In Reformed theology when we talk about the essence of justifying faith, we exclude love and obedience. In other words, justifying faith is passive, outward looking, and receptive: it does not work or earn, but receives a free gift of grace that comes from God in Christ. Wilhelmus a Brakel says it well when he explains what the essence of justifying faith is not:
First, faith does not consist in love, which is what the papists and the Arminians maintain. Love is not the essence of faith, for 1) faith and love are two distinct virtues (1 Cor. 13:13). It is rather obvious that one virtue cannot be the essence of another. 2) Love is the fruit of faith (Gal. 5:6). Faith does not derive its efficacy from love, but rather faith is efficacious toward the operation of love. …The result of something cannot be its essence.
Secondly, faith does not consist in obedience to and observance of God’s commandments. For faith is expressly distinguished from works (1 Cor. 13:13, 1 Tim. 1:5, etc.). Yes, in the matter of justification, works and faith are contrasted with each other (Rom. 3:28, Gal. 3). True faith is the fountain of good works. Good works are fruits of faith and characteristic of it, and it is thus evident that where good works are absent, true faith is also absent.
In other words, love and works are not the same as justifying faith; love and works are not the essence of faith. The sinner is not justified by faithful obedience, or by faith working through love, but by faith alone, only, period. True faith always results in love and good works, but love and good works are not the essence of justifying faith – they are the effects. To distinguish between essence and effects is crucial!
What is the essence of justifying faith? To paraphrase the Westminster Larger Catechism,
Justifying faith is a gift of God, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit. By this faith the sinner 1) is convinced of his sin and inability to save himself, 2) assents to the truths of the gospel promise, 3) receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness for the forgiveness of sins and being counted righteous in God’s sight.
Faith does not justify a sinner because of the other graces which always accompany it or because of the good works that are the fruit of it…. Faith justifies a sinner only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness (Q/A 73, 74).
These aren’t word games; this isn’t logic-chopping. This distinction between the essence and effects of faith flow from Paul himself and have everything to do with the gospel of sovereign grace. If a person adds works or love to the essence of faith, that person is saying that Christ’s work is not enough and that we must contribute something to our justification. Paul condemns such ideas as turning from grace to a different gospel – no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7)! This is why we in the Reformation tradition stand so firmly on the truth of justification by faith alone.
The above quote from Brakel was slightly edited and can be found in volume 2, pages 275-276 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service.
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Hammond, WI