Work of Faith Working

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It was common for the ancient Greeks, and some of us today, to love idleness. To be involved with physical labor was a sign of the lower classes—to be a servant. But it is for this “work” that Paul praised the Thessalonians before God. But what does “work of faith” mean? The relationship of faith and works has been a source of much-heated debate. Wanamaker offered a particularly good summary of the proper relationship of faith and works.

Our text clearly indicates that Paul did not conceive of Christian faith as radically opposed to works. For him Christian activity proceeds from faith, and thus he would probably have endorsed the views of Jas. 2:14–17. Paul does not specify what the “work of faith” consisted in here, but his readers probably would have understood it in terms of the totality of their new Christian life-style that distinguished them from the pagans around them and from their own past.[1]

The “work of faith” was not a work to earn salvation. The “work of faith” is the natural result or effect of true faith. Faith demands action.

This relationship of faith and action would have been familiar to the Thessalonians. “The Roman and Greek understanding of fides/pistis(faith) can help clarify the close association between faith and works in these verses. In the relationship between patrons and clients, the client was said to be in the fides/pistis of the patron, for their part clients owed fides/pistis or loyalty to their patron, and this was shown in their actions.”[2] Leon Morris wrote, “When Paul is emphasizing that salvation comes from faith and not at all from works, he can set faith and works in sharp contrast; thus we are ‘justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified’ (Gal. 2:16). But while Paul insists that salvation is all of God, he also insists that faith is busy. Elsewhere he speaks of ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6, RSV), and here of faith leading to work.”[3]

The CSB translated this phrase, “work produced by faith.” This is what had happened in Thessalonica. The people heard the word of God preached. This preached word produced faith in the hearts of some just as Paul said, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). That faith is immediately accompanied by works. No one is justified by works (Rom. 9:32; Eph. 2:8-9), but faith includes works (2 Thess. 1:11; Js. 2:14-26). Faith and works are differentiated, but the two are never truly separated.  Paul “received grace and apostleship” so that he could endeavor to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5). This work to bring about the “obedience of faith” was “according to the command of the eternal God” (Rom. 16:26).

When John preached, he told the people to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” We would do just as well to preach bear fruit in keeping with faith. Those who believe obey. Faith and works are not necessarily opposed to one another. Many attempt to be justified by works. Israel failed in this pursuit as well. Romans 9:31-32 says, “Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone.” In the opposite extreme position, we see those who only believe and do not acknowledge the necessity of obedience. Paul preached the necessity of obedience (2 Cor. 2:9; Rom. 16:26). James is best known for his presentation of the works which necessarily follow faith. James wrote, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’ (Js. 2:24-26).

Does your faith work? Faith and obedience go together. They cannot be separated. God decided that those who believe would be saved through the preaching of the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:21). When the Gospel was preached, people responded in faith by being baptized (Acts 2:37-38, 41; 8:12-13; 8:36-40). Just as repentance is part of faith, baptism is part of faith.

Is there a competition between the act of baptism and faith? No. baptism is part of the faith (Acts 6:7; Romans 1:5; 16:26). In 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul praised the Thessalonian Christians for their “work of faith.” Faith demands action (James 2:24). This is manifested in the way the word “faithful” is used. 1 Timothy 3:11, for example, says the wives of elders must be “faithful in all things.” In other words, their lives must correspond to their beliefs. They are faithful because of their faith. They would not be faithful without believing the truth.

Faith demands faithful work.  Ephesians 2:1-10 is a great exposition faith’s relationship to salvation, but it ends with an exhortation to work. Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Salvation by faith demands the work of faith.


            [1] Wanamaker wrote, “Your work of faith” (ὑμῶν τοῦ ἔργου τῆς πίστεως) is of particular interest in the context of Pauline theology. The radical disjunction that Martin Luther claimed to have found in Paul’s writings between faith and human striving (work) and that led him to reject the letter of James as a “strawy epistle” needs careful qualification. In Galatians where Paul attacks “works” most vigorously and contrasts them with “faith,” he has a particular type of “works” in mind. He condemns those works proceeding from the Jewish Torah and what E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) calls “covenantal nomism” (cf. Gal. 2:15f.; 3:2–5). His attack on “works of the law” in Galatians was a theological polemic designed to distinguish the new religion to which he belonged from the mother religion from which it and he had come (though obviously, Paul would not have articulated it this way). The loss of the original context of the debate, especially since the Reformation, has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul and Pauline theology (see Wanamaker, “Case”).” Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 75.

            [2] Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 89.

            [3] Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 13, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 43.

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