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Friday, January 22, 2016

Whose Work Is This?

Over in John 6 we have the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14). After the event, Jesus exited quickly and the disciples headed off in their boat toward Capernaum. We get here the famous "Jesus walks on water" story (John 6:15-21). The crowds figured out He left, so they went in search of Him because, according to Jesus, they wanted more bread (John 6:22-27). So they tried a more spiritual approach.
Then they said to Him, "What must we do to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:28-29)
Now, I don't know if you catch it here, but the text is problematic. The language here says that something is "the work of God". It's not abundantly clear what Jesus is talking about. The crowds asked what they could do to be doing "the works of God". Clearly that is a reference to "the works that God does". Miracles. That kind of thing. They wanted miracles. "What must we do to do miracles?" So is "the work of God" a reference to "the work that God does", or is it a reference to "the work we do for God", "the work God would have us do"? You see, the language is ambiguous.

It would seem from the context as a reply to the crowd who was asking how they could do what God does that Jesus was saying "This is what God does -- He causes you to believe in Him whom He has sent." But that, of course, would be an unacceptable understanding for most because we all know that we believe, not God.God doesn't cause us to believe, right? So it must mean that the work we do that God wants from us is to believe.

But that is a problem, isn't it? I've seen this discussion multiple times in multiple places. "We are saved by faith." "Is faith a work, because if it is we are saved by the work of faith." "Oh, no, faith is not a work." Except if we've just decided that this text is saying that faith is the work that God would have us do, then faith is a work. Uh, oh. Dilemma.

Commentaries aren't helpful here. Barnes says that to believe is the work that God will find acceptable. Clarke says that faith is the only acceptable work we can do. The Geneva Bible says that faith is the work that God requires. The Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary calls faith the work of works. Robertson's Word Pictures says that the work of God is to keep on believing. Vines Word Studies says that faith is put as a moral act, a work that God requires. John Gill and Matthew Henry have an interesting take on it. If you asked them "Is the 'work of God' a reference to the work that God does or is it the work that God requires?", they would answer, "Yes!" It is the work that God requires and it is the operation of God as a gift. It is the work that we do (notice that the crowd used a plural "works" and Jesus used a singular "work") and the work God does in us which enables us to do that work of believing.

So, which is it? Is Jesus saying that faith is the work God does in us, or is He saying that faith is the work that God requires of us? If the latter, are we not saved by a work? If not, how not?


Bob said...

without faith it impossible to please God. yet we are naturally bankrupt of faith, what then?
the Dead when quicken, have a new nature, to believe. now that we are alive in Christ we are to operate according to our new nature. we are saved by Grace thru Faith, it is not of ourselves but is a gift of God. just when i thought i was doing OK with my works you went and spoiled everything....

David said...

I have to wonder if Jesus wasn't answering their question. We know that they were only there for bread, so what if the "works" they're asking about isn't miracles, or God's work, but how to get more free food? They'd already proven themselves to be a greedy, spiritually bankrupt people, so why would they note be asking the right question? What if Jesus was responding to the question asked, not the one intended?

Stan said...

I think that was what they were asking. "How do we do what you did? How do we make some free food?" Couched in "the works of God" to make it sound ... spiritual. I think He did answer their question.

Danny Wright said...

This makes me think of Two Corinthians 4:4 where it says "which keeps them from seeing the light OF THE gospel OF THE glory OF Christ which is the image OF God.

Too many "of's" for a simple mind like mine to grasp.