by Al Maxey

Issue #161 ------- December 3, 2004
One must not always think so much about
what one should do, but rather what one
should be. Our works do not ennoble us;
but we must ennoble our works.

Meister Eckhart (1269-1327)

Working the Works of God
Does Jesus Teach Faith as a Work?
A Reflective Analysis of John 6:28-29

A reader of these Reflections, who serves as a gospel minister in the great state of North Carolina, recently wrote to remind me: "We should not forget that our faith (belief) is a work (John 6:29); something we do." This is certainly not the first time someone has taken me to task for seeking to refute the doctrine that salvation is works based. Invariably, I will be led by the hand, and sometimes none too gently, back to the statement of Jesus to the inquiring Jews in which He does indeed, at least at first glance, seem to suggest faith is a work. A missionary in Belgium wrote, "I would like to point out that faith is called a work in John 6:28-29." Since several devoted disciples of our Lord genuinely believe that one's faith is a work, and that justification and salvation are based on deeds/works performed, and since John 6:28-29 is often cited as positive validation of this theological stance, it behooves us to examine this text in much greater depth so as to determine, if we can, the precise meaning of our Lord's response to these Jews in Capernaum. If Jesus Christ is promoting faith as a work, then we need to be aware of that. If, however, some have failed to correctly perceive the intent of our Savior in His statement to these Jews, then it is imperative we know that, as well. Whether or not faith is a work we must do to be accepted by God thus becomes critical to our approach to salvation.

John 6:28-29
They said to Him, "What shall we do,
that we may work the works of God?"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"This is the work of God, that you
believe in Him whom He has sent."

When one examines the immediate context of the above passage, one will soon realize that this chapter in the gospel account of John is filled with some very spiritually significant events. It begins with the feeding of the 5000 (this was just the number of the men; the actual count was much higher). Here we see Jesus meeting the physical needs of the people; demonstrating His care and concern for the whole man. Immediately following is an account of Jesus walking on the water. Later, Jesus makes a most insightful remark about the motivation of many of those in the multitude who followed after Him, "You seek Me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled" (vs. 26). Too many of the people were looking to have their physical needs met, and were not really focused on the spiritual "bread" our Lord had come to offer. They would do whatever it took to get those material blessings, but would they also be willing to do whatever it took to receive spiritual blessings? That was the question!

Thus, Jesus informs them their focus must shift from the physical to the spiritual. Their quest for nourishment must undergo a transformation. "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (vs. 27). Jesus here contrasts the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, and He does so by employing literal and figurative uses of words like "work" and "food." The majority of the people were pursuing physical food; Jesus urges them to pursue spiritual food. They were willing to engage in physical labor and human effort to acquire that literal bread; Jesus urges them to engage in spiritual "labor," and/or to rely upon divine "effort," so as to gain that figurative "bread." What is this figurative bread they were to seek? "I am the bread of life" (vs. 48). The Jews began to argue about how Jesus could be this bread (they were still thinking in literal terms), and partly as a result of this difficult teaching, many of them "withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore" (vs. 66).

Today, many disciples still fail to distinguish between the literal and the figurative in this passage. Since men work for their physical bread in life, they believe it naturally follows one must also work for that spiritual bread of life. In so doing, they entirely miss the point of Jesus' teaching. The "work" of which Jesus speaks, when referring to that response of man to the gift of the Bread of Life, is purely and simply -- Faith. Thus, we have the passage now under consideration -- John 6:28-29. The people wanted to know what works they could do to please God and acquire the blessing. Jesus, using the same terminology as used in their question, responded by declaring that "work" to be "faith." Their question of Jesus reflected their lack of awareness of God's grace, supposing that His gift could be acquired through human effort. Jesus, employing the same word they mistakenly used, indicated to them that the only "work" God sought was FAITH. The message should have been clear --- no human "work" was/is necessary; the "gift" of God comes by faith, which is the "work of God."

John Calvin, in his commentary on John, wrote, "In putting this question, they are partly mistaken by not understanding the kind of labor; for they do not consider that God bestows upon us, by the hand of the Son, all that is necessary for spiritual life. They ask what they ought to do .... In this manner they manifest their ignorance of the grace of God." The people were still thinking in terms of "works" (plural) of law, and thus wanted from Jesus a definitive list of "works" (plural) that God would approve for them to perform so as to obtain (earn) the blessing. Jesus indicates to them there is only ONE so-called "work" (singular) desired by God --- Faith. The Geneva Study Bible correctly observed, "They think that everlasting life depends upon the condition of fulfilling the law; therefore, Christ calls them back to faith." Properly understood, this passage denounces works and elevates faith to its proper place of primacy. It is the latter, not the former, that secures the gift.

By focusing on the fact that Jesus, in like fashion to His questioners, used the term "work" (although He changes it from plural to singular, which is significant), many falsely believe that Jesus is characterizing faith as a "work" to be performed by man, and thus they feel justified in declaring a works based salvation. However, it must be noted that "Faith is here called a 'work' in a peculiar sense, differentiating it entirely from 'works' as righteous acts of ours" (Lenski). "These Jews were thinking of various deeds of the Pharisaic type and rules. Jesus turns their minds to the central fact" (Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament), and that central fact is: We are saved by grace through faith, and not by means of any human effort (Eph. 2:8-9). The only "work" (singular) that God desires is BELIEF. The singular, as well as our Lord's use of irony, tells us no other "work" is required of us; what God is looking for in us is FAITH. By the way, those who insist that faith is a work defeat their own doctrine of salvation by works, for if faith is that "work" (singular) God requires, then by what justification do they characterize repentance, confession and immersion as additional "works" to be performed? By appealing to John 6:29 they eliminate the need for any additional "works" (plural).

Many overlook the significant fact that Jesus turns the plural into a singular ("works" into "work"), thus indicating an entirely different concept than that posed by the questioners. Kittel, in his classic Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, notes that "the singular is used in John in this sense" -- it "refers to God's saving activity as a whole" (vol. 2, p. 643). Our faith does not earn salvation (that is God's work); rather, our faith responds to and, in so doing, receives the GIFT of God's salvation through Christ. It is a "work" (should one insist on utilizing this term) that merits nothing, but receives much. Kittel states that our faith "has no value in itself, but only as a response to the revelation of repentance" (ibid, p. 650). "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). J.W. McGarvey observed, "Humanity, in seeking to answer this question (of the Jews that day in Capernaum), has invented pilgrimages, penances, fasts, mutilations, and many other methods of self-punishment; not heeding the plain and decisive answer of Jesus" (The Fourfold Gospel).

John Calvin wrote, "It is idle sophistry, under the pretext of this passage, to maintain that we are justified by works, just because faith is likewise called a work." It is simply a failure to perceive the intent of our Lord in His reply to these persons seeking to know the legal requirements of justification and salvation. Jesus, throwing their own word back at them, simply indicated that the only "work" required was FAITH. Many of those disciples did not understand this then, and many do not understand it today. Thus, countless believers continue to seek salvation through their own effort. In so doing, they return to a yoke of slavery, they are fallen from grace, and they are severed from Christ (Galatians 5). A works based theology of redemption is DEADLY.

Nevertheless, it is vital to note that "Christ does not separate faith from its fruits" (John Calvin). Faith does not exclude good works performed by those in Christ Jesus. Indeed, faith includes them! These good works done by those who are saved (Eph. 2:10) are the very demonstration of their faith; perhaps we could even say the validation of that saving faith. After all, as James clearly points out in James 2, faith alone ... faith without any visible evidence of its existence ... is worthless. To be valid, faith must be visible. This saving faith is SEEN in our good works. The Holman Bible Dictionary states, "The works of people testify to their faith or lack of it" (p. 1419). This source goes on to say, "Sinners are accepted as righteous before God on the basis of God's grace through faith in Christ, not on the basis of their own works. However, one evidence of saving faith is the existence of good works in the lives of believers" (ibid).

Repentance, confession and baptism are just three of many evidences and manifestations of our saving faith. They are NOT "works" (plural) that bring about salvation, but rather a visible demonstration of that faith which receives God's gracious gift. We are not saved by these works, but neither are we ultimately saved without them. Faith to be valid must be visible, and the visible evidence of our saving faith are these, as well as other, demonstrations. Thus, repentance is a fruit of faith; so also are confession and immersion. Indeed, my life of faithfulness and good deeds performed daily to the glory of my Father are simply continuous demonstrations of my FAITH, as well as a spirit of thankfulness. I have merited nothing, but I have manifested my faith (as well as gratitude and love) by my good works. "The problem with works of law is that they can bring into a person a sense that what he or she receives from God is due as payment, in effect, for the person's working" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 1109). We need to hear again the challenge of God Himself to man -- "Who has given to Me that I should repay him?" (Job 41:11). The sons of Korah declare that "no man can by any means" bring about redemption, or "give to God a ransom" for sin. "For the redemption of the soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever!" (Psalm 49:7-8).

Nevertheless, there are some who will probably insist to their final breath that God's grace can only do so much, and we must all keep on trying, and working, to pay "our portion" of that price of redemption. Thus, repentance is a work ... confession is a work ... baptism is a work ... and some even declare faith to be a work. The formula of legalism is: divine grace + human works = eternal salvation. Timothy Southall, in an article on the Internet titled Believing Is A Work (which pretty much states his position), wrote, "Did you know believing is a work? Yes, believing is a work. Not because I said so, but because God's Word says so. And I can give you book, chapter, and verse." He then quotes John 6:28-29, followed by: "Surprised? Now it's up to you!" In other words, if you want to be saved, then you had better get to work and begin earning your salvation. "If Jesus said it, we must believe it," he continued. "Believing is something we must do. Believing is a work. Your eternal life depends on it." Timothy Canup, in similar fashion, boldly declared, "Our faith is a work!" (Gospel Gazette, June, 2002). He also then quoted John 6:28-29.

Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), who was a famous early American evangelist, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Christ, and President of Oberlin College in Ohio, preached a sermon on the John 6:28-29 text on October 10, 1849. He made many excellent points in that sermon, the full text of which can be found on the Internet (as well as many of his other sermons and lectures), but consider especially the following --- "Many look only to the letter; they have substantially the Jewish notions of religion. All they think of is doing, doing, doing, without ever falling back upon faith as the main-spring of all. What a delusion is this! How wide is this from the doctrine of Christ!" He further observed, "Many compel themselves to obey the letter, and then satisfy themselves with this as if they had now done all their duty. What a mistake!" Also -- "Many begin at the wrong end of their religion. They expend their efforts upon works first and not upon faith. Hence they are forever laboring and toiling uphill. They do not find the Holy Spirit's aid to help them, for the good reason that they do not take hold of God's promises by faith for this blessing. Of course, they then drag along through life in their wretchedness, crying out as they groan along -- 'O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of sin and death?' In fact they live and die in the experience of Romans 7. If they would at once believe and act as Paul did, how soon might they pass into the experience of Romans 8."

Finney laments the fact that too many disciples are simply "a class of legalists whose religion is made up of perpetual doing, doing, doing." "Now such persons do not seem to consider that the outward life (works) is not always an index to the inward (faith), and that of two persons whose outward life is substantially the same, one may live by faith and walk humbly with God, while the other lives only by works and in the deepest guilt of unbelief." When we seek to earn the gift of life, we not only fail to secure the gift, we acquire only a life of increased frustration. Salvation is not by means of meritorious works. Yes, faith can, and must, be demonstrated, but faith itself is not a work. Such thinking is an absurdity, and seeking to practice and promote such a deadly dogma is an abomination.

Reflections from Readers

From a Ministry Leader in California:

I just read your article on getting into Jesus --- Reflections #42. I was intrigued by your reasoning because I stumbled upon this particular line of reasoning in my own experience. My sister was raised in the Church of Christ, but is now attending a Free Will Baptist Church. I was unaware that such a denomination even existed. About a year ago I had the opportunity to talk to the Minister of that congregation. We got to talking about baptism and salvation, and I was hard put not to call this man "brother." He believes that baptism is an essential part of salvation. I was floored! I had never heard this from a Baptist minister before! He defined conversion as a process, of which baptism is the culminating event. He also said that he believes that those who are not baptized ... are in direct violation of the Lord's command to be baptized, and how could one be saved if they are deliberately disobedient to the Master? I suddenly found myself looking outward for those whom I could call "brother," instead of trying to look for something in their doctrine for which I could withhold fellowship. I pray that he and I will shake hands in sweet fellowship when the Lord comes back. As I have said before, thank you for your insightful views of the Scriptures. You are helping me heal from some of the scars I still have from growing up in the mainline Churches of Christ.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Al, I really appreciated learning more about the way the Living Bible came to be. It seems to me all "dynamic equivalence" translations follow the same paradigm, with much the same result emerging through "group think" consensus of scholarly opinion. A few days ago I took time to read the preface to the New King James Version, where I encountered the phrase "complete equivalence." I appreciate the difference, and suggest that reading the preface to the NKJV would be worthwhile for all disciples.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate all the work you do in getting these Reflections out to your many subscribers. Your look at the Scriptures in these articles has been a refreshment for me. I am glad to have this information about the Living Bible. We all need to be better informed when it comes to what version of the Bible we are using. Also, I have just now managed to find the time to read your article on The Age of Accountability. FINALLY!! -- I find someone who thinks the way I think on this. For a long while I have reasoned, "If God did not condemn those under the age of 20 out there in the desert, wouldn't that mean they weren't accountable? If that's true, then why should we in the church think any differently?" I also carry that thought over to juveniles being tried as adults for some crime they have committed. Regardless of how heinous the crime, it is ludicrous to think that 8 and 10 year olds should be tried as an adult for murder. Thank you for continually blessing us with your Reflections. Incidentally, I am a 74-year-old recent transplant from the state of Washington to Arkansas.

From an Elder in Florida:

Over the years, within Christendom, many have taught that someone with a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety (panic attacks), does not truly have an illness at all, but rather has 1) a lack of faith, 2) sin in their life unrepented of, 3) substantial guilt, or 4) a combination of these. I've even heard this from the pulpit, and have copies of sermons preached by caring (though unaware) brethren that depression and anxiety have to do with sin in the individual's life. It is the guilt, they say, that is causing the depression! The person simply lacks sufficient faith to live within the safety of God's grace. While visiting our daughter in Massachusetts, we heard a wonderful sermon on this topic; one that was spoken from the heart. The speaker eloquently stated depression is a medical illness brought on by a lack of adequate neuro-transmitters (i.e., a deficiency of serotonin). He pointed out that over the years many in the church have done a great disservice to the members because of misguided leadership or preaching on this.

I believe this is vital information we need to get out to our brethren. Depression is a medical illness just like cancer, diabetes, leukemia, and other very real diseases. We wouldn't say to a cancer patient, "You don't have cancer, you have a lack of faith!" How ridiculous! Al, thanks for your ability, compassion for people, love for God, and patience with us who read your articles. May God continue to bless you in your great work! We need more men with talents such as you have!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, thanks for the recent article on the Living Bible. Only recently have I become familiar with that work. As you stated, it is very easy to understand. I once wrote to you and suggested that you write a commentary. I still think there would be a very receptive audience if you were to write one! I am grateful for your Reflections articles.

From a Minister in Alabama:

Al, please add me to your Reflections mailing list. One of the church members forwarded me a recent edition about the age of accountability, and I really enjoyed your comments.

From an Elder in Idaho:

Al, I have with great interest been reading your web page, and would be interested in receiving your weekly Reflections. I am a brother-in-Christ, raised in the Church of Christ, and currently serve as an elder with the Church of Christ in ----------, Idaho. Like you, I have questioned, and continue to question, the traditions that we in the church have held so dear to our hearts. I believe some of these traditions have caused many in the Churches of Christ to become disheartened. This has led many to leave our brotherhood, and, more importantly, to cease their service to our Lord. Please continue to challenge all of God's people to rethink their positions!

Special Request from a Reader:

From a Reader in Alabama:

I don't mind being "intruded upon" with respect to the love you have for your parents! Any time! What a coincidence that our Sunday School lesson just this past Sunday was on this very subject -- expressing our love for our loved ones. Keep the good works coming!

From a New Reader in Wisconsin:

I enjoyed the article honoring your parents! Please add me to your mailing list.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Beautiful article about your parents, brother! Made my morning!! I plan on using the Anne Frank quote in my job as a school counselor -- those are rich words of wisdom!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, Thanks for writing this to your parents. We all should take the time to show our gratitude to the people who raised us. May God continue to bless you and your family.

From a Minister in Missouri:

Al, Thanks for sending the wonderful tribute to your parents. I have been blessed with a very similar experience. I was a pre-schooler when my parents were immersed, and it made a world of difference in the lives of my two siblings and me. My brother and I are both preachers (he with 42 years of service, and I have 36), and our little sister has been a preacher's wife for 28 years. Mom and Dad are still present around the Lord's Table each Sunday, and they've been married almost 64 years. My best to you and all your family!

From a Minister in Virginia:

Al, Be thankful that your parents have shown you by their life together what it really means to be "true brothers and sisters in Christ." Because of their love and Christian devotion, you get to experience what a portion of "heaven on earth" really is, also. Your godly wife has shown you the other half, as well. So, Al, you are truly blessed in more ways than you can ever be grateful to God for. I have been blessed by a loving, caring and godly woman for 39 years, as of yesterday, so my heart glows for you, my brother in Christ.

From a Reader in Alabama:

I was so touched by your Reflections on "Godly Parents" -- indeed, just this morning (before I received your e-mail), my husband of 46 years and I were having breakfast at a local restaurant with two of our grown sons, and we were just discussing that very topic. Both of my parents are gone now, but their life lessons are with me daily. My dad was also an elder for more than thirty years, and my mother was a lovely southern lady whose price was truly far above rubies! They loved each other devotedly throughout their 63 years of marriage, and reared my brother and me in a Christian home where we never, ever doubted their love for us and for the Lord and His church. I miss them both every day, but just thinking of them fills me with a sweetness that I know is a gift from God, letting me know of their love for me, even after death. Thank you for your touching article, which filled me with gratitude for that rarest of gifts, a wonderful childhood in a loving home, guided by godly parents. If my children feel even half of that for me, I will have accomplished one of my main aims in life! A faithful reader in Alabama!

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