Discussion over at Extra Nos resulted in a long comment from me. I would like to enhance that comment and post it here. The topic is very relevant to my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (See here and here.).
I have often struggled with the relationship between faith and works. I read the Bible often, and I try to conform my thinking to what it says. I also read many books by knowledgeable Christians to help. I find this collection and a book by Jerry Bridges to be very helpful.
I tend to look within myself to see if I have done enough to prove my salvation. I look at my choice of language, my anger, and my love of alcohol, and I have no hope for heaven. It’s an introspective approach some have rightly called “navel-gazing.”
Some of this introspection has been brought about by otherwise good teachers like John Gerstner, whose teaching is summarized in “A Primer on Roman Catholicism,” a short 44-page introduction to the topic.
Gerstner is very helpful in stating the distinction between reformation (read: Biblical) Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Gerstner’s basic explanation is given below in three formulas. The first two are wrong-headed. The last one is spot on. I have taken some liberties with the explanations.
Formula of Antinomianism (that means anti-law): FAITH – WORKS = JUSTIFICATION (This is often called ‘easy-believism.’ Walk forward at the invitation, mouth a prayer you don’t mean, and never doubt your salvation ever again despite the fact that there is no change whatsoever in your attitude toward sin. This idea is not Biblical. See James 1:22-27, 2:14-26.)
Formula of Rome: FAITH + WORKS = JUSTIFICATION (Works are infused righteousness in the believer that are meritorious. These works, a result of God’s grace, earn salvation in a sense. God saves by faith, but he does not save those who are not inherently righteous. See Romans 4:1-8.)
Formula of Reformers and the Bible: FAITH = JUSTIFICATION + WORKS (The faith that saves results in a heart set free from the guilt of sin; not guilt feelings, real guilt before God. Guilt is what gives sin the power to rule our lives. When that guilt is removed, our hearts are motivated by gratitude and love to do good works. Good works do not play a part in earning justification, only Christ’s work does. Faith alone saves, but not a faith that is alone. See Romans 6, noting that the chapter is about things that are true, not things we are to make true.)
The danger is that we will look within to see the presence of works to know we are justified. Gerstner was prone to this. His exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on Faith left me certain I was a Christian. His teaching on Westminster’s chapter on Repentance left me sure I was not a Christian. He followed Jonathan Edwards and the English Puritans. If Edwards was right, none of us would have true faith.
As I grow in Christ, my awareness of what God’s law requires grows as well. I become aware of more and more of my sin. I am convinced I am doing worse and worse. The Puritans would leave me without hope if I did not keep reading them.
The bottom line of their teaching is the way to live. This bottom line is: “Flee to Christ.” We are to abandon all hope in our works and run to Christ, Who is our righteousness. This kind of faith saves and gives hope. I abandon all hope in myself and rely completely on what Christ has done. Now I’ll go try to clean up my language…