I am sure I have written on this before, but I came across a great passage that illustrates my view on the issue…
One of the standard controversies among Christians is “faith versus works.” Specifically, do you get into heaven by doing certain things (whether that means helping old ladies across the street, or receiving certain sacraments if you are a Catholic, etc.) or by believing certain things (that Jesus died for your sins, is your personal savior, etc.)?
(Note: I am just giving the context for my perspective. I’m obviously not doing justice to, say, the Catholic view on this important issue. Feel free to spell out your own views in the comments.)
What’s interesting is that if you go to the Bible to see “who’s right,” you can (as so often happens) apparently come up with smoking-gun proof of either position. For example, if you want to argue that faith alone is necessary and sufficient for salvation, the following are apparent trump cards:
John 3:16 (New International Version)
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Ephesians 2:8-10 (New International Version)
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So that’s pretty good, right? We’ve got a direct (and seemingly unambiguous) quote from Jesus, as well as one from an author of a New Testament book.
But hold on a second, the person who thinks faith alone is not enough, could understandably point to these excerpts:
Matthew 7:21-23 (New International Version)
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
James 2:14-24 (New International Version)
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
Let me lay my cards on the table: In terms of the standard divide, I come down on the “faith alone” side. I subscribe to the view that there is nothing we can do to “earn” our salvation, and that it’s simply wrong to imagine that God is keeping track of your good deeds and bad ones, and holy cow you’d better hope your account is in the black when you get hit by that bus next week.
However, it’s actually not correct for me to say, “I believe in salvation through faith, not works.” First of all, if that were my position, then I basically have to say that James doesn’t know what he’s talking about, above.
But beyond that, I view the whole thing as a false dichotomy. Faith is a work. If you accept Jesus into your heart, you have consciously chosen to do something. You have “acted,” in the sense of Ludwig von Mises.
(Note that in this post, I am not going to grapple with the view that you don’t really choose to accept Jesus, that rather Jesus chooses you. I actually think that this too is a false dichotomy of sorts, where both positions–free will versus predestination–are correct insofar as they are presented in standard expositions, and that a deeper understanding reconciles the two apparently contradictory stances.)
And I have my own smoking-gun scripture on this interpretation:
John 6:25-29 (New International Version)
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
Ahhh, just gorgeous.
Here is a quick synopsis of all this:
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is trying to get people to focus on the big picture, the stuff that is really important. For example, He tells people not to worry about money, food, and clothing–not because these things aren’t important, but because they’re not the most important. I believe what Jesus is saying here is that if you focus on God, those other things will naturally fall into place. But if instead you try to take care of those earthly things first–thinking you will then tend to your spiritual life–you are going to miss the boat entirely.
So by analogy, I believe that Jesus is telling us it is wrong to walk around, aiming to “be a good person.” That is actually a very narcissistic attitude, and moreover it’s absurd on the face of it, compared to the life Jesus led. It would be like walking around, trying to be a really bright star. If your goal in life is to break as few of God’s rules as possible, to “be the best you can be,” you are actually going to end up a miserable sinner.
On the other hand, if you accept the fact that you are useless on your own, and you just follow Jesus, then you will (perhaps paradoxically) end up committing far greater deeds than the person who consciously tries to do so. Knowing you are saved, and that every moment on this fallen world brings paradise that much closer, you have a fantastic attitude and can be a light to others. You are not a miserable sinner, but a joyful child of God.