Pillar Journal

Spirit-Worked Faith Versus Dead Faith


Alexander Preaching on Living Faith versus Dead Faith

Alexander opens his sermon by recognizing that the Scriptures teach that many people in professing Christian nations possess a kind of faith “which it is evident is not that faith which works by love (Gal. 5:6) and purifies the heart (Acts 15:9).” Therefore, he aims “to distinguish clearly between a living and a dead faith.” This he does by showing the difference between the causes of these two kinds of faith, the natures they possess, and the effects they produce.1Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 40.

First, the cause of a living faith is the Holy Spirit: “A living faith is produced by the Spirit of God, for in Scripture it is called ‘the faith of the operations of God’s Spirit’ (Col. 2:12).2Colossians 2:12 refers to “the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” It is also said to be the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), and Christ is expressly declared to be the author of it (Heb. 12:2). But a dead faith is produced merely by the exertions of human nature without the assistance of the Spirit of God.”3Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 40–41. The true believer knows that he cannot produce saving faith in himself, for the Holy Spirit convinced him of his sin and unbelief (John 16:8). Nothing short of the power of the Creator of the universe can cause the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to shine in the sinner’s heart (2 Cor. 4:6). But the man with a dead faith thinks he has the power to believe in Christ. Indeed, he may think he has always believed in Christ because he was raised in the church and always assented to the truths he was taught.

Second, the nature of a living, Spirit-worked faith is “a firm and realizing belief of the truths of revelation” that “is firmly seated in the heart and influences the will and affections in such a manner as to become a ruling principle of action.” By contrast, a dead faith is “nothing more than an empty notion or speculative opinion” that “only swims in the brain and produces no real effect upon the heart.” A living, Spirit-worked faith is a spiritual sight by which the believer “views eternal and invisible things as solemn realities,” but a dead faith is a mere idea.4Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 42.

A living, Spirit-worked faith embraces Christ; it receives the whole Christ with the whole man. Alexander writes: “Living faith always appropriates him, chooses him as a Savior suitable to itself, receives him as its portion, trusts and depends on him alone for salvation, resigns itself up to him to be governed and directed agreeable to his will, and is pleased and delighted with him above all other things.”5Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 43. But “natural men are unable to discern the beauty and excellency of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him,” and therefore, “they never can choose and rest upon him as their Savior.”6Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 44. A dead faith always leads a soul to trust in something in itself.

Third, the effect of Spirit-worked faith “is by far the most important and necessary part of the distinction between a living and a dead faith, for it is by the fruits alone we can determine our faith to be of the operation of the Spirit of God, or that it is in its nature saving.”7Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 46. Alexander, recognizing that he could write an entire book listing every Christian grace as a distinguishing mark of a living faith from a dead one, selects some central fruit on which to focus: love, humility, and holiness. In this section, we hear echoes of Edwards’s Religious Affections. Let’s consider what Alexander teaches about love as a fruit of a living, Spirit-worked faith.

A living, Spirit-worked faith produces love for God: “Faith works by love and purifies the heart” (Gal. 5:6; Acts 15:9). Love “is the very essence of religion, and without which the Apostle says, the exercise of all gifts, and the performance of all duties would profit nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).” A dead faith may prompt men to love God because they believe He will be good to them, but this is no better a love than wicked men have for their friends (Matt. 5:46). They love a god of their own imagination, as when men think that God is all mercy and no justice. Such a love is “nothing more than self-love.”8Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 47–48.

Only a living, Spirit-worked faith comes with a “perception” of “the excellency of the nature of God” and “the beauty of holiness.” This perception enables men to exercise “true love to God,” that is, to “love him for his excellence.” The love-awakening sight of God’s loveliness comes through the gospel: “the moral character of God as it is seen in the face of Jesus Christ is the proper object and end of this affection.” Evidences of such love appear in love for all that bears God’s moral image. The believer has a special love for the people “begotten” of God (1 John 5:1), his brothers and sisters in Christ, “because they are holy and have the image of God.” He also loves the law of God, “which is holy, just, and good, and is a transcript of [God’s] moral character.” He delights in God’s law after the inner man (Rom. 7:22) and keeps God’s commandments out of love for Him (John 14:21; 1 John 5:3).9Alexander, “A Living and a Dead Faith,” 47–48.

A living, Spirit-worked faith also produces benevolent love for one’s neighbor (Mark 12:31). This includes “that important and selfdenying duty of loving our enemies, of bearing injuries, of doing good to them that hate us and blessing and praying for them that curse us.” The true believer especially desires mankind to “obtain the favor and friendship of God,” because he knows that the “happiness of this world” is a tiny thing compared to eternity. He is willing to sacrifice himself like Christ (2 Cor. 8:9) and Paul (Rom. 9:3)—not just for his friends but also for his enemies.20

The person with a dead faith “confines his love and good wishes to his own party” and bitterly rejects “all who differ from him.” Though virtually all men pretend to love mankind, their “hearts are so contracted that they will not even put forth their hands to assist them when they are in want in this life.” But pure religion that is undefiled before God consists in visiting the fatherless and the widow in their affliction (James 1:27).21

Alexander’s emphasis on living, Spirit-worked faith, which directs believers who feel insufficient in themselves to the complete sufficiency of Christ, together with a discriminatory proclamation that separates that faith from a superfluous dead faith, is all too rare today. Here we see discriminating preaching done with biblical wisdom, helping people to examine themselves to see whether Christ is in them by the saving ministry of the Holy Spirit and directing the unsaved to flee to Christ alone for salvation. We also see how Alexander sketched a portrait of experiential, practical Christianity consisting of faith and love. A theologian by vocation, Alexander never lost his passion for preaching Christ and the necessity of living, Spirit-worked faith in Him, and he imparted that passion to generations of men who graduated from Princeton Seminary.

Excerpt from
Volume 12, Number 2 • July 2020
By Joel Beeke