Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance

This is Part III of a dialogue on theological questions raised as Living Stones Churches goes through a sermon series on Galatians called “Fight for Grace.”  In Part I, I answered the question “Why isn’t the act of believing considered a work?” by showing how it is God himself who gives us the faith to believe the gospel. In Part II, I answered the question “If faith is from God, then why are people punished for not believing?” by discussing the paradoxical doctrine of predestination.

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“Well, good boy, I am satisfied that I am saved by grace alone.  Now, will you kindly pass me a bottle of whiskey? I'm going to go get drunker than Noah.”

You’re going to make this difficult, aren’t you?

“What on earth do you mean?  I am saved by faith alone, not my works.  Therefore, I can go do whatever I please until I die.  ‘Tis marvelous!  I just wish I hadn’t spent all those years trying to earn my way to God.  I could have been as promiscuous as a Corinthian...”

You’re misunderstanding the whole point, my friend.  Real faith, and a real understanding of grace, does not lead to disobedience.  Faith and obedience are buddies.

“But you said good works don’t earn me anything!  See, I knew it.  I bloody knew it!  The book of James proves that you do need to do good works to be saved.  Look at 2:24. It says ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’  Oh bloody hell, I’m going to bloody hell.  Alas, I need to use the loo!”

Easy, easy.  Off the ledge now.  Let me explain.  James is not contradicting Paul - he and Paul are completing the picture together.

“How so?”

Consider the situation Paul is writing to in Galatians.  A group had snuck into the church and were saying something like “Jesus plus circumcision equals salvation.” Paul, in very strong, plain words, is correcting their theological math.  But in no way does Paul ever argue, in his teaching or in the way he lived his life, that believers are free to do whatever they want (see Gal. 5:13).

And now consider James.  He is combatting the equal and opposite error - that faith is only a confession, or even an emotion.  That, he argues, is not actually faith.  When James says a person is justified by works and not faith alone, he is using the verb “justify” (δικαιόω) in a different sense than Paul.  There's a near consensus among scholars that he’s using it in the sense of “show to be righteous,” rather than “declare to be righteous.”  This is a big difference.

“Well what does this mean then?”

It means James is not rejecting grace, but is exposing cheap grace for the fraud it is.

“Which is...?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says cheap grace is the “grace we bestow on ourselves.”  It is letting yourself off the hook.  When you do this you make yourself your own savior, and eliminate the need for Jesus to die on the cross.

“That’s not good.”

No, it is not.

Let me give you another example.  In Scripture, God has commanded us to love and fear him (Phil. 2:12, Matt. 22:37), and love and fear are not just emotions.

Inherent to love is fidelity.

Inherent to fear is respect.

To say you love God when you love your idols more is spiritual adultery (Ezek. 16:1-58).  To say you fear God but then act as if he is not your king shows that you do not respect his authority.

Faith is the same way.  Inherent to faith is obedience.  You can’t divorce obedience from belief, otherwise you have nothing but empty orthodoxy.  Fix your eyes on what Bonhoeffer says on the subject of true faith:

“Only those who believe obey, and only those who obey believe.”

(By the way, he was killed by the Nazis for his faith, so his quotes should pretty much be tattooed on our chests.)

We are saved by grace through faith, but we were created for good works as a response to this salvation (Eph. 2:10).  We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20).  We represent him to the world by our behavior, which is a response to the fact that we have been saved by grace.  And it’s pretty clear that if we don’t preach the gospel, people don’t get saved (Rom. 10:14, 17).  A proper response to the gospel is vital.

“But what if a person expresses faith for awhile, in word and deed, then leaves the church and falls off the deep end?  Are they still saved?”

This is a highly debated topic, so forgive my brevity with this.  Based on my understanding of Scripture, I’m led to believe that true believers can never fall away.  Apostasy, the term for abandoning the faith, is reserved for those who never had true saving faith to begin with.  Here are some reasons:

1) Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life, and he will not lose any (John 6:38-40; 10:27-29)

2) Speaking of the justified, Paul says they are “glorified,” meaning restored to perfection, in the past tense, as if it such a guarantee that it has already occurred (Rom. 8:30)

3) Believers receive the seal of the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of salvation.  If it can be taken away it is not much of a guarantee (Eph. 1:13-14)

4) Paul is certain that he who began a good work will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6)

5) We are guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that will be revealed in the end (1 Pet. 1:5)

6) John says that falling away is evidence of not being a true believer (1 John 2:19)

7) Most importantly, it is Jesus’ faithfulness that secures us (John 6:38-40).  He doesn’t fail himself.

“But Hebrews 6 is crystal clear that a believer can lose their salvation!  I demand an explanation!”

I understand.  But here are some reasons, apart from using the passages above to make Hebrews 6 say what I want, that make it hard to believe Hebrews 6:4-8 is teaching that a true believer can lose their salvation:

1) The people referred to are those who have “tasted the heavenly gift."  Tasting, by nature, is not permanent.  The Greek word used (γεύομαι) could also be rendered “experience something cognitively or emotionally.”  This does not seem to equate with being “sealed with the Spirit.”

2) It is referring to people who have “shared/participated (μέτοχος) in the Holy Spirit.”  The same word is used in Heb. 3:14, but is qualified with "if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end."  You are shown to "share" in the Spirit if you actually persevere.  In Heb. 6, then, this word is most likely being used to express that they had experienced some power of the Spirit while in fellowship (answered prayer, a miracle, etc.), but not necessarily saving faith.

3) The passage ends with an agricultural metaphor, describing the difference between land that brings forth “useful vegetation” and land that “bears thorns and thistles.”  This is reminiscent of other passages that speak of true believers being characterized by their fruit (John 15:1-7).  This parallel serves to show that these “apostates” never produced good fruit in their lives, which exposed their counterfeit faith.

It is safe to conclude that these people who have “been enlightened” are like those referred to in Mark 4:5-6; 16-17, who are rocky soil with no roots.  They receive the word with joy until persecution comes, then they fall away.

The apostasy passages, such as Heb. 6, are warnings.  The NT authors are writing to professing Christians, but they don’t know their hearts.  Those whose faith is not real will eventually fall away, so these warnings not only make it clear to them that they have rejected Christ once and for all, but serve to encourage true believers to persevere.  Jesus says that if anyone continues in his word, they are truly his disciple (John 8:31)

“But what about those of us who are struggling in faith?  Is it only a matter of time before we find out we're phonies?  I’m no bloody Mother Teresa.”

“Look at her.  Just look her.  So saintly.  So peaceful.  Perfect hand position for prayer.”

Did you know she felt like God was distant almost the entire time of her ministry?  She felt silence and emptiness for 39 years.

Mother Teresa experienced what is called a “dark night of the soul.” Persevering through a dark night of the soul can only be accomplished by faith.

“Why does God give these dark nights?”

True faith cannot be faked.  A dark night is a test of true faith.  It’s easy to be “all in” if you’re feeling good and things are easy.  It’s another thing to serve while you feel distant from God, persecuted, or doubtful.

Some Christians have bought the lie that if they’re not whistling hymns as they obey God then they shouldn’t do anything.

"When emotion disappears, obedience still remains."

But perseverance during times of dryness is a real testament of faith, love, and fear (of God).  Yes, good feelings are delightful, but they can’t be expected to occur all the time.  We can’t unfairly emphasize passion over responsibility, and vice versa.

If you think you have to have a certain “feeling,” or “emotion,” or “pure heart” before doing something - you will never do anything.  Sin still exists, and our hearts, minds, and wills still face its effects.  We are commanded to be joyful, but there is no excuse for disobedience if we are not feeling joyful.

When emotion disappears, obedience still remains.  That’s why we’re likened to an athlete, farmer, and soldier (2 Tim 2:4-6).  By nature these professions require sacrifice, perseverance, and effort.

I hope I have been clear that while your obedience does not justify you before God, it is still very relevant.

“Yes, we’re on the same page now. So, it looks like I need to stop shaving, stop eating pork, remove my tattoos, stay away from my menstruating wife...”

I love you, but you are relentless. I will have to explain which commandments Christians are responsible for next week.