FAITH THROUGH LOVE
Written by Doug Ponder on July 30, 2015
By Grace, Through Faith
God tells us that we are saved “by grace through faith.” The “by grace” part of the phrase means that Jesus himself is the one who rescues us from the consequences of our sin, and he does this without requiring us to earn it. The “through faith” part means that Jesus’ saving grace is delivered to us by means of faith. If salvation were household plumbing, then Jesus is the (living) water and the pipes are faith that deliver the water into our homes. Or to switch metaphors, Jesus himself is the gift, and faith is the empty hand that receives him.
There are two ways to get this wrong, which means there are two ways to miss the saving grace of Jesus.
Self-Righteousness: Trusting in Yourself
The first way to miss the grace of Jesus is to trust in what the Bible calls “works” by relying on our moral behavior to make us ‘good with God.’ Another word for faith in good works is self-righteousness, because we ultimately believe that we can make ourselves right by our own actions.
Self-righteousness says, “Obey God if you want him to love you.” “Stop sinning if you want to get into heaven.” “Care for God’s creation and give to the poor if you want God to accept you.” There are even secular forms of self-righteousness: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” “Be your own hero.” “Believe in yourself.” Self-righteousness is always faith in good works, not faith in Jesus.
Mere Belief: No Different than the Demons
The second way to miss the grace of Jesus is to believe the right facts about Jesus without actually having faith in Jesus. James the apostle highlights the crucial difference between mere belief and saving faith by saying, “You believe that there is one God? Good job! Even the demons believe that—and tremble!” (Jas. 2:19). James’ point is clear: the demons believe that God exists and that Jesus is his Son (Mark 5:7). They even believe Jesus is the Savior who caame to save the world (Matt. 8:29). So James asks you, “What makes your so-called “faith” any different from that of the demons?” This is why James famously concluded, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26).
James is not saying that good works cause faith to “come alive,” like a dead corpse receiving a vivifying jolt from the paramedic’s shock paddles. Rather, James is saying that good works are the signs of life that flow from a living faith. “I will show you faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). No works, no saving faith. This is why the Bible tells us that many people who call themselves “Christians” are actually self-deceived (Matt. 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 3:18; Jas. 1:22; 1 John 1:6). Hence the apostle Paul warns us, “Examines yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).
The Litmus Test of Saving Faith
So how do we examine ourselves? How can we tell if the have faith in Jesus is genuine? Paul offers a simple answer: “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6, NET). The test to see if our faith is real is whether or not our faith expresses itself through love. But Paul’s not talking about sentimentality and warm fuzzies; he’s talking about fulfilling the commands to love God and to love our neighbors, the two commands that Jesus says form the cornerstone of all God’s laws (Matt. 22:36-40).
Part 1: Love God
Humble obedience is how our love for God is demonstrated; it’s how our faith is shown to be real. This means a man who says, “I love God” but has no desire to obey him has nothing but a dead and useless faith. For Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Thus saying, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love,” is the same as saying, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through obedience.”
But someone will say, No one perfectly obeys God! So how could obedience be the test for true faith?
Such an objection overlooks that obedience to God includes repentance, which first assumes that we have indeed disobeyed God. It’s not for nothing that Jesus began his ministry preaching, “Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). In other words, sinning is not a sign that you have dead faith; sinning is a reminder that you need a savior. The refusal to repent, however, is a sure sign that we don’t really have faith in Jesus. That’s why he says, “Why do you call me ‘lord’ and not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)
Part 2: Love Your Neighbor
Alongside the command to “love God” Jesus includes a second, “which is like it,” saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is no dummy, and he joins these together for a reason. He knew that many would be tempted to say, “I do love God, but I don’t care about that guy over there.” So in addition to commanding us to love another (John 13:35) and even to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), Jesus told a man named John to write this: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates his brother or sister is a liar… Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:20-21).
Slippery hearts try to slip away from clear commands, but God loves us too much to let us do that. So he also says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). James makes the same point in exactly the same way: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? This kind of faith cannot save him, can it?” (Jas. 2:14)
In other words, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love for our neighbors.” “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through sacrificial acts of service and generosity and accountability.” Anything else isn’t living faith, but a dead faith that can never save us.
Where Do We Go from Here?
“By grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). It’s true! That’s the gospel, and there is nothing for you to “do” but receive Jesus’ grace through faith. But faith without works isn’t really faith at all (Jas. 2:14-17). And that’s why Paul says, “The only thing that matters if faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
And if, after reading this, you discover that the faith you thought you had is either the self-confidence of self-righteousness or the dead faith of mere belief, what then? Simple: Jesus says to you still, “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.