Faith, grace and works…an illustration

I’ve been in these passages in 1 John and James recently and when I read this blog, I really appreciated the illustration and so I’ve posted it in its entirety (along with the link).  You may simply benefit from it yourself or know someone that might find it helpful.

07 May 2009

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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.

(end of post)


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