Two ideas stand out when you study contemporary Protestant teaching on faith. First is that Paul is the best source of doctrine and second is that faith has nothing in common with works.
No doubt Paul’s letters have the most systematic and complete form of teaching. Compared with Peter, James, John, or even Jesus, Paul’s letters follow and develop themes; for example, the theme of justification by faith. Paul had a divine calling to show the relationship of the old covenant with the new, and God anointed him to explain the law and its relationship to faith.
But isn’t the whole bible the word of God? Doesn’t God Himself develop themes using a variety of writers? Isn’t that the proper way to study the bible: read the entire thing?
No doubt also that the bible teaches justification by faith. The real question becomes this: what is faith? Let’s compare three sections of scripture that look at the faith of Abraham. We will look at Paul’s teachings in Romans and Galatians, at the book of Hebrews and at James. Each of these passages deal explicitly with the faith of Abraham and each uses the same old testament accounts of Abraham to illustrate their point.
Let’s start with Romans 4:1-5. “What shall we say then that Abraham our father pertaining to the flesh has found? For if Abraham were justified by works he has something to glory about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that works the reward is not reckoned of grace but of debt. But to him who works not, but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also described the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputes righteousness without works.” Well, no doubt this is true; and thank God it is true. Do you want to have to be ‘good enough’ to get into heaven? Are you perfect? Will you never sin again while you are on earth? No, we agree with Paul (Romans 3:23-28) when he teaches us that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God; but are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus who God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God , to declare, I say, his righteousness at this time, that he might be just and the justifier of him of him who believes in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
It took a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and holiness of God. He had to solve our problem. God’s revelation through Moses of His holiness and justice (in what is summarized by the term “the law”) shows humanity that because of our sin nature, inherited ever since Adam fell, we are unable to do what is right by merely using our will to try to obey God. Thus, God sent His son to be a sacrifice for sin, in order to justify us and give us a new nature. This is a gift, and cannot be earned. It is independent of our “works” (our self righteousness) and makes us all children through faith. With this we agree, gladly, being grateful to be given a new nature, born from heaven. It comes through faith in Jesus.
But what is this faith in Jesus? What is faith? Let’s look at some other authors in the bible and see what they say about this same situation.
We will look first at James 2: 17-26. “Even so faith, if is doesn’t have works is dead, being alone. Indeed, a man might say: you have faith and I have works. Well, show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God? You do well. But even the devils believe---and tremble! But will you know, O vain man that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son upon the alter? Do you see how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says: Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God. You see then by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Now, do you believe that James thinks that a person can earn salvation? Do you think James denies that Jesus was a necessary propitiation to satisfy God’s anger towards sin? Do you think that James was unaware of Adam’s sin nature or of the new birth? Let’s look further.
We aren’t sure who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, it may have been Paul; but probably not. At any rate let’s see what Hebrews says about the faith of Abraham. The letter to the Hebrews has several major themes, one of which is, as Paul’s writings, a logical demonstration that no one is justified by works. In chapters 5-7 the writer is showing that Jesus was from a new stream of priesthood; not being from Aaron (who was appointed by the law), but instead resembling Melchisedec ( a mysterious figure found in the book of Genesis) and hence bringing in a new covenant. While developing this theme the writer refers to Abraham (who met Melchisedec) and exhorts the Hebrew Christians to imitate Abraham. To have the faith of Abraham. Let’s pick up the theme in Hebrews 5:6. “As it says in another place (here the author quotes Psalm 110) You are a priest after the order of Melchisedec. Now, in the days of his flesh Jesus, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears, to Him who was able to save him, was heard for his godly fear. And, though he was a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things that he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation to all those that obey him. Called of God a high priest after the order of Melchisedec, of whom we have many things to say, but since you are hard of hearing we have some difficulty in saying them. For even though by this time you should be teachers, you have need that someone teach you the first principles of the word of God; and have become such as have to drink milk, and not eat strong meat. But, strong meat belongs to those that are of full age, namely those that by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God; of the doctrine of baptisms, and the laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permit.. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come; if they have fallen away, to renew them again to repentance; seeing that they crucify to themselves the Son of God and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and brings forth plants suitable to those that tend it, receives blessing from God; but that which bares thorns and briers is rejected, and is near being cursed; whose end is to be burned. But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. For God is not so unrighteous as to forget your work and labor of love which you have showed towards his name, in that which you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope to the end; and that you be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no greater, swore by himself saying that surely I will bless you . And so, after Abraham patiently endured, he obtained the promise. (Hebrews 5:6 thru 6: 15).
Now, notice what the author of the Hebrews says about the faith of Abraham: it is closely connected to works and it is perfected by works. In fact, it is by faith and patience that the promise is obtained. He says to the Hebrews that he doesn’t want them to be slothful, but to be diligent to the end. To imitate the faith of Abraham is to have a living faith, not a dead faith. Faith without works is dead.
Paul actually says the same thing. He says in Romans 8 that we are free from the law of sin and death and alive to the law of Christ. As new creatures, with a new nature, we can now do what the law could not do. We now can fulfill the law, as we crucify the flesh and walk in the spirit. We are, in Christ, and as new people, not only forgiven but dead to sin. Sin will no longer have dominion over us and we don’t have to obey it any longer.
Think of the changes that occur in a person when they receive faith: they become a new person. The law is written on their heart. They have a new heart, a new mind, a new will, a new understanding, a new spirit, a new hope and a new power over their old man and over Satan.
Notice too that “works” is not disconnected from faith. While it is true that God came to us while we were yet sinners and powerless it is not true that we are now powerless. While it is true that we gained faith before we had power and that faith was a gift, it is not true that we still don’t have power. And while it is true that we are justified by faith alone it is not true that it doesn’t matter how we live. Our new person is created for good works.
So, what then of the will? Do we use our will now that we are new people? Does choice have any role in our walk with God? Does the justified person automatically obey God? Is effort required to follow God?
If we study anywhere in the New Testament we see the need to use our will to please God. This is not the same as using our will before we received faith. Before faith I may have wanted to obey God; I may have wanted to keep the law, but I could not. But, after faith, now that I am a new person, I can follow the law of Christ, I can walk in the spirit. This requires choice. I must cooperate with the spirit. Look at the commands and exhortations in the new testament: “let not sin reign in your mortal body”. “seek first the kingdom of heaven”. “set your affections on things above”. “draw near to God”. “mortify the members of your flesh”. “put off the old man”. “put on the new man”. “resist the devil”. “pray always”. “let your light shine”. etc, etc, etc. All commands require the use of my will to obey. It is not my mere human will; it is the aided will of a new person formed in the likeness of the Son of God.
Now, it is clear that “works” are still, even as a new person, not disconnected from faith. That is, “dead works” are those that I do just by mere will power in an attempt to obey God. The works that I do as a new person are accomplished because of the gift of faith. I cannot boast about a power that was given to me as a gift. I am not pleasing God by my power; I am pleasing God by showing diligence to the end. I am pleasing God by trusting Him; by being grateful. I am yielding to God and walking the path that He wants and that he enabled me to walk when He gave His son for me as an atonement.
So, the faith of Abraham is not just a mental belief. It is not just a one time decision for Jesus. It is a new life and makes me a new person. It produces works, and it is perfected by works. It allows me to show diligence to the end. And having patiently endured I will receive the promise. It is a living faith. It includes trials and suffering. It includes warfare. I will need to be vigilant, honest, humble, prayerful, obedient, courageous, sacrificial, and dependent on God. I will have to use my will to follow the Spirit. Faith is not disconnected from works; living faith has much in common with living works.
This is real faith. This is the faith of Abraham.