I have some problems with the recent article by Prof. B. Huizinga on “The nature of good works as works.” I appreciated that faith was called an activity, a demand of the gospel call, and obedience, but in plain language, an activity is done and obedience must be done. The definition of “work” or “doing” provided in the article excluded this common usage since it also required:
3. External work through the body
As a software engineer, I spend much of my time thinking. This involves much more exertion than typing on a keyboard, and it produces abstract (but real) solutions or designs, yet it is merely internal. My employer knows this doesn’t mean I’m not doing a work.
These three components were given as reasons why the activity of faith could not be described as a doing, but really only the third would exclude it. Faith produces products, such as comfort, thankfulness, and joy. Faith even produces all our good works! When we lack these things, we must exert ourselves to exercise faith, to know our God and trust in His salvation (Heb. 3:18-19, 4:11). Faith is not merely the eyes, but “the hand and mouth of the soul” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).
As the article applies its definition to the doing of God’s commandments, the problem becomes more serious, since merely internal activities are not included. Then our [Heidelberg] Catechism would be incorrect to emphasize internal activities as first of all what God’s law requires. And how do we then “do” the law’s command not to covet (Q&A 113)? The exertion in keeping God’s commandments is especially the battle in the soul (Q&A 127).
The article’s conclusions even directly contradict our Catechism: “The law never commands a man to believe.” This is precisely what Q&A 94 says that the first commandment requires when it speaks of “know” and “trust” (since these are how Q&A 21 defines true faith).
It seems that places in Scripture that refer to internal activities as doing or work were overlooked (for example, Matt. 23:23, Acts 16:30, John 6:28-29). For example, the word poieo or “do” is used in James 2:19 (not in an “auxiliary” sense) to describe a merely internal fruitless “faith.” If even this mere monotheistic belief is still a doing, even a doing well, then how much more is the living activity of faith worked by God in us?
I don’t think that we need to prohibit common historical usages of “doing” or “work” in relation to faith when we understand that we are not justified by anything that we do (HC, Q&A 62; BC, Art. 23). The confessions provide the necessary clarification against erroneous views of faith by explaining that God works faith in us, and that we are not justified by faith itself, but by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith (HC, Q&A 61; BC, Art. 22).
Much love in Christ,
Limerick, Republic of Ireland
Thank you for writing. I have outlined my response to keep it organized.
A. As to exertion: While I did not say that faith does not involve exertion, I see how that implication was left. In no way do I want to minimize the conscious, purposeful, spiritual activity of the believer who exercises his faith by embracing Jesus Christ revealed in the preaching of the gospel and sacraments. If it is helpful to teach the activity of faith by speaking of the believer exerting himself to know and trust God, then I do not object, for indeed, the flesh of unbelief within us is powerful. Moreover, regarding the activity of faith, I agree that “faith is not merely the eyes,” but “the hand and mouth of the soul” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35). My point in the illustration of the eye and hand was to liken the activity of faith to seeing and liken the activity of working to the hand—not as the hand receives another’s work, but as it brings forth one’s own work.
B. As to producing: You state, “Faith produces products, such as comfort, thankfulness, and joy. Faith even produces all our good works!” I wholeheartedly agree that every good work the believer ever performs proceeds from his faith (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 33) as the inevitable fruit of his faith (LD 24). However, I am making the point that there is a fundamental and crucial distinction between faith and works. The activity of faith (believing) is one thing, while the activity of working (doing good works) is another. That distinction can be understood in terms of “producing.” In the activity of faith, when I am believing in response to the gospel command “Believe!” I am not producing anything to bring to God but I am holding God at His Word, trusting that He will bring to me what He has promised in Christ. However, when I am doing good works out of a true faith and in response to the law’s command “Do!” I am producing all kinds of deeds that I am bringing to God as my sacrifice of thanksgiving. To put it differently, faith does not work to receive saving blessings promised by God in the gospel, but of course, upon the reception of saving blessings, faith always works itself out by love in a life of praise and gratitude to God according to the law (Gal. 5:6).
C. As to external work through the body:
1. First, you state, “As the article applies its definition to the doing of God’s commandments, the problem becomes more serious since merely internal activities are not included.” In my article I said that when we do good works, “We are not merely willing or thinking or desiring internally in the soul but we are performing something through the instrumentality of the body.” I do not deny that the working involved in doing good works includes internal soul activity, for every good work proceeds from faith and is done in love according to God’s command. My point is that doing good works includes more than internal soul activity, for all the internal activity comes to expression through the deeds that we do in the body, that is, through the life that we live (II Cor. 5:10, Rom. 12:1). Your objection does caution me here to be careful in my teaching not to deny the good work of purely internal activities such as the soul’s meditation upon God and His wonders in creation, history, and salvation. Yet, even such an internal activity that no one but God can see carries through and inevitably comes to visible manifestation because the believer cannot but shout God’s praises, tell of His mighty works to others, and go up to His house on Sunday to worship Him.
2. Secondly, it seems you are also concerned that I am reducing the law to nothing more than a code governing external conduct. To be sure, the law is spiritual. To be sure, when the law commands “Do this!” it penetrates to the heart and demands that everything a man does begins in and arises out of a perfect heart of love for God and the neighbor. But the law addresses more than the heart. God lays demands upon man in the whole of his nature. God demands that every man be perfectly consecrated to Him in soul and body, in heart and life. The tenth commandment not only forbids a certain wicked heart attitude (covetousness) but it also demands a certain holy heart attitude (contentment), and then out of that heart an entire life of doing works of love for the neighbor with respect to his house, wife, servants, ox, and ass.
3. Thirdly, you object to my statement, “The law never commands a man to believe,” when you state that my “conclusions even directly contradict our Catechism.” I do not want to contradict our Catechism. Lest I do, let me say it this way: The law is never satisfied with faith. God’s law of Ten Commandments demands the doing of works. Even if the law should demand faith, the law will never be satisfied with faith. In that regard if there is a man anywhere who desires justification by the law, then that man must know, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God but the doers of the law shall be justified,” (Rom. 2:13). The law will only ever be satisfied when it receives perfect doing. Hallelujah for Jesus Christ, who stood in our place as the Doer of the law and declared, “It is finished!” Our doing of works is gratitude for His.
D. As to the Bible passages you cite: There is no need to find Bible passages that prove that doing/working includes internal activities of the soul because we both agree on that point. Perhaps these passages are cited to prove that faith is something we do, for all of these passages link faith/believing with work/doing. In that regard, I do not contend in absolute terms that the Bible never speaks of faith as something we do, but only that I have never seen an instance of it. That is, I have not seen the following construction, or some variation of it: subject + the verb “do” + the object “faith.” These passages do not teach that faith is something we do or work.
1. James 2:19, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” James is not equating believing and doing. With “Thou believest” James is only referring to a historical faith, which even devils possess. And by “doest well” James is either being sarcastic or he is using a kind of idiomatic expression teaching that although a historical faith is no saving faith, insofar as it acknowledges the existence of God, it is good. You believe there is one God? Well done! Good for you! Glad to hear it! By no means is James making the theological point that faith is a deed we do, for this chapter of Scripture distinguishes faith and works as sharply as any in order to make the point that the good works we do demonstrate our faith.
2. Matthew 23:23, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” According to Thayer’s Greek lexicon, “faith” could better be translated “fidelity”—being faithful and keeping one’s promises—even as it is in Titus 2:10. The Pharisees ought to have done deeds of judgment, mercy, and faithfulness.
3. Acts 16:30, “And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Acts 16:31 continues, “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” The evangelistic setting in which Paul and Silas were confronted with the urgent question of a heart-pricked sinner, “What must I do to be saved” was not the time and place to begin a detailed and technical lesson on the nature of faith and works. However, when Paul and Silas respond to the Philippian jailor’s urgent question with the command, “Believe!” they are, whether the guilt-stricken sinner understands it yet or not, teaching that you do not have to do some work to be saved. You do not have to run to this temple and make a sacrifice or go amass great wealth or even one coin and give an offering of money to God, and so on. Instead, the call is “Believe! Turn away from your wicked works and believe in what Jesus did by His saving works!” When my heart is crushed by the guilt of my sin and I stand conscious of the impending judgment of God that I deserve, I also would ask “What must I do?” and I would be willing to go and do anything. No deed would be considered too much. But not only is the gospel beautiful, so is its fitting call to faith. For when I frantically ask, ‘What must I do?” the gospel does not say, “Here are the works you must do.” The gospel says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
4. John 6:28-29, “Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” Appeal is often made to these words of Jesus to legitimize calling faith a work. I recognize that some of our greatest theological forefathers have on occasion called faith a work. But I fail to see how it is helpful to anyone to call faith a work, especially when the heresy of the Federal Vision tries to smuggle the concept of working, or faithfulness, or obedience to the law into the concept of saving faith so that we are justified by faith and the works of faith. Strikingly, in this passage Jesus is actually distinguishing faith and works. The Galileans are guilty of stubborn unbelief as they reject Jesus, His Word, and His miracle of feeding five thousand of them. They want bread and other material bounties, but not the Christ whom the Father hath sent. The unbelievers ask Jesus, “What shall we do that we might work the works of God?” Then Jesus gives an ironic answer that uses their terminology but does not line up with their expectation. They are thinking of all kinds of works they can do. But Jesus upbraids their unbelief when He says, in essence, “Works?! Why don’t you begin with faith! Don’t worry about what works you can do, when you do not even believe in me. This is the work of God: Believe!” Jesus is not equating faith and works, thereby contradicting His own Spirit who later in Paul makes the sharpest distinction between faith and works (Rom. 3:27-28; 4:5). Jesus is calling faith a “work” in an ironic response to the Galileans’ question, which is why Calvin says, “it is plain enough that Christ does not speak with strict accuracy when he calls faith a work….”
E. As to the main point that faith is not something we do: You wonder how faith can be an activity but not something we do because “in plain language an activity is done and obedience must be done.” Here I respond to you, Sam, but also very conscious of all the readers in the churches of which I am a part.
1. On the one hand, I am sensitive to your point regarding how we use the verb “to do” and I do not want to make too much of this verb. I do not want to demand such a restrictive meaning that I hinder our English vocabulary and go beyond the confessions. While the confessions, like Scripture, consistently and repeatedly use the verb “to do” to connect the believer as subject and his works as the object (we do good works), they do not call special attention to this verb in order to make the theological point that doing and working are synonymous, therefore, I do not want to impose anything upon the confessions or churches. Moreover, as I demonstrated in my article, there are times when the English verb “do” is used with faith as in I Peter 1:21, “… who by him do believe in God…” (although “do” in that verse is not the Greek word for “perform” or “accomplish” and the verb is not taking “believe” as its object). Thus, I do not want anyone to raise suspicions about the orthodoxy of their minister, who in the course of his sermon, happens to use the verb “do” to explain the activity of faith or some component of faith. Nor do I want anyone to question the orthodoxy of any brother who repudiates the notion that faith is a work we do for salvation but still refers to faith as a doing, by which he only means that faith is an activity.
2. On the other hand, I want to preserve and protect faith—and the great Reformation doctrine of sola fide. I want to preserve and protect faith in the interest of that to which faith clings—the person and perfect work of God’s Son, our faithful Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. To that end, I want to preserve and protect the necessary and crucial biblical and confessional distinction between faith and works. Faith is faith. Works are works. These may not be confused. For salvation, the activity of believing and the activity of working are qualitatively distinct.
a. In light of the biblical meaning and use of the verb “to do,” which, when that verb joins together the believer and his works, means “to perform or accomplish or work,” is it not understandable that if you would say to me, “You must do something if you want to be saved. You must believe,” I would object? You might mean that salvation is only experienced by means of faith and therefore you are urging the exercise of faith; nevertheless, I would, understandably, take such a statement to mean that salvation depends upon me and my working. Faith seems to be this onerous thing I must perform in order to enjoy salvation. I would not be objecting because I deny the necessity of faith, or the call to faith, or the activity of faith but because I deny that salvation is in any sense dependent upon me and what I do.
b. My prayerful desire is that we teach the necessity of faith as the instrument of salvation and that we boldly, unashamedly, and unhesitatingly issue the call of the gospel, “Repent and believe!” But my prayer is also that we surround that teaching of the necessity of faith and the issuing of the gospel call with the gospel itself. And the gospel is the good news that all of salvation is of God, who has accomplished the entirety of our salvation in the doings of Jesus Christ. This salvation God sovereignly applies by the Spirit. Faith too is of God. Faith is God’s gift sovereignly conferred, breathed, and infused in the elect and quickened unto conscious activity by the Word and Spirit.
Respectfully in Christ,
Prof. Brian Huizinga