The problem of Good Deeds and Faith

This one is for Darrell, who asked a question a couple days ago, based on something I wrote on The Lord’s Prayer – “Lead us not into temptation …“.  Darrell – I hope you see this.  

It’s also for anyone else who has question similar to his –

I keep looking at that forgive as I have forgiven. and I ask: If that prayer what is the purpose of the idea we were forgiven by the cross? I mean why are there two methods?

It’s also for anyone who, like me, was Catholic and later learned about salvation by Grace alone.  

There’s an article in Christianity Today – the August edition that just came out in electronic version today – titled 500 Years After Reformation, Many Protestants Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther.

It’s about a survey that was done.
The results were shocking and disappointing.
The conclusion – well, it was only about what people said – what people believed to be true.  While I couldn’t really expect them to reach a conclusion as to whether or not the results were good or not (although I believe they weren’t good) – I was hoping they’d at least say something about why Luther believed in the concepts he put forth.  Not the whole thing – even a short statement.

They didn’t.  
And that leaves readers to look it up for themselves.
Unless, of course, they assume the people surveyed actually got it right.  
Well – let me rephrase that – unless they assume the people surveyed that have the same beliefs as them were right.

So – let’s look at the issues – of which there were two.

In 1517, Martin Luther staked his soul on two revolutionary ideas: sola fide, that justification is dependent on faith alone; and sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only ultimate authority for Christian belief and practice and does not need oversight from church leaders or tradition to be read and understood.

The 95 theses Luther nailed to the door at Wittenberg served as the catalyst for one of the world’s largest religious splits, as thousands broke off from the Roman Catholic Church. His legacy, 500 years later, is 560 million Protestants across the globe, making up more than a third of the world’s Christians.

But many of them don’t actually agree with him.

The first issue is “sola fide” – which means “faith alone” – so the question is whether or not we are saved by faith alone.

The second issue is “sola scriptura” – which means “scripture alone” – so the question is whether or not Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian.

Let’s start with the second one – scripture alone.

Scripture Alone

I’d like to start with this one, because it’s important in deciding whether or not “faith alone” can even be legitimate.

There are really two parts to this scripture alone question.

  1. The first part of scripture alone is one of whether scripture is authoritative.  I bring this up, because some, including too many Christians, are willing to say that the Bible has many errors.  The problem then, becomes one of how any document that has a lot of errors can be authoritative.  At that point, does the authority not become the person or persons who decide which parts of the document are in error and which are not?  In fact – how can one even have faith in anything when we believe it has errors?  For more on that, I invite you to read something I wrote earlier – the problem of inerrancy.  I believe that most, if not all the things people consider errors aren’t errors at all, but misinterpretations, different points of view of the authors that viewed the events, improper translations, Etc.  I can’t say that I’ve investigated every single thing that’s claimed to be in error – so I also cannot say that my previous list is complete.  However – I did reach the following conclusion in the article, with time and experience only serving to make that belief even stronger.

And yet – I have to believe that what He said is True. Having been through the statistical and science side of things – the odds for life to be what it is are so astronomically small – it’s harder to be an atheist than it is to believe in God. An atheist has to have an unbelievable amount of faith in randomness and chaos to believe that God doesn’t exist. They just refuse to admit it.

The real issue – if we choose to admit it – is something I’ve written about and talked about before. And it comes down to the difference between believing in God – and believing God.

No matter how much I doubt where He’s got me right now – no matter how much I question what He’s doing – no matter how much I don’t like what He’s doing – I really have no choice but to believe Him, and that it’s all going to be for good. Otherwise – what the heck am I doing and what the heck to I believe in? I simply cannot believe that life is all for nothing – no matter how much and how often that seems to actually be the case.

  1. The second part of scripture alone is whether or not scripture is the only authoritative source. For a look at this, let’s start by turning to an article from

It starts off with this statement –

The Reformation principle of sola scriptura (lit. “only Scripture” or “Scripture alone”) has been the cause of great scandal since the sixteenth century. Why? Because it is dangerous.

Hang with me. The Reformers believed that Scripture alone was the only infallible source for revelation and, therefore, the Scripture alone was the primary source available for instruction on all matters of faith and practice. They believed that tradition, while valuable, could be misleading and fallible. In short, they rejected the idea that the Church needed a second infallible source of revelation (Tradition) along with an infallible interpreter (Magisterium) that would tell them what to believe. The Scriptures needed to be in the hands of every man so that every man could wrestle with and build a theology that was truly their own.

While that’s a noble goal, the chances that every person will wrestle with and build a theology that is both their own, and valid within the teachings of the Bible – they’re pretty low.  We have way too many examples where this has been tried, was very popular, and failed miserably because of incorrect assumptions of what the Bible says.

The article concludes –

In short, the doctrine of sola Scriptura means not only that there is a Bible in every man’s hands, but also a struggle in every man’s mind—a struggle to find the truth for themselves. Again, it must be restated, this does not mean that we do not have teachers who are gifted in theology and exegesis. Neither does this mean that we disregard traditions of the past. It means that each person must study and wrestle with theology for themselves, coming to a deeper understanding, and taking ownership of their convictions. It means that we have the right to ask tough questions, search for answers, and come to intellectually defensible conclusions. It means that we do not have to ignorantly accept what someone else teaches without question. Is the doctrine of sola Scriptura dangerous? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely! The alternative is even more dangerous, since it is nothing less than a surrendering of the mind.

Ultimately, I agree with the conclusion.  I leave it to someone else to say whether I’m a good teacher, writer, Etc.  I pray that I am.  But I’m not God.  Neither is any other teacher that’s ever lived – except Jesus Himself.  All of us should ask questions.  All of us should verify what others say – including what I say and write.  When I research a topic, I don’t just pick the first thing I see.  It’s a process to go through lot’s of things – check them to be sure they’re Biblical – and then try to write it in a way that’s relatively clear and understandable – and still be Biblically sound.  Having said all that, while I still try to listen to the Holy Spirit when I teach and write – I’m human.

As for scripture alone – I think it’s important to remember that it is the original text that is believed to be God breathed.  Not the English (or any other translation).  That’s obvious, just by looking at the conflicts between some of the translations.  At best, they’re not all saying something with the same clarity and emotion,  At worst, they certainly appear to conflict in some cases.  For instance, I had a couple of people from one of those churches that likes to walk around and try to convert people – and they quoted a verse from John that just seemed wrong.  I asked them to wait while I got my Bible.  OK – I’m being polite.  The verse was totally different from my NIV / King James / New King James, Etc.  It said that people would be given a second chance after they died.  Now we get to an issue of whose scripture is the sole authority.  We need go no further than Catholic Bibles vs Protestant Bibles to see the size of the problem there.

Now – let’s look at what I think is the larger issue – faith alone.

Faith Alone

Let’s start this topic by looking at something from

Faith is only as good as its object. This is the danger of misunderstanding Sola Fide: that we would focus on faith in and of itself, and forget about the object of faith. We would then spend all our time talking about our faith, bragging about our faith, and worrying about the strength of our faith, all the while forgetting about the One in whom we have faith: Jesus Christ.

Faith in Christ is bold only because of its object. When the One that you believe in is the crucified and risen One, Jesus Christ our Lord, the very Son of God, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, then your faith will be bold. Martin Luther writes: “Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it.” (FC SD IV, 12) He is simply echoing the book of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Therefore, Sola Fide is a First Commandment issue, as Luther clearly saw.

A god is that which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. (LC I, 2)

The question is not whether you have faith or not; the question is if you believe in the right thing. You can have all the sincerely held beliefs you want, but are they true? You can have the ‘strongest’ faith a person could possibly have, but if the thing you believe in is uncertain at best or false at worse, then your faith is worthless. It is not faith that saves, but faith in Christ.

So we see the first, and most important, point – it’s not just faith, like faith in “something” or “someone”.  It’s faith in Jesus.

Both this point that faith in Jesus is required and that faith in Jesus is sufficient can be seen here –

Jn 6:28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jn 6:29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than this.  People want to know what is the work required by God – and Jesus gives the simple answer – believe in Me.  Believe in Jesus.  Period.  End of Discussion.

As Paul wrote in Ephesians –

Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

Again – quite simple – faith.  Not from anything we did, which would be works.

True – Catholics especially will argue that other verses point to works being required.  I’ve just gone through a number of these from different web sites, and the one thing that seems to be missing from them is something from James.  That’s especially interesting, since James is the one they most often point to in order to say that works are required for salvation, such as this –

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

The problem with what they’ve done though, is something as potentially dangerous as what was pointed out above in scripture alone.  They pull out one verse that says what they want it to say.  Let’s put in the entire section and see what’s there – in full context.

Faith and Deeds

Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Jas 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless ? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

While it’s easy, and also convenient that this one verse, taken out of context, supports the argument that deeds are required as well as faith – I submit that the rest of what James says makes it clear that his intent was not that conclusion at all.  To James, actually doing something is evidence of our faith – not a way to salvation.  As it says – faith without deeds is dead.  Deeds – works – whatever you want to call them, are evidence of faith that’s real and active.

My other problem with things in addition to faith being required is this – anything required above and beyond faith is, in essence, a statement that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t good enough to cover our sins.  If that’s true, God’s plan of salvation for us isn’t complete, since it still requires us to do something else.  It also means that what Jesus said in John 6:29 (above) wasn’t true – it means that God requires us to do more than believe in the One He sent.

It’s not an easy concept.  There’s something in a lot of us that seems to want to do something to earn our salvation.  There’s something in us that wants to say – we did it.

But I ask – where did God actually say that?  The only arguments for that point of view are made by picking out individual verses – out of context, and / or by twisting translations from the original Greek.  It reminds me of what Jesus warned us –

Mt 16:5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

And what was that yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?  Take your pick –

Mt 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Mt 23:5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’

Mt 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Mt 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Mt 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

Mt 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

Mt 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Mt 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Mt 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Mt 23:29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

Mt 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

Mt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”


Even salvation by faith alone is hard enough for us.  We have to be willing to admit that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation – other than believe in Jesus.  

Every religion other than Christianity says that we have to do all these things while we’re alive – probably compare the good and the bad to see which is greater – and then we find out, after it’s too late – whether or not we go to Heaven, or whatever they call it.

With Christianity – we have only faith – belief in Jesus that’s required.  I say “only” – but as pointed out, it’s not really all that easy.  Then we have evidence of our faith – provided by what we do because of our faith.  Any attempt to say that we must have faith  and do stuff above and beyond that to earn our salvation – it takes away from Jesus’ death, as I mentioned – but it also takes away our only means to judge for ourselves whether or not our faith is real.  By saying that faith alone isn’t enough – people are taking away our ability to stand firm in our belief – before we die / before it’s too late – whether or not our faith is real and therefore whether or not we are saved.  No wonder Jesus said –

The Sheep and the Goats

Mt 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Mt 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Mt 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Mt 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Mt 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Mt 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

Mt 25:45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Mt 25:46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Among other things this parable points out, I believe we can include these two things –

  • Some will be surprised to be on the right – because they feel inadequate.  While they do believe in Jesus, a misguided feeling of all sorts of deeds that are supposedly required leads them to be afraid they haven’t done enough.  I believe Jesus will tell them, as He said in the Bible – Your faith has saved you.
  • Some will be surprised to be on the left – because there faith wasn’t real, but they did all sorts of “good” things.  Without faith, and therefore without salvation, This is like when Jesus said – Mt 6:1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

In either case – I believe the determination of left or right for each of us will be based on something else Jesus said – from Matthew 9:29.

“According to your faith will it be done to you”

Let me repeat that – because it’s worth repeating – and it’s a good place to end –

“According to your faith will it be done to you”



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