How do I know if I’m living by faith or living by unbelief? Is there a more important question to the daily Christian life? It’s the question today from a listener named Daniel. “Hello, Pastor John! Romans 14:23 says that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.’ Could it be said that anything that does proceed from faith glorifies God? Is that also true? If so, how do I know if what I’m doing proceeds from faith? I know this seems really basic, but it’s also really abstract to me too. I really don’t know how to distinguish an act done from faith and an act done from unbelief. Any help would be greatly appreciated to help me understand this distinction.”
This is a really basic and very important question for living the Christian life in a way that brings Spirit-given peace to the soul and glory to God and good to the world. All of that, I think, hangs on what it means to “walk by faith” or “live by faith” or “perform the obedience of faith” or “do the works of faith.” All four of those are biblical ways of talking about what Daniel is asking about; namely, How do you do a thing by faith, as opposed to doing a thing and it’s sin when you do it? And we could be talking about the same thing or act. That’s what the Christian life is.
Impossible Without Faith
Before we were born again, we did nothing from faith. After we are born again, faith in Jesus as our Redeemer, faith in God as our Father-provider, faith in the Holy Spirit as the power that enables us to do something — that’s how we live. That’s how we do things. We lean on Father, Son, Holy Spirit to do their work in regard to our life.
“Virtue is conformity to God’s law that comes from reliance upon God’s love and forgiveness and wisdom and power.”
Daniel points out in his question that Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Now, that’s right, and it has huge implications. It shows that the deeds that externally conform to God’s commands (like “Don’t kill,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t lie,” “Be kind,” “Don’t return evil for evil”) might conform to God’s will, but may be sinful because they may be done from a heart that is not trusting Jesus or the Father or the Holy Spirit. Now, that is a radical, God-centered statement about the nature of real virtue. Virtue is not external conformity to God’s law. Virtue is conformity to God’s law that comes from reliance upon God’s love and forgiveness and wisdom and power.
You see this not only in Romans 14:23, but also in Hebrews 11:6, where it says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him [God].” Nothing we do, no matter how kind it is or how good it is or how it looks on the outside — none of it is pleasing to God if it’s not coming from trust in God’s forgiveness and guidance and power.
You can picture how this works in your own experience. All my children are grown now, so I’m not picking on any one of them in particular. But suppose my teenage son wants to use the car to go to a basketball game tonight, and he says, “Dad, can I use the car tonight?” I say, “Sure, not a problem. Would you just be sure to wash it before you go, just for the family, so we have it clean for the weekend?” He’s angry at me for asking him to do that, and he goes into his room and slams the door. I say, “Oh my goodness, what did I just touch?” Then suppose, half an hour later, I see him out in the driveway with the hose turned on, washing the car, and all the while he’s washing it, he’s angry and bitter and resentful toward his dad for making him do this. Is his father pleased by that obedience?
The answer is no. He’s heartbroken. He’s not pleased. He’s heartbroken at this attitude of mere external conformity while he’s stewing on the inside without any appreciation or desire to please his dad. That’s what it means when it says that even if you conform outwardly to God’s law, it is sin.
Serving in the Strength of God
Then Daniel asks whether the reverse is true, whether doing something from faith does please God and does glorify God. And the answer is a resounding yes, because Paul says in Romans 4:20, “[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” My interpretation of that is it was precisely the strengthening of his faith and his acting in faith that drew attention to the glory of God’s grace and power in his life.
“The more we rely upon power and wisdom from God for our obedience, the more he will get the glory for our obedience.”
Then 1 Peter says the same thing: “Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Now, I take that to mean that in every kind of obedient service, we perform in reliance on God. We trust God for the strength and the wisdom and the wherewithal to do what we’re called to do. If we rely upon God as we obey and serve, God gets the glory. He says that the giver of the strength gets the glory for the service. That’s what 1 Peter 4:11 says. We used to quote that over and over again in our prayer room just before we walked into preaching. The more we rely upon power and wisdom from God for our obedience, the more he will get the glory for our obedience.
Three Steps in Our Walk of Faith
Daniel asks, finally, How do you identify a deed done from faith as opposed to a good deed done from unbelief? What is it like to do something from faith when you might do that very same thing from lack of faith, unbelief? What are the marks? I’ll give you what I think is probably the most important passage or text in the Bible to answer that question. And I think it’s that important because it gives three clear marks of a deed done as a work of faith. In fact, that very phrase is used.
We always pray for you, that our God may . . . fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12)
Oh my, my, my. I encourage everybody to meditate on every single phrase in those two verses. Here’s the answer that they give to Daniel’s question: a work of faith — a deed done in reliance upon God — will have these three elements.
1. It involves a resolve for good. In other words, our choices — our active, mental, volitional efforts to be involved in God’s will — are involved when we bring our decisions into conformity with the good that is in God’s word. We measure the things we’re about to do by what’s good, and that is decided by God’s word.
2. A work of faith involves trusting God’s power to enable us to do it. Or as he says at the end of the verse, trusting God’s grace. That’s true whether it is a deed like faithfulness in martyrdom or brushing your teeth. If our eyes are open, we know we cannot do either of those apart from God’s grace, God’s power. Faith gladly knows that and rests in that.
3. The third mark of a work of faith is that it aims at the glory of the name of the Lord Jesus.
To live by faith or to walk by faith or to do the works of faith means (1) the thing we aim at is shaped by God’s word, and it is good; (2) the strength to do it is the power of God, and we trust in it; and (3) the aim of the act is to make Christ look glorious.
To say it one more way, acting by faith means (1) what we do is shaped by the word of God, (2) how we do it is in the power of God, and (3) the aim in doing it is the glory of God. That’s what changes a so-called “good deed” from being sinful and displeasing to God into an act that is truly virtuous and pleasing to God.