What Does Faith Do? It Depends
Some people love jigsaw puzzles – they’ll work on them for hours and hours. When you’re doing a puzzle, you need some clues to figure out how the pieces fit together. You’ve got the picture on the box, its colours and shapes. Another clue is the edge of the pieces – it’s always helpful to find the edges and corners. Then there are also the shapes of the puzzle pieces – some shapes just won’t fit. Taking all the clues together you can eventually finish the puzzle.
Theology is much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. There are all these different pieces. They do fit, but we don’t always right away realize how. The key is to pay attention to the clues. These are given to us in Scripture.
One of the most consequential issues in theology has to do with faith’s activity. This is because of the role of faith in justification. This doctrine has to do with God declaring us righteous on account of what Christ has done in his life and death. When it comes to justification, Scripture teaches we’re justified by faith alone. But what does “by faith” really mean? What does faith do in our justification? What is faith’s activity?
Historically, the churches of the Reformation have had a clear answer to that question. Faith’s activity in justification is resting and trusting in Christ alone. The individual stops trying to earn God’s favour and instead looks to Christ and receives his righteousness and forgiveness. So you could also say that faith is merely receptive in justification. It receives what Christ offers for our justification. Faith is like your open hands into which are placed a gift from someone else. This is why Romans 3:25, in the context of the basis of our justification, speaks about Christ’s redemption as something “to be received by faith.”
But then there are other passages which seem to insist that faith does more than just receiving. One of those passages is Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” This passage seems to be saying that what really counts for something is faith being active in love. This has led Roman Catholics and others to argue that faith’s activity in justification is not merely receptive. Faith is also “working through love.”
We have some pieces that don’t seem to fit. To put this theological puzzle together, we need to look more closely at the clues.
The context of Galatians is the struggle with the Judaizers. They claimed to be followers of Christ, but insisted on obedience to the Mosaic ceremonial laws, including circumcision. They added a legalistic burden to the gospel – this took the “good” out of the good news. Paul takes them to task for that. In chapter 3, he contrasts law-keeping with faith. And in Galatians 5:4 he says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law…” In that context, you wouldn’t expect him to turn around suddenly and say, “Actually, what your faith does apart from receiving Christ and his benefits actually does play a role in your justification.” That’s our first clue.
Verse 6 begins with four key words, “For in Christ Jesus…” The language of being “in Christ Jesus” is the language of vital spiritual union with Christ. One can only be savingly united to Christ if justification is a reality. If you are “in Christ Jesus,” you have been justified. This is why Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Now what demonstrates that you are united to Christ as a justified believer? Circumcision doesn’t. Neither does uncircumcision. Both of these are powerless to prove the authenticity of your relationship to Christ. The Galatians have to stop staking the bona fides of their faith on these grounds – grounds which are doing nothing but creating hostility and division within their churches.
What does demonstrate the genuineness of your union with Christ is what your faith produces, specifically: does it produce the fruit of love? The person united to Christ, who has experienced justification through faith in him, will invariably prove it by acts of love towards the neighbour. Faith working through love is what counts for demonstrating to those around us the reality of our relationship with Jesus.
To put this together theologically, we need all these clues. Paul isn’t speaking about justification, but justification is in the background of union with Christ. He is speaking about the Christian life issuing forth from union with Christ. This verse is actually part of the transition in this epistle from the gospel to our response to the gospel, from the indicative to the imperative. So verse 13 says, “…through love serve one another.” And verse 14 repeats the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. This is about sanctification – about the process of growing in holiness.
So what is faith’s activity in sanctification? According to verse 6, it produces the fruit of love. While faith is merely receptive in our justification, faith is active in love in our sanctification. These two activities of faith need to be distinguished. When they aren’t, what happens is that our works (including love being shown to the neighbour) are smuggled in as part of our justification. That’s why this whole discussion is so consequential.
What does faith do? Well, it depends on the context we’re speaking about. In justification, faith rests, trusts, and receives what Christ has done. In justification, faith leaves all the doing to Jesus. But in sanctification, faith is busy working through love. In sanctification, our faith produces fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith does different things in different contexts, but when it comes to the ground floor of our salvation, there’s no room for anyone performing anything other than our Lord Jesus Christ.