One of the most significant ‘light-bulb’ moments for me in the last couple of years has been to hear Alan Torrance and Mike Reeves say in different contexts basically the same thing. Namely this: the reformers did not speak of salvation by ‘faith alone’ so much as they spoke of salvation by ‘Christ alone.’ So Torrance maintains that John Knox, when he used the word ‘alone’ would attach it most often to ‘the blood of Christ’ rather than ‘faith’. Reeves says something similar about Luther – he would speak of salvation by ‘God’s Word alone’, more than by ‘faith alone’. Did both reformers both believe in ‘faith alone’?? They staked their lives on it. So why make the distinction?
Well think about these two ways of answering this question: Are we saved by our works?
Answer 1: No, we’re saved by our faith
Answer 2: No, we’re saved by Christ’s work
Now which answer better refutes works salvation?
The trouble with answer 1 is that is readily gives the impression that faith is the one work that merits salvation. It seems to privilege ‘faith’ as the one property we must possess over and above those other properties called ‘works’. So we say, “It’s not my works that save, it’s my faith.” Faith becomes a thing. But as Matt Jenson reminds us Faith is Nothing. (If you haven’t read Jenson’s short little article, stop wasting your time on this post and get over there).
Far better to say Answer 2: “It’s not my works that save me, it’s Christ’s work.” Our salvation lies outside us, in Jesus.
On a related note, this has some bearing on that little question we ask in evangelism: Why should God allow you into His heaven? The standard wrong answer is ‘Because I did good things.’ But all too often the standard ‘right answer’ is, ‘Because I believed in your Son.’ I much prefer the answer I read at De Regno Christi:
I’ll bow and be silent. Then I’ll hear a voice,
“Father, he’s mine.”
Our salvation lies outside of ourselves. Therefore if we trumpet ‘faith alone’ as a way of elevating this saving property called ‘faith’ which is my own meritorious possession… well, that’s pretty yuck. It makes faith into a work – the one truly saving work.
Now if you buy into that kind of understanding, what view of faith and works will you have? You’ll say ‘works are external, physical acts’ and ‘faith is an internal, mental act.’ And you’ll say, God has rejected external, physical acts (works) but desires internal, mental acts (faith). But let’s ask, Is it possible that my external, physical acts are instances of faith in the world? Surely yes! On the other hand, Is it possible that my internal, mental acts can betray exactly the kind of works righteousness condemned in the Scriptures? Absolutely.
So how does David and Goliath help?
Well the Israelites were full of internal mental acts prior to David’s victory. They might range from things like “Yikes, what’s the quickest way to go AWOL” to the much more respectable sounding, “Bring Goliath over here, I’ll win the day.” (No-one did seem to think this, but it was a possibility). Now both those mental acts would have been faithless. Even if someone thought “I’ll defeat Goliath in the Name of the LORD” it would be faithless, for to do so would be to step into shoes that only the Anointed King can fill. Such mental acts are still works since they displace the Champion with something else.
On the other hand, once David has defeated Goliath, there are some very concrete external acts going on (v52). They shout aloud and chase down the defeated Philistines. Yet for all their physicality, these acts are simply expressions of faith. In fact the person who remains physically unmoved by David’s victory is almost sure to be the person who has not seen the victory, or has not understood the connection between David and them. Such a person has no faith.
‘Internal’ does not equal ‘faith’ and ‘external’ does not equal ‘works’. What counts is the victory of David. Has David’s victory for me been understood and received? That’s the question that lies at the fault-line between faith and works. Any expression of a ‘yes’ to that question (whether internal or external) equals faith. Any expression of a ‘no’ to that question (whether internal or external) equals works.
Let’s put it one more way: ‘Faith alone’ is really another way of saying, ‘I did not help David one little bit, but I get all the benefits.’ ‘Faith’ does not put the spotlight on me (and my emotional/spiritual state). ‘Faith’ is all about putting the spotlight on Christ. ‘Faith alone’ is an expression that secures ‘Christ alone’ in my subjective appropriation of salvation. Just as ‘Grace alone’ is an expression that secures ‘Christ alone’ in God’s objective offer of salvation.
Ok, I’m repeating myself lots now. Why hammer on at this? Well here’s one pay-off. The quest for more faith is not an inward journey! I don’t find faith in me. I find faith when I forget all about faith and simply focus on my Champion. I find myself in the state of believing not by trying to believe but by simply seeing and appreciating the work of Christ. And from this the emotions (shouting!) and the works (plundering!) will flow as true expressions of faith. As Robert Murray McCheyne once said to a woman he counselled, “You don’t need more faith, you need more Christ.”