The Error of Faith Alone

The Error of Faith Alone

At the cornerstone of modern Christian teaching is frequently the doctrine that salvation is by faith alone. However, many of the scriptures I gave in my last post assert that there are requirements for salvation beyond simply having faith, such as baptism, performing miracles, and righteousness. That’s flying dangerously close to what some would consider heretical -- preaching that salvation is obtained through works. The scriptures in support of salvation by faith and not by works seem to be plentiful. So is the there an error in the faith alone doctrine, or are all the scriptures I presented last time somehow wrong? Let's take a look at the faith alone argument in detail and see if we can get all this sorted out.

Are we justified by faith alone?

One of the classic Bible passages upholding the importance of faith is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So we are saved through faith. But Paul, the author, goes on to say:
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
So the very next verse is talking about the importance of good works. In Romans 10:9, Paul wrote: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Here, Paul used the word "believe" rather than "faith." It's important to understand that the Greek word for believe (pisteuĆ³) is the verb from of the noun for faith (pistis). Believing is simply the act of having faith. But besides having faith for salvation, in the very next verse, he says:
“For with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10:10)
So one is saved through belief, but again, we see that belief results in righteousness. Paul agreed with the words of Jesus from John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” Notice Jesus didn't say the believer isn't judged, because we already know that's not true. Jesus said the believer doesn't come into that judgement. In other words, judgement isn't found against him who believes. Why? Keep reading:
“An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)
So the believer doesn't come into judgement because he did good deeds. But even more famous words of Jesus are found in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” But when we memorize a tiny portion of scripture and repeat it many times out of context, it takes on a meaning of its own. Most who rely on this passage fail to read the rest of what Jesus said practically in the same breath:
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:19-21)
Jesus does talk about belief, but then he goes right on to talk about judgement for evil deeds. That's not the John 3:16 they taught me in Sunday School! Are you seeing a pattern here? Every single one of the pop-passages in the Bible talking about salvation by faith are followed immediately by a passage talking about salvation by works. We have yet to look at the most definitive Bible passage on the subject of justification by faith and works:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:19-20, 24, 26)
This bears repeating: "A man is justified by works and not by faith alone." It doesn't get more clear than that! This contradicts justification by faith alone word-for-word. Volumes have been written trying to discredit and reconcile this passage with the other scriptures that seem to support justification by faith alone. But as we've seen, little commentary is necessary when those passages are read in context. All scripture is in complete agreement: Faith alone is no faith at all; we are saved both by faith, and by works.

Do works fail to justify believers?

Protestants have it beaten into their theology that righteousness is the same thing as good works, and salvation by good works are contrary to salvation by faith. Doesn't the Bible teach that we cannot be saved by works? Let's take a look at two of the most well known passages used in error to support this idea:
“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." (Galatians 2:16)

“By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
Using passages like these to support the teaching that we’re saved by faith alone clearly ignores not only what the verse itself says, but it also the context of the entire New Testament! Without question, the largest theological issue the early church dealt with was the controversy between Jewish and Gentile Christians as to whether Gentile converts should be required to keep the Jewish Law (see Acts 15). You can read about this controversy in the gospels, throughout the book of Acts, and pretty much every epistle in the Bible. Things like circumcision, keeping the sabbath, and animal sacrifice were works the Jewish Law required. That is what Paul is talking about in both Galatians and Romans, and that's why he specifically clarifies he’s talking about “works of the Law.”

The same Greek word used for work is also translated into words like action and deed. There are many different kinds of actions: good, bad, righteous, sinful, lawful, unlawful actions, and more. Works of the Law are not the same thing as works of righteousness. The Bible is crystal clear: our salvation does not depend on keeping the Jewish law, but it absolutely does depend on our righteousness!

To drive this point home, consider what a work is. A work is defined as “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” By this definition, the act of simply having faith is a work! There's no avoiding salvation by works... even if we are saved by faith alone, we're still saved by a work!

Getting lost on the Romans Road

Have you heard of the Romans Road to Salvation? It is a series of verses from Romans, taken out of context, put in the wrong order, and used to explain the so-called gospel, making it easy to think Romans is just a simple gospel explanation. But Paul was very clear he wasn’t writing a manual on how to be saved. Paul opens his letter by saying, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8). So clearly, the recipients of the letter already had world-class faith as Christians. He goes on to say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16). In this way, Paul wastes no time getting to the point of his letter -- the controversy I mentioned earlier between Jews and Gentiles (he calls them "Greeks") over following the Jewish law. In case there was any doubt as to why he wrote the letter, Paul closed it with a direct explanation:
“I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:15-16)
The gentiles on one side of the debate and the Jews on the other each apparently thought themselves superior Christians. Throughout the letter, Paul bounces between both sides of the debate, showing that neither is superior and they both need each other. He showed on the one hand, Jews and their Law aren’t superior to gentiles:
“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.” (Romans 3:27-30)
But then on the other hand, he bounces to the other side of the debate by upholding the importance of the Jewish Law:
“The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become death for me?” (Romans 7:12-13)
What follows is Paul’s answer to his own question in the form of a beautiful explanation of why the Jewish Law is good, and sin is evil:
“May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 7:13-17)
This is one of the most misunderstood and ill-used passages in scripture. Paul was demonstrating the Law’s spirituality while still showing its shortcomings. However, false teachers have taken it out of context and twisted it into a justification for sin and evil in the name of a false Jesus. They attempt to justify their own sin by claiming that in this passage, the Apostle Paul confessed to unintentionally giving into sin. But it’s painfully obvious that Paul was was talking about his personal experience attempting to follow the Jewish Law before he was saved by Jesus. Paul removes any doubt by explaining how the Law’s shortcomings are overcome by Jesus:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 7:24-25, 8:2-4)
To be clear that salvation depends on avoiding sin, Paul concludes this section with the following statement:
“So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)
Some people believe that because Paul wrote this section in the present tense, he was struggling with sin as he wrote it. How can this be since it obviously contradicts Paul's claim that Jesus overcame his weakness? To illustrate how, consider an unlikely story from a few years ago: I get a call from a pilot friend of mine asking me if I want to fly with him to pick up another pilot who is stranded at a distant airport due to a flat tire on his plane. We land at the same airport, and wouldn't you know, we too get a flat tire on the runway! Two flats in one day... what are the odds? The airport is shut down for about an hour as we struggle to get the disabled plane off the runway. Since the mechanic shops are closed for the weekend and we've run out of working planes, the three of us are forced to take a long and expensive Uber ride home.

What does this have to do with the verb tense of Romans? Nothing at all, except my entire story was written in present tense even though it happened years ago. Did you notice? This technique is commonly used in English to make details that happened in the past more vivid to readers in the present. This technique was even more common in the Greek of Paul's day. Biblical writers switched tenses constantly, presenting a famously difficult challenge for translators, and translators frequently translate verb tenses inaccurately to fit their personal theology. The tense of Paul’s verbs does not undermine the clear meaning of the words themselves.

Does salvation by works invalidate God's grace?

Many of the passages we’ve looked at thus far emphasize that salvation is due to God’s grace. Doesn't the requirement for righteousness contradict God's grace? Many years of false theology has trained Christians to equate righteousness with salvation on one's own merits, but that is a false assumption. Spending the rest of one's life in perfect righteousness could never pay the debt for his sin. To God, righteousness is the minimum requirement, not a moral surplus! Therefore, no matter how righteous we are, our salvation will always be by God’s grace, completely undeserved by us.

Consider a family deep in debt from a loan they are years behind in paying off. The banker comes to their home for a visit and decides to completely forgive their debt. But before doing so, he gives them one condition: the family will not be allowed to go back into debt by taking out another loan from his bank. Isn’t this requirement completely in the banker's rights? Of course it is! And yet, would this requirement invalidate his gracious offer to forgive their debt? Of course not! And if the family were to somehow use their newfound financial freedom to go back into debt, should they have reason to expect the banker to forgive their debt a second time? I don’t think so!

This family’s financial debt is just like our moral debt to God. God offers his forgiveness by his grace, free of charge, completely undeserved by us. This freedom allows us to live life free from sin.  God's one requirement is that we live righteously and do not return to our old ways of sin. This requirement for righteousness does not in anyway invalidate the grace that got us there! God's grace does not bring freedom to sin, his grace brings freedom from sin.

Titus 3:5-6 shows that our salvation is due to God's grace, not our righteous works: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” But he goes right on to talk about how this grace results in good works:
“This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds.” (Titus 3:8)

How the gospel changed

The Christian gospel teaching began to change about 500 years ago when church leaders were selling indulgences. Buying an indulgence was considered a good work that would guarantee reduced punishment in the afterlife. Many took issue with this abuse of power, correctly claiming that buying and selling indulgences were not actually good works.

One man in particular took his protest against the sale of indulgences to a whole new level, arguing that good works don't result in salvation at all. This man's theology did not align with much of the Bible, and he made attempts to discredit and remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. In his own translation of the Bible, he changed Romans 3:28 to read "faith alone" rather than "faith." This man went so far as to encourage sin, writing, “Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.” It is from him we get the phrase, "faith alone." He was declared a heretic, but today he is hailed a hero. This man is Martin Luther.

At the center of the debate between Luther and the rest of the church was the question of whether righteousness is imparted or imputed upon Christians. The church had always taught that righteousness is imparted, or bestowed, upon believers. Through his grace, God takes away believers’ sin and makes them righteous. But Luther argued that God imputed, or attributed, righteousness upon believers. That means God calls all believers righteous, even if they're actually in sin. 

If righteousness is bestowed by God, a change happens in the believer and he becomes righteous. But if righteousness is attributed by God, no change occurs in the believer. The only change is in God's attitude about the believer, calling him righteous when he actually is not. So according to the Bible, where does the change actually occur -- in us, or in God? When we repent from our sin, there's no question that God's attitude changes and becomes forgiving. That was John the Baptists’ message:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)
Sadly, Luther’s gospel stops with John the Baptist. It is a weak gospel, unable to make any real change, falling short of the promise of God. But the true gospel doesn't stop with John! He was simply preparing the way for the the full gospel of Jesus Christ:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The true gospel doesn't just put glasses on God to see things differently. It doesn't just cover over sin. The true gospel changes us. It removes sin completely. Here's what John the Baptist had to say about Jesus:
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
And another John wrote:
You know that He appeared in order to take away sins. (1 John 3:5)

Are we sinners saved by grace?

In the Bible, Christians are called disciples, believers, and saints. The Bible never calls Christians sinners. And yet, some people almost brag about how they are just a "sinner saved by grace" as if it were a badge of humility. But it's not humility, it's a denial of Jesus and the power of his death and resurrection. When you live free from sin, it is humble submission to the power of Jesus. It it not arrogant to expect righteousness from yourself. It is not too lofty a goal to be without sin. Thanks to God's grace, it is not out of reach to be perfect.
His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:3-12)
Did you catch that? We are not just Christians, we can become partakers of the divine nature! Jesus didn’t come to save us from consequences of sin. He came to save us from the problem of sin. We can't be righteous on our own. But there is supernatural power in Christ to live righteously. We'll talk about how this power works in future blog posts. Go and live in the power of the Gospel.

Comments

Subscribe Don't miss the next post! Enter your email to get new post notifications from Beyond A Church
Beyond A Church - Blog Directory OnToplist.com
Blogging Fusion Blog Directory