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Faith and Works

by Tom Ewall

What's the relationship between faith and works? Before exploring the answer to this question, let's consider the words we will be looking at. First of all, notice the Bible uses "works" in both a positive and negative sense. In a positive sense, it is equivalent to obedience to the law. In a negative sense, it means things one does to try to earn favor with God. We will be using it in the positive sense.

The Bible also uses "faith" in a negative sense. In a negative sense, it is used as a counterfeit for true faith, a "faith" devoid of works. Similarly "believe" can be used in a negative sense. For example, "The devils believe and tremble." "Believe" here is not used in the same sense that Jesus used it when He said, "Whosoever believes in Me shall not perish." We will be using it in the positive sense. We also note that as "works" and "obey" express the same idea in two ways (one as a noun, the other as a verb), so too "faith" and "believe" express the same idea in two ways (one as a noun, the other as a verb).

When Nicodemus went to see Jesus, Jesus explained to him the way of salvation. To be saved, Nicodemus must believe in Him. The distinction between the sheep and the goats was made clear. The sheep are those who believe in Him. They shall never perish. The goats are those who "believe not." They are already condemned.

In another occasion, when Jesus was asked how to obtain eternal life, He responded, "Obey the commandments." Was Jesus mistaken? Did He not know that the way to eternal life is by believing in Him? Why did He say one thing in one place and something else in another?

Jesus is not the only one who does this! The great apostle Paul, who so strongly and clearly teaches that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ, tells us "not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the law will be justified." John also, whose pen brought us the truth that those who believe in Christ "shall not perish" tells us, "Blessed are they that keep His commandments, for they shall have a right to the tree of life and enter into the gates of the city." (Rev. 22:14) The distinction between the sheep and the goats is made clear. The sheep are those who obey. The goats are those who don't.

Is it a coincidence that these groups are the same? That is, that those who believe are the same as those who obey, and those who "believe not" are those who do not obey? Not at all!

It is often said that faith leads to obedience, but the relationship between faith and obedience is much closer than that. Those who believe, obey. And those who obey, believe. You can not have one without the other. Whatever is not of faith is sin. Sin is transgression of the law, or disobedience. So whatever is not of faith is disobedience. Without faith it is impossible to please God. The law of God comprises those things which please God. It is "the whole duty of man." Without faith, it is impossible to obey the law of God. With faith, it is impossible not to.

When one believes in Christ, the law is written in the heart and in the mind. This is where obedience begins. As long as the law is something outside of man, something external he tries to do, his failure is inevitable. But when Christ, of whom it is written, "I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart." dwells within, then the law is no longer something external. It is written in our hearts by the living Christ, who dwells in the heart by faith.

The law has an internal element to it. Jesus taught this in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7). The law can be disobeyed by a glance, by a thought. In fact, one commandment, "Thou shall not covet" is only internal. One must be born again to keep it. One needs the mind of Christ.

Just as the law has an internal element to it, faith has an external element. Faith works by love (Galatians 5:6).

So what is the relationship of faith and works? They are two expressions of the same process, like sin and death. As the sting of death is sin, the sting of works is faith. As sin has death wrapped within, faith has works wrapped within. Faith works.

So when Jesus told the man who inquired of Him to obey the law if He wanted to obtain eternal life, He was right! (How could He not be?) Implicit within this obedience is faith. James expresses the same idea when he writes that Abraham was justified by works.

Faith looks at the process starting from within, and proceeds without. A heart appreciation of the love of God; a grateful, appreciating heart expresses itself in works of obedience. (e.g. Mary Magdalene's expression of faith at the feast at Simon's house). Obedience to the law looks at the process from another perspective. It presupposes the existence of faith, which purifies the motives and cleanses the inner being by bringing Christ to dwell within.

Why is it important to understand how closely faith and works are interwoven? We may come to incorrect conclusions when we consider our own lives and see a lack of works (or no lack of sin). We may be tempted to believe the solution is more works, to try harder. However, if we understand that faith and works cannot be separated, we will be led to understand the true problem unbelief. If we further understand faith as a heart appreciation of the love of God, especially as revealed at the cross, a lack of works in our lives will drive us to where we need to go: the cross.

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