HELL IN HEAVEN? HEAVEN IN HELL? (A-6)

Part APart BPart C

A-1: Introduction
A-2: Who Are God’s People?
A-3: The Book of Life
A-4: “Second Chance” for Unbelievers?
A-5: Death and Hell
A-6: Salvation by Works?
A-7: Resurrection and Rapture

A-6: Salvation by Works?

Salvation by works? Such an idea borders on the heretical, we may think. But let’s explore this question from different angles. We may, if nothing else, gain a better understanding of what it means to be “saved” or “born again”.

We usually think of Salvation as that grace (divine favor) by which God releases a person from a dismal fate in Death and Hell and grants him or her entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven; however, the same grace of God operates in many other ways: to bring present victory in our personal lives and circumstances; to bring healing in body, mind, and spirit; to take Earth’s government out of the hands of evil rulers, replacing them with the meek who shall inherit the Earth; to restore and regenerate Earth’s natural environment. “Salvation” then can be understood in different ways, covering the entire scope of human life and environment.

But let us narrow the focus down to that aspect known as personal salvation – the transition that happens when one “has passed from death into life” to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God. (John 5:24) Such salvation is not a complicated process. God has made it easy. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

In this reference to the children of Israel, Moses had fashioned a bronze serpent; the people needed only to look on it to get healed from the curse of serpent bites that were ravaging the wilderness camp. (Numbers 21.9) Likewise, to gain release from the curse of Death and Hell in the Afterlife, it is a simple matter of believing in Christ. But then we might recall the statement, “even the demons believe”. (James 2:19) And they certainly don’t have eternal life, but eternal damnation.

So then, there must be something more to this step of “believing” than meets the eye. And that extra something is explained further ahead in the same passage. “For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (John 3:20-21) So here we see that mysterious factor which can complicate the simple step to salvation for some people.

For to take that step means renouncing one’s wrongdoings, the setting aside of one’s pride; it’s turning around and going in a new direction… towards the Light and the Kingdom, what the New Testament calls “repentance”. More than just “faith”, it’s also a matter of “deeds” that “have been done in God.” And for those who are “practicing evil” and would rather not that their“deeds should be exposed”, then submission to Christ’s authority becomes difficult; it requires a shattering of their old ways and attitudes. But for the person “who does the truth” and whose “deeds… have been done in God”, it is easy for him or her to “come to the light”; they are already walking in love and humility.

The example of Naaman in the Old Testament offers a helpful illustration of what this salvation process entails. The commander of the Syrian army, Naaman, had journeyed to Israel to visit the prophet Elisha in hopes of finding a cure for his leprosy. The prophet’s answer was simple: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.”

But since the prophet did not roll out the VIP treatment for him with grand welcome ceremony and display of healing power, “Naaman became furious” (2 Kings 5:10-11) Finally, Naaman humbly yielded to the prophet’s instructions and bathed in the Jordan River and was healed… not only of his leprosy but of his pride also. When not yielded, humbly, to the will of God, Naaman’s healing was impossible; but once he yielded, it was a simple matter.

We may conclude then that “believing” includes more than mere acknowledgment or mental understanding of who Christ is (for even the demons have that). As far as personal salvation is concerned, it is a matter of receiving Christ, which means submitting to His authority, which means renouncing the works of Darkness in one’s life. “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19) It’s a humbling and going in a new direction.

At the outset Naaman had hope – an inkling of faith that it was possible to get healed of his leprosy. But that faith wasn’t enough until he humbled himself. This we might label as the “works” factor in the equation, that mental or spiritual effort on the part of the believer which causes him or her to put their faith into action. This leads us then to the controversial question, can we be saved by works as implied in the above story and in the Scripture, “But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants“? (John 3:21, NLT)

Well, there is a fine line here. To do “what God wants” is not self-works. As the apostle Paul explains, “By grace are ye saved… and that not of yourselvesnot of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 – KJV) There are two very different ways that “works” can manifest in a person’s life. One is the self-righteous way – through works done “of yourselves” - of seeking merit through an outward show of goodness by which a person can “boast”; and this doesn’t count in God’s eyes. “Seeking to establish their own righteousness,” as Romans 10:3 puts it.

The other way is found in “those who do what is right”. In a spirit of humility, “they are doing what God wants” (and not of themselves). (John 3:21, NLT) Such “works” follow the prescription, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13, RSV) To “work out your own salvation” means that one’s personal choice and effort are involved. God can’t do everything; there is the “work” side of our “faith”.

Faith is our recognition of God’s urging within us – we believe what we cannot see – and this results in our “work for his good pleasure”. Without the inner work of “faith”, there would be no outward result or “works”; and without the “works”, then “faith” was either non-existent, or else it was a weak faith that didn’t obey or make any follow-up effort.

“O you of little faith,” Jesus remarked on a few occasions. (Matthew 6:30,8:26,14:31, 16:8, Luke 12:28) Thankfully, Jesus understands and is merciful towards our human weakness in having faith, in finding it difficult to see beyond visible circumstances and to trust in God’s power and faithfulness.

Right after stating that salvation is by faith and not works, Paul goes on to say, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (2:10) Paul places great emphasis here on the role of “good works” in the lives of believers.  If “God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them,” then each of us has a destiny to fulfill which, without our good works, will become an unfinished destiny. Faith and works must operate together.

We see this nicely in the story of Zacchaeus: “Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.’” (Luke 19:8-9)

What was it that saved Zacchaeus? His faith? No doubt that had a great deal to do with it. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness.” But the turning point came with his declaration to help the poor and those whom he had wronged. “With the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Romans 10:10) This was the “work” of his faith, without which Jesus could not have promised salvation for Zacchaeus.

And there are many other similar examples in the Scriptures, dealing with the issue of salvation, where the emphasis lies with the conduct of individuals more than their belief systems:

  • In the Old Testament, the key to salvation was understood in very simple terms: “Turn away from evil and do good; so shall you dwell forever” (Psalm 37:27, ESV) “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.” (Psalm 62:12 – NIV, quoted in Romans 2:6) 
  • During his visit with the prophet Daniel, the angel Gabriel declared that those who will be highly rewarded at the end of Earth’s final “time of trouble” were “wise” and “turned many to righteousness”. (Daniel 12:3)
  • John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees” to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. (Matthew 3:7-9)
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ stated, “by their fruits you will know them.” He was referring there to “false prophets” who have their “sheep’s clothing” of brilliant ideas and belief systems, but the real gauge of their trustworthiness was to take a look at their fruits, the results of their ideas and actions. “A tree is known by its fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33)
  • In the Parable of the Final Judgment, Jesus talks about dividing the sheep from the goats – those who are ready for Heaven and those who are not. We learn here what the deciding factor is – not religious beliefs, but charitable or non-charitable acts of compassion during their earthly lifetimes. To them (“the righteous”) it was granted to “inherit the kingdom”. They had cared for the “least of these My brethren” – not for show or thought of reward, but simply out of compassion. In fact, they were not even aware that they had done anything worthwhile in service to Him: “when did we see You hungry… thirsty… a stranger… naked…sick, or in prison?” Many of these may never have known Christ during their earthly lives, but by helping the less fortunate, they were serving Christ. “As you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • A similar idea appears in John 13:20 where the deciding factor is whether or not people receive the people whom God sends to them. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me.”
  • And a few more Scriptures about the Final Judgment: “the dead were judged according to their works… those who have done good and those who have done evil (Revelation 20:12-13, John 5:29) [The Son of Man] will reward each according to his works.” (Matthew 16:27)  

Whom God is looking for then is the person “who does what is true”. (John 3:21, ESV) “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” (John 4:23)

“Deeds done in God” may be nothing more than a repentant heart – “the answer of a good conscience toward God”. (John 3:21, 1Peter 3:21) The thief on the cross, for example, showed great faith, trust, even insight when he uttered his cry, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Such “works” as this final confession may seem small to our human eyes, but in God’s eyes it is big.

Unlike the other thief, he was honest and not proud, able to acknowledge that he had led a sinful life. On top of that he had the courage and humility to throw himself upon God’s mercy. His repentance was the act of one who “does the truth”. And those who “worship in spirit and in truth” are the ones whom “the Father is seeking”. (John 4:23-24)

Not everyone, of course, has led a life of extreme sinfulness like the thief on the cross. Many peace-loving people try to obey their conscience, and it could be said of them that their “deeds” were “done in God”. But if they have not had the opportunity to come to Christ during their lifetimes (as did the thief on the cross), then it only seems reasonable that that opportunity would be offered to them in the Afterlife.

So again the question, are we justified by works or by faith? It almost seems as if there are contradictory teachings on this issue.

If we go by what the apostle Paul said, then we might figure that justification comes only by faith. To prove his point, Paul uses the example of Abraham who believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness”. (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:1-8). The apostle James, on the other hand, using the same Scripture about Abraham, stated, “You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-26)

Could James be wrong here? Does not the New Testament teach that salvation is by grace through faith? And did not the reformers during the Church Age fight hard to reinstate the belief that salvation is the gift of God, not dependent on works but on faith alone? Prior to the Reformation era of history, Popes and clergy taught that salvation came by works. And the kind of works they emphasized were those that increased the temporal power of the Church. In the early 1500s Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers repudiated this perversion of the Gospel; they re-introduced the knowledge of God’s grace – salvation as God’s free gift, accessible by faith and not by works. The pendulum began then to swing to the side of “faith” – away from the pointless and ritualistic “works” that were being promoted in those days.

To resolve this faith-versus-works question, much depends on how we define “works”. Christ once made this intriguing statement when asked by the people, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Probably they were thinking in terms of some physical activity, rituals, or good deeds. He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:28-29)

In our earthly realm, spiritual reality is difficult to perceive; thus, that step of believing in Christ is in itself a “work of God” – the “work of faith” as the apostle Paul calls it. (1Thessalonians 1:3) “Even the demons believe”, but with their kind of believing, there is no “work” of submission or yieldedness to the authority of Christ, no acceptance of God’s free gift, only stubborn refusal. (James 2:19)

The journey to Salvation, although it is a spiritual journey, does take a little effort – mental or spiritual effort we might say; it’s a struggle sometimes to believe and to submit. It was a struggle for the “lukewarm” church of Laodicea to undergo the difficult process of re-dedicating themselves. But Christ assured them, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.”

Christ is knocking at our heart’s door, but if there is no response, if one doesn’t make the conscious effort, an act of will, by which he or she “opens the door”, then there is no communion or fellowship with Christ; salvation, or re-dedication in the case of the Laodiceans, is hindered.

This is similar to what was said earlier about man’s response to God’s call. Without the “response”, if eyes  are blind, ears deaf, hearts hardened, then, Christ said, “they cannot turn to me and let me heal them”. (Matthew 13:15, NLT) “Faith” receives the call of God, and this results in “works” – the response to that call, in whatever form it may take… That is to say, the practice of our faith (the “works” aspect) can be expressed both outwardly (towards others in practical ways) and inwardly (as our personal devotion to God). So, looking at “works” from that perspective, we can easily agree with what James wrote, concerning the journey to salvation, “that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)

But the kind of works that the Reformation leaders, for example, were dealing with was very different. They were upset by the Church’s hypocritical demand for “works” – works that would benefit the Church establishment, not God or His people. Likewise, Paul was upset by the Judaism of his day. He was embroiled in the task of instructing the Jewish people about their insistence on keeping the laws of Moses. That kind of external activity seemed good on the surface, but because God had introduced the new way of faith in Christ’s sacrifice, their “works” were nothing more than a sign of their rebellion against God’s call and how God wanted them to follow. No wonder then that Paul made the statement, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28; see also Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 3:24)

And before his time, the Old Testament prophets frequently had to expose the disconnect between the people’s obedience to the external requirements of the law and their inner state of being. King David expressed this well. “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom… For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:6,16-17)

And there is the prophet Isaiah who admonished those who had a certain level of “faith” and took “delight in approaching God”. (58:2) But their “works” of fasting and prayer were not the kind of works God was pleased with. “Why have we afflicted our souls, and You [God] take no notice?” the people would complain. And the Lord told them to get busy and “loose the bonds of wickedness… let the oppressed go free… satisfy the afflicted soul, etc.” (Isaiah 58:3,6,10) Their faith without the right kind of works was dead and was robbing them of God’s blessing.

This question about how to define “works” is a rather fine point of theology perhaps. However, by clarifying it, we open the door to becoming more accommodating and charitable towards unbelievers. Especially important is the understanding that “works” does have some role to play in the salvation process. By excluding “works” from the Salvation equation, we shut out many an unbeliever who, although he or she may not have much to show in the way of “faith” (or Christian understanding), do have plenty to show in the way of “works”. And Scripture makes allowance for this: “You know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” (1John 2:29)

We might think of their “faith” as a desire to live in a godly way, prompted by their conscience, subconsciously perhaps, and in God’s eyes this would mean a lot. Just because it can’t be seen or measured, doesn’t mean faith is not there. Fortunately for many of us, God does not judge by the “outward appearance” but “looks at the heart”. (1Samuel 16:7)

But we human beings prefer to categorize things and think we understand how God works; we don’t naturally like to concede there may be some people, whom God has accepted, who don’t think or believe just the way we do.

The apostle Paul made note once about those “Gentiles” (unbelievers) who “by nature do the things in the law… who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.” (Romans 2:14-15). Indeed, conscience is often described as God’s presence in man. 

Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience. (George Washington)

If a person is pursuing godly ideals of truth, love and concern for others, then the Lord will surely take note of this. And if it happens in a cultural setting where Christian beliefs are unknown or prohibited, this also He will take into account. That, after all, is what those “books” mentioned in the Revelation Book are for – to keep track of our activities, both good and bad – and to serve as the basis for judging who, among non-Christians, is worthy to have their names written in the Book of Life. (20:12)

We should concede then that many souls have been influenced by “the true Light which gives light to every man”. And so it should not seem surprising that God would bring them the opportunity in the Afterlife to find the faith that was missing during their earthly lives. Or in many cases, that happens in this life supernaturally through the power of dreams or visions.

A welcoming attitude towards unbelievers, by the way, is one of the striking features in Mormon doctrine. In their understanding there exists a variety of potential outcomes for souls in the Afterlife. Importantly, they believe that those who did not have the chance to receive Christ during their earthly lives will get that chance in the Afterlife; in addition, some souls may experience a temporary hell after death but will have opportunity to repent before the Final Judgment.

To the minds of those outside the Christian faith, this kind of outlook surely would sound more reasonable, appealing, welcoming, and less forbidding than the standard, black-and-white conception of Heaven for born-again Christians and eternal Hell for everyone else. Whatever else we may think of Mormon doctrine, this one aspect may be one of the reasons why God has blessed the Mormon Church and allowed it to grow. “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”(Matthew 7:20)

Getting back to the faith-versus-works question: In his epistle the apostle James uses the example of Abraham to explain how “faith was working together with his works”. Although “Abraham believed God and it was counted to Him for righteousness”, that belief was accompanied by the “work” of taking Isaac to the mountain and getting ready to sacrifice him. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” 

If Abraham had not done so, then it would have meant he didn’t believe and/or refused to obey what God had told him. Whether it’s no faith or disobedient faith, it could not have “counted for righteousness”, and the result would be no salvation or blessing – in this case, the promise of being “a father if many nations”. (James 2:21-23; Genesis 15:6, 17:4) 

Faith and works cannot be separated. There is always this interplay, and the one cannot exist without the other. Abraham showed his belief in the difficult thing God had asked of him by setting out to do it. “Faith was completed by his works.” And for this reason Abraham “was called a friend of God”, in contrast to those whom James mentions later will not or cannot obey and thus become “a friend of the world” and “an enemy of God”. (James 2:22-23, 4:4 – ESV) 

The same principle appears, from a different angle, in the Scripture, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:11, ESV) That state of “rest” corresponds to the domain of grace – that state of deep assurance of being one with God, under His wings of protection and blessing. But it is preceded by the “let us therefore strive” stage, which corresponds to the “faith” side of the salvation equation.

And if one must strive to enter that rest”, then there must be an element of “works”; otherwise, it would be “disobedience”. What James said about faith being completed by works is nothing else but our response to what God’s grace or favor has already made available; He is just waiting for us to “go for it”.

Mankind’s Salvation has already been accomplished – the work of God’s grace; we need only to exercise our faith to make it reality. And as far as personal salvation is concerned, to exercise our faith requires some kind of “work” of confession, submission, or going in the right direction. This kind of “work” is simply the result of our trust (or faith) in Him, which is love really. Whereas the other kind of works (“of yourselves”) is based on a lack of trust (or faith) – a pretended faith and even a selfish desire to use God, to appease Him by performing certain rituals. Such “worship” won’t guarantee entrance into the Kingdom of God.“For the Kingdom of God belongs to men who have hearts as trusting as these little children’s. And anyone who doesn’t have their kind of faith will never get within the Kingdom’s gates.” (Luke 18:16, TLB)

What often happens: we fear having to trust God and fall into His arms, to let go of ourselves. Perhaps we try to maneuver our way into God’s favor by a display of works of our own choosing – an act of self-deception which enables us to to hold onto our pride and comfort zone of habitual thought and action.

Paul, writing about his Jewish brethren, expressed it well: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:3) 

In Abraham’s example, we know that his “works” resulted from what God had told him personally. The law-keeping Jews, on the other hand, to whom Paul was trying so hard to teach the new way of faith, were not engaging in personal interaction with God; it was a distant relationship, and their “works” were just a going-through-the-motions ritual which they hoped would leverage the hand of the Almighty in their favor.

Although Paul wrote much about how the works of the Law could not bring salvation, that did not mean that he thought works were not necessary. In fact, in the passage quoted before in this study, Paul himself said, [God] will render to each one according to his works. To those who continue “in well-doing… he will give eternal life.” But for evil-doers, “there will be tribulation and anguish.” (Romans 2:5-11, ESV)

When Paul states that the “gift” of Salvation cannot be obtained by “works”, he is referring to a certain type of works, those done with the wrong motive – just for show, whether it be the works of the Law, religious observances, or even moral conduct. (Ephesians 2:8-9) And that kind of do-it-yourselfism has caused huge problems throughout Church history.

       The most raging religious controversy the world has ever known has been between the do-it-yourself religions and the God-alone-can-save-you kind. Man has always been trying to save himself, to work his way to Heaven, with just a little help from God thrown in. That way he can give himself most of the credit and go his own way.
       The first murder was committed by a religionist of the do-it-yourself kind, Cain (the oldest son of the first couple, Adam and Eve). Cain killed his brother Abel, a man who was trusting God (Genesis chapter 4). This was the beginning of the persecution of the true church by the false church. Cain was religious, very religious. He was trying very hard to save himself in his own way, even sacrificing to God and claiming to worship God. He was doing his best to ask God to help him earn his own salvation–but his best wasn’t good enough!…
       
On the other hand, Abel just did what God told him to do–and he “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Hebrews 11:4): the sacrifice of pure faith in what God told him to do. By sacrificing a lamb, which was a foreshadowing of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world (John 1:29), Abel showed that he was trusting God alone to save him. He knew he had only God’s righteousness, and none of his own, and that salvation was purely a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).
       
Abel’s humble sacrifice made such a fool out of the hardworking Cain, the self-made man and devout religionist, devoted to his own form of worship, and it so totally exposed the futility and hypocrisy of Cain’s hard work, that Cain was furious. After all his labors of the flesh, his legalistic reasoning, and his demands for salvation in return for all he was doing, Cain was so humiliated that he tried to wipe out the awful truth that his religion had failed to save him–and he did so by killing the man whose simple faith in God’s grace had exposed him.
       
Thus began the battle royal between pride and humility… the perpetual warfare that has been waged ever since between the false church and the true church, flesh and spirit, works [of the do-it-yourself kind] and faith, law and grace, self and God.
       
This conflict has resulted in some of the greatest misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Scriptures that have ever existed…
       [“Flesh or Spirit” by David Brandt Berg]

 A vivid picture there of the right and wrong kinds of works: Abel “who was trusting God”; and Cain who wanted to do things his own way. As explained there, the gift of Salvation requires “faith” – without any “do-it-yourself” works. Of course, Abel still had to do his part of preparing a lamb sacrifice. This was the action of his faith. “Abel just did what God told him to do.” Like Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, or Naaman bathing in the Jordan, they put their trust in God at the outset; they knew it was a “God-alone-can-save-you” situation.

Nevertheless, there was an action or “work” required to complete the “faith” of these individuals. But their works were the right kind of works (since they were what God wanted them to do). And as they did their works, God poured out His grace and did the miracles that were needed. And likewise, the miracle of Salvation requires, not just faith, but the “work” of an enquiring mind, a seeking heart, a contrite and humble spirit, a confession of faith of some kind.

Here is where that peculiar human attribute known as “choice” enters the picture – what sets human beings apart from the animal kingdom. If there were no “work” (no involvement, no step of faith), that means no choice would be needed. And if there is no choice, then it is all left up to God – total pre-destination.

But that is not what God desires, nor how He has designed the drama of human experience and history; He expects us to trust and respond, as in a relationship, and thus He has given us humans freedom of choice. And choice means faith moves itself out of mere contemplation into action. As far as personal salvation is concerned, there should be some kind of conscious acceptance which will manifest in good works; or conversely, a conscious denial, turning away, and rejection.

So when Paul quotes from Genesis, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” it doesn’t mean that works were not involved. (Romans 4:3) Paul was simply putting more emphasis on the “faith” side of the equation because he was addressing a Jewish society where the faith-works pendulum had swung too far to the side of keeping an outdated brand brand of works (the Law), and this was interfering with their acceptance of the new way of faith in Christ.

On the other hand, James, who also quotes the same Scripture about Abraham, emphasizes the “works” side of the equation because he was dealing with those who thought they could get by with their belief system “without works”; perhaps they were smug and content with their Christian “faith” but were not practising it. (2:20) Back in those days of the Early Church, the apostle James may have noticed among his flock of believers a certain lack of connection between faith and works. Some thought that one could have faith “apart from works”, but James countered this idea, saying, “I will show you my faith by my works”. (2:18, ESV)

Nowadays, in some Christian circles it seems as if that pendulum has swung too far in that direction. And as James points out in his epistle, it is possible to fall into a sort of easy-believism. Born-again Christians should, of course, be happy and overjoyed to have found God’s favor through Christ, their salvation, but they must beware of getting too familiar and slipping into an attitude of “it doesn’t matter what one does because God will always forgive”. Well yes, that is true; He will forgive… but regardless, it will still cost something. (More information on this in the section “Rewards, Rehabilitation, or Both?”)

        We know that the Lord loves us unconditionally and He forgives us for our sins. At times we feel the Lord’s presence intimately and are keenly aware of His love, grace, and mercy. This doesn’t mean, however, that He’s so chummy with us that He will turn a blind eye if we repeatedly, intentionally, and on an ongoing basis, step outside His will, disobey His Word, ignore His still, small voice speaking to our hearts, and disregard the principles He’s put forth in His Word. We need to maintain a healthy fear of the Lord in our lives. (“In Parftnership with God,” Roadmap series)

 “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” An over-emphasis on “faith” (belief system) doesn’t count for much because “even the demons believe.” (2:17,19) Citing the example of Abraham, James states, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? … You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (2:22,24)

Now it is possible to go too far in the direction of “works” (as to go in the direction of “faith”). There is the example of the situation that came up amongst believers in the Ephesian church. Its members were found wanting because they had lost their “first love”. (Revelation 2:4) They were failing to let go of self-effort (works) so that (through faith) they could have more communion with God, the result of which would allow Him more opportunity to work through them.

The only way we can become abundantly fruitful is to understand the Lord’s fruit-bearing process. As we lay down self-effort, our natural human independence, and seek communion with Him, abiding in the Vine, then His power, His will, and His desires will be realized in our lives, which then will bear fruit that remains throughout eternity! — George Whitten, “Abide”

The Lord loves our faith and our belief in Him even though we can’t see Him. He also loves it when we show our faith by our works. There is this constant interplay of faith and works. It’s a bit of a mystery, but one thing seems certain: the two complement each other, and neither can exist in isolation. To stay on God’s track means to keep the right balance between the two.

       An old Scotsman operated a little rowboat for transporting passengers. One day a passenger noticed that the good old man had carved on one oar the word “Faith,” and on the other oar the word “Works.” Curiosity led him to ask the meaning of this. The old man, being a well-balanced Christian and glad of the opportunity for testimony, said, “I will show you.”
       So saying, he dropped one oar and plied the other called Works, and they just went around in circles. Then he dropped that oar and began to ply the oar called Faith, and the little boat just went around in circles again–this time the other way around, but still in a circle.
       After this demonstration the old man picked up Faith and Works, and plying both oars together, sped swiftly over the water, explaining to his inquiring passenger, “You see, that is the way it is in the Christian life. Dead works without faith are useless, and ‘faith without works is dead’ also, getting you nowhere. But faith & works pulling together make for safety, progress, and blessing.”
       
[Good Thots, 1987, Page 1035]
 

So if we perceive that our spiritual life is lacking and seems to be going around in circles, then maybe it results from this imbalance – lack of faith or lack of works. This controversy over which is more important – faith or works – can be argued either way, it seems. Much depends on the circumstances, as noted in the above examples of Paul and James and the different emphases they used in ministering to different sets of people and their weaknesses. About all we can say on this is that both faith and works are important; they complement each other and need to be combined. Faith without works is incomplete, and works without faith is also incomplete.

In the years following the establishment of the Early Church, various Gnostic heresies began to spring up. One of these over-emphasized the division between the physical and the spiritual domains, which resulted in two false teachings: 1) Since the “spirit” was saved (and therefore “good”), then it didn’t matter what the body did; you could indulge in any kind of licentious behavior, and it would be okay – faith without worksy. 2) Since the “body” was evil, then the way to salvation was asceticism, strict denial of bodily/worldly pleasures – works without faith. These Gnostic practices were like the extreme end result of the “faith apart from works… body apart from the spirit” attitudes that James was confronting. (2:26, ESV) 

Christ set the example for us. He did not operate by self-effort or self-will: “I can of Mine own self do nothing… I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent Me.” He abandoned Himself to what God was leading Him to do, saying “as I hear, I judge”. (John 5:30, KJV)

Not pre-conceived notions, not a set of rules (like the Laws of Moses), not society’s conventions, just simple obedience to the will of God; and this, of course, required Him to spend a great deal of time in prayer and meditation with the Father. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul mentions something similar: “He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (3:5)

As Ephesians 2:8 makes clear, the gift of God’s favor, the “grace” aspect of salvation, is dependent on faith (“by grace you have been saved through faith”). (2:8) And this faith, as James made equally clear, cannot exist “apart from works”; otherwise it is “dead”. (James 2:26 – ESV)

So we might paraphrase Ephesians 2:8-9 thus: “For by grace you have been saved through your living faith (not a dead faith without works), and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works of your own self-effort and self-will lest anyone should boast.”

As mentioned before, there are two kinds of “works”. What James had in mind are those of simple and humble obedience to God. Whereas the kind of works Paul had in mind are those that encourage pride and self-righteousness, being the product of one’s own imagination or legalistic reasoning or self-effort. In particular, Paul downplays those “works” of the old law that were interfering with the new way of faith. Or it could be any scheme that causes us to fall for our human tendency to “walk by sight” instead of “by faith”. (2Corinthians 5:7)

So far, we have considered the concepts of faith and works, but not much about “grace”, the crucial factor in the journey to salvation. So then what about “grace”? What is it? To put it simply, when God lavishes His love upon us, especially when He does what is impossible for us to do or be deserving of, that is “grace”. The word “grace” comes from the Greek charis:

The N. T. writers use [charis] pre-eminently of that kindness by which God bestows favors even upon the ill-deserving, and grants to sinners the pardon of their offences, and bids them accept of eternal salvation through Christ… Eph. 2:5,7,8. (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg. 666)

There is only one path to salvation – through the name (or power) of Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). But that path may be viewed through two different lenses. On the one hand, through the lens of faith. As Ephesians 2:8-9 explains, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God”. “Grace” is what God does. “Faith” is what we do. And faith is not only a matter of believing, but also accepting (unlike the demons who only “believe”). And if one “accepts”, this is the crucial step of faith, the built-in “work” aspect that completes the initial “faith”. And this effort of faith, this “work” of faith, brings access into God’s grace.

On the other hand, we can look at salvation through the lens of works. And here we may consider what the Gospel of John says about the path to salvation: whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (3:21, ESV) The “works” themselves do not perform the miracle of salvation; that’s God’s job (“grace”). But those “works”, if they’re the right kind of works, done in love and humility, are the action of a person’s faith in whatever Light he or she was given. They may not have understood it as God’s Light working on their conscience. But their works are the evidence that that was what took place.

Now a person’s “works” cannot of themselves bring salvation. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) In other words, it takes God’s power, His grace, to complete the journey to Salvation.

Nevertheless, it should be conceded that a person’s “works of righteousness” can touch the heart of God. And His grace then kicks in on behalf of those individuals who are coming “to the light”. We might recall the example of Zacchaeus, whose declaration to help the poor and those he had cheated, stirred Jesus to declare,“Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

In this connection we might consider the case of those who were not thinking much about God but were working with a view to benefiting their fellow man – with a pure heart out of concern for others – and not trying to prove their own righteousness. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it was not at all important that the Samaritan belonged to the wrong religion. All that mattered was that “he had compassion” for someone in need. (Luke 10:33) And in the Lord’s eyes this placed him far above those (the priest and the Levite) who had the right religion (“salvation is of the Jews” - John 4:22) but could not show compassion when it was needed.

For so many people in this world, their faith in the Christian God has been weakened or made non-existent because of their cultural background and training, or because of a poor example seen from those who were supposed to be Christ’s representatives. For all we know, as far as God is concerned, the works of these people could be counted as “works… carried out in God”. If they have the right kind of works, and if faith and works operate together as the Book of James teaches, then these people must have some kind of faith (even if it  might seem lacking from a Christian point of view). “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)

Of course, in the end their salvation is still a matter of faith – “by grace through faith”; to overcome their ignorance and unbelief (the faith side of the equation), Christ would have to show His divine favor (His grace) by manifesting Himself at some point, in the Afterlife, to those who might not otherwise have the “faith” to accept the truth and be given the opportunity to enter the Kingdom. Normally, we think of faith as being “completed by works” (2:22, ESV), as James expressed it. But, since faith and works are inseparable, who is to say that the converse cannot also be true? Works can be “completed by faith”.

The thing to remember then is that a person’s “works”, if done with a good conscience, will engage the grace and mercy of Christ, even to those who were unbelievers during their lifetime. Although it is much better for a person to know Christ during his or her lifetime, that does not have to limit Christ’s outpouring of “grace” in the Afterlife.

Regarding the people of God in the very End Time, the Revelation Book makes this interesting statement: “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (12:17) The forces of Darkness shall be warring against certain people (“the woman”, later referred to as “His wife” in 19:7) The “woman” symbolizes the people who are obeying God, standing up for truth and righteousness during those dark days at the End of our present Age, those who pose a threat to the Dragon and his new world order headed by the Antichrist and False Prophet.

Are all these people Christians? Probably most of them will be. But it should not surprise us to see many in those days who, because of their culture or upbringing, cannot see their way to making bold declarations of faith in Christ. Yet they will courageously confront the evils of the new world order of the Antichrist and False Prophet. Even without a proper understanding of who Christ really is, nevertheless, they will have been guided by that “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9)

Would not God overlook their lack of knowledge and consider them His people, as those “who keep the commandments of God”? On the other side of the coin, there may be many in those days who call themselves Christians (“have the testimony of Jesus Christ”) yet may fail to “keep the commandments of God” and will shy away from making the difficult choice to stand forth boldly in the cause of righteousness. Having the right belief system – “the testimony of Jesus Christ” - is important, but it is not the entire picture.

So again the question: Salvation, does it come by works or by faith? Neither really. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace or favor. It is our faith, however, that leads us towards God’s salvation, bestowed freely on those who are ready for it. Faith is a powerful force. It transfers “things hoped for” and “things not seen” into reality. (Hebrews 11:1) But there is no such thing as faith that is not accompanied by some kind of work or action. In the “faith” chapter of Hebrews 11, every one of the heroes of faith has listed, along with their name, the action they took that showed their “faith” in what God wanted them to do.

We normally think of faith as the starting point and works as the completion point. But for many that starting point is rather vague and may best be understood as “their conscience bearing witness” to the “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” (Romans 2:15, John 1:9) For those who have no knowledge of Christ, the words of John 3:20-21 are appropriate. If a person “does truth” and his deeds have been done in God”, he will “come to the Light”.

And if he “hates the Light” because he is “practicing evil”, he won’t “come to the Light” at all. Or at the very best, it will be a painful process to have the “faith” to receive the gift of salvation because it means his “deeds” will have to be “exposed” and renounced. (John 3:20-21) Obedience (or works) engenders faith just as much as faith engenders obedience.

Well, we may speculate forever about who gets into the Kingdom and who doesn’t, or what their place in the Kingdom will be. The important thing to remember is that “the Lord knows those who are His.” This statement is followed by the qualifier, “And let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19) Christ cannot bestow salvation on someone who refuses to “depart from iniquity” (which renders them unable, or unwilling, to “come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed”), nor is He going to be very happy with those who, having come to Him, turn their backs on Him in disobedience and unrighteousness.

The thing to keep in mind about all of this is that “faith” doesn’t act by itself; there is always an element of “works”. And in many cases, those “works” happen over the course of a whole lifetime before an obvious “faith” (in Christ) comes into being.

As far as salvation itself is concerned, those “works” may be of an internal sort, an act of personal will – whether it be confession, a move towards repentance, a calling out “on the name of the Lord”, or whatever it might be – what Jesus called “the work of God”. (Romans 10:9-10,13; John 6:29) And after that it is pure grace; Christ opens the gates to welcome the new believer into the Kingdom.

Continue to A-7: Resurrection and Rapture

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