First, let me suggest that faith is not the opposite of work or action. It enables it. And work is not the same as “works.” Works are deeds done just to look good or earn kudos.
For example, you can run a ministry, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or be a peace activist and still be the nastiest person on the block. This was the Pharisees’ problem because their inner qualities remained untouched. “Whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones,” as Jesus put it. (Mat. 23:27)
Work, by contrast, is God’s idea. He placed Adam in the garden specifically to work and care for it (Gen. 2:15). By God’s design, and when it’s not abused, work brings some kind of gain in experience (knowledge) and skill.
More Than Agreement
Which brings me to the phrase, “faith alone in Christ alone” for salvation and deliverance. It’s one of the most misused verses among well-meaning Christians today. If you’ve been a Christian for many years (maybe your whole life), and wondered when the “new creation” in you would kick in, the following might make more sense to you.
Generally, Protestants have been taught to see the phrase as “mental agreement alone in Christ’s forgiveness alone.” But that alone doesn’t deliver us from the myriad lingering effects of evil on our inner being—like constant anger, anxiety, contempt, performance, hurry, the need to lie to save face, or a devastating sense of self-worthlessness—because there’s more to deliverance than atonement alone.
Salvation also includes the quality of character that can safely rule and serve the earth with God, His original and ongoing purpose for mankind. “Let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26) The ability to govern, without ourselves being governed by sin, is precisely what Christ redeems in human beings.
But it doesn’t happen to you. It takes work. Intelligent work partnered with his, and vastly different from works. So let’s look at the first half of the phrase. “Faith alone,” as Paul used it, means you don’t have to:
- Be a Jew
- Be male
- Be circumcised or say the right prayers or eat the right food
- Have money, education, social status, or a “respectable” job (tax collectors and prostitutes come to mind)
Faith isn’t just mental agreement or acceptance. It’s to act as if something were true, and that alone is all you need to start. But act as if what were true, specifically? Yes, it’s faith in Christ, but what does that actually mean? His divine pedigree and resume? His character? Atonement?
All of these are true, but faith in Christ means faith in him, the person, and his ability to lead us into a better quality of life. New life. Maximum life. Not after we die, but the life we’re living now. It can be lived with confident joy, self-worth, love, and other qualities within the kingdom of heaven at hand, i.e., among us.
You Can Actually Do Something: Work With Jesus
So the second half, “Christ alone,” simply means:
- No one else
- Not Peter, Paul, or Mary
- Not me
- Not friends, family, or celebrities
- Not science, academia, political groups, or religious dictates
Faith alone in Christ alone is to act as if what he says to do is reliable and true. You put his words into practice—not because you ought to, or because he wants you to (although he does), but because you want to. You figure he’s the most competent expert on life and well-being, so you venture on him and his ways by seeking and practicing. Forgiveness is only one component.
If you want to become an electrician or a musician and enter those “worlds,” you need to learn and practice certain skill sets, right? I did that when I wanted to be a pilot. Likewise, if we want deliverance from evil, and the strength and finesse of Christ in his world among us, we need a certain skill set that he teaches and manifests. That’s the only way it becomes safe for people to rule anything, let alone the whole planet.
Next week, we’ll look at Jesus’ gospel and the words he specifically wants us to practice for this goal, deliverance, and maximum life. And it might make more sense of Paul’s other phrase, “continue to work out your salvation.” (Phl. 2:12)