it is “faith that energizes our life,” but is that accurate. I think it is rather that God energizes, in the same way he saved us, our lives “through [our] faith”, which does not to deny God’s grace as the impulse to faith but denies our faith any power of its own to energize the life.
I noticed that it seems Christians cannot give an adequate definition of saving faith without using a word like “obedience” to God.
When the Jews asked what work they must do to essentially act pleasing to God, Jesus responded, “Believe. This is the work of God: that you believe in the One He has sent.” Faith does not merit. When someone obeys God by faith, he is obeying – doing good works – not because he seeks merit but because he believes God’s word and promises as accomplished facts. That is the belief that Jesus is talking about acts after the fact of having received, not before with the intention of meriting reward.
James defines genuine, saving faith as a work, not just something that accompanies it as apart from it for, he admonishes, “Faith without works is dead.” As I see it, to claim that the faith spoken here does not involve what is called “saving faith” is mistaken; if one’s faith is dead – that is, without works – how can one be in a saving relationship with God by “grace through faith”?
Faith is not mere “assent to the truth” or the mere persuasion of truth because one can be persuaded that something is true yet refuse to embrace it by faith, that is, by acts of trusting God.
James seems to show that genuine, saving faith has no existence apart from works, cf. Ja 2. In that chapter, he teaches that Abraham’s faith was made “perfect” or “complete” by his obedience to God’s word spoken to him. There’s the argument here that James is not discussing saving faith but the mere evidence of it; however, I’m not convinced that’s accurate of James’ intended meaning. The point is, if Abraham did not obey God, it would show he had no genuine faith in God. If one has not the faith – as you say it – that works, then one does not possess a genuine faith, saving faith, that is, the faith that pleases God, cf. Heb 11:6.
Does the idea that faith is a work make it meritorious? As I see it, not necessarily. For if it is God who is the “author and finisher of faith”, if it is God who first calls us (prevenient grace), without whom we can do nothing, then how can that faith be meritorious?
I liken grace and faith to telling my daughter – regardless of what she does, no strings attached – I am buying her a car simply as a gift for her birthday. If she doesn’t really believe it, she won’t bother to do what it takes to make herself fit (=worthy) to drive the car. However, if she does believe it, she will take her driving lessons and obtain a license, making herself fit (=worthy) to drive the car when she gets it. Let’s say she does the latter.
Her birthday arrives and I give her the car. Did she merit it? Can she rightfully boast that she earned the car because she took driving lessons and obtained a license?
You see, Christ has already died on the Cross. Salvation is free and available for everyone. But only those who believe – whose inward attitude and outward actions embrace faith towards God’s word – will enjoy it. The rest will face the consequences like my daughter would if she did not make herself fit to drive. It is not earned neither by belief or faith, even the faith that works – and faith must work for it to be the faith that pleases God.
You interpret Rom 4:5, saying that “faith is the opposite of works.” I don’t think that’s an accurate understanding of the apostle’s intended meaning. It seems that by “works” he means, not specifically, “works of the Law” (cp. Gal 2:16), and that Law” being that both of the written tablets with respect to the Jew, and that written in the conscience with respect to the Gentile; in other words, it is any work intended to earn God’s grace and gifts. The antithesis here seems to be between not faith and works but, by implication, grace and works; that is, the ground upon which God freely bestows his grace and gifts to men and what is apparently the (failing) attempts by men to earn that bestowal and ground the divine bestowal on merit.
I’m not saying that faith should be defined exclusively as “works” or as “obedience to God.” I am saying that in defining faith, the notion of “works” (=obedience) is an integral component and, therefore, when included, more Biblically (I think) defines what is faith, the genuine, saving faith that pleases God.
I agree wholeheartedly that “Faith involves the abandonment of any attempt to justify oneself and an openness to God which is willing to accept what he has done in Christ.” However, as I read the Bible, I see it as not the abandonment simply of works but the abandonment of works as law, that is, in order to earn God’s calling and gifts.
Of course, I am not a theologian or well read or educated in the Bible with all the pertinent historical, cultural, or grammatical facts required to understand and interpret the text in my intellectual grasp, so I may have misunderstood your meaning, missed a point, or maybe we’re saying the same thing but each from a different perspective, like is said those who misread Paul’s Roman epistle and James’ epistle.
Thanks for taking the time to read this…
Brian Midmore says
Concerning Abraham. Now he is central figure and an archetype of every Christian. Christians enter a renewed Abrahamic covenant with God and the Mosaic covenant is annulled. Abraham was justified twice. First by faith and then as James tells us by works. So too Christians. We are justified by faith alone NOW but at the End we are justified by our works. God will give eternal life to (i.e vindicate) those who do good. Rom 2.7. But how can we be sure that we have done enough to be saved? We don’t have to do enough, it is enough that we are following the Spirit as sons of God. At the End God will vindicate his children who are following the Spirit and as result are doing good. It is both Jesus’ and the Spirit’s work in us that brings eternal life. So much of reformed theology leaves the Spirit out of the loop.
Jeremy Myers says
Good questions. You have written a lot, and I cannot respond to all of it.
It looks like one big part of your question centers around James 2. This is actually where I get the idea that faith energizes our life, as energizes is probably a better translation of “energao” in James 2. It is way too much to get into in the comments though. Keep reading, studying, and seeking the truth, and I will do the same!
If I have correctly understood your central point, it is that faith and belief are human “works”. I agree with you but not to the same extent. You say that James, in chapter 2, defines faith as a work, but it seems to me that he is clearly drawing a distinction between the two. His use of the word “dead” does not mean “non-existent” but, rather, “non-productive”. It’s like when my car has a “dead” battery.
I do agree with you that faith and belief are human activities. So are making decisions, falling in love, generating ideas, etc. etc. If we want to call them “works”, well O.K., but I think we make a serious mistake if we equate this type of human brain activity with the type of work that James is talking about, or that Paul is talking about in Romans 4, or that Jesus condemns in the latter part of Luke 11.
So I believe faith is neither a work nor a gift. Faith is a (life-changing) decision of the human mind made through free will. It is choosing where to place my trust based on prior revelation of truth. I agree with you that we can be persuaded that something is true yet refuse to embrace it. That’s also a free-will decision, not “work”, to place one’s faith and trust in something other that God’s way of salvation through Christ Jesus.
Abraham’s faith in God was reckoned to him as righteousness, and his (continuous) obedience to God was a result of his faith, not an “integral aspect” of it. You rightly state in a later post that “his obedience was directed by his faith”.
Thanks, dear brother, for your thoughtful comments and for making me stop to also give thought to these important issues.
Nelson Banuchi says
Hi Brian, there is no intention on my part to be contentious, but you mean that God viewed Abraham’s faith as having no relation whatsoever with works, I’m not sure the Genesis story supports it although it is not explicit on the subject.
Again, however, let me first emphasize that works as a means to receive merit before God is what is detestable to God, excludes faith, and is antithetical to grace. Note what has transpired before we read God Gen 15b.
– God spoke to Abraham and he obeyed, Gen 12:4.
– God promised Abraham he would possess the land and he responded in sacrificial worship, v.7 while continuing on his journey through the land.
– God reinforces his promise of land, including an abundance of descendants to possess it. Again, Abraham’s response is too give sacrificial worship, 13:14-18.
– After winning a battle against the odds to retrieve his captured Lot, his nephew, Abraham refuses the gifts of men and receives a blessing from Melchizedek; afterwards Abraham continues his journey towards the fulfillment of God’s promises for him, 14:17ff.
Within this narrative of three chapters re: God’s promises to Abraham nowhere do we read of God having his faith “reckoned it to him as righteousness,” although it is obvious and assumed – as Heb 11 seems to affirm – his obedience was directed by his faith in God.
It is only until chapter 15:6 Abraham’s faith is revealed and God “reckoned it (i.e. his faith) to him as righteousness.”
Although it was not on account of any works that God reckoned righteousness to Abraham (Rom 4:2), nevertheless, his obedience was an integral aspect of the faith he possessed, which faith God reckoned as righteousness.
Jonathan Crumley says
Precisely! That is why Brother Luke writes @ Acts 1:3 and uses the Greek word τεκμήριον. This word means convincing proofs. Jesus appealed to the logical mind to make a decision. It is this decision process that embraces Hebrews 11:1.
Jeremy Myers says
Jeremy Myers says
Excellent point! Why write convincing truths if people did not need to be convinced or persuaded of the truth?
Scott Hescht says
Could it be that through the gospel and moving of the Holy Spirit, God gives us the ability to believe, yet the Holy Spirit can be resisted? In this way, faith is a gift that God makes available, but it is not a work.
MacArthur really says the work of God is to believe in who he sent shows faith is a work?
That’s astonishing. It’s just a play on words that is so obvious that I cannot see a single person on earth getting that wrong.
This is one of those gifts to us who fight against false doctrines. These people can’t help but expose themselves as dysfunctional. Catholics do this. I’ve seen interpretations of the simplest things that make me say… This person doesn’t even have the Spirit.
The sad thing in this case is you really only need to Assert faith is not a work, gift etc. I feel like writing a big article makes it look like this is difficult. The Bible is so clear on this
Khirn Gee says
Thanks Mr. Myers, really helpful.
If you believe your faith is a product of grace that comes 100% from God and 0% from yourself, then yes, you believe faith is not a work, and it could be argued that you support the Calvinist tenet of Irresistible Grace.
But if you believe your faith originates in your own mind, and you use language like “I decided to have faith”, or “I chose to believe in Jesus”, then you believe faith is a work– In the context of Eph. 2:9 (for example) “work” means, according to Strong’s concordance, “an action, task or undertaking” that you take (you… Not God).
Paul says in Eph 2:9 clearly that we cannot boast in coming to Christ. If our faith is Christ is our own idea or decision (and not God’s sovereign imputation) then we could, in fact, boast in it.