For a good deal of time now (perhaps since the resurrection itself, or shortly thereafter) there has been an ongoing dispute between faith and works. Many argue that the laws established in the Old Testament no longer affect us, and therefore because of our Savior’s death and resurrection, we are no longer expected to follow the rules put forth by God before the coming of Christ. They are wrong.
This subject, I believe, is a very important element in Christianity; perhaps one of the most important. It deals not only with what God expects from us, but also what He has provided for us, not only for our edification, but also for our benefit; our peace of mind, and our testimony.
At this point, instead of laying Scripture on top of Scripture to document works versus faith, I think it more important to establish a firm foundation of the subject matter to be built upon at a later date. However, I believe certain Scriptural statements are pertinent to our foundation, and so I will place them below accordingly.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, til all be fulfilled. - Matthew 5:17-18
Has all been fulfilled? Of course it hasn’t. We’re still here. Heaven and earth have not passed away, and so therefore, from Christ’s lips, neither has the law.
If this is the case, then where does “obedience” lie? What effect does it have on us? Where do “works” come into play? Obedience is a matter of “work” after all. First off, we know the Word of God is 1) complete, and 2) bears no contradictions. At first glance, it appears that the law is in place, but we are in fact UNABLE TO LIVE BY IT.
Paul states in Romans 1:17 that For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
Clearly according to this statement, we LIVE BY FAITH. Yet Christ tells us that 1) the law is not destroyed in any wise. 2) He tells us:
John 14:21 He that has my commandments, and keeps them, he it is that loves me: and he that loves me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. 22 Judas said unto him, not Iscariot, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself unto us, and not unto the world?” 23 Jesus answered and said unto him, “If a man love me, HE WILL KEEP MY WORDS: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. 24 He that loves Me not KEEPS NOT MY SAYINGS: and the word which you hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me.”
If you wish to know which words specifically are Christ’s, read John 1:1-14. So Christ here tells us that obedience is in fact important. If faith is what we live by, why does Christ, on multiple occasions, harp so emphatically on obedience? Is not “obedience” works?
I think the most definitive way I can separate faith from works is in this wise: Christ has told us in Matthew 7: 15 to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them”.
So if a man’s works are his “fruit”, it stands to reason that his “thought” or perhaps his “motive” is his root. It is then, the root of a man that determines whether he lives or not. Outwardly a man can look very righteous. But if he is operating correctly to receive accolades from his piers; or his congregation; or his community, his root is corrupt. On the other hand, if a man has every good intention, but continues to err in his ways throughout his life, the root is good and rests in good soil (Christ).
Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me...” - Isaiah 29:13
5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. 7 And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
If obeying the law was enough, the motive within the man would make no difference. But God states here that the outward matters not, if the inner man is not committed - i.e. obedience means nothing, if it is not done for the right reasons. It is the intent and the heart of a man/woman that is everything in the eyes of the Lord.
A man’s belief, therefore, is everything, as it affects and translates into every action. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this is the necessity of repentance. As far as law goes, if it no longer existed, there would be no need of repentance. This is not the case. With respect to forgiveness, Christ had this to say to His disciples:
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him. - Luke 17:3-4
When asked how many times a man should forgive his brother, Christ responds with this, 21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”. - Matthew 18:21-22
It might seem a digression to bring up the subject of repentance right now, but I assure you it is not. Repentance is pertinent to the subject for two reasons: 1) Repentance is an apology for sin. And 2) it is in fact a matter of following Christ’s instruction, which makes it a law, and the following of it, obedience. But it all starts as a matter of faith. In order to repent, one must first believe two things: 1) that sin exists and that he has indeed sinned; and 2) that Christ can cleanse through repentance. It is in this believing that the action is taken, but it is the action itself that is necessary for forgiveness.
As Christ states above, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and IF HE REPENTS, forgive him.” Christ has established a few conditions here: 1) sin does exist; 2) It requires repentance and 3) forgiveness is conditionally based on repentance. And sin, according to 1st John 3:4 is “a transgression of the law”. Following this track, the law MUST still exist, because if it did not, there would be no such thing as sin, and therefore there would be no need for repentance.
So what is faith? To me, it is my Litmus test to prove to myself the level and limitation of my own commitment to trusting God. How do you know when your faith is lacking? It has been my experience, that when I start rationalizing to myself that I have a better way to go about something; when I start to talk myself into veering from the laws and guidelines that God has put forth, my trust in Him is lacking - I am short on faith. I have said in my own heart, “I don’t believe God”. In this, I am NOT justified.
The book of James, I believe, gives us a perfect explanation of the pairing of faith and obedience.
James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus 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 without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
Hebrews 11 declares this same thing - that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness...” - But Abraham’s belief was proven when he ascended the mount and raised a dagger over his only son. Until then, his declaration of faith could’ve simply been a matter of lip service. God did not stop Abraham when he told his son they were going on a trip; He did not stop him on their ascent; He did not stop him when he placed his son on the altar; He stopped him at the moment he was fully committed to whatever God would have him do. In this, he was justified.
Paul, the writer to whom most attribute to declaring that the old law is abolished writes this: Romans 3:31 Do we then make void the Law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
How on earth do we establish the law by faith, if faith is not an action? And why would we seek to establish something that was no longer pertinent? Because by operating by the law, through the passage of time, people will see that the law works. It brings less anxiety and greater peace of mind, not only to the individual, but also to the household; the community, and finally, with enough commitment, to the nation as a whole. Through establishing this, I believe more people will long for the kind of life that we try to live. And so we confirm the validity of our faith by the fruit of acting on it, and the results of those actions.
When Paul speaks of the law, he is not stating that the law has been removed; he is declaring that the law, in itself, CAN NOT justify us. It is still to be followed as best we can. Christ’s sacrifice simply gave us the opportunity to avoid the immediate penalties the Old Testament put forth for breaking the law through repentance upon his death and resurrection.
As a matter of fact, if we want to get technical, Christ magnified the law; or perhaps better said, He brought to our attention the fullness of the law in its truest form. He said it was not only sin to commit adultery, but to “lust after a woman in your mind”. The physical is simply an outward manifestation of the spiritual. The blood sacrifices were removed and nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:11-14) - the ordinances removed; but the law stands. And we know that the law is not carnal, but spiritual. It has been all along.