Faith vs Works: Not Either-Or but Both-And…

Does a ticket to the hereafter come by faith – a belief in God the Father and Jesus the Son? Or by works – doing the will of God?

In the first century AD, the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that we humans are “justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law.” Centuries later, Paul’s letter captured the fancy of a priestly Martin Luther who would declare that we are justified by “faith alone.”

None other than James (the brother of Jesus) countered Paul with the pointed observation that “faith without works is dead.” In the fourth century, Augustine taught that faith alone does not save. Rather, Catholic doctrine down through the centuries has been that faith must be accompanied works of love.

Who is right?
Paul or James?
Protestant reformers or the Roman Catholic church?

Faith or works?
Simple belief or adherence to the works of the law?

In this blog, we present the case that setting faith against works represents a false dichotomy. Rather than requiring an answer of either faith or works, the answer is both-and. In other words, the pathway to heaven depends on both faith and works – working hand-in-hand.

Consider our outline of the case … as follows.

What Would Jesus Say?

It is odd that much of the focus in this debate is on the views of apostolic leaders of an emergent church rather than on the one whose opinion really matters – Jesus of Nazareth. What would Jesus say?

Actually, what did Jesus say?

If one relies primarily on the Gospel of John, Paul wins. After all, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is where Jesus says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

And to a crowd, Jesus proclaims: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer a different perspective.

Matthew records Jesus at his most pungent:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew also records the response of Jesus to the rich man’s question: how to get eternal life? And it’s not about faith but works as Jesus directs the rich man to: “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Like Matthew, Luke’s Jesus preaches to “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High …”

Mark’s gospel is more equivocal; Mark can be found on both sides of the fence.

During the passion week, Mark’s Jesus compliments a scribe who echoes the importance to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Jesus comments: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Like fellow synoptics Matthew and Luke, here Mark appears to opt for the works side of the equation.

But Mark also offers echoes of John’s gospel as when Mark quotes Jesus offering that: “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

And longer (canonical but disputed) ending to Mark’s gospel outlines a more succinct path to salvation: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

By comparison, Matthew’s version of the Great Commission talks not about belief but the imperative to “make disciples.” And Luke’s version is that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Again, no mention of the importance of faith or belief, but rather the act of repentance. 

Who’s on First?

Is the path to salvation, to eternal life, to a heavenly reward via faith or works? Which comes first?

The answer is neither and both.

The answer is not to be found only from Paul or James but from the direct words of Jesus.

Salvation is not by faith alone nor is it by works alone. Salvation depends on both faith and works – as inextricably linked.

Sometimes the works come first, as James notes for Rahab the harlot who was “justified by works” when she hid and abetted the escape of Israeli spies in Jericho.  And Rahab is rewarded not only with her life but as a direct ancestor of Jesus (as would be recorded by the genealogy of Matthew).

Sometimes faith may comes first, as Paul suggests for Abraham, noting Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

And sometimes, there are contending answers. While Paul contends that Abraham was justified by faith. James says it was by works and, in the end, “that by works faith was made perfect.”

Salvation, life after death with the creator. What gets us in the door? Faith and works – they’re inseparable,  two sides of the same coin.

Faith, then works. Or works, then faith. In God’s kingdom, it’s that opposites attract. Faith with works – from now to the end of the age.

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