The Real Debate On Faith and Works

I think C.S. Lewis said it best when he said, “Regarding the debate about faith and works: It’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most important.” There is a real difference between the sola fide position and the Catholic position, but not half as much as might be claimed.

It seems to me, that if you clear away the shrubbery, the major two positions are these:

  • The Catholic view: God makes the intial overtures, by giving us through the grace of the Holy Spirit the capacity for Faith, as well as the gift of Faith itself. Like any gift, we can resist or reject this: but our decision to accept a gift isn’t the same as “earning” the gift. Once we’re justified, we’re empowered by God (and by God alone) to obey. Without His graces, we can do nothing to please Him. With His graces, we can obey Him: this obedience is called “good works” in Scripture, although it’s much broader than our modern understanding: it may be like the works we saw in the life of Mother Teresa, or it may be as banal as holding your tongue when you have a pithy comment. These “good works” help us maintain and grow in our Faith, and they’re necessary for keeping that initial spark alive (and indeed, for fanning the flame).* Through a lifetime of trying and failing, and getting up and trying again to obey God, we grow more like Him. We become more Christlike in our demeanor, and ideally, we start to let go of those parts of ourselves unfit to enter Heaven.
  • Sola Fide: Faith in Christ is the only requirement for salvation, but it cannot be a mere intellectual acknowledgement. It must be a saving or transforming faith, a faith which manifests itself in works. Since I’m not a proponent of sola fide, and since it takes many varied forms, I’ll leave it this succinct.

My point is that the “faith” referred to in sola fide seems to be “faith which will manifest itself in works.” In fact, in looking for that C.S. Lewis scissors quote, I came across this quote from Luther from his introduction to the Epistle of the Romans:

“O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it
not to be doing good things incessantly
. It does not ask whether good works are
to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is
constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an
unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows
neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many
good words, about faith and good works.”

Taken without the bitter anti-Catholicism at the end, this is very helpful for understanding what Protestants mean by “Faith” (because they mean something broader than Catholics). Because Catholics would say, it’s quite possible for a person to have faith without works: a dead (or dying) faith. The devil seems to have such a faith in James 2:19. We would call that “faith without works,” an “unacted upon faith,” a “dead faith,” etc. A Protestant would seemingly just say it was “not faith,” or not “this faith” (to use Luther’s phrase).

I think, then, that it’s safe to say we agree on all of the following:

  1. A person who believes in God and yet consistently refuses to obey Him isn’t saved.
  2. Thus, in all but the most extreme cases (e.g., the thief on the Cross, perhaps), a person cannot get to Heaven without both having Faith and performing the good works He calls us to do. Whether these works attribute to the salvation process in any way is a secondary issue, but it seems easy enough to say that if 1 is true, 2 is as well.
  3. Nevertheless, no amount of works we can do substitute for Faith.
  4. No one “earns Heaven” by their works.
  5. The important part of works seems to be as much in the internal decision to perform them than in their success. For example, deciding to bring a sandwich to a homeless person, only to find out that he’s left the corner, is still a good work, even if it didn’t “work,” per se. Conversely, giving a homeless man a sandwich simply because you’re scared of him isn’t a good work.
  6. Our works are pleasing to God only because they are the good He calls us to do – they are neither possible, nor pleasing, absent that. This is another way of saying that all good comes from God, including all good works.

Now, legitimate questions remain. I can think of two:

  1. Do works participate in our growth towards God, or merely demonstrate to external observers that we’re already saved? Are they something we do out of obedience, gratitude, or both? (This latter half of this question, we may in fact agree upon).
  2. Do the good works we perform have a role to play in our salvation?

These, I hope to address soon, but I wanted to make sure we all understood the turf. That said, let me strongly all Protestants reading to post any comments and especially corrections, so that I don’t go off half-cocked and muddy things up.

*The fanning of flames analogy may be helpful is distinguishing between sanctification and justification. Justification refers to our covenant relationship with God: is there a saving flame alive or not? Sanctification refers to the cleansing of our sins, washed away in Baptism, and subsequently, expunged in confession. This questions surrounding sanctification might then be: is the flame growing? or are ashes choking it? So while justification relates to a status as well as a relationship(our membership in God’s family), it, like sanctification, is ongoing.

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