I’ve been devotionally making my way through Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, A Body of Divinity, for a few months. Watson is like that; like spiritual lembas, a little goes a long way. His section on faith is particularly good where he calls it the head of the graces. It set me thinking about faith and works and distinguishing truly good works from counterfeit morality.
Faith is the head not just at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, but the means by which he continually grows and receives all the other graces. The head in this instance is like the head waters of an enormous waterway. Everything that enters the river must get in by this type of stream. The apostle Peter describes it this way: “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Pet. 1:6-7).
This is quite a list and there are many others like it in the New Testament. The end is love, the beginning is faith, and there is a lot between. We are apt to to think of a stack of holy characteristics like virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, etc. as strengths for the uber-advanced Bible student or the check-box ticking moralist. The good news is that all of these are the result of simple faith, faith that trusts and endures. “Thus faith is the master-wheel,” Waston says, “it sets all the other graces running.” Peter says “whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet. 2:9). If a Christian forgets where he came from, he can’t see past his spiritual nose. But if he remembers the God he first trusted, then faith working by love comes naturally–by diligence, no doubt–like apples from an apple tree.
Biblical maturity and grace are never truly attained apart from simple and honest faith, from personal trust in the living God. This allows us to distinguish between morals and moralism, and reveals why moralism isn’t moral at all. It finds some other reason than God’s love to accomplish things. This is why Jesus told the disciples that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and why true goodness is always decked out in mercy and kindness. It comes from the same grace-bestowing person who gave faith in the first place. And he doesn’t stop giving.