On Faith, Works, the Lordship of Christ, and Assurance

Saving faith has legs that keep a Christian moving forward in obedience to Jesus.

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.

 

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.

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