“Faith Alone” Is a Conceptual Mess

By November 10, 2015 Apologetics 24 Comments

Ironically, my conversion to the Catholic faith began while attending Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent Protestant seminary in Pasadena, California. Even more ironic, it was a prominent Protestant New Testament professor at this prominent Protestant seminary who set me on the long and winding road that would lead, fifteen years later, to resigning my ministry as a Baptist pastor to enter the Catholic Church.

It was the winter of 1981/82. I was sitting in my hermeneutics class (the science of interpretation), the professor was talking about Martin Luther and John Calvin and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and he made the following comment:

“It’s a curious thing,” he said, “but when you think of it, the Bible is essentially one story after another of men and women and their relationships with God, one illustration after another of how God relates to and deals with his people. And never in these stories do we see God telling people they will receive his blessing ‘by faith alone.’ Rather, the pattern is always trust me (faith), do what I tell you to do (obedience) and I will bless you. In order to be saved through the flood, Noah had to trust God (faith) and he had to build the ark (obedience). In order to receive the promised blessings, Abraham had to trust God (faith) and he had to leave his home and family in Mesopotamia and follow God to a place he’d never seen before (obedience). The scriptural pattern is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in the blessing of God.”

The Seeming Logic of “Faith Alone”

Now, as an evangelical Bible Christian, of course I believed that salvation was by faith alone. Everyone I knew believed this.

We saw “faith alone” clearly taught in the New Testament — especially in those places where St Paul says we are saved by “faith” or “faith in Christ” and not by “works” or “works of the law.” But it also made sense to us.

In fact, it seemed required by simple logic. After all, the Bible is clear that God is to receive all the praise and glory for the work of salvation. But isn’t it only reasonable that for God to receive all the glory, God must do all the work?

Catholics talk about how we must “cooperate” with God’s grace. Catholics talk about how me must “respond” to grace and persevere in faithful obedience in order to enter heaven. Yes, Catholics understand that it’s God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit within them that even allows them to persevere in faithful obedience. They understand as well that again and again along the path they’re going to fall and need to come to Christ for forgiveness and renewed grace to take up their mats and walk.

But bottom line: Catholics believe they have to take up their mats and walk in order to be saved. Catholic believe they have to do something.

This meant to us that Catholics were embracing a false gospel, that for them salvation is not entirely the work of God. In some sense Catholics believe they have to “contribute” to their own salvation, in some sense even “earn” it. But of course in that case a Catholic would have reason to boast and God would not receive all the glory. And since this is clearly impossible, so also is the Catholic conception of salvation.

By this powerful line of reasoning, we confirmed to ourselves that salvation must be my faith alone.

For us there were really only two options: either one is saved by faith alone and God receives all the praise and glory, or one is  attempting in some manner to earn salvation through obedience and God does not receive all the praise and glory.

It’s with this in mind that Protestant pastor John MacArthur refers to Catholicism as “a damning system of works-righteousness.”

The Troubling Case of Noah

So the class ended, I hopped on my moped and headed off to the Valley Hunt Club, where I worked as a waiter. I’m amazed I didn’t screw up every table I served that night, I was so deep in thought over the relatively simple observation the professor had made.

There was no way to get around the fact that Noah had to build the ark in order to be saved through the flood.

Yes, faith was at the heart of Noah’s obedience. If he didn’t believe God’s warning about the flood, he wouldn’t have bothered to do anything. On the other hand, if he hadn’t built the boat, he wouldn’t have been saved. No faith, no salvation. No wood and nails, no salvation. It was clear: in order to be saved, Noah had to believe God (faith) and he had to build the boat (obedience). Noah was saved by faith and obedience.

Does this mean Noah “earned” his own salvation? Is the story of Noah an example of “a damning system of works-righteousness”?

Of course not. When a patient trusts his doctor and follows the doctor’s prescription, we don’t say he “earned” his health. Trusting and obeying isn’t the same thing as working and earning. When you trust and obey, it’s the doctor who is gloried and made to look good. When you work and earn, it’s you who is made to look good.

Should God have had Noah relax in a hammock and built the ark himself to make sure that he (God) received all the glory? Is Noah in heaven boasting for all eternity in his personal “accomplishment?”

Somehow I knew this couldn’t be true. Somehow I knew that God received the glory for Noah’s deliverance through the flood and that Noah is on his face for all eternity thanking God. But it didn’t fit with the the arguments I’d heard from the time I’d come to Christ.

The Even More Troubling Case of Abraham

Several days later, while on the way to work, I was so engrossed in these kinds of questions that I forgot I was on a moped. I peacefully powered down the freeway on-ramp and was happily put-putting along at 30 miles per hour. It was seeing a highway patrolmen with his lights on and a car pulled over just ahead that awakened me from my slumber. I immediately brought my vehicle to a halt, hopped off, assumed the most casual air I could muster and strolled past the highway patrolman and up the nearest off-ramp and out of danger.

I don’t think I waved or anything like that.

What about Abraham, the “father of faith?” In Genesis 121-3, God comes to him and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And in the very next verse: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” Again we see faith and again we see obedience.

And the more you read of Abraham’s life the obedience part only increases in prominence. In Genesis 17 God informs Abraham that as a requirement of the covenant, Abraham must take a flint knife and do the unthinkable: circumcise himself and every male over eight days old in his household. Anyone who isn’t circumcised will have broken the covenant. In other words, Abraham has to do this or he will not receive the promised blessings.

In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac up to Mt Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. You know the story. The angel of the Lord intervenes to stop him and… well, listen to what the Lord says to him: “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore…. and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

I tried to imagine a Protestant minister talking like this and I couldn’t.

Truth is, most of us Reformation-minded Evangelicals were so concerned to protect “faith alone” that we could hardly mention the word “obedience” without feeling the need to immediately cushion the blow with all kinds of explanatory language: “But of course, I’m not saying God blesses us because of our obedience or that obedience is somehow required in order to receive the blessing of God.”

Well, it was surely required in the case of Noah and Abraham!

Reading along I came to the grand finale, Genesis 26:1-6. At this point Abraham has died and the Lord appears to Isaac to confirm and renew the covenant promises. “I will be with you, and will bless you,” the Lord says, “I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves: because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

Chewing on this passage while working the dinner shift at the hunt club that evening, I dumped an entire hot spinach salad upside down on the head of a bald man. What? God is going to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham, including the promise of the Messiah? And he’s going do this “because (because!) Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws?”

I didn’t even know Abraham had commandments and statutes and laws from God!

Now I’m learning that the “father of faith” was “earning” God’s blessings through obedience to God’s laws? That the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant — even the blessing of the coming Messiah! — where “rewards” for Abraham’s obedience?

But of course Abraham wasn’t “earning” anything. As with Noah, it was Abraham’s faith that drove him to keep the commandments and statutes and laws of God. His obedience was an obedience of faith. But his obedience was as necessary as his faith. In fact, when you read the entire story of Abraham in Genesis and ask yourself the question “According to what is actually emphasized in the text, upon what basis is God going to fulfill his promises to Abraham?” the clear answer is his faithful obedience.

A Conceptual Mess

Where do we find “faith alone” in the stories of God’s people? Where do we find faith being pitted against obedience?

I continued to think through the stories of Scripture. Moses and the children of Israel were saved from slavery in Egypt and given the Promised Land as an inheritance. This land flowing with milk and honey was a type of heaven. Did they receive this blessing by faith alone? Sure, if slaughtering a lamb and spreading its blood and eating it and walking out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea and following a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night and crossing the Jordan and conquering the cities of Canaan one-by-one in battle sounds to you like “faith alone.” It didn’t to me.

And it was the same with David and Solomon and all the rest.

I was driving my moped onto freeways and dumping salads on customer’s heads, walking around squinting like Mr. Magoo and asking myself question after question. For instance, why is it that if Noah believes he must build a massive ark in order to be saved, we honor him as a saint and preach sermons about his faithful obedience and never once worry about whether God received all the glory? But if a Christian (whether Catholic or Arminian Protestant) believes he must live as Noah lived and persevere in faithful obedience in order to enter heaven, we say he’s embraced “a damning system of works-righteousness” and preach entire series of sermons on how inserting obedience into the equation robs God of his glory and leads to boasting?

Here’s another question I was asking: If God wanted to teach the world that in order for the blessing of eternal life to be received as a gifts, and for Christ to receive all the praise and glory for that gift, it must be received by faith alone, why did God fill the entire Bible with the stories of men and women who never receive his blessings by faith alone? Why is the pattern always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing?

And yet the stories are never presented as negative examples. And the blessings they receive through faithful obedience are never conceived as something earned, but always as gift. And God is always gloried. And the saints are never boasting in what they’ve accomplished. And Hebrews 11 (a New Testament book) holds them all up as examples for us!

I had no idea where all this would lead me. Certainly, Catholicism never crossed my mind. All I knew was that “faith alone” was looking more and more like a conceptual mess. It just wasn’t making sense with what I saw in Scripture.

Ah, I remembered, but doesn’t St Paul say we are saved by faith alone?

(to be continued…)

 

 

 

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24 Comments

  • George says:

    Thanks for the clarity!

  • Therese says:

    Can’t wait to get next one.. Wondering however. Some might say (retort) in opposition,that Noah was saved from the FLOOD by having faith AND being OBEDIENT, and this does not necessarily translate into being saved for ETERNAL SALVATION. Am I thinking too deeply or….what if this factor is offered – that is, being saved from the FLOOD has nothing to do with the ‘price of eggs’ re: simple FAITH being the only thing necessary for ETERNAL SALVATION. I read this FAST…and will go over it again when no deadline looms as a distraction.. Maybe I truly did miss something.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      I love your question, Therese. (Good name as well.) In fact, I had a paragraph on this but dumped it because the post was already too long.

      Here’s the issue: If I can gain the blessing of salvation through a flood from God on the basis of my faithful obedience, and that doesn’t somehow turn the relationship into one of “works salvation” and rob God of the glory and leave me boasting forever about how I “saved myself,” why IN PRINCIPLE does this whole dynamic do a complete 180 when it comes to the blessing of eternal life? Suddenly obedience poisons the well and opens the door to boasting and all the rest. Why? Especially when we all know that salvation is a gift of God that comes to us because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and we’re just talking about what is required to benefit from that sacrifice and receive that gift. Again and again in the NT we’re told that we have to “repent” to be saved. If repentance is added to faith are we now dealing with a “damning system of works righteousness?” Peter in Acts 2 says “Repent and be baptized!” If we have to repent and believe and be baptized, have we now completely turned the gospel upside down? You see where I’m going. God bless.

  • Doug says:

    That was a well stated and very Biblically coherent argument. In all fairness, however, while the article generalizes Protestant teachings on the question, you DID point out that not all Protestants (like Daniel Fuller) teach what most of today’s Evangelicals teach about “faith”. Nor did you further explore why today’s hybrid concept of “salvation by faith alone” needs be established through Scriptural reasoning alone (sola you know what) rather than simply appealing to authoritative Church teachings. As usual your writing is wonderfully understandable and thoughtfully captivating. I’m looking forward to the upcoming installments.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Thanks, Doug. Don’t understand the comment you made about sola scriptura. Can you restate?

      • Doug says:

        “Don’t understand the comment you made about sola scriptura.”

        Perhaps I continue to have a differing understanding of sola scriptura” than you? By sola I mean that all of your arguments for and against “faith alone” appeal to the Scriptures alone ( even if it’s the Catholic interpretation of Scripture) for proper understanding. That even the Church’s interpretations and teachings are based a “proper” reading of the Bible is, in my mind, practicing “sola scriptura”. It is my understanding that the “sola” concept only applies when theological questions are answered only outside of biblical revelation, i.e. church traditions. But you are more knowledgeable of the nuanced meaning of the sola concept so maybe I’m off in my definition?

  • Everett says:

    Hebrews 11 is often called “The Faith Hall of Fame,” yet not any of the people mentioned there is remembered merely for what they believed; all are remembered for what they did because of what they believed. Faith and obedience are inseparable.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Yes, Evertt. Agreed.

      I did mention Hebrews 11 as a part of my argument. If the way Noah and Abraham and Moses and all the Old Covenant saints related to God (faith leading to obedience resulting in blessing) is NOT the way God wants us to relate to him under the New Covenant, why are they held up as examples for us? Why use them as illustrations in our sermons? The fact that the author of Hebrews has no problem lining up these heroes as examples for us to emulate says a lot.

  • George says:

    Matthew 25:31-46 rarely enter’s into “Faith Alone” discussion? Why is that? These words are spoken by our lord to all his listeners. No ambiguity there! Yet, when one does introduce this passage into this discussion, many of those “Faith Alone” adherents return to their default position, John 3:16 and either continue the discussion from that reference or completely change the subject. I’m curious, how did you handle that passage as a protestant & a minister? Why does, (or so it seems) when discussing faith differences with our separated brethren, their biblical references are predominantly from “ACTS” and the “Old Testament”? They will reference the Gospels when it’s prudent.

  • George says:

    I would like to edit my last post to add/include the “remainder of books” after “ACTS” for clarity. Thanks

  • Jo Zuercher says:

    Brother Hensley,
    This is only my opinion, based on the lens through which I read scripture, and absolutely no disrespect to either you or your ministry is intended. In my experience, when reading the accounts of the men and women of the Bible, a mistake, which leads to much confusion is often made when blessings in the natural (earthly blessings) are seen synonymous with the blessing of being saved from the wrath of God (and the resulting spiritual benefits). Anyone, whether they have put their faith and trust in the finished work of Christ or not, can follow the precepts in the Bible and enjoy the benefits of “obedience to God” in the physical realm. In fact, many do and evidence can be seen worldwide, in nations whose foundations are built on Judeo-Christian values. Indeed, we all know godless, heathens whose wealth rivals Solomon’s. Likewise, many books by popular authors offer guidance in the pattern of: trust God (faith), do what He tells you to do (obedience), and He will bless you. This is the Old Covenant – and in my opinion nothing will leave a person more hopeless.

    Under the Old Covenant, God gave his Law in order to create a group of people (the Jews), set apart, so that the ungodly nations would look upon them and see the benefits to His creation of living in accordance with His design. He gave law after law which both; greatly improved life, but more importantly pointed to the future coming Messiah. For the most part, variations of this Old Covenant are the practices by which much of Christiandom, and even other religions, abide today.

    I find in my own life, that the obvious problem is, no matter how successful a person is at obedience, living by the law does not change the heart of man. In fact, taken as seriously as it was meant to be (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) results in greater and greater religious pride, manifesting as “whitewashed tombs;” clean on the outside, dead on the inside. (Matthew 23:27) Nor, is it a means by which mankind can most importantly receive the restoration of the Spirit of God – the Spirit that had been lost the moment Adam and Eve chose to rebel and live instead, by their own knowledge of good and evil (spiritually dead). (Gen 2:17) Neither has anyone ever been successful in fulfilling the Law, except Christ. As I read the Bible I see essentially one story after another of God telling people they may avoid natural calamity by obeying His laws whilst they essentially remain “dead in their transgressions and sins;” still in need of a Savior they anxiously await. This is why the NEW Covenant was given. Certainly not to diminish the Old Covenant, but the only means by which the Old could be fulfilled.

    As it relates to the blessing of being saved from the wrath of God, the book of Ephesians clarifies that only by grace can one be saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works. (Eph. 2:8 &9) This perfect means of salvation is not in opposition to enjoying an easier life by following God’s way of living nor are they interchangeable. We see a beautiful foreshadowing of this in the law of the Sabbath. By obeying God in His command to hallow the Sabbath the Jews looked forward to the time the Messiah would come, provide propitiation for their sin, and invite mankind to enter His rest – rest from their works – just as God rested from his. (Heb. 4:10) One of many pictures of the New Covenant seen in the Old Covenant.

    Upon a closer look we see that the pattern has been; do what I tell you to do (obedience) and I will bless you, but you will never be successful enough to be justified before me – never be successful enough to stand in my presence – so I will come as a Savior for you, trust in me (faith) and you will be saved from my wrath; and not only saved from my wrath but you will receive the blessings which you are truly in need of; those in the “heavenly realms,” “every spiritual blessing in Christ,” even the Holy Spirit. (Eph 1:3)

    Rather than say “. . . never in these stories do we see God telling people they will receive his blessing “by faith alone,” I believe it is more accurate to say never in these stories do we see God telling people they will receive eternal life by obedience to the law; only by faith. For “everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:15)

    Truly, we see God telling people they will be counted as completely righteous, no matter how they fail at obedience (because that is reality), by placing their faith and trust in the One who came to live the life they could never live, and pay the price they could never pay, to redeem them. Blessings in the natural on the other hand – in this broken, corrupt, and decaying world – anyone can receive by obeying God’s law – and in isolation from faith in Christ, one day will hear “I never knew you.” Certainly not because they didn’t try, but because they despised Christ as sufficient payment for their sin.

    The pattern has always been; you’re going to have to trust me (faith), because you will never fully do what I tell you to do (obedience), and yet I will still fulfill my promise to provide a means by which you can have complete access to, and intimacy with, me through the person of Jesus Christ.

    The Apostle Paul reminded the religious people who were convinced they were pleasing God by their obedience that 1) if anyone wants to live under, and expects to be justified by the Old Covenant, “he is obligated to obey the whole law.” (Gal 5:3) Additionally, Paul said “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal 5:3) Essentially, Paul made clear they were not only deceiving themselves, but to make matters worse, they were both alienating themselves from Christ and despising the grace He had extended to them.

    I believe that to understand the entire Word of God a distinction must be made; if one is talking about earthly blessings or justification; being blessed with more “flour in your kneading bowl” or being found holy and righteous – made right with God – based on Christ’s accomplishment. This can only come about by placing one’s faith and trust in Christ’s completed sacrifice at the cross on one’s behalf. As was stated in Romans, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)

    Paul says, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” (Gal. 3:21) Paul does not say “if a law had been given that could impart blessings,” for natural blessing can be experienced even by those that remain spiritually dead; void of the Spirit of God, unknown by God (in contrast to an intimate, adopted-child relationship). Anyone can read one of Osteen’s books and have more of their best life now, but eternal life, the life that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about, a second birth, not of the flesh but of the Spirit, can only be received if one is found to be completely righteous. For the Spirit cannot abide together with any rebellion toward God, but all sin must be completely and utterly abolished in order for the Spirit of God to remain within a person. I do not believe that God was exaggerating when He told Adam, in the very day that you sin you will die (spiritually). And how would sin be completely and utterly canceled? Only by God making “him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Cor. 5:21) And this, I see, is the promise that Abraham put his faith in – that was credited to him as righteousness – all the righteousness he would even need.

    Despite Abram being a failure at keeping the law perfectly, (we only need read his story to see that) he did enjoy earthly blessings, but when he believed the Lord (placed his faith and trust in the Salvation that would one day come through his seed, Jesus) his faith was credited to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6)

    Why, then, was the law given at all? Paul tells us it was added because of transgressions – for mankind was not led by the Spirit, as before the fall in the garden, so a tutor was necessary to show mankind’s desperate need for grace, mercy and forgiveness – until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. (Gal. 3:19) and the Holy Spirit could be restored to those who believed.

    Is believing there is a God, or believing that God came to earth wrapped in flesh, the same as this “faith alone” premise? No. We know, “Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) It’s not the same as putting one’s faith in or, in other words, transferring one’s trust from their own efforts to transferring their faith onto the efforts and accomplishment of Jesus Christ. The Jews put their faith in the obedience of yearly sacrifices – sacrifices which only pointed to the Messiah, and “covered over” their sin for a future day of judgment. We can now put our faith in the Final Sacrifice. And, unlike those priest’s imperfect sacrifices, Jesus “sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Heb. 7:27) Either a person can try to be their own advocate, maybe with the hopes they will receive some “extra credit” from Christ to push them over the threshold, or they can rely entirely on Christ’s righteousness. Only one righteousness will stand, or God would not be Just. Otherwise, we would have to “diminish the purity of God and the heinousness of sin.” I trust that the work of Christ was enough. I see the evidence that He was raised from the dead as a sign of the Father’s full approval. And what’s more, I read that Christ has sat down at the right hand of the Father as a sign that His work is finished. (Heb. 10:14) If we are tempted to think otherwise, and return to the Old Covenant practice based on obedience and sacrifice, hoping to complete our righteousness before God with some sort of sacrifice of good works the next time we knowingly sin we will find “no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb. 10:26)

    If we have received peace with God, and His Spirit within us, as a free gift, “what then?” “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:15) We will desire greatly to obey as beloved children. As forgiven, Spirit-restored believers we above all, should walk in the deepest love, for one another for “we love because he first loved us” and we no longer live in fear nor condemnation but as children, rather than slaves. (1 John 4:19 & Romans 8:1) The result of our “faith alone” in the finished work of “Christ alone” will be an outward expression of good works – how could it be anything less?

    As you mentioned, if “Catholics believe they have to take up their mats and walk in order to be saved – Catholics believe they have to do something -” then those who stand in protest with Paul would say one can take up their mat and walk because they have been saved. One can “walk by the Spirit” because their sins have been canceled, making it possible to receive the Holy Spirit (be reborn), and become alive to God (fully healed, in that sense).

    Although “There was no way to get around the fact that Noah had to build the ark in order to be saved through the flood” the emphasis of the story is not on the building of the ark – but the symbolism that the ark is a picture of the Messiah, by whom all who enter into Him; place their faith and trust in the fact that He was who He said He was, did what He said He did, and accomplished what he said He would. He is the Ark, He is the Gate, He is the Way.

    Yes, God said “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you …. and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” God walked Abram through a process – at a point in history when mankind thought they appeased their gods by offering human sacrifices – to demonstrate to Abram and destroy his preconceived ideas – to reinforce that it was not Abram’s sacrifice that would be acceptable to God but that 1) God would be the one who would provide the acceptable sacrifice and 2) that the Messiah’s death would look a lot like Abram taking Isaac up Mount Moriah (only son, son of promise, laying wood on him, etc.) so the Jewish people would recognize the Messiah in the story they knew so well. Although the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed, God made his promise to Himself; Abraham’s seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (Gal. 3:16) God made the promise with Himself, because God was the only one would could adequately fulfill it. God’s promises are not dependent on our imperfect obedience.

    Yes, “most of us Reformation-minded Evangelicals” are “concerned in protecting “faith alone.” Since the earliest church salvation through faith alone has been in great contention. The Apostle Paul was astonished that believers were “so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and” turned “to a different gospel” – beginning by means of the Spirit, but trying to finish by means of the flesh. (Gal. 3:3) Mankind struggles with being God of their own life and self-justification. We want to do something that pleases God and get credit for it and earn some amount of righteousness by which we can justify ourselves. Nothing could fly in the face of God’s free gift of salvation more. The Apostle Paul could not convince the religious people of his time that like his, all of their righteousness was as filthy rags. The Bible states plainly that “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:6

    We can certainly read the Bible through the lens that the “father of faith” was “earning” God’s blessings through obedience to God’s laws or that the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant — even the blessing of the coming Messiah — were “rewards” for Abraham’s obedience or we can see that despite Abraham’s many failures God still brought His promised Messiah from Abraham’s “as good as dead” body and that the son that came about by Abraham’s efforts to provide his own way had to be thrown out of the camp.

    Indeed, God richly blessed the “father of faith” with tents, and cattle, and provision, and health, through obedience to His laws and Abraham trusted God and as a result was obedient. But, a closer look, and according to what is actually emphasized in the text, upon what basis is God going to fulfill his promises to Abraham?” The answer may seem to be Abraham’s “faithful obedience,” if it weren’t for the fact that God made His promise with Himself and not with Abraham. In essence, God would fulfill the promise He made to Himself and as a result Abraham and all of his descendants would be the beneficiaries.

    Because God wanted to demonstrate to the world, that in order for eternal life to be received as a gift, and for Christ to receive all the praise and glory for that gift, it must be received by faith alone, God filled the entire Bible with stories of men and women who were truly failures at being completely obedient (just like us) and yet they looked forward and put their faith in the promised Messiah. If this isn’t obvious, then we are simply pretending that these men and women lived up to the standard that God set, and James would be quick to remind us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10) I deceive myself if I think I am going to add to my justification by my works in as much as Abraham thought that he could conceive the promised son outside of what God would do. The saints many failures to obey God fully are certainly presented as negative examples, nevertheless, God always proves himself faithful.

    “The saints are never boasting in what they’ve accomplished” because the saints were not trusting in their own righteousness. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews holds their faith up as examples for us. What else should be noted is that the chapter does not list any of their fleshly failures, of which there were plenty, because it was neither their righteousness nor their lack thereof that they received credit for. Faith, and faith alone, this “is what the ancients were commended for.”

    It is nearly impossible to let go of the Old Covenant, especially if one isn’t giving the full effort to live by it, but is instead hoping that grace will somehow make up the difference and God will grade on a curve. Most spiritual leaders of any religion feel helpless without the theology of works because they perceive it is the only tool to keep people’s flesh under control. Most people live in a state of trying to somehow balance the Old covenant with the New, offering grace (the carrot) while applying a consistent, motivating pressure of the need for works (the stick). This theology renders both the Old and New Covenants impotent to do their perfect work and as a consequence, leave people in a state of confusion and limbo. Christ died, nonetheless, for this unbelief.

    I could not agree more with Pope John Paul II’s saying “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.” We must remember that even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one learned from the Apostle Paul it is not the Gospel which was preached of Christ nor is it the Good News of salvation but rather very, very bad news that will require we fabricate a place between heaven and hell to hold our souls least we upon death receive the punishment we truly deserve.

    Again, I offer my understanding of scripture based on my personal study and on the fact that I have come to take Christ at His word.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Jo, I frankly struggled with whether or not to post your comment.

      I attempted in my post to focus on the single question of whether the argument Protestantism makes — that faith alone is required in order that God receive all the glory — makes sense in the light of what we see in the lives of the Old Testament saints. In your response you’ve essentially described for us the entire Reformed doctrine of salvation — including the Reformed view of the Old Covenant and it’s relation to the New, of what Christ accomplished in the atonement, of faith and works and Paul’s view of the Law. You’ve described how you understand all of these issues and how you see them fitting together into a system of doctrine. What you haven’t done, however, is show us from Scripture how the Reformed view on all these issues is true.

      For instance, your view of the Old Covenant and the Old Covenant law. I don’t agree with it. In fact, the disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism lies in the fact that we don’t agree on many of these issues. Because of this, each of them needs to be addressed in some detail.

      My intension is to work through the whole question of salvation over the course of a number of posts and so for now I’ll just let your comments rest. But I would like to ask you a question on the subject of my post: Are you saying that it’s OK for God not to get all the glory when it comes to, for instance, Noah being saved through the flood? You seem to be implying this.

      Thank you.

      • Susan says:

        How about the thief on the cross? Was he not saved by faith alone?

        • Ken Hensley says:

          This is a classic illustration. And much could be said about what was contained in the good thief’s confession, but I’ll leave it at this:

          Obviously no one, Catholic or Protestant, is saying that a man who comes to sincere faith in Christ and calls out in repentance three seconds before he’s hit head-on by a semi-truck isn’t saved because he didn’t have time to obey God.

    • John says:

      I’ve always felt the Sabbath parallel with resting in Jesus was contextually faulty. I’m not saying there isn’t an element of truth to it but in context to what the Sabbath was reserved for makes the argument problematic. The Sabbath was not a rest from works of the law but manual labor. The Sabbath was the day for worship and sacrifice and the priests absolutely did this work. Preparing and offering the Bread of the Presence is an example that the Lord speaks of in the NT. So, salvific works are not what we are to rest from. To say that we are to rest in Jesus in this context you would be saying we aren’t supposed to do manual labor, not just on the Sabbath, but ever.

    • Doug says:

      That’s like the longest post ever, longer than the article itself. And we haven’t even gotten very far into Ken’s argument on faith yet, only his questions and conclusion.

  • alienus dilectus says:

    Jo offers a lengthy comment and expounds the Reformed doctrine, but twists the Scriptures. It is clear from the New Testament that Christ became obedient unto death to allow us to share in his divinized humanity and thus become sons of God who obey the Father. Salvation is all about conformity to Christ: we become sons in the Son by sharing in Christ’s own faith-trust in the Father, something we can only do by receiving the Holy Spirit of sonship.

    I don’t want to leave a big comment, so I proffer three passages from sacred Scripture: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:19-21); ” For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, Abba! Father! it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:14-17); “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9).

    Jesus didn’t obey so that we didn’t have to obey; rather, He obeyed so that through Him we would be able to obey as children of the Father.

  • Welcome to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Ken. Like you I graduated from Fuller with Theology M.A. and Clin. Psy. Ph.D. It took me more than 22 years to finally deal with the confusion. My impression is that claims of sola fide and sola scriptura are ideologies that are never critically assessed. The inability to find a denomination or congregation that actually accepted scripture at face value – if it says it it means it – caused me to finally be open to reassessing all I had understood for almost sixty years after being asked the simple question by a Catholic friend, “Why do Protestants ignore, demean and reject Mary’s role in salvation history,” followed by, “don’t you know the Hail Mary is in scripture?” Setting out to prove him wrong and to win his soul to Protestantism, led me to all those passages that we Protestants just plain ignore or declare to be too hard to understand. Of course much of the Bible is hard to understand when the basic face-value understanding is rejected from the get-go. Welcome to the Church Christ established. What a glorious experience.

  • Brenton Nicholas says:

    To begin with the author does not have the proper definition of what FAITH is, there a biblical definition to Faith, and the Author of Hebrews shows us what Faith IS. The article was based on the false presupposition that faith simply means believing without it reflecting or having any impact in our actions. If you really believe in God you would obey him. It’s ironic the favourite line, ‘faith without works is dead’ never came up. True faith in Christ is believing who he is and because of that you do what he says. Now concerning justification, Christ is the righteousness of God, we are justified by his blood through faith which have an impact on our actions. We do not do works to be saved but believe in Christ for the atoning work of our souls. This is biblical faith which you separate from obedience and write an article based on a false precept HEBREWS 11:1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” then through out most of the Chapter the Author gives examples of what true FAITH is HEBREWS 11:7 “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” Noah acted on his belief in God, this is what FAITH is, now WORKS is doing things to Merit God’s favour. So by ‘Faith Alone’ stands biblically, since Faith is the conviction of things not seen, meaning you will DO something because you believe that is FAITH.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Thanks for writing, Brenton. But notice…

      While you give a detailed explanation of what faith is and how obedience relates to faith (and I essentially agree with you!) when it comes to “justification” and “works” you merely state what you believe about them: “Now concerning justification, Christ is the righteousness of God, we are justified by his blood through faith which have an impact on our actions. We do not do works to be saved but believe in Christ for the atoning work of our souls.”

      But this is precisely where the dispute lies between Catholic and Protestant doctrines of salvation.

      You’ll notice that I focused on a very limited issue in my post — whether the whole Protestant argument about how God doesn’t receive the glory if salvation i not by faith alone doesn’t make sense. But when Protestants respond (and I understand why) they tend to launch into the entire doctrine of salvation. Since I’m writing a series on this in which I hope to spell things out as clearly as I can, I’m not going to engage on the nature of justification here or what St Paul meant by “works”. As I do this, maybe you can comment on those subjects then. God bless.

  • Father George says:

    Ken, I enjoyed your article very much (and the humor of salads and mopeds), and I can see this has occupied your thoughts for a long time. I hope in #2 you can address how the Church, particularly the Saint Augustine, talks about thru “grace alone” and how the “faith ALONE” argument really didn’t surface until Martin Luther came on the scene. (Quite ironic how a former Augustinian would go against his founder.) Up to now, in the replies, it seems there is just as much heat as there is light???

  • Morrie Chamberlain says:

    What a fantastic article. I have been on an apologetics binge now for about 10 years, and I am always looking for ways to open people’s eyes to the presuppositions that they have as well as quick ways to refute false assertions of what Catholics believe. The Internet is the greatest invention as there no longer any excuse to not know Truth.

    I have had to sit through four Baptist funerals (of beloved relatives) of late and in each I was subjected to works-righteousness-will-damn-you sermons and I looked around the room trying to find some Pelagians. It must be a bigger issue than I have been led to believe.

    I knew the first objection would be that salvation spoken of in the stories of Noah and Abraham was strictly temporal and not eternal. That was not the point of the article. The point was did Noah earn his salvation, even if temporal, by doing something? No, he was obedient and was saved even if only temporally. He obeyed and built.

    In a similar manner quit accusing Catholics of earning their eternal salvation by simply being obedient.

  • prisonerofjoy says:

    But yet catholics commingle law and gospel?

  • Jerry Gliottone says:

    Ken….waiting on the follow-up. When’s it coming???

    Jerry G

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