Faith is an attitude of confidence, reliance and trust in another person. A patient lying on the operation table trusts the doctor if he does nothing and lets himself in the hands of the surgeon. Here faith is passive. Following surgery, the same patient will show trust in his physician only if he obeys his advice and takes the medicines as prescribed. Now faith is active.
To take another example, picture a poor beggar sitting on the sidewalk. A rich man stops in front of him, reaches in his pocket and hands out some money. The beggar shows trust in the generosity of this man by simply receiving the gift, without attempting to pay or earn it in any way. Here faith does not work, it simply receives.
The same applies in our relation to God. He finds us in abject spiritual poverty. The Bible describes God’s people as those “who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). The faith by which a person is justified does not attempt to work or earn righteousness (Romans 4:5); faith simply receives God’s precious gift!
But grace does more! God shows favour to his people by forgiving them freely and by taking them under his care to transform them into the image of his Son. He is their master, teacher and coach. By grace God “trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Now faith cannot be passive! It listens to God and actively follows his commandments, it prays and struggles against temptations, and it eagerly performs good works to help others and please God. In the Christian life, faith is synonymous to obedience. What really matters is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
Both aspects – passive and active – characterise genuine, saving faith. By faith a person rests on Christ and receives the gift of salvation for which he did not work. But works he never ceases to do for his faith in his Lord is real.