05 Dec 2010

Faith Is a Work

Religious 37 Comments

I am sure I have written on this before, but I came across a great passage that illustrates my view on the issue…

One of the standard controversies among Christians is “faith versus works.” Specifically, do you get into heaven by doing certain things (whether that means helping old ladies across the street, or receiving certain sacraments if you are a Catholic, etc.) or by believing certain things (that Jesus died for your sins, is your personal savior, etc.)?

(Note: I am just giving the context for my perspective. I’m obviously not doing justice to, say, the Catholic view on this important issue. Feel free to spell out your own views in the comments.)

What’s interesting is that if you go to the Bible to see “who’s right,” you can (as so often happens) apparently come up with smoking-gun proof of either position. For example, if you want to argue that faith alone is necessary and sufficient for salvation, the following are apparent trump cards:

John 3:16 (New International Version)

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.


Ephesians 2:8-10 (New International Version)

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So that’s pretty good, right? We’ve got a direct (and seemingly unambiguous) quote from Jesus, as well as one from an author of a New Testament book.

But hold on a second, the person who thinks faith alone is not enough, could understandably point to these excerpts:

Matthew 7:21-23 (New International Version)

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’


James 2:14-24 (New International Version)

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

Let me lay my cards on the table: In terms of the standard divide, I come down on the “faith alone” side. I subscribe to the view that there is nothing we can do to “earn” our salvation, and that it’s simply wrong to imagine that God is keeping track of your good deeds and bad ones, and holy cow you’d better hope your account is in the black when you get hit by that bus next week.

However, it’s actually not correct for me to say, “I believe in salvation through faith, not works.” First of all, if that were my position, then I basically have to say that James doesn’t know what he’s talking about, above.

But beyond that, I view the whole thing as a false dichotomy. Faith is a work. If you accept Jesus into your heart, you have consciously chosen to do something. You have “acted,” in the sense of Ludwig von Mises.

(Note that in this post, I am not going to grapple with the view that you don’t really choose to accept Jesus, that rather Jesus chooses you. I actually think that this too is a false dichotomy of sorts, where both positions–free will versus predestination–are correct insofar as they are presented in standard expositions, and that a deeper understanding reconciles the two apparently contradictory stances.)

And I have my own smoking-gun scripture on this interpretation:

John 6:25-29 (New International Version)

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Ahhh, just gorgeous.

Here is a quick synopsis of all this:

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is trying to get people to focus on the big picture, the stuff that is really important. For example, He tells people not to worry about money, food, and clothing–not because these things aren’t important, but because they’re not the most important. I believe what Jesus is saying here is that if you focus on God, those other things will naturally fall into place. But if instead you try to take care of those earthly things first–thinking you will then tend to your spiritual life–you are going to miss the boat entirely.

So by analogy, I believe that Jesus is telling us it is wrong to walk around, aiming to “be a good person.” That is actually a very narcissistic attitude, and moreover it’s absurd on the face of it, compared to the life Jesus led. It would be like walking around, trying to be a really bright star. If your goal in life is to break as few of God’s rules as possible, to “be the best you can be,” you are actually going to end up a miserable sinner.

On the other hand, if you accept the fact that you are useless on your own, and you just follow Jesus, then you will (perhaps paradoxically) end up committing far greater deeds than the person who consciously tries to do so. Knowing you are saved, and that every moment on this fallen world brings paradise that much closer, you have a fantastic attitude and can be a light to others. You are not a miserable sinner, but a joyful child of God.

37 Responses to “Faith Is a Work”

  1. K Sralla says:

    Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

    Whose work is it? The whole point of this text is that the people were being energized to follow Jesus by their own internally motivated desires (in this case the rumbling of their belly), but Jesus is teaching that this kind of work is not acceptable to God, as it is tainted by sin and wrong motives. The only type of work God finds salvifically acceptable is the work that is empowered externally from the sinner, and by God himself (ie the work of God). That is why Paul taught that faith itself is a free gift of God. This is why we (evangelicals) hold that salvation is a free gift from God alone. If someone has to earn it by “umphing” up enough faith out of their own unregenerate being, it is not free at all, but equates to merrit-based or works salvation. You are very perceptive to see faith as a work. It is. The problem is that if God alone does not empower genuine faith by his sovereign grace (monergism), such a theoretical salvation would not be a gift at all, but something that is earned. That is not good news, and that is not what Jesus is teaching in John’s gospel.

    **The only difference between the Calvinist and the classic Arminian on this issue is that the Weslian Arminian holds that God’s free gift can be refused by the sinner. Calvinists agree to this insofar as many people do in fact refuse God’s offer of salvation, or “accept” it at some shallow level, only later to become apostate . The only difference is that the Calvinist sees saving grace as always being effecaceous for the elect only. However, in either evangelical view, God must draw the sinner to Christ, and ultimately the faith that is possessed by the person is a free gift from God, not something that is earned in any way.

  2. Brian Shelley says:


    You have touched on my greatest frustration with Christians. To the man, they will agree that perfect joy is found only in Christ, and confess that he is the omniscient God incarnate. Yet they continue to live their lives with their feet standing in Christendom, but their faces pressed and drooling against the glass of the candy store of sin. They can not conceive to consider that the world is a fraud.

    The Wesleyan/Armenians and the Calivinists err by buying into the paradox that pursuit of Christ’s perfect joy is a burden. Removing shackles is not work. Wrenching guilt does not motivate to joy. The world is wrong, and Christ is right.

  3. fundamentalist says:

    Good post! Yes, a miracle is involved. An article in CT mag about atheists who convert quoted a well-known atheist who said that the change in lifestyles of people he knew who had converted convinced him that something real was happening. When someone accepts Christ as his savior the Holy Spirit enters his life and makes a difference in his values and attitudes. If a person has truly believed, there will be a difference in lifestyle coming from changed values and attitudes. That change in lifestyle produces good works. Without those good works there is no evidence of the Holy Spirit and one’s belief is questionable.

    BTW, some of us think that salvation is the gift mentioned in Ephesians, not faith. I think Greek grammar puts gift and salvation together, not gift and faith.

  4. Paul says:

    From a Catholic perspective, salvation is achieved through grace. I have a feeling the debate between faith alone and faith vs. good works is not really a fundamental debate. Both sides essentially say that faith is not faith if it is not accompanied by good works. That essentially says that faith and good works are one unit rather than two.

  5. RG says:

    My catholic education taught me that as long as you believe that Christ died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead, then you’re saved.

    Because of that I find the sacraments rather hypocritical (I’ve gone through all of them except last rights and priesthood). But, as you pointed out in the supplied verses, the testaments are filled with hypocracy (or contradictions if you’d rather).

    In all the classes and the bible studies I’ve participated, nearly all individuals try to find personal justification instead of recognizing the contradictions. But just like with US constitutional law (http://faculty.msb.edu/hasnasj/GTWebSite/MythWeb.htm), there is no justification only interpretation.

    My personal favorite contradiction: the gospels quote Jesus stating many times without prompt that he was the son of God, son of Man, etc., but when the state aksed him, he gave some non-committal gibberish answer. Then later he says “forgive them father, for they do not know what they do”. All Chrisitans will read that and have or will search for justification rather than acknowledging the contradiction.

    • Paul says:

      Contradictions either point out that scripture is void or that it is misunderstood. I’d say that it is really important to study the supposed contradictions.

      We are saved by the grace of God. Faith is our belief that He is going to save us, and good works is doing what is asked of us. Consider this situation (my sister’s creation). You are canoeing in the middle of the ocean and your canoe capsizes. You are too far away to swim to shore so you have to rely on help. You have faith that help will come and it does in the form of a helicopter. The helicopter drops down a ladder and the rescuer tells you to let go of your canoe and climb to safety. You grasp the ladder and begin to climb, but are too weak to make it forcing you to trust the grasp of the rescuer.

      Grace is the helicopter that you can’t survive without. Faith is your belief that the helicopter will come for you. Good works is you doing what the rescuers ask in order to be saved. Faith cannot lift you onto the helicopter nor can good works call it to you.

  6. K Sralla says:


    Justification in Roman Catholicism is yielded by faith plus the sacraments after the commission of mortal sin. In the first instance baptism regenerates the infant, but after commission of mortal sin, the person becomes spiritually sick and must have faith plus undergo the sacrament of penance in order to have his righteousness restored. According to Catholic theology, works of contrition are part of penance (condign merit), but are only truly enabled by the grace of God. Through the sacraments, righteousness is infused into the believer.

    Luther saw the sacramental system as looking a lot like the law. For this reason, he rejected the sacramental system on the grounds that Paul clearly teaches that saving righteousness is not found in us at all, but rather all in Christ. The good news as Luther saw it is that Christ’s righteousness and perfect works are imputed to the person by the vehicle of personal repentance and faith, not by any works of the law or sacramental system. The source of such “saving” faith is key however. For Luther, this faith was entirely the work of God alone. If some of the required faith is inherent in men apart from God, then based on some kind of moral inner human strength, a man must muster it up from somewhere in the depths of his soul, where his neighbor might not be able to get up enough mental umph. If any of this mental power comes from Man and not from God alone, then we have just destroyed the doctrine of salvation as a free gift of God. We have also created a system of merit (salvation by works). I agree with Bob that this mental “umph” (faith) is a type of work. Again, If that is true and the power for this type of work is not exclusively by God, then unfortunately Bob’s idea logically infers that we are saved by our own untampered-with will power. I don’t think he will agree with me, but hopefully I have raised some questions in his mind about the soundness of his theology.

    P.S. I am really not trying to start an argument, but simply present the classic Protestant theological view on the subject. But mine is not the last word, so I urge interested people to study the classic writers on these subjects, and understand the arguments that have been made throughout church history. The Protestant idea of the priesthood of the believer does not mean that we read the Bible and make up our own meaning as we go along.

    • RG says:

      Penance isn’t a Catholic sacrament. I’ve had the sacrament of confession and been absolved without any specific pennance – it depends on the priest.

      I can’t recall the term mortal sin used in Catholicism. There may be a church reading that containts “mortal sin”, but I never heard it related to the sacraments.

      Baptism washes away original sin in the Catholic sacrament.

      The Lutheran view of salvation is consistent with what I was taught in Catholicism.

      I find it strange, though, that Protestants tithe (or eighth or fifteenth or whatever percentage is deemed appropriate). Indulgences abhorred Luther, but failing to tithe is sinful. There’s a big specific Protestant contradiction for ya.

  7. K Sralla says:

    Pardon the spelling errors and poor grammer in my last post. Spell check is an amazing thing!

    • Paul says:

      I view arguing as completely unproductive therefore will take you up on your offer of not starting one.

  8. levelma says:

    Grace I believe cannot be defined: also in the Gospels it is never defined – correct me if I am wrong – so for instance it is told us, who search for something more that is present in the sensible world, the man possessed with a demon is just liberated by the grace of God, so we could be lucky enough, in our own personal spiritual search to find out a good day of our life what a glimpse of it is about but I find not meaningful to elaborate about something that cannot be explained: it is like trying to make feel the taste of juicy fresh orange to someone that has no taste ..grace I believe It exists but if I cannot perceive it in my searching for salvation – knowing the momement I’ll perceive it confirm me I’ll will have established a bridge with that something more I am searching for and knowing that is an encouragement to keep on searching on that own personal path of research – that only tells me I have to do better my work; faith sure is work if we consider – given belief that God exists and created all of us free to choose our own spiritual behaviour ..our own “gods” but also really generous with them who persists in searching they ultimate gain/happiness with him and not with the many temptations of the world – that all of us, before to manage to hope in God’s grace have to manage something more brutal ..the desert wilderness where Jesus was confined during his famous 40 days fasting..may be I am wrong but for me It suggests that all of us, ignorant men searching for liberation in true happiness, had to confront the wilderness of a desert that surely I find in myself when I seriously try to detach from the limited but so confortable little joys of the world: it is not God Grace that make me navigate that wilderness toward something more than I believe it exists also for me (fasting, because I believe it is not in the world what I am searching for) notwithstanding my free choice to navigate those wild waters is not enough to go forward and in this contest faith (that it exists a God that created me and want my true happiness but only if I am freely turned to him by my own choice to hope in his grace to save me to his way of true happiness) is the only help that really I can get from that hoped God and his grace: he cannot do more for me because my free choice dictate that if I want to search for him He – that want only my true happiness – has to give me my true chance to show myself and himself – I prefer him the Creator to the illusory temptations of the world, his creation.
    So, Bob, my thought about faith, God and grace meets yours in the point where faith is work to be saved: but I believe one cannot feel saved and sure in the protection of God our creator till he has navigated his own personal dangerous waters of desert wilderness and received a corresponding (peculiar for every single man and woman ..well I believe God our creator cannot accept nothing more than a special relationship with each of us just to begin to elevate us to our true happiness that only him can know and bestowe on us but only us can really choose to be possibly bestowed) grace from God with which one can always feel insured to be on the right path toward true happiness; just like it is not possible to learn the taste of orange juice (one has to be endowed with that kind of sensible counsciousness) so each of us, in search of the true happiness and really free to choose world or God our Creator or something other as our own searching path, had to develope trust to find out – already present but so strongly hidden to ourselves – that consciousness needed to experiment true happiness and in time I am come to believe that my path has to point to God my Creator and detach from illusory temptations of the world.
    I have put my thoughts, already a little confused in italian, in english I hope all of you interested get the sense.

  9. fundamentalist says:

    In the Gospels, Jesus is reported to have said that faith the size of the smallest seed, a mustard, can move mountains. (Of course, atheists constantly point out that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed scientifically speaking but Jesus was not writing a paper for the a Journal of Science but using a very common idiom.) So the tiniest amount of faith that man can imagine is sufficient for salvation. That faith then grows with time and knowledge.

  10. K Sralla says:


    Bob has accused me of being abrasive, and it is not my mission in life to correct theological error everywhere, but pardon me by suggesting that your Catholic education did not take. Here is a good online resource if you are interested in learning:


    or try this one: http://www.catholic.com/library/Mortal_Sin.asp

    • RG says:

      The first link didn’t refute anything I’ve experienced. Again, I’ve been absolved during the sacrament of confession, on multiple occassions, without any specific penance. Some priests give the standard say X Our Fathers, and Y Hail Marys and some will say something to this affect: “try not to put yourself in that position again and if you find yourself there, do this.” I tended to go back to the priests that performed the sacrament in the latter fashion.

      The second link backed up what my daily religion classes and multiple masses per week taught me. The sacraments I’ve experienced, and study of, made no mention of mortal sin. I had assumed some old and/or new testament readings have mention of mortal sin and that’s what your source states.

      I’m not saying teachings of mortal sin does not or has never existed in Catholic communities, but I don’t have any memory of it ever being specifically discussed in any Catholic venue I’ve attended.

      Bob gave you “abrasive” and I get “anti-religious ranter” – must be a sliding scale. I don’t think you’re being abrasive you’re simply challenging me, which I brought on myself by posting somewhat inflamatory remarks.

  11. Steve Maughan says:

    Hi Robert,

    An interesting stance. I think it’s the other way round i.e. true faith leads to good works. I think this is the clear meaning of James 2.

    I personally think the Bible points to the complete sovereignty of God when it comes to salvation i.e. you have no choice. Eph 2 v 8 is the classic verse to back this up. But also Romans 8 v 29-30 (and as a general theme throughout Romans). A hard doctrine and not one to come to lightly but the classic Reformed / Calvinist position.

    Most arguments against Calvinism don’t come from scripture e.g. we’re all robots – how can there be love without choice etc. As well as the biblical evidence here are three things to ponder which I believe highlight the deep truth of Calvinism:

    1. For a minute choose to believe that [the earth is flat]. You cannot – it’s impossible. Which highlights the fact that when it comes to faith we don’t have as much choice as we’d like to think.

    2. Do you think Jesus had his fingers crossed when he ascended into Heaven. Was he hoping the disciples would believe?

    3. John 3 says we must be born again. How much choice did you have about your first birth?


    • fundamentalist says:

      Actually, most good arguments against Calvinism come from scripture. I think sound hermeneutics prevents one from being a 5-point Calvinist, but partial Calvinism is clearly good hermeneutics.

  12. Kyle says:

    When bible quotes seem to contradict each other, one interpretation is obviously wrong. How does one go about solving a seemingly endless “battle” of bible quote references? I think people reading this blog will understand an analogy referencing to the nature of the union between the United States.

    “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States”.

    Nationalists will claim that the Colonies were, after all, “one people”. Does the preamble not include the phrase “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union”. A Compact Theorist, however, will retaliate and claim that the original wording was “We the States”, however the Committee on Style had changed it to “We the People” without any objection as it was thought to have the same meaning. One implication of the Nationalist/Compact theorist debate is the right of a state to nullify unconstitutional laws. To settle this debate one must look to the original understanding of the Union by the States. Say, Virginia, when they were promised by members of the board to draft the actual ratifying instrument they were promised they would be exonerated from any attempt by the federal government to impose “any supplementary condition”. Done deal…… 😉

    So how do we settle these bible verses? We look to what the fathers of the church understood to be Christ’s teachings. After all a whole church was set up by Christ before the bible was written “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
    And so here is a decent overview of what was the understanding of those who were much closer to Christ in time, http://www.chnetwork.org/journals/justification/justify_12.htm.

    BTW. How can you resolve the fact that thinking is an action an therefore contradictory outside of the Catholic Church’s teaching on this issue? If you admit it is an action you are being hypocritical.

    • fundamentalist says:

      Kyle, submitting to Church teaching is one way to get out of the difficulties involved in interpretation, but another one is to follow the principles of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is just logic applied to interpreting any text or human communication. Sound hermeneutics makes mot of the appearance of contradiction or difficulty go away. Most of what people point out as contradictions are superficial and easily resolved with hermeneutics.

      • Kyle says:

        Would you be so kind as to explain which Church teaching I am resorting too? Did the Church fathers not use hermeneutics when deciphering the teachings of Christ?

        • fundamentalist says:

          Kyle, I assumed from your post that it is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Was I wrong?

          • Kyle says:

            No you are not, it is church teaching that one must live a moral life by acting in a way where one is out of the stain of a mortal sin. My explanation of why this is correct is just one of many that is not Catholic teaching per se, but would be excepted by the Catholic Church as why She believes what she believes. I was not merely submitting to Church teaching I was explaining why the Church has such a teaching.

  13. Carlton Hobbs says:

    Faith and works can also be simplified by finding a common word to define them, and Mises would approve this. They should be defined as “intent to act” and “act” respectively. And this brings us to the question of how to apply Misean time value concepts to religious theory.

  14. Jake Jacobsen says:

    I enjoyed this post. It really got me thinking. I agree with you that faith is a work. The Bible talks about faith in that way.

    We can see this in Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The word substance is translated from hypostasis which means support, literally hypo (under) stasis (to stand), or to stand under. The word evidence is translated from elenchos which means evidence or proof. I think the NIV is too watered down here, but the idea is still in there. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Faith is foundation that stands under us and supports our beliefs. It is also the evidence that those beliefs are correct.

    Paul then gives several examples of what faith is. There is an interesting pattern in those examples. Abel offered a sacrifice, then he obtained a witness. Enoch pleased God and was taken without dieting. Noah was warned, he heeded, then became an heir of righteousness. Abraham was called to go out, not knowing where. He went and received the place for an inheritance. Sara received a promise, and she bore a son, even though she was old. Abraham was told to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, believing that God could raise him from the dead and in a matter of speaking that is what happened. It seems to me that Paul is saying that faith is more than just a state of believing, it’s more like a process. In the examples, God tells each person to do something. Because they have a foundation, they do what God says and then they receive evidence that their foundation was true.

    To me this looks a lot like science. In science you have a belief, you act on that belief through experimentation and then you observe the evidence. In fact, the terminology is very similar. The belief in science is called a hypothesis, or literally, hypo (under) thesis (to place), or to place under. There is an important difference to note with hypothesis and hypostasis. With hypostasis there is already an idea or understanding to start with. With a hypothesis, we aren’t given the idea to test, there is nothing already standing there so we have to put something there. Then from there we take the idea, act upon it, and observe the results.

    All the examples that Paul gives involve some sort of action. It could be argued that the action is merely a manifestation of the faith, and faith is just believing. To that I say that Paul included the evidence as part of the definition of faith. Furthermore, believing is an action, understanding an idea and thinking about it enough to believe it involves work. A scientists doesn’t necessarily have to perform an experiment to observe results in the world, but there is still work involved in understanding the idea and observing if the idea has merit. So if we view faith as a process then we can see the work involved in it.

    So why is all this important? Well, with each cycle of faith, our faith grows stronger and we come closer to God. As we draw near to Him he draws near to us. I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said in Mere Chrisianity: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” Believing in Christ changes people. I should know, I used to be agnostic and even atheist at one time. But it has also been my experience that learning to believe in Christ is a process of changing. In Jeremiah 18 it talks about the house of Israel as a lump of clay in the potter’s hands. I believe that faith is part the process the Lord uses to shape us into the kind of people he wants us to be. We believe in Him, He asks us to do something, we do it and He gives us more evidence so we believe in Him more.

    Many of my friends think that they are saved in a moment. The moment they pray to God to accept Christ they are saved. But I think, isn’t a lifetime but a moment to God? I also think that it takes more than one of our moments to fully believe in Christ. Sometimes we need God to give us opportunities to develop our faith. Sometimes those opportunities are enjoyable and sometimes they are not.

    In Romans 10:13 it says: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” The interesting thing here is that it says “shall be saved.” This says to me is that I will be saved, but that I am not currently saved. In Matthew 24:12-13 it says: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” While this scripture is talking specifically about people in the end times (could that be us?), the use of the word enduring indicates that there is an amount of time longer than an instant where it’s necessary to be faithful in order to be eligible for salvation.

    Ultimately, my works cannot save me. If I did all the good deeds that were humanly possible then I still couldn’t save myself.

    I do believe I will be judged. I don’t think it will be about how many good things I’ve done or whether I have a certain required amount of faith. I think it will be about what kind of person I am. Am I a person who trusts and believes in Christ because I have been through the process of developing faith and have kept that faith? I think of that as the prerequisite to be eligible for salvation.

    I think of saving grace as like a grant. If someone wants to give me a grant, I have no right to that money, no matter what I have done. I have no way to earn a grant, if I earned it then it would be a payment, not a grant. The one giving the grant has no legal obligation to give grants, and the ones receiving the grants have no legal right to them. However, the person giving the grant can decide who should or should not receive the grants based on what they have done or who they are, but that does not mean that the one receiving the grant deserves it or has a right to it no matter what they have done. Furthermore, grants often come with restrictions. Someone may want to give me a grant, but In order to receive that grant I would have to be, and remain, eligible for it. God promises to give us salvation, but we can choose to make ourselves ineligible by refusing to develop faith and refusing to trust in his saving grace. So saving grace is a gift that we do not, indeed cannot, earn, but yet still requires certain works to have.

  15. K Sralla says:

    The confusion (apparent contridiction) between the theology of James and Paul stems from the different ways which each of these Apostles use the same Greek word for “justification”. James is using it in the practical, pastoral sense of a man demonstrating this his faith is genuine to fellow professing Christians (i.e. “I am justified in claiming to have true faith in Christ because my life is characterized by charity and good works”) Paul is using the term in a theological sense (i.e. “one is justified or declared righteous in God’s eyes by virtue of his invisible faith alone, not by any inherent righteousness, or works of the law which he may perform). See the difference. It is easy to get these uses of “justification” mixed up, and I am not so sure that some of the very real tension that was present at times between Paul and the Jerusalem Church (led by James) was not in fact due to each talking past each other, and the very real Greek language barrier that may have been present between Paul and James (Paul was likely a much more skilled and subtle user of the Greek language). However, it seems like when there was a council, and Paul and James had the opportunity for close discussion, they both went away happy that each was really expressing the same ideas, and understanding the Gospel in the same way. In the end, both agreed that nobody gets forensically justified in God’s eyes by works of the Law, but rather by faith in Christ alone. Both each also agreed that genuine faith which was gifted by God’s power alone expresses itself in agape, and the actions that flow from such, as well as a turning away from sinful behavior. James would make the point that people whose lives are not characterized by such have a weak ground for claiming that their faith is genuine and comes from God. Paul would agree.

  16. Steve Maughan says:

    All good comments, which I have enjoyed reading. For anyone interested in sound economic from a Christian perspective you may like to take a look at the Trinity Foundation. Many of their lectures are available here:


    As you can see it’s quite an eclectic set of sermons / lectures, covering economics, philosophy and apologetics. I have no connection with the Trinity Foundation but given the nature of this blog I was reminded of the site and thought I’d pass it on. I hope you enjoy it.

  17. K Sralla says:

    “So saving grace is a gift that we do not, indeed cannot earn, but yet still requires certain works to have”

    Jake, you have expressed very well the popular notion of redemption. However none of the classic Arminians such as John Wesley would concede that faith is a human “work” in any sense of the word, since conceding this would create some major theological difficulties for the Wesleyan framework. Even Wesley would probably agree that if *any* amount of work is necessary on the part of the sinner, even a very, very small amount of work, then justification in God’s eyes would be based in some respects on the merit of the Human Being. Remember that work requires power, and if the source of that power (assuming faith is a type of work) does not come from God alone (the Holy Spirit), then people’s salvation is through their own power, and ultimately their own works. This may seem like splitting hairs, but to the Reformers, it was very important, since their view of the good news is that God saves sinners deliberately, even when the sinner has no power on her own to come to God.

    According to Reformed Protestant theology, no human-powered work, no matter how big or small, is sufficient to counterbalance a person’s sin on God’s scale of justice, not even human-powered mental effort. Only the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit suffices. Stating again in more technical parlance: Our own works are never sufficient to propitiate the wrath of God toward us (a sinner), God’s wrath being the perfect just deserts for sin. Only Christ and his substitutionary atoning sacrifice is able to satisfy the demands of a Holy God for justice. True faith, the kind that links a person with the redemption that was earned for us through the work of Christ can likewise only be described as a work of God alone (Holy Spirit) that is given to sinners by his unmerited favor. This is the only way that the concept of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, for the glory of God alone can be salvaged. The whole plan of redemption and all the credit and glory belong to God alone, and none else.

  18. K Sralla says:


    Not that it seems to matter to you much, but let me try to explain what you “experienced” in the sacrament. The “sacrament of penance” is one the seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism. This sacrament has two signficant aspects: 1) confession and 2) works of contrition. Rome teaches that the priest has the power (given by Christ to Peter) to absolve sin in the name of the Church. This does not mean that the priest actually remits sin, but when the priest says in Latin “te absolvo” (I absolve you), that means your self accusal and repentance before the priest and God is judged sincere, and your conscience can be cleansed from the guilt of sin. Now Rome teaches that at this point you are now freed from condemnation through the grace given in the sacrament, but not yet completely set free from the justice demanded by God. If prescribed works of contrition are not performed for *serious mortal sins*, despite sincere confession, then Catholic theology teaches that one must do “make up work” in Purgatory. One either performs the acts of contrition now in this life or later in Purgatory. This is what is termed meritum de condigno “condign merit”, and this is what the 16th century Reformers objected to strenuously as being a system of salvation by works. Rome counters that these prescribed acts of contrition can only be rightly performed aided by the grace of God, as mediated through the intercessory pleadings of Mary or other saints on behalf of the sinner, appealing to the mercy of Christ, who through the Church sacrament infuses righteousness into the person. Luther said “not so fast” to the acts of contrition, which were in some extreme cases being prescribed in the form of indulgences paid to Rome (basically get out of Purgatory free passes). Luther contended instead that Jesus paid it all. The total debt had already been settled in full by Christ on the cross, and this remission of sin is mediated to the sinner by Christ alone, our high priest and advocate before God the Father, and the complete justification (theological sense) and righteousness of Christ is credited to the sinner’s account (imputed) through the means of personal repentance and faith in Christ alone, apart from any works of contrition. Rome took exception.

    Enough already. I am wearing myself out with all of this, so I’ll stop.

    • RG says:

      Wrong, I experienced the sacrament of confession. I don’t know you, but I can be fairly certain you weren’t there when my classmates and I studied it for months then had a special evening ceremony together with our families. Every year there are tens of thousands of people that have their first confession (followed shortly by their first communion). I’ve known thousands that went throught the process and every time I witnessed or participated in the event it was called the sacrament of confession. In fact the area of the church that is designated for the sacrement isn’t the penance booth, it’s the confessional.

      I’ve never met this “Rome”, but he isn’t familiar with the Catholicism I was taught. Absolution, as my faith was established, DID remit the confessed sin(s).

      Again, the Lutheran doctrine is consistent with what I was taught in Catholicism.

  19. Jake Jacobsen says:

    K Sralla,

    If no amount of work, even a very very small mental effort is necessary on the part of the sinner, then who gets saved and who doesn’t would be completely arbitrary.

    If God created people without free will, then salvation is either random or based on how God created them. But then it would be random as to which he created in a way that He would choose them to be saved. If God created people with free will and does not base His decision about who to save on what they did, then it would have to be either random, or based on how he created them, which again, would be random.

    So if the decision of who gets saved and who doesn’t is not arbitrary, I don’t see any other way than to have some little bit of human involvement. Can you think of a way?

    If it is an arbitrary decision, why doesn’t He just choose everyone to be saved? Why would he arbitrarily choose some people to be damned?

    The only way it makes any sense is if there was some involvement on the part of the sinner.

    “Our own works are never sufficient to propitiate the wrath of God toward us (a sinner), God’s wrath being the perfect just deserts for sin. Only Christ and his substitutionary atoning sacrifice is able to satisfy the demands of a Holy God for justice.”

    I completely agree with that statement, and it fits perfectly with my grant analogy. If I were a researcher who wanted a grant, no matter how great my academic achievements were, and had no money and no way to earn money, there would be nothing I could do to get a grant if no one was giving them. I could get another Ph.D. I could write another paper. I could do all sorts of works, but I could not get a grant. There would be absolutely nothing I could to to get a grant. However, if someone with money were to come along, who wanted to give a grant who would they choose to give it to. The researcher who has been working to learn more and improve themselves and their field, or the one who did nothing. If I were a grantor, I would choose the former.

    As sinners, as spiritual paupers, we can study, we can learn, we can improve ourselves and others, but there is nothing we can do to get a spiritual grant, meaning we cannot satisfy the demands of justice. But Christ can decide who to atone for, and I believe He chooses to atone for those who work to believe in Him.

  20. K Sralla says:

    I lied. I’m back. I really do need to quit.

    “But Christ can decide who to atone for, and I believe He chooses to atone for those who work to believe in Him”

    Your almost there! Let me re-phrase the way a Reformed theologian might state:

    “But Christ can decide who to atone for, and He chooses to atone for those who believe in Him by the power of God’s sovereign election and work alone” In other words, we are saved by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone, for the Glory of God Alone.”

    Again, I agree with Bob when he says that faith is a type of work. It is just that true, persevering faith in Jesus Christ can never be a work of a Human Being, but rather the sole work of God. Otherwise, we are teaching a merit-based salvation that is not really free, but is given in exchange for something that we do. That is *not* the good news as it was understood by the Protestant Reformers. Yes, those who have been granted genuine faith will certainly do good works, and those good works that we do even confirm to ourselves and others that we have believed genuinely, but no work (not even faith) that a Human Being is capable of doing under his own power is salvific. That is why Reformed folks say that salvation is monergistic. As far as work, it is all God’s and none ours.

    However, your criticism about arbitrariness is one that has long been used to criticize this theological position, and is incredibly weighty. It is impossible to answer that in any satisfactory sense, since the real answer is known only in the mind of God. It does seem arbitrary, but does not God and his choices often seem quite arbitrary to us? Look at the world around us. Look at the Old Testament. How can anyone gain any peace about this without submitting to the idea that God does what he wants and often doesn’t give us the courtesy of explaining himself. God’s sovereignty is very disturbing to our sensibilities and this fact leads some to even reject the entire idea of a personal God. I don’t.

    P.S. I’m quite surprised that you are onboard with limited atonement! Most folks don’t like that one at all. But let’s save that for another day though.

  21. K Sralla says:

    RG: When in doubt, go to Wikipedia

    “In Catholic teaching, the Sacrament of Penance is the method of the Church by which individual men and women may confess sins committed after baptism and have them absolved by a priest. Although it is not mandatory, the Catholic rite is traditionally conducted within a confessional box or booth. This sacrament is known by many names, including penance, reconciliation and confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1423-1442). While official Church publications always refer to the sacrament as “Penance”, “Reconciliation” or “Penance and Reconciliation”, many laypeople continue to use the term “confession” in reference to the sacrament.”

    I think this sums up our ya ya. My reaction began when you started: “Penance isn’t a Catholic sacrament” I snarked that “your Catholic education did not take”. You may have gone to classes, but I stand by my statement that you didn’t learn much deep Catholic theology as evidenced by your own statement that “Penance isn’t a Catholic sacrament”. What you term the “sacrament of confession”, is in proper theological jargon known at the “Sacrament of Penance”, and anyone who has done some in-depth study of Catholic theology would know this. That is the term that has been used for over a thousand years.

    What promted me to try and “show you up” was your first comment, where you seemed so incredibly confident in making the case that everyone should be out there spotting the contridictions in the Bible, as if you were some type of theological guru who had made such a careful study, and had discovered the sham of the Bible. It now seems that as a result of your “scholarly” work, you feel it necessary to go around spreading the gospel of contridictions to all. Hopefully you will realize that you are not such a guru (nor am I), and will take another look at Jesus.

    • bobmurphy says:

      I confess (ha ha) that I haven’t followed your guys’ whole exchange. However, let me just say that in my Catholic upbringing, you would “go to Confession” and then your penance was how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers you had to go say. I am pretty sure even the priests used this terminology.

  22. K Sralla says:


    No question. You are right. Every good Catholic goes to confession. My point was to excoriate RG, the Catholic scholar that he is, for not realizing that “confession” is pop shorthand for what theologians know technically as “The Sacrament of Penance”. RG in one of his statements informed me that “Penance was not a Catholic sacrament” which caught me by surprise. Obviously his statement is false, and betrayed a very shallow understanding of Catholic theology. For instance, if I tried to talk economics with you, it would not take long before you understood that my understanding is on a “pop” level, not a deep thoughtful one undergirded by years of close study. If I then made an incredibly dogmatic yet lame-brained statement, and you realized that I was a rookie as evidenced by the terminology that I used, you might tell me to “get out of here”. Watching how you conduct yourself, you would probably be much more magnanimous and kind. I struggle in that area sometimes.

  23. Jake Jacobsen says:

    K Sralla,

    “I lied. I’m back. I really do need to quit. ”

    Maybe, but this is interesting. I’m enjoying the conversation.

    “Otherwise, we are teaching a merit-based salvation that is not really free, but is given in exchange for something that we do. That is *not* the good news as it was understood by the Protestant Reformers.”

    It may be a merit based salvation, but I thought that I was pretty clear in explaining that it wasn’t given in exchange for something that we do. Given because of and given in exchange for are completely different things. I can give someone a gift because I like them, but that does not mean they earned the gift.

    Also, I don’t see how you think I believe in limited atonement. I believe the atonement was unlimited in that it could atone for every single person no matter what. How is that limited? The fact that God chooses not to atone for some people does not limit the power of the atonement. If that is the case then we both believe in a limited atonement, unless you believe that everyone will be saved.

    Your main argument against my point is that it’s not what the protestant reformers believed. I have great respect for the protestant reformers. They saw the problems in the church and were brave in trying to correct them and to seek the truth. However, I think they were sometimes wrong. Not everything they said makes sense in the context of the Bible. I think that what I said not only makes sense but is what the Bible is teaching. I don’t think the early reformers would really want us to doggedly hold to incorrect understandings, just because they thought of them. I think they would want us to seek for truth. I was agnostic until I was 20. As a teenager I decided that I needed to know if God existed and I looked at many religions to find what was true. Eventually, the Holy Spirit touched me and I knew that Christ was my savior. So perhaps that experience gave me a unique perspective. I wasn’t raised with any allegiance to the ideas of the reformers. My allegiance is to God. Perhaps, because of my experience, I don’t believe God gives us all the answers all at once, but lets us search them out. Hence the need for a reformation, and perhaps more reformations.

    God’s choices may seem arbitrary, but I can understand how they’re not. There is no logical reason for me to think that they are in any way arbitrary. He may not explain the purpose, but I can often see the purpose eventually. With the Old Testament, you can often take seemingly arbitrary decisions and follow the results to see purpose behind them.

  24. Jake Jacobsen says:

    Thinking more on this, the protestant reformers were reacting to extreme perversions of the gospel where people thought they could buy their way into heaven through indulgences. This leads me to a few thoughts. First, could the protestant reformers have taken things too far, to the point where not only did they reject that people could earn their way to heaven, but took that idea to the extreme by rejecting the idea that sinners had any part in the redemption process at all? Second, the fact that the early Christians got to the point where they incorrectly thought that they could be saved by works leads me to believe that they originally understood that there were some works they had to do to be eligible to receive the gift of salvation.

    After the death of the apostles, the church went further and further away from the truth. However, if the truth was that a sinner had no personal responsibility and it was solely the work of God, then it would be quite a leap to get to the idea that people could earn their way to heaven. If, however, the truth was that God would only choose to save a certain type of people, and a sinner had a personal responsibility to be that way and to ask God for help to do that, then it is easy to see how that idea could be corrupted to the point where they thought that it was what they did that saved them and that they were earning salvation. From there it would be an easy step to thinking that if they could earn salvation then they could buy it.

  25. K Sralla says:

    “I believe the atonement was unlimited in that it could atone for every single person no matter what. How is that limited? The fact that God chooses not to atone for some people does not limit the power of the atonement. If that is the case then we both believe in a limited atonement, unless you believe that everyone will be saved.”

    You my friend are a Calvinist and just did not know it. That is a beautiful statement of limited atonment. I wish all Reformed detractors knew that this is what the Reformed doctrine of limited atonment states. Very well done.

    However, you need to examine this statement much closer, because all the other points that I earlier made flow from this one statement. Keep going! Like I said, you are almost there.

  26. Jake Jacobsen says:

    K Sralla,

    So, the problem with Calvin is that he entirely missed the point of everything. God chooses those who choose him. We may not be able to save ourselves, but we can choose to follow Him. If grace were irresistible, as Calvin suggests, then there is no choice. If there is no choice, there is no learning. If there is no choice and no learning, then there is no point to life on Earth. God could have just created only those He will save and made them with irresistible grace in the first place. Everyone would be saved and there would be no misery. There would be no point to anything else.

    Of course, you’ve probably heard all that before. What you probably haven’t heard before is an old Jewish tradition about Grandmother Eve. I read about this many years ago and I can’t remember the name of the book now, but this woman talks about an old story that her Jewish grandmother passed down to her about Grandmother Eve. In this tradition, Eve makes a wise decision to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so people could know both good and evil and could choose for themselves, and God understood this all along, because in order to truly choose Him they had to know what it’s like to not choose Him. God is omnipotent, so it’s not like he was surprised by what happened in the Garden of Eden.

    This is what most Christians don’t seem to consider, and what a lot of my friends disagree with me on, though they can’t say why. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, then gave them a choice, knowing full well what they were going to do. But then seems surprised by what they do–that Satan somehow messed up God’s plan. Satan didn’t mess up God’s plan. If God knew that His plan was going to be messed up by Adam and Eve’s decision then He would have thought of a better plan. But God is smart and He used the situation to His advantage.

    God, could not force the fall, but he could create a situation where Adam and Eve could fall, to create a world where people really could choose because they knew that they were choosing. That version of the story makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, this creates a problem because there is then the situation where everyone is fallen and damned. So God sent us Jesus Christ to save us if we choose God and let Him save us. I know this probably sounds heretical to you, but that Jewish tradition makes a lot of sense to me, especially knowing about Jesus, which is true for most Jewish traditions–they make a log more sense knowing about Jesus. Anyway, if there really were such a thing as irresistible grace, then there really is no point to the choice in the Garden of Eden, choices on Earth, Jesus Christ to redeem us from bad choices, or anything, because it all involves choice.