Is Faith a Work?

© David Bovenmyer, 2012

The Bible teaches that all people receive justification from God by grace through faith in Christ, apart from any good works.  Salvation is monergistic—worked by God alone.  God does the saving through Christ and we add not even one good work to it.  Yet the Bible also teaches that people must place their faith in Christ in order to be justified.  God doesn’t believe for us; we must believe.  However, none of us would believe without God’s drawing and calling.  Therefore faith is synergistic—people believe with the influence and help of God.  Almost all Christians believe that faith is synergistic, yet there is a debate about how the work of God and the will of man come together in faith.  Those of a more “Arminian” persuasion believe that God gives people a true choice in faith—they could have chosen otherwise.  In this paper, I’ll call this view “chosen[i] faith.”  Those of a more “Calvinist”[ii] persuasion also believe that people “freely”[iii] choose to believe without coercion, yet they could not have chosen otherwise, since their choice is entirely determined by the working of God in their hearts.  I’ll call this “determined faith.”  In this post, I will argue the following three points: 1) Whether “chosen” or “determined,” faith is not a work that can be boasted in; 2) “Chosen faith” does not contradict grace; and 3) “Chosen faith” better fits the overall teaching of scripture than “determined faith.”

Is faith a good work?  Since repentance and faith are good, commendable acts, aren’t they good works?  Consider the following logical argument:

  1. People do not receive justification from God through good works.
  2. Any good decision or act that people do is a good work.
  3. Faith in Christ is a good decision that people do.
  4. Therefore, people are not justified through faith in Christ.

Clearly, the conclusion of this argument is false (Rom. 3:28).  Since the first statement is true (Gal 2:16), one or both of the middle statements must be false.  Some people try to make statement three false by advocating “determined faith”—faith is not really a human decision.[iv]  I will argue that statement three is true and statement two is false, and that faith, whether chosen or determined, is not a good work, but actually the opposite of a good work.

In Romans 3:28, Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”  Paul states that faith is, “apart from works of the law.”  Yet, he states that a person is justified by his faith.  Paul viewed faith as something people do to be justified, yet not a “work.”  He argues similarly in Galatians 2:16, “…even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.  Referring to himself and his fellow Jews, Paul says “even we have believed.”  Clearly, they were the ones doing the believing, yet they were justified by faith, “not by works.”  These passages prove that believing is something we do, yet it is not a “work.”  So, statement three is true and statement two is false, at least in respect to faith in Christ.

How can faith—a good, humble, righteous decision—not be a “good work”?  It has to do with the way Paul is using the word “works.”  Notice that in both passages, Paul uses the phrase “works of the law.”  In his writings, Paul uses the Greek word “works” (ergon) 17 times in the sense of good works that do not justify.  Nine of these instances include the phrase “works of the law.”  In five instances, the words “earn,” “gift,” “boast,” “rely,” or “due” interact with these “works.”  Indeed in every one of the 17 instances, the words carry the sense “deeds done to earn salvation through our own righteousness, good works or law keeping.”  Since faith is not a “deed done to earn salvation through our own righteousness,” it is not a “work” in the sense Paul is using the word.  Let’s look at a third example in Romans 4:4-5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  Paul presents two potential means of justification.  The first person “works”—seeks to be justified through his own goodness and good works.  If he could be successful, justification would be “due” him.  He has earned it.  The second person “does not work,” but is justified as a “favor” to one who is “ungodly.”  But notice that the two people do have something in common.  Something they do is credited to them.  The second person “believes” and “his faith is credited as righteousness.”  Yet, though he does this act, he “does not work.”  So, faith is a deed we do, yet it is not a “work” in the sense Paul is using the term—a deed done to earn salvation through our own righteousness, good works, or law keeping.

By its very nature, faith is the opposite of works. Faith in Christ requires us to abandon any hope that our good works can earn salvation.  Instead, we must trust entirely in Christ’s death on our behalf.  We must come to God not as the Pharisee, but as the tax collector who would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, pleading, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”  Jesus said “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14).  The proud Pharisee’s hope was in his own goodness and law keeping; the humble tax collector’s hope was in God’s mercy toward a sinner.  Since faith in Christ requires us to humble ourselves like the tax collector and to view ourselves as helpless, hopeless sinners who cannot save ourselves, faith is by its very nature the opposite of “works” (as Paul is using the term).  Yet, according to Jesus, this act of humility, which He commends, is what gains justification.

Faith excludes boasting.  In Romans 3:27, Paul states: “Then what becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  By a law of works?  No, but by the law of faith.” But does the law of faith really exclude all boasting?  Even a Supralapsarian[v] Calvinist could boast, “God chose me and not you.  He loved me, not you.”  Such boasting would certainly be illegitimate.  But Paul’s statement refers to legitimate boasting.  In Romans 4:2, he writes that if a person could be justified by good works, he could legitimately boast—his justification would be “due” him.  This is the boasting the gospel excludes—boasting in our own goodness, good works, and law keeping.  Faith in no way earns justification.  It is not some super-deed, so weighty and sacrificial, that we thereby earn salvation.  Faith in Christ is required for righteousness to be credited to us, but the only ground of salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf.  Without that, faith would be utterly powerless to save.  Salvation is totally by grace—totally unearned and undeserved.  Faith does not earn it. God owes salvation to no rebel, and none will ever earn it or deserve it by anything they do, including his faith.[vi]

But could a person boast, “I believed and you didn’t.  I’m better than you”?  Again, such boasting would be illegitimate, even reprehensible.  Will an adulterer boast that he accepted his spouse’s forgiveness?  It does take humility to do so, but the despicable nature of the offense so far outweighs the humility required to receive the spouse’s forgiveness that no one could legitimately boast about it.  Anyone who would boast in such humility would not understand the depth of his crime or appreciate the immensity of the grace given by his spouse. What a horrible insult to the forgiving spouse!  In the same way, any boasting that we humbled ourselves while others didn’t could only be illegitimate boasting that ignores the immensity of our crimes against God and the glory of the grace of Christ, who brutally suffered and died to forgive wretched, rebellious sinners like us.  In their contexts, the passages that say that the gospel excludes boasting are saying that no one will be able to legitimately boast that they have earned salvation by their own goodness or law keeping.

An impossible dilemma: Paul makes it clear that justification is “apart from works” and that we should not pursue salvation by “works” (Rom 9:32, 11:6).  But if we make the mistake of expanding the concept of “works” beyond the scope of Paul’s thinking, and claim that it includes any human deed or response (including repentance and faith), we create an impossible situation. We cannot tell people to do anything to be saved.  If we encourage them to read the Bible, pray, or humble themselves, we would be preaching salvation by works.  We would have to tell them “Don’t seek God; don’t read the Bible;” and even “Don’t repent; don’t believe, lest you do a good work.  Your only hope is to do nothing and hope and pray that God will unilaterally put faith in your heart.”  But we couldn’t even tell them this, since hope and prayer would be good works that they might ultimately boast in.  All we could tell them to do is to keep on sinning.

Is “chosen faith” opposed to grace?  Grace is the favor of God bestowed on the undeserving.  God sometimes gives grace unconditionally.  An obvious example is creation.  No creature ever earned, deserved, or fulfilled any requirements to be created.  Yet grace, although always free, unearned, and undeserved, can sometimes be conditional.  For example, Peter and James declare, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5 & Jam 4:6).  So, consider God’s grace given in salvation and justification.  Is it conditional or unconditional?  First, we must note that justification by faith is “according to” grace, “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace…” (Rom 4:16). Faith in Christ does not contradict grace.  The two accord with each other—they go together.  Second, note that we obtain access to grace through faith: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…(Rom. 5:2, ESV).  Third, the scripture everywhere teaches that we must believe in Christ to receive eternal life and be justified.  Salvation is free, yet conditioned upon faith.  We must believe in Christ to receive the grace of justification (Rom 3:26, 28, 30; 4:5, 28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:8; 11, 24), the grace of forgiveness (Acts 10:43), the grace of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:39; Acts 11:17; Eph 1:13-14; Gal 3:2, 5, 14, Eph 1:13), the grace of salvation (Luke 7:50, 8:12; Acts 16:31; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 1:21; Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 3:15; Heb 10:39; 1 Pet 1:9), the grace of adoption (Jn 1:12; Gal 3:23-26), the grace of regeneration (Jn 1:12-13; Eph 2:1-9[vii]; Col 2:12-13), [viii] and the grace of eternal life (Jn 3:15-16, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47).  So, although God sometimes gives grace unconditionally, the graces of salvation, forgiveness, justification, adoption, regeneration, and eternal life are conditioned upon faith in Christ.  These favors are free and undeserved, yet given on condition of faith.[ix]

Is faith conditioned on grace?  Does God grant people grace (undeserved favor), leading them to faith?  The scripture is very clear that He does, and that no one would come to Christ apart from God’s grace.  The fact that rebels remain alive for even a second after insolently sinning against God shows the grace of God’s patience and tolerance.  Additionally, our ability to reason and deliberate and choose is a gift of God, without which faith would be impossible.  And human fallenness is so pervasive that no one would come to Christ without the grace of God’s calling and drawing him (John 6:44; Rom 1:6, 7; 1 Cor 1:9, 24, 26; Gal 1:6, 15; Eph 1:8; 4:1; 2 Thes 1:14, etc.).  Finally, the gospel itself is all of grace.  God’s undeserved favor is shown in every aspect of the work of redemption, accomplished through God’s promises to Abraham, His revelation of Himself in the nation of Israel, and the climax of His plan in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  All of salvation history demonstrates God’s initiative and grace.

Conclusion: Faith, whether chosen or determined, is not a work that earns salvation.  In either case, salvation is a free gift of God’s mercy and grace.

Notes:


[i] I’m using “chosen” with the sense that a choice is made between truly viable alternatives—an alternate choice could have been made.

[ii] I consider myself neither an Arminian nor a Calvinist, disagreeing with major parts of both systems.

[iii] I put the word “free” in quotes because they restrict the meaning of the word “free” to “not forced against the will.”  People do choose, but choose necessarily.  The influence of God is so strong that they could not have chosen otherwise.

[iv] This argument falls short, since even if faith is necessarily determined by God, it is still something humans do. Faith is still a human deed.  At issue is the nature, not the source of the deed. If someone argued that he is saved by his good works, which are produced in him by God alone, we would reply, “No! Salvation is by faith apart from good deeds, even good deeds produced in us by God. It is the nature of faith that makes in not a good work, not the source of faith.

[v] A supralasarian believes that God elected humans logically prior to decreeing the fall and to electing Christ as Savior. Ephesians 1:4 contradicts this idea, stating that believers were chosen in Christ.  Christ was elected as Savior logically prior to the election of humans, who were elected “in Him.”

[vi] If we seek to exclude all boasting by making saving faith necessarily determined by God, we must do the same with sanctifying faith and obedience, making every Christian act also determined by God. But Paul’s statements about boasting are in the context of earning salvation through good works and do not eliminate all commendation and glory to humans. God will honor humans in many ways for their faith and obedience. If sanctifying acts can earn commendation, why should the most important act be excluded from any commendation whatsoever?

[vii] The salvation spoken of in Ephesians 2:8 primarily refers to regeneration—being raised to life from a state of death (note verse 5).  Verse eight says that we have been saved (brought from death to life) “through faith.”  So, we are regenerated through faith. For my views on the proper interpretation of Ephesians 2, see https://davebovenmyer.com/2010/05/03/dead-men-can-believe/

[viii] For a discussion of 1 John 5:1, which some have claimed teaches that regeneration precedes faith, see https://davebovenmyer.com/2010/05/03/does-1-john-51-teach-that-faith-is-caused-by-regeneration/

[ix] If receiving a free gift meant that we earned it, it would be impossible to receive a free gift.

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