“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments are the fruit and evidence of a true and lively faith….” The Savoy Declaration of Faith. (Congregational Confession of Faith)
Rev. Jonathan Faulkner
As far back as the earliest days of Protestantism we have debated over the role of works in the Christian Life. Martin Luther, at the beginning, wanted nothing to do with the book of James which made certain claims about works and true religion (more on that in a second). Calvin, on the other hand as non-salvific. From the this, the divines postulated the Five Sola’s, Solo Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Christus, Sola Deo Gloria. We translate these from Latin to English as: Grace alone (Sola Gratia), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Christ Alone (Sola Christus) Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) and to the Glory of God Alone (Sola Deo Gloria). The idea is that we are saved by grace and justified by faith alone. Four of these fives have been reduced to their lowest common denominator and have lost their original intent (for instance Schaff defines “Sola Scriptura” as Scripture and all that has flowed from it that is considered orthodox (Scripture, the Creeds, the Eucharist). Whereas the Fundamentalist interpretation, and the modern interpretation in general, is that Sola Scriptura means only Scripture and nothing else. Scripture is the fount from which all Christian teaching comes, but the water the fount produces is good as well, so long as it takes the full council of scripture into account (such as the Creeds). I believe, as a Historian, that God guided the early development of the Church, and it was His defense of Truth that prompted the responses to heresies that arose. But I digress. Congregationalists, at least of the Savoy Confession were instrumental in forming the thought that led to these five Sola’s in 19th century, but they also believed in good works, as we see in the quote above. The question many Christians have asked though and which confessions like Savoy attempted to answer seems to have been from the beginning, what about our works?
Since the Old Testament relied on the moral, civil and ceremonial works of the individual and the nation, we see a people striving, but always falling short and when they neglected the Moral law, God reuses to accept the Ceremonial Law requirements (See Isaiah 1:12-20 and Micah 5-6). When the people failed to keep the moral law, it did not matter how many sacrifices they offered, judgment was still coming. That is why in the list above the Moral and Civil Laws preceded the Ceremonial. God was primarily concerned with how His love for His people was shared with others. The pagan’s kept their rituals to the exclusion of outsiders, the Jews were to bless the nations (Genesis 3, 12, 15), but it is hard to bless the nations when you are not acting immorally towards them.
In the new testament, Jesus not only fulfills the ceremonial law on the cross and abolishes it in his Blood. He takes the moral law and writes in on our hearts, just as Jeremiah 31 predicted He would. Law then becomes not merely a matter of external actions, but internal posture. The irony here is that the OT law should have been written on the hearts of the hearers, and internal reality, one meditated on day and night. But in the New Covenant the Holy Spirit is the one that codified the engraving of the law on the hearts of the believer. Therefore, Paul can talk about the law being “abolished’ at some points and uphold the law at others. We are not to follow the law for laws sake, righteousness is not achieved that way, but a Christian who is truly a Christian will exhibit the Moral law of God and understands that their righteousness is a result of Christ’s work and not theirs. Therefore, out of gratitude they do what God has called them to do.
Almost right away, it seems, this idea that the law was abolished was twisted, this is why in Roman’s you have Paul in 2:1-11 telling the believers that if you condemn the vices of the world and then do them yourself you are heaping up condemnation on yourself. Jesus said that Christians will be known by the fruit of their lives, good fruit/good works, indicate a life lived in Christ that results in eternal life. Bad fruit/bad works indicates a life without Christ that results in eternal judgment. Yet Paul is confronted by the same kind of Libertinism that we see in the statement: “I can be a Christian and gossip about or slander my neighbor” or “I can be a Christian and participate in drunkenness or sexual immorality.” Paul responds to this in Romans 6:1: “What then, do we keep on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means!” The “By no means” is emphatic, Paul is making it clear that we do not sin just so we can have more and more grace. We do not come to faith by our works, but our faith is shown by our works. Jesus, the ultimate authority behind what Paul and James are saying, provides the baseline for entrance into heaven, it is not praying a prayer or simply saying you believe, at the separation of the sheep from the goats, the judgment of those who claimed to be in relationship with Him, the requirement has nothing to do with religious devotion, praying a prayer or even basic belief, but how they treated Christ when he came to them naked, hungry, thirsty, sick or in prison (Matt 25). In fact, in Matthew 7 Jesus tells his followers that those who did the religious things (cast out demons etc.) would not enter into his kingdom even though they called him Lord because their actions did not come with a deep and abiding relationship with Him. Again, Matthew 7 and 25 uphold the idea that the Moral Law is still binding, and moral works should be a natural addition to a relationship with Jesus. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 backs this as well. If we do not do what Jesus has told us, we have no part with Him, and He will judge us accordingly.
It is this attitude James is addressing in James 2:14-26. The churches James is writing to have been showing partiality to the rich and neglecting the poor. They claim to have faith in God, but it is clear in 2 James believe their faith may be counterfeit since it does not appear to match up with the definition of true religion in 1:27 which comes right in the middle of the passage we love to quote: “Be doers of the word and not just hearers only.” They have shown favoritism and partiality to the rich among them, the poor have entered the church and they are forced to sit in the back of the congregation or told to leave altogether. James wants them to “fulfill the royal law according to the scriptures: that you should love your neighbor as yourself.” (2:8). It is clear James expects mercy to be shown and he doubles down on that in 2:14 when he says: “What benefit is it, my brothers, if someone says they have faith, but does not have works? Is that faith powerful to save him?” (translation mine). Of course, James expect a negative answer, no, this faith cannot save them.
The objection of course is that we are justified by faith alone, so how can faith not save us? If James knew the Apostle Paul (we know he did) then why is he not echoing Paul. Sam Allberry helps us out tremendously in his commentary when he writes: “We need to notice that James has been using the word “Faith” in a slightly different way then Paul. For Paul, faith is trusting Christ, we are saved by faith alone, because it is the saving work of Christ alone that we trust. But James has been using “faith” more broadly, describing not just trust in Christ, but the claim to be trusting in Christ. Hence his question at the star of this section about the person who professes faith but has no deed: “Can such faith save them?” Faith here refers to their profession of trust.” pg. 83. Paul understands Faith in Christ, trusting in Him for salvation, and James understands faith to mean faith and trust in Christ and simple knowledge about a thing. Since pistos can be translated and used in both senses of the word, it is not outside the bounds for James to think this way. We see what James is saying when he writes: “You believe that God is one, you do good, even the demons believe and shudder” (19). Translating James idea into the text you can read it as: “You have knowledge that God is one, good for you, the demons have that knowledge as well, and they shudder.” This harkens back to the questions in 14-18, one of which was: “If you say to your brother or sister, “be warmed and full and have peace” but do not meet their physical needs, what good have you done to them?” What good has the knowledge that God would want them to be warm and filled and at peace, what good has the passing of the peace done if the person is sent away hungry? Again, James expects a negative answer, nothing good has come from mere knowledge. However, if we trust Christ and His work for salvation then we will exhibit that trust by the way we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. Faith as knowledge about is counterfeit, it leads to death, faith that believes and trusts and is then acted upon, living: “The Jesus life in the Jesus way” as the Late Eugene Peterson wrote, then we have found saving faith. We do not speak what we believe, but we always act upon it, one only needs to look at politics in the modern era to know this is true.
The early Congregationalists had a place for works within the Christian Life. They did not believe they were saved by them but did believe the Christian should exhibit them in obedience to Christ. In fact, Jonathan Edwards, in his lengthy response to Charles Chauncey, Religious Affections, during the First Great Awakening argues that the only way one can tell a true Christian is when that inward reality of Christ’s indwelling came out in the bearing of good fruit, and how do we bear good fruit? Not through a modified monasticism or “pie in the sky” Christianity that keeps us out of contact with the world at all cost, but through a visible and tangible love of our neighbor. God does want the believer to be generous with their finances, giving to the Church and to those in need, but if the church then hordes those resources and refuses to use them for the sake of the Gospel by loving their neighbors well…that is, if they have knowledge of God’s call to give, but have no works that show they trust God to take care of the bottom line while they love their neighbors, they do not have saving faith, but counterfeit.
Savoy 16.2 says this plainly: “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruit and evidence of true and lively faith. By them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brothers, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of their 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.” The message here is clear, you have been saved by grace through faith, now you can (by the Holy Spirit Savoy 16.3) do good works, to use another reformed phrase; “you were saved for good works.”
The Savoy divines believed that if you had saving faith, you would show that faith by your actions. Both Edwards point above agree with the Holy Scriptures and by the theory of historical development can be found to be sound doctrine guided by the Holy Spirit. All this brings me back to the Sola’s, specifically Sola Fide (Faith alone) which is the justification behind the libertinism inherent in Christian Circles today. In some ways, we have gone to the opposite extreme of the pre-reformation Roman Catholic Penitential system, to the point that Paul’s rebuke of the Romans and James rebuke of his churches is once again needed. The attitude has become that we can do whatever we want and go to church on Sunday, confess during the prayer of confession and then receive absolution and then go back to living as though we do not know Christ on Facebook after Sunday dinner. At the same time, like in both Paul and James readership we have condemned the world for sexual immorality, for lust, for greed, gossip, and slander and all those things we turn around and participate in them and as Paul says, heaping up condemnation for ourselves. Then we favor the rich and powerful while the naked and hungry go unnoticed or even openly rejected and spit upon. We have even gone so far as to give power to those who exploit the weak and poor for their own gain, all the while thinking we have made it into eternal life because we have knowledge of God, but no heart change producing good works. We have applied Sola Fide too broadly, and we are paying the consequences for it as the Church shrinks both from people being turned off who were first drawn to the Gospel until they saw how Christians acted towards one another and the world, and the winnowing fork of God as the chaff is being burned away as Christianity becomes less and less popular in the culture (Christian in name only falling away).
The point here is not to say that our works save us, but that evidence of genuine conversion, the sign that you have been saved by Christ, is that you do good works to everyone you see without asking questions. Human resources are finite, but God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, His resources are not. The beauty of the Christian life is that God has already taken care of the baseline. A group of fishermen, rich tax collectors and tradesmen could not feed 5,000 but Jesus could. If God can do that, then why would we think him unable to multiply our resources beyond what we think and give us the strength and resources and words to share the Gospel with our neighbors and we meet them in their pain. Is God not who He says He is? By no means, He is exactly who He says He is which is why we can do good works out of thankfulness to Him. He is still multiplying bread and fishes today, taking care of the baseline so the work can continue unhindered. Not even while Paul is in prison, chained to a guard, wondering if he was going to live or die, could be stopped because he had not just knowledge of God, but a deep trust and faith in Christ and what He had done, he knew the outcome of his trial would glorify God and spread the Gospel, whether he lived or died, and we barely trust Him to help us get through the week. How little is our faith, compared to the immensity of God the Father? In this little faith in God, we have begun to place it in political parties and politicians, turning to the empire, instead of God the father, thinking that the right man will save Christianity. Scripture calls this a death sentence, but that is a different discussion for a different day.
Christian, the bottom line is this, live what you believe, this is central to Christian Faith and historic orthodoxy in general and ingrained in the teachings of traditional congregationalism. The Christian then should deeply evaluate their faith to find if it is counterfeit (knowledge of God only) or genuine (Works based on trust and Faith in Christ, and out of thankfulness to Him). That is the only way to restore the witness of Christianity. So we should respect and turn away from this counterfeit faith, for the sake of our own eternal souls yes, but primarily for the sake of our neighbor who continues to feel the pain of this world and the brokenness of sinfulness that we, as the people of GOD, should have the means of alleviating.
Allberry, Sam. 2015. James For You. United States : The Good Book Company .
Divines, The Savoy. 2015. “The Savoy Declaration of Faith .” In The Historic Documents of Congregationalism: The Savoy Declaraition, The Cambridge Platform, The Heads of Agreement, by David F. Wells Robert Davis, 33-84. Minniapolis : NextStep Resources .
Philip Schaff, . 1964. “The Principle of Protestantism .” In The Lancaster Theology Series on the Mercersburg Theology V: VI , by J.W. Nevin, Ed Bard Thompson Philip Schaff, 48-219. Philidelphia : United Church Press.
Philip Schaff, John Williamson Nevin, Daniel Gans . 2014. “On the Moral Character of Christ.” In The Mercersburg Theology Study Series Vol V: The Incarnate Word: Writings on Christology, by William B. Evans Bradford W. Littlejohn, 184-210. Eugene: Pickwick Publishers.
Robert Davis, David F. Wells . 2015. The Historic Documents of Congregationalism: The Savoy Declaration of Faith, The Cambridge Platform & The Heads of Agreement. . Minniapolis : NextStep Resources .
Schaff, Philip. 2016. The Creeds of Christendom Volume 3. Delmarva Publications : USA.
Schaff, Philip. 2017. “What is Church History,.” In The Mercersburg Theology Study Series VIII: The Development of the Church: The Principle of Protestantism and the Historical Writings of Philip Schaff,, by Lee C. Barrett, David W. Laymen, David R. Bains, Theodore Louis Trost W. Bradford Littlejon, 208-308. Eugene: Pickwick Publications.
Wells, David F. 2015. “Forward to the Savoy Declaration .” In The Historic Documents of Congregationalism: The Savoy Declaraition, The Cambridge Platform, The Heads of Agreement, by David F. Wells Robert Davis, 9-14. Minniapolis : NextStep Resources .
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center