Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?
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Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?

Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Faith and Works

Posted August 10, 2022
DoctrineThe Gospel

I’m fascinated by influencers. They share their beauty, life hacks, or expertise with thousands or even millions of followers at any time of day, and we’ll instantly interrupt our lives to praise them for it. Though life always looks good at the top, I’m not so sure it really is. Without repeated success, someone below you will inevitably take your place. You can only stay at the top if you can keep it.

The Scriptures name this keep-it-if-you-can approach a “works” mentality. Not only is it exhausting, but God isn’t even impressed when you try to get his attention in this way. Instead, his affirmation comes when you trust and receive the accomplishments of Jesus as your own. Unlike the keep-it-if-you-can mindset, a life of faith invites you to rest in God’s approval without having to prove yourself.

You need to know the difference between faith and works because you need to know who to impress and how. When your audience is anyone and everyone on social media, the competition is always on—which means you always must be on. If you’re not, your followers won’t notice you anymore. When your audience is God, however, the contest is over. You’ve won—not because you’re a great performer, but because Jesus carries you across the finish line and shares his success with you.

Works

The Scriptures often treat faith and works as opposites. Whereas works of the law don’t lead to divine approval, faith in Jesus does (Gal. 2:15­–16). Here’s why: Works are connected to law, and law is a double-edged sword (Gal. 3:10, 12). Though blessings come by meeting its demands, curses come by failing to do so (Deut. 28:1–2; 27:26).

Think of works as one way of preserving a relationship. An influencer, for example, agrees to update his feed regularly so his followers can like and share it. There’s an exchange at the center of this relationship—posts for likes and more publicity. When celebrities publicly thank their fans for their support, they’re receiving a blessing for keeping their end of the bargain. But we’ve all seen what happens when a star loses his fandom. This relationship quickly shifts from blessing to cursing, sometimes all too literally.

The Scriptures don’t want you to build your relationship with God in this way. Since your good performance can only be maintained for so long, you’ll wind up doing perception management rather than walking with God. You’ll give him the Instagram version of yourself—desperate to capture your high moments and determined to hide your low ones—even though you know it’s inauthentic. In the end, filtering your life through works is a never-ending attempt to impress yourself, others, and sometimes God.

The alternative to this is faith. Instead of presenting your best self to trade your top performance for God’s approval, faith looks to another to find acceptance. That other is Jesus, the one who lived and died so you would belong to God.

Faith

Whereas works is connected to law and performance, faith is connected to promise (Rom. 10:17). The leading model for this is Abraham. He left his land and family of origin because God promised him a new home where his descendants would increase and flourish under divine blessing (Gen. 12:1–3, 13:14–17). After years of wandering and childlessness, however, Abraham began to wonder if God would keep his word (Gen. 15:2–3, 8). God assured him by not only restating his commitment (Gen. 15:4–5, 7), but also by performing a ceremony that pledged his faithfulness under the threat of his own death (Gen. 15:9–21).

This is the turning point of Abraham’s life. When he trusts God will do what he’s said, his story becomes the pattern for faith (Rom. 4:3, 18, 22; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23). There’s not an exchange at the center of this relationship, but a promise. God will do something for Abraham. Abraham just has to receive God’s gift with the open hands of faith.

Faith is beautiful because it levels the religious playing field. If acceptance comes through works, then some Christians would be better than others because some achievements just deserve more credit. But everyone who trusts in Jesus receives his standing as their own (Rom. 3:21–22; Phil. 3:9). Which means there’s no room for second-rate Christians because we’re equal in the risen Jesus (Rom. 3:27; Gal. 3:28).

Faith not only deflates your ego, but it also turns your need to impress upside down. What matters more is being impressed by the faithfulness of Jesus because he’s the one who fulfills all of God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Even though he was the complete promise-keeper, he suffered the law’s curse as if he was a promise-breaker (Gal. 3:13). But he did it for you, so that his cursing might be transformed into your blessing (Gal. 3:14).

Faith is about resting and receiving the faithfulness of Jesus as your own, his life for yours. When you set aside your resume and open yourself to this gift, you become a living art piece that walks in the good works God has designed for you (Eph. 2:8­–10).

Leaning into Faith

I don’t know about you, but I want to be successful. I want to be known. I want to be remembered. But I don’t want to have that by being “on” all the time or by repeating a great performance. I can’t do it for long. I start feeling empty when I’m not noticed anymore. If I have to prove myself to the world and to God all the time, I’ll only prove that I’m not worth it.

Faith offers you true freedom by inviting you to rest in the accomplishments of Jesus. When you trust in his loyal obedience as your own, you’re hidden from the criticisms of others (Col. 3:3). You are known by him and his opinion about you never changes (Gal. 4:9). Your worth is secure because his affirmation is final.

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Ty Gregory

Ty Gregory is a Latin and Humanities teacher in the classical, Christian education movement. He earned two master's degrees in Biblical and Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. He continues to pursue his pastoral calling as an intern of Denver Pres (PCA) in Colorado. He hopes to combine his pastoral and academic training—especially his love of language, history, and theology—to form the next generation of lifelong learners and followers of Jesus. Outside of the classroom, Ty enjoys hiking and coffee connoisseuring with his lovely wife, Karen. The renewing and liberating love of God in Christ Jesus for the outcast and the poor inspires all of his teachings and writings.