There are a few possible answers to the question of whether or not faith requires human works. Christians use the term “works” to mean any activity of the person for which he or she would claim responsibility — what he or she does, says, wills, or thinks. And there is a great debate within Christianity as to what role “works” play in regards to a person’s salvation.
Many would say “Yes,” works are required for faith. This is an answer that has its origin in fallen human nature — a human nature that has led to such thinking as Humanism, the Enlightenment, Darwinian materialism, and entitlement. These ideologies intoxicate people with the idea that religion is the fantasy of the individual, wherein each individual constructs a fantasy and relates to it as he or she chooses.
We are bombarded constantly with phrases like “the self-made man,” or “the captain of one’s own destiny” (or, more accurately said by Marty McFly’s father, “You are my . . . density”). The idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” feeds the human ego. However, to pull oneself up by the bootstraps requires the suspension of the laws of physics; claiming to have done so requires the suspension of reason or logic.
Many others would answer “no, faith is not work” but in action offer a strong “yes.” Many who profess to be Christian confess we are saved by grace through faith and that is a gift of God, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Yet the same people speak of making a decision, a commitment, turning their lives over to, or giving their hearts to Jesus. Some Bible translations even translate the single Greek word for “believe” with the expression “put your faith in,” as if faith were a substance, but the real importance is where YOU decide to put it. Perhaps such individuals mean to say we cannot be saved by obeying the law, yet we can and must do the work of faith or we are lost.
This idea of “faith” as “not a work” yet in fact “our work” is responsible for deep anxiety about whether or not a person is saved, since a work of faith, as MY work, is destined to fail.
Such a notion of “faith” is also responsible for the inconsistencies and confusion in teaching about salvation in general, along with baptism, and the Christian life in particular. Are we doing good works to prove that we have faith (John 6:27-29) or do good works flow from faith so that both faith and works are God’s work (Isaiah 55:1-2, 9-11)? Does faith depend on our ability to think and our access to the correct volume of data? Such thinking contradicts both the teaching (1 Corinthians 2:14) and history (Exodus-Numbers) of the Bible.
And then there are those people who know that faith is not and could never be our work. Faith, by whatever name, is a work — but it is God’s work in us (John 6:29; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:5). So what is faith and how does it work?
Possible definitions of faith
Without exception, for the past 30-plus years, every time I ask someone to define faith, they answer trust. If I ask them to define trust, they say believe. And what does believe mean? Believe means to have faith.
There is a single Greek noun and verb that is translated to these three English words: faith/to have faith (or put it in something), trust/to trust, belief/believe. For years I have been considering what kind of definition the Bible itself would require of the Greek terms “pistis/pisteuo.”
Hebrews 11:1 provides a definition, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” It is a long definition, but does urge us to recognize that such assurance and conviction is a work of God and not our own doing.
A shorter definition that is consistent with Hebrews 11 is “honesty about dependence.” Honesty about dependence welcomes the assurance and conviction which come by God’s revelatory work. Testing this definition by using it in place of the word “pistis” or “pisteuo” in biblical contexts has proven to be both accurate and illustrative, so far.
The word “dependence” is at the root, since we are utterly dependent on God for all things. Children, especially infants, are prime examples (Matthew 18:3; 1 Corinthians 1:18-32). “Honesty” is necessary since dishonesty about our dependent condition is precisely the condition that opposes truth and grace, God and neighbor.
Testing our definition of faith
Teaching and historical narrative provide a means of testing the accuracy of our thoughts about what faith is. Here are a few places in the Bible that support our definition of faith:
Jesus’ disciples argued over who was the greatest among them (on more than one occasion). When the disciples asked Jesus who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus took a child up in His arms (Matthew 18:3) and spoke in absolute terms about children as the model, not the exception to, faith.
“Unless you repent and become as a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. In four other verses in Matthew 18 and 19, Jesus refers again to children:
Matthew 18:6, “ . . . but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin . . . ”
Matthew 18:10, “Take heed that you do not despise on of these little ones . . . ”
Matthew 18:14, “Even so, it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish . . . ”
Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me and stop hindering them for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Among the most notable characteristics of children is the absence of self-assertion, or, we might say, dishonesty about dependence. When children begin to deny their dependence in word and deed, we know the trouble has begun.
Paul speaks everywhere about grace being the only means by which we might be saved — the grace of God doing absolutely everything that is required for us to be saved.
Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians by referencing the helpless as the model of faith and an antidote to the competitive, faithless disposition of the Corinthian “grown ups” (1 Corinthians 1:18-32).
3. 1 Peter 1:5
Peter says in clear terms that faith is God’s work in our lives (1 Peter 1:5). Peter’s language here is identical to Jesus’ own teaching following the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:27-29, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent . . . ”
4. Biblical history
History recorded in the Bible provides a constant, physical witness to the truth of God’s teaching about faith. Faith is not one more command for us to fulfill, nor the command to fulfill over all other commands.
Faith is what God works in us by making our inability undeniably and inescapably clear to us. The history of humanity is the history of our failure — failure in spite of every conceivable advantage and opportunity.
Adam could have been honest about his dependence on the Creator and left the tree alone (and instructed Eve to do the same). The children of Israel could have followed Joshua right into the promised land, just one year after leaving Egypt, rather than dying in the wilderness over the next 40 years. Even John the Baptizer might never have doubted the person and work of Jesus, even when he was in prison — like Daniel or Paul.
The problem with faith for fallen humanity is that we are incapable of it, as Paul expressly says, “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit, neither can he because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Faith depends on the incapacitation of human nature by law, whether spoken or circumstantial (divine or natural revelation) and the regeneration of the soul that lives in honest and complete dependence upon the very Word that generated and continually regenerates it (John 3).
Image courtesy of Stefan Kunze.