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A Working Faith

Is faith a "good work" or a meritorious act of the will? Reforming the Calvinist definition of faith.

One of the defining features of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition is the doctrine that regeneration (new birth) precedes faith in Christ. Regeneration precedes faith because every person is totally depraved and spiritually dead in sin, completely incapable of responding and doing any good work whatsoever, such as repenting or having faith in God. A person must be born again by God’s saving grace before they can respond to the gospel by faith because they are saved by grace and not by works. In this context, however, grace is scantily distinguishable from chosen and faith is a meritorious act of the will–––it is a work. A good work, but a work nonetheless. Faith is a work because a work is something you ‘do’ and faith is something you ‘do’, too. For this reason, when Paul says that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Calvinists seems to think that the word “works” refers to all actions wholesale, outward action and inward action, in every possible context. Works is a broad-sweeping voluntary movement of the will, to do or to motion or to exert effort of any kind or degree or direction. Faith in God, then, is a work of volition and cannot be a means through which salvation comes. This all sounds peachy until you read the Bible.

Working for Salvation

Now at first glance one might think of a few obvious dilemmas. If “works” is an action of any kind, inward and outward, and our salvation is not based on works, then how can Christ hold us condemned for not working?

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
– Matthew 6:14-15

If forgiveness is an inward action, and inward action is a work, and I must forgive others to be saved, then I must “work” to be saved. If I don’t forgive [work], I will not be forgiven and stand (self-)condemned. This visible idleness is corroborated elsewhere, too, such as the slothful servants in the Parable of the Talents and the Final Judgment in Matthew 25. And it does not rule out the fact that forgiveness isn’t difficult to do in some sense. There can be a sincere struggle to repent or severe suffering that comes with a heavy cup of forgiveness, just as there is a holy maturity and spiritual fortitude that comes with doing such covenantal responsibility. Either way, the point is that in order to be saved a person must forgive [work] or ask forgiveness [work], and there may be some effort on your part to forgive someone or repent of wrongdoing, even if that smidgen of ‘effort’ is simply letting go and giving it to God. A voluntary motion of the will, God forbid! Thus, in this cheap catch-22 of sorts, a person must work for their salvation (or paradoxically, work their way out of their salvation).

Now, Calvinists do not think this right. According to the Reformed tradition the Spirit of forgiveness overflows through Christ, and those saints will persevere and be saved, they will forgive no matter the cost, known as the perseverance of the saints (the doctrine that once a person is truly regenerated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they will continue doing good works and believing in God until they die). From God’s vantage point, this is certainly true. So, it is not the logical order of things or the notion of eternal security that I wish to press, or rather, needs reworking. My contention is simply that faith or forgiveness or repentance is necessarily a meritorious work.

“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:6

How is repenting worthy of merit? ‘You see that, God. I repented–––me. I did it. You owe me.’ Or how is forgiving someone working? ‘Did you catch that God! You only saved me because of my willpower.’ This is apparently what Calvinism thinks of people. Who in their right mind, when drawn out of the ocean from drowning, gives their own hand a shake? As if it was his hand, not the sailor’s, that pulled himself out of certain doom? Those are quite the bootstraps! You see, the Calvinist claim is that because you have a proverbial hand of faith that can grasp a saving hand, however weak or frail, you are “working” for your salvation. You deserve it because you did something. Therefore, you must be spiritually dead dead so that you can’t do anything to deserve it. But I don’t see how any sensible person could consider their grip a work of merit when they are as good as dead in the ocean anyway — their grip was useless until the saving hand pulled them out. Not every action or motion of the will is meritorious, I think that much is obvious. In fact, Paul does not seem to think so, either. Paul does not categorically consider the “works (of the law)” as an inward action or a voluntary motion of the will, such as faith or forgiveness or repentance. They are distinct doings.

Contrasting Faith and Works

It is obvious that Paul contrasts grace and works, “For by grace you have been saved through faith….not of works, lest anyone should boast”. And elsewhere he reasserts, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” (Romans 11:6) Supposing the Calvinist definition of works is right, and faith is a work, then is Paul not actually saying ‘by grace you have been saved through works’? Clearly this is not what Calvinists claim to believe, they believe faith is a gift (v.8) and that this gift to do good works [faith] is what enables a person to believe in the gospel. But despite the theological compensation, that is what is effectively taught because faith is a work, so consider the sentence in full: “For by grace you have been saved through works, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It sounds absurd. Because, perhaps, just perhaps, it is.

The problem only multiplies when you realize that Paul is not contrasting grace and works alone, but that he is also contrasting faith from works and gift from wages:

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…. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness
– Romans 3:27-28; 4:4-5

Notice the contrast; faith and gift on one side, works and wages on the other. The gift is contrasted against wages because the reward is salvation, which is God’s sovereign right to give. Paul is stating that salvation is either a gift or it is earned, and it cannot be earned. Works is necessarily tied to wages or merit, just as faith is necessarily tied to the gift of saving grace. For Paul, faith is not in the same category as wages or merit, and neither is it considered a work. Faith is always contrasted against works of merit. Righteousness is attained by God’s gift of salvation by grace through faith. Paul’s contrast of faith receiving the gift of salvation is against meritorious works, where the gift of salvation is contrasted against earning salvation.

Despite what Calvinist may claim, I don’t see any Scriptural basis to claim that faith is a meritorious act of the will. An act of the will I do not contend, but faith or forgiveness or repentance is categorically not a work or a wage. The word “works”, in Paul’s dictionary, is not so philosophically tuned, it is levitically inspired. And, Lord willing, Calvinists may agree–––by no merit of their own!

Working It Out

What is Paul saying, then? If the wages of sin is death, and a worker is worthy of their wages, then who can pay the cost of sin and death? (Romans 6:23; 1 Timothy 5:18) Clearly, no measly man can fork the bill. Yet Christ incarnate’s atoning work on the cross paid the cost for sin and death in full once for all (1 Peter 3:18; Romans 6:10; Hebrews 10:10). Faith in Christ’s atoning work, not faith in your own worth or merit, is the gift of salvation. Works without faith is a meritorious expectation of salvation, a religious work (of the law) that presumes to earn a spiritual paycheque that can be cashed in at the pearly gates, where “his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due”. In other words, when we say ‘you cannot work your way into heaven,’ it means that ‘you cannot do good works expecting compensation or payment’, as if to say, ‘I paid my time or worked longed hours to earn my keep’. (cf. Matthew 7:21-23) In this context, the worker does not need faith in Christ to earn his due, they can earn enough to pay the cost of sin and death to enter eternal life on their own; his work, then, is equal to Christ’s atoning work, idolatrously sitting himself on the judgment seat of God. Without faith in Christ, works are bankrupt.

In all irony, the only instance faith was falsely deemed meritorious was when James came against Christians claiming to be justified by “faith alone” (James 2:24). James contested that harbouring warm, fuzzy feelings and sending positive energy in thought and prayer toward the needy or misfortunate was insufficient for salvation when they could have done or can do otherwise. Faith alone could not amount to salvation because, in James’ words, it was not “completed” by good works (v.22). In other words, not only is faith distinct from works, but faith turns into or comes to life through good works.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works…. Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?… You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.…You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
– James 2:14-18,20,22,24,26

Faith is not a good work, faith is visibly revealed by good works. They are distinct doings. The only time a person’s faith was spiritually dead was when there was no evidence of good works to complete it. For James and Paul, good works does not precede faith in Christ. Faith comes first, works come second. As Paul says, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:3,10-11) Like James, Paul is not teaching Christians to not work at all, and neither are Calvinists (i.e., perseverance of the saints, cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5). Paul contrasts faith and works in order to establish a spiritual priority structure, not to do-away with works altogether or to prove that faith is a good work but to show that faith precedes good works. James affirms this when he says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”” (vv.21-23) Faith comes first, works comes second. The works complete the faith, not the other way around. Likewise, Paul does not mean nor imply faith is a “good work”. Faith is for good works.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
– Ephesians 2:10

Being faithfully “conformed to the image of His Son” entails the doing of good works! (Romans 8:29) Faith precedes good works necessarily. Good works are the result of sincere faith in Christ. Faith is not a work of merit, nor is it a good work. Faith is not a work. If faith is not a work, then a person need not be born again before they repent and put faith in Christ.

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.