Faith Works

What is the mistake that has been made in our understanding of faith and works?

Glenn Rosendahl, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Kelowna, British Columbia.


FOR LONG YEARS the church has argued and debated the subject of faith and works. At times the debate has become so heated that the contestants on both sides have shown little good faith and even fewer good works. Yet the argument might never have arisen had people only been prepared to go back to their language classes.

During earliest childhood we become aware that some people do as they say and others do not. It doesn't take us long to learn that some people's claims about an object they wish you to use, or buy, are true; while the claims of others about their wares are false. From these kinds of experiences we construct a mental picture of a "faithful" person. A person who does what he says he will do. A person whose word can be trusted. In this way, our relationships with our fellows are governed by our past experience of their "faithfulness."

So the original, primitive concept we develop about faith is that it is essentially adjective. It is a means of describing a person. And perhaps, if the idea had been left in such a simple, unsophisticated form, many of the arguments and dissensions would never have arisen.

However, language is not all that simple. It reflects the ability of the mind to conceptualize, to ascribe a state of reality or being of separate existence to the attributes or characteristics of things. Have you ever seen "two"? I do not mean two apples or two bananas or two trees. Just "two." Of course you have not. It is just a "concept." And it is just such a concept of "faith" that causes all the trouble.

We say, "Jill has faith in Tom." You see, every morning at eight o'clock Tom drives by and picks her up. If Tom did not pick her up and she had to wait for the next bus, she would be late for work. But she does not catch the earlier bus. She waits for Tom. She has faith in him.

We can also say, "Tom is faithful." He picks Jill up every morning. This is a statement that describes Tom. He would drive by looking for Jill even if she had caught the earlier bus.

On this fundamental level, whenever we use the word "faith," we can describe five things:

A Subject—A person who acts in anticipation of the cooperation of another.

An Object—The person whose cooperation is anticipated.

The Goal—The aim that the subject and the object wish to achieve in their acts of cooperation.

The subject's act in anticipation.

The object's act in response.

The subject is the person who "shows faith" by his "act in anticipation." The object demonstrates that "he is faithful" by his "act in response."

In the example, Jill is the subject. Her "act in anticipation" is waiting for Tom. Tom is the object. His "act in response" is his arrival and his opening of the car door. The goal: for Tom to take Jill to work, for them to talk together, perhaps even to get to know each other a little better.

And Tom has faith in Jill. Tom is also a subject. His act of faith involves his detour to her place to pick her up. Her act in response is to be there, waiting for him. The relationship of faith is often reciprocal. Each must commit himself or herself in faith so that the other will make an appropriate response.

And even if Tom and Jill are both interested in more than "just a friend ship," neither will attain the goal they each secretly desire unless he has the courage to tell her what he really thinks of her what he really desires. This is truly an act of faith, an act that anticipates a response and desires a goal. The goal will be a profound alteration in the course of two lives the response may well be immediate and unequivocal.

But only when Tom has committed himself will he know whether his faith was "justified." It is basic to the process of faith that the goal desired cannot be obtained unless the subject commits himself, until the "act in anticipation" has been performed.

Faith in Action

There are other usages of the word "faith" that we need to consider. The apostle Paul writes in second Timothy: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).

Superficially we may get the idea that this means "I have remained true to a set of ideas or ideals." We do not think there is an obvious act involved. But look at the context. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course . . ." There is action abundant here. The word is rightly used. Let us see how.

We find a group of people who have faith in a particular person. They act in anticipation that he will make good his word. If he does not, their common purpose will fail. But he is faithful, and their purpose is achieved. "Ah," we say, "they have a good faith, a successful faith. They have 'the faith.' Their faith works." But suppose one of this group walked out on them, withdrew his money from the company, or pulled out of the team to play for the other side. We say "he did not keep faith."

So Paul is saying in this passage, "I have stood by you. I have remained a member of the team. I have made my contribution. I have believed that what we are doing is right, and my acts have been consistent with my words."

Paul uses the word "faith" in a slightly different way in Hebrews 11. He tells us that:

By faith Abel offered ... by faith Abram . .. obeyed ... by faith Moses ... was hid. . . ."

In each case, notice, there is an act involved. Furthermore, it is an act "in anticipation" of something. And though each was rewarded for his faith, the final goals have not yet been attained. "All these persons died in faith. They were not yet in possession of the things promised" (Heb. 11:13, N.E.B.).*

Definition of Faith

Here we find a slightly different meaning of the word "faith." But note, all the essentials are present. The subject Abel, Abraham, Amram and Jochebed who performed acts in expectation that God would respond, and this response would include the attainment of their ultimate goal. So, perhaps from this usage we can attempt a definition of "faith." In this sense faith is that degree of conviction sufficient to cause a man £o act—in expectation that a desired goal will be attained.

Finally, a man can have faith in him self. The surgeon's incision is an act in faith that he can successfully perform the operation. If he did not have that confidence in himself, he would not take up the knife and cut. He is both subject and object of the faith that achieves the goal.

It will be clear now that although there is a "saving faith" that goes beyond the ordinary concept, faith is not something restricted to religion. It is a prerequisite for friendship, for business, for any relationship between a man and his neighbor. It is a word that describes any successful act of cooperation between two people.

Not even the scientist can do without it. He shows perhaps the greatest and most dangerous faith of all. Faith in himself. Consider Archimedes. Wondering how to discover if the king's crown had any lead in it. Gently easing himself into an overfull bath and watching the water spill over the side, he suddenly realized that the water that had flowed over the side had the same volume as the part of his body that was sub merged. "Eureka I have it! This will work on the king's crown," he shouted. Jumping out of the bath he ran exultantly to the palace (never heeding the gaping multitude), to submerge the king's crown in a similar tub. He had faith in his idea.

Apparently, the king's crownmaker was a rogue. We're told that he was

* From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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Glenn Rosendahl, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Kelowna, British Columbia.

July 1976

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