Is Believing a 'Work'?

A convert to Catholicism posted a paragraph from an essay posted elsewhere on the Internet and invited readers to identify the 'theological perspective or denomination' of the author.

As it turned out, I was familiar with the essay from which the quotation had been taken. On the surface, the essay is almost 'Calvinistic.' A detailed reading, however, quickly reveals that the mortar holding the whole affair together is rotten, having been made with the murky water of Catholic presupposition. In his Prologue, for example, the author attempted to make the point that the very act of believing is itself a 'work.' He supports his position by calling up John 6:28: Actually, I believe this was a typo and that he meant to reference the following verse,

The 'works' outlined in this essay are God's. He uses us as His instruments to accomplish them, not because He has to but because it pleases Him to work through His creation. Our Lord noted in the Gospel of John that 'this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent' (John 6:28). Thus even the act of believing itself is a work that we must perform.

The passage under consideration is:

28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?
29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
(KJV, John:6:28,29)

And so it would appear that essayist, in common with the Jews to whom Jesus addressed the quoted words, perceived His message in the flesh. Like those unbelieving Jews, he appears to think that Jesus was saying that God requires fallen man to do some works in order to earn everlasting life. Like those Jews, he appears to believe that this is possible. And, it would appear that, just as did those hapless Jews, he misunderstood, or ignored, the context in which the verse to which he referred was set.

It was the day after Jesus had fed the five thousand by miraculously multiplying five loaves of bread and two dried fishes. This had greatly impressed the men, who then had said, “This is truly the Prophet who is come into the world”. In the next verse, we learn that Jesus saw that the crowd planned to take Him by force to make Him their king (John 6:15). So He avoided them, eventually crossing the lake to rejoin His disciples at Capernaum. The crowd discovered where He was and asked when He had arrived. They were puzzled, since no one had seen Him board a boat.

At this, the Lord remonstrated with them because they were seeking Him for the wrong reason. They were after Him, not because of the signs they had seen, but because they had eaten well and their bellies had been filled. Then, He spoke the words that are the key to properly understanding the 'work' to which He referred in verse 29:

27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed (John 6:27)

The Lord here rebukes the crowd for their materialistic notions concerning the messianic kingdom. In this, they were no different from Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman. Sure, Messiah's kingdom one day would be a physical reality, but these people had failed to perceive the overriding spiritual character and eternal life that is immediately given to all who believe God's witness of His Son. The reference to the “meat that endureth unto everlasting life,” as is shown in His later words, is a reference to Jesus Himself.

This brings us to verse 29:

Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

Jesus here is reminding His listeners that their exclusive focus on material things is wrong. He tells them that all God wants from them is faith, or trust in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God that He had promised to send to them. God wants no worldly 'works' from us. All he wants is that we believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, His Son.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)

Some might argue that Jesus very clearly said, “This is the work of God, that ye believe.” They would be correct, of course, but let's look more closely at His words.

The renowned authority on New Testament Greek, A.T. Robertson, mentioned the supercilious attitude of the crowd when they followed Jesus' rebuke concerning their worldliness by asking, in verse 28, what they needed to do in order “that we may go on working the works of God.” Roberts commented that “there may have been an element of vague sincerity in the question.” In verse 28, it is clear that the Jews were thinking of rules and actual deeds such as the Pharisees required of them. In his exposition of verse 29, Robertson quotes B.F. Westcott concerning the words translated “the work of God that ye believe”:

So here Jesus terms belief in him as the work of God. These Jews were thinking of various deeds of the Pharisaic type and rules. Jesus turns their minds to the central fact. "This simple formula contains the complete solution of the relation of faith and works" (Westcott).

They just did not get it. Jesus in these words is attempting to turn their minds away from acts that might satisfy God to the central fact that all they needed to do was believe in Him as the Messiah and Son of God. The message was not received as sent, even as the essayist appears not to have received it, for the crowd then asked for a sign, in order that they might believe. In their blindness, they recalled that all of Israel had been given manna to eat while in the desert. (verse 30). It was not enough that Jesus had just fed 5000 men and who knows how many women and children just the previous day (verse 10).

Were they comparing Jesus' miracle with what they apparently believed Moses had done? Jesus rebuked them (verse 32), reminding them that it was not Moses who had fed the nation during the 40 years of their wandering in the wilderness, but God. He makes clear that the manna God had given their ancestors in the desert was only temporary and spoiled. It was but a shadow of what God now offered them. Jesus Christ is the true bread that gives spiritual and eternal life to the world.

They still didn't get it, and asked Him to give them the bread that He had spoken of (verse 34). Clearly, they still were thinking of some type of wonderful physical bread. They did not understand the spiritual implications of His words; the "He" was referring to Himself.

So Jesus spelled it out in plain language:

35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
36 But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.

To this point, some might argue that I have done nothing to disprove the essayist's claim that “even the act of believing itself is a work that we must perform.” I wonder how one might 'perform” the “act” of believing. I submit that believing is an attitude, not an action or a deed. There is no act involved in believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God; nothing of a performance. It is akin to a state of mind, not a physical activity. That belief, that saving faith, is received by God's grace, not as the result of any work. (Ephesians 2:8) Like the Jews to whom Christ spoke the original words, it would seem that the essayist failed to go beyond the realm of the physical and missed the spiritual nature of Christ's words. And, like those Jews of long ago, he appears to have seen Jesus and believed not, preferring to believe instead an image filtered through the doctrine of Catholicism.

And that is all I have to say on this matter. The rest, I leave with the Lord, Who said to the prophet Ezekiel concerning his people:

Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 12:2)

Come quickly, Lord

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