The relationship between faith and works as it’s described in the Bible is not a very complicated one. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” says Paul. “Faith without works is dead,” says James. Or as John says plainly, “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” At least one major takeaway from all of this is that genuine faith in Jesus Christ – the kind that is required for a person to be brought into right standing with God – is a fruit-bearing faith. True faith in Jesus bears the fruit of obedience to Jesus. And so, a kind of faith that does not bear such fruit, is, in the words of James, “dead.” It is a useless, counterfeit sort of faith that does not save.
Trees, Roots, and Fruit
To put it another way, the relationship between faith and works is like the relationship between the roots of a tree and the fruit that a tree produces. In this case, you and I are the trees, the roots are our faith, and the fruits are our works.[i] Specifically, a Christian tree is one whose roots go down into and draw nourishment from the soil that is Christ and which then bears the fruit of works of obedience to God. The fruits of a Christian tree do not make or keep the tree alive or healthy; they are merely the evidence that the tree is already alive and that it is being fed and nourished in good soil (Christ). So then, when a tree bears no fruit whatsoever, at least in the case where the ‘tree’ is actually a person, the reason is because its roots are not going down into good soil. Whatever sort of faith the person has, is not sincere faith in Christ. Otherwise, the tree would bear some fruit.
That’s all pretty easy and straightforward and I suspect that most of the readers of this post are in broad agreement with these things. So then, let’s keep moving.
Some might call the basic and repeated biblical theme that all living trees (i.e. genuine Christians) will bear fruit on their branches (i.e. works of obedience to God through Christ by the Spirit) – the teaching of “Lordship salvation” – the idea that Jesus only becomes your Savior when you have come to trust him sincerely as Lord. Others, even those who fully embrace the necessity of repentance and good works as evidence of genuine faith (I’m thinking of brothers and sisters from Reformed Confessional backgrounds here), are uncomfortable with this language, since they see it as confusing repentance and works with the saving Gospel message itself.
(I personally believe there is likely much more agreement concerning the relationship of faith and works between those comfortable with the phrase “Lordship salvation” and those Reformed brothers and sisters who see it as confusing the Gospel itself with the proper consequences of believing the Gospel. But I digress.)
At any rate, how does this biblical teaching – the truth that genuine faith in Christ is a faith that receives him as Lord – relate to a Christian’s assurance of salvation? The most apparent answer would be to say that in order to have a proper assurance of salvation, one must be able to identify real spiritual fruit (good works of obedience to God) in his life. And this isn’t wrong. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, indicates that good works are useful for strengthening the assurance of believers (WCF, 16.2), since the genuineness of one’s faith is demonstrated by the evidence of good works. So, one way to grow in assurance (though not the only way or even the foundational way, by any means) is to examine the spiritual fruit that exists in your life. That much is true and good.
However, while I fully embrace the basic teaching that saving faith is a repentant faith, that repentance is present in every genuine conversion, and that justification necessarily leads to sanctification – I also believe that we can easily error (if we are not careful) when it comes to using and applying these biblical teachings in the pursuit of the assurance of our salvation. In fact, I believe that these teachings can actually stand in the way of a growing assurance of salvation, if we are not careful in the way we use them in personal application and in our teaching. And I’d like to suggest one specific way to do that in this post.
We hinder our own and others’ assurance of salvation when we regard submission to the Lordship of Christ as something similar to full obedience to Christ.
Does genuine faith bear fruit? Yes, that much is clear. But how much fruit? And how quickly does the fruit grow on the branches of a person’s life? And does every kind of fruit grow on all of the branches all of the time? The Bible simply does not ever go so far as to suggest these kinds of things. It never suggests that genuine faith bears fruit all the time and in every way.
Consider James, for instance. Even in the classic section about faith and works in James 2:14-26, James refuses to suggest that genuine faith bears perfect fruit perfectly. What he can say (and does) is that genuine faith is going to bear fruit in the life of every Christian. But that’s as far as he goes.
In fact, the whole letter of James is based upon the observation that Christians do not bear the fruit of works of obedience to God perfectly. He knows Christians are often weak in faith. He knows they need to be made complete and grow more spiritually mature (1:4). He knows we stumble and sin in various ways (3:2). The whole letter is about this. It’s about how to grow spiritually – how to become more consistent with our profession of faith in Christ – how to live more consistently as Christians. The very assumption of James is that none of us bear all kinds of fruit all the time.
Just because a tree with the roots of genuine faith in Jesus will ultimately bear some real fruit; it does not mean that it will bear ripe fruit immediately, nor continuously, nor in all out abundance in every season of life.
A Critical Distinction
This is a critical distinction to grasp when one is seeking to strengthen his assurance, since if one’s faith is only genuine if it is bearing every kind of fruit in abundance in any and every season of life, then no one’s faith is genuine. No one’s faith is genuine, if this were the case, because at no point in this life is any Christian perfect. We have not even for the slightest moment loved the Lord our God with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our mind, and with all of our strength – all at once. Every split second we render obedience to God, we render an imperfect obedience that is in some way tainted with sin. So, we all better hope that a proper assurance of salvation is not ultimately dependent upon the quality or consistency of the obedience we offer to Christ.
Consider for example who James looks to in James 2 as examples of those whose faith was proven to be genuine by works; Abraham (v. 21) and Rahab (v. 25). Both Abraham’s and Rahab’s faith were shown to be genuine in the very same way. This is quite a wide spectrum.
Abraham, on the one hand, is the father of the Jewish people – the great patriarch of the faith. Abraham is one who heard directly from God, who saw an appearance of the Lord himself with his own eyes, who enjoyed a meal with heavenly beings. He is the one man whom God chose to be the father of a great nation that would eventually bless all the nations of the earth. Abraham is the patriarch of the Messianic line. We know him well.
But then on the other end of the spectrum is Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, who merely heard the news of God’s defeat of the Egyptians and the Amorites and believed that simple word to the point that she would risk her life and the lives of her family members to protect two men from Israel. You may have noticed that despite her faith, Rahab is still referred to in James as a prostitute. When did she give up that job? We don’t know. Presumably, not immediately upon receiving the news of God’s power and grace to save his people.
But these two examples of genuine faith are highly instructive for those of us who wish to strengthen our assurance by examining our works. There is a lot of room between Abraham and Rahab (even though Abraham was no choir boy himself!). But they are both in the family by a faith in God and his word that produced some measure of fruit in each of their lives.
Some measure of fruit. Do you hear that, dear Christian? Not every kind of fruit in all out abundance in every season of life. The relationship between faith and works is a necessary one, but it is also a messy one until we see the Lord with our own eyes. You do not need full and perfect fruits, nor an uninterrupted flow of fruits, to strengthen your assurance by looking for good works in your life.
WCF on Faith, Obedience, and Assurance
I think the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith struck the right balance on these things where they explain that genuine faith in Jesus results in the fruit of obedience – while also giving room to the fact that the measure of fruit that is produced in the life of each Christian differs in quality and quantity.
Consider these statements from the WCF to see how they tried to strike this balance (I’ve modernized a word or two for clarity’s sake).
In explaining what faith is, they write:
“By…faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word…yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life…” (WCF, 14.2)
But then they clarify that not every Christian possesses the same measure of faith:
“This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.” (WCF, 14.3)
They then go on to talk about talk about how all genuine faith – whether strong genuine faith or weak genuine faith – is evidenced in good works:
“ …good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (WCF, 16.2)
Then finally, in the section on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (the biblical doctrine that teaches all genuine believers in Christ will bear good fruit and endure to the end faithful to Jesus – because God preserves them by the power and grace of his Spirit), they acknowledge that this in no way means that a Christian’s obedience to God will be absolute and interrupted until the end of their life. Quite the contrary in some cases. They write:
“Nevertheless, [true Christians/true people of faith] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.” (WCF, 17.3)
So, what’s the point? Though genuine faith is an obedient faith, not all Christians exercise the same measure of faith in Jesus. And though they will in a general sense endure in obedience to Jesus to the end, they may also fall into serious sin at times, and not bear the fruit that they are called to bear throughout certain seasons of life.
Genuine faith over the course of a Christian’s life is going to bear fruit. But not every Christian will bear the same amount of fruit; and not every Christian will bear an extraordinary abundance of fruit; and no Christian is going to bear an extraordinary abundance of fruit all of the time.
Saving faith has legs that keep a Christian moving forward in obedience to Jesus. Though they may move at a snail’s pace, walk with a limp, and be weakened to the brink of collapse, by God’s grace, over time, they keep moving forward. But the legs of some may move much faster than the legs of others.
So, while the impulse to guard against antinomianism is right, and while the insistence that sanctification flows necessarily from justification is good, and while it is appropriate for Christians to be concerned about revivalistic, decisional Gospel preaching that pronounces people saved upon the raising of hands and walking of aisles and signing of cards – when it comes to using the biblical teaching that genuine faith in Christ is a faith that results in the fruit of good works (ongoing repentance, growth in godliness, etc.) to strengthen our assurance of salvation (and to help others strengthen theirs), we must be very careful. That a Christian is one who embraces Jesus as Lord, does not mean that a Christian is one who has rightly appropriated the truth of Jesus’ Lordship to every moment and every area of his life.
It is possible to be committed to the Lordship of Christ and remain sorely imperfect. Every Christian is. And you can be sorely imperfect – as we all are – and still gain and grow in the assurance of your salvation. Submitting to the Lordship of Jesus is not about arriving at the destination of complete spiritual maturity, or anything close to that. It is about leaving an old master and learning to follow a new one for the rest of your life. And while it is worth considering whether you are learning to do that as you seek to strengthen your assurance, it’s also vital to remember that learning and learned are two very different things. Every Christian is still learning to follow Jesus as Lord. We have not learned to do that perfectly yet. One day we will have learned, but not yet. Until then, let’s keep learning and keep strengthening our assurance – at least in part – by noting the fruit that is growing on the branches of our lives, as meager as that fruit may be.
[i] This illustration is not original to me by any means. Jesus actually uses this sort of imagery in Matt 7:15-17 to describe false teachers and many others over the years have picked up on this imagery to describe the relationship between faith and works.