FAITH & WORKS
One of the big questions we often encounter in our Christian life is the one of faith and works – is believing in Jesus enough or is there something I should do? This isn’t a new one – it has dogged the church from the beginning, and ensnared many a Christian. It’s what we might call Jesus plus.
In the book of Galatians we find that the churches that Paul had started in Galatia were struggling with the same question as a result of false teachers. For them the question was, should Gentile Christians become Jews by submitting to certain external things like circumcision and the law in order to become full members of God’s family?
Paul started the churches in Galatia on his first missionary journey about 47-48AD, and writes this letter to them barely 1-2 years later out of great concern. Why? The churches in Galatia were in danger of losing the plot, and were turning to a different gospel (1:6). They were moving from Jesus only to Jesus plus. As a result they were getting bogged down in legalism, and the elementary principles of this world (4:9), and had lost the blessing they once knew (4:15). What’s more they claimed Paul had changed the message, and that it was incomplete!
Now Paul makes it quite clear in that there is no other gospel and that the gospel he shared with them was not man’s gospel (1:11), for he received it by revelation (1:12), and had explained it to them in all its glorious fullness (3:1).
Bewitched is not normally the way you would refer to Christians! But this is exactly what Paul does in Galatians 3:1, he says, “Who has bewitched you?” – who has put you under a spell?
Jesus plus is just as much an issue today, and it is extremely bewitching. The devil doesn’t like the gospel of free grace – Jesus only. Today there is a lot emphasis on me and my faith. It constantly calls me up, to make a new commitment, to try again, try harder, when the reality is the Bible starts and finishes somewhere else – with Christ. When the emphasis falls on me, on my faith and commitment, my holiness, my performance and perseverance we are headed the same way as the Galatians.
Have you been bewitched? Led astray from the pure gospel? Lost your joy in believing? Lost your liberty?
We need to be reminded again and again, good works do not merit grace, neither do good works done from grace merit anything! It is all of grace!
Jesus plus creeps in in a variety of ways:
Jesus plus in salvation: some have used the illustration of a drowning person clinging desperately to a life belt and being hauled in as an illustration of being saved, and when they finally get him or her in the boat he or she is finally saved. That’s Jesus plus your strength to hold on. That’s faith and works. That is not a Bible picture. We are not trying to hang on to Jesus, he has got hold of us!
Jesus plus in worship: Some of our modern hymns and songs don’t help us, e.g. “I’m coming up the mountain Lord ….” Musing on this recently I found myself thinking, is this right? After all a mountain is not easy to climb, and anyway didn’t Jesus come down it for us? Another, “I really want to see you …” and so we try to see him, when in fact do we not behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as Paul says? We could go on, but the result is self effort, a striving to know God and get into his presence, to worship etc.. Jesus plus.
Jesus plus in Christian living/assurance: You may have heard of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which teaches that God’s people are eternally saved and will persevere to the end, but I have heard it preached and taught in such a way that it undermines the very gospel and the faith of the believer, and pushes them over into works. It’s borne out in the question I have heard more than once (from people who have believed in it), “have I done enough?” Which equals, Jesus plus. To which my answer has always been its not and never has been about what you have done, but what Jesus has done, has he done enough? And the Bible’s answer to that question is a resounding YES!
That kind of Christianity is more about striving than believing, more about getting than receiving, more about works than faith, more about me than Christ.
THE PERENNIAL DANGER
The perennial danger facing the Christian and therefore the church is mixing law and grace; works and faith. Galatians is all about that. Now there’s an even subtler version of it, faith in our faith – when we place all the emphasis on my faith we are in danger of turning that faith into a kind of work, and so it all becomes subjective (inward looking and feeling oriented) rather than objective (looking away from ourselves to another, and his word to us). Faith is not trying to believe, not trying to hang on in there – you either believe or you don’t.
• The Righteousness of the law = legal dutiful obedience = do and you shall live
• The Righteousness of the gospel = faith/faithfulness of another = believe and live!
FROM FAITH TO FAITH
Paul is his opening up of the gospel in Romans begins by saying that it is “from faith to/for faith.” (Rom. 1:17). What does he mean by that? He means that it starts somewhere else – with Jesus, it is from the faith of Jesus to ours. Now in most of our modern bibles that would not be obvious because they always translate it as if every reference is to our faith in him, and if we do that only one understanding is allowed.
OUR FAITH/FAITH IN
Now the bible does speak of our faith for example:
“Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received BY FAITH.” (Romans 3:25)
“For we hold that one is justified BY FAITH apart from/without the works/deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28). See also: Romans 4:5; Gal. 3:26; Col. 1:4.
THE FAITH OF JESUS
In the King James/Authorised Version and the NET Bible (a new translation) it also speaks of the faith of Jesus (I can’t deal with questions of translation here):
“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by THE FAITH/FAITHFULNESS OF JESUS CHRIST, even we HAVE BELIEVED IN JESUS CHRIST, that we might be justified by THE FAITH/FAITHFULLNESS OF CHRIST, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. … I live by the FAITH/FAITHFULNESS of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:15 16). See also in the KJV or on the NET Bible (online): Romans 3:21, 22; Gal. 3:22; Phil. 3:9; Ephesians 3:11, 12. I would encourage you to read all these verses in their context and notice the difference ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ makes.
What does this mean? Humanity was meant to live by faith in God, it has failed miserably. We call it the Fall. BUT God in his love has sent Jesus in flesh just like our own to live the life that we should have lived of faith/faithfulness before God.
John Henry Newman captures it well in his hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’:
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive, and should prevail;
and that a higher gift than grace
should flesh and blood refine:
God’s presence and his very self,
and essence all-divine.
O generous love! that he who smote
in man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.
Jesus lived out a life of faith in real flesh, the stuff we are made of – remember, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” He assumes our flesh and so redeems not only our will, but thoughts and emotions – our whole estrangement and humanity! Hallelujah!
Day in and day out, month in and month out, year after year, Jesus was tempted and tried in every way but through faith in the Father overcame and offered to God the life that we should have lived and having done so gave him-self on our behalf, as an at-one-ment for our sins.
We find it expressed in these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us. By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, …”
A DERIVED FAITH
Our faith then is a derived faith, it comes as a result of the faith/faithfulness of Jesus, and therefore our justification is conditioned upon Christ’s faith not on ours – our faith itself does not justify us, but Christ in whom we have placed our faith. It is therefore Christ-centred rather than believer-centred.
It’s not about techniques, rules, law keeping, disciplines etc. but a PERSON, Christ. The only victorious life there is and you need is Christ! We overcome by recognising and participating in his victory, not getting another one!
Marcus Barth in The Faith of The Messiah says, “The faith of Christ is the means, and the faith of men and women in Christ is the purpose and response.” Our faith then is a derived faith, derived from the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ – his faith-filled obedience.
As the writer to the Hebrews says Jesus is the Author and Finisher of faith, or the Captain and Object of faith (Hebrews 12:1,2), and in the words of T. F. Torrance, “In the New Testament gospel Christ’s faith, his obedience, his knowledge are the foundation of my faith, obedience and knowledge, so that my faith, obedience and knowledge are objectively controlled by his.” T. F. Torrance, Incarnation.
So “the life I/we now live in the flesh I/we live by the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us!” Galatians 2:20.
Here is peace and joy and liberty and relationship and power and hope!