Can you have faith in Jesus and still not be a Christian, still be someone who dies and goes to hell? You may be thinking, “Well, of course not.” But actually I would say the answer is yes. This all hinges on what you mean by faith.
Oftentimes in Christian circles we talk about faith like it’s some incredibly special type of thing, like it’s, even sadly, believing in spite of evidence, which it’s not. Biblically speaking, faith is active trust in what you have good reason to believe is true. So there are people who can exhibit trust in Jesus who will still die and go to hell.
You might be thinking still, “Well, how can that be?” Well, let me give you some real world examples. You could trust Jesus to save you even if you believe he didn’t rise from the dead. You could trust in him for salvation even if you think he’s still in a tomb. Now, does that make much sense? No, it doesn’t, but nonetheless, you could. But that would not be saving faith. You would be denying a core component of the gospel, namely that Jesus died, and three days later, that he rose from the dead. So you could have a trust that is not sustainable based on Biblical evidence.
You could also trust that Jesus will save you from your sins even if you don’t repent of your sins. You could look at this like Jesus is my add-on. So I have my beliefs, I have my religion, I have my practices in my life, and I’m going to believe that Jesus is going to save me, but I don’t need to repent. Well, Biblically speaking, someone who has that type of perspective doesn’t actually have saving faith. They are exhibiting a faith in Jesus, that is true; they are trusting in Jesus, but the type of faith they’re exhibiting is not saving faith. So if someone has not repented of their sin, they don’t have saving faith.
Here’s another example, you could trust that Jesus saves you so that you will become wealthy. This is actually taught today, this is the prosperity gospel, where Jesus doesn’t want you to be poor. So what often happens is, people will place their trust in this idea of Jesus, in the Jesus that the prosperity gospel teaches, so that they will get money. I would say that that motivation is so skewed Biblically that those people oftentimes do not have saving faith, as sad as that is.
Now, in all three of these examples we’ve looked at, people had a faith in Jesus, they exhibited a trust in Jesus. But the problem is that Biblically speaking, when we look at the descriptors of what saving faith looks like, none of these people had saving faith.
You may be saying, “Well, this sounds really harsh. How can you say someone doesn’t have saving faith?” It’s not up to me to say. I’m not the judge here. But I can reflect and repeat what Scripture says. Scripture doesn’t aim to give anyone assurance of salvation if they aren’t living in the way and having the type of faith that Scripture commends.
Jesus says, “If you love me, you’ll follow my commands.” One of the ways we are told in 1 John that we have assurance of salvation is by examining our life and our motivations, and how we live, and our thoughts and our desires, and things like that. So if you don’t pass those Biblical tests, the Bible doesn’t aim to give you assurance of salvation.
Now, I think the Bible does aim to give the Christian assurance of salvation. And there are many ways it does that, and we’ll look at that in the future. My goal today is not to scare anyone, it’s not to make you think, “Oh, well maybe I’m not saved. I could have faith in Jesus and still not be saved.” That’s not my point. My point is that there is a type of trust in Jesus that is not supported Biblically and is not a saving type of trust. It’s not a saving type of faith.
Why does matter apologetically? Why are we talking about it on this podcast? Because there are many people out there that look at Jesus like an add-on. For instance, in Africa “I’ve got my ancestral worship and I’m going to add Jesus to that and I’m going to be fine.” Well, they are trusting Jesus, but it’s not a saving type of trust, it’s not a saving faith. There are people in this country, and especially in Africa, who have been misled and deceived by the prosperity gospel, and it’s that same type of issue. They are trusting Jesus to get things. That’s so fundamentally baked in that I think it’s incredibly destructive.
There’s a Biblical category of people that come to Jesus, let’s say in Matthew 7, and say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do good things in your name? Didn’t we cast out demons? Didn’t we check all the right boxes (basically)?” He’s going to say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” The question is, well, why? They seemed to be trusting Jesus, why are they not “in”? Well, they didn’t have saving faith.
This is also evidenced in the parable of what we call, the sower, but it’s really the parable of the soils, because the parable’s all about the seed that falls on different soils, four different soils. Some of the seed springs up quickly and then dies away. Some of it gets choked out by weeds or worldly concerns. But the only example in that parable of a person who had saving faith, was the seed that fell on the soil that was good and bore much fruit. So the other people exhibited a type of trust, but it was ultimately not a saving type of trust. Only the last example, the one that bears fruit, is a saving type of trust.
You may be saying, “Okay, so this brings us to the question of how works and faith link together, and if one’s required and one’s not.” So I want to look at a few passages today to bring together what the Bible teaches on this. The first we’re going to look at Ephesians 2. I’m going to skip a few verses in here, but keep Paul’s train of thought. He starts in verse one, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins.” “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.” To stop there briefly, Paul is saying, our spiritual condition before was entirely bleak. You weren’t just sick, spiritually speaking, you were dead. And God took a decisive action. He made you alive with Christ. He says, “By grace you have been saved.”
He says, “the reason for this was to demonstrate the surpassing wealth of his grace and kindness towards you.” So why were you saved? Was it about you? Not so much, according to Paul in this passage and in Ephesians 1 also. The reason was to demonstrate God’s kindness and wealth of grace. Then he goes on to say, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it’s a gift of God. It’s not from works, so no one can boast.” Now, some people want to say works are necessary in order to be justified, in order to be saved. Paul rules this out here.
Some have said Paul doesn’t say, “You are saved by grace through faith alone.” But how would this work, if this weren’t the case? He’s saying, it’s not from yourselves, it’s not from works. So if it’s partially from works but partially from faith, that actually does not fit at all with what Paul is saying. He’s saying, works do not contribute. A fair reading of the language here does not allow you to come to the perspective that, yes, it’s by faith but it’s also from works. We’ll talk a little more about that in a minute.
My point here is that we are not saved by our works. We need to be very clear on that. When I talk about the fact that some people do not have saving faith, and this is evidenced by the lack of works perhaps, that doesn’t mean that we are saved by works. We need to separate out how we are justified, how we are set right with God, declared righteous (that’s what justification is) and what our sanctification looks like, how we work that process out.
So when we go to Romans 3:28 we see that Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Sometimes our Catholic friends want to say, “Works are necessary for your justification.” Paul’s saying here in Romans, “A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Not in addition to, not alongside of.
Now, perhaps what comes to mind when you read this is that James in chapter two actually says, “Faith without works is dead.” In fact, our Catholic friends sometimes will bring this up and try to say, “Well, James is the way to actually understand this.” When I actually think Paul is much more clear. Some evangelical scholars have said that there’s a contradiction here, there’s “tension”, in the text, between Romans 3 and James 2. “Tension in the text” is often a codeword for contradiction, but they don’t want to say that because that’s not very conservative or “evangelical.”
Now, I don’t think there’s a tension in the text in that technical way and I don’t think there’s a contradiction. Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” As in, you are declared righteous before God and that has nothing to do with your works. But then James says in chapter 2 verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him?” Then we’ll go down to verse 17, “So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.'” And James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one, well and good, even the demons believe that and tremble with fear.” Then in verse 24 he says, “You see that a person is justified by works, not by faith alone.”
Now, Paul in Romans makes the case that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works. James, actually, in this passage, in a couple of verses we skipped, makes the point that Abraham was justified by works, not just by faith. On the surface this seems like a contradiction. I think we’ve talked about this before, but there are two usages of the word justification. One, the way Paul uses it, is a legal declaration. We have been declared righteous, we have been credited with the righteousness of God. We’ve been declared not guilty of our sin.
There’s another way that we use the word justification or justify, and that is to demonstrate one’s innocence perhaps, or to demonstrate something. So James is using the word justify in this case. Abraham justified himself, that is certainly true. He demonstrated the fact that he had faith in God, but his demonstration, his works, did not save him. His demonstration was not what declared him not guilty.
I think it’s also very interesting to look at the verbs and who’s doing the actions. In Romans when Paul is talking about justification, it is God who is justifying. In James, it is man who is justifying. So they’re talking about different things, even if you just look at the side of the equation we’re talking about.
But there is something very helpful that James brings to the table here. He’s making the point that a certain type of faith does not save. In fact, he says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this type of faith save him?” No. James’s point here is that there is a type of faith in Jesus that is actual faith but it is not saving faith. There’s a type of faith that does not save. We’re clued in to this because James says, “Can this kind of faith save?”
There is a kind of faith that saves and a kind of faith that doesn’t. The kind of faith that doesn’t is the kind of faith that says, “I can sit in my chair and believe the right things about Jesus and God and salvation, and I’ll be fine.” Some people have called it kind of a cheap grace, where once saved always saved, means that I can live like hell the rest of my life and I’m going to be fine. But Biblically that’s not the case. Let’s look at the parable of the sower or of the soils. Only the soil that bore good fruit was the soil that was evidence of the person having saving faith.
So our works do matter for evidencing salvation, and when we come to this topic apologetically and we’re talking with other people who think they can just add Jesus in, “Yeah, I trust Jesus. Yeah, he’s going to save me.” Well, Biblically speaking, can you have assurance of that trust based on how you live and the things you believe? There are people in other cultures, for instance, Hindus sometimes are fine adding another deity to their plethora of gods. You can’t just add Jesus and think you’re fine. It’s Jesus alone or Jesus does nothing for you.
The Roman Catholic church also has this view where as long as you add Jesus along with other things you’re going to be fine. It’s called syncretism, where different beliefs and worldviews can kind of sync up. We see this being popular in third world countries and things like that. But it’s not actually true, because the type of faith that saves is the faith that is in Jesus alone for salvation.
So, there are a few different things we’ve touched on today. How we understand faith is important, it’s trust, but there are different types of trust, and saving faith is the type of faith that is a gift of God to us, and it’s evidenced by action. It doesn’t stand alone. It’s not an intellectual endeavor. It’s evidenced by the fruit in our lives. The Bible aims to give the person who exhibits fruit and who trusts in Christ alone for salvation, great confidence of their salvation.
I don’t want this podcast to have people doubting. But it should equip us to spot some warning signs in other people who are maybe trusting Jesus to make them wealthy. That would be a great perversion of the gospel. Or not trusting in Jesus alone. Or not trusting in the Jesus who’s described in the Bible. It doesn’t make sense to just say, well, someone’s fine because they trust in Jesus. Who’s the Jesus they’re trusting in? Is he the prophet of Allah in Islam? Is that the Jesus we can trust in? Well, no, because that’s a fundamentally different Jesus. Is it the type of Jesus who didn’t rise from the dead? No. Is it the type of Jesus who doesn’t demand that we repent in order to be saved? No, it’s not that type of Jesus either.
So we need to be clear when we’re talking with people who are claiming they have faith in Jesus, we need to be clear about what faith is, what it’s evidenced by, and who the Jesus is they’re saying they have trust in.
I hope this has been helpful. It may have raised some more questions, if it has I’m glad to talk about them and maybe do a follow up episode. This is part of the focus I said we were going to have for 2017 on talking about more gospel related issues of faith and works and justification and things like that. So I hope it’s been helpful, and I’ll talk with you next week.