The Faith-Salvation-Work Cycle of Frustration

The dangerous cycle based on circular reasoning that wrecks lives of those naively follow it. Salvation should be based on faith in Christ with no strings attached, no small prints, no disclaimers. As dangerous as the cycle concept is, it is widely accepted and taught everywhere.

This article is inspired by James 2:24—or the almost universal misinterpretation of it: “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” It’s very likely that we embrace an understanding that aligns with the following illustration:

Faith-Salvation-Works Cycle

By faith in Christ alone, we are saved. But true salvation will produce good works, and these good works are the evidence of our faith. Without works, the faith is not genuine. The only outcome of this ungenuine faith is salvation may be rescinded, withdrawn, voided, or canceled (it’s incredible there are so many more synonyms for these words). This is a type of circular reasoning that puts doubts in the blessed assurance expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)”

But is this what James is really saying? What “works” is he talking about? Before we look at various Scriptures to establish a context for a proper understanding of James 2:24, We can quickly spot a few, but very significant, problems with this picture.

In accordance with Old Covenant laws and statutes, every jots and tittles must be followed to the letter. But at least there everything is spelled out so there is hopefully no ambiguity about what is required to achieve a satisfactory level of sanctification. What about the “Works” shown here in the picture? What works? Is there a definition of it somewhere, clearly spelled out so there is no confusion about what qualifies as “works?” What will happen to “evidence” and “assurance” of salvation that is the goal of all of Christianity?

As an aside, I used to work for a boss who, probably trying to push me toward quitting voluntarily, tried her best not to give me clear objectives of an assignment to a team of which I was a member. She would not answer either phone or email, even not showing up at her office so I couldn’t catch her. One thing though that she made sure everyone knew: the deadline. It drew near and I was no where near knowing what I was supposed to do. The stress was incredible. Is this how we are supposed to walk with God?

Since God’s promise is true, and in Him there is no shadow of turning, He cannot speak from both sides of His mouth. What exactly does James talk about concerning works? Let’s take a look at several Scriptures in which at least three people refer to Abraham, his works and his righteousness: Jesus, James, and Paul. All three use Abraham as an example of faith and the works that he did.

Jesus

In the context surrounding John 8:39 when he asked those that gathered around him to do what Abraham did, which is to believe in him instead of trying to crucify him: “If you were Abraham’s children, said Jesus, then you would do what Abraham did.” Here the WORKS they should have done was to believe in him, to embrace him as the promised Messiah. He certainly did not refer to any works we vaguely refer to today. And the work of Abraham that Jesus spoke of will be clarified later in Paul’s epistle, and in another verse which will be cited near the end of this writing.

James

As we see in the trouble verse of James 2:24 above. But James is an apostle to the Jews (Gal 2:7-9; Acts 18:4-6). This is important. We must read it from the context of being Jewish. During Jesus time, they didn’t do the work of Abraham which is to believe in him, now during the time of this letter of James, I venture to think they still have a hard time letting go of the Old Covenant system of sacrifices. They say they trust in Jesus as their Savior, but in reality, and probably in secret, they still carried on the ways of generations past. We can paraphrase what James wrote like this: if you folks trust in the ultimate sacrifice, which is the Lamb of God, then prove it, stop offering animals and other means to take away your sins, or other observances. In other words, to fully trust in the finished work of Christ is work that James is looking for. If you have any doubt about this, check with Paul and Jesus.

Paul

The apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2:7-9; Acts 18:4-6). This is also an important fact because the Gentiles had virtually no problem with the reliance on burnt offerings like the Jews, so he had no need to confront their “lukewarmness” concerning who can save them—The Lamb of God or something else. Paul proves that Abraham’s faith alone is sufficient for his being considered righteous. Let’s read Romans 4:9-10: “9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!”

Abraham was considered righteous before he was circumcised, which was before he had Isaac, which was before he even tried to offer him as a sacrifice. In other words, he had no work that proves his genuine faith other than simply believing. To confirm this Paul also wrote in Romans 4:2: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.”

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

If we look at work, like the work James talks about concerning the Jews, that they must prove their faith by letting go of other means for justification, then the illustration is valid. But if we look at work, like the kind mysteriously, and powerfully, produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit, which we call fruit of the Spirit, we must break the cycle and remove the Works part completely. The work like changed lives, from smoking to no longer smoking, from gambling to quitting gambling, from abusive behavior to gentleness, sharing their faith to the lost world, etc., should not be included in the diagram as something that can invalidate our salvation. When “Works” is included as a condition, or required element, for salvation in the picture, it creates an ambiguity that confuses even the best of Christians (but who is the best? Aren’t we all wretched sinners forgiven by grace?). By including it in the picture, we give it the power to nullify John 3:16 and myriad verses like it. God does not use circular reasoning in extending his grace to sinners.

16 People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the UNCHANGING NATURE of his purpose VERY CLEAR to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:16-20)

The fundamental problem that I observe is this: while in theory we believe that we’re saved by grace and through faith alone, in reality we only believe as far as our “feelings” go. And we know how fickle our feelings are. A set back in our health of financial situation, a loss of composure during a confrontation, a touchy sermon subject, the constant accusation of the devil himself, can make us feel like a failure. This is why many Christians keep responding to the altar call, and some may receive baptism many times because of these doubts.

We must clearly differentiate the two kinds of work:

  1. The work of faith like that of Abraham. Jesus confirmed that “to believe” is not only a work, it’s THE WORK OF GOD (John 6:29).
  2. The work, that we tend to confuse with the work in James 2:24, that is born out of a life in Christ, is actually also the work of God, which we also call the fruit of the Spirit. To call this work, and make it a qualifier for our saving faith—by including it in the circle—, is to virtually close the door of heaven to a very large majority of Christians, except perhaps a small minority who think they can somehow produce the work of God.

I firmly believe that a strong Christian is an inevitable by-product of a life that possesses a full assurance of salvation through the finished work of Christ. And I am certain that we’ve been bypassing this important part of “watering” while pushing our brothers and sisters in Christ to “grow,” or to “bear fruit.” This is just out of order, because God is the one that will cause the increase. Christianity is not a multi-level marketing engine; Jesus died to save each and everyone as if he or she is the only one to save, and it’s the furthest thing from his mind to make them workers in a production line. I have interviewed many Christians everywhere I met, and the results are sadly almost always the same: 99.99% are not sure if they’re saved. This lack of assurance of salvation is the reason why the caterpillar cannot emerge to become a glorious butterfly. The bulk of Scriptures that addresses the importance of this assurance far outweigh the miniscule others that address all other topics put together, and yet somehow we like to relegate it to only evangelistic outreach.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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