The On Faith
website has a bit of a strange question this week: "What’s more
important from a faith perspective? Being saved? Or doing good works?"
It is supposed to be a question to all religions, but, as many of the
panelists point out, it doesn’t really make sense in that context. Of
course the most important thing in any religion is being saved, but
most theologians (including Christians) do not see that as
dichotomous to doing good works. Being saved is never completely
separated from good works. Indeed, (although it is framed in many
different ways theologically), a lack of good works is generally
understood as evidence that you may not be saved (or on your way to
I think the questioners probably meant to ask a traditionally contentious Christian theological question: "Which is more important for salvation: having faith or doing good works?" Does one just have to have trust, or are some deeds involved as well? On the surface, this question is easily dismissed as another false dichotomy as, biblically, faith is never separated from good works. Asking whether faith or works is more important for salvation is somewhat like asking, "Which is more important for roasting hot dogs, the flame or the heat?"
However, dismissing this question with the "false dichotomy" answer (something that many of the "On Faith" panelists did) is only sufficient if everyone holds to a correct biblical definition of "good works." However, that is often not the case. The reason the faith/works discussion has been so heated for some 2000 years is that many people misunderstand the difference between the actions that Paul contends are useless: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9) and what James explains are absolutely necessary:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If
one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,"
but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
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 actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:14-24).
As I explain in my new book,
At first glance James seems to
contradict Paul. He does not. The key is to understand the difference between
works as Paul defined them and works as James defined them. For the purpose of
my argument I will refer to Paul’s term as “works” and James’ term as “work.”
We are not to do works, but we are to work.
Here are some of the differences
between works and work. Works are tasks undertaken for the purpose of raising
our own stature. Work is undertaken to raise God’s stature. We know we have
been doing works if we can look back on them and take pride in our
accomplishment. We know we have been working if, when we look back, we see
nothing but God’s accomplishment. Works are useless at procuring salvation.
Work is an absolutely essential part of procuring salvation. We will never get
to the Promised Land by doing works, but we will also never get to the Promised
Land if we refuse to work.
I then go on to discuss at length some examples of the righteous work that James commands, and, as part of a discussion of righteousness, look at some
examples of the works that Paul condemns. Check out chapters 6 through 8 for more.