Difficult issues series
Last post I considered the apparent differences between the teachings and emphasis of Jesus and Paul. I concluded that the differences are sometimes exaggerated, sometimes understated, but we should avoid trying to make them say the same things, and instead try to learn from both.
The issue of faith vs works is a good example of how the desire for neat theology and harmonisation of biblical teaching can lead us away from what the Bible is saying.
The trenches are well dug
This battle has been going on for a while, and the main positions are well established and their biblical justifications well defined.
The New Testament on faith and salvation
The classic statement on the faith side is Ephesians 2:8-10:
“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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
It’s all there – God’s grace, our need, receiving his grace by faith, and going on to do good.
And there’s plenty more – Luke 7:50, 18:9-14, Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-5, 5:1-2, 1 Peter 1:17-21. Many christians believe the truth is clear.
The New Testament on works and salvation
You may be surprised to know that there are also many NT passages that seem to teach salvation by works. The classic statement of this side is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), where Jesus clearly says the sheep’s entry into eternal life is because of their works done to “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”, which he counted as done for him, while the goats lost out because they didn’t do these good works.
But again, there are many other passages that seem to say the same – e.g. Luke 10:25-28, Acts 10:34-35, Philippians 2:12-13, James 2:14-26.
Yield not to temptation!
It is tempting to respond to these passages with attempts to somehow explain that one group of passages don’t really mean what they seem to say. But this is a dangerous response, especially for those who believe the Bible is “the word of God”.
For if we decide we can make biblical passages say something other than their plain meaning, then we must be prepared for others to do the same – about all sorts of issues that we may feel unhappy about.
I am not averse to re-interpreting biblical passages, but I think (1) we need to try to understand their original meaning first, and (2) we need to be guided by the Spirit of God, not just making convenient explanations to make our theology tidy.
So let’s see if we can make sense of these passages without writing half of them off.
The “new perspective on Paul“
Some modern scholars (beginning with EP Sanders and currently NT Wright) argue that Paul, the ex-Pharisee, was criticising dependence on “works of the Law” (a phrase used in many of the passages on justification by faith), not good works generally.
This thought can be developed in several ways, for example:
- we could conclude that both faith and works are necessary for salvation, but Jewish ceremonial Law is not, or
- we could follow this Catholic theologian and simply say that “both “faith” and “works” are essential parts of Christian life”, or
- we could follow NT Wright and others who say salvation is a gift of God’s grace, but “Final Judgment According to Works… was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works.”
I must say I have sympathies for all three of these viewpoints, but in the end I don’t feel they really resolve the question.
Let’s digress for a moment.
What happens to those who never hear of Jesus?
Paul several times addresses the topic of pagans who have never heard of either the Jewish Law or of Jesus. (I consider these questions in greater detail in Can only christians be saved?)
- In his speech in Acts 17:24-27, Paul says God made all the Gentile nations “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him”. Since it was impossible at that time that all the nations of the earth could know Jesus, Paul must have thought that God had some other way of revealing himself and of accepting them into eternal life.
- Then in Romans 2:14-16, Paul says his gospel included God judging all people, and on that day, some Gentiles’ consciences would accuse them and some would defend them. Again there is the implication that some Gentiles would receive God’s approval.
So how would these pagans gain God’s approval? It certainly couldn’t be through faith in Jesus, who they had never heard of. Paul suggests it would be via their attitude towards God (seeking him) and whether they lived according to their consciences.
et tu, Peter?
Paul’s teaching isn’t entirely novel, for Peter already recognised something similar when the Holy Spirit led him to accept Cornelius, a Gentile and Roman soldier, but also “a righteous and God-fearing man”. Peter concluded (Acts 10:34-35): “I now realize how true it is that God …. accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Cornelius goes on to be baptised, and the Jewish Christians (Acts 11:18) marvelled that “even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” So it seems that Cornelius initially received God’s favour because of his fear of God and his good works, but later received a fuller revelation that led to repentance and faith in Jesus.
How to put all this together?
One thing is common through all of this discussion. Everything we receive – life itself now, and life in the age to come – are gifts of grace from a God who loves us. Whatever else we say, grace is a core of christian belief, and God’s grace is the basis of our salvation and our life.
But how do we receive that grace?
We don’t deserve it, so we cannot earn it.
But it isn’t forced on us, so we have to do something to receive it.
A tentative suggestion
Could it be that God’s grace, his undeserved favour, can be received in various ways?
One way, in a sense the “normal” way for us, is repentance and faith in Jesus. But could it be that God welcomes all those who respond to whatever light they have been given?
People who know about Jesus could be expected to respond to him, and follow him, and thus receive God’s grace and forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Failing to follow him in doing good (loving enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, caring for the disadvantaged, seeking first the kingdom of God, etc) might be an indication that faith is not “real” and the Spirit of God is not active in that person.
But people who don’t know about Jesus, or whose knowledge of Jesus is limited or distorted, might receive God’s grace, forgiveness and Spirit if they seek God according to the limited degree of truth they know, or if their lives exhibit the qualities God wants in his people, and so their consciences are clear and defend them on the day of judgment. Of course they are still saved by God’s grace via the death and resurrection of Jesus, even if they don’t know him, but their path to receiving that grace is different.
This way of seeing things is not as theologically clean and tidy as we might like, but it does seem to take seriously the New Testament evidence.
We who have heard and responded are indeed saved by God’s grace, received through faith, but if that faith doesn’t result in good works then it is probably not genuine or pleasing to God. Those who do good to others, especially the disadvantaged, and haven’t rejected Jesus, may actually be responding to Jesus even if they don’t know it, and they may well be welcomed into life in the new age, by God’s grace.
Did I promise an answer to the question?
This approach leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and makes it very difficult for us to know “who’s in and who isn’t”. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
If we focus on following Jesus and welcoming those who are walking in the same direction, even if they may not (yet) call themselves “christians”, we may be surprised who will join us. Jesus did say that the one not against him was for him (Mark 9:38-40), and that we should avoid identifying people as not in the kingdom, but leave that to him (Matthew 13:24-30).
We sometimes picture the church like a bounded set – we are either inside the boundary or not, somewhat like cattle on a small cattle farm with all paddocks surrounded by fences. But I think it may be truer to Jesus to think of the kingdom of God like a centred set, where there are no boundaries and we are defined by whether we are moving towards the centre, which is Jesus, or not – like a huge cattle station in arid inland Australia, too large to build fences, but where cattle stay in a contained area around the bore water supply, because they’d die anywhere else.
Let’s worry less about defining who’s in and not, and restricting how people can begin following Jesus. Let’s welcome everyone who chooses to follow, and rely on God’s Spirit (and prayer!) to keep leading them towards the centre, which is him.
What do you think?
Graphic: Classroom Clipart, modified by unkleE.