As I write this, we are living in chaotic times. A car backfired in New York, causing a stampede as the bystanders scattered in panic. Some people seem to want to regulate thoughts and speech, while others seem to condemn or condone immorality by political criteria. People seem to judge morality, not by the quality of what one does, but by who one does it with, while others seem to proclaim virtues without considering their context or consequences. I say “seem” because I can’t tell what is real any more. This is a time when disputes about flowers and cakes end up in court. It’s so bad that even the weather is can result in rancorous debate that divides families and alienates friends!
In all this chaos, it is easy to have a crisis of faith; in fact, it seems like anyone who is not having a crisis of faith is not paying attention to what is going on around them. However, a crisis of faith is very scary to a Christian, because:
Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
—Galatians 2:15-16, NRSV
Notice the words I put in boldface.
We cannot be saved by doing works of the Law (that is, obeying the rules in the Torah), for the simple reason that the Torah does not promise salvation. Obeying the Torah makes you righteous, it does not guarantee an eternal destination after you die—if you don’t believe me, ask a rabbi. This not a new Christian teaching. Read the Torah from end to end and you will never find a promise of eternal life in exchange for obeying it. Trying to get into heaven by obeying the Torah is like trying to get into a tennis match with baseball tickets. No one, neither Jew nor gentile, not in this or any previous age, is saved by works of obedience to the Torah. Trying to saved by obeying the Torah abuses, or at least misuses, the Torah.
Paul says we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but Paul does not mean the kind of faith that is some sort of vivid game of make-believe.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
—Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV
We cannot earn salvation by works, because then we’d be in the absurd position where were could force God to save us, perhaps against His will. He has no obligation to save us. We can only be saved if He gracefully honors our faith. Faith, not works, is the beginning of our salvation, not the end of it. Any one can claim to have faith, but only a person who has faith can produce evidence of their faith through works of obedience.
If you have faith in the Torah, you obey its commandments; if you have faith in Jesus to save you, you obey His commandments. Looking at it from the other end, if you obey the Torah, it is because you have faith in it. If you obey Jesus, it is because you have faith in Him. Of course, you can have faith in both and you can obey both, but you would get righteousness from the Torah and eternal life from Jesus.
Obeying Jesus’ commandments is not optional. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” in John 14:15, so if you say you love Jesus, but you do not obey His commandments, we may have caught you in a fib—a fib that could be fatal to your eternal destiny if you continue to deceive yourself. Jesus gave us a terrifying example:
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’… Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
—Matthew 26:40, 44-46, NRSV
This is actually very good news for us whenever we have a crisis of faith. Sometimes we reach a point of religious exhaustion, such as in chaotic times like these. Our prayers don’t seem to get past the ceiling, so we stop praying, and in our discouragement we stop going to church for a while. We go from there to wondering if we were ever even Christians at all, and if there is any point to life.
No matter what spiritual storm rages in your heart, or mind, or intellect, if your Christian obedience continues despite it, you have nothing to worry about. If you are terrified that Jesus cannot keep His promises, but you are still betting on Him in your actions, that can only happen if you have, on a deep and abiding level, faith in Him.
Now I want to tell you another parable, not a parable of Jesus, but a parable of Ken.
There was a farmer whose fields were ripe for the harvest, so he hired two farmhands to work in his fields. He assigned them different corners of his field, and equipped them each with a tractor. While they were out in the field, the sun beat down on them, a thunderstorm soaked them, and their tractors broke down. They were both discouraged, and they both despaired.
When the farmhands did not return on time, the farmer went out to find them.
He didn’t find the first farmhand, who had waited for the shade and and for the rain to stop, and when his tractor broke down, he wandered off without doing any work; hot, wet, hungry, and unpaid.
The second farmhand worked in the sun and during the rain, and when his tractor broke down, he worked with a hoe.
The farmer couldn’t find the first farmhand. He took the second farmhand back to the farmhouse in his truck, gave him his pay, a meal, and a bed.
Both farmhands had suffered a crisis of faith when it got hot and rainy and their tractors broke down, but which one truly had faith in the farmer? If Jesus is the farmer, which farmhand are you?
Perhaps the very best Christians are always in a crisis of faith! I mean the Christians who are always searching for their own sins and repenting of them, rather than searching for the sins of others and calling them out. If you have a crisis of faith, it might just mean that you are a saint, because there is no saint in the Bible or in history who did not fall into spiritual despair at one point or the other. They are saints because they persevered in their obedience even though they were discouraged and vexed (Hebrews 11). They were exhausted, but they kept going; they were discouraged, but they kept obeying; they felt it was futile, but they kept doing good. Your crisis of faith is extremely disquieting, but it is not fatal, because you can’t have a crisis of faith without having faith within which to have a crisis. Whether you think you are a Christian or not, take heart: Jesus makes that determination, not you.
Someone asks you, “Are you a Christian?” Perhaps it is presumptuous to say yes. Perhaps the humblest and most Christian answer to this question is, “I think so, but you really have to ask Jesus about that.”
On the other hand, there are people who presume that they are saved, and in their overconfidence and presumption, they mount the Throne of Judgment. They violate Jesus’ commandments by judging the world and issuing pronouncements, claiming heaven for themselves and relegating the people they don’t like to hell. By disobeying Jesus’ commandments to love others without judging them, their profession of faith is revealed as no faith at all. After all, whoever wrests control of the steering wheel has no faith in the driver. They ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” but instead of trusting Jesus to do it, they take matters into their own hands. When Jesus comes, He tells them to get off the throne and go sit in the back (Luke 14:8-9).
The people who obey despite their crisis of faith have a pleasant surprise in store for them:
When the Son of Man comes Hin his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
—Matthew 25:31-40, NRSV
Notice that the people whom Jesus takes into eternal life are surprised that they are saved! They didn’t know they had faith in Him, but He counts their obedience as saving faith. No one obeys Jesus if they have no faith in Him, which means that if we obey Him, we have faith in him.
If you have faith in someone, you obey them, and if you obey someone, it is because you have faith in them. Thus faith and works are the exact same thing.
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household.
—Hebrews 11:7a, NRSV
If Noah had said to himself, “I have faith in God, so I don’t have to actually build an ark,” he would have perished in the flood. If Abraham had said, “I have faith in God, so I don’t actually have to pack up and go to the Promised Land,” he never would have received it. If you say, “The only required course in the University of Salvation is faith in Jesus, all the others are elective,” you will perish in the judgment to come.
If you have a crisis of faith, if you have spiritual vertigo, and if you don’t know what is true or which way is up, and if all your Christian friends forsake you, take heart. All that happened to all the saints before you. Obeying Jesus’ commandments takes faith, and by that faith you are saved.
If you have faith in Jesus, you work for Him. If you work for Jesus, you have faith in Him. In that sense, faith and works are the exact same thing.
If your heart troubles you, God is greater than your heart.1 John 3:20