“Isn’t exercising faith something we do? Yes, it is, but what many fail to notice is that in saying this there has been A SUBTLE EQUIVOCATION OF THE WORD ‘DO.’ As Geisler points out, all works are actions, but not all actions are works. FAITH IS AN ACTION IN THE SENSE THAT IT INVOLVES AN ACT OF THE WILL, BUT IT IS NOT A WORK. We exercise faith to receive redemption for the precise reason that we cannot DO anything to earn salvation. Faith is not a meritorious deed. How does receiving a gift make the gift less gracious? The challenge for Calvinists is to demonstrate from Scripture that receiving grace equates to deserving grace” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, pages 108-109).
I titled this post “The Work of Faith” because for one, I think it grabs attention. I mean, Calvinist theology has plagued American evangelicalism for so long that when we hear “faith” and “works” in the same sentence, our ears (and hearts) become extremely sensitive to the topic at hand.
Ken Keathley’s words above regarding “works” and “actions” reveals how words used in different contexts can easily lead to confusion. Now, I’ve said it here at CTS that “faith is not a work”; but in this post, I will attempt to clarify what I mean by this. Calvinism says that faith is a work, which explains why, in its system, a person must be regenerated before they believe (in other words, salvation PRECEDES faith). While faith is a type of work (if by this word one means “action”), faith itself is not a “work of merit,” by which one earns wages (or personal praise). Read the words of the apostle Paul:
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who DOES NOT WORK BUT BELIEVES ON HIM who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5, NKJV).
So, according to Romans, works and faith are not the same.
However, what do we do with the following from John?
“Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘THIS IS THE WORK OF GOD, THAT YOU BELIEVE IN HIM whom He sent” (John 6:28-29, NKJV).
According to Jesus’ own words, to believe is to do “the work of God.” How do we reconcile this with Paul’s statement that faith is not a work? In addition, how do we reconcile it with these words?
“But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, NOT BY WORKS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS WHICH WE HAVE DONE, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5).
Initially, we think to ourselves, “Okay, faith is a work; but it isn’t a work.” This statement left by itself at most leads to confusion and at worst, leads to a blatant contradiction. In order to break the contradiction (“it is...but it isn’t”), we have to qualify what we mean by “works”.
Paul gives us the answer in Romans:
“Where is boasting then? IT IS EXCLUDED. By what law? OF WORKS? No, but by THE LAW OF FAITH” (Rom. 3:27).
What is the Law of works? The Old Testament Law. Paul also calls the work “the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:20, 28). In his discussion of the Jews’ unbelief in Romans 9, Paul notes that they are still trying to fulfill “the works of the law,” which explains why they are stumbling (Rom. 9:32).
So, while faith is a type of work (John 6:39), it is not an act of merit. The works of the law were done to achieve righteousness. Now that Christ has come, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The word for “end” here is “telos,” which also means goal. The law was to point to Christ, who fulfilled the Law down to the minutest detail.
So what kind of “work” is faith? To believe in Christ is to trust Christ, that He will do what He has promised. A life lived in faith is a life that perseveres, taking God at His word. And, as Keathley said, since we cannot merit our own salvation, we must trust in the merits of Christ. There is no other way...