Moving beyond the Reformation: grace, faith and works

One of Martin Luther’s most important arguments with the Catholic Church was his belief that salvation is “the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin” (Wikipedia). This belief has formed the basis of Protestantism for 5 centuries, and his protest possibly assisted the Catholic Church to refine some of its teachings also.

But the Bible doesn’t seem to be as clear on this as is claimed.

By grace through faith alone?

At first sight, the Biblical evidence is impressive. Ephesians 2:8-10 seems to be a knock-down argument:

“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.”

But there’s more – Wikipedia lists almost 40 passages in support of sola fide, for example:

  • John’s Gospel speaks strongly of the importance of faith and belief. John 6:28-29: Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
  • Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”

But ….

But many of these passages are ambiguous or support the role of faith without speaking against works, for example:

  • Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) at first sight clearly shows that the repentant sinner who relied on God’s mercy was justified while the zealous and moral Pharisee was not. However the moral at the end of the story (“all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”) might suggest that Jesus’ purpose was not doctrinal but opposing pride and social stigmas.
  • Galatians 3 speaks strongly about the Law being unable to bring salvation (“all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God …. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”). However it seems that Paul is arguing more about the merits of the old and new covenants rather than what God expects of us in the new covenant.

So we can see that there is strong Biblical support for “by grace through faith”, as you’d expect, but some passages often quoted are ambiguous, or raise questions.

There is another side to the question

Wikipedia lists more than 40 New Testament passages that appear to stand out against sola fide, for example:

In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the master clearly says the eternal destiny of each person was determined by whether they ministered to Jesus, in the form of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”, by feeding them, visiting them, helping them, welcoming them – all “good works”.

Many of Jesus’ teachings stress the importance of moral behaviour to our standing with God, for example John 5:29: “those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned”.

The book of James is notorious among evangelicals for its statements about faith and works, notably James 2:24: “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Luther judged James to be a “real strawy epistle” in that it wasn’t evangelical (i.e. it didn’t teach on salvation through Jesus) and suggested removing it and several other books from the New Testament canon.

Even Paul, that great exponent of grace through faith in Ephesians 2, seems to speak differently in Romans 2: 6-14: “God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. …. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil …. but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good … it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

But again, when we examine the passages listed as opposed to sola fide, many of them are not so clear as claimed.

Making sense of the divergent teachings

It seems to me there are two inadequate ways to deal with the divergent teachings

Compare scripture with scripture

This is the common evangelical and Reformed approach. All the relevant scripture passages are considered, and then the clearer ones used to clarify the less clear ones.

It sounds reasonable when you first hear it. God can only speak truth, so there can be no contradictions in scripture. So the “difficult” passages must mean something different to what we first think, and must in reality, if we could but see it, actually agree with the clearer passages.

But as I lived with this approach when I was a young evangelical, I started to see real problems with it.

  1. How do we decide which are the “clear scriptures” which we then use to re-interpret the others?
    Ephesians 2 and Matthew 25 seem equally clear to me. In reality, this principle is often used to avoid some teachings in favour of others. “Grace and faith” passages are used to nullify and explain away the “works” passages.
  2. We may miss some deep truth.
    Many aspects of christian faith are paradoxical – e.g. God is three in one, Jesus is divine and human, God is sovereign but humans have choice. If we jump to one or other side of these dilemmas, we will miss something important. We need to understand the teaching on both faith and works.
  3. The Bible speaks with many voices.
    Evangelicals often claim the Bible speaks clearly and with one voice, but I cannot see it. It seems obvious if we read the Bible with open eyes and open mind, that God has given us a book with many viewpoints which sometimes conflict and come from different perspectives. We should embrace the diversity God has given us rather than deny it.

Choose one side

The other extreme is to overstate the diversity within scripture and so reject scripture wholesale, or in part. A common approach is to accuse Paul of perverting the gospel that Jesus preached (see Jesus vs Paul?), and therefore to reject “grace alone through faith” or, more likely, to use this supposed diversity to reject christianity altogether.

Another less obvious approach is to more or less ignore Jesus’ teachings, and treat him as a “salvation object” only, and focus on his death and resurrection – as the Apostles Creed more or less does, by saying nothing about his life and teachings between his birth and his death.

I cannot see how any follower of Jesus can do either of these. The first somehow infers that God is so much not in control that he couldn’t even keep the teachings of Jesus “pure” for a generation, and allowed Paul to corrupt them before the gospels were even written. The second ignores the life’s work and teachings of the incarnate son of God, which can’t be right.

Reaching for a better way

So I think we need a better approach than either of these. And I think I may be able to dimly see it. I offer some thoughts here as steps along my journey towards truth and understanding (hopefully).

Love and grace

The Bible affirms that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and grace (“unmerited favour”) is an aspect of that love. And we can see that God’s love and grace towards us characterise all his actions towards us.

Giving us life, especially a life where we can even make choices to defy the creator of the universe, is an amazing grace.

Welcoming us into fellowship with him is way beyond our deserts and merits.

So clearly salvation, like everything else, comes from God’s grace. The question then is, do all receive his salvation by grace as all receive his gracious gift of life? And if not, on what basis do some receive salvation and some do not?

Does everyone receive eternal life?

Some christians are universalists – they believe in the end, in the life to come, all people, even the most hardened against God, will be “softened” by God’s love, turn to him in gratitude, and enter the full experience of eternal life. No matter how much evil we do now, and how little good we do, we will be able to be forgiven. If this is true, then the place of faith and works in this life is not so important.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is the case (but I could be wrong) – see Hell – what does the Bible say?.

So I think faith vs works is a living and vital question.

Alternative ways to receive grace?

Grace through faith

We can confidently believe, following both Paul (Ephesians 2:8-10) and Jesus (Luke 18:9-14), that if in faith we ask for God’s forgiveness through Jesus, we will receive it (Hebrews 4:16). That forgiveness can cover anything we have ever done (Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more”).

So our faith in Jesus doesn’t earn or merit forgiveness, but it is the means by which we receive God’s grace and forgiveness.

But even here, it isn’t simply a matter of believing and receiving. James says if we think we have faith but have no good deeds to go with it, then our faith is dead and useless (James 2:14-17). And Jesus teaches very clearly. in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and elsewhere (Matthew 6:15 & 18:13) that God’s forgiveness, freely available, is nevertheless conditional on our forgiving others.

So it doesn’t appear to be a simple as Luther said.

Old Testament Jews

It is a misunderstanding to say the Old Testament is based on works and the New Testament on grace. Old Testament Jews relied on God’s love for his people, and showed their trust in God via obedience to the Law – the moral requirements which showed their obedience to God, and the rituals and sacrifice which atoned for sin when they failed to live in obedience (all of which are “works”). But they did not receive that grace via faith in Jesus, for the obvious reason that Jesus was unknown to them.

So it appears that while obedience, sacrifice and faith were not sufficient to earn the grace of God and his forgiveness, they were all part of the means by which they received pardon and eternal life.

Gentiles or pagans

In Romans 2:13-16, Paul outlines how he believes the Gentiles of his day will be judged:

“when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ.”

Clearly, Paul taught that some Gentiles were finding favour with God because their consciences “defended” or acquitted them. Obeying the law written on their consciences didn’t earn them God’s favour, but were the means by which they received his grace and forgiveness. We may surmise that it will be the same when those who have never had opportunity to believe in Jesus stand before God.

Sheep and goats

As Jesus tells his parable in Matthew 25, the “righteous” are surprised that they have found God’s favour. It seems they don’t think they have earned eternal life and don’t even understand why, until they are told. So there is no doubt they have received grace beyond what they deserve.

Nevertheless, it was their good works that earned their master’s commendation, and were the means by which they received his grace. So who is in this category today?

Could it be that some whose life circumstances make it hard or even impossible to believe in Jesus, whether because they have never heard, or because christian faith has been shown to them in an unbelievable or evil way, will nevertheless receive God’s mercy via the life of good deeds they chose to live?

I don’t know. But I do think the barriers to that conclusion come more from evangelical theology than they come from the words of Jesus. I’m thinking of these sayings of Jesus:

Matthew 6:15: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Matthew 7:21: “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.”

Matthew 12:36-37: “I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

So what to think?

My tentative conclusion is that our whole life, in this world and in the age to come, is a gift of God’s grace. We could never earn it. But we still have to receive it or reject it. And we may do that quite consciously and deliberately through turning to God through repentance and faith in Jesus. But those who know nothing of Jesus, or have been misled about him, may nevertheless also be able to receive grace and forgiveness from the God who so abundantly wants to give everything good to us, via the way they live (which shows the influence of the Holy Spirit, even if unrecognised).

That is only a tentative conclusion. And I’m still ready for the Holy Spirit to correct or encourage me in this conclusion.

We western Protestant christians are inclined to follow Paul and his teaching in Galatians and Ephesians, and parts of Romans. But today there is a growing understanding, first among New Testament scholars, but now among ordinary christians, that we should not neglect the very Jewish teachings of Jesus. It is perhaps no accident that the strongest teachings with a works emphasis come from Jesus, his brother James and Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospels. And when they appear in Paul’s writings, it is mostly in Romans, which addresses the theme of Jews vs Gentiles.

I think we have much more to learn on this matter. I offer these ideas as a work in progress. I think I am still a way off understanding what God has revealed to us on this matter.

What do you think?

Photo: Martin Luther nails his 95 these to the Wittenberg church door as imagined by Julius Hübner (Wikipedia)

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  1. Dear UnkleE,
    Nice blog with your points well described & substantiated as usual. Here is my present point of view:
    Taking the Bible as a whole – reading it end to end, we are left with recurrent narrative of disobedience (sin), punishment, repentence, forgiveness and affirmation of God’s plan for us. Then the cycle repeats……man falls again, goes back for forgiveness (+/- punishment) and thereafter promises from Man to glorify him (through works). Then we do the same thing again, we fail Him, do something stupid wrong and seek him again.
    This cycles all they way till Jesus comes and makes the final sacrifice where he cleanses us from all our sins and makes us right with God. This allows us to finally come face to face to God. Not yet, but because of his grace, we can eventually meet Him.
    So the story of our lives is repetitive as such, with one last step which we all have not gone through. We will all go through that final step though, when we eventually pass through this world and move on to meet God. That is where I previously eluded to – is the Universal theme that is not particularly emphasized by mainstream churches – Judgment before God. I suppose this is so because of the belief that Christ has already forgiven you if you have ‘said the Sinner’s prayer’ and ‘repented’ so – no worries you have already made it to eternal life.
    To me that is the present flaw in the teaching of mainstream churches.
    Mainstream Christianity boxes us into categories / denominations but eventually we will face Him and I believe that’s the all important point we fail to focus on. So it isn’t about Faith & Works per se. It’s about being prepared for the final day but many Christians land up at present being obsessed if they have done the right thing in terms of ‘Faith / Believing’ or if they have ‘Worked’ hard enough.
    I believe it’s how we live our lives now that we can justify to God in time to come – that we have Glorified him which is the purpose which we are made. So equally faith (believing we are sinners etc) & works (if you are just one bad ass then you are a little down in this department) are important in that sense.
    All in all, I think it all boils down to that final day, when we physically leave this earth and meet Him. Can we pass through the narrow gates? I am pretty sure when we are faced with that, the playing field will be finally even for all (be it Jew, Gentile, Believer or non-believer) and you’ll see if you make it to eternal life. We have enough examples in the Bible regarding this….the thief, the prostitute and me/you.
    My 2 cents worth.

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