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Faith is needed to please God

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 4 Mar 2021

Lee Gatiss preaches Part 1 of the sixth homily: “A Homily of Good Works Annexed to Faith.”

In the last sermon it was declared to you what the lively and true faith of a Christian is — that it does not cause someone to be idle, but to be occupied in bringing forth good works, as occasion serves. Now by God’s grace we shall declare the second thing to be noted about faith — that without it, no good work can be done that is accepted and pleasant to God. For our Saviour Christ says, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in them, they are the ones who bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 14:4-5). And St. Paul proves that Enoch had faith because he pleased God, for without faith (he says), “it is not possible to please God” (Hebrews 11:5-6). And again to the Romans he says that “whatever work is done without faith, it is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Faith gives life to the soul, and those who lack faith are as dead to God as those whose bodies lack souls are dead to the world. Without faith, everything we do is dead in God’s eyes, however great and glorious it may seem to other people. In the same way as an engraving or a painting is only a dead representation of a thing itself, and is without life or any sort of movement, so also in God’s eyes are the works of all those who do not have faith. They appear to be lively works, but they are in fact dead and do not lead to everlasting life. They are but shadows and shows of lively and good things, and not good and living things in reality. For true faith gives life to the works, and out of such faith comes good works that are very good works indeed. But without faith, no work is good before God.

The one thing necessary
As St. Augustine says: “We must set no good works before faith, nor think that before faith a person may do any good works: for such works, although they seem to people to be praiseworthy, yet they are in fact only vain,” and not allowed before God. “They are like the course of a horse that runs out of the track, which makes a great effort, but to no purpose. Let no one therefore,” says he, “reckon on their good works before their faith. Where faith is not, good works are not. The intent,” he says, “makes the good works, but faith must guide and order the intent of person.” And Christ says, “If your eye is bad, your whole body is full of darkness” (Matthew 6:23). “The eye signifies the intent,” says St. Augustine, “with which someone does a thing.” So that the one who does not do their good works with a godly intent, and a true faith that works by love, their whole body, that is to say the whole number of their works, is dark, and there is no light in them.

For good deeds are not measured by the facts themselves, and so distinguished from vices, but by the ends and intents for which they were done. A heathen person could clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and do other such works, yet because they do not do them in faith, for the honour and love of God, they are but dead, vain, and fruitless works to him. It is faith which commends the work to God: for (as St. Augustine says), “whether you will or no, ‘that work which does not come from faith, is nothing.’” Where faith in Christ is not the foundation, there is no good work, whatever building we make.

There is one work, in which are all good works — that is, faith, which expresses itself by love. If you have it, you have the ground of all good works. For the virtues of strength, wisdom, temperance, and justice are all referred to this same faith. Without this faith we do not have them, but only the names and shadows of them, as Saint Augustine said: “All the life of those who lack true faith is sin, and nothing is good, without him who is the author of goodness. Where he is not, there is only false virtue, even in the best works.” And St. Augustine, expounding this verse of the Psalm — “The swallow has found a nest where she may keep her young birds” (Psalm 84:3) — says that Jews, heretics, and pagans do good works (they clothe the naked, feed the poor, and do other good works of mercy), but because they are not done in the true faith, the birds are lost. But if they remain in faith, then faith is the nest and safeguard of their birds, that is to say, the safeguard of their good works, that the reward of them is not utterly lost.

And this matter (which St. Augustine disputes about at length in many books), St. Ambrose concludes in a few words saying, “The one who would withstand vice by nature, either by natural will or reason, garnishes the time of this life in vain and does not attain the very true virtues. For without the worshipping of the true God, that which seems to be virtue, is vice.”

Faith alone saves
And yet most plainly to this purpose, St. John Chrysostom writes in this way: “You shall find many which have not the true faith, and are not of the flock of Christ, and yet (it appears) they flourish in good works of mercy. You shall find them full of pity, compassion, and given to justice, and yet for all that they have no fruit of their works, because the chief work is lacking. For when the Jews asked of Christ what they should do to do good works, he answered ‘This is the work of God, to believe in him whom he sent’ (John 6:28-29). He called faith the work of God. And as soon as someone has faith, they shall flourish in good works, for faith of itself is full of good works, and nothing is good without faith.” And he says, by way of a comparison, that “those who glisten and shine in good works, without faith in God, are like dead people, who have large and precious tombs, and yet it does not benefit them at all.”

“Faith should not be naked, without good works, for then it would not be true faith. And when it is joined to works, it is yet above the works. For as people first have life, and after that are nourished: so must our faith in Christ go before, and afterwards be nourished with good works. Life may be without nourishment, but nourishment cannot be without life. A person needs to be nourished by good works, but first they must have faith. The one who does good deeds, yet without faith, has no life. I can show a man who lived and came to heaven by faith without works; but without faith, no one ever had life. The thief that was hanged, when Christ suffered, did believe only, and the most merciful God justified him (Luke 23:40-43). It is true, and I will not contend about it, that he lacked time to do good works, or else he would have done them. But this I will surely affirm, that faith alone saved him. If he had lived and not regarded faith and the works of faith, he would have lost his salvation again. But this is what I am seeking to drive at: that faith by itself saved him, but works by themselves never justified anyone.”

Here you have heard the mind of St. Chrysostom, from which you may perceive that faith is not without works (when it has opportunity to do them), and that works cannot get us to everlasting life without faith.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society

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