The Shield Of Works? Faith, Spiritual Warfare, And Salvation

sola-fide-flagThe preacher this morning read from Ephesians 6 and Paul’s expression in 6:16 struck me relative to the current discussion about works and salvation. There is no question whether believers will do good works or whether those good works are evidence of justification and fruit from a tree renewed by grace, as it were. As he read the passage I thought to myself, since some want to speak of the “efficacy of good works” in salvation (with the understanding that salvation is a broader concept including justification and sanctification) I wondered whether it would have been plausible for Paul to substitute “good works” for faith. Scripture says:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Eph 6:13–18a).

Paul uses a military metaphor, in which he invokes a series of images, to describe the Christian life, the struggle with sin—mortification (putting to death the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). Truth is a battle belt. On top of the belt used to hold up one’s trousers is a heavier belt to carry equipment. In the ancient world a soldier would have carried his sword there. Today a soldier carries a great deal of equipment, including his sidearm, on his belt. It is essential. He dare not leave the camp without it. The breastplate was the ancient equivalent of body armor. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t really matter whether the righteousness in view is intrinsic (sanctification) or extrinsic (Christ’s righteousness imputed)—although the latter seems more likely—there is no mention of good works yet. The Good News of peace with God (accomplished for us by Christ), which strengthens the likelihood that the righteousness mentioned above is justification, is what prepares us for battle. Again, our good works are not mentioned. The shield is faith, i.e., knowledge, assent, and trust in Christ, his finished work for us, and his promises.

The Christian’s shield in spiritual warfare is not his good works. It would not be possible to substitute “good works” for faith. They are not interchangeable. Faith looks to and rests in another, Christ. Good works are the fruit of that faith and evidence of its reality but they do not protect us from the assault of the Devil because our good works are always broken, always stained, always imperfect. In the hour of trial they cannot sustain or protect us. That’s why Paul says that it is faith that extinguishes the darts (the lies, the accusations, the temptations) thrown by the Evil One. Faith has an object: Christ. Faith is as good as its object. That’s why it is a shield. Good works have no such object.

We know that Paul is thinking about salvation because he says so. He nears completion of the Christian’s preparation for spiritual warfare by turning to the helmet. No soldier goes into battle with his head exposed. Even those soldiers who might not hear a helmet wear something, even if its only a boonie hat, to provide some camouflage or protection from the sun. Salvation is something conferred upon God’s people. Paul does not connect good works to it but he does connect the gospel and faith to salvation. Righteousness, of course, is mentioned but good works are not.

Finally, Scripture and prayer are the last two weapons of spiritual warfare. The Evil One is a liar and the father of lies. His first move is always to deny or twist God’s Word. “Has God really said?” He twisted the Scriptures in tempting Christ. The Second Adam faced the same Liar who confronted the First Adam. In contrast, the Last Adam defeated the Evil One by adhering to God’s powerful, truthful Word. The Second Adam prayed, for himself and for us, who he represented in his suffering, active obedience. Having been redeemed, having been saved by his grace, we too pray and through that instrument God the Spirit operates to strengthen our faith and resolve, even in the midst of dark times.

Since we obviously cannot substitute good works for faith in this passage we are left to try to imagine how others might begin to think this way. Perhaps it is due in part to an approach to justification and sanctification that sees faith in a quite limited role. For them, faith seems to be something like the starter or the ignition on a motor vehicle. We turn the key until the starter catches and the motor turns over and the engine roars to life. If we keep turning the ignition there is that awful grinding noise that reminds us to stop turning the key. The starter motor has done its job and it’s finished. The engine is running now. Is faith really like that starter motor or ignition If this passage is to guide us then we may not think of faith that way. Faith is just as active in sanctification and in salvation as it is in justification. We should not, we may not think of faith as something that performs only a narrow, technical role in justification such that when its job is completed it is put away lest it be damaged. Faith continues to be instrumental in the Christian life. This is why Paul says in Galatians 2:20,

the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul did not live his Christian life by works. He lived it by true faith. He did not regard faith as something to be used once and put away. Faith continues to be the instrument through which the justified are mystically, vitally, existentially united to Christ and it, not good works, is the shield that defeats the lies and accusations of the Evil One. This is why I’ve been arguing that faith alone is the instrument of salvation. We are being saved, i.e., believers have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and we live our Christian life, in union with the risen Christ, by faith. Having been delivered from the judgment we are now in the process of being delivered from the effects of sin, a process that will not be completed in this lifetime, by grace alone, through faith alone. God’s gracious sanctification of his people will produce good works and fruit, for which we praise God but those effects are not faith but its evidence.

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  1. Amen, Dr. Clark! But we always try to sneak us and our works into the subject, don’t we? Thanks for this reminder.

  2. Dr. Clark, you speak of “an approach to justification and sanctification that sees faith in a quite limited role. For them, faith seems to be something like the starter or the ignition on a motor vehicle. We turn the key until the starter catches and the motor turns over and the engine roars to life. If we keep turning the ignition there is that awful grinding noise that reminds us to stop turning the key. The starter motor has done its job and it’s finished. The engine is running now.”

    Who are the writers who believe or speak this way? Evidence, please. I’m not at all concerned about your feelings relative to the views of others, nor should you be concerned about mine. I am very much interested in your comments and critiques on specific writings. Please give us something to ponder other than subjective impressions. It’s not that I disagree with you. Far from it. I just don’t know who or what you’re referring to.

    • Frank,

      I was first alerted to the possibility that some are thinking this way in an interview I heard some years back. As this fellow spoke he referred to sanctification and obedience where I would have spoken of faith. Since that time I’ve had conversations with others where this same way of approach was followed. I provided a link above to the earlier post on justification and salvation through faith. In that post I linked to an author who spoke of the “efficacy of works” in salvation.

  3. You say “good works are not mentioned”. Although I don’t believe works offer anything to salvation, couldn’t you read the passage that way?

    We “put on” we “stand firm” we “take up”. We “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit” and are to be “praying at all times in the Spirit”.

    You could read this as we are to “do,” we are to “use” our salvation, etc. to fight. Am I wrong? I just don’t think you can say that good works are obviously not there, because I am sure some people would see it differently. What am I missing?

    • Hi Deb,

      Well, we would have to decide that gospel imperatives (in light of the gospel, respond in the following ways) constitute “good works” in the sense in which it has been proposed. Second, certainly believers must obey these imperatives but are we to think of our evangelical obedience as instrumental in salvation or “efficacious unto salvation”?

      Paul’s explicit teaching is that faith (which looks to Christ) is the shield. Our evangelical obedience isn’t the shield. Our evangelical obedience is a consequence of our having been regenerated, having been given faith, having been justified, united to Christ etc. Those who are so blessed do these things.

      Third, Paul is explicit about good works:

      For fwe are his workmanship, gcreated in Christ Jesus hfor good works, iwhich God prepared beforehand, jthat we should walk in them.

      1 Tim 2:10
      “…but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”

      1 Tim 5:10
      “…and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, ohas washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has qdevoted herself to every good work.”

      1 Tim 5:25
      “So also good works are conspicuous, and neven those that are not cannot remain hidden.”

      1 Tim 6:18
      “They are to do good, fto be rich in good works, to be generous and gready to share…”

      Titus 2:7
      “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity…”

      Titus 2:14
      “…who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are uzealous for good works.”

      Titus 3:8
      “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”

      Titus 3:14
      “And let our people learn xto devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

      It seems to me that, in Eph 6, Paul is thinking of sanctification and evangelical obedience as one thing and “good works” as another. When he uses that phrase he seems to be thinking of those things we do to/for others.

      Finally, Paul was explicit that salvation is through faith. He doesn’t say “faith and good works.”

      For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8–9).

      Faith here is the divinely given and divinely wrought instrument not only of justification but of salvation, which, as we understand it, is a broader, more inclusive category. We should note too that he juxtaposes faith and works in salvation. We might discuss to which “works” here he refers but it seems fair to read this to refer to good works (and not in a purely technical sense to refer to the works of the Mosaic law) since he goes on to say that we were (re-)created in Christ Jesus to do good works. He wants us to get the order right.

    • Right. I was just thinking, wouldn’t the people who read Phil. 2:12 to mean that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling read Eph. 6 to mean that we put on our own armour of God? Couldn’t you possibly read it that way?

      You are right. You can’t. If you read the whole book of Ephesians, it starts out:
      -“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love”. (1:4)
      -“having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (1:13)
      -“exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (1:19) (this is the power that raised Christ from the dead and is the same power as 6:10- “be strong in the Lord in the power of His might.”)
      -“For by grace you have been saved through faith… not of works”. (2:8)
      -“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” (3:20)
      -“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift”. (4:7)
      -Chapter 5, in context, is the effect of being filled with the Spirt (parallel verses make this clear).
      -Then in Chapter 6, we are “strong in the power of His might” (6:10)
      -I love how Paul ends the letter too: “Peace to the brethren, and love with faith…” (6:23)

      Works are not anywhere in the entire book!

      • Deb,

        We certainly do “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” but the questions are what does this mean and how? I take Paul to be saying that, in light of our salvation, we respond a certain way. There are changes that are to come about in our lives as redeemed people. He doesn’t say, however, that we do good works unto salvation. That would be another kettle of fish.

        There is a holy fear before the face of almighty God, even the God who has become our Father for the sake of Christ his Son. Paul is describing the sort of godly reverence that befits believes as they “walk worthily” of the grace that we have received.

    • Many elsewhere have recently interpreted the phrase “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” from Phil. 2:12-13 as describing a “synergistic cooperation” between God and the redeemed to fulfill (or endeavor to meet) the law in progressive sanctification. It’s as if, in fear, we exert so much effort in/from our flesh in order to somehow satisfy the demands or guidelines of the law, synergistically efficacious unto salvation, that this great personal exertion produces physical trembling.

      12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
      13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

      “Fear and trembling” is a phrase used a handful of times in the NT. The clearest and most revealing instance is in 1 CORINTHIANS 2:

      1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
      2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
      3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,
      4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
      5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

      The “fear and much trembling” that Paul experienced was not from the wisdom of men, from his personal effort synergistically efficacious unto salvation. Instead it occurred from a standpoint of humble”weakness” so that God’s grace would be sufficient. When the Holy Spirit through faith works His divine *POWER* in us, both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure, we respond in the reverential fear of God with much trembling. “Fear and trembling” in this context is inseparable from its divine/spiritual (not fleshly) source, the Spirit and the power of God.

      The “fear and trembling” of Phil. 2:12 is not that of the Godless:
      * Isaiah 19:1,16: “1 An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them… 16 In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts shakes over them.”
      * Isaiah 33:14: “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?'”
      * Micah 7:17: “they shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their strongholds; they shall turn in dread to the LORD our God, and they shall be in fear of you.”
      * Matthew 28:4 “And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”

      The “fear and trembling” of Phil. 2:12 is also not that which results from being confronted with God and His holy law:
      * Hebrews 12:20-21: “For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

      The “fear and trembling” of Phil. 2:12 is that of the redeemed. It results from God’s grace and power and is cause for rejoicing:
      * Psalm 2:11: “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”
      * Isaiah 66:2,5: “2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word… 5 Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: ‘Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame.'”
      * Jer. 33:8-9: “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.”
      * Hosea 11:10-11: “They shall go after the LORD; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes, declares the LORD.”
      * Mark 5:28-29,33-34: “28 For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.’ 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease… 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'”
      * Acts 16:29-34: “And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

  4. Great observation. And actually, to reinforce your point, and to answer Deb, almost all of these pieces of armor Paul mentions are taken from Isaiah, and are the Messiah’s armor. The Breastplate and Helmet are from Isaiah 59:17. The Belt is from Isaiah 11. The Footware is from Isaiah 52.
    (The only thing Paul adds to these Isaiah references are the Shield of faith and the Sword of God’s Word.)

    The point is that Paul is saying fight your Spiritual warfare precisely by putting on CHRIST, cf. Romans 13:14. This is reinforced by the fact that the very things that oppose us (principalities, etc.) are already under Christ’s feet, cf. Ephesians 1:15-22. He has already conquered our enemies, so our job is to run to Him and REST in His work on our behalf.

    So, the standing firm and taking up and praying IS very important — Deb has a point — but all those are are relying on the means of grace which point us to the Gospel. Paul does NOT here tell us to advance, but to STAND. I think that’s very important. Afterwards, we may advance the Gospel (cf. 6:18-20), but only after we have first STOOD in Christ’s work and prayed. We live and fight the Christian life by faith alone; that faith then *results* in the good works God has prepared for us to do, cf. Ephesians 2:10; 4:1-6:9. The order is important.

    • Well said, Chris H. I would just add that “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) is also taken from Isaiah, ch. 49:2, where in the second of the four “Servant Songs” fulfilled in Christ (42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), the Servant of the LORD states, “He [the LORD] made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me…”

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