Faith Is Not A Work
FAITH IS ONLY AS GOOD AS ITS OBJECT
As anyone who has ever been betrayed or swindled by someone they trusted will tell you, faith by itself isn't inherently good. Faith and belief, in any instance (whether religious or irreligious), will forever be intrinsically tied to its object. This reality is not exactly encouraging to the child writing a letter bound for the North Pole or anyone who ever responded to the email of a Nigerian Prince (a scheme that still rakes in around $700k a year). However, it holds a life's worth of encouragement for those who trust in Jesus.
Jeremiah 17 illustrates this well. Verse 5 says “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” Verse 7 follows to say “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.” Both persons here are expressing faith but only one object has the ability to hold up under the weight of human hope and trust.
The undeniable connection between faith and its object is why Jesus can say to the promiscuous party crasher who worshipped at his feet with tears and perfume “your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk. 7:50). Translation: “Your Jesus has saved you." In other words, faith doesn't save, but Jesus does, and faith is the only prescribed and appropriate way to relate to Him.
FAITH ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING
I fear most of us, while conceding that God saves apart from works, still consider faith to be an element in some sort of transactional exchange. Like the final piece of an almost finished puzzle or the key that unlocks the benefits of God's saving benefits in my life. "Sure", we say to ourselves, "God did the heavy-lifting, but I brought the faith." "Salvation is a gift, but I needed to accept it by faith." This kind of thinking frames the gospel in transactional terms.
This might be hard to hear, but the act of faith in Jesus (though a gracious gift) on our part accomplished nothing. Rather, it is us trusting in the One who has already accomplished everything on our behalf. It is something that enables us to relate ourselves to Someone Else who has already done the very thing that needs doing. However, at this point we've only begun to see how good the Good News is.
Romans 2:4 says, “...knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” It is only upon discovering God’s kindness toward me in Jesus that I would be drawn to Him. Kindness first, then faith and repentance. What does one do upon hearing that the whole job is already done in Christ? The appropriate response is belief. Faith is therefore a response by which we grab hold of and enjoy a work that is already finished.
And we must insist on Faith not being a work. Consider Robert Capon's lengthy analogy on the matter:
"Suppose that I'm in the hospital — bedridden, blind, and broke — and that all my friends have been telling me that if I don't get my house painted, my siding is going to rot. And then suppose that one day you visit me and tell me that the painter you hired to do the outside of my house has just put the finishing touches on the whole job. You invite me, in other words, to trust your word and stop worrying about my siding.
Now then: how does that act of faith (if I make it) rate as a work? The answer is, it doesn't. It didn't design the job you did for me. It involved no plan on my part to have the job done: I couldn't plan to do it myself because I was bedridden and blind, and I couldn't plan to hire somebody to do it because I was broke. And it did not execute anything: even if I had had all the "faith" in the world before you told me the house was painted, I myself would still have had no power to do the job. Therefore, there is no part of the work of painting that I could have managed on my own. So the only thing left for me to do about the paint job you tell me of is either disbelieve you and go on being miserable about the condition of my house, or believe you, relax in gratitude, and enjoy the work you did for me.
It's this illustration, you see, that goes to the heart of the distinction between faith and works. Consider some questions: Is my faith in you a work, a string of effective actions that caused you to paint my house? No: the paint job was entirely your idea prior to my faith, and your doing it involved no cooperation whatsoever on my part. Is my faith then something that led you (out of pity, perhaps) to design, plan, and execute your project? No again: it never even occurred to me to trust you until you told me you had done the job totally on your own. (You may have done it out of pity or kindness, of course, but those were your own promptings, not responses to the leading of my faith.) Well then, is your paint job perhaps a reward for my faith? Again, no: your doing of it preceded my faith; it was finished and handed to me before I heard any word of it I could believe.
My faith, therefore, does nothing except enable me to enjoy your gift. It is not, and it cannot be, a work. And, above all, it is not, and it cannot be, a condition of your work. Your work was simply a gift dropped in my lap like an apple — or, better said, like some weird, exotic fruit I never even thought of. All I can do is trust and taste, or disbelieve and go on feeling deprived."
You see, the gospel is actual good news not potentially good news. It’s an announcement that something has already taken place — not a proposition. I am compelled to believe precisely because of the announcement God has forgiven me for Jesus' sake (1 Jn. 2:2). In other words: God's kindness leads to repentance. Not the other way around.
CHEERS TO THE FRUSTRATION OF GRACE!
Maybe you're the person who thought of faith as the one thing you contributed to this whole salvation thing. Or perhaps you've prided yourself on being someone who believes in an age of indifference and skepticism. However, the biblical order of things leaves no glory for the bedridden, blind, and broke. Faith is a response to the plan, execution, and announcement of God's rescuing of the world.
We hate to be the ones to deliver this beautiful wound to your pride, but we're all just objects of His indiscriminate, inclusive, and incessant love. His grace is a gift, not a wage (Rom. 4:4-5). We bring nothing to the table except sin and death and marvel at the One who swallowed them both up in His death and resurrection. If God hadn't made the first and most important move we'd all be left with an impossible self (or societal) renovation project and without the resources or ability to do anything about it.
This lopsided view of God and how we relate to Him (or how we become disciples) might frustrate you, but it doesn't make it less true. This one-sided telling of the Good News is the essence of grace.
Sure, this message of reckless grace wars on our law-loving, control-freak hearts. However, if there were anything more for us to do, anything we had to bring to the table, we would never make it to dinner. And so we toast to our Great Host who prepared our meal in-full and invited us to die to our pursuit of glory and dine in gratitude knowing "It Is Finished." Cheers!
This blog was adapted from the Reclaim Training. For more info on Table Network, courses click here > http://www.thetablenetwork.com/courses
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