Wrangling About Words

“The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” 1Tim 1:5-7

When I read material written by many evangelicals about salvation, my mind often goes into a tailspin. They talk about salvation by “faith alone”, yet the bible only uses that expression one time and  claims that it is not true (James 2:24). The Bible simply says that we are saved by faith.  Why add the “alone” to the equation?  I am sure that many people add alone to the equation because they believe it clarifies what the Bible teaches on salvation.  However, the question is does it clarify or does it just confuse the issue?

Before we dig deep into this expression “faith alone” I would like us to find the source of this expression and see if we can learn a possible reason for its introduction into the equation of evangelical salvation messages.  I think most historians would agree that it was Martin Luther the Protestant reformer who was the first to use this expression or at the very least popularized it.  If we go back and look at his reason, it may help us to understand its true meaning.

Luther lived in a time when the church had reached an absolute low. The clergy had run amok and the church had become nothing more than the handmaiden of the aristocracy.  It was using the fear of hell to oppress the people financially and politically. The atmosphere was one that you had to pay the church for your salvation by purchasing indulgences and absolution for your sins.  The church stood between the people; and God mediating salvation to the people.  In this environment, the idea of good works was reduced to buying your salvation from the Church.  This left the appearance that one could obligate God to save you, which of course is foolishness.  However, foolishness has been the norm for the masses.  What Luther wanted to do was break down everything that stood between the people and God and thus the emphasis on “faith alone”; no indulgences, absolutions or church, nothing but the faith of the individual, thus “faith alone”.

With this background information, we might ask has this concept of “faith alone” gone amok.  Well, the only way for us to answer that is to look at what the Scriptures say about faith.  As mentioned above, the bible only uses the expression “faith alone” one time and it teaches that true faith is never alone (James 2:24).  However, it does says that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-10).  It also says that we are saved by faith apart from works, that is the works of the Law of Moses, or you could say the works of religion. In this, Luther was right when he said we are saved by “faith alone”. That is faith in Jesus apart from the works of religion.  However, some modern-day evangelicals take it much farther than Luther or the Bible.  They leave the impression that a person who believes in Jesus can do anything and live any way they wish and still be saved by a simple confession of faith uttered sometime in the past. Is this  what “faith alone” means or should we stick to the Bible and say that salvation is by Grace, through faith? Should we not try to define faith by what the Bible says about it?

I personally think that the expression by “faith alone” today is very confusing to the average person. Instead of clarifying, it confuses and darkens the true meaning of faith. In a real sense faith is never alone for by its very nature genuine faith produces the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5).  If there is no obedience, there is simply not a true faith.  The closest word we have to faith in English is the word trust.  If you trust God, it seems logical that you would trust that his will for your life is the optimal thing for you to do and humans usually do what’s best for them.  Therefore, if there is no obedience there is no true faith.  This would imply that true faith capsulate trust and obedience.

In much American religion, we see faith reduced to mental assent. By that I mean that one accepts intellectually that there is a God, a Christ, and that he died for your sins. However, this mental assent alone is the dead faith that James says that demons have, and he adds,“they shudder”.  Some have said that James talks about two kinds of faith, a living faith and a dead faith.  Actually he talks about three kinds of faith. The third kind is the faith of demons.  This faith creates fear in them to the point that they shudder.  Of course, their faith does not lead them to repentance because they hate God.  James infers that the faith of demons is greater than those who have a dead faith, which does not lead them to repentance and doing works of love.  At least  demons believe enough to be moved to fear. Of course, if I had a dead faith, I would like to believe that some metaphysical surgery could separate faith from works, so I could be saved by a dead faith. Maybe the expression “faith alone” accomplished this surgery in the mind of some.

¶Someone might ask, “When is faith obeyed enough, to become a saving faith?” Likewise, you might as well ask, “When does a person believes sufficiently enough to have a saving faith?”  In the New Testimony it appears that faith was accepted by the body of Christ when a person was  led to confessing Christ and  was baptized (Acts 2:38, 22:16). The act of baptism was a public identification with Christ and his Church. If you were not identified with Christ you were not saved (Matt 10:32). This may be why baptism was done immediately in the New Testament when people believed on Christ. Note the examples of conversions in the book of Acts (Acts 2:36-38, Acts 8:9-13, Acts 8:26-40, Acts 9:1-19, Acts 16:29-34,Acts 16:13-15,Acts 19:1-8).

For the identifying marks of a true believe read the epistle of first John.  “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).  John is the only New Testament writer that addresses the question of how a person can know if they are a true believer and he does not base it on the notion of assurance by “faith alone”. Rather John says it come from keeping the commandments of Christ and walking as he did (1Jn 2:3-6).

In Hebrews the eleventh chapter, the writer gets into what constitutes real faith.  He begins by saying, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  However, in verse six he gives us some insight to what constitutes faith “And without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  In this Scripture, we see three ingredients of true faith. The first is mental acceptance, which is an intellectual belief in His existence. The second is a trust that he will reward you in the resurrection. In other words, you believe his promises as Abraham did (Rom 4). The finally ingredient is being earnest in seeking him and his will.  To be earnest is to be sincere and diligent in seeking and doing his will “Seek first His Kingdom”.  The Hebrew writer goes on in Chapter eleven to give a number of examples of what real faith looks like in actual man and woman. After reading the chapter you come away with the image that real faith is a dynamic force that moves men to action for God.  Read the chapters then look at our churches, filled with people with little or no real change or power in their lives, filled with emotions that are paraded as actual faith and yet few good works to support its claim.

However, the scripture says that it is impossible to please God without a true faith and that faith constitutes trust, the obedience of faith and a will that is seeking the heart of God.  To reduce faith to a one-time confession of intellectual beliefs or just a mental assent to some facts is to teach a false gospel that is not taught in the New Testament. Watch out for the “faith alone” doctrine.

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