My last post addressed the way that creeds or statements of faith can sometimes limit our ability to approach Scripture openly and hear God’s voice clearly. In that post I also observed that creeds can serve to give the impression that “faith” is restricted to the content of our beliefs. If that is the case, then the Protestant motto of “faith alone” suggests that as long as I believe correct doctrine, I am saved. This is flawed thinking for at least two reasons.
The first is that such a system is just a different way of embracing salvation by works. It trades deeds for thoughts and so the “work” becomes intellectual, but the result is the same: I am rewarded for thinking correctly about God. Biblical faith is an active trust in the person and work of Jesus, which of course involves agreeing with certain truths, but is not limited to an intellectual exercise and does not demand the sort of precision that some theological traditions seem to suggest is necessary to remain true to “the gospel”.
The second flaw in limiting the basis of salvation to right belief is that biblical faith, in addition to being an active trust, is tied to our works far more often than is often given credence in many Protestant circles. Of course there is the famous passage in James 2 in which the author makes the tension of faith and works explicit in saying that Abraham was justified by his works and not only by his “faith”. This has often been resolved by saying that a genuine trust in God results in works of righteousness that prove the faith is genuine but that it is still the faith that saves and not the works.
Over the past few years, I have been reading Scripture anew and trying to consciously set aside my theological convictions as lenses to understand it and letting it stand on its own. Three passages in particular have informed my journey in this area and led me to reevaluate the nature of the relationship between faith and works. The passages are Galatians 2:11-14 (in tandem with Acts 15), Matthew 25:31-46, and Hebrews 6:9-12 (in tandem with 10:19-39).
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul is recounting an episode in his ministry in which he rebuked Peter publicly because his “conduct was not in step with the gospel”. The conduct in question is that Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles but only with Jews. Table fellowship was a core practice of the early church and demonstrated unity, welcome and acceptance. Paul found that Peter’s conduct (or “works”) were sufficiently out of step with the gospel that it required a public rebuke. It is the sort of response the church has historically taken when a leader has abandoned orthodoxy (“right belief”) and labeled them a heretic. Heresy is the charge that someone’s belief is sufficiently incorrect to sever them from Christ. Here, however, Paul makes it clear that heresy is also a category that applies to orthopraxy (“right practice”). Indeed, this is the only instance of an apostle being publicly rebuked in Scripture and is consistent with the theme of the first church council in Acts 15 in which a doctrinal question is viewed through the lens of a particular practice (circumcision). Thus it is Peter’s works that render him in danger of denying the gospel.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus has been engaging in an extended teaching on the end of the age when His kingdom will fully come. The purpose is to inform and inspire the disciples to remain faithful while they await his return. This section comes at the conclusion of this teaching and surveys the scene at the final judgment when it will be determined who will enter Jesus’ kingdom and who will be excluded. The standard that is used has nothing to do with one’s belief. Instead, the measure has to do with what people have done for the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. Those who have exhibited love, provision and welcome are permitted to enter heaven’s joys, while those who have not are cast into the eternal fire. The reason is that Jesus identifies with those groups so that one’s response to them is equivalent to one’s response to Christ. This is consistent with Peter’s error in Galatians where his heresy had to do with how he treated those (Gentiles) whom Jesus loves.
Finally, Hebrews 6:9-12 is the conclusion of a warning (5:11-6:8) to believers about falling away from Jesus. In it, the authors state that although their warning has been harsh, they are confident of their salvation. The reason is that “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” Here we see the connection between faith and works. The audience’s works, consisting of service to the saints (consistent with the other two passages), are motivated by love for God’s name. In a subsequent warning in 10:19-39 the authors equate “holding fast the confession of our hope” with stirring “up one another to love and good works”. They then point (again) to the audience’s experience of sacrificial service of the saints in hardship and equate this to having faith and preserving their souls. This goes beyond saying that true faith produces works. It defines true faith as a love for God that expresses itself in an active trust and an active love for what he loves, namely his people.
These three passages are representative of the totality of the New Testament in which there is less of a tension between “faith and works” than there is in many of our traditions informed by the theological conflicts among European believers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The consistent view is that those who are saved have been made a part of God’s family, trusting in his grace to reconcile them to himself and the other members of his household, exchanging hatred for love supplied by his grace. Thus our trust and obedience cannot be separated and neither is viewed as earning us merit before God since both are the result of the gracious provision of his Spirit.
All of this serves to soberly challenge the way I often approach grace as being let off the hook for needing to be scrupulous in my practice and choices as a follower of Jesus. It calls me to question who (or what) I truly love and trust most and how my life gives expression to that. It prompts me to reflect deeply on what I know about God and whether I’ve allowed it to penetrate my heart such that the worthiness of his name drives me to live a life of love for his people. And all the while, recognizing that guilt and shame never produce growth and so I ask Him to continue to shape and change my heart as a work of grace and seek to cooperate with him in that work. May it be so in all of us!
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.