One of the biggest problems within Christianity is our fundamental misunderstanding of what faith is. This is something I’ve been convicted of for many years, but the force of it has revisited me over the last few weeks as I’ve interacted with a number of individuals who are troubled by how the Gospel seems to be leaving a bunch of liberated law-breakers in its train.
Indeed, as I wrote a short while back, it would be hard to argue with the idea that we, generally, talk about grace a lot more than we used to. Yet the sum of all this talk appears to have resulted in a generation of Christians that could care less about standards, could care less about self-denial, could care less about obedience.
The temptation is to thus hit back with a strong dose of law and obedience.
This would be a mistake, however.
Instead, what we need to do is talk more about what the “faith” part of “justification by faith” or “salvation by grace through faith” really means. This is because, scripturally, per people like James, there is a distinction between real or genuine faith and fake or presumptuous faith.
Thus, we need to define faith, understanding what it really is.
For my money, there is no better explanation of what faith is than two pivotal passages in scripture – both written by Paul. The first is in his epistle to the Galatians, where he shares this poignant thought: “For in Christ Jesus,” he writes, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
There is a lot to unpack in this verse, but relevant to our question is this idea that “faith works through love.” Just the first two words, “faith works,” is profound enough, and yet the whole thought carries extreme profundity because it’s not simply that “faith works,” it’s also that the agent which activates this “working faith” is the agape love of Christ. In fact, the word for “work” in this passage is the Greek word energeo, from whence we get the word “energy.”
So if you will give me the liberty of making a homiletical point (rather than a strictly exegetical one), it’s as though Paul says that the only thing that matters is not the good works we try to do so as to gain God’s grace, or the works we try to avoid in order to prove that God’s grace has liberated us from the law, but a faith that is energized by the agape love of Christ.
In other words, Christ’s agape love energizes us, it motivates us, it activates us.
It’s no wonder that the twin passage of this verse that helps me understand faith doesn’t even mention the word “faith.” Instead, Paul puts it this way in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ compels us,” he declares, “because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
There’s that agape love of Christ again, compelling us and pressing us forward – this love that grips us and moves us and creates within us a desire to “live. . . for Him who died for [us] and rose again.”
It reminds me of some powerful thoughts from Ellen White that enunciate the wonderful distinction between a dead faith and a living faith, a faux faith and the genuine article. “Genuine faith,” she wrote in 1893, “always works by love; it supplies a motive power” (Review and Herald, January 24, 1893). I love that term “motive power,” and I love how she says this is “genuine faith,” as apparently opposed to a fake rendition of it. But then she goes on to drop this bombshell: “Faith is not an opiate, but a stimulant.” In other words, opiates subdue a person and create inaction; faith, on the other hand, as a “stimulant,” creates action within a person and pushes him or her forward. She further explains this in the next sentence, writing, “Looking to Calvary will not quiet your soul into nonperformance of duty, but will create faith that will work, purifying the soul from all selfishness.”
Those three sentences are some of the most loaded and most compelling sentences you might ever read. They beautifully and succinctly explain what the life of faith looks like.
Simply put, when we look at Calvary, and we see the love and sacrifice of Jesus there, such a view does not lull us into laziness and inactivity, as if Christ’s sacrifice paralyzes a person; on the contrary, such a view creates a responsive echo of love that compels a person to respond in proportion to the sacrifice made. Indeed, it creates a “faith that will work, purifying the soul from all selfishness.”
This is why Ellen White elsewhere says that “that so-called faith in Christ which professes to release men from the obligation of obedience to God is not faith, but presumption” (Steps to Christ, p. 61). Indeed, “In the heart renewed by divine grace, love is the principle of action. It modifies the character, governs the impulses, controls the passions, subdues enmity, and ennobles the affections” (Ibid., p. 59). Further, “Where there is not only a belief in God’s word, but a submission of the will to Him; where the heart is yielded to Him, the affections fixed upon Him, there is faith – faith that works by love and purifies the soul. Through this faith the heart is renewed in the image of God” (Ibid., p. 63). It’s no wonder that Paul said in Romans that it is “with the heart [that] one believes” (Romans 10:10). Faith is not simply an intellectual decision that assents to the veracity of Christianity’s truth-claims; it’s a heart-response to Christ’s self-sacrificing love.
Lastly, consider this one:
You may say that you believe in Jesus, when you have an appreciation of the cost of salvation. You may make this claim, when you feel that Jesus died for you on the cruel cross of Calvary; when you have an intelligent, understanding faith that his death makes it possible for you to cease from sin, and to perfect a righteous character through the grace of God, bestowed upon you as the purchase of Christ’s blood.” (Review and Herald, July 24, 1888)
Is this not a much more robust explanation of faith than we have perhaps encountered before? Is this not a faith that liberates us from the ditch of trying to save ourselves by our own efforts on the one hand, and claiming that one’s behavior doesn’t matter on the other? Indeed, when a person examines the cross and understands the depth of Christ’s love as revealed there, an “appreciation of the cost of salvation” swells in the heart and seeks ways to express itself.
Indeed, faith thus works – through a “labor of love.”
So the solution to the gross liberality that seems to be hampering us today is not to hit hard with law and obedience. After all, it is “not by painful struggle or wearisome toil, not by gift or sacrifice” that “righteousness [is] obtained” (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 18). It’s by pointing people to Calvary, inviting them to look there, explaining to them the true depth of what took place at the cross, and then inviting them to respond with a “faith that works by love.”