Putting Paul in Perspective: Faith & Works

(This is the second article in a series on the New Perspective on Paul)

As we continue this series of articles on the New Perspective on Paul, we come now to the second point of contention: does faith replace works?

Can Two Walk Together Except They Be Agreed?

We are interested in the relationship between faith and works. Here is Thompson below.

The separation of belief and action, of faith and works is alien to the teaching of Jesus . . . To drive a wedge between belief and action is to encourage self-deception, cheap grace, and the kind of thin pious veneer that James rightly rejects (James 2:14-26). That does not mean that salvation is earned by what we do; it is simply to affirm the biblical truth that the fruit we bear reflects who we really are and what we really believe.

This is of course correct and fully orthodox. The only problem with it is the implication (by omission) that this somehow has not been the position of the Reformed faith for centuries. There is absolutely nothing new about this perspective. Speaking this way will only seem new to those who think that the historic Reformed position was only established five minutes ago at some institution on the West coast. For just one example, consider this observation on faith from the early Puritan William Ames in his Marrow of Theology (1576-1633).

[Faith] is an act of choice, an act of the whole man—which is by no means a mere act of the intellect. John 6:35, He who comes to me . . . he who believes in me. Since faith is the first act of our life whereby we live to God in Christ, it must consist of union with God, which a mere assent to the truth concerning God cannot effect.

Faith and works are inseparably linked. Any desire to break them apart (as opposed to distinguishing them) is fundamentally wrong-headed. What is a faith that has no relation to deeds? James tells us that as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. This means a separation of the two cannot be accomplished without a murder. I can distinguish my body and soul but if I managed to separate them, the folks standing around would call 911 because they would have an aspiring carcass on their hands. This would not be considered progress.

Because of confusion at this point, some folks who call themselves Reformed have actually started insisting that sola fide is actually functionally solus assensus. But solus assensus is the kind of faith that men can share with demons. A man can nod his head to orthodox propositions all the way to hell. The only distinction being that the demons have the good sense to tremble about it. This particular confusion has consistently been denied by orthodox Reformed theologians from the start. Following Peter Lombard, the orthodox Reformed have said that the “fide” of sola fide has three components, which are assensus (assent), notitia (knowledge), and fiducia (trust).

The idea that a man could somehow be saved by mere assent to a list of propositions is contrary to James; but, more germane to this discussion of historical theology, it is contrary to the historic Reformed position. We say sola fide. But what kind of faith is being talked about in the phrase sola fide? It is an assenting, knowledgeable, and trusting faith. Another way of putting this is that we are justified by a living faith, an obedient faith, a faith that “works by love.” Saving faith, therefore, cannot be merely intellectual; it must also be volitional. So then, how is the insistence that no wedge between faith and action be tolerated now to be thought of as one of the distinguishing marks of a New Perspective? Here’s another nugget from Calvin,

For the Scripture teaches that Christ has been made for us not only righteousness but also sanctification. Hence, we cannot receive through faith his righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, but the Lord in one same alliance, which he has made with us in Christ, promises that he will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16).

All this is finely nuanced. But in the rough and tumble of theological debate (where the antinomians always fight dirty), it often becomes necessary for the orthodox to attack things that are good in themselves, but which have been corrupted by the lawless of heart. This is how Jeremiah attacks the Temple, Paul attacks the Law, Isaiah attacks solemn assemblies, and so on. And in this sense orthodox Reformed teachers can attack faith alone. Not all who are in the solas are of the solas. But this shouldn’t be seen as an attack on the solas but rather as an attack on those who would evacuate them of their actual potency.

Suppose I were to deny that everlasting salvation were the reward of faith alone. I have abandoned the Reformed faith, right? I have ditched the lovely bride of Calvinism for some heretical Roman harlot, right? No, actually I would be simply using words similar to what we can find in Calvin’s Institutes.

For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve the graces that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the reward of faith alone. For the Lord almost always lodges in heaven the reward of toil and the crown of battle. On the other hand, so to attribute to the merit of works the fact that we are showered with grace upon grace as to take it away from grace is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.

Is eternal salvation, Calvin asks, the reward of faith alone? Well, no, he appears to say. But since we all know that Calvin can’t be denying sola fide, we hunt through the surrounding context in order to place this kind of language in its proper context. This is what gentlemen do, and we ought to extend this same courtesy to other people as well. In any nuanced theological system (and there is almost always nuance), it is easy to find phrases that collide with simplistic Sunday School truths. But in this case, the tensions are resolved. In The Binding of God, Peter Lillback sheds some light on Calvin’s argument,

The Reformed hermeneutic discussed works in the context of justification because the covenant had two parts. Justification was the first blessing of the covenant while the second was the law of love engendered by the Holy Spirit. Faith was the condition of the first part of the covenant, and love or obedience was the condition of the second part. For Luther, grace and law were opposed. For the Reformed, the grace of the Holy Spirit resulted in the gift of love which was seen as the completion of all the law. For Luther, it was ‘faith alone’; for the Reformed it was faith working by love.”

So what is the relationship between faith and fidelity? First, according to the Reformed faith, we are saved by the faith and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us (Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9). [Some modern scholars she away from the language of imputation choosing rather to to speak in terms of our incorporation into Christ whereby we are made partakers of these blessings by virtue of our union with Him. This should not be an insurmountable hurdle for even the most ardent defender of imputation as long as the ground, instrument, and benefits remain constants.] The reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us is incomplete unless it is understood as including the font of His righteous life, which is the perfect faith that Jesus Christ had in His Father (Heb. 3:2; 5:7-9). All that Christ has and is has been given to us (1 Cor. 3:22-23).

This means that true saving faith (fides salvifica) is therefore inextricably linked to the necessary object of that faith, which is the person of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). This saving faith does not exist apart from a true covenant relationship with God through Christ. It does not exist apart from union with Christ.

Now this fides salvifica does not cause obedience in the way that a billiard ball striking another one causes it to move. This is a point that even Hume could add his amen to. It is not mechanical. Rather, it brings about obedience organically, the way life in a body causes that body to breathe. As a body without the spirit is dead so faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:26). This is why saving faith necessarily lives and acts. One of the principal acts performed by such saving faith is the act of trusting in Christ alone for both justification and sanctification.

Perhaps a metaphor will help. Saving faith is a mother who always bears twins—justification and sanctification, in that order—so that we can see easily that when justification is born, his mother does not die, but rather brings his younger brother obedience into the world. But we cannot forget an important part of the illustration. The “mother”—faith—is trusting and obedient in how she gives birth. Saving faith is the alone trusting instrument of justification, and, immediately following, that same saving faith the alone trusting instrument of sanctification, and reveals itself always as a faith working through love. Saving faith that does not trust and obey is a saving faith that does not exist. We never have raw faith without trust, and then, a moment later, trust arrives. Any sort of faith like that would be stillborn.

As has been already mentioned, the historic Protestant understanding of fides salvifica sees it as consisting of an inseparable unity of assensus, notitia, and fiducia . It is the essential nature of fiducia to trust gladly in everything that God has spoken in His Word—whether law or gospel, Old or New Testaments, poems or prose, red letters and black, odd-numbered pages or even. This means that fides salvifica is related to ongoing fidelity, trust or obedience in the same way that a body is related to breathing. Without a body, there is nothing to breathe with. Without breathing, there is something that needs to be buried. Selah.

Fides salvifica receives all of Scripture as good news from a gracious God. In a general sense, all is gospel. But the Scripture does contain what might be called the Gospel proper, the good news of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This is why the Protestant scholastics also said that there was a fides evangelica that specifically trusts in the revelation that God gives to us in the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the faith exhibited when someone hears the proclamation of that good news.

So this article concludes with a bit of awkwardness. I do agree with the New Perspective on this issue. Yikes! Faith and fidelity are organically related and are alive together. But as much as I would like to, I cannot rejoice in this agreement—because the critique offered of the Old Perspective appears to assume that prior to the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, the entire Protestant world was more or less Lutheran. Put another way, their exegesis of Paul is strong (at this point). But their representation of historical theology since the Reformation is as weak as New England tea.

Much of this discussion might as well be between the Epicureans and the Stoics. We are like the Athenians, who liked nothing more than to hear the latest thing. We like to think that those of us who are living downstream are responsible for direction which the water flows. Holding to a “new and improved perspective” is a lot sexier than simply not being a Lutheran. But as is often the case, our fathers weren’t always wrong. They certainly got this part right.


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