Faith and Works

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” [James 2:24 NRSV]

“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” [Rom 3:28 NASB]


“‘Faith without works is dead,’ we are reminded. Quite true. But then what follows is usually some long and dreary description of works and what we should be about, as though the way to revive a dead faith were by putting up a good-works front. If the faith is dead, it is the faith that must be revived. No amount of works will do it.” [Gerhard O. Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Intervarsity 1988]


And so it goes around and around. We are justified by faith and not works–but faith without works is dead–but we are justified by faith–but faith without works is dead…

So an understanding results which seems to satisfy both views: we are justified by faith and works naturally result. The lack of works is a symptom of the lack of faith.

However, when someone states this idea, I often have a nagging doubt whether they really mean it deep down. Perhaps it’s the perception of a subtle difference in emphasis. I’ve had a hard time putting this doubt into words–until I ran across the following:

In faith, man stands before God in the light of grace. For him, even at his best, there is no other possibility. Hence, for Luther, good works are not determinative of one’s relation to God; they follow from faith as day follows night, as good fruit comes from a good tree. Where there are no works, there is no faith; the seriousness and joy of belonging to God are not known. But the temptation of the believer is to look at the works which he does in faith and suddenly to reinstitute works and merit as a new form of slavery in the very citadel of the freedom of the Gospel. For Luther, the ethical rigor of the New Testament and of the law should convince the Christian that he, too, is still sinner. Moreover, the very looking at one’s works spoils them. Genuine works point to God, not self. This is why Luther can declare that, apart from faith, all works are nothing but “truly wicked and damnable sins.” On the external, moral level, they may be better than other courses of action. But in terms of their total orientation, that is, in terms of one’s status before God, they are of no effect. On that level, everything is a matter of relationship, a relationship into which man enters by virtue of God’s unaccountable activity. Confronted by God, man cannot depend on a combination of works and faith, or faith and works, but only in faith not without works, or of faith active in love. The Christian is to live and to struggle, to be a Christ to his neighbor, and above all to trust God.

– Introduction to Martin Luther: Selections from his writings, John Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1991, p xxix.

One LDS [Mormon] Usenet writer brought up the distinction between “Good works for the wrong reason” and “good works for the right reason”– the former being good works done for the purpose of earning a reward (“wages” in the language of Romans). Luther also supports this distinction. The question for me, however, is whether it is even possible to do “good works for the right reason” if one believes that the result of these works affects ones standing with God. I wonder whether it is possible to have faith and at the same time believe that works affect ones ultimate standing.

Marcus Borg, in a footnote to Jesus: A new vision, Harper Collins, 1987, p 117, wrote:

[H. Richard] Neibuhr [in The Responsible Self] argues that our view of the “ultimate context” or “total environment” in which we live…decisively affects our response to life. He explicitly lists and analyzes four possibilities of seeing reality[:] as indifferent, as hostile, as requiring appeasement and as “friend”.

The danger in all consideration of works is the development of a view of ultimate reality (God) as “requiring appeasement”. It is such a world view that has lead to abuses in Christianity frequently cited by our opponents.

But how does belief relate to world view? That is, how does “belief in God” lead one to a view that reality is friendly? The short answer is that it does not!

In another footnote, Borg [ibid. p 35] wrote:

…the term “faith” has thus undergone a subtle but decisive shift in meaning in the modern period. For many people, faith now means “believing in the existence of God.” In earlier times, it didn’t take “faith” to believe that God existed–almost everybody took that for granted. Rather, “faith” had to do with one’s relationship to God–whether one trusted in God. The difference between faith as “belief in something that may or may not exist” and faith as “trusting in God” is enormous. The first is a “matter of the head,” the second a “matter of the heart”; the first can leave one unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change.

If we hold the view that works affect our standing with God, then there is a reservation in trust; we cannot be sure of our standing since it relies on our works. There is an inherent tension between we who are striving and God who is withholding, or judging. While an absolute view that “God is Just” may be some comfort in that it supports the idea that “no good deed will go unrewarded” and that we are not wasting time and effort, it offers little hope when we don’t feel at a spiritual high point and don’t feel full of love and the desire to do good deeds.

But through faith, we are changed. We trust God and do not need to worry about appeasing him with works. This trust obliterates feelings that we have a responsibility to take some action so that our status in the afterlife is optimized. To put it one way, it takes us from the bondage of human religion and places us in the freedom of the Kingdom of God.

Now get back to work!

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1 Response to Faith and Works

  1. Gene says:

    I have often thought that James and Paul were not talking about the same thing.

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