Works Of Faith

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the American church culture in the last few months. As the “deconstruction” trend has gained visibility, the established church has begun to aggressively attack it, pushing back very hard against those who are deconstructing, and also damning many ideas under that one word.

The term “deconstruction” can mean quite a few different things. But on the balance, for most people, it seems to mean primarily that they’re systematically going through their belief system, item by item and precept by precept, trying to compare that belief system with what the Bible says. Certainly there are some who deconstruct who simply walk away from the faith, but I don’t sense that is a majority; rather, the testimony of most who deconstruct seems to be a desire to draw closer to God by understanding His Word better and more personally.

I would therefore say that I’m deconstructing too, trying to figure out how my beliefs align with Scripture. In the last couple years of my spiritual journey, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the structure of my faith, and how it looks compared to what I read in the Bible, and how my interpretations of the Bible hold up to close scrutiny. As I’ve expanded my reading list and my sources, I’ve discovered that there is quite a large variety of specific doctrines that are nonetheless considered orthodox, despite in many cases being at odds with each other. And I’ve been discovering that quite a few belief structures in my understanding of God and my relationship with Him were merely adopted blindly from various sources, and I never really investigated these things for myself.

Don’t Question Anything

One might imagine that the process of truly beginning to own my personal belief systems, rather than simply carrying someone else’s beliefs, would be welcomed in a community of faith.

But rather than welcoming this process, the response I see from particularly the evangelical and Reformed segments of American Christianity is uniformly accusative and condemning.

It’s almost as if “faith” requires a lack of investigation and critical thinking.

It’s almost as if uncertainty – or at least, admitting that uncertainty, which probably exists in every Christian’s heart – is unacceptable.

If you express any questioning of your beliefs, evangelical Christians seem to often respond as if you’re at risk of losing your salvation, or maybe even as if you’re apostate. The admission generates at least a raised eyebrow or maybe worse yet a concerned look of “Oh you poor thing,” usually followed by some form of pressure to pull back from the brink of hell.

So this has me thinking about the evangelical understanding of faith. Evangelical denominations seem to be fairly united in the belief that salvation is “sola fide” – that is to say, justified solely by faith, not by works.

But is it possible for faith itself to become a matter of works?

The Faith Versus Works Debate

There’s a fairly wide range of beliefs on the faith versus works spectrum, with a lot of debate between the denominations. Truly, the Bible can be interpreted with a range of answers to this question. There are dozens of scriptures that address faith and works, but the following are the best known examples, and are quite representative of the two sides of the discussion.

For starters, Paul was pretty clear in Ephesians and Romans and Galatians that being saved is by faith from the gift of God, not of ourselves or our works.

Ephesians 2:4-10
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our wrongdoings, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the boundless riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Romans 3:19-28
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law none of mankind will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 but it is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in God’s merciful restraint He let the sins previously committed go unpunished; 26 for the demonstration, that is, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where then is boasting? It has been excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Galatians 2:15-21
15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless, knowing that a person is not justified by 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 works of the Law; since by works of the Law no flesh will be justified. 17 But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Far from it! 18 For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a wrongdoer. 19 For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

On the other hand, James discusses the need for works to back up one’s faith.

James 2:14-25
14 What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 In the same way, faith also, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was Rahab the prostitute not justified by works also when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

And Jesus was pretty clear in Matthew 7 and 25 that, when He judges mankind at the end of the age, He would not recognize those who practice lawlessness and fail to care for the poor and needy – which are works prescribed in the Law.

Matthew 7:21-23
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; leave Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Matthew 25:31-33, 25:41-46
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. … 41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed people, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me, either.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

So with this spread of concepts, it’s entirely understandable that there is a difference of opinion across the traditional Christian denominational positions.

But all of the different traditional viewpoints nonetheless seem to agree on this: that faith is a very necessary aspect of justification. There is no propitiation for sins unless we place our faith in Jesus. It’s a matter of understanding just how much that salvation also depends on works.

So wherever you fall on that topic, faith itself is clearly important.

Sola Fide as the Highest Priority?

But for those “sola fide” believers, what I’m detecting in this current response to deconstruction is that the faith itself has become a form of works, or more precisely, a form of legalism. In essence, if you question the fundamentals of evangelical thinking, your faith is suddenly no longer considered “enough.” You can have utter and complete faith in Jesus, a living and vibrant relationship with Him through the Holy Spirit, but if you express doubt about doctrinal positions, your salvation is considered to be at risk.

For example, one of the central figures of current American evangelical thinking, John MacArthur, claims to be speaking on behalf of Jesus Himself when he wrote in 2010 in “Jesus’ Perspective on Sola Fide” that “History provides plenty of objective evidence to affirm Luther’s assessment. Churches and denominations that hold firmly to sola fide remain evangelical. Those who have strayed from the Reformation consensus on this point inevitably capitulate to liberalism, revert to sacerdotalism, embrace some form of perfectionism, or veer off into worse forms of apostasy.

In some sense, it’s “sola fide” only if that “fide” is 100% faithful and unquestioning.

This strikes me as fundamentally arrogant – since it claims to speak for Jesus but directly ignores some of Jesus’ own teaching in Mathew 7 and 25 as quoted above, as well as His often-repeated imperatives to do good works for the needy and our fellow man. Furthermore it ignores the fact that every human wrestles with their faith, and this doctrinal position lays a massive guilt trip on anyone who admits to that fact.

In fact, the one time we know that Jesus encountered weak faith, He did not respond by shunning that individual, but by nonetheless pressing in for healing, in Mark 9. The father of the demon-possessed boy said to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief,” and Jesus responded by healing the man’s son.

Where I Stand

Here’s my current position.

The deeper that I research orthodox Christian beliefs and doctrines, and the more I begin to understand their history and the thought processes underlying them, the less certain I am that my existing set of doctrine is absolutely totally correct. One of my theological positions has long been that if many learned men have spent their lives pursuing the truth and have not yet reached a single undeniable consensus, then it’s unlikely that any position I could take on the matter would be absolutely and provably the Truth. In short, I’m rapidly becoming comfortable with uncertainty about many of the debated aspects of doctrine.

Put differently, I’m beginning to embrace mystery. I don’t think I always need to KNOW something.

Naturally, this is a rather unpopular position to anyone who considers “faith” to be utter certainty despite the lack of firm evidence.

But I don’t think that is what “faith” means. The Greek word most often translated “faith” is “pistis”. Faith is given by God (Romans 12:3, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 5:22-23), and not our responsibility. It’s not our response – which is belief, a different word.

And our faith is not in doctrine. Our faith is in Christ and His sacrifice, and that faith can exist fully independently from any other doctrine – noting that doctrine is man’s rational understanding and explanation and interpretation of Scriptural principles.

So I would propose that many evangelical believers have (probably subconsciously) taken the position that a critical key to salvation is the mental assent for the doctrinal positions of the particular denomination in which they operate, and that it is urgently dangerous to question those doctrinal positions.

A Different Sense of “Faith”

But based on what I read about pistis in the Bible, and its specific uses through the New Testament, I must arrive at a different position.

I believe, therefore, that “faith” has been granted to me as a gift of God, supernaturally connecting me in relationship to Christ as I respond with belief in His propitiation for me. The specifics of any denominational doctrine or position have little to do with the salvation that naturally results from that pistis-granted propitiation (a word which refers to God accepting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as full and complete payment for our debts due to sin).

From that perspective, then, I am freed from this perverse and ironic legalism where somehow a misunderstanding of “faith” has become more important than the actual relationship with Jesus Christ, being grafted into His Body.

The result of my new perspective, then, is a complete freedom to carefully compare my beliefs and the Scriptures, and be completely free to repent of anything where the Holy Spirit convicts my heart of incorrect doctrine or understanding. I’m not constrained by any man-made preconceptions – they are certainly there when I begin, and I constantly consult them, but they have no hold on my mind as the Spirit speaks to my spirit about what He wants to teach me. I’m richly and thankfully informed by the array of doctrinal positions from many wise Bible scholars through the ages, but I’m not constrained legalistically by any of them. And in particular, this freedom grants the Holy Spirit the opportunity to bring me to new understandings, to reveal things to me and through me that previously would have been outside my doctrinal positions and I would have therefore resisted or rejected.

Why would this not be attractive?

The Challenges

Well, I think there are some obvious challenges with such a position. For a young Christian without a solid grounding in the Word, it would be easy to go astray if left alone in this freedom. It’s not a freedom for the immature; it really requires a mature believer to come alongside the newer believer and lead them in understanding the truth. But it also means that different believers might arrive at different conclusions – which may not be acceptable if one is uncomfortable with the inherent “unknowableness” of not-yet-revealed spiritual mysteries. And it requires one to truly be led by the Holy Spirit in repentance and change – not just giving lip service to the Holy Spirit, but explicitly and regularly inviting Him to adjust our thinking, and being explicitly willing to repent of old thinking on a regular basis.

Some Possible Answers

I think the answer to these concerns is true discipleship. I’m not talking about the simple “come to Bible study for an hour a week” or “make sure you’re faithful to attend Sunday School” idea of discipleship. Instead, I’m talking about the Jewish rabbinical model of discipleship, the kind Jesus Himself would have meant when He said “be my disciples” – where a “disciple” who desired to study under a rabbi would devote himself to several years of intense study, following and serving the rabbi as he lived an itinerant life from town to town, giving up all possessions for the sake of becoming a true understudy to the rabbi, able to carry on the rabbi’s teachings and eventually become a rabbi himself. Jews in Jesus’ time understood this is what He meant when He spoke of discipleship.

Someone living in such a relationship with a mature Christian rabbi (known simply as a teacher in modern English) will himself mature under the covering of the rabbi, growing in the faith with plenty of guidance and shepherding. It will most certainly result in the faithful reproduction of the rabbi’s belief systems, and the process will refine both the teacher and the disciple as hard questions are mutually wrestled with in the context of a loving and confident relationship. (In fact, it seems that the Jewish rabbinical model was deeply comfortable with uncertainty and debate – and it was expected that a rabbi would bring his own interpretations and understandings to the table, and thus expand the understanding of all.)

This discipling process looks totally different than the “come to church once or twice a week” kind of Christianity in which pretty much every Christian that I know was raised.

So maybe that’s the real deconstruction that’s necessary in the end – recognizing that not only the doctrinal positions we simply adopted without questioning might need to be changed, but also recognizing that the very fundamental practice of our faith itself might need to be changed, that the institutional model in which we were raised may be part of the very problem. Maybe we’ve bought into a deceptively attractive model focused on the metric of congregation size, that distracts us from true growth and maturity – “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:5)

So my spiritual life at this point is an ongoing series of repentances, not of sinful actions, but of a more fundamental turning away from immature and unthoughtful positions I’ve had for all my life.

And in that, I sense the pleasure and joy of my Heavenly Father as I rediscover Him, and find myself drawn closer than ever before – even as I appear to traditional-church-model Christians to be skewing further away from the church than ever before.

And I’m quite okay with that dichotomy. For it’s my Father’s pleasure that motivates me, not the approval of any human.

I welcome your thoughts about these things in the comments section.

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