The Faith vs. Works Controversy

In every discussion of theology, the potential exists for endless debate on the strengths and finer points of one particular view over another. Many who allow themselves to become enmeshed in these sorts of debates often lose their perspective. Often tradition is unwittingly placed on a par with truth. Words and ideas originally intended to inspire a spiritual revolution in men’s hearts are converted into a system for rationalizing and defending a status quo. Theology which was once vibrant because it related everything to relationship with God has nearly vanished. Today theology doesn’t necessarily apply to our. relationship; it can be technical without being experiential. With a bottling up of life into religious bureaucracy, doctrine is converted into dogma—and eventually the function of doctrine becomes less that of guidance, as far as conduct within a relationship, and more ajustification of things as they are, or as the contemporary Sanhedrin wishes to make them.

Before we proceed, let us define what is known as antinomianism believes that faith alone, without obedience to moral law is all that is necessary for salvation. One might say, the Antinomian’s favorite hymn is “Only Believe.” The Antinomian is inclined to stress the fact that man plays no part whatsoever in salvation. Repentance and the lordship of Christ are considered subtle forms of works in which man might take pride.

In light of our discussion concerning the application of all theology to our individual relationship with Christ, antinomianism does not fit. There cannot be a relationship unless there is a minimum of two responsive parties. Although the Bible clearly teaches that it is God providing and initiating salvation, man must respond to these overtures. If he does not, no relationship exists.

To equate man’s responses to God’s gift of salvation with the works of the flesh mentioned by the apostle Paul is utterly without foundation. If it were true that God repented for us, He would of necessity be repenting to Himself. How much easier it is to see that man, the rebel, humbled by God’s goodness, chooses to cast down his weapons of warfare and engage in a logical relationship meaningful to both parties. How one could possibly take pride in truly repenting is inconceivable. Obedience to Jesus Christ as the Lord of our lives is commanded throughout Scripture. This could not possibly be considered a subtle form of works; on the contrary, this is indeed salvation!

And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever, will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.’ —Mark 8:34-35

Note that in this scripture Jesus does not state that a man should deny himself things; yet it is precisely this type of denial which we find so prevalent in the church today. We deny ourselves thirty minutes each night before bed for Bible reading and ten percent of each paycheck in the offering plate. We then think in so doing we have pleased God. Concentration on denying ourselves things is a form of works. The Pharisees practiced great self-denial in all areas except their hearts! This form of denial has never been acceptable to God. The words are dear enough, “let him deny himself.”

In the book of James we find a passage which antinomian thinkers are forever attempting to explain away. James discusses the relationship of faith and works, applying it very logically and naturally to the God-man relationship:

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled’; and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body; what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith, and I have works show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Issac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. —James 2:14-16 (NASB)

A thoughtful reading of this passage provides the following striking conclusions:

  1. “Just believing” won’t save anyone. James mentions the man Who says he has faith but displays no godly works and then asks the rhetorical question, “Can that faith save him?”
  2. A mental deduction is not a committal of the will with conduct to prove it. James imagines a situation and wonders how “faith” without works would be demonstrated ‘ He goes on to say that even demons possess this type of intellectual faith, and then implores us to forsake our foolishness and recognize that saving faith is a lifestyle, not a mystical believing.
  3. God is reasonable and sensitive, not a calculating technician. James reminds us of the deeds in which Abraham and Rahab engaged demonstrating hearts committed to truth. When Abraham obeyed God, “he was called the friend of God.”

Saving faith will produce works of faith (a godly lifestyle), whereas intellectual faith alone will produce works of the flesh (dead rituals).

By the way, I bought a fourteen-foot boat last week. I have named the two oars, one faith, the other works. I have found that if I row ever so hard with faith alone, I go round and round in a circle; and strange as it seems, works does the same thing gets me nowhere. But when I bend my back and pull both faith and works, I can get to where I want to go. —Dr. George Winters