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.”
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?