The Priority of Faith
The priority for the Christian life is seen in the role of faith in the Christian life. For instance, faith is a important because faith receives grace. Faith is vital because grace is vital. We never outgrow our need for both (2 Pet 3:18). The unmerited favor of God found in Christ is the fountain from which all spiritual blessings flow. Any talk of progress, growth, or maturity in sanctification occurs in the context of grace, which is where faith comes to life. We have been given the gift of faith so that we can benefit from God’s gift of grace. Through faith we are justified by God’s grace, and through faith we rely on God’s grace for sanctification. Without grace there is no power for spiritual growth, but without faith we cannot benefit from the grace that leads to spiritual growth. Like an infant’s umbilical cord, faith channels to us the supernatural nourishment supplied by divine grace. Therefore, to “walk by faith” is to rely on grace. The two are inseparable.
Just as we have been gloriously saved “by grace ... through faith” (Eph 2:8), we have also been saved to “walk by faith” (2 Cor 5:7). Acts 26:18 records that Jesus told the apostle Paul that believers are “sanctified by faith in Me.” In Christ we are eternally set apart as His own possession and progressively set apart for greater spiritual fruitfulness. As George Zemek observed, “Faith does not become unemployed after justification.” Paul affirms this truth in Galatians 2:20–21: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” Based on Paul’s logic, when we fail to grow in our faith, we “nullify,” as it were, the grace provided in the gospel. We need grace to be faithful each day, and this means a moment-by-moment walk of faith. To put it another way, through faith we are brought into union with Christ, and through faith we experience our communion with Christ.
In addition to receiving grace, faith is important because faith pleases the Lord. Nowhere is the priority of faith seen more clearly than in Hebrews 11:6, where we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” In order to please God, we “must believe that He is.” But to believe in God in any meaningful sense means that we must wholeheartedly believe His self-revelation. The author of Hebrews is drawing from the language of the Old Testament, where God disclosed Himself as the great “I am.” He is the eternal, self-existent, and all-glorious Creator of the universe. Genuine faith seeks after God as He has revealed Himself to be. Anything less is akin to the faith of demons, who affirm God’s existence but refuse to worship Him (Jas 2:19).
Hebrews 11:6 also declares that God is the “rewarder of those who seek Him.” Grace is at the center of the entire principle, and our reward is the fulfillment of what He has promised. The concept of reward was introduced earlier in Hebrews 10:35–36: “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” The reward of faith mentioned here is not a “trophy” earned by believing, but the reality that you will receive what was promised if you believed—grace. Thus, we are pleasing to God only when we humbly confess His sovereign existence and entrust ourselves to His gracious presence. This is what makes faith so important: it yields to God’s authority (“He is”) and rests in God’s grace (“He is a rewarder”).
Without faith, good works are not good, and strong affections are not worshipful—at least not from God’s perspective. God is pleased with humble faith, not bare human effort. Therefore, if for no other motivation than the pleasure of God, we must make faith a priority in our lives. In fact, “if we are not living a life of faith, we cannot be pleasing to God. We cannot have God’s smile on our lives without faith” (R. Kent Hughes). Faith is important not only because it receives God’s grace, but also because it pleases God.
In addition to receiving grace and pleasing God, faith also plays a vital role in protecting us from sin. It functions as a “shield” to protect us from “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). If we neglect to use our shield, we leave ourselves unprotected from the allurement to sin that comes from Satan’s attack. Romans 14:23 reveals the principle that “whatever is not from faith is sin.” Paul is not teaching some kind of subjective morality whereby, if you believe a practice is acceptable then it is okay for you to do it. On the contrary, Paul is using the issue of conscience to reinforce the principle of Hebrews 11:6—faith pleases God—from a different angle. If you think that something is sinful, but you do it anyway, you are not acting in faith. Something other than the pleasure and presence of God is driving your actions. God is displeased when we trust in anything and anyone apart from Him. Anything we might do or feel apart from faith will be polluted by self-reliance or self-righteousness. Religious acts and emotional stirrings may satisfy our personal quest for a deeper sense of spirituality, but God will not be satisfied unless they arise from genuine faith. Thus, in order to truly worship and please God, our actions and affections must rise from our trust in Him alone.
While there are many helpful spiritual disciplines and vital responsibilities in the Christian life, none of them eclipse the need to walk by faith; in fact, all are fueled by faith. The battle for growth and maturity is a battle to believe God. To borrow the language of Sinclair Ferguson, “Strong faith in Christ draws on the resources of his grace and sets us free from many inhibitions that bind our lives.”
Finally, faith is important because faith produces fruit. A faith that receives divine grace and responds to biblical truth will produce spiritual fruit. Maturity comes as we believe what God says more than we believe what we “see.” If we want to intensify our worship, we need to increasingly respond to our circumstances in faith. More and more we need to accept and appropriate His promises and precepts in our lives. This is not always easy; in fact, many times it is a struggle to believe in the midst of the day-to-day grind and the overwhelming trials of life. All Christians can see a reflection of their own spiritual life in the man who cries out in Mark 9:24, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” This is one of the truest and purest confessions in the entire Bible, and it describes every individual in the process of sanctification. It also demonstrates the need for increasing faith as we seek to glorify God in the throes of everyday life.
When we walk by faith rather than sight, we will see God-glorifying growth in our lives. In fact, “Faith is to be the foundation of good works. And it follows from the nature of faith which clings to divine grace that it cannot possibly be unfruitful” (G.C. Berkouwer). The radical change in belief that both initiates and sustains the Christian life will result in a radical change in behavior. This was certainly James’ expectation when he said, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (Jas 2:17). James wasn’t undermining the principle of salvation by faith alone; he was challenging the idea that saving faith could stay alone. He recognized that genuine faith leads to genuine change, and where there is no change, there is no faith. On this side of heaven, our faith will never be perfect, nor will it lead to perfection. However, true faith is not fruitless. God’s sanctifying grace flows freely through the culvert of faith so that the stronger the faith is, the steadier the growth will be.
This article was adapted from the book, Free to Be Holy: Conference Edition, by Jerry Wragg and Paul Shirley. Jerry Wragg serves as the president of The Expositors Seminary and the pastor of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL. Paul Shirley is a graduate of TES and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.