Posted by: mattcolvin | January 23, 2010

Faith is not a substance

Trent anathematized the Reformers in these words: “If anyone says that the grace by which we are saved is nothing but the mere favor of God… let him be anathema.” They wanted to safeguard the conception of grace as a quasi-ontological substance that can be confected, manipulated, distributed, and withheld by their clergy.

But are we Protestants any better? Do we not do the same thing with faith?

Romans 10:17 is a favorite Baptist prooftext: “Faith comes by hearing…” Thus faith is produced partly by cognition trained on the message of the gospel. Grown-up stuff, that. Or at least teenager stuff. Pure gospel message: you’re saved by “faith, plus nothing.” “Nothing you do contributes to your salvation.” There’s your faith inside you, where the Spirit put it. And it is busily resting and receiving Christ for righteousness. You’ve got it, and unbelievers don’t. And until they get it, they won’t be justified.

But let’s try a little language game here. “Faith” and “faithfulness” are the same word in Greek (pistis. And if we back-translate the verse into Hebrew, we will have to use shama’, which means both “hear” and “obey”. What do we have then?

“Faithfulness comes by obeying.”

Uh oh.

Now read that translation against James 2:22’s statement that “by works faith (=faithfulness) was made perfect.”

James asks, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Would James agree that faith is a faculty implanted in us by the Holy Spirit?

Or would he rather conceive of pistis as a pattern of behavior to which the Spirit conforms us?

I’m concerned that many Christians think that God has put a new sense, like hearing or seeing, inside them. This new sense is called “faith.” And once they have it, it unites them to Christ, and produces good works, and does all kinds of desirable things.

But what if the Bible doesn’t teach that there is any such faculty? What if all the Biblical statements that have faith doing things (“your faith has made you whole” etc.) really mean “your pattern of loyalty to God”. In other words, the things that faith does aren’t the feats of a new organ or faculty inside you. They’re things that you do as the Spirit conforms your life to Jesus.

What then would be the relationship of faith and obedience (“works”, that bogeyman of evangelicals since 1517)? Would it not be very conceivable that the works which Jesus has prepared in advance for you to do would contribute to your salvation, by habituating you to a life of trust and loyalty to Jesus as you walk in those works?



  1. This was helpful, thanks. (And I’ll leave the comment here so that your weblog doesn’t get lonely.)

  2. This is very helpful, Matt. And explained in a way my children will understand.

  3. All this time I thought we were saved by grace?

  4. Yes. What did I say to cast any doubt on that? You’re saved by the favor and kindness of God, one aspect of which is His preparing good works in advance for you to walk in. Your obedience is a gift of God, part of His grace to you. You can’t merit anything, because it’s all from Him.

    But you also won’t see the Lord without personal and behavioral holiness. It’s a necessary condition and an instrument for the perfecting of your faithfulness, your loyalty and trust in God, which God considers as righteousness.

  5. Ah, but I am just an unprofitable servant….

  6. Quite right, Bruce.

    • So what is behavioral holiness?

      • What is behavioral holiness? Obeying God from the heart and walking in His commandments.

        Psalm 15.
        Hebrews 12:14.
        James 1:27.
        Matthew 25:33-46.
        Micah 6:8.
        1 John 2:3-6.

  7. Hmmm. To my eye, it appears that your argument begins with a sleight of hand – shifting “faith comes by hearing” to “faith comes by obeying.” As much as I’m in complete agreement with your conclusion, I think if I were to attempt this theological ledgerdemain with my Baptist friends, I’ll get my hand slapped and hard – and rightly so. And does it also confuse the rest of the verse “…and obeying by the word of Christ.” What would that mean.

    Maybe an additional thought, the 1901 ASV translates the passage “belief cometh of hearing…” To reiterate my agreement with your conclusion, I’d love to be able to translate this “belief comes by obeying.” Wouldn’t that turn the world on it’s head…

  8. What is the rationale for exegeting Romans by back-translating into Hebrew? Paul was not writing in Hebrew, but to a Greek-speaking church, and was himself fluent in Greek. Bilinguals “code-switch”: when they speak to an audience in one language, they use that language–there isn’t interference from the other language. And even the Jews in Rome were extremely Hellenized: in their ossuary inscriptions, there are actually more Latin names than Hebrew names, and Greek names are vastly more prevalent.
    Now, certainly the meaning of pistis or akoue in Paul’s day and thought had been affected by their use in the LXX, and that use had been affected by the underlying Hebrew–but that’s a far more complex process than “back-translating”…
    Furthermore, the verbal form of pisteuo must be taken into account: it does not by any means always mean something like “be faithful” or “walk in faithfulness.” In Ex. 4, for example, the issue is clearly whether the Israelites will actually believe, in a mostly intellectual sense, what Moses says about his commission, and thus God gives him what are essentially evidences for his divine office.
    That said, it’s more a concern about your method than your results. Unfortunately, few Presbyterians actually pay attention to what the WCF says about the acts of saving faith: they include trembling at the warnings, obeying the commands, trusting in the promises, and receiving and resting on Christ. Those are the acts that are constitutive of “saving faith.” The tradition actually has a more holistic view of “faith” than most of its practitioners and defenders. It was actually medieval Thomism that limited faith to a purely intellectual virtue–which was why they were so opposed to “faith alone”: it sounded to them like pure intellectualism. And many modern “Reformed” actually get their definition of “faith” from Rome…Ironic.

  9. JWDS asks: “What is the rationale for exegeting Romans by back-translating into Hebrew?”

    That wasn’t actually exegesis. Just making a point about the associations that “hearing” has within the Bible’s languages. See my more recent post for exegesis of Romans 10 for a more rigorous exposition of the chapter’s running theme of obeying the gospel.

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