Grace & Works

The question of salvation has been fraught with angst and anger and anxiety. It is one of the key ingredients that launched the Protest Reformation (or rebellion, if you are Catholic). It both inspires and troubles Christians, making us either worried about our eternal souls or satisfied with our decision to follow Jesus. It has been written and preached about as much or more than any other concept and is argued about ad nauseum. It isn’t either/or – it’s both/and.

In a nutshell, the idea is that grace is sufficient since it is God’s choice to offer it to us. We are supposed to do good works, but all the works in the world can’t buy our way into heaven. The argument gets sticky when we put “alone” after grace. It creates the belief that one could find God’s acceptance and approval without ever lifting a finger to help someone else or do good in the world. At the same time, works are our imperfect way to prove we are faithful. We don’t have to prove anything because God sees who and what we are. The most extreme idea, of course, is that the worst person could go to heaven if God decided for it to be so. This drives a lot of people (at least, me) crazy. It might be true, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The writer of the letter of James made the argument that “faith without works is dead”. It is said that Martin Luther disliked James (this might be an urban legend) because Luther’s battle cry was the Apostle Paul’s belief that all we need to do is say we believe, and we are saved. We are justified – made right – by faith (which is, I think, technically a work, since it is us deciding). Even if we never do anything good again, we are good with God. Maybe. Maybe not. None of us really knows the mind of God; so, we do the best we can to believe and strive and pray and live as we think God wants us to.

As is generally the case, the extremes in this discussion are not helpful. I am with the Buddha on this; the middle way is the best way to live. It is God’s grace that offers us hope of the resurrection, and if we choose to believe in God, we are justified. It is works, however, that make the world go ’round. It would be hard for me to imagine saying I believe but not living it. It would be equally hard for me to constantly do good but not be sure that God loves me. As one church member told me years ago, it would be impolite – rude, even – to see all that God has done in your life and then sit on your duff and do nothing. Faith without works is dead and works without faith are tedious. They cannot be separated – that’s James again. No matter what the answer, it seems to me that believing in God without living it out through good works is empty and self-centered. Someday, we will know. For now, I guess each one of us will continue to do our best to be faithful. God will sort it out in the end.

Prayer – Forgive our theological wrangling over angels dancing on the head of a pin, God of grace and works, and show us Your needs. Amen.

Today’s art is “How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin” by Suzy Randle.