Sunday, May 21

Faith vs. Works: A Meaningless Argument

Undoubtedly the most influential debate in the course of Christian history is “faith vs. works”. It’s most popular effect was the cause for the reformation, as Luther’s opinion on the matter differed from the Roman Catholic Church. The argument has been around for almost two thousand years, however, since both Paul and James thought it important to write explicitly on it.

The argument, very basically, is about how a human being becomes justified and saved from his sins in order to go to heaven when he dies. One answer is that we work for our salvation through good deeds, observing sacred rites and traditions, and being obedient to the commandments of the church. The opposing answer (that was started by Luther) is that we attain salvation through faith in God, so long as we believe in what Jesus did and are repentant of our sins, we will be saved. I am going to argue that both positions are fundamentally wrong, and that the debate as a whole is a meaningless one.

The first reason the argument is meaningless is that the question itself is inappropriate. The debate is focused around how we can get to heaven, and as I argued in my post Afterlife and Egoism it is immoral for the afterlife to dominate our theology. Since our afterlife is supposed to reflect our life in this world, a Christian should focus on this life and let that determine our destined afterlife, instead of focusing on the afterlife and letting that determine how we act in the present. A follower of Christ that seeks the truth does not ask “How do I get to heaven?”, but asks questions like “How do I become more Christ-like?”, “What does Jesus want in my life?”, and “How can I live righteously?”

The second reason the “faith vs. works” argument is meaningless is because it is impossible to have one without the other. It is essentially impossible to have faith without works. James 2:17 states that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead.” It is not just that having faith without works won’t get you to heaven, but that a faith without works is dead, the faith becomes meaningless. The man who asserts he has faith but does not follow all of Christ’s commandments is a liar because there is no such thing as a true faith that has not works (1 John 2:4).

Also, it is impossible to have works without faith. This is a more radical claim than the last, but I believe it is just as psychologically valid. All good works can be traced back to faith in some overarching truth. Whether it be faith in Jesus (Christianity), faith in Allah (Islam), faith in eastern religious concepts such as karma and Ki (Buddhist etc.), faith in the value of morality (all religions and secular philosophy), and faith that the good work will help a loved one (all religions and secular philosophy). Furthermore, all Christians who advocate a works-based salvation have some sort of conception and belief in God. There is no such thing as works without faith, just as there is no such thing as a faith that is without works.

The third reason the argument is meaningless is that it implies a misconstrued meaning of the words “faith” and “belief”. Reason two reveals the necessary marriage between faith and works, and subsequently our conception of faith and belief should reflect that. My point here is that the word “faith” as it is understood today is different to how Jesus used the word. The faith vs. works argument arose from a misinterpreted understanding of what faith and belief means.

When Jesus said “believe on me to be saved”, he was not simply saying if you intellectually agree with my divinity you are heaven-bound. Look at the disciples, believing in the divinity of Jesus necessarily meant a life lived in existential discipleship with Christ. Belief back then was not intellectual but existential, if you truly believe in something your life will reflect that truth in every instant. Accordingly, if someone truly believes that Jesus Christ was the son of God it is shown through his existence. It is the same with faith. Paul Tillich said this concerning faith: "Faith is not a theoretical affirmation of something uncertain, it is the existential acceptance of something transcending experience. Faith is not an opinion but a state."

The faith vs. works debate is meaningless because the two words mean the same thing: a Christ-like existence. It is not that we get to heaven by having both of these things, but that the whole debate overlooks a more fundamental relationship with God that is shown through the interaction Jesus had with his disciples. When Jesus called men to believe and have faith in him, the men knew the faith in Jesus was expressed and developed existentially; it had naught to do with intellectual belief. James appropriately said “shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18).

The existential nullification of the faith vs. works argument leads me to the increasingly clear truth that Christianity is an existential communication.


Anonymous Rich(luthsem) said...

Good post. Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God being among us than the afterlife.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous daniel said...

why did jesus even mention the "after"life at all? why not just the simple (existential?) command "follow me"? for those who followed that command in "this" life, the "next" life would just be a continuation of that process, minus the distractions and hindrances we experience now. maybe looking to what's ahead gives us something to get us through what's now, but isn't god enough for us now? shouldn't experiencing him in the present be enough to carry us through any situation whatsoever? or don't even look "that" far ahead. we know that the testing of our faith develops perseverence. but shouldn't our faith in god carry us through the testing regardless of some future promise of achieving perseverence? some can endure all things on just the knowledge that god is with them. others cling to the hope of things to come. is this wrong, or somehow a weaker mentality, a weaker faith? faith (now) in the fact that god is with you vs. faith (now) in the fact that god has something in the future for you. it seems to me that the faith takes place (existentially?) in the present, and that we don't need to choose to dwell on god being with us at the expense of god having something for us in the future, but rather in both, neither at the expense of the other.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

I never said that we shouldn't have hope for the future. God and the apostles constantly told people to look forward to the Day of the Lord and their salvation (since those who endure to the end shall be saved).

My grievance is with a Christianity that is so consumed with the afterlife that it drives every decision they make. For example, they look at a non-Christian and see "someone who is going to hell", and not "someone who needs Jesus in their life to be fulfilled and truly happy". Also, they become Christians for the sole reason of evading hell and being promised heaven, little emphasis is placed on what Christianity means for this life, which is believe is the only thing that actually matters. An Existential Christianity can't be afterlife-centered, because it has negative effects on our views of this life.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Rich(luthsem) said...

I love that Tillich quote about faith being a state.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Patrik said...

Good post, although I think Luther was well aware of faith as something more than acepteing a few facts intellectually.

Anyway, I posted yesterday on a related issue, the need for eschatological hope.

3:11 PM  
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8:08 AM  
Blogger night-of-columbus said...

Interesting post, especially your thoughts on a Christian focused solely on the afterlife is not focused on being more Christ-like.

And I with patrick in that Luther had a much more full view of faith, but found problems with the very skewed views, acts, and positions of the Church at that time.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

I'd also agree that Luther had a much more mature and authentic view of faith than that, but I am not so sure about the majority of the protestant movement that followed from him.

11:39 AM  
Blogger return to righteousness said...


Jesus said works...

Paul said faith.

James said works...

Revelation says the church with lukewarm works will be spewed out of his mouth. You MUST be hot or cold.

Christ tells us unless we feed the hungry give drink to the thirsty etc. we will not be getting into heaven.

I have have been examining this and have blogged about it. I believe Paul is a false apostle.

He was not ordained an apostle by Christ (mat 10) and was not named one of the only two acceptable replacements mentioned to replace Judas as an apostle (acts Chapter 1)...and much more. Have you ever considered this?

11:26 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

The validity of Paul is a hornet's nest I'd like to stay away from until im sure about myself. I rarely read him however, and if there is ever a conflict between him and a disciple or especially Jesus, I just ignore Paul.

Not sure..

9:30 AM  
Blogger return to righteousness said...


Go to...

to see why paul was a false apostle.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Timothy, don't let another question your convictions. You are a Kierkegaard fan I see; I would suggest you read "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing," it may help answer some of your questions. About your vacillation between faith and works, I would suggest you keep sniffing down the middle path. Know that grace and deeds mean nothing, without Christ always at the forefront of your mind. The Pharisees were upholders of the Laws of Moses, and on the surface, for everyone to see, they behaved appropriately, yet it was their mental disposition, their state of mind, that no one else could see. Jesus came to expose the falsities in their hearts. You can go give charity, give to the poor, even the unGodly do that; but you must do it with the right mentality - no mixture of motives, you must will the Good, and to do it for God alone. Maybe this will help you along the way: when you see that all your actions are committed with purity of heart and mind, you will realize you are too weak to be blameless before God - humans are not perfect beings. But to accept it and say, "yeah, nobody's perfect," is merely an excuse to evade personal responsibility caused by human laziness. Jesus is the mediator that gives us grace and salvation along the journey; like an oasis along the desert, he provides refreshment for the journey, nourishes you, and picks you up when you can no longer go, by washing away your sins and weaknesses; but one must first make the journey, pack up all his gear, and give it his entire effort, or he forfeits the prize by quitting too early. And you are certainly right about the salvation by grace, it is a very convenient doctrine that some would take as a license for inaction, especially in a capitalistic society that cherishes comforts and pleasures - wanting unmerited rewards over fighting the good fight. The Kingdom of God is here, and it is found within your heart. A just heart is the true temple of God. Eternity is not to be put off until tomorrow; tomorrow will soon turn into 30 years; it is here and now; you have to make yourself worthy. Do not be overwhelmed, and do not impose yourself on others; love them, pray for them; only God can open their eyes. It is enough to worry about your own duty, to work on yourself, through a deep self-reflection and lasting repentance. Let your light radiate brightly, and do not dim it by casting judgment on others; if and only if God be willing, His Will shall be done through you.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Paul today?

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