Faith, Good Works, and New Creation (Part Four)

So, I’ve rambled on here, here, and here previously about faith, good works, and new creation.  Having moved on from the first part, I’m now up to good works and new creation.  Well then,  what are good works?

I’m convinced that my (and I suspect our) definition of good works is way too narrow.  I usually think of good works as giving money to the poor, volunteering at a shelter, or things along those lines.  While I’m convinced that those are good works,  I’m wondering if we can’t expand the term somewhat.  I’m wondering if instead of small, discrete good deeds, we couldn’t conceive of something broader.   My thought is that good works not only include things like alms, but also hard, honest labor in a variety of fields.  Working hard at your school work or job can be ‘good works.’  Working hard in an art, whether it’s music, photography, or photoshop can be ‘good works.’

Essentially, I think that God has a bigger conception of ‘good works’ than we do (shocking, I know!).  To justify this, I’ll go all the way back to Genesis.  Basically, mankind was put on the Earth for more than just worship and relationship, as wonderful as those two things are.   We were also put here for work!  Before I scare off everyone who hates their job, let me qualify that a bit.  God’s labor for us is deeply rewarding, not pointless toil.  We get plenty of glimpses of it in this life.  It’s like the sense of fulfillment a painter gets after spending hours hard at work on a piece.  Adam had an important part to play in the creation.  He didn’t just sit around lying in a hammock drinking pineapple juice with God.  The human vocation, as expressed by Adam and Eve, was to wisely rule over creation.  Naming the animals wasn’t just a fun gimmick, giving a name to something in the Hebrew culture gave it identity and purpose.  This work Adam was given in Genesis 2:15 is related to the good works we encounter in the New Testament.  When the ancient Jews translated Genesis into Greek, they used the same word for ‘work’ in Genesis 2:15 that the New Testament writers often used for ‘good works.’   I do think that the labor in the garden was ‘good works.’

We see a similar thread in the New Testament with Paul’s letters.  Colossians 3 is a good chapter for this.  “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  We see the same with Paul’s instructions to slaves later in the chapter:  “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, and not men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”  That means, when I’m working at IBM, plodding through programming source code, I’m serving Jesus.  When I’m working away on essays and projects for school, I’m also serving Jesus.  Certainly, we can’t forget acts of charity and generosity, but we must (I must!) conceive of our whole lives in service to the Messiah with whom we’ve died and been raised.

Which brings us to Resurrection, the fuel for all Christian labor.  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and we will be too.  Our labor now will have an impact in the age to come.  How?  I don’t know.  But everything from Bible study to biochemistry has a role to play.  Our hope in the “resurrection of the body and life everlasting” is the fuel for our efforts now.  We must not forget Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians, after a huge discourse on resurrection:  “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”


Faith, Good Works, and New Creation (Part 3)

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,


Faith, Good Works, and New Creation (Part Two)

As I was working on the first post in this series, it occurred quite suddenly to me:  faith is inextricably tied to the character of the “object,”  the person, idea, or thing in which we place our faith.  I had been thinking about faith solely from the perspective of the person having faith (a rather selfish perspective).  However, it’s impossible to isolate faith from its object (for lack of a better word), particularly when Jesus tells us to “have faith in God;  have faith in me.” I want to explore the trust aspect of faith within this more “subjective” framework.

This is not a part of faith I hadn’t heard before.  I’ve read often enough that it’s the “object” of faith that is truly important.  I guess I just never paused long enough to consider the implications (plus object sounds too much like a grammatical word to be truly interesting ;-) ).  Essentially, faith by itself is of some value.  We tend to respect someone for following their convictions even if we disagree with them.  However, “earnestness” does not justify its action.  You can be completely sincere and completely wrong.  What we believe (or who we believe in, or who we trust)  matters just as much as how we believe.

So how does this relate to Christian faith?  Our faith must be rooted in the character of God expressed in Jesus of Nazareth.  I don’t think we can successfully root it in some “epistemology” of faith explaining why or how to believe in God.  Essentially, faith must start with God and work toward us.  We can’t start with ourselves and work toward God.  This is right in line with the message of Scripture.  “Be holy, for I am holy.”  “We love because he first loved us.”  We are to be faithful because God himself is faithful.  All of the ethical imperatives of the New Testament are undergirded and prefixed by the message Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Jesus loved to the uttermost, so we must love.  Jesus forgave, so we must forgive.  Of course, it’s more than that.  Jesus inaugurated, or rather launched, the Kingdom of God.  Our faith is wrapped up in this Kingdom project that Jesus launched and that he has handed over to us.  “All authority has been given to me;  therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”   One day he’ll return for consummation, to finally fulfill that which he started.  Until then we must be faithful with the tasks he has given us.

So this post has taken a different path than I thought it would, but it still brings us quite nicely to an important topic:  Good works.  Soon enough I’ll examine why good works are absolutely crucial to our faith in God.  In stead of examining the interplay between love with faith, I’ll try to work that in as we look at how are faith expresses itself through works.


Faith, Good Works, and New Creation (part one)

Faith has garnered much attention from me lately.  The concept plays an important role in Christian theology, perhaps more so in Protestant thinking, with Sola Fide (by faith alone) being one of the banners of the Reformation.  A question that’s followed me for some time concerns faith:  what is it?  In some Protestant circles it’s merely mental and intellectual assent to doctrine.  If you believe the right statements about Jesus, you’ll go to heaven:  no questions asked.  In some Charismatic circles (which I see and hear on a regular basis), faith is about some sort of emotional certainty.  Faith is about latching on to some putative promise of God and removing all doubt it will come to fulfillment (or come to pass!).  Here the task (or my caricature of it) seems to be convincing yourself of something so fully that God can’t help but answer your prayer.  In this sense, faith comes across as some mysterious, magical force and prayer is how we use our “faith.”  Then there’s the concepts of faithfulness and trust.  Our expression, “have faith” is often synonymous with “trust.”  The Greek verb used in the New Testament certainly has trust within its range of meanings.

Which of these are right?  In what degree?  When we set out to define a robust, biblical doctrine of faith, what aspects of it should we make sure to discuss?  I want to critique the ideas I set out previously, noting the high and low points of each understanding of faith.

First, let’s take a stab at doctrine.  What is faith’s relationship to doctrine?  The Pastoral Epistles offer some positive direction for us.  A common statement here is, “this saying is trustworthy.”  These statements are generally doctrinal in nature, like the magnificent exposé of justification by grace in Titus 3:3-7.  The Greek word here is pistisPistis can have lots of shades of meaning, but translation into English requires us to pick the best option  The word can mean faith, the faith, faithfulness or trustworthiness, in addition to some I’m likely missing.  Trustworthy is a perfectly good translation right here, and most Bible translations use it.  The preceding statement of doctrine is worthy of our trust, but I would also suggest that the saying is trustworthy precisely because it is faithful.  It is a faithful depiction of God’s own actions in History.  That is what doctrine must be: faithful descriptions of reality.  They must be faithful to the character and nature of God, and of his creation.  We trust the doctrine of the church catholic (catholic with a little ‘c’)  because we trust that God has revealed himself adequately to his people.  Doctrine must not be separated from either relationship with God himself or from Christ’s church.  Mental assent to doctrine is important, but only in the context of the family of God as revealed in Ephesians 3.

Second, what is faith’s relationship with emotion?  Faith does have an emotional component, but the tendency is either to magnify it absurdly or ignore it completely.  I’ve seen plenty of both in my short time on this earth.  What helped me think about this was an analogy of a frightened child.  Perhaps the child is afraid of her room at night, imagining monsters or some other nasty creature coming to get her.  The child will then run to her parents for comfort.  The father or mother will undoubtedly soothe the distraught daughter and then explain that she is safe and nothing is coming to get her.  So it is with us and our Father.  The comfort of her parents enables the child to go back to bed.  While she may still have her doubts about the presence of monsters in her room, the emotional comfort is an important part of her going back upstairs.  Likewise, we need the soothing grace of the Father to comfort us through frightening times.  This is an important part of faith, but it is only a component, not the whole.

Finally, what is faith’s relationship with trust?  I think this may be the most important dimension of faith, as trust is inextricably tied to the character of the ‘trustee.’  But what exactly is trust?  How does it relate to belief?  In my mind, one believes a fact or statement, but one trusts a person.  Thus, I believe that earth travels around the sun, but I trust my wife/husband/father/mother, etc.  I would  argue that the latter is much more important than the former.  In the next post, I want to explore this aspect a more, particularly how love and relationship affect it.  Only after that can we move onto good works (the fruit of faith) and new creation (the fruit of good works) be examined.