It’s great to testify of Jesus, but why downplay the importance of good works and good character? Are good works and faith in Christ mutually exclusive? The question is often framed “are we saved by works or by grace?” This has been a big theological debate for hundreds of years. Augustine was probably the most prominent theologian to discuss it in early Christianity. During the Reformation Martin Luther brought this question to the forefront and it was continued by John Calvin. But I think this whole discussion is presenting a false dichotomy and actually distorts the meaning of faith. We don’t have a choice of either faith or works. If you have faith in Christ you have faith and works.
This whole debate seems like a distraction to me. Why worry so much about this? Doing good is never bad. It sounds silly to even say such a thing but it sometimes seems necessary. Good works, genuinely good works are never bad and they are never condemned in scripture. Scriptures only condemn pride, doing good things for glory and honor. Jesus never said not to help the poor. He just said to go and do it in private rather than make a big scene for the appearance of piety (Matthew 6:1-4). Even Paul never condemned good works. Paul just stressed that despite our efforts to do good work, we fail; but we can still be accepted by God through his grace (Romans 7:19-25; Romans 8). Paul also warned about pride: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
There is a certain nuance in the scriptures, especially in Paul. We sometimes have a difficult time with nuance. But the tension is this—we are saved by grace and not by our works, but good works are still essential. We can’t just say “I’m saved” and then live a life of sin. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer in therein?” (Romans 6:1-2) This is nuance taught in the seminaries and is well understood by the educated clergy. But unfortunately the message sometimes get’s lost on the rest of us. It’s easier to avoid the tension and break things down into black and white—faith or works, take your pick.
Theologian J.I. Packer said: “Faith cannot be defined in subjective terms, as a confident and optimistic mind-set, or in passive terms, as acquiescent orthodoxy or confidence in God without commitment to God. Faith is an object-oriented response, shaped by that which is trusted, namely God himself, God’s promises, and Jesus Christ, all as set forth in the Scriptures. And faith is a whole-souled response, involving mind, heart, will and affections.
Reformed theologians actually had a very developed understanding of faith. They broke down faith into three parts: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.
Notitia is the knowledge of the content of the gospel.
Assensus is the agreement, recognition that the gospel is true. We usually focus primarily on this aspect of faith.
Fiducia is trust and reliance in God. It is trusting that although we sin and fail at times, we can trust in the grace of God and in the Atonement of Christ. This is the element of commitment and dedication.
The idea that we don’t need God or God’s grace is the heresy of legalism. The people the get all worked up and condemn the idea of salvation by works are very wary of the doctrine of legalism. The danger of legalism is that it can be very damaging to our individual esteem. If we think we have to be perfect we are apt to compare ourselves to others and feel we are not good enough. Or we might get an inflated ego and feel like we are better than everyone else. Both attitudes are alienating God.
The opposite end of legalism is antinomianism. Antinomianism (literally “against+law”) is the idea that after we declare our faith in Christ we no longer need to abide by any rules. The dangers of this doctrine should be obvious. My big question to antinomianism is—what’s the point? So God saves a bunch of vile, wretched people who stay that way forever. That doesn’t even seem like salvation at all. There is no progress. It is eternal degeneracy. I find it hard to admire a religion that doesn’t uplift and ennoble people’s lives or somehow make the world a better place.
Going back to J.I. Packer he says: “But if ‘good works’ (activities of serving God and others) do not follow from our profession of faith, we are as yet believing only from the head, not from the heart, in other words, justifying faith (fiducia) is not yet ours. The truth is that, though we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone.” A good way to get a deeper understanding of faith is to observe the different comments by Paul and James. James famously said, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). So does James contradict Paul? Well, it’s possible that the two themselves got into arguments over this; we don’t know for sure. But even if they did, they didn’t have to. J.I. Packer said: “When James says that faith without works is dead (i.e., a corpse), he is using the word faith in the limited sense of notitia plus assensus, which is how those he addresses were using it. When he says that one is justified by what one does, not by faith alone, he means by ‘justified’ ‘proved genuine; vindicated from the suspicion of being a hypocrite and a fraud.’ James is making the point that barren orthodoxy saves no one (James 2:14-26). Paul would have agreed, and James’s whole letter shows him agreeing with Paul that faith must change one’s life. Paul denounces the idea of salvation by dead works; James rejects salvation by dead faith.”
This leads into another key concept in Christian theology—sanctification. Sanctification is “an ongoing transformation within a maintained consecration, and it engenders real righteousness within the frame of relational holiness” (Packer). The “born-again” experience is regeneration. But regeneration is just the beginning. Sanctification is the continuing process that follows. As Packer says: “Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth.” If you stop your spiritual progress right after you’re born again you remain a spiritual infant.
So maybe someday I’ll run out to the University and start preaching “All you people out there trying to live good lives and do good works, keep it up. And don’t be discouraged when you make mistakes, God loves you anyway and wants to help you. Trust God and follow Christ and you can have a great life.” Or something like that. We don’t need to have these extreme distinctions, choosing either a life of faith or a life of good works. It’s not faith or works; it’s faith and works.
Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.