Works Without Faith are Dead
“For God is not gracious and merciful to sinners to the end that they might not keep his Law, nor that they should remain as they were before they received grace and mercy; but...for the sake of Christ, who has fulfilled the whole Law in order thereby to make the heart sweet...” (Martin Luther)
Last time we discovered that Paul doesn’t contradict James that grace is costly and that faith works. That we are “justified freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24) but that faith that saves alone doesn’t come alone, that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) It is important to understand that, while a Christian knows and celebrates this understanding of faith and works, to the Mormon it is a puzzle. I want to unpack this a little more and look at two key biblical ideas a Mormon doesn’t understand.
Sin brings death
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro.6:23)
While Paul recognises the natural man’s ability without law to follow his conscience and obey the law after a fashion (Ro.2:14), nevertheless he goes on to write that “No one is righteous, no, not one” (Ro.3:10-18). Clearly, obeying a list of rules is not the same thing as being righteous or, as a Mormon might say “worthy”. What is it that makes the difference?
The psalmist tells us that “the righteous...rejoice in the LORD” (Ps.64:10) Sin pays wages and the wages of sin is death, not simply physical death but death to God. The sinner cannot rejoice in God because s/he is dead in sin, dead to the things of God (Eph.2:1)
To give a person a law to live by is like giving a corpse a “To Do” list. But the Bible is perceived by many as being full of such lists, commandments and duties. What are they for if not to give us things to do to please God and gain glory? Paul wrote, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Ro.3:20); we gain nothing by the law except conviction of sin.
At every turn the law is there, in the Bible, in society, in our conscience, reminding us that we have failed, declaring, “This is God’s standard and you have failed to meet it.” It does nothing to help but simply draws our attention to our failure. As if to anticipate the Mormon objection that Paul is writing about the Old Testament law Paul writes:
“If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe” (Gal.3:21-22)
We don’t exchange the Law of Moses for the Mormon “Law of the Gospel”. Man is “dead in transgressions and sins”, so it is the lifeless condition of man that is to blame for his inability to serve God as he should, not the absence of a better law. The law was powerless to give life, not because of any inadequacy in God’s law but because, “the law was weakened by the sinful nature” (Ro.8:3) Man doesn’t need a new list, he needs new life!
In his letter to Titus Paul wrote:
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:1-7)
On one hand you have a damning picture of man as fallen, sinful by nature, dead in sin and incapable of pleasing God. On the other hand you have God apparently dishing out good stuff like Santa in a sweet shop; salvation, justification, regeneration etc.; but what about all the commandments? What about when Paul in this same passage counsels Christian to “be subject to rulers, and authorities, be obedient, be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men”? Is all this redundant now?
Grace brings life
I spoke to a Mormon (now a former Mormon) who asked the obvious question; if we are saved by grace alone what incentive is there to obey? If we have assurance of heaven (Eph.1:14; Jn.5:24) why should we work? If there is no carrot and no visible sign of a stick then why should the donkey move? This, of course, misses the point because the donkey is no longer a donkey! Listen to Paul:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live...But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph.2:1-10)
1. We were dead in sins - a dead person can't save himself
2. God raised us up - God gave us life
3. We are seated with Christ in heavenly places, put there by God
4. He did this in order to demonstrate his grace towards us
5. It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast
The works we do, we do because God made us alive and equipped us to do them; we don’t do them in order that we might be made alive. The Mormon starting point is to claim that we are lost but still capable of obedience that makes us “worthy”. The Christian starting point is that we are dead and incapable of God-honouring obedience. The Mormon solution is that we realise our need to obey and work. The Christian solution is that we trust in God, who alone can give us life.
Jesus was asked, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"He answered: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28-29)
There is no mention here of the Mormon Plan of Salvation, just the requirement to "believe". In the Bible to believe is not just intellectual assent but to put your full trust in. The believer has put his/her full trust in Jesus for salvation. Every work, however defined or described, follows this simple requirement to believe. Every act of obedience in response to God’s requirements is the fruit of new life, not the root.
Just as we were ‘created’ like Adam and were born ‘in Adam’ so we are, through rebirth, created with Christ and are reborn ‘in Christ’ (1 Cor.15:22), God’s workmanship. We do good works because it is now natural for us to do them and to grow in doing them. Just as, like Paul, we can’t do the good we want because of sin (Ro.7:15-24), now, ‘in Christ’, we can grow in doing the good God requires as we are sanctified ‘in him.’ “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4)
Our standing before God is such that “in Christ” we are seated in heavenly places. Christ has paid for our sins and we can now walk with confidence (not arrogance) in this life “in him” knowing that we have eternal life, a life that has been won for us by him and that we appropriate by trusting “in him.” Jesus makes this very clear in John’s gospel where he declares:
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24)
Nothing could be clearer or more unequivocal: Hear, believe, and receive eternal life. Of course works follow, but they follow, they don't lead to salvation. The person whose works have worth is the saved person. The unsaved may work and work but to no avail because they have not trusted. They have refused the gift by the very act of trying to prove worthy of it! If the gift is offered freely but appropriated by some sort of quid pro quo then, no matter the intention of the giver, it is no longer a gift.
You see, sin pays wages and I can’t emphasise this enough. If you want to earn something knock yourself out sinning because sin pays wages. Eternal life, on the other hand, is a free gift "in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ro.6:23); what does that mean, "In Christ Jesus our Lord"? It means that those are in him who put their trust in him.
If you put any trust at all in anything you can do by way of works then you are, by definition, not in him but in yourself; because that is what you have trusted in. For this very reason, when a Mormon declares, “Well, in that case I must be saved too because I believe in Jesus”, this can’t be the case because he is trusting in himself and his own ability to be faithful.
A Walking Miracle
The Mormon will think of his church’s “Plan of Salvation”, a process in which you take successive steps to gain heaven; faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Spirit and the priesthood, going to the temple, eternal marriage, etc. But when the Bible speaks of salvation, justification, sanctification and glorification it is not possible to identify a strict ordo salutis (order of salvation) because it is organic, simultaneous in process and development. Think of the very helpful example of fire, light and heat. If you strike a match all three come into being at once. Another example would be flipping a light switch and flooding the room with light. They are separate operations and yet simultaneous in effect and inevitable in outcome.
Repentance is not possible without faith and yet one cannot believe without repenting (if one believes aright). It is not possible to receive Christ for justification without at the same time receiving him for sanctification. If anything comes first it has to be regeneration, since we are spiritually dead and cannot believe unless we are spiritually alive. Then come conversion (including faith and repentance), justification, sanctification, perseverance. But even then this is not an order but a description and no element can be a part of a person’s life without the others.
A regenerate person is bound to repent and exercise faith because in his re-born state that is natural, and then he must be justified. Regeneration has causal priority but, as I have said, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but faith doesn’t come alone. This is the answer to the text in James that causes Mormons to puzzle over evangelical expressions of grace alone.
But the Mormon needn’t think that the evangelical believer is somehow blind to what God requires of those he has saved. As I have already said, if the Mormon wants to say, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18), then perhaps the Mormon should consider what the Christian does with the grace that saves through faith.
Faith without works is dead indeed, but works are the product of salvation, shoots not roots, evidence of life in the believer, life that is a free gift from God (Ro.6:23) Works without faith are dead because the person who does such works is dead.
“A genuine Christian should be a walking mystery because he is surely a walking miracle. Through the leading and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is involved in a daily life and habit that cannot be explained.” (AW Tozer)
Next: Faith has to look like something