Apologetic Tracks: Faith and Works

By 11:17 AM


Faith & Works

 

Sometimes we tend to emphasize one thing over the other, and rather than see them the way God desires them to be seen, to see them as both.  This is particularly true over the issue of the relationship between faith and works for salvation.  Some Christians historically seemed to give the impression that salvation can be earned, while others have gone to the opposite extreme and practically reject all works in the plan of God for salvation.

What is the truth found in the Scriptures?  We have to approach the revelation of God holistically, which means looking at the whole of the Word of God and not just at a particular passage out of context.  For the Word of God is not contradictory.  It is consistent truth. 

First, God is the one who saves.  There is no salvation outside Jesus Christ. Justification comes from God even before our faith response and our good works. That is the heart of the New Testament revelation. Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, died on the cross for our salvation.  Faith in him directly or indirectly brings us into the process of salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8)

As an adult, faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, faith in him as Lord and Savior are the normal means of salvation.  There are several Scripture passages which affirm this.  For infants who are baptized, it is the faith of the parents and/or the faith of the community in whom the child is incorporated.

The beginning of salvation comes from God’s unmerited grace and continues through our openness to receive and act on that grace through baptism. 

Salvation is a process that is not completed until the day we die.  For if we die in Christ we will be with Christ forever; but if we die alienated from him, we will be alienated eternally.

Our works do not earn us salvation, but are reflections of our response to the gift of God. This response involves a way of life that reflects acceptance and cooperation with the grace of God that brings us salvation.  Again, our works do not save us, but they reflect our response to God’s grace.  That is why we are reminded in several citations of the Scriptures how important our actions are.

Recall the final judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel: “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ (Mt 25:34-36)

All these are works.  At the same time, those who were rejected from the kingdom, did not do the same works expected of them by God.

Other citations are:

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13) Even though salvation is a gift from God, one needs to live in a way that allows that gift to flourish.

“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27) If Paul thought that he was saved by faith alone, why would he have to so drive himself in order to reach the goal of eternal life?

“I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.  Also another book was opened, which is the book of life.  And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done….all were judged by what they had done.”(Rev 20:12-13)

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying. ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.”  ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”(Rev 14:13)  For deeds to follow us this must mean that works are important as well as faith.

Finally, we have the clearest passage in the Scriptures which give us the full revelation of God. It is from the Letter of James.

”What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?  So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

"Indeed someone might say, 'You have faith and I have works.’  Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.  You believe that God is one. You do well.  Even the demons believe that and tremble.  Do you want proof, you ignoramus that faith without works is useless?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus, the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called 'the friend of God.' See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." (James 2:14-26)

Faith alone does not save us.  Works alone do not save us.  It is our faith in the saving work of Jesus—his death and resurrection—our justification--that is lived out in our conduct of life in response that brings about the full work of God in us, namely our salvation.  In the words of Paul to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

In a 1999 joint Catholic-Lutheran statement on the Doctrine of Justification, it was stated:

We confess together that good works—a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love—follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit.

 “When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works.  Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.  (JD 37–38)

 

 

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