By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
In Chapter 3, we defined the gospel and salvation as an objective fact. We saw that, in Christ, all humanity has obtained full and complete salvation because Christ’s life has provided salvation from sin’s guilt and punishment, its power, and its curse [see Ephesians 2:5-6].
In this chapter, we will turn our attention to the subjective aspect of the gospel — salvation as a personal experience. What God has prepared and provided in Christ for all mankind (the objective gospel) must become real in our experience (the subjective gospel) if it is to be of value to us. The objective gospel can become a reality to us only when we experience its power in our lives. Not only did Jesus say that we shall know the truth, but He also added, “The truth will set you free” [John 8:32]. The truth can make us free only when we believe and receive it in our hearts [see Mark 16:15-16; Romans 5:17]. Until that happens, the truth remains a mere theory to us.
When we studied the objective gospel, we looked at salvation from God’s point of view. When we study the subjective gospel, we look at salvation from humanity’s point of view. From God’s perspective, we are saved by grace [see Ephesians 2:8-9], and Christ is our righteousness. From the human-response perspective, we are saved by faith, and the righteousness of Christ becomes ours by faith alone. In other words, the subjective gospel is making real in our experience the objective facts of the gospel. Faith is the key word in the subjective gospel, and we need to look at this word in detail.
Faith is our human response to the objective facts of the gospel. In order to be genuine faith, this response must always be motivated by love, a heart appreciation of the gospel. John 3:14-16 makes it clear that faith is our heartfelt response to God’s love expressed in the gift of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Once we understand the objective facts of the gospel, especially the truth concerning the cross, then “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” [2 Corinthians 5:14-15]. The fact that Christ was willing to say good-bye to His eternal life forever so that we might live can fill us only with love and adoration. This is genuine faith that works by love [see Galatians 5:6] and produces genuine worship.
Satan, the great enemy of our souls, has prepared at least one counterfeit for every objective truth of the gospel. His counterfeit for Christ’s righteousness, for example, is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness may look good; it may even appear to be genuine righteousness, but it is not of the gospel and, therefore, is like filthy rags in God’s eyes [see Romans 10:3-4; Isaiah 64:6].
Satan’s counterfeit for genuine faith is an egocentric faith motivated by self-interest. Like the genuine article, this counterfeit faith professes to be in Christ, but it originates from our sinful human natures, which are dominated by concern for self. Because it does not belong to the gospel of Christ, it has no power to produce good works.
In contrast to this egocentric faith, the everlasting gospel of the three angels’ messages offers us the faith of Jesus, which is able to produce in us the patience of the saints and enable us to keep the commandments of God [see Revelation 14:12]. “The faith of Jesus” is the faith He demonstrated during His earthly life and by which He was victorious on the cross. It is described in the Laodicean message as “gold refined in the fire” [Revelation 3:18; cf. 1 Peter 1:7]. Because Jesus’ faith was motivated by agape love, it was able to withstand even the fiery test of the second death.
The first thing, then, that we must understand about genuine faith is that it is our human response to the gospel, and it is always motivated by love, a deep, heartfelt appreciation of Christ.
One reason why so many Christians today fail to demonstrate the power of the gospel in their lives is that their faith is a self-centered faith. It is self-centered because they have failed to understand the facts of the objective gospel — Christ our righteousness. If a person does not believe that full and complete salvation has already been obtained in Jesus Christ, if a person believes that salvation ultimately depends to some degree on his or her behavior, then the faith such a person is able to generate will naturally be polluted with self-concern.
Where justification by faith is not clearly understood, there is insecurity. Where there is insecurity, there is fear. And where there is fear, there can be no real love, only concern for self. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” [1 John 4:18].
The idea that “I have to be good,” or “I’m not good enough to qualify for heaven” is one of the great stumbling blocks hindering God’s people today from experiencing genuine faith. As a result, the church is spiritually bankrupt [see Revelation 3:17]. This is why it is so tremendously important that we understand the objective facts of the gospel, the truth as it is in Jesus. Without this understanding, we can never experience genuine faith that is motivated by love [see Galatians 5:6].
Genuine faith must be motivated by love, but it must also be a saving faith. What is saving faith?
It is not simply trusting God.
Too many Christians trust Christ for salvation in the same way they trust their insurance company for material security. Such a faith is founded on self-interest and is, therefore, a counterfeit to saving faith. Although saving faith includes absolute trust in God, it involves much more. True saving faith is motivated by love and always includes three important elements:
Let’s look briefly at each of these elements.
The heart of the Jewish problem in the New Testament was that they did not understand the gospel. “For I can testify about them,” said Paul, “that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” [Romans 10:2-3].
Because knowing the gospel is essential, Jesus gave this great commission to His disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” [Mark 16:15]. This is why He said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” [Matthew 24:14; cf. Revelation 14:6]. We must earnestly seek to know more fully the truth as it is in Jesus, becaue the knowledge of the gospel is a saving knowledge that will increase and deepen our faith [see Ephesians 4:11-15].
Paul told the Roman Christians, “Your faith is being reported all over the world” [Romans 1:8]. What made their faith outstanding? The answer is found in Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching [the gospel] to which you were entrusted” (emphasis supplied).
In the parable of the sower [see Matthew 13:3-9, 15, 18-23], Christ illustrated many kinds of believers who respond to the Word, but the only ones whose faith is of value and bears fruit are those who understand the gospel and make a heart response to it [see verse 23; cf. Acts 8:36-38]. A person may respond positively to the gospel for many reasons. Some, especially in the Third World, may respond to the gospel in order to gain free or inexpensive education, a job, clothes, or food.
Others may join the church because of family pressure, emotional security, etc. But such a response is not genuine faith; it will never be able to bear good fruit or stand the test of trial. Only those whose faith is founded on a heartfelt response to gospel truth have genuine saving faith.
Unfortunately, here is where many go wrong. Genuine saving faith must go beyond a mere mental assent to the gospel. James warned, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder” [James 2:19]. Obedience to the truth is the evidence of our faith.
As we study the objective facts of the gospel, we discover many things about ourselves that were realized in Christ’s doing and dying. For example, we discover that when Christ died to sin on the cross, we also died there in Him. Thus, a saving faith means that we will identify ourselves with that fact; we will realize that we, too, must say goodbye forever to our old life of sin that we inherited in Adam. Only then will we be qualified to be resurrected and live with Christ [see Romans 6:8; 2 Timothy 2:11]. Genuine saving faith requires us to surrender ourselves to all the facts of Christ and Him crucified.
We all know that when we believe, we do not die to sin personally, in and of ourselves. We still possess the old sinful nature. Consequently, we are totally unable to live the life God demands even though we are Christian believers. Christ must live in us, and the thing that motivates us to allow Him to do so is knowing, and submitting to, the truth that when He died, our natural, sinful life was up to death in Him. Paul points to this as the secret of his experience: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith [total surrender] in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Galatians 2:20].
“In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin,” Paul counsels the Roman Christians, “but alive to God in Christ Jesus” [Romans 6:11]. When we live on this plane of faith, our old life is no longer in control, since it is crucified with Christ; the resurrected life of Christ dominates through the indwelling Spirit. Such a life is pleasing to God [see Galatians 5:22-24; John 15:4-8].
To live by faith alone means, above all else, to live a life that is totally surrendered to Christ as our righteousness. Faith then becomes a channel of saving power through which we stand justified and by which Christ’s character is reproduced in us. In this way, Christ’s righteousness becomes our personal experience by faith. This is what it means to walk in the Spirit [see Galatians 5:16-17; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18].
Saving faith, therefore, involves much more than simply trusting in Christ for eternal security. It means much more than simply depending on Christ to help us keep the law or “be good.” God will never help the flesh to be good, for the flesh is Satan’s domain and unalterably opposed to God [see Romans 8:7; Galatians 5:17]. The formula for successful Christian living is always, “Not I, but Christ.” Saving faith demands that we maintain a humble attitude of complete surrender to the reality that when Christ was crucified, we were crucified in Christ. He, not self, must live in us and manifest Himself through us.
Active faith, understood and practiced, amounts to following Jesus’s advice, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” [Matthew 26:41], or “Pray continually” [1 Thessalonians 5:17]. This is how we live by faith alone.
Thus, not only do we stand justified by faith alone, but we are sanctified by faith alone as well. The moment we step off the platform of faith alone, the flesh immediately takes over, and we are overcome by sin. Like Paul, we find ourselves doing the very opposite of the good we want to do [see Romans 7:15-24]. Righteousness by faith, therefore, includes both the joy of justification as well as the experience of sanctification.
The Role of Faith
Some Christians believe and teach that our faith saves us. This is not true. Faith, in and of itself, can save no one. Nowhere does the Bible say that we are saved because of our faith or on account of our faith. If faith saves us, then it becomes a form of works that we can boast about. I can say, “I am saved because I believe in Christ. I have done something!”
The Bible teaches that we are saved by faith or through faith. Faith is only the instrument or channel by which we receive Christ as our righteousness. It is Christ — His life, His death, His resurrection — that saves us, nothing else.
The function of faith is to unite us to Christ. A tow bar unites a broken-down automobile to a wrecker. The disabled car has no ability to move on its own; the wrecker has great power. Faith, like the tow bar, unites us, who are dead in sins and who can do nothing righteous on our own, to Christ, who has conquered, condemned, and triumphed over sin in the flesh [see Romans 3:10-12; 8:3; Ephesians 2:1, 5].
Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” [John 15:5]. But Paul said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” [Philippians 4:13]. All power belongs to Christ, who is able to save us to the uttermost. Through faith, Christ can produce in us the very righteousness of God [see Romans 8:4; Hebrews 7:25; Revelation 14:12].
Faith must always have an object; our faith must be in someone or something. And the object of genuine faith is always Christ. Nothing must take His place, not even our faith. By faith we become one with Christ so that His righteousness is counted as our righteousness; His power is made available to us. This is what it means to be standing in grace [see Romans 5:2].
Faith is God’s gift; it is not something we have or can generate ourselves [see Romans 12:3]. The gospel is foolishness to the natural mind [see 1 Corinthians 2:14], so how can a person produce faith in and of himself to believe and accept it? He cannot, without the Holy Spirit.
To be saved by faith means that we rest entirely on Christ and His righteousness — both for our standing before God in the judgment and also for our personal, day-by-day Christian experience. This is the foundation upon which the doctrine of righteousness by faith rests [see Philippians 3:9-11].
Works of Faith
It’s important to understand the difference between “works of faith” and “works of the law.” Works of faith genuinely belong to the gospel, indeed, are a necessary fruit of it, but works of the law are a subtle counterfeit of the devil.
Anyone who has a true saving faith in Christ will also manifest in his or her behavior the indwelling life of Christ. The Bible calls this life of Christ that lives in us “the fruit of the Spirit” [Galatians 5:22]. The apostle James identifies these fruits as works of faith [see James 2:14-26].
According to James, many Christians in his day thought of faith as a mere mental assent to the gospel, an attitude that is still prevalent today, unfortunately. In correcting this false view of faith, James argues that faith involves more than a superficial, self-centered acceptance of the gospel. He makes it clear that without works, faith is dead [see James 2:17, 20, 26]. Faith must manifest itself in our lives; otherwise, we really don’t have faith at all. True faith, then, is dynamic. It unites us with Christ, and, therefore, must produce in our lives the works of Christ — His righteousness — through the indwelling Spirit of Christ [see 2 Corinthians 3:17-18].
How does all this differ from the “works of the law” that Paul so earnestly opposes in his letters? [See Romans 3:20; 9:30-33; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9.] Paul is not contradicting James; the two inspired writers are in full agreement, since Paul, too, upholds works of faith [see Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8; Hebrews 10:24].
The New Testament writers did not have a Greek word equivalent to our word legalism. Instead, they used the phrase “works of law” to mean the same thing. The difference between “works of law” and “works of faith,” between legalism and the obedience that results from faith, is subtle because it doesn’t lie primarily in the works themselves. The difference is in the source or origin of these works. For example, works of faith mean that God’s law or will is being fulfilled in the life. However, works of law appear externally to be legitimate commandment keeping also. Both are concerned to do God’s will as expressed in His law. On the surface, there seems to be no difference. Only when we look deeply enough to discover the motivation behind the works do we recognize that there is a great difference between “works of faith” and “works of law.”
Works of faith originate from the indwelling life of Christ; works of law always originate from the flesh, the natural life. In works of faith, the believer is living by faith alone; in works of law, the sinner attempts to keep the law through a concern for self. He may pray to Christ for help, or even plead with God for the power of the Holy Spirit, but at the center of all his works and effort is only the natural strength of the flesh. This was the heart of the problem in the Galatian church. The Christians there had been born of the Holy Spirit; that is, they had received the life of Christ. But Satan had deceived them into trying to perfect their characters through the flesh [see Galatians 3:1-3]. Sad to say, many of God’s people today have fallen into the same subtle trap of Satan.
The formula of the gospel is “Not I, but Christ.” Where there are works of faith, you will find no dependence on the energy of the flesh or the natural strength. “Works of faith” simply means Christ living in the believer’s life through faith [see Galatians 2:20]. Love is always the motivating factor behind all such works, because Christ is love. Therefore, love (Christ’s agape in us) becomes the fulfillment of the law [see Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; 1 John 4:7, 12].On the other hand, works of law always originate from a concern with self; they are, therefore, always polluted by self no matter how good they may appear to ourselves or to others. Performing works of law is a subtle form of rebellion against God because all such works are actually independent of Him. In the judgment, God will condemn all such works as iniquity, works motivated from self-interest [see Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 13:25-28].
Under no circumstances will God enter into partnership with the flesh (our concern for self). The flesh belongs to Satan and, therefore, must be crucified [see Galatians 5:24]. When we give up all confidence in the flesh and live by faith alone, then God can produce godliness — genuine righteousness — in us. And He will do so. God did not give us His only-begotten Son so that we could copy Him, but so that we could receive Him.
Our lives will become pleasing to God only as we completely surrender ourselves to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us [see John 15:1-8]. God is not looking at us to see how good we are or how hard we are trying to keep His law. There is only one thing that God looks for in each of us: how much of His Son Jesus does He see in us?