Making Faith Work … Without Making Work Faith

Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! – Martin Luther

This coming 31 October will be the 500th anniversary (1517 to 2017) of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. Whatever your thoughts on Luther, Catholicism, the Papacy, Protestantism, the schism of Christendom, Reformation theology, medieval politics, the accessibility of the Bible, sin, hell, purgatory, absolution, indulgences, etcetera, the fact is that Martin Luther’s actions changed the world. We might say that the reverberations of his hammer blows on the Wittenberg church door 500 years ago are still echoing today.

Now, it is very true that when you read through Luther’s 95 Theses you realize just how specific they are to his time and the particular feverish pitch that the selling of indulgences had reached by 1517. Luther calls out the “indulgence preachers” (Thesis 21) for the damage that they were doing to the name of Christ by offering Papal absolution in order to enrich the Catholic church (and specifically to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica – Thesis 86). But in making the argument specifically related to his time, Luther established – or rather, re-established – the truth of the gospel by saying that, 1) only God has the power to forgive sins, and 2) true penitence by the sinner necessarily results in life-changes. In other words, Luther was simply re-stating the argument of Paul in just about every letter he wrote. Just as the works of the law can’t save you, neither can sums of money, for it is by grace that we are saved (Eph 2:8f).

What this means then is that one of the more repulsive strategies of Satan in debasing the Gospel of Christ didn’t change between ~58 A.D. (about when Paul wrote the book of Galatians) and 1517 (when Luther presented his Theses); which, in turn, leads me to think that this satanic strategy hasn’t changed in the 500 years since. That strategy is simply this: Satan works even within Christian churches (wolves in sheep’s clothing) to corrupt true religion by routing the course of justification through the works of man. He did it when he sent the Judaizers into the Galatian churches, telling them that they needed to keep the law, and he did it when he worked through the Pope and his minions to trade God’s forgiveness and absolution for money.

We see this quite often in our day too. This perversion of the Gospel infects every Christian denomination and tradition as Satan can always find an element of individuals within each who want to impose rules and checklists that aren’t found in scripture. Still others fall prey to this inclination unwittingly by taking instructions which ARE found in scripture and elevating them to be on par with the saving work of Christ!

It should wrench the heart of every true Christian to hear and see such perversions of the gospel and it should drive us to call teaching like that what it is: a lie from hell. But at the same time that we call it what it is, we should be careful to not call down fire and brimstone upon the heads of the poor people who fall for the lies. Instead it should bring us to tears on their behalf. Putting one’s trust in man – whether in man’s religious machinations, moral checklists, or in oneself – is bound to bring about fear. The thought that a person’s salvation relies upon either man’s will or man’s possessions or man’s compiled lists will inevitably seep inside their hearts and brew a deep draft of dread and panic. Either will, physical possession, or checklist is bound to fail.

But we are told, in the very context of punishment for sin, that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). So there must be something more elemental to the doctrine of salvation than a flimsy spirituality or religiosity which relies on the input of man. Fear is always present where one must rely on him/herself.

If salvation isn’t an act of love by a graceful God, why would Luther have bothered to make an argument which would force him to fly from his home and eventually be excommunicated? And why would Paul bother arguing against circumcision/works of the law when it could have caused a rift between the Apostles and amongst an infant church? Why not accept the idea that salvation comes from what a man does if it maintains unity? It would have been easier for Luther and it would have been easier for Paul – neither would have had the pain that followed their arguments for grace. But neither man could leave things as they were for two reasons: 1) because salvation by the works of man isn’t true and 2) because thinking that it does leads to horrible fear!

If we are to understand love, to the point where it “casts out fear,” there are a few very important things we must understand and acknowledge. And this is where I will nail my theses. I nail them here to my blog wall with the same intentions of love, harmony and grace that I believe Luther intended (irascible and fiery as he was). As elementary as most of these will seem to you, my beloved reader, they are things which need to be reiterated as often as possible; as it appears that we are all extremely forgetful and unable to tie our secondary and tertiary beliefs back to the underlying, foundational things to which we pay only lip-service. So take these thoughts and roll them around in your minds. Do they fit with scripture? Study them and pray over them; keep what is right, and feel free to, in the words of Martin Luther, “dispute with [me]” if you think I am wrong.

1. I believe in the purity of God. He is perfect and unstained by all that human mind can bend and human action can blemish.

2. I believe that when God created the heavens and the earth, it was perfect and good.

3. I believe that when Adam broke God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, a disease entered into Adam’s seed which has been passed on to each one of us as his descendants.

4. I believe that this disease is the predisposition to sin and that the sins we then commit separate us from God.

5. I believe that our sins separate us from God because His glorious purity cannot coexist with sin.

6. I believe that no man/woman is pure. We have all sinned.

7. I believe that even one sin, no matter how “small” we may believe it to be, is an awful blight which creates a rift between us and God and enslaves us to sin.

8. I believe that it is we who have left God, not vice versa; sin usurps the Creator’s role and becomes master of the sinner.

9. I believe that we are incapable of returning to God by any act of will of our own, because of the disease within us and because sin has become our master.

10. I believe that God is grieved by the sin in our world and feels the pain that it renders to all mankind.

11. I believe that, since we have all sinned, God is just in the condemnation He dispenses.

12. I believe that God, in His infinite foreknowledge and sovereignty, has guided all things through the millennia – since the Garden of Eden even through today – to His glory and in order to bring about the salvation of as many as possible.

13. I believe that God has made Himself known to all of us by declaring Himself openly through creation and the scriptures.

14. I believe that God sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Messiah foretold in the Law and the Prophets.

15. I believe that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man.

16. I believe that Jesus Christ, though tempted just as we are, lived a sinless life.

17. I believe that Jesus Christ fulfilled and completed the Mosaic Law, by being blameless before it.

18. I believe that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all mankind by simultaneously being our High Priest and our perfect sacrifice.

19. I believe that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ atoned for our sins and freed us from our bondage to sin.

20. I believe that because Jesus Christ is eternal, His atoning work is eternal.

21. I believe that Jesus Christ now sits at the right hand of God and pleads the case for those who call on Him.

22. I believe that God, knowing that we are diseased and incapable of choosing Him on our own, even in spite of His glorious revelation of Himself to all mankind through creation and His word, begins His sanctifying work, through His Spirit, on the hearts of men/women who will choose Him.

23. I believe that this sanctifying work brings about salvation for those who call on the name of the Lord and have faith in the work of Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son.

24. I believe that this salvation is a free gift of God, bought by the blood of Jesus, and sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

25. I believe that the sacrament of baptism unites a believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

26. I believe that a believer rises out of the water of baptism, having put to death the old self – with its disease of sin – and it is no longer the believer who lives, but Christ who is living in him/her.

27. I believe that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is an ongoing process that begins before a person is even aware of it and continues until physical death.

28. I believe that upon physical death, and upon that day when Christ will return, all believers will be glorified – the culmination of the sanctification that the Holy Spirit works in the believer.

29. I believe that God will judge all people – believers and non-believers – justly.

30. I believe that God would be just to condemn all people (since all people have sinned) but He will only condemn those who refuse His open and free offer of mercy and grace through His Son, Jesus Christ.

31. I believe that God’s justice has been satisfied by the blood of Jesus, which covers the believer by the unification of the believer with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

32. I believe that Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient for the salvation of all mankind.

33. I believe that adding any work of man to the salvific work of Jesus on the cross devalues Jesus’ work.

34. I believe that adding any work of man to the salvific work of Jesus on the cross devalues the purity of God in that it misunderstands His glorious state.

35. I believe that adding any work of man to the salvific work of Jesus on the cross badly over-values the state of man by assuming that man has something within him which can merit God’s mercy.

36. I believe that once salvation is given by God, the Holy Spirit continually works in the lives of the saved individual in order to bring each person into conformity with Jesus.

37. I believe that one of the Holy Spirit’s works in the life of a believer is to give freedom to the choices of the believer.

38. I believe that, whereas before salvation a man/woman may only have been able to choose between evil options while living life in their fleshly body, after salvation the Holy Spirit gives them freedom to choose to do what is good.

39. I believe that this freedom will be exercised by the true believer so that good works are the necessary result of a heart that is (being) tuned to God.

40. I believe that good works are therefore not a salvific work, but rather the necessary by-product of conformity with Jesus Christ through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

41. I believe that a battle goes on within the physical life of a believer between the flesh and the spirit, and that the mind – having been freed by the Holy Spirit – becomes the deciding factor in which wins.

42. I believe that this battle (between flesh and spirit) will continue until the glorification that has been promised.

43. I believe that the dying believer will be resurrected to a new, eternal body and be united with God for all eternity in heaven.

44. I believe that the one who has faith in Jesus, but who then teaches that works of man are necessary for the salvation of others, still maintains his/her salvation but needs to repent of their imposition of stumbling blocks upon others.

45. I believe that the people of God are found wherever Jesus is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is at work, and the word of God is heralded as truth.

46. I believe that mankind is unsuitable to judge the intentions of others, as we are not omniscient or unbiased.

47. I believe that each believer is provided with at least some measure of the gift of discernment and is guided by the word of God as well as the promptings of the Holy Spirit, however.

48. I believe therefore that judgment regarding right and wrong is necessary in order to turn away from and/or confront the lies of Satan.

49. I believe that well-meaning people, looking to be righteous, and to bring about righteousness in others, confuse the necessary results of salvation with the salvific act itself and therefore elevate certain human works to the level of the work of Christ.

50. I believe that one of the inclinations of the natural man, of which it is most hard to let go, is the inclination to wildly grasp at works to be done more than to TRUST fully in the act of another – even the work of Jesus on the cross.

51. I believe that the proper definition of faith therefore is, as the Hebrew Writer says, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1). Or, as Martin Luther put it, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”

Faith is indeed “a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.” To state it another way: the trust of a believer cannot be living or bold without God’s grace! The reliance upon oneself, or upon manmade checklists, or indeed upon Papal absolution, or Abrahamic circumcision, is the surest way to undercut the power of God’s grace and therefore the implications of His favor. It makes one timid – not willing to “risk death a thousand times” because there is nothing to trust but the caprices of the human will.

Let us be clear about one thing (just as Luther was clear in the quote above): though God’s grace is the only medium by which we can be saved, there is a very clear follow-on to that salvation. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, He begins changing us to the point where we can’t help but do good works. However, conflating the work of the Spirit to bring about good works with the work of salvation, which is by grace, is foolish because it destabilizes the very foundation upon which we build our lives: Jesus Christ, His life, His death, and His resurrection (that’s what the parable of the wise and foolish builders was all about, wasn’t it?).

Therefore I say it once again: whatever you may think about Martin Luther as a man, the echoes of his theses are still relevant, because they magnified once again those theses of the Apostle Paul. We must understand that salvation is by grace … or we fall into the company of the Judaizers and the “indulgence preachers” of the last 2,000 years. Selling salvation by money or human effort ignores God’s holiness and cheapens the blood of Christ.

500 years is a long time, 2000 is even longer (obviously) … but evidently neither is long enough for Satan to tire of his most successful religious trick: the undermining of God’s grace. For the purity of the Gospel, we must fight it wherever it rises up.

Oh the depth and the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?” or “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 9:33-36

See Also: Ps 103; Is 40:31; Jn 1:14-17; 3:16f; Acts 8:9-24; Rom 3:20-24; 5:1-6:22; 11:6; 1 Cor 15:10 2 Cor 12:9; Gal 2:19-21; Eph 2:1-9; Col 2:13-15; Tit 2:11-14; Heb 4:16; Jas 4:6; Jude 4

The quote from Martin Luther at the beginning of this post is from Luther’s An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and was quoted from Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith on Ligonier.org (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/martin-luthers-definition-faith/)

Luther’s 95 Theses can be read here: http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

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