07 May 2009

Faith, grace and works in James and John: an illustration

by Dan Phillips

A simple man, I like simple illustrative analogies. Here's a homely little illustration I've worked up that's helpful to me. Like all analogies, it eventually breaks down... but first, I get to flog it a good deal.

Premise. James and John both say things that (ironically) gutless-gracers and works-righteousness heretics both take out of context and turn to harm. Like for instance:
Whoever says "I know him" but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)

Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (1 John 3:7)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14)
Illustration. Let us say that a sovereign cure for cancer has finally been found. You take it in pill-form, a little capsule to be precise. They color the capsule green, because of that color's association with life. They call it "Chlorozoetin" (green life).

Take one Chlorozoetin, and two things invariably begin to happen, with no exceptions:
  1. The cancer starts shrinking
  2. Your skin begins to turn green
In the case of some people, cancer shrinkage is immediate and dramatic. In others, it is more gradual, and marked by occasional setbacks. But the cancer invariably begins to be beaten back. That is a universal effect.

And some people rapidly turn a lovely rich green, like a bell pepper; others are lighter green, like celery. But there are no exceptions: everyone who has taken Chlorozoetin turns green. That is a universal effect.

You could say all of this, then:
Everyone who has taken the Chlorozoetin has green skin, and overcomes cancer. If anyone says "I've taken Chlorozoetin," but does not have green skin, and still has growing cancer, he is a liar. By this you know that you have taken Chlorozoetin: your cancer is beaten back, and you have green skin. What use is it to say you've taken Chlorozoetin, but your skin isn't green? Will that cure your cancer?
Now, suppose someone wasn't sure if he'd taken the right pill? You'd ask two questions:
  1. Is the cancer in retreat?
  2. Have you begun to turn green?
And then suppose someone had to answer "No" to those questions? What would be the solution?

Should they try harder to turn green? Should they want harder for the cancer to go into remission?

How about if they slather some green paint onto their face?

No, that's silly. You would tell them, "Get the right pill, take it. That's what you need."

Because both indicators are results of taking the pill. They are indicators that you've taken the pill. The green skin does not cure cancer. But it is the sign that you've taken the medicine that does cure cancer. The real key is: the lifegiving, healing pill.

And if one said, "Well, we can't expect the pill to have the same effect in everyone. What matters is taking the pill. Once they say they've taken it, they're on the way to a cure."

No. Impossible. (It's my illustration, so I get to control it!) As I said, this is a sovereign cure that invariably has those two effects. No matter how convincing a story anyone tells of taking a pill, and no matter how vividly nor emotionally Mr. (or Ms.) Talkative describes the verdure of the capsule, if it was the right pill, it would have those two effects! No effects — no green skin, no shrinking cancer — no Chlorozoetin.

When lips and life contradict, go with the life.

And so the "signs" of faith embodied in truth, love, and works are invariable indicators that one has been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The presence of the Lord Christ in a life invariably produces those results, the apostles teach. Different degrees? Yes. Different rates? Of course. Some thirty-fold, some more — but there are always these fruits.

If one should lack those indicators, what should he do? Try harder?


He needs to go to Christ, to be saved by Him alone, by His grace alone, through faith alone.

Hope that this understanding helps you, as it does me.

Dan Phillips's signature


Steve B said...

I like it! I've often contended that works are a manifestation of salvation, not the source of it.

So much of modern Christian legalism could be put to death if more people would embrace this concept.

There really are only two commandments for those under Grac - Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

By DOING those two things, a rich "works walk" is all but inevitable.

By their fruits you shall know them, and all that.

Frank Turk said...

I think you have been reading too much Doug Wilson for your own good, but it is for the good of all of us.

I'm green with envy -- and my cancer is beaten back.

donsands said...

Wonderful illustration. Edifying. Well done. I dig the color green as well.

"Election is always to sanctification. Those whom Christ chooses out of mankind, He chooses not only that they may be saved, but that they may bear fruit, and fruit that can be seen." -JC Ryle

Johnny Dialectic said...

I like this illustration a lot, Dan. We have to take the pill. We have to trust the Doctor to do that, too. It's a big step to take that pill, which is why the Doctor gives us "informed consent" in His documentation!

Darby Livingston said...

It's helped a lot. I now know the incredible hulk is a Christian.

Anonymous said...

If I ever get the chance, I'm using that.

I spent much of my life not realy getting that, now I get it and this illustration helps me explain it, to me and to others.

My skin, thank the Lord, is green. (not very, but it is)

eastendjim said...

Daryl - Maybe you can have a "bleu, blanc et rouge" pill in your illustration.

Great post Dan!

Steve B said...

Daryl, my suspicion is that in God's eyes, there's just green and not green....not competing shades.

To easy to go down the "sneetches" road and start bragging about how hunter green you are compared to my pale "minty" exterior.


olan strickland said...

I like it Dan. But then you have those Chlorozoetin counterfeiters who make a green sugar pill and market it as the real deal. And those who take it claim to be healed of cancer although their skin hasn't turned green and their cancer isn't decreasing. But they say, "We have come to know that we have taken Clorozoetin because we got a funny feeling when we took it." They didn't know that it was a sugar high that put them on the verge of a diabetic coma.

Pastor Jody said...

I love analogies. Great analogy! There is only one problem with it though, I didn't think of it.

The analogy I normally use is the "dog analogy".

Only dogs go to heaven. The problem is that we are not dogs. God comes down and miraculously changes some into dogs. They have four legs, are covered with hair and bark, scratch, and wag their tails.

If I go to the store and buy a dog costume, get on my hands and knees, and bark, this does NOT make me a dog. I'm not a dog because I do those things; I do those things because I am a dog.

Great post, Dan!

olan strickland said...

Would those who know about the green pill be under a moral obligation to tell the rest of cancer-infected-humanity about the green pill?

Associate-to-the-Pastor said...

This fits perfectly with what Kermit says...


stratagem said...

You nailed it, Dan. Nice job. If we belong to Christ, it has an effect on our life, and if He doesn't affect the way we are living, we don't belong to Christ. You are making that point pretty effectively through this illustration.
I guess this indirectly also answers the question Phil asked, "Is God Green"? (Yuck, Yuck).

Anonymous said...


Are you saying we shouldn't lay a piece of fruit on the ground to see if a tree will grow and attach itself to the fruit?

Or that attaching an apple to a banana tree won't an apple tree make?

Or are you subtly going green?



DJP said...

Those are good ones, too, Mark.

Except don't Gore me with details.

Mike Riccardi said...

Would those who know about the green pill be under a moral obligation to tell the rest of cancer-infected-humanity about the green pill?/

Heavens no, Olan! You wouldn't be so arrogant to claim you know whether someone has taken the pill, would you?! They know what pill they've taken!

Ee...uhh... even if they're... umm... white as a ghost and still battling cancer...

DJP said...

...or, to tweak it a bit, not battling cancer.

Dave .... said...

I really HATE it that you made being "a green Christian" normative. Other than that, good job. ;-)

DJP said...

I know you're kidding, but I hear you. Just think of my other alternatives.

Red = American Indian, Communist, or angry; plus, it's used of a normal skin-tone

Blue = depressed

Black, yellow and brown are all used of normal skin-tones

Then anything else is just too weird... you know, ochre, mauve, carnelian, and all the other crayons

Green was symbolic of life, even everlasting life, before it was co-opted for Gaia worship.

So, green it was.

Merlin said...

Hello, lads and lassies,

It is I Pastor Paddy, the patron of the 17th of March, and I want to tell you that I've always been green. I drink green swill and it turns my teeth green. My liver is so bad that my skin looks green. I have all that you can get from that pill without taking the pill and instead you get to come to the pub with me.

Drink up, lads and lassies! The fruits can be had anyway you want them.

[i]No Irish were harmed in the filming of this post.[/i]

olan strickland said...

Mike, Even though many would consider me arrogant I would still be eager to tell them about the green pill because it and it alone is the cure for cancer. Therefore, knowing that all men have cancer - whether they have or have not read about its symptoms and consequences from the L.A.W. (List of Ailing Weaknesses) - they must be told about their predicament and the good news of the green pill. For those who have no knowledge of the L.A.W. will perish without that knowledge and those who have knowledge of the L.A.W. will perish with that knowledge - if they don't take the green pill!

Jugulum said...

Oooh, I love this analogy.

How would you include a "timeline" in the analogy? Meaning, delayed or gradual effects of the pill?

Initial thought:

Unreasonable: "I took this pill 20 years ago, and I know my skin's still bright red, but it works slowly in some people."

Also unreasonable: "He took the pill yesterday!" "But I can't see the green in his skin!"

How would you articulate this part, without robbing the test of its convicting & assuring power?

Stefan said...
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Stefan said...
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JackW said...

I see a break down, but you know what? Who cares, nice illustration Dan.

olan strickland said...

The green pill suppresses the appetite for carcinogens and restores an appetite for that which was lost - salubrity.

Rev Dave said...

Can I beg, borrow or steal this for my sermon on Ephesians 4 this Sunday? Please, please, please?

DJP said...

Please do. I share such things in the hopes of just such an outcome.

DJP said...

Well, and if they get me more invitations to preach or do a conference... bonus!

Pete said...

We seem to be in trouble:

(1) Everyone who practices righteousness is righteous.

(2) No one can be righteous without faith.

(3) Therefore, everyone who practices righteousness has faith.

(4) Therefore, no one who lacks faith can practice righteousness.

I take it that believers do practice righteousness. But can we really suppose that unbelievers, as such, cannot practice righteousness? (Some might take this to be reductio ad absurdum.)

Herding Grasshoppers said...




Mike Riccardi said...


You're right. Not battling.


Good answer. Hope you knew I was kidding with my comment earlier.


Yeah. I think that's exactly what we can suppose.

Anonymous said...


Given that everything not of faith is sin...yeah we can say that non-believers cannot and do not practice righteousness. At all.

Ergo, even as a believer I can't claim ownership of any righteousness I may practice. It isn't mine. It's God's.

Anonymous said...

And Pete, you're right, we are in trouble.

Take the green pill.

Pete said...

Some folks seem to think that a good deed is only a good deed if it is done by a believer.

Here's the question: why would the author bother to say, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous" if, in order to determine whether or not someone is practicing righteousness, we already have to know if the person has faith?

stratagem said...

Pete: The passage doesn't talk about what we know - it talks about what is. Even those "good" deeds we do are done out of the wrong motivations, because we are evil. That's why to be saved we must say no to sin, and trust totally in Christ's sacrifice alone, to save us. Not our own works - not even a little bit our own works. All trust in Christ's work.

Chris said...

Wonderful Analolgy! I love this!

You've really captured, in your usual succinct form, a frustration I've experienced time and time again whenever I've heard the folks in either of the two categories you name explain their views.

Great add-on! I see the emergent nonsense contained in your illustartion!

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

As a wanna-be liberal Emerger I love this post by Dan Phillips!!

We are so GREEN!! And it flows from the biblical doctrine of Love. Social justice, feeding the hungry, loving the poor is what us Progressive Christians do. We are tolerant, inclusive, diverse, and most of all, loving. All in the name of Jesus.

This is the best post that Team Pyro has ever written about what green Progressive Emerger Christians are all about!

You rock Dan Phillips!!!

NoLongerBlind said...

Pete said:
"Some folks seem to think that a good deed is only a good deed if it is done by a believer."

Only a believer has the potential within him/her (namely, the Holy Spirit) for doing that which is truly good.

"For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23(b))

"And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." (Mark 10:18)


Pete said...

Stratagem and Tom: any idea why the author would bother to say, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous"?

NoLongerBlind said...
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Mike Riccardi said...


I have an idea. The answer is because John isn't teaching us about the nature of good works and whether, definitionally [there you go, Dan], a good work qualifies if it's done by an unbeliever.

He's writing to a group of believers (relatively young in the faith, cf. 2:1, 2:18, 2:28, 3:7, et al.) who are being attacked by the Gnostic heresy that spirit is inherently good and that matter is inherently evil. Consequently, they were teaching that (1) it doesn't matter what you do in the flesh because that will perish anyway, so live it up; and (2) true righteousness is not measured by benefiting each other in love (3:16-18, pretty much all of Ch 4, etc.), but by super-spiritual, ecstatic experiences in which a superior knowledge is revealed directly by "God."

Consequently, the believers were troubled and wondering if they were really Christians. So John, the Apostle, the Elder, writes to say to them, "Yes, you are Christians" (cf. 1 John 5:13).

So, in that particular passage (3:7), the context demonstrates that John is simply saying, "Guys, don't be deceived by this ridiculous talk. Whoever practices righteousness is really righteous. And whoever doesn't isn't. You don't need extra special knowledge to know that, the message and the anointing you received from the beginning is sufficient to teach you (2:28)."

Hope that's helpful.

NoLongerBlind said...

Pete, in context, it's stated as a contrast to the lives characterized by sin shown in the verses that bracket the verse you are referencing.

No one who is truly born-again, transformed by the miraculous, Sovereign work of God, will live a life that is characterized by on-going sin. In contrast, a genuine believer's life will be characterized by increasing righteous behavior and less sin; in keeping with Dan's analogy, more greenness and less cancer.


Chris said...


Oh please, not that road. I've personally been engaged in an offshoot discussion of the question you raise on several occasions with someone who was always irritated with the fact that Christian ministries were out in the world pursuing humanitarian efforts with the "selfish motivation of forcing the Bible on people rather than simply meeting them and their needs where they are." This person then went right into your question by saying "so, what you are saying is that atheists or other non-believers are incapable of doing anything good?" I think this is a dangerous line of reasoning for Christians to entertain, given our eternal hope of glory in Christ, as it is an entirely horizontal perspective that demands to be taken to its logical end: "yes" I had to reply "it is possible for these others to do good deeds." HOWEVER, I had to follow my admission up with a new question: "what do you mean by good?" or " Is it more important to attend to the needs of this life or to the eternal destiny of those to whom we minister?" The questions I asked in response, to this person, suggested that I did not care for those in the world who suffer. The nature of the fallacious question this person asked was an attempt at saying, by default, that anyone with my view didn't care about the suffering of others, but only wanted to convert them (suggesting that such would be less than the greatest thing we can do for them).

So, let me ask you this: how far are you willing to take that road logically while still being true to the Gospel? In other words, when we say that unbelievers in host of humanitarian organizations, or believers/unbelievers in so-called "Christian" organizations that do not place the salvation of souls at the top of their list, are doing "good," it begs the question: what is good?

mark pierson said...

Dan,EXCELLENT POST!!!!! I wish I could swipe it for my blog. Great job!

stratagem said...

Stratagem and Tom: any idea why the author would bother to say, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous"?

That's an easy one: Read it in context. Being saved makes them righteous in God's eyes; their sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ. Only a saved person can do righteous acts out of right motives, because apart from the Holy Spirit we can do nothing good because we are evil by nature. This is very basic Christian doctrine.

Citizen Grim said...

Home. Run.

Fantastic illustration.

Citizen Grim said...

Pete: "But can we really suppose that unbelievers, as such, cannot practice righteousness?"

Um, yes. Unbelievers may be able to practice what appears to be "righteous" in comparison with other unbelievers, but it is not the true righteousness that is only declared by God and comes by faith.

See Is 64:6 "...all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags."

Rom 3:10 "None is righteous, no, not one"

Rom 4:2-5 "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness"

Chad V. said...

Don't forget; "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." Rom14:23b

donsands said...

"Some folks seem to think that a good deed is only a good deed if it is done by a believer." -Pete

I don't think that. There are most likely unbelievers who gave their lives in the Twin Towers to save others. Those were good deeds to be admired.

Yet even the most righteous of deeds is tainted.

And there's a difference in the righteous things I am doing in order that God accepts me, and just helping someone who have broken down with a ride to the gas station.

The Jews were doing all their religious duties thinking they were pleasing God, when in fact they were filthy no good rags. They looked good on the outside, but they were like dead men inside; they worshipped with their lips, but their hearts were callous.

Anonymous said...

Good word, Donsands

Citizen Grim said...

The only thing about Rom 14:23 is that it's not referring to non-believers, is it? Rather, it's talking about fellow believers (albeit "weaker brothers") and how we shouldn't encourage them to do something they believe to be wrong. i.e. If I persuade my brother to have a beer, even though he thinks it's wrong to drink alcohol, it's sinful for him to drink, even if it's not for me. (My sin, however, would be the selfishness of putting him in such a situation.) Unless I'm grossly misunderstanding Rom 14 - in which case, someone feel free to correct me.

I don't mean to get off track, but I don't think that verse in particular is referring to whether or not *unbelievers* can be righteous without faith. I think we have use other verses to indicate that no, they can't.

Pete said...

Thank you all for these very thoughtful responses! Let me try to respond.

Mike Riccardi: the historical/dialectical context you provide is helpful. However, the thesis that fits your points 1 and 2 is only this: you can't practice unrighteousness and be righteous. You also seem to suggest that a person can learn if he/she is righteous by considering what he/she does. Would you also concede that a person can learn if someone else is righteous by considering what that other person does?

Tom: What you say fits rather with a different claim: that no one who practices unrighteousness is righteous. However, the claim we're interested in says rather: whoever practices righteousness is righteous. The first claim does not entail the second. It's a mistake to confuse them.

Chris: you've advanced the discussion in a fascinating direction. I think some common sense is fitting here. I think we should agree that it is generally a good thing, for example, to rescue a young child from premature death, malnutrition, or debilitating disease-even if one is doing this only because one wants to save the child from those dire straits. Wouldn't you agree?

stratagem: I'm afraid I don't see how your reply fits the context, as explained by Mike. You seem to suppose that the author is intent in explaining that apparent good deeds are not genuinely good deeds if they are not done with the right motives, and only believers can have the right motives. Not only does this fail to fit the context, it also raises the worry Chris mentions.

Citizen Grim: the passages you point are part of the problem. On the assumption that some do practice righteousness, these passages are problematic. Without that assumption, it is no longer clear why the John would say, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous."

Chad V. you'd better re-read Romans 14. In context, the saying does not obviously mean what you want it to mean. Does the unbelieving Samaritan sin when he responds to the needy stranger?

Jules said...
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Citizen Grim said...

Pete, another verse that just occurred to me, which may be more explicit, is Matt 7:18 "A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit."

stratagem said...

Clearly you have an agenda here that is quite independent of whatever the post topic was today. It sounds like it is something along the lines of wanting to convince us all that "righteousness" in God's eyes can be achieved through some means other than faith in Christ. Is that right?

If so, and you want to talk context and the big picture, let's consider that Jesus cried "it is finished" as he breathed his last upon the Cross. He did not say "it is almost finished" or "Ok, I did my part, now if youse guys just do enough good works, you'll be saved." I am no preacher, nor even an Elder, but I do know that much.

So, out with it: What exactly is your agenda? Is it to convince us that we need works to be saved?

Chris said...


Excellent point!!! However, I'm sure those in the "deeds first" or "deeds only" camp would say that everything people do to help others, even when they never share the Gospel in the process, is being done in faith by those professing to be believers (this is, of course, where all of the emergents come in with their ill-understood definitions of contextualization, justice, and missions); they would do well to remember that there is no such thing described nor advocated in the NT as "stealth" Christianity; that "good" deeds (meeting physical needs) are neither purely good, nor are they a substitute for addressing the greatest need--a spiritual need--for salvation. Hence, such thinking ignores the great commission.

NoLongerBlind said...


Not sure if you do, in fact, have an unstated agenda, or, are just havin' some theological fun(?), trying to exercise our mind-muscles a bit, but, to state something that I'm guessin' you are well aware of, you can't devise a point of doctrine from one verse of Scripture.

Heresies too numerous to list have made that mistake ever since the canon was closed.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

[Matrix rewrite]

Morpheus: "This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."

Neo: "No thanks. I've taken the GREEN PILL. I'm a Progressive Christian who takes the Bible seriously, not literally. I know the Truth. And the Truth is Love.

Morpheus, watch this. Then I'll give you one last chance to take the GREEN PILL."

The Blainemonster said...

Very good! I approve! I shall soon use this illustration! Thanks :)

olan strickland said...


You are confusing the righteousness which is from God on the basis of faith with one's own righteousness derived from works of the law. No unbeliever practices the righteousness which is from God on the basis of faith because he cannot and will not.

The unbeliever who is claiming to be saved only has two categories that he can fit into: (1) legalism - attempting to be justified by works of the Law or (2) libertinism - attempting to be justified by words of the mouth. However the unbeliever never arrives at loyalty or Lordship - actually being justified through faith in Christ and receiving the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith - aka worship. We obey him because we love Him and we love Him because He first loved us. We also love the children of God - a thing that the world of unbelievers do not do.

The world loves its own and will give aid to its own - being evil it knows how to give good gifts - Matthew 7:11 - but the world hates the children of God.

olan strickland said...


Sorry for the bad grammar :)

TAR said...


Pete said...

donsands: I agree with you that unbelievers can do good deeds. Consider the simple action of rescuing a child from drowning. Why must we think that every such action, done by an unbeliever, is "tainted"? What makes the believer's rescue of the child untainted? (This is not to deny that superficially good deeds are often tainted by faulty motives.)

Citizen Grim: you suggest that when John says, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous" he does not really mean "whoever." He rather means, "Any believer who practices righteousness is righteous." Your only evidence for this interpretation is that otherwise it wouldn't sit well with other epistles, especially the writings of Paul. However, your interpretation simply doesn't fit with the immediate context. The author is clearly talking about distinguishing the "children of God" from the "children of the devil." You also cite Mt.7. Those verses (Mt.7:15-29) are quite similar, though they are more specifically about guarding against false prophets. They don't obviously offer any solution to our problem.

stratagem and Tom: I don't really know what to say. Why not take this discussion at face value: there's a paradox in the scriptures; we're trying to understand it. I'm certainly not trying convince you of any particular doctrine regarding salvation. Citizen Grim's Matthew 7 citation shows that the idea may not be so isolated after all.

Olan Strickland: We can and should distinguish between the state of possessing imputed righteousness (received by grace through faith) and practicing righteousness." Surely you don't want to confuse the two. Once we distinguish the two, it is conceptually possible for a person without imputed righteousness to practice righteousness, and for a person with imputed righteousness to fail to practice righteousness. The 1 John passage seems to deny this conceptual possibility. We are wondering how and why.

Chad V. said...

Pete The context is fine.

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp (or the plowing) of the wicked, are sin. Prov 21:4

Now then, the wicked are defined according to scripture as everyone who's faith is not in Christ, (i.e. Unbelievers). So while unbelievers can do good to their fellow man, they cannot do true good because they hate God in their hearts therefore all their good works are sin. They do not love the Lord their God with all their heart mind and soul and as a result they do not love their neighbor as they ought either.

They would be perfectly happy to bury their neighbors in good deeds and neglect their eternal soul and steal God's glory. What good does it do to save the body but not the soul? None whatsoever. To do so is very wicked indeed.

donsands said...

"Why must we think that every such action, done by an unbeliever, is "tainted"?"

Because we are tainted. Christ is the only Man who was never tainted, and His deeds were pure.

Chad V. said...

donsandsExactomundo! We are all together corrupt in thought word and deed. We are dead in sins and trespasses, unfit for any good work. That's why we must be born again Pete.

Rick Frueh said...

A man who is not on the official roster steps up to the plate and hits a home run on the first pitch. As he crosses homeplate the umpire informs him that his home run will not count. He did hit a home run but it does not count since he was not on the team.

So are good deeds done by unbelievers who are not in redemption. Their deeds are good, but they will not count.

Citizen Grim said...

Pete: I don't think the statement "everyone who practices righteousness is righteous" is remotely incompatible with anything else in Scripture.

If John tells us that anyone who practices righteousness IS righteous, and we see elsewhere in Scripture that unbelievers are NOT righteous (Rom 3:10), the ONLY logical conclusion is that unbelievers do not, and cannot practice righteousness.

- All who practice righteousness are righteous
- Unbelievers are not righteous
∴ Unbelievers do not practice righteousness.

Which places John firmly in agreement with the rest of the Scriptures. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly says that diseased trees (that is, unbelievers) cannot bear good fruit (that is, cannot practice righteousness).

In fact, Jesus' very next point in the Sermon is that a person can do "many mighty works" in Christ's name - things that would appear righteous to the world - and yet still be a "worker of lawlessness." Not righteous.

What's more, though, the surrounding verses in 1 John support the idea that "everyone who practices righteousness" are already believers. In verse 3, John describes them as people who hope in God. In verse 6, he describes them as those "who abide in Him." In verse 9, he calls them "born of God." If they are not born of God, if they do not hope in Him, they CANNOT practice righteousness.

Unbelievers can practice good works as hard as they can, and it will never get them anywhere, because good works without faith are worthless in God's eyes, because their 'righteousness' is not aligned with God's.

Or as Paul puts it in Rom 10:3, "Being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness."

Seeking to establish their own righteousness. It's practically the original sin... human beings apart from God trying to decide for themselves who is and isn't righteous. Painting themselves green and declaring themselves cancer-free.

He who sits in the heavens laughs.

Citizen Grim said...

Pete, you also asked, "What makes the believer's rescue of the child untainted?"

I would refer to 2 Cor 5:21 for that. God imputed our sin to Christ, and imputes Christ's righteousness to us (the believer).

The believer's good deed is untainted because it is not his own human righteousness , but the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.

Regardless of what nominally 'good' deeds the unbeliever might do, it's not enough to qualify them as "righteous" (that is, without guilt). Only Christ's imputed righteousness can remove our guilt.

God has done what the law, weakened by flesh, could not do.

Pete said...

The responses continue to interest me. I completely agree with much of Citizen Grim's penultimate post: we apparently have to conclude that unbelievers cannot practice righteousness. This, in fact, was the conclusion of my first post, at 8:38 a.m. The difficulty is understanding the sense in which this conclusion could possibly be true.

Here are the various suggestions of the sense in which unbelievers cannot "practice righteousness":

(a) unbelievers do not do good deeds.

(b) unbelievers do good deeds, but with faulty motives (they may be trying to justify themselves before God through their works; or they fail do not regard the salvation of a person's soul, etc.)

(c) unbelievers do good deeds, but they don't "count", or they "are worthless in God's eyes", because the unbeliever doesn't have the imputed righteousness of Christ.

donsands and Rich Freuh agree with me in rejecting (a). Chris raises the obvious problem with (a) in explaining that in defending it, we would have to deny that some rather obvious things. We would have to deny that the unbelieving Samaritan does good when he aids the man in dire staits.

Options (b) and (c) fail for the same reason: the author of 1 John intends to provide a test that believers can use to distinguish "children of God" from "children of the devil." The whole emphasis on the practices of the person in question is intended to give us something visible. In changing the criterion back to motives, or the presence of faith, we lose the whole point of the author's characterization in terms of practices. Moreover, it is at least highly questionably whether unbelievers typically do have worse motives than believers. The considerations Chris raised suggest that Christians frequently act on ulterior motives.

Rick Frueh said...

I believe the thrust of Dan's post does not suggest these fruits cannot be exhibited in the flesh in a similar form, his lesson suggests that the regenerate cannot be void of these fruits.

donsands said...


Do you think any human can be righteous as Christ was righteous?

C.B. Shearer said...

This analogy rocks. I will certainly be using it. I'm teaching on the importance of doctrine and love on Sunday (still in the 7 Churches: Thyatira) and am using rocket-fuel for love and a rocket for doctrine, and the two if not together are not going anywhere. I've used the same analogy to teach on fruit: I don't have to see the rocket-fuel, I have to see the moving rocket that proves it is fueled.

That shared, I think the argument that has ensued in these comments is missing the important modifier, practices, for determining righteousness. We're not talking about one-time events here, we're talking about a progressive process. To use Dan's illustration, we're getting more and more green. A brief flash of green may be caused by something else; overexposure to copper dust or something...but it's not a progressive growth and isn't permanent, like the sanctification of the believer. It doesn't lend towards an inward change.

I remember about two years ago there was a huge call for atheists to donate blood to try to skew the statistics of which religions donated the most blood. Thousands of atheists showed out...then eight weeks later...most of them stayed home. A brief moment of goodness (ignoring motives) is not fruit...

One last point, I grew up in Northern Arizona; nothing grows up there (even me, I'm short). My mom got an apple tree twenty years ago, it has born about ten apples, two or three of them were delicious, but the tree is not in the practice of making apples, they are an anomaly and do not make the tree good.

Making a practice of righteousness,

Chad V. said...

The Lord Jesus Christ says that no one who does not believe in him can bear any fruit. Unbelievers cannot do righteousness deeds.

John 15:1-11

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. 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 him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Pete, it's not a Christians motives that make his deeds righteous, it's that he is born again of the Spirit, united with Christ, raised in newness of life. His sins no longer counted against him but now they are forgiven and Christ's righteousness is imputed to him. He deeds are righteous because they are wrought in God for it is God who works in him to will and to do of His good pleasure. Phil 2:13.

Notice Christ's words. He says that whoever is not grafted to the vine (that is Christ) is gathered up and thrown into the fire. Such a branch is altogether good for nothing but to be burned in the fire of Hell. That is why Christ says; "36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." John 3:36.

Aaron Snell said...


"Then anything else is just too weird... you know, ochre, mauve, carnelian, and all the other crayons"

Plus, do you really know the Greek for mauve?

Jon said...

I was just having a discussion with someone over at YouTube on this very topic. I linked him this post... I'm praying that it'll maybe clarify things we've been talking about.

Anonymous said...

Matrix like, but much better.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and thanks because I have been rejecting illustrations lately as we came out of a church that couldn't offer any spiritual teaching without some kind of side story, usually about golf or football. A skit was always needed. I had lost my taste for illustrations, but likely because the ones I had been hearing didn't shed light and reveal truth...they distracted and fooled. (sadly, I was the dummy who was eating up the foolishness too for a while)

Hayden said...

I'm teaching through 1 John right now. I will be stealing this one! (Is it stealing if I tell you?)

PS I have funny dilemma in our church family we have a Dan Phillips in his 60's and anytime I mention anything you have written I have to give stipulations :--)

Gisela said...

But they say, "We have come to know that we have taken Clorozoetin because we got a funny feeling when we took it." They didn't know that it was a sugar high that put them on the verge of a diabetic coma.Wow.

Did that happen to you? It did to me...I accepted a "sugar pill" while in high school.

Gisela said...

Stefan wrote: It's been providential, really, since I've been grappling so much with it in my own life (yeah, slowly reading the New Testament can do that to a guy).No kidding!

My husband (who at the time was a professing Christian) attended a Bible study last year, which slowly examined the book of Matthew. He became more and more convicted of his sinfulness, and by the time the parables of the wise and foolish virgins rolled around, he began to wonder if he was saved after all.

He verbally expressed to his Bible study group that he was beginning to wonder if he was saved. One of the men tried to reassure him by saying "oh, the Matthew study will do that to you!", ha ha, as in, yeah it can get a little intense, don't worry about it too much.

But my husband was right. He wasn't saved. He finally asked the Lord to save him, and He did.

Thank you, words of Jesus in the book of Matthew!

Yeah--slow reading of the New Testament: a very good thing!

I did the same Matthew study last year, but I didn't make it past the Sermon on the Mount before the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin--me, a Gospel-hardened Sugar-Pill-Taking Professing Christian--and I at last repented for real and turned to Christ in faith and submission.


Slow study of the New Testament: Good idea!

Mike Riccardi said...

Praise God for honoring His Word in your lives, Gisela! It's exciting to reed about!

Mike Riccardi said...

...lol... or "read" about.

Stefan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan said...


Amen and amen for both of you, and to God be the glory!

It's a wonderful testimony to how the Word and Spirit can work together—the Spirit through the Word—to bring about God's sovereign purposes in the hearts of His people.


I have to repost my original comment to correct a couple of typos—the sort where I wrote one word when I meant to write another word, thus changing in the meaning in unintentional ways:

Brother Dan:

You've really been on a roll these last few weeks, on these posts on faith and sanctification.

It's been providential, really, since I've been grappling so much with it in my own life (yeah, slowly reading the New Testament can do that to a guy).

And it's interesting how sound doctrine and obedience go
hand in glove in letter after letter of the New Testament.

Sound doctrine without obedience is—well, from the Apostles' point of view, it's
impossible; doctrine of some kind without obedience is dead faith, and not really faith at all. But obedience that does not proceed from sound doctrine is just empty works, by which we damn ourselves in trying to please God on our terms.

The catch, though, is that I think even as redeemed believers, we can fall into the trap of doing works not out of faith, but out of a sense of self-righteousness—of having to prove to God, ourselves, and others that we are worthy of salvation. I was so afraid of falling into
that trap, that I fell into the opposite trap, of not being diligent enough by half, to walk daily in obedience to Christ, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Thank God (literally) that Jesus Christ has freely and fully paid for our sins, and that we have the seal of the indwelling Holy Spirit, Who works and wills in us according to God's sovereign pleasure.

It's just a question of remembering that every day, and turning back to God in repentance, so we can move forward on
His terms, not ours, for the sake of His Kingdom and His everlasting glory.

PuritanReformed said...


Excellent illustration.