What We Do Really Matters

John ArmstrongBiblical Theology

What we do in this life truly matters. Many Christians live and act as if this were not so. Somehow we have so severed faith from real life that we have millions of evangelicals who now insist that they are Christians based upon a once-in-time decision. This must be one reason why we see the high numbers of evangelicals in all the polls who demonstrate no consequent connection between what they believe and what they actually do. We really do not live as if "faith without deeds is useless" as James clearly teaches. To some extent, maybe to a very large extent, mistaken and incorrect evangelical teaching is responsible for this huge problem.

A biblical scholar, and good friend, recently pointed out to me that with the possible exception of Philemon every book in the New Testament makes eternal salvation or damnation contingent upon what we actually do in this life. See, for example, passages like Matthew 6:15; 7:21; Luke 13:3, 5; Romans 2:13, 16; Galatians 6:8; Hebrews 10:36 and James 2:24. These types of passages once troubled me profoundly because they seemed, at the time, to be saying that our salvation was based upon our human merit, or good works. The question, put simply, is this: How can such passages be handled properly and reconciled with the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, and through faith alone?

The answer, I believe, is not that complex. Amazingly, it takes three theologians to come up with four views, to make this excessively complex. The Protestant answer has always been that the faith which is alone the instrument of salvation is never alone, but rather produces good works. This is, of course, quite true. But to put this in more biblical terms we should say what James says, namely that we are justified by a living, vital faith that is really alive, not dead. Many fear saying this because they believe they will give away too much to the Catholic arguments made in the 16th century and right down to the present day. (By the way, a careful reading of the Catholic-Lutheran accord of just a few years ago will show just how close biblical scholars, acting under official mandate, came to reaching a meaningful common explanation.)

The real issue, to my mind, is better put this way: What is the kind of faith that saves us? Saving faith, it seems so clear to me, is active in accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone and thus it inherently embraces obedience to God’s commandments and works out one’s salvation "with fear and trembling." But the present context is so poisoned by hot debates that wish to cut this all up and parcel it out. We have writers making complex arguments about passive and active faith, as if the first brought justification and the second brought sanctification. (Such academic nonsense abounds in some quarters.)

Some apologists will even appeal to ideas like a "nanosecond" that must necessarily expire between justifying faith and sanctifying faith. I personally think they do this to sincerely protect saving faith from the intrusion of human works, works that end up being the real cause of our final salvation. I agree with them in their sincerity but not in their argument. Such fear is not warranted if we rely on the Bible. And this fear is often rooted in terms and conditions that ordinary Christians find quite useless and confusing, precisely because they really are useless and confusing.

I once asked a prominent theological writer if he felt the major problem in our evangelical churches was that people believed that they were saved based upon a false faith that had been created by teaching that missed these salient biblical points about the relationship of faith to obedience? His answer was that he believed a better, and more pristine, teaching of justification by faith alone (understood in the terms of this debate and very narrowly) was the real answer. I appealed to German Christianity in the mid-20th century, where a Lutheran understanding had influenced a whole nation, and to Bonhoeffer’s concept of "cheap grace." He said these issues had little to do with the American context. I disagreed with him then and still do, even more so, now.

There is no conflict between James, Jesus and Paul. The answer to this vexing question is not that difficult and many can see why this is so with their open Bible before them. No artificial schemes of interpretation are needed to resolve this issue. We are saved only through faith in Christ alone, and this through God’s grace alone. But the faith which saves us is a living and real faith that relies upon Christ, trusts him, and follows him in loving, humble obedience. Often ordinary, non-technically trained, Christian believers can see this far more easily than some scholars. I happen to think that we should listen to ordinary folks sometimes since some scholars make the saving grace of God into real confusion when it is not needed.