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Faith and Works

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

During my seminary education I struggled deeply with the relationship between faith and works. My previous background as a minster to young people in a megachurch setting and my dedication to learning in a vehemently Reformed graduate school have both emphasized that great tenant of the Protestant faith, that we are saved by faith alone. I have questioned the legitimacy of this belief.

I am not saying that I take issue with justification by faith alone, although I believe we are justified by grace, not faith. But this is not the problem I am dealing with. I do affirm that we are only justified by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To argue contrary falls in the realm I am comfortable with calling heresy. However, justification is not salvation, it is the beginning. Salvation does not occur solely in some heavenly book, apart from our earthly life, for Jesus spoke of salvation as being born again (John 3), a totally transforming experience. Salvation is holistic in its effect. Protestants have traditionally called this part of salvation sanctification, but I don’t believe it is useful to separate justification and sanctification, as theology has done in the minds of many Christians throughout the ages but especially lately. Justification simply doesn’t happen apart from sanctification. Justification may occur instantaneously at some point, and sanctification is an ongoing process, but they are both present in the “saved.”

I believe that this division of terms has led to bad theology and even worse behavior in the church. In my classes I encountered seminarians who are astoundingly prideful, who verbally abuse both faculty and female students, who cheat on a regular basis, and display all sorts of greed and avarice that would make the most depraved men blush. Put bluntly, some of the worst people I spend time with are leaders (or future leaders) of the church. All of the people I have witnessed, even the vilest (and yes there are a few I would call vile) are convinced not only of their own salvation but of their ability to lead other Christians. They tend to be extremely defensive of the doctrine of salvation through faith, and mention of works elicits condemnations of “papist heresy.”

It would be easy to end the post here. I could just be pointing a finger and yelling “hypocrites!” But that is not my intention. I earnestly believe that one of the reasons these young (mostly) men act and think the way they do is because they are simply a product of modern evangelical teaching. This theology is a reductionist view of Reformed teaching that states “its not about what you do, its about what He did.” And while that is a nice sentiment, it is just not what Jesus said. Jesus spent most of his time teaching his followers what to do, not how to formulate theology. When it came to being “saved” Jesus seemed far more concerned with actions than beliefs. I don’t know that Jesus would actually separate beliefs from actions like that. He seemed to teach throughout his ministry that actions show true beliefs. I think this is an important point for one practical reason, I don’t know what you (or anyone else) really believe. The best I can do is look at your actions and try to discern your beliefs based on those actions. Is that fair? Jesus seemed to think so.

Jesus told his followers to judge teachers by their “fruit” (works).

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
(Matthew 7:16-20)

But does this negate the belief that we are saved by our statement of faith? Jesus says in the next verses…

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Matthew 7:21-23)

This teaching about the coming judgment shows that Christ is more concerned with our acts (as true confessions of faith) than our words (which can state anything). Put another way, I can call myself a tiger, the fact that I am typing an essay right now, and was born to two human parents, etc., etc., places serious doubt on my claim. In the same way calling Jesus “Lord” doesn’t make is so any more than I can define my species with mere words. So who is saved if not the ones who declare that they are based on their statement of faith? The above text states that it is those who do the will of God (works). Is Jesus teaching justification by works? No, that language would be completely foreign to him. He is looking at the big picture of salvation, not the pieces that form it. If sanctification and justification are bound to one another, this makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ half-brother James puts it plainly…

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
(James 2:17-24)

James hits on several key points here:

  1. Statement of belief in God is insufficient, even Satan knows who God is.
  2. The example of Abraham (Paul’s favorite reference to faith) acted (works) as a result of his faith.
  3. Faith without works is dead, useless, etc.

I don’t think that any of my peers at the seminary would overtly argue against this, but their actions do. Evangelical Christians (more than other types of Christians) seem to be so wary of mixing justification and sanctification that they would hesitantly agree that a “saved” person could act in any way he or she pleased, since salvation was independent of works. I have even heard it boasted that a sinner as great of Hitler may have been saved, because our God is so great. Foolishness! How could the saved man bear such copious amounts of such bad fruit and know God? While it is true that before conversion there is no sin so great it cannot be wiped away (just look at Paul, murderer of Christians) after being saved we are made new, and cannot go on in our previous ways. Paul would agree (Ephesians 2), as would John (1 John), and the rest. I don’t even need to mention Jesus, who made this one of the cornerstones of his teaching.

To what degree does the sin leave our lives? This I do not know. My reading of Scripture tells me that I should be sinning a lot less than I do. The same sentiment haunted John Wesley for decades as he tried to reconcile plain biblical understanding with his practical experience.

To sum up, I believe that the dichotomy between faith and works is unjustified. Faith and works always travel together, and in the practical life of the believer and teacher, we should always remember this. We cannot go along sinning without concern, convinced that it doesn’t really matter because we are saved by faith alone. Faith never comes alone. I believe we should try to live like the woman caught in adultery, who after encountering Jesus told, “You are forgiven, go and sin no more.”

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  1. September 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

    I would add, though, that I think we have gravely misunderstood the relationship between faith and salvation. You know me, and you know I’m not exactly “reformed” in my theology. I do think, however, that when it comes to our salvation it is more important that God has faith than we have faith, but I think we need to look at what faith means. Faith is certainly more than cognitive assent (and I think you are right to go to James to point that out), but implies trust and future hope. Faith also implies faithfulness.

    If we look at E. P. Sanders’ examination of Judaism (I know *gasp* a liberal theologian), we can see that, in the 1st century and earlier, the Jewish people understood that the law was “not about getting in, it was about staying in.” In other words, by virtue of their birth, the Jewish people were part of the covenant, and certain actions reflected their faithfulness to the covenant, particularly the food laws, the holy days and Sabbath laws, and circumcision. The rest was really about God’s grace. They had to be faithful in their commitment through these various obligations, but they were in the saving covenant by virtue of God’s grace via their birth.

    Now I take that concept and apply it to the expansion of the covenant (to include the gentiles) in Jesus. There the concern is on the new birth. One is born into the covenant not by physical birth, but by spiritual birth, which can only come about by faith (i.e. commitment to) God. The actual new birth, though, is fully a measure of God’s grace. Still, the retention in the covenant is still “not about getting in, but about staying in.” What I think Paul is talking about (contrary E.P. Sanders, but not too far from N. T. Wright) is that faithfulness is still the key, but rather than our faithfulness, it is God’s faithfulness to us. 2 Timothy 2:11-13 I think illustrates this beautifully. He is committed completely to us because that’s his character. He is the faithful God and so he remains the faithful husband regardless of our adulterous ways. He is the faithful father to his wayward children. Another way we might put it is that, after the new birth, it’s more important that God has faith in you than you have faith in God.

    Rather than a license to do whatever we will, however, this should be taken as empowering. Election (which 2 Timothy 2 briefly addresses before that hymnic piece) was always, prior to the New Testament, election unto some task. Being elect isn’t a position you are entitle to or predestined to, it’s a task you are called to (reading election in the New Testament that way seems to make more sense to me than the standard Dortian Calvinistic way). God electing you is, in essence, God saying “I believe you can do this.” It is God having faith in you and being faithful to you. This is obviously not the same as our faith in God, but is like the parent having faith in a child. I have faith that in my kids in that I believe they are fully capable of certain things. The more they really believe that I have faith they can do something, the more they begin to believe they can do it too. That’s what I mean that it is more important that God has faith in us than we have faith in God. God believes we can accomplish what we have been elected for (that’s why he elected us for it), and when we begin to realize that, we begin to believe that we can do it too, but not in our own strength (here is where it differs from my faith in my kids), but in his strength. We do so by abiding in the true vine. By abiding we produce fruit (which is for consumption outside the branch).

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, I’m doing a sermon last Sunday and next Sunday on this same topic and these are some snippets from that sermon.

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