In the previous post, I looked at faith from the perspective of its object: the person or thing in which we place our faith (in this case, God). Essentially, our faith relies on God’s faithfulness. Our faith must rest in God’s nature, not our ability to perceive him. This worked its way toward God’s mission in the world, a mission in which we’re called to participate. This was an unexpected turn, but I’ll run with it and return to trust and relationship later.
So, how on earth does faith relate to works? These two have been wrongly divided in Protestantism for many years, although the problem goes back to the early Church, as James makes clear (James is reacting against a perversion of Paul’s message in James 2). The Protestant discomfort with good works goes back to the reformation, with Sola Fide (by faith alone) being a banner under which most Protestants marched. The problem is that in reacting to the extremities and perversions of medieval Catholicism (indulgences, self-flagellation, etc), Luther brought the Pauline message of justification by faith into direct contradiction with James: “Do you know that you are not justified by faith alone?” This has had enormous implications for subsequent Protestant teaching and ministry. Any suggestion of the Christian duty to serve the poor, sacrificially give, or defend the defenseless throws up objections of works-righteousness. “Oh, you’re just trying to earn your way into Heaven!” many exclaim. However, even Paul insists on the necessity of good works. He not only speaks of justification by faith, but also a justification according to works (Romans 2).
So then, how do we Protestants put the two back together? If we reduce faith to mental assent to doctrine, it may be difficult. But if faith is richer than this, if it includes trust in God, if it includes clinging to the blessed hope, if it includes faithfulness, then it is not as difficult.
Essentially, faith is not only the basis for good works (as if one could build a foundation of faith, and then leave it, not completing the house), but good works are the very means by which faith is proven. One may have good works without faith, but one can never have faith without works, just as one may have sacrifice without love, but never love without sacrifice. Good works must proceed from faith. If we claim to trust in God, to believe what he has revealed in Scripture and in the Church, and then fail to act accordingly, then we betray our unbelief, our lack of faithfulness, our infidelity. Now, this faith may express itself in any number of imperfect ways. We won’t always see it; in fact, we’ll probably rarely see it, both in ourselves and in others. However, it’s no less necessary. God is going to restore this world. God’s saving mission for humanity is just the first part of him restoring the entire cosmos! His mission in this world is much bigger than just saving a few souls. If he’s going to redeem and restore the entire cosmos, then we’ve got work to do! God loves to work through and with his human creatures. This will take us to the next part of the series: New Creation. What are good works? And how do they fit into God’s purposes for the world? We’ll go all the way back to Genesis to sort through that question. But I’ve rambled on enough for the moment.
Until next time,
3 thoughts on “Faith, Good Works, and New Creation (Part 3)”
I think that this is the key point that the Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin but especially Luther) missed: that works is an extension of faith. Of course the Reformation era Catholic church found itself emphasizing works to an unbiblical degree that probably initiated Luther to label James as an “epistle of straw’. But on the other hand, Luther went to the other extreme and dismissed any kind of works all together. Clearly the early church valued works, look at the Book of Acts of you doubt this, so I think that it was more the climate of the era that drove Luther to this conclusion. I think you are dead on as far as that works are a product of faith.
Yeah, Luther’s denigration of James was problematic, as was his whole emphasis on justification by faith to the exclusion of other Pauline themes. If one sees justification by faith as Paul’s central message, then a lot of Paul doesn’t seem to fit. N.T. Wright makes an interesting observation: He thinks that the Lutheran focus on justification by faith actually set up the “authenticity” debate later on. Basically, scholars made Romans and Galatians the center of Pauline theology, and when they looked at other letters, they started to doubt that Paul wrote them because they didn’t look like Romans and Galatians.