‘Useless’ Faith?

question?

First of all, I think it fair to say that we (professing believers) almost always think about faith in a positive light, as does scripture. The Old Testament is full of men and women of faith. The New Testament tells us we are saved “by grace through faith”. On occasion, Jesus commended individuals for their faith. In the book of Hebrews there is a long list of notable men and women of faith, as well as heroic deeds that were the result of their faith in a great God.

So what’s this about “useless” faith? Is it even a ‘thing’ from a biblical perspective?

I suggest to you that it is, and that ‘useless faith’ is a serious topic at least twice in the Bible, once from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, and once from the perspective of James, the brother of Jesus, in the book bearing his name. The Apostle Paul addresses the topic from something the Bible claims is a historical fact, while James approaches it with human works in view.

For a look at what Paul had to say about “useless” faith, we need only take a look at 1Corinthians, chapter 15, his great treatise on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the final resurrection of believers:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:12-19)

Apparently there were some in the Corinthian church who were denying the future resurrection of the dead, although it was being preached that Christ indeed rose from the dead, a fact attested to by witnesses.

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

Paul then states that if Christ has not been raised, his (Paul’s) preaching and the faith of Believers in Corinth is in vain (useless) (v 14), a point he reiterated in v. 17.

Moving on to what James has to say about “useless” faith, we’ll turn to James, Chapter 2.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.\

First Janes asks his listeners if want to be shown that faith apart from works is useless (v. 20) and then says very clearly that faith part from works is dead (v. 26). Clearly he is saying that faith without works is useless and dead, but in what context? We need only go back to an earlier verse (v. 14) to see that James’ conclusion is based on someone professing faith but never displaying works did not have saving faith. He is saying that if claims o having faith do not produce works, it was personal faith professed, but NOT saving faith possessed, and completely “useless”.

So yes, there is such a thing as ‘useless’ faith according to the Bible, from at least two perspective:

1. If Christ died but was not resurrected, our faith and indeed Christianity itself is useless (1 Cor 15). This is a serious doctrinal issue.

2. If we say we have faith, but our faith does not result in works to the glory of God, we never had the ‘gift of God’ faith (See Eph 2:8-9) that actually saves (James 2:14-25). This is a serious personal issue.

So we all have good reason to follow some sound advice from the Apostle Paul:

“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

(2 Cor 13:5, ESV)

Why I Believe Regeneration Precedes Faith

The short answer is that scripture teaches it:

1 Corinthians 2:14

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14)

A natural person, one born of flesh only, is incapable of understanding that which is spiritually understood. Salvation (repenting and believing the gospel) is a spiritual transaction that requires spiritual understanding, for which regeneration is an absolute requirement.

Romans 8:7-8

”For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8:7-8)

A mind can be fleshly (carnal), spiritual, or in the case of believers, in whom sin still resides, BOTH carnal and spiritual. The unbeliever is controlled by a fleshly mind and cannot please God. True repentance and belief in Christ pleases God, Therefore spiritual regenerating must precede faith.

Ephesians 2:1-5

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body[a] and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.[b] 4 But[c] God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Eph 2:1-5)

What can a ‘dead’ man do? WHEN WE WERE DEAD, we who now believe were made alive in Christ. That’s the very definition of ‘regeneration’.

2 Corinthians 4:1-4

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God,[a] we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice[b] cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Who is perishing? All who have not received and believed in Christ. Why have they NOT received and believed in Christ? Their minds have been blinded by the god of this world. Regeneration opens blind minds and necessarily precedes faith.

John 1:12-13

”But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

The children of God are those who receive Christ and believe in his name. Those who receive and believe in Christ are those born of God, not by any form of human desire or will. To be born of God is to be regenerated. Note that no one is regenerated by an act of human will.

John 3:3

”Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.””

To ‘see’ the kingdom of God in the above passage means “to perceive” Just as we must have been born naturally to physically see, we must be born spiritually (regenerated) to spiritually see.

Those who believe that human faith precedes regeneration generally fall into two groups:

  • We are all ‘naturally’ capable, without divine assistance, to make a genuine decision for Christ, by an act of human free will.
  • While we aren’t ‘naturally’ capable of such a decision, God, by an act of ‘prevenient grace’, grants the ability to make a free will decision to accept Christ, and then be ‘regenerated’.

I believe the above passages refute the first proposition, on its face. I also believe the second proposition to be in error simply because prevenient grace, in the Wesleyan sense is nowhere taught in the Bible. The thought is that God bestows prevenient grace to the lost sinner, who is then able to consider the claims of the gospel message and either freely accept or reject them by an act of natural human will.

Additionally, I can find NO language in all of the Bible that discusses some sort of decision making process in the process of the salvation of men. Even IF true and a human free will decision determined the eternal destiny of anyone, that person will have saved himself/herself, although God made it possible to be saved through the death of Christ.

It is my belief, based on the above passages, that the human will must ‘itself’ be changed for the natural man to desire to repent of sin and believe in Christ.

_______________

NOTE: For more in-depth discussions concerning ‘Prevenient Grace’ See:

1. Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace n the Wesleyan Sense?

2. Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible?

3. What is Prevenient Grace?

Quotes from Spurgeon’s Autobiography – Vol. 1, Chapter 6

The following quotations from Vol. 1, Chapter 6 of Spurgeons Autobiography, Incidents of Home and School Life, begins with the following short introduction:

“No man can write the whole of his own biography. I suppose, if the history
of a man’s thoughts and words could be written, scarce the world itself
would contain the books, so wonderful is the tale that might be told. Of my
life at home and at school, I can only give a few incidents as I am able to
recall them after the lapse of forty or fifty years.”

The childhood memories Spurgeon recounted seem to be those from which the young Spurgeon drew a lesson for Christian living. Here are a few of those incidents that captured my attention. The short titles are of my own invention.

Of Gardens and Prayer

“When we were small children, we had a little plot of garden-ground, and we put our seeds into it. I well recollect how, the day after I had put in my seed, I went and scraped the soil away to see if it was not growing, as I expected it would have been after a day or so at the very longest, and I thought the time amazingly long before the seed would be able to make its appearance above the ground. “That was childish,” you say. I know it was, but I wish you were as childish with regard to your prayers, that you would, when you have put them in the ground, go and see if they have sprung up; and if not at once, — be not childish in refusing to wait till the appointed time comes, — always go back and see if they have begun to sprout. If you believe in prayer at all, expect God to hear you. If you do not expect, you will not have. God will not hear you unless you believe He will hear you; but if you believe He will, He will be as good as your faith. He will never allow you to think better of Him than He is; He will come up to the mark of your thoughts, and according to your faith so shall it be done unto you.”

Houses, and Horses, and Trees

“When we used to go to school, we would draw houses, and horses, and trees on our slates, and I remember how we used to write “house” under the house, and “horse” under the horse, for some persons might have thought the horse was a house. So there are some people who need to wear a label round their necks to show that they are Christians at all, or else we might mistake them for sinners, their actions are so like those of the ungodly.”

The Religious Juggler

“I have seen, when I was a boy, a juggler in the street throw up half-a-dozen balls, or knives and plates, and continue throwing and catching them, and to me it seemed marvelous; but the religious juggler beats all others hollow. He has to keep up Christianity and worldliness at the same time, and to catch two sets of balls at once.To be a freeman of Christ and a slave of the world at the same time, must need fine acting. One of these days you, Sir Juggler, will make a slip with one of the balls, and your game will be over. A man cannot always keep it up, and play so cleverly at all hours; sooner or later he fails, and then he is made a hissing and a by-word,and becomes ashamed, if any shame be left in him.”

More About ‘Saving’ Faith and Its Origin

Needless to say, my friend Ed didn’t appreciate John Bunyan’s thoughts concerning faith that saves and faith that does not. After all, we don’t need other men (pastors / teachers /) to tell us what to believe. We can just read our Bibles and perfectly figure it all out for ourselves Aside from the naiveté  of that sentiment, I would remind us that God gave pastors and teachers as gifts to the church. If we don’t need them, why did God give them to us?

But I digress.  Here are some of Dan’s thoughts concerning ‘saving’ faith.

The point that there is a sort of faith that cannot save and a kind of faith that does result in salvation. Concerning faith concerning God, we can believe (have faith in / trust) certain things about God and Christ and yet never be convicted of our sin, repent, and believe in God’s provision for our salvation from our sin. That’s the short version of a much longer article. The concept of two kinds of faith isn’t rocket science. I might trust in the ability of. Boeing 747 to fly, but it’s another matter to board the plane, confident that it will get me safely to Los Angeles from my home in Colorado.

The logical next question might concern the origin of ‘saving’ faith. Are we born with it and just need to ‘decide for Christ’ and be saved? Or, is the power to ‘savingly’ believe originate outside of ourselves?

IF (note the hypothetical here) the very ability to savingly believe comes from outside of ourselves, is a completely unearned gift (grace), can our faith not also be considered a gift?

The final point for the moment is a passage from John, Chapter 3. “Unless a man is born again (regenerated / born from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

The word ‘see’ doesn’t just mean ‘make it to heaven’. It means ‘perceive, notice, discern, discover’. In other words, ‘regeneration’ must precede ‘saving’ faith. And that is the ‘gift’ at the very center of this discussion. God regenerates and people ‘see’ and believe. They are regenerated and presented as ‘love gifts’ from the Father to the Son. And. . .

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”    Words of Jesus (John 6:37)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
not a result of works, so that no one may boast. “ (Eph 2:8-9)

Yes, it is our responsibility to believe. You could even say our believing is our doing, while our doing is still of God. Salvation is ALL of grace, even our believing.

I somehow doubt that Ed will see things any differently, but perhaps those of you who found John Bunyan a bit difficult will find the thoughts of an old soldier more easily understood.

🙂

Concerning ‘Saving’ Faith and Works

The following is for my friend Ed, who has told me and written on his blog that there is no such thing as saving faith. They are not my words, but those of John Bunyan, most known for the greatest Christian allegory ever written, Pilgrims Progress.

Saving Faith

by John Bunyan

When I write of justification before God, from the dreadful curse of the law, then I must speak of nothing but grace, Christ, the promise, and faith. But when I speak of our justification before men, then I must join to these, good works. For grace, Christ and faith, are things invisible, and so not to be seen by another, otherwise than through a life that becomes so blessed a gospel as has declared unto us the remission of our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. He then that would have forgiveness of sins, and so be delivered from the curse of God, must believe in the righteousness and blood of Christ: but he that would show to his neighbours that he hath truly received this mercy of God, must do it by good works; for all things else, to them, is but talk. As for example; a tree is known to be what it is, namely, whether of this or that kind, by its fruit. A tree, it is without fruit; but so long as it so abideth, there is ministered occasion to doubt what manner of tree it is.

A professor is a professor, though he hath no good works; but that, as such, he is truly godly, he is ‘foolish’ that so concludeth (Matt. 7:17, 18; Jam. 2:18). Not that works make a man good; for the fruit maketh not a good tree; it is the principle, that is, Faith, that makes a man good, and his works that show him to be so (Matt. 7:16; Luke 6:44).

What then? Why, all professors that have not good works flowing from their faith are naught; are bramble bushes; are ‘nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned,’ (Heb. 6:8). For professors by their, fruitlessness declare, that they are not of the planting of God; not the wheat, but tares, and ‘children of the wicked one.’ (Matt. 13:37, 38).

Not that Faith needeth good works as a help to justification before God. For in this matter, Faith will be ignorant of all good works, except those done by the person of Christ. Here then the good man ‘worketh not, but believeth,’ (Rom. 5:3, 4, 5) for he is not now to carry to God, but to receive at his hand the matter of his justification by faith. Nor is the matter of his justification before God aught else but the good deeds of another man, namely, Christ Jesus. But is there, therefore, no need at all of good works, because a man is justified before God without them? or can that be called a justifying faith, that has not for its fruit, good works? (Job 22:2, 3; Jam. 2:20, 26). Verily good works are necessary, though God need them not, nor is that faith, as, to justification with God, worth a rush, that abideth alone, or without them.

There is therefore a twofold faith of Christ in the world, and as to the notion of justifying righteousness, they both concur and agree, but as to the manner of application, there they vastly differ.

The one, namely, ‘the non-saving faith, standeth in speculation and naked knowledge of Christ, and so abideth idle: but the other truly sees, and receives him, and so becometh fruitful.’ (John 1:12 ; Heb.. 11:13; Rom. 10:16). And hence the true justifying faith, is said to receive, to embrace, to obey the Son of God, as tendered in the gospel: by which expressions is showed both the nature of justifying faith, in its actings in point of justification, and also the cause of its being full of good works in the world. A gift is not made mine by my seeing it, or because I know the nature of the thing so given: but then it is mine if I receive and embrace it; yea, and as to the point in hand, if I yield myself up to stand and fall by it. Now he that shall, not only see, but receive, not only know, but embrace the Son of God, to be justified by him, cannot but bring forth good works; because Christ who is now received and embraced by faith, leavens and seasons the spirit of this sinner (through his faith) to the making of him capable so to do. (Acts 15:9; Chron. 26:18, 19; Heb. 11:11). Faith made Sarah receive strength to conceive seed, and we are sanctified through faith, which is in Christ. For faith hath joined Christ and the soul together, and being so joined, the soul is one spirit with him: not essentially; but in agreement, and oneness of design. Besides, when Christ is truly received and embraced to the justifying of the sinner, in that man’s heart he dwells by his word and Spirit, through the same faith also. Now Christ, by his Spirit and Word, must needs season the soul he thus dwells in. So then the soul being seasoned, it seasoneth the body; and body and soul, season the life and conversation.

We know it is not the seeing, but taking of a potion, that maketh it work as it should; nor is the blood of Christ a purge to this or that conscience, except received by faith (Heb. 9:14). Shall that then be counted right believing in Christ unto justification, that amounts to no more than to an idle speculation, or naked knowledge of him? Shall that knowledge of him, I say, be counted such, as only causes the soul to behold, but moveth it not to good works? No, verily (2 Cor. 3:18). For the true beholding of Jesus to justification and life, changes from glory to glory. Nor can that man that hath so believed, as that by his faith he hath received and embraced Christ for life before God, be destitute of good works. For, as I said, the Word and Spirit come also by this faith, and dwell in the heart and conscience. Now, shall a soul where the Word and Spirit of Christ dwell be a soul without good works? Yea, shall a soul that his received the love, the mercy, the kindliess, grace and salvation of God through the sorrows, tears, groans, cross and cruel death of Christ, be yet a fruitless tree!—God forbid. The faith is as the salt which the prophet cast into the spring of bitter water; it makes the soul good and serviceable forever (2 Kings 2:19-22).

If the receiving of a temporal gift naturally tends to making us move our cap and knee, and binds us to be the servant of the giver, shall we think that faith will leave him who by it has received Christ, to be as unconcerned as a stock or stone; or that its utmost excellency is to provoke the soul to a lip-labor, and to give Christ a few fair words for his pains and grace, and so wrap up the business? No, no; the love of Christ constraineth us thus to judge that it is but reasonable, since he gave his all for us, that we should give our all for him (2 Cor. 5:14).

Let no man then deceive himself, (as he may and will if he takes not heed) with true notions, but examine himself concerning his faith, first; Whether he hath any? and if some, Whether of that kind that will turn to account in the day when God shall judge the world.

I told you before that there is a twofold faith, and now I will tell you that there are two sorts of good works; and a man may be shrewdly guessed at with reference to his faith, even by the work that he chooseth to be conversant in. There are works that cost nothing, and works that are chargeable. And observe it the unsound faith will choose to itself the most easy works it can find. For example, there are reading, praying, hearing of sermons, baptism, breaking of bread, church fellowship, preaching, and the like; and there be mortification of lusts, charity, simplicity, openheartedness, with a liberal hand to the poor, and their like also. Now the unsound faith picks and chooses, and takes and leaves, but the true faith does not so.

There are a great many professors now that have nothing to distinguish them from the worst of men, but their praying, reading, hearing of sermons, baptism, church-fellowship, and breaking of bread. Separate them but from these, and every where else they are as black as others, even in their whole life and conversation. Thus they have chosen to them the most easy things to do them; but love not to be conscientiously found in the practice of the other; a certain sign their faith is naught, and that these things, even the things they are conversant in, are things attended to of them, not for the ends for which God has appointed them, but to beguile and undo themselves withal.

Praying, hearing, reading; for what are these things ordained, but that we might by the godly use of them, attain to more of the knowledge of God, and be strengthened by his grace to serve him better according to his moral law? Baptism, fellowship, and the Lord’s supper, are ordained for these ends also. But there is a vast difference between using these things, and using them for these ends. A man may pray, yea pray for such things, had he them, as would make him better in morals, without desire to be better in morals, or love to the things he prays for. A man may read and hear, not to learn to do, though to know; yea he may be dead to doing moral goodness, and yet be great for reading and hearing all his days. The people then among all professors that are zealous of good works are the peculiar ones to Christ (Tit. 2:14). What has a man done that is baptized, if he pursues not the ends for which that appointment was ordained? The like I say of fellowship, of breaking of bread, &c. For all these things we should use to support our faith, to mortify the flesh, and strengthen us to walk in newness of life by the rule of the moral law. Nor can that man be esteemed holy, whose life is tainted with immoralities, let him be what he can in all things else. I am of that man’s mind, as to practical righteousness, who said to Christ, upon this very question, ‘Well, master, thou hast said the truth; for to love the Lord our God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength; and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices’ (Mark. 12:28, 33). To love my neighbour as myself, to do as I would be done unto, this is the law and the prophets. And he that is altogether a stranger to these things, how dwelleth the love of God in him? or how will he manifest to another, that his faith will save him?

Satan is afraid that men sbould hear of justification by Christ, lest they should embrace it. But yet if he can prevail with them to keep fingers off, though they do hear and look on, and practise lesser things, he can the better bear it; yea he will labor to make such professors bold to conclude they shall by that kind of faith enjoy him, though by that they cannot embrace him, nor lay hold of him. For he knows that how far soever a man engages in a profession of Christ with a faith that looks on, but cannot receive nor embrace him, that faith will leave him to nothing but mistakes and disappointments at last.

The gospel comes to some in word only, and the faith of such stands but in a verbal sound: but the Apostle was resolved not to know or take notice of such a faith (1 Thess. 1:4, 5; 1 Cor. 4:18, 19, 20). ‘For the kingdom of God (saith he) is not in word, but in power.’ He whose faith stands only in saying, ‘believe,’ has his works in bare words also, and as virtual is the one as the other, and both insignificant enough. ‘If a brother or a sister be naked, or destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them ‘Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled;’ notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone’ (Jam. 2:16, 17). This faith, therefore, Satan can allow, because it is somewhat of kin to his own (Ver. 19).

Besides, what greater contempt can be cast upon Christ than is cast upon him by such wordy professors? These are the men that by practice say, ‘the gospel is but an empty sound.’ Yea, the more they profess, the louder they proclaim it thus to be, to his disgrace; while they, notwithstanding their profession of faith, hold and maintain their league with the devil and sin.

The Son of God was manifest that he might destroy the works of the devil; but these men profess his faith, and yet keep these works alive in the world (1 John 3). Shall these pass for such as believe to the saving of the soul? For a man to be content with this kind of faith, and to look to go to salvation by it, what to God is a greater provocation? The devil laugheth here, for he knows he has not lost his vassal by such a faith as this; but that rather he hath made use of the gospel, that glorious word of life, to secure his captive, through his presumption of the right faith, the faster in his shackles.

It is marvellous to me to see sin so high amidst the swarms of professors that are found in every corner of this land. Nor can any other reason be given for it, but because the gospel has lost its wonted virtue, or because professors want faith therein. But do you think it it because of the first? No, the word of our God, shall stand in its strength for ever. The faith of such, therefore, is not right. They have for shields of gold, made themselves shields of brass; or instead of the primitive faith, which was of the operation of God, they have got to themselves a faith that stands by the power, and in the wisdom of man (2 Chron. 12:9, 10; Col. 2:12; 1 Cor. 2:4, 5).

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The article can be found online here.

Faith and Love

“We are not to suppose that Christian love can exist independently of faith. Paul did not intend to set up one grace in rivalry to the other. He did not mean that one man might have faith, another hope, and another love–and that the best of these, was the person who had love. The three graces are inseparably joined together. Where there is faith, there will always be love; and where there is love, there will be faith. Sun and light, fire and heat, ice and cold, are not more intimately united than faith and love!”

~ J.C. Ryle

Tract: Christian Love

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