Why Faith Matters
I’ve always been taught that the reason good works are important is because they prove that I’ve been saved. Therefore, my legalistic, self-focused brain sometimes reasons that I must “do stuff” for God in order to validate my salvation. But thank God that I’m not bound to every conviction of my yet-to-be-glorified mind. Thank God that His love, and His Word, control me.
So what does His Word say about this?
Paul says in Romans 3.19-20,
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
The law of works stops our mouths because it forces us to come face-to-face with our insufficiencies and moral disgustingness. When we consider everything that we ought to do, and fail to do, we ought to feel utterly helpless. These verses tell us that not only does the law make us feel morally ugly and helpless (and rightfully so), but it is also ultimately futile for us to try to keep the law.
Paul continues by saying that although the law cannot justify anyone, it does “bear witness” to the place where righteousness is found (that’s important because we can’t be saved if we’re not righteous). How does the law bear witness to the righteousness of God? Well, first of all, because of what I already mentioned; namely, that the law exposes our moral helplessness before God. Secondly, the law leaves us necessarily searching for the key to righteousness outside of our own feeble efforts.
This is where Paul really gets going. Verses 21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
So Paul has done his best to destroy our faith in works of the law. Believers in reformed circles would agree that there is only one way to be saved, and that is if salvation is given to us by God as a gift. It’s accepted that we’re so helpless that we must have nothing do with salvation. Further, we understand that without Jesus, there is no salvation. But what about after we’re saved? Paul has an answer. He’s been exposing the true nature of works of the law in order that his readers would be primed to understand verse 27-31.
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. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
This makes sense. If we truly understand that we’re morally helpless, then we can’t boast in our works. If we don’t understand that we’re morally helpless, then we’ll attempt to save ourselves by abiding by the law of works. Then, we’ll have a reason to boast every time we do something that seems to be “good.” But Paul is saying that the key to salvation is to realize that our justification, sanctification, and ultimate glorification are not rooted in what we do. Following the law cannot save us. The only reason we’re saved is because of our faith in Jesus. But it’s not our having faith that saves us; our faith connects us to the perfect righteousness that is found in Christ, and that alone saves us.
For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God. ~ 2 Corinthians 5.21
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God… 1 Peter 3.18
So what about works? Why does James make such a point that “faith apart from works is useless”, and “[Abraham’s] faith was completed by his works” (James 2.18-26)?
Well, you’ll have to read that passage from James 2 for yourself. What I think he’s saying is that works naturally proceed from true faith in Christ. In other words, when we’re pursuing a relationship with Jesus, we will come to find Him so beautiful and loving and compelling that we can’t look away. And if you love someone, you’ll want to do what they tell you to do (that’s what John 14.15 says). So if you’re not obeying Jesus, how can you say you love Him?
That said, please know this, believer: when God looks at you, He doesn’t declare that you’re righteous because you’ve diligently read your Bible, or prayed, or tithed, or evangelized.
Make no mistake; those things will naturally rise out of your faith in Jesus, and they are important. But ultimately, when you die and stand before God, there is only one reason that He will admit you into heaven, and that is that you have put your hope in Jesus. And make no mistake about that, either: God does not love you less in the moments when your faith in Christ is weak. Rather, the whole reason that Jesus died was “to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before [God], if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard (Colossians 1.22).”
So don’t panic if you go through dry seasons in your spiritual life. Pray against them, and ask God for the strength to press on. But remember all the while that ultimately, you will keep pursuing Him, believer. God will make it happen. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1.6).”
Praise God our Father!!