Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead! (James 2:17 CEV)
There is always a debate raging in the Church about the role of faith versus works in the believer’s life. Like most arguments regarding doctrine, the trouble comes when we lean too far to either side. Whether one is talking about predestination versus free will, issues regarding eschatology (end times or last days), or faith and works, extremes abound on all sides.
The reality is that there is supposed to be a certain tension in these areas because there is truth on both sides of the doctrinal coin. Yes, we are saved (justified) by grace apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but we are also saved unto good works (Ephesians 2:10). Both are true, and, as James tells us, if our “faith” is the kind that has no works, it is not true saving faith at all. Both faith and works have their place, as does the grace of God in this discussion. Apart from the provisions of God’s grace revealed to us in the Word, there is nothing for our faith to appropriate. Without faith, we cannot take hold of what Christ has provided by grace, and without works, we give no evidence of our faith or, for that matter, God’s transforming work in our lives.
Anytime we over-identify with any one aspect or side of truth, we are almost certainly doomed to get off-balance in our doctrinal perspective. Whether one is talking about worship, faith, end times, or justice issues, when we make it all about one thing, we neglect the rest to our own detriment. I’ve even heard people put on a very spiritual-sounding voice and say, “I just want to make it all about Jesus!” Who wouldn’t agree with that? However, the next question to ask is, “What does that mean?” After all, the apostle Paul said, “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Paul here was talking about the foundation of God’s Word upon which the Church is built, and he says it’s all a revelation of Jesus. In other words, the entire Bible, in one sense, is a revelation of Jesus. If we preach salvation but don’t talk about sanctification, are we really “making it about Jesus” or just our version of Jesus? If we celebrate grace but don’t give works their proper place in the believer’s life, are we really preaching Jesus?
It goes without saying that none of us know it all, and no one has the full revelation of truth. We can only walk in the light of what we know, and we all only possess a limited amount of knowledge. That’s not my opinion; the apostle Paul said, “Now I know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). He also tells us, “And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). So, there you go. None of us have a corner on the market regarding truth. But here’s the thing: our growth and maturity in Christ is not measured by how much of the Word we know, so much as it is by how much of what we know is working in our lives.
It’s great that we’ve saved by grace through faith and had our sins forgiven, but that is not the same as looking like Jesus. Salvation is the beginning of the journey; not the end. There is a difference between what we look like in Christ positionally (legally, by virtue of redemption) and the vital reality of what we’re living out in our day to day lives. Both are vital to Christian growth. Once grace becomes a reason to quite reflecting the life of Christ outwardly to the world, it has ceased to be grace by any biblical definition. True Bible faith produces a conviction in a believer’s heart that enables Him to live by the principles of an unseen realm, an invisible Kingdom, which is only made visible as it is lived out in our actions. If we minimize grace, we cheapen Christ’s sacrifice. If we minimize works, we cheapen the work of grace in our lives. Both are essential to a balanced Christian life.
It is the life of Christ in us, lived out before the world, that gives us the credibility to testify to the world about Jesus. Why would anyone want something that is obviously not working for the one trying to push it off on others? Why should anyone believe the gospel we preach if there is no living evidence of its power to transform our lives? Should they just take our word for it? James says, “No.” True faith is evidenced by the works it produces in one’s life.
Whether we realize it or not, we all see truth through a certain set of lenses. They may be cultural lenses, or they may be the result of our indoctrination into a particular worldview or our denomination’s interpretation of the Bible. These filters are often not apparent to us, and, consequently, we are unaware of the skewed view we have of things. We all come to the Word with our own set of presuppositions that can keep us from seeing truth objectively and honestly. One of the best statements I ever heard in this regard went something like this: “What we think we know is a greater impediment to our ability to learn and grow than what we don’t know.” The reason for this is obvious enough. If we “think” we know something, we tend to shut ourselves off to further illumination on the subject. When we know we don’t have the whole picture, we come to God’s word humbly, willing to see things in a truer light.
I think an enormous key to keeping things in balance in any of these doctrinal issues is humility. We are all in process. Whether we’re talking about the balance between faith and works or any other doctrinal issue, we need to realize we don’t have the corner on the market where truth is concerned. This is essential because there is often a kind of hubris that comes when one thinks he has insight on some area of truth that others are missing. Sometimes one may be influenced by teachers claiming to have a “unique insight” into some area of doctrine.
In fact, every few years another up-and-coming someone arises in the Church and draws a good crowd or following by preaching something “edgy” or different than what has been the accepted, understood truth about some fundamental doctrine. Paul said this would be the case. He said, “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). One meaning of the word “perverse” is simply “distorted.” We get that when we try to take any one truth beyond its biblical parameters.
In such cases, good biblical exegesis and hermeneutics that have stood the test of time throughout much of the Church age, are lightly cast aside to accommodate one’s lopsided view of a particular doctrine. Those who are scholars in the ancient languages in which the Bible is written are dismissed because they don’t seem to agree with our favorite celebrity preacher. I would be the first to say that we are free, indeed obligated, to search the scriptures for ourselves to test the validity of any proposed teaching, regardless of how learned the teacher, but it seems to me that we should do so humbly, aware that no one, not even our favorite TV preacher, is beyond scriptural scrutiny (see Acts 17:11).
The battle between faith and works will continue to rage, and as long as it is a respectful debate, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. How else will we learn unless we hear the counterpoint to our perspective? Wherever we come out on the debate, it seems certain to me that grace and faith are only properly celebrated when evidenced by the works that make our inner convictions real to a watching world. Grace so amazing does not do its work only in the sacred chamber of the heart. It sprouts above the surface in such a way that the inward bounty is evident to all around. As James said, faith alone isn’t the whole story.
Dr. Randy Bunch is the pastor of West Kern Christian Center, located at 1000 6th Street in Taft, California, as well as a graduate advisor and adjunct professor at Summit Bible College in Bakersfield, California. He is the author of several books, including his new devotional, Immutable: Changeless Truth for a Changing World. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to randylanebunch.org. For more information on the ministries of WKCC, you can go the ministry’s website at wkcconnect.org.