O My Goodness
We should also stop for a moment and ask what happens when we do a good work. Let’s say we pay a visit to a person in prison. The visit helps that person, but it also helps us. It is not a meaningless act of obedience to God, the action itself is worth something–it has done some good in the world. As such it has changed us for the better, and therefore been a small step towards our becoming more Christ-like. Hebrews says ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ and when we do a faith-full good action we do just that–we give substance to the thing hoped for and that action becomes evidence for our unseen belief. The actions of faith which we complete through God’s grace are a vital dimension to faith itself, and without them there is no faith at all.
How does this keep from becoming a religion in which we rely on good works to get us to heaven? The early church struggled with the relationship between faith and the Old Testament law. The early Christians were Jews and many of them thought they had to continue obeying all the Old Testament Rules and regulations. But Saint Paul tried to make it clear that it was not by obeying the rules of the Old Testament law that we are saved. In a famous passage from Ephesians 2 Saint Paul says, ‘For it is by grace that you are saved through faith. It is the gift of God–not of works, lest any man should boast.’ Paul reminds the early church that they are saved not by obeying the Jewish law, but through faith. So he says in Romans 4:9-15, and he summarises it in Romans 3:28 when he says, ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law…’
In these passages Saint Paul is not saying that faithful good works are un-necessary. He is saying that salvation does not come by obeying the Jewish law. In fact Paul, like the rest of the New Testament writers says clearly that we are destined to accomplish good works if we are people of faith. Right after the famous passage in Ephesians where he says that we have been saved by grace through faith, and not of works, he goes on to say, ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.’ In other words–just as the gospel taught–through faith we become one with Christ in order that we may speak his words and do his works in the world.
It is the epistle of James which ties all the strands from the gospels, St. Paul’s letters and from the Old Testament together. In chapter two James writes, ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith, but has no works?…Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without
deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his works were working together…You see that a person is justified by what he does and
not by faith alone.’
In fact there are not many Evangelicals who say that faith completely on its own good enough. Most non-Catholics also recognise the need for good works to be present. They usually take the view that if the person is really united with Christ then good works will be the fruit of that faith. The famous reformer John Calvin put it this way…’Salvation is by faith alone, but true faith is never alone.’ Much progress has been made in recent years in the attempt to find agreement between Protestants and Catholics on this issue. The biggest milestone has been the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification between Catholics and Lutherans. Officials on the highest levels of the Catholic and Lutheran churches signed a statement on 31 October 1999. On the basis of this detailed theological statement The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declared together, ‘the understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in the declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics.’
In the sixteenth century both the Lutherans and the Catholics had condemned one another for their mutual doctrinal positions. Now both sides say, ‘The teaching of the Lutheran Churches presented in the Declaration does not fall under condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this document.’
The signing of this statement is a historic moment in the Church’s life. Now we can say there is no formal reason why Protestants and Catholics should disagree over the doctrine of justification.
In the light of this formal agreement both sides still need to continue explaining what they really do believe about salvation, and the relationship between our faith and our good works. Evangelicals admit that a person of faith will have to show his faith through the fruit of their lives, but they will still say that the good works themselves are not worth anything, and that they have nothing to do with the person’s entrance into heaven. This is not quite what Catholics believe, and it is important to emphasise the differences—not to cause division and controversy, but because until the differences are brought out into the light and understood they can never be resolved.
Firstly, our good or evil works are important for a very basic reason. How we choose to act is eternally important because our decisions and actions change things. This power to change things by our decision and action is called free will. Free will is actually God sharing some of his power with us to change the universe eternally. Now if our good decisions and actions are not worth anything that means they cannot change things. If they do not change things our decisions and actions are indeed meaningless. If this is true, then the feeling we get that things are changed is simply a huge illusion. If that is so, then the everything in the world which seems to occur by human decision and action is also an illusion, and we are all simply robots in a vast computer game which is pre-programmed. If this is true that our decisions and actions are meaningless then we actually do not have free will at all. This way of looking at things may protect faith from getting cluttered up with good works, but the problem is that if we do not have freedom to choose then it is impossible for us to make any real choices at all. If we are not able to decide anything, then it is impossible for us to step out in faith in the first place. Logic insists that if we have the free will to make the step of faith, then we also have the free will to take other decisions and actions which affect our eternal destiny. On the other hand, if our decisions and actions have no power, then neither does our initial decision to follow Christ. Once we separate faith from works both faith and works become impossible. It is only by keeping the two together that both become a reality.
The second reason good works are vitally important is because we have bodies. It is through our bodies that we can actually work out what we believe, and if we don’t do this then our faith remains a head and heart game. The Christian religion is not simply a good idea or an inspiring feeling. As they say, ‘love is a verb.’ So is Christianity. It is with our bodies that we live out the faith of our head and heart. The Docetists were early heretics who believed Christ only ‘seemed’ to be human. Ignatius of Antioch noticed that this wrong belief about Jesus affected how they behaved. He wrote, ‘They have no concern for love, none for the widow, the orphan, the afflicted, the prisoner the hungry, the thirsty. They stay away from the Eucharist and prayer.
The physical world is the stage on which we play out the drama of our salvation. This is vitally important because at the core of our faith is the belief that God himself took a human body and worked out our salvation through shedding his blood. Good works are physical and God works through the physical. We can pray for the housebound widower next door, but only through our bodies can we get up out of a chair, bake a pie and take it around to his house.
The third reason good works matter is because it is through good works that our faith is perfected. Through discovery and learning our faith matures into a deeper understanding. Through living the faith the faith grows and matures. Through our attempts at good works we learn just how difficult faith really is. Through our failures we learn again and again how much we need to rely on God’s grace, and how much more we have yet to learn. Through our successful attempts we understand what faith is really about at the very depths of our whole person. It is through our struggle to live out our faith that our faith comes to fullness and perfection. Through our good works the seedling of our faith grows strong and tall. Without those good works it remains a frail and tender shoot. [Read More]