Faith or Works? (Revisited)


I recently sustained a back injury that was severe enough to require a period of convalescence.  The inability to engage in more active pursuits prompted me to do something in pursuit of entertainment and diversion which I had not done in years: watch prime time TV.  That is, watch TV during what was once considered “prime time”.  With the advent of internet streaming, that term is probably obsolete.  I’ll refrain from commenting on the quantity of what passes for entertainment that is available to us (glut), or its quality (garbage).  Suffice it to say that rather than the plethora of gruesomely violent and/or erotic orgies offered on Netflix and elsewhere, I found myself gravitating to documentaries of interest.  In my case, that interest was met by the sports documentaries produced by ESPN; I felt fortunate when the channel guide included a bio on Herschel Walker or “The Book of Manning” on the SEC Network, or ESPNU.

 I think it’s a pretty universal trait to be impressed with the accomplishments of others.  And to seek to impress others with our own accomplishments.  There are ways of measuring achievement.   Money is one: many people see income and net worth as a means of “keeping score”.  But that method is not always based exclusively on merit — hence the term “Ill-gotten gain”.  Sports, on the other hand, provides an objective measurement of accomplishment and achievement.  Championship trophies; team and conference and league records for home runs, or most yards gained, stand in manifest testament to talent and hard work and achievement.  They accentuate the exceptional, the superlative.  There are things that a Lebron James or a Tom Brady can do, that most people simply can’t.  And the stories behind these exceptional individuals, as told by skilled film makers, are almost always interesting to me.

 It’s not surprising that many people apply a similar yardstick of accomplishment to their “religious”, or “spiritual” life.  It’s natural, perhaps, to measure the quality of one’s character by what he does; by his achievements in practicing those attributes generally shared and valued by all religious morality: altruism, philanthropy, charity, self-sacrifice, humanitarianism.  One columnist who writes on matters of religious belief has even made it a point of emphasis that “it doesn’t matter what one believes; what matters is what one does.”  Setting aside the fact that such a view is itself a “belief”, there is an implication expressed by it.  The message it conveys is that one can earn the approval of God, as well as men, by their good deeds and works.

 However, there is one belief system that conspicuously stands in opposition to this idea.  The Christian faith is quite adamant that it is by our beliefs that we gain approval with God (called “justification”, in the sense of “lining up with”).  Specifically, the belief that all men are born with a nature that is in rebellion against God.  And that to rectify our helplessness in that condition, God became a man, and paid the price for our rebellion — “ransomed us” — in the Person of Jesus Christ, who gave His life in payment for our sin.  And that He rose from the dead, in validation of his identity, and of His atoning sacrifice.  There is one person, and one person only, who can obtain approval with God — and it isn’t oneself.  It is Christ alone; but we can share in that approval, through the acceptance — by faith — of the gift of grace and mercy, “freely given”.

 I find this belief system staggering in its categorical departure from the works-based justification and approval of all other religions (and which can be broadened to include secularism).  And I believe it to be true.  After all, if we gain approval with God by our achievements — what of those who are limited in their abilities? Or incapable of achieving?  What of the physically or mentally infirm, the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed?  Where is their hope for achieving approval with God, if they are in circumstances which prohibit their doing the good works necessary to gain it?  Is our creator a stern judge, impassively accepting into his approval only those who are strong enough in mind and body to succeed in doing those things he approves of?  And how much do we need to do to meet his approval?  Is 51% “good” — relative to our faults and failings — sufficient?

 Central to Christian doctrine and dogma is that good works follow from faith.  But it is by our faith that we are redeemed (Mark 16:16; John 3:15,16; 11:25,26; Acts 16:30-32 — many other passages):

 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—  not by works, so that no one can boast.” — Ephesians 2:8,9 (NIV)

 The beauty, and power, in Christianity is that it is not what we do, but what we believe, that really matters.  We can never earn God’s approval by our virtuous actions (and certainly not our self-righteous ones). God’s approval is a gift.  All we can do is choose whether or not to accept it, by faith.  And anyone can accept a gift.  Anyone can believe.  This does not excuse us from doing good; rather, it informs our impetus in that area.  “Salvation is by faith alone — but faith is never alone.”  It is accompanied by action, to the best of our ability.  But though our abilities may be limited, our redemption — and our God — is not.  And lest we be tempted to make even our faith a sort of achievement — to make the amount of faith we have a source of satisfaction, or pride — it is useful to remember:  “It is not the strength of our faith that saves us: it is its object.”  May the reader be blessed to receive Jesus Christ as the object of their faith — “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).