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How Faith Works

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. - Titus 3:4–8

Christian discipleship has long suffered from a false dichotomy between faith and works. In his letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul describes the richness of God’s grace toward us in Jesus. The astounding reality of the gospel is that we are not saved “because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to [God’s] own mercy” (3:4). Paul exhorts Titus to “insist on these things”—to keep the reality of God’s grace central in his ministry and preaching—“so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” In other words, Paul understood that there is a vital union between believing the gospel of God’s grace and giving oneself to a life of good works (cf. Eph 2:8–10). For this reason, to attempt to define faith apart from works is to distort what Scripture envisions when it speaks of faith. In the words of James, "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, may we continue to insist on the glorious truth that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). But let us also ensure that we never confuse the "faith" that Scripture speaks of with a sort of intellectual assent or easy believism—the mere acceptance of a certain set of propositions about God's existence. To make this mistake is to entirely misinterpret the concepts of grace and faith throughout the biblical narrative.

The Old Testament promise of the of the new covenant is not that God would create a people who simply recognize and make confession of a set of doctrines. It is rather: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer 31:33)," and, "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezek 36:27)."

In other words, when Scripture speaks of "faith" it refers to devotion to God in thought, word, and action flowing from a supernaturally transformed heart. Such a heart believes in who God says he is and the promises he has made and is divinely empowered to walk in obedience and live justly.

To "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 10:9) does not mean "believe that by believing in Jesus you are saved.” It means that we are saved when, by God’s grace, we surrender our life to Jesus, the King of Kings, and trust him to continually empower our obedience to his commandments through his indwelling Holy Spirit.

The wonder of grace is not only that our sins are forgiven because of Jesus, though that is of course true. In Paul’s words to Titus, “the grace of God has appeared, brining salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11–14). Much more than pardon for sin, grace is divine power to be the kind of human beings that we were created to be yet cannot be apart from being made new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

Such people love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbours as themselves (Mark 12:28–34). They are people who do justice, love and mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). They are people who welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick, imprisoned, orphaned, and widowed (Matt 25:31–4; James 1:27; 2:15–16). They are people who count others more significant than themselves (Phil 2:3), who love their enemies and do good those who hate them (Matt 5:44), and who outdo one another in showing honour (Rom 12:10).

They are people who keep themselves unstained from the world (James 1:27; cf. Rom 12:1–2), who have crucified the flesh along with its passions (Gal 5:24), and who put away and put to death anger, envy, covetousness, sexual immorality, impurity, falsehood, slander, and obscene talk (Col 3:5–8). They are people whose lives are characterized joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23).

If I am honest, I am convicted in the process of writing the paragraph above because I am painfully aware of how often I fail to be such a person. But herein lies the resounding call to the life of faith for the Christian. More than the 'sinner’s prayer' or a profession of belief (however sincere), the life of faith is one of daily trusting and acting upon the transforming power of God’s grace. The grace of God is revealed to us in "his precious and very great promises” (2 Pet 1:14), all of which find their "yes" in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Our faith in these promises is reflected through concrete acts of obedience.

When by faith we believe that God who began a good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6), that he will sustain us to the end (1 Cor 1:9) and present us blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 1:24), and that, today, he works in us, both to will and to work according to his good pleasure (Phil 2:13), we are empowered to be a people who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).

That is how faith works.

The title of this article is borrowed from S. Lewis Johnson Jr.’s article by the same name published in the September 22, 1989 issue of Christianity Today and republished on July 12, 2012. Johnson Jr.’s article is available here.

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