Justified by Faith, Apart from Works

I recently listened to a train wreck of a sermon by a local Purpose Driven pastor. In his 44 minutes on the subject of faith, he achieved the remarkable feat of avoiding any mention of the proper object of Christian faith: Christ, and His life, death and resurrection for sinners.

The pastor defined faith by a number of its purported attributes. The fourth was this:

Faith is giving when I don’t have it.

Let’s leave aside the aspect of ‘giving when I don’t have it’, problematic though that is. There is a more fundamental error lurking in this statement.

Notice that the pastor does not say that faith results in my ‘giving when I don’t have it’. Neither does he state that ‘the kind of faith that justifies produces a desire to give’. Rather, he asserts that faith is giving. This is to confuse faith with the fruit of faith, namely the works that faith produces.

Though it might at first seem as if I am splitting hairs, maintaining the distinction between faith and works – especially with respect to justification – is foundational to a proper understanding of biblical Christianity (cf. the epistles to the Romans, Galatians, etc.). This distinction was a lynchpin of the Reformation. Against the Reformers’ emphasis on justification by grace alone (unmerited favour) through faith alone (apart from works), Rome erroneously insisted that justification is ‘not by faith alone, which some incorrectly teach, but faith that works through love’ (see the Pontifical Confutation of the Augsburg Confession).

One might charitably think that this Purpose Driven pastor had merely been careless in his choice of words. However, his subsequent explanation was entirely consistent with his statement in the precise form in which he made it. He meant exactly what he said. His application was that we should not cling to riches but give to God even what we do not have, and that God would then credit that work of giving as righteousness. He even made this egregious statement:

But Abel offered the first fruits. He gave the best of what he had to God. And it was credited to him as righteousness. You see, tithing is not about impressing your friends. It’s not about satisfying some form of guilt. Tithing is about giving the best of what you have to a God who sees that as righteous.

Misinterpreting and misapplying Hebrews 11:4 in that way is, I suggest, absolutely to include our works in the definition of justifying faith.

When we begin like this to define justifying faith as working (rather than trusting), or, with the equally bad variant, as including (rather than producing) good works, we have placed ourselves firmly in opposition to the biblical doctrine of the Reformers and aligned ourselves with the enemies of the Gospel.

Compare the Reformer Philip Melanchthon’s definition of faith, given in his refutation of Rome’s response to the Augsburg Confession’s article on justification (emphasis mine):

The adversaries imagine that faith is only a knowledge of the history of Christ. Therefore, they teach that it can coexist with mortal sin. They say nothing about faith, by which Paul so frequently says that people are justified. For those who are counted as righteous before God do not live in mortal sin. But the faith that justifies is not merely a knowledge of history. It is to believe in God’s promise. In the promise, for Christ’s sake, forgiveness of sins and justification are freely offered. And so that no one may suppose that this is mere knowledge, we will add further: it is to want and to receive the offered promise of forgiveness of sins and of justification.

Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (ed. Paul Timothy McCain; St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 89.

That is a concise and biblically accurate definition of the faith that justifies.

Melanchthon immediately goes on to contrast this justifying trust in God’s promise (specifically, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification) with the righteousness of the Law (i.e. a righteousness derived from works):

The difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the divine service (latreia) that receives the benefits offered by God. The righteousness of the Law is the divine service (latreia) that offers to God our merits. God wants to be worshiped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers.

Faith, then, offers nothing to God. Rather, it receives from Him what He has graciously promised. To worship God in spirit and in truth is to receive from Him, by faith, the benefits of Christ’s finished work.

Our works, our obedience can never be the cause for our justification (right-standing) before God – not least because we can never keep God’s Law perfectly and so all that we do is tainted with sin. Considered on their own merits outside of Christ, even our best works deserve God’s condemnation.

Rather, we are declared to have a right-standing before God by faith in God’s promise to us in Christ. Christ’s perfect righteousness is put to our account by our trusting in Christ’s finished work for us – His life, death and resurrection for us. It is a righteousness from God that He accounts to us by grace through faith, absolutely apart from anything we do. And even the faith that grasps hold of God’s promise is itself a gracious gift to us from God.

These truths are succinctly stated by Paul, writing to the Ephesians (emphasis mine):

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Eph. 2:9

Consider too these verses from John’s Gospel:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”

Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

John 6:28–29

Notice how Jesus confounds and reverses the expectations of his questioners. What counts is not the works (plural) that they do for God, but the work (singular) that God must do in them. And what is that work wrought by God? Nothing other than our belief (having faith) in His Son. As R.C.H. Lenski comments on v. 29:

Faith is here called a “work” in a peculiar sense, differentiating it entirely from “works” as righteous acts of ours. We, indeed, must do the believing, but our believing is the work of God. We trust, but God kindles that trust in us.

Compare v. 37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come unto me”; v. 44, “No man can come to me, except the Father which sent me draw him.” Faith is “of the operation of God,” Col. 2:12.

Hence faith is not “the fundamental virtue” from which the other works flow. Faith is the opposite of all other works. For faith receives from God; the other works make return to God.

All law works (works of unregenerate men) are the very opposition of faith, for by such works men would climb to heaven on their own merit, without a Savior and without faith. All Christian good works do, indeed, spring from faith, like fruit from a good tree, but always and only from a faith which already has Christ, salvation, life eternal, and needs no good works to merit these treasures which never can be merited.

R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 455.

In his wonderful letter to the Romans, Paul carefully distinguishes between faith and works (again, my emphasis):

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith 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 apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law

Rom. 3:21–31

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”

Rom. 4:5–8

Faith, biblically speaking, is thus a confident trust (itself given by God) in the promise of God to us – specifically, in the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification for the sake of Christ Jesus.

To have faith in Christ – to trust exclusively in the merits of His work – is the complete opposite of our placing any reliance whatsoever upon our own works. To include the things we do in any definition of justifying faith is therefore utterly to destroy its very essence and saving power.

Although faith most certainly does result in our producing good works, we must be ever watchful against including works of any kind in the definition of faith itself, lest we fall into the heresy that Paul refuted in his Epistle to the Galatians.

So, what of the errant Purpose Driven pastor who has confused faith and works, and thus preached a false gospel that cannot save? The good news for him – and for all of us – is that there is most certainly forgiveness of sins for all those who are trusting in Christ alone – yes, even for those who have erred concerning the central doctrines of the Faith once delivered. May God in His gracious mercy grant that we each repent and believe this Good News: Jesus Christ crucified for sinners and raised for our justification.

Postscript

The unhappy irony of my listening to the sermon in question was that this pastor’s preaching had been specifically commended to me as being solid and gospel-focused. I’d subsequently listened to the sermon with the hope that I could build bridges by finding something positive and encouraging to say about it. I also listened to the only other sermon by the same pastor that was available from the fellowship’s website, but that was equally problematic.

Out of concern, and as a matter of courtesy, I some time ago brought the problems with this sermon to the attention of an elder of the fellowship concerned, Living Hope Community Church, Isle of Man. Living Hope is self-professedly Purpose Driven.

In the following post, Christ, Our Exceedingly Great Reward, I consider the true meaning of Hebrews 11:4. In the post after that, Cain and Abel, Law and Gospel, I take a closer look at the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel misused by this Purpose Driven pastor.