Faith Works: The Obedience of Faith in Hebrews 11

In 1993, John MacArthur released the book Faith Works: The Gospel According to the ApostlesIn his book, he showed how the apostles consistently speak of faith as resulting in  good works. This is a doctrine—sometimes called Lordship Salvation; or, historically a defense against antinomianism—that I have embraced for a long time. This week, however, another passage supporting this doctrine came to the forefront of my mind. The passage is the much beloved Hebrews 11.

The use of this passage in the debate is certainly not new, but it was a passage that I had not really considered in the debates surrounding faith and works.  Typically, I would look to Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:10; or James 2.  However, after spending some time on Hebrews 11, I am convinced, it is just as persuasive. Consider with me.

The Activity of Faith 

Hebrews 11 is perhaps the most famous passage on faith in the Bible. In this ‘hall of faith, the author of Hebrews, uses the term “faith” more than 25 times. In verse 1, he defines faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In verse 6, he states that faith is essential to pleasing God; without faith it is impossible to please him.

Then, in what makes up the bulk of the chapter, the author Hebrews moves systematically through the annals of redemptive history to show how the saints of old walked “by faith” (πίστει). In all, the author uses this expression 19 times. In order to engender steadfast faith in the Jewish believers tempted to turn from sufficiency of Christ, he calls attention to the saving faith of Abel, Abraham, Rachael, and Rahab. 

This point is not new, nor is it debated. But what stood out as I read through this passage recently was this: Each usage of πίστει is followed by a name (Noah, Isaac, Joseph) and an action verb. It struck me, the faith that pleases God is always active. Of course, this is the point of James 2, but I had never considered it in Hebrews 11. In truth, the further you read into this chapter, the more you realize how essential good works are to saving faith. To say it more carefully, works are the necessary fruit of saving faith. No fruit; no faith. True faith will always result in fruits of love and obedience (see

The Proof

But don’t just take my word for it. Read Hebrews 11 for yourself. Mark the following pattern: “By faith NAME [insert action verb] . . . ”

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice (v. 4)

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death . . . (v. 5; yes, “was taken” is passive, not active. However, a quick comparison with Genesis 5 shows that Enoch “was taken” because Enoch “walked with God and was no more” [vv. 22-24]).

By faith Noah . . . constructed an ark for the saving of his household . . . (v. 7)

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called . . . (v. 8)

By faith he [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise . . . (v. 9)

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive . . . since she considered him faithful who had promised (v. 11; Sarah’s activity was that of mental consideration and reservation to trust the God of promise. Technically, she received the gift of Isaac, along with power to conceive him)

By faith Abraham . . . offered up Isaac (v. 17)

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau (v. 20)

By faith Joseph . . . made mention of the exodus of the Israelites [centuries before it came] and gave directions concerning his bones (v. 22)

By faith Moses . . . was hidden . . . by his parents (v. 23; this could be rewritten to show the active nature of his parents’ faith: “By faith Moses’ parents hid their son for three months”)

By faith Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (v. 25)

By faith he [Moses] left Egypt (v. 27)

By faith he [Moses] kept the Passover and sprinkled blood . . . (v. 28)

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea . . . (v. 29)

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they [Israel] had been encircled for seven days . . . (v. 30; in this verse, the subject is the inanimate walls, not the people of Israel; but the theology remains: by faith the people of Israel encircled the city of Jericho until the walls fell down)

By faith Rahab . . . [gave] friendly welcome to the spies (v. 31)

After this pattern repeats 18 times in 28 verses, ask yourself, “How is it possible that some can argue that faith without works saves?” The only faith that Hebrews 11 knows is a faith that “obeys” (v. 8), “offers” (v. 4, 17), “refuses” to compromise (v. 25; cf. Heb 10:35), and “gives” loving hospitality (v. 31).

Saving faith devoid of works may fit the theology of some Free Grace theologians, but it doesn’t fit with the message of Hebrews 11. Every time faith is mentioned, it is active. And more than that, it is active to save these saints—not just reward with extra blessings the faithfulness of these saints.

As John MacArthur put it twenty years ago: Faith works!

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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