Faith, Good Works, and the Danger of Shallow Christian Sentimentalism

Faith, Good Works, and the Danger of Shallow Christian Sentimentalism August 18, 2021

As a blog, we have never been shy about stressing the importance of having and pursuing good theology. Our beliefs and worldview guide not only our actions, but also our morality. What we believe drives what we do. Every idle word or passive action is an open declaration about how one views God and the world. Moreover, the absence and/or outright denial of a need for theology is in and of itself a bold (if not also occasionally ignorant) theological declaration. Do not be deceived: nothing is neutral. All our words and works are driven by a belief system.

I was reminded of this when recently I saw a misguided post from an openly Christian page on Facebook. The post was of an image of a chalkboard, and written on the chalkboard was the phrase, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” At a glance, this statement may seem innocent and rather innocuous. After all, what’s wrong with encouraging individuals to be better people? The problem is this statement is the literal opposite of what the bible teaches about understanding one’s “goodness.” There is a real danger in shallow sentimentalism.

More concerning to me was that this sentiment was being presented from a “Christian Worldview.” I sense a deep-rooted confusion about the relationship between faith and works here. Sadly, I don’t believe this misconception is isolated to an obscure Facebook post. The relationship of faith, works, and righteousness is one many Christians get skewed. While I am sure whoever wrote out this phrase in chalk did so with good intentions, I can’t help but wonder how many people buy into a modern ideologies that confuse the relationship between belief and works. I would argue the relationship is reversed–our faith is what makes us good (in Christ’s righteousness), and it is this saving faith that drives good works.

With the help of an Instagram culture, such sappy sentiments have become a sacramental hallmark for many Christians. In the absence of deep faith and sound theology comes ideologies and sentiments that give the appearance of piety, while possessing none. Unsurprisingly, wherever there is a falsely rooted sense of piety, pride festers. I’ll spare the reader of this blog, but the comments of those coming in defense of the post were rather hostile. It seems the further some professing Christians (usually progressives) remove themselves from objective, historical, and biblical definitions, the more arrogant they become. At its worst, this is egotistical drivel, and at its best, this is relativism paraded around through virtue signaling. Sentimentalism will save no one. Without Christians willing to stand up and point the world back to objective biblical truth, generations will be lost.

It may seem like I am making a mountain out of a molehill, as the expression goes, but this fundamental order of events has been confused by Christians for thousands of years; this is a real theological problem. Large sections of the New Testament are dedicated to combating the idea that one’s behavior is what saves or makes one “good” in God’s eyes–the only judgment that matters. The truth is that any work (good or bad) not rooted in the saving faith of Jesus is sinful. Paul writes in Romans 14:23, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Consider that for a moment. Anything that is not birthed out of faith is fatally flawed by sin. Perhaps Isaiah wrote that, “…all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” (64:6) for this reason.

Spiritually dead people (anyone outside of saving faith in Christ) are only capable of doing wretched, sinful things. It is worth adding that we are born in this condition. Romans 3 says that “None are righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (3:10-12). Any behavior not rooted in saving faith in Jesus, no matter how good the world thinks it is, is “storing up wrath…when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Consider how Westminster of Faith addresses this topic of good works by unregenerate people. It says:

“Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God” (Chapter 16, Section 7).

This begs the question: where do good works come from and how do we do them? Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith is very helpful here for a concise answer. First, “good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word” (Chapter 16, Section 1), and that good works “are the fruits and evidence of a true and lively faith.” In other words, our ability to do good works flow from “God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

I love how Paul expounds this to the church of Ephesus. He says that “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). He continues, “…by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is a gift from God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:8-10).

Notice how God is the originator of all saving faith and all good works. It is God who extends grace. It is God who gifts us saving faith. It is God who works within us to will and act. It is God who makes us His workmanship. And it is God who even prepares good works for us to walk into. It is God who is sovereign over the entire process of faith and works, and it is God alone who is worthy of the glory so that, “no one may boast.”

Simply put, if you are in Christ, you will bear good fruit; this is Christ working within you. A consistent lack of good works in a professing believer’s life, as understood by scripture, should generate fear. For the Apostle James famously writes, “…faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). No good works equates to no saving faith. If the apostle’s warning causes concern in your spirit, cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of Jesus. Jesus stands ready to forgive. There is a storehouse of mercy waiting to be lavished upon you. Fix your belief in Christ, because what we do will always be a result of what we believe and not the other way around.

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