One of the bigger arguments in the Christian church can be summed up like this: “Faith and works”.
I don’t know what that phrase sounds like to people outside the church, whether it has any meaning at all. I suspect it’s like a lot of things in life: you don’t see the dynamite until you learn to read the labels. It was the root of the Protestant Reformation. Wars were fought over it. People died, cities burned to the ground. Which is probably because people will latch onto anything as an excuse for war, and the nearer it is to the heart of How Things Work, the more vicious that war will be.
The argument is this: if all you have to do is believe to be restored into a right relationship with God, then what’s the point of doing all these good works that the Bible tells us to do? Or vice-versa: If we have to do all these good works in life, then what’s the point of believing in Christ? Is God just sitting on his Holy Backside cracking a whip over us and waiting for us to mess up? Or can we just go around doing whatever we want, ’cause it’s all paid for, and there’s no punishment?
Or to put it another way:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. – James 2:26 (ESV)
(To those who criticize the Bible because it has contradictions: there you go.)
I’ve heard a several ways of reconciling these two, but none of them have made me happy. So here’s mine; I hope it makes sense: Faith is our cure. Works are our purpose.
What brought me to that point was adding Ephesians 2:10 on the end of the first passage:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Paul wasn’t out to contradict James. Check out the conjunctions. “Grace” has “by”. “Faith” has “through”. “Good works” has “for”.
Put it this way: What is anything for? What is its purpose? To be used. For example: the purpose of a house is to be lived in, to be a shelter from weather, from malice, from the outside world, to be a place where people can gather, a place to store food and clothes and things precious to us, so we can use them, so we can offer them to others. That’s why people build houses, from mud huts and tin shacks on up to palaces. When a house falls into disrepair, it can’t serve its purpose very well. Our government has standards for these things, and if a house doesn’t meet the standard, it’s condemned. If it’s really bad, it’s torn down.
In which case, the house needs renovation.
Nobody who’s been through a renovation would confuse it with a house’s purpose. My parents have spent the last few months having their kitchen renovated. They’re very brave: for awhile there, they had a big uninsulated hole in the northwest corner of their house in January. The fridge was in the dining room. There was no dishwasher. There was no stove. All kinds of things that normally take place there, couldn’t. Yet as big as that renovation was, it wasn’t a vital one. It wasn’t rebuilding a roof that’s half fallen in. It wasn’t shoring up a crumbling foundation. It wasn’t decontaminating post-flood ruins of mildew and mold and rot. If a house with a leaky roof is hard to live in, one with no roof (while the rafters are being replaced) is worse.
Likewise, a house doesn’t get fixed up just by being lived in. Being lived in is half the reason they need fixing. It wasn’t abuse that damaged my mom’s kitchen: things wear out. Linoleum dulls as it’s cleaned and flattens as it’s walked on. Cupboards bend and warp under the weight of the dishes they were designed for. Hinges can withstand millions of openings and closings, but eventually they break. Paint fades. The house’s purpose is one reason it needs curing.
That’s the way of a lot of things. A piano is not tuned by being played. A bone is not healed by bearing weight. You don’t fix an engine by running it. You don’t patch your jeans by wearing them.
You don’t cure the brokenness of your soul, or the rebellion of your mind, or the blood on your hands, by doing good works. They are not our cure. But they are our purpose.
There’s not much point to an empty house. Size and beauty don’t matter. It can have the most gorgeous kitchen and bathroom, the biggest, brightest windows, the best yard, the coziest bedrooms, everything done to perfection in the most beautiful colors, but if it sits empty, it’s a waste. It’s a shell. It has as much reason to exist as a squalid shack. It’s worthless, vain, and void, not unlike a corpse. An empty house may not be condemned, but you can still call it “dead”.
We were created to do good works. It’s our purpose. What those works are vary from person to person. Some houses are built for entertaining, some are quiet retreats. Some have garage space for greasy engine-y projects. Some have kitchens that can turn out feasts. Where the house is built affects its design, to protect against the climate’s vices and take advantage of its virtues. But all of them were made to be lived in.
Good works cannot cure us. They were never intended to. We could be perfect in every way and good works would still need doing. People who reject God for a mass delusion feel fulfilled by good works because it was written into their blood and brain, withstanding the Fall, and belief doesn’t change that.
Faith is vital. We need it, or we’ll be razed. The government doesn’t care if the house is lived in: if the toilets don’t work or the wiring’s a fire hazard, that “condemned” sign is going up, and the house is going down. Good works are hard to do when your walls are crumbling and your basement’s full of mold – and for some, sitting empty is the only option as things are being put right.
The cure is not the purpose. We were not made to sit on our hands, as useful as an empty house, blank-eyed and cold. The purpose is not the cure. We cannot take down that “condemned” sign until work has been done to us, by strength and grace that isn’t ours, and which we cannot earn.
Working or not, we need to be saved.
Saved or not, we were made to work.
We can’t substitute one for the other, so we’d better not get them confused.