After many years of diverse career experience, I was excitedly counting down the days until my retirement. I eagerly anticipated being in control of my schedule and time while enjoying a slower pace of life. I envisioned more days devoted to serving in ministry at my church and deepening relationships...
I have a deep love for the kids that I have the privilege of ministering to. They bring me so much joy…even when they’re running around the church like tiny crazy people. I also have a deep sense of the weighty task I’ve been given. The Lord has entrusted them to me to love, to teach, and to guide for a short time, and I will be held accountable for how I shepherd their souls.
My prayer for the 60 or so kids under my care is always the same. I pray that the Lord would give each of them a saving, transforming faith in Jesus Christ, and I pray against my biggest fear for them—dead faith. I pray that they would never be like those to whom Jesus says, “I never knew you, depart from me,” in Matthew 7, or the foolish people whose faith James calls “useless” in James 2.
As I’ve prayed this prayer, it’s caused me to question what creates dead faith, and to question the way I shepherd those in my care. Am I leading them toward a useless faith, a worthless religion? Or am I pointing them to Jesus in a way that unveils his awe-inspiring glory and captivating love?
Those are two big questions, and the Lord answered in pointing out three subtle, yet big distinctions that have changed the way I look at ministry and teaching across all ages. Moreover, they’ve changed the way I look at my own faith.
Loving Jesus vs. pleasing Jesus
It took me an embarrassingly long time to pick up on this one. A faith based on loving Jesus and a faith based on pleasing Jesus are actually two different yet often confused things.
Many a well-intentioned teacher, myself included, has made the mistake of overemphasizing personal application in the sense of what we should do or be in response to a passage of Scripture, rather than bringing to light what that passage shows us about who Jesus is. For example, when teaching on Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac, it’s common to pull the application that we should trust and obey God no matter what, like Abraham did.
While that is true, it’s missing the why, and it’s missing Jesus.
We trust and obey God because he is trustworthy, because he counts our faith as righteousness, because he is a good God who provides the sacrifice that he requires. That whole account is a flawless foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial, atoning death. God willingly gave his only Son to save us, as Abraham was prepared to offer his only son, Isaac. Jesus’ death made provision for our punishment, in our place, just as God provided a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.
In both teaching and personal study, parking our response to Scripture at, “What should I do?” or “How should I be?” ultimately trains our hearts to seek to please Jesus, to earn his love by doing certain things and behaving in certain ways. It’s actually very “me-centered” instead of Jesus-centered. And it ultimately leads to empty legalism, constant exhausting striving to warrant the acceptance that is already ours. In other words, it leads to dead faith.
If instead we look at Scripture in order to see the person of Jesus Christ, to know him and love him, and to see all of God’s justness and grace wrapped up in him, that creates something different in us. That fosters a real and growing awe-filled love for our Savior. Do you realize that Christ-likeness, the personal application we get so hung up on, actually flows out of that? We naturally desire to emulate the people we love. So if our faith rests on a sincere love for an all-sufficient Savior who did for us what we could never do for ourselves, the natural result is that we will want to be like him.
Salvation demonstrated by works vs. salvation acquired by works
This second realization was brought on by my trying to sort out one of the most confusing passages in Scripture: James 2:14-26. The majority of the New Testament is full of language to the tune of Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
But when we get to James 2, we see things like, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” and, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (vv. 17, 24 respectively).
So which is it? Is faith a gift of grace, alone? Or, do we need good works too? And how in the world do we teach this? The answers to these questions are found in the very important distinction between how faith is demonstrated, and how it is acquired. Salvation and faith are granted to us by the gift of grace. That is how they are acquired. But our faith is demonstrated by works. John 15:8 says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Bearing fruit, doing good works that glorify God, are proof of our salvation, not prerequisites for salvation.
In his commentary, Warren Wiersbe offers this helpful clarification on James 2:
Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration. That kind of faith is dead faith. True saving faith can never be by itself: It always brings life, and life produces good works.
So how do we properly internalize this, and how do we teach it to others? We don’t want to have dead faith that fails to produce good works, but we also don’t want to deceive ourselves (or others) into thinking that salvation can be achieved by the pursuit of good works. It’s the living out of a salvation granted to us by grace alone that creates a faith that produces good fruit as we grow to love our Savior in an ever increasing measure. John Calvin simply says, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone.”
The true change of inner repentance vs. the fleeting change of outside coercion
Change is only as good as its motive, and true living faith is evidenced by true, lived-out change. Changing a behavior or making the right choice in order to avoid negative consequences is different than repentance. The difference is rooted in motivation. Repentance is change brought on by the internal conviction of having sinned against God, the holy and just object of our love and faith. The threat of negative consequences and moral standards of right and wrong are both external factors.
To a certain extent, we need that external pressure to help develop internal patterns of discipline. But if we desire faith that matures, not faith that dies a slow death, we can not look to mere consequences and moral standards to form our understanding of repentance. The one standard by which we can judge our behavior and trust to lead us to true repentance is God’s Word. And coincidentally, God’s Word, God himself, is the only thing able to enact true change within us. As Hebrews 4:12 tells us, God’s Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to divide soul and spirit…and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word is able to assess and correct our motives. Lasting changes to outward behavior come from that inner change of motives.
Wiersbe, again, has some helpful insight here. He says,
God’s Word can change our hearts and give us the desire to do God’s will, so that we obey from inward compulsion and not outward constraint.
In our personal reflection and in guiding others, young and old, outward discipline should always be framed by the gospel to point to God’s Word and the cross of Christ. Dead faith floats on surface-level change that is solely motivated by fear of consequences or outside moralistic pressures. Living faith grows and develops through repentance that comes from the implanted Word which is able to save our souls (James 1:21).
Living faith vs. dead faith
Dead faith may at first glance look suspiciously like living faith, but in reality, it is a whitewashed tomb. Dead faith is static, infertile, full of fear, full of obligation, and lacking in love. What a loathsome thing.
But living faith is dynamic, active, growing, good fruit-producing, full of love, full of conviction, and full of repentance. For the kids I minister to, I pray that God would give each of them a living faith and spare them a dead faith, and that I would continue to point them—as well as my own heart—to the former, rather than the latter.