Popular Beliefs: Faith Only

For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular. People hear about them frequently; their legitimacy is often taken for granted. The Scriptures commend and justify many such beliefs and practices, but we cannot assume that merely because a belief or practice is popular that it is authorized by and pleases God in Christ. We must test all the spirits (1 John 4:1); we must prove all things in Christ (Colossians 3:17).

A very popular belief, especially among Protestants and Evangelicals, features belief itself: belief in salvation by faith only. According to this view, the only thing that a person needs to do in order to be saved is to believe, or have faith, in Christ. This perspective often reduces faith to a set of propositions to which mental assent is given: as long as one mentally accepts the idea that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, such is sufficient to save. Does faith only make the best sense of what God has revealed regarding faith in the New Testament?

In English, “belief” and “faith” are synonymous yet distinct words. In Greek, the terms translated “belief” and “faith” are come from a single word family: most often “faith” translates the Greek noun pistis; “to believe” translates the Greek verb pisteuo. The Hebrews author provides a compelling definition for belief/faith in Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Faith thus involves assurance and conviction; faith is grounded in knowledge about God and what He has accomplished for us in Christ, but is not merely that knowledge itself. One could know many ideas and facts about Jesus without necessarily having faith in Him. For this reason the Hebrews author goes further in Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.

If we would come to God, we must believe that He exists. We must believe that God is the One Who Is, the Existent One, as good of a translation as any of the divine name YHWH (Exodus 3:14-15). Without a doubt we must mentally accept the propositions that God exists, is our Creator, has made Himself known through Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, died, was raised in power, is Lord, and will return (Acts 2:36, 17:23-31, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 1 Peter 4:19). We most assuredly must accept “the faith” as delivered once for all the saints (Jude 1:3).

But can faith rightly be reduced to mere mental acceptance of a set of propositions? James warns against such oversimplification in James 2:19:

Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the demons also believe, and shudder.

James is right: the demons constantly confessed their belief in Jesus as the Son of God (e.g. Matthew 8:28-29). The Scriptures extend no hope for the salvation of the demons! While mental acceptance of the proposition that Jesus is Lord is necessary for salvation, it by itself is not sufficient for us to be saved. Our faith must go deeper.

For our purposes the most important element of belief/faith is its demand of confidence or trust. If we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, by necessity, we must recognize that we are not Lord. To believe that Jesus is the Christ demands that we do what He says, just as the earliest audience of the Gospel understood (Acts 2:36-37). Jesus’ question resonates throughout time: “and why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:36).

First and foremost we must put our faith, or trust, in God in Christ for our justification. “Justification” is a big and loaded theological word that means “to be declared or made righteous.” In short, justification involves standing: on what basis can we stand before God?

It is true that many people believe their standing before God is based on their works. They believe that they have done what God wants them to do; if nothing else, they believe their good deeds sufficiently outweigh their bad deeds so as to justify their entrance into God’s pleasure. Such people labor under a delusion! We again turn to James in James 2:10-11:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.
For he that said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “do not kill.”
Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

All the good deeds in the world mean nothing if we are guilty of a transgression on account of which we stand on trial: if we are on trial for stealing, and we have stolen but have not committed murder or adultery and have proven very benevolent to those in need, we remain guilty of stealing, and are rightly judged as transgressors. This is why Paul says that no one is justified before God by works of the Law in Romans 3:20: all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so on the basis of the Law all would be condemned as transgressors (Romans 3:23). Therefore, our standing before God is based on faith in Christ and what He has accomplished for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11, Galatians 3:11).

In this way the Scriptures teach us that our justification is by grace through faith, and is absolutely not based in our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We did nothing nor could do anything through our own efforts which could justify us, granting us standing before God, because we have all transgressed His holy laws, and through ourselves cannot atone for our transgression. We cannot earn salvation through our efforts; we do not deserve it, and it cannot be received like we receive a paycheck for work (Romans 4:1-5).

But does this mean that we are saved by faith only? In the New Testament the phrase “faith only” or “faith alone” is found only once, in James 2:24:

Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.

How astonishing: the only mention of the idea is negated! How can this be?

In James 2:14-26 James anticipates how many would take Paul’s teachings regarding justification by faith further than God intended. James never suggests that man is saved by his works independent of faith, nor does he believe that people can be justified by works of the Law on their own. Instead James illustrates the essential nature of faith as trust: if you believe God is who He says He is, you will then do what He says.

Both Paul and James focus on the example of Abraham, and both center on the Genesis author’s comment in Genesis 15:6 (Romans 4:1-25, James 2:14-26). Paul focused on Abraham’s justification by faith: he believed in God before he received circumcision, and his standing before God was based on his faith (Romans 4:1-25). James focused on Abraham’s demonstration of trust by working in faith: Abraham received promises after proving willing to offer his son on the altar (James 2:21-23; Genesis 22:1-19).

Do Paul and James contradict each other, as many have claimed? Only if we demand a first-century text fit sixteenth-century disputations. When we hear what Paul and James have to say in their own context, we can come away with a more holistic understanding.

Ancient religion was primarily orthopraxic: based in right practice. It was easy for many in Judaism to reduce their faith to confidence in their election and a misguided confidence in their practice of the Law. Among Gentiles it did not matter how one felt about the gods; all that was important was to offer the appropriate sacrifices and prayers and hope the gods provided prosperity and otherwise left you alone. In all such religion the people’s standing was based in what they did. Paul did well to show how misguided such religion proved to be.

Paul and James underscored the fundamental importance of faith while fully affirming that faith demands obedience. Paul began and concluded his letter to the Romans insisting on the obedience of faith by the nations (Romans 1:5, 16:26); James speaks of faith without works as dead, like the body without the soul (James 2:26).

Faithful Christians maintain a tension between faith and works, manifest in Ephesians 2:8-10 and Philippians 2:12-13. We are not saved by our works but are justified by faith so that we can accomplish the good works for which we were created; we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling while God wills and works through us for His good pleasure. There need not be contradiction here; we can understand that nothing we can do can save us and thus put our faith in Jesus Christ for our justification and salvation while recognizing that faith without works is dead, and that trust without obedience is trust in name only.

Throughout Christian history those who have proven faithful to God have recognized that many truths of the faith seem mysterious, difficult, challenging, and do not always fit human logic. People have always been tempted to rationalize certain truths, to flatten them, and to insist on one extreme against another: all such endeavors lead to heresy. God is greater than we are and His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9); many things make sense on the divine level that may seem contradictory on the human level, just like a three dimensional object would look distorted in a two dimensional world. So it goes with those who would insist on extreme and exclusive terms like “only” where God did not provide them and in fact explicitly negated them: they go to an extreme that is heretical. A man is no more justified by faith only than he would be by works only (Romans 3:20, James 2:24)!

Christians are not justified by faith alone. Christians are justified by an obedient faith (Romans 1:5, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 1:22). Christians can do nothing on their own to justify themselves before God; our justification and standing before God are entirely dependent on His grace and mercy expressed in Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-10). If we believe that Jesus is Lord, we must do what He says; we must prove obedient to His purposes (Romans 6:14-23). May we believe in Jesus as Lord, recognize our justification is by faith, and manifest our trust in Jesus through our obedience, and be saved in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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