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Faith vs. Works

Note: This is a 2015 re-write of a previous website post, No-nonsense Christianity: Faith vs. Works, which originated from Note 574.303 of the Christian_V6 forum at the former Digital Equipment Corporation, posted on 21-DEC-1992. This new update expands on that. Credit for the profound observation goes to the late Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989).

What sets Christianity apart from all other religious belief systems is the tenet that only by faith, and not by our actions, can we be reconciled with God and be saved from God's judgment, wrath, and eternal condemnation.

In fact, one who tries to justify himself before God by his earthly actions will cause himself to be judged according to his actions and be justly condemned for falling short of what God requires, which is a life without sin. We are repeat criminals with criminal records that cannot be erased by any token good that we might do in this life, much as in a human court the accused cannot be excused by merely pointing out that he also did or will do something good.

The sinless life that God requires was only found in Jesus, who showed such great love for us that he paid the penalty that we deserve, even though he was guilty of no wrongdoing. By his sacrifice on the cross, he erased our criminal record of sins once and for all. God is not asking us to prove our worth by adding good deeds to our criminal record, but rather to turn to him in faith to receive his mercy and grace on account of what Jesus did.

Faith defined

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, faith is "1.a. Confident belief, trust"

According to the Bible, faith is "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)

It is not something mystical or difficult to understand.

The "faith vs. works" dilemma solved

In Genesis 15

4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." 5 He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars -- if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
In Romans 4

4 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about -- but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."[Genesis 15:6] 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
In Genesis 22

10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. 12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
In James 2

18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that -- and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is dead? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,"[Genesis 15:6]
In Genesis 15, Abraham is justified in the sight of God by his faith alone. In Genesis 22, Abraham is justified in the sight of the angel (and everyone else present and future) by what he did; he demonstrated his faith to all. In Romans 4, we are reminded that we are justified in the sight of God by faith apart from works. In James 2, we are reminded that we are justified in the sight of all creation (men, angels, demons, etc.) by what we do, as a tangible fulfillment of what we believe.

Martin Luther is said to have offered his "doctor's cap" to anyone who could reconcile the book of James with faith, and called James "an epistle of straw." Well, I don't need or want his "doctor's cap," but what he was missing is really simple: We are justified in the sight of the Creator (God) by faith apart from actions, and are justified in the sight of all creation (men, angels, demons, etc.) by our actions apart from mere profession of "faith."

God, omniscient (all-knowing), knows our heart apart from our actions. All those in creation don't know our hearts except by our actions that they see. Even we ourselves are to test our own "faith" by what we see ourselves doing (2 Cor 13:5).

That's why James 2 says things like " me...I will show foolish man, do you want evidence..." James does not say "show God." The demonstration of faith that James speaks of is not to God, but to men, angels (Gen 22:11-12, 1 Cor 11:10, 1 Pet 1:12), even demons (James 2:19, Luke 22:31-32, Jesus' temptation in desert, etc.).

God already counted Abraham righteous, but we in God's creation "considered Abraham righteous" based on what he did. He is one of a "great cloud of witnesses" to all creation of his faith (Heb 11:17-19, Heb 12:1).

So, there is first your choice to believe something. Then, if you believe it, you will act as if you believe it, including not wavering in the face of trial or testing. Not that actions in of themselves ("performance," "works," "technique," etc) have the power to accomplish anything of faith. However, true faith results in actions corresponding to faith. It is not something just blabbed out (i.e. intellectual agreement, Greek "gnosis," or "name it, claim it; blab it, grab it; confess and you will possess," etc.). It gets demonstrated such that all creation finds out what you really believe. We probably have no idea how many in the heavenly realm (angels and demons, besides those around us) are watching to find out whether we really believe whatever it is we say we believe, whether circumstances will cause us to turn around and soon contradict ourselves by the words of our mouths, saying one thing, then perhaps saying something else a little while later, whether we will cave under pressure, whether we will stand and persevere instead.

We are being tested, and we will be tested.

James 1:2

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
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