One of the most controversial questions in Christian theology is that of the relationship between faith and works. Justification is by faith: that was the teaching of Paul, and it was also the cry of the Reformation. But faith without works is dead: that was the teaching of James, and it has always been the counter-point raised against those who seem to put all the weight of salvation on faith alone. How should a person think about these things?
I am not an expert on this issue, although I have been thinking and reading about it for a long while now. I can only share my opinion and hope that other people find it helpful. I think it is useful to distinguish between a few different questions.
Q1. What is faith? I understand “faith” as an orientation of the heart toward God and Christ in trust, loyalty, and commitment. It arises typically as a result of the preaching of the Gospel and in response to the message of God’s antecedent favor that the Gospel communicates. It is a matter of being personally committed to God and Christ in trust and loyalty the way a soldier would be to his captain or a student to his teacher or a child to his or her parents.
Q2. What are works? “Works” are those things we do in obedience to the teachings of Christ and the commandments of God: to help the poor, to pray for others, and so on.*
* I am not hereby suggesting that this is the way to understand “works” in Paul’s letters. Whether Paul is addressing exactly the same question that I am addressing here is a secondary matter.
Q3. How do works relate to faith? Obeying someone’s commandments generally presupposes and thus gives evidence of a trust and commitment to him. Therefore, in normal circumstances, faith produces or naturally leads to works. Christians perform works when they trust in and commit themselves to God in Christ. It is of course also possible to obey someone’s commandments, not out of trust, but out of fear that that person will do one harm. Such a person would no longer be obedient at all if the threat of danger disappeared. These kinds of works thus do not proceed from faith at all, since they are not founded on a fundamental trust and commitment to God.
Q4. Why does God want us to have faith? Because God loves us and means to do good to us. He created us to live as His people on earth, to care for the earth and for one another in His presence as the recipients of His blessings (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.14.1). But we cannot really live as His people and receive His blessings if we do not trust Him and commit to Him, just as one cannot really live as husband or wife to a person whom one does not trust or to whom one does not commit. Our suspicion or indifference toward God would block us from appreciating the good that He wants to give us.
Q5. Why does God want us to have works? Because God wants the world that He has created to function in a certain way. He wants the world to be the sort of place where people do good to each other and do not harm or hurt each other, nor are they made numb or insensitive to His presence and reality by abandoning themselves to excessive pleasures. Therefore He teaches us how to act so as to make the world such as He wants it to be. This is for our sake.
Q5. What does faith earn us? Faith does not “earn” us anything in the sense that it does not make us “deserving” of anything from God. But it does “earn” us all the benefits and blessings that God desires for us only in the very loose and figurative sense that it makes us capable of receiving these things consciously, just like trusting another person makes us capable of appreciating their acts of kindness as such rather than ignoring them or treating them with undue suspicion.
Q6. What do works earn us? Works do not “earn” us anything in the sense that they do not make us “deserving” of anything from God. But they do “earn” us a life that is happy and reconciled with God only in the very loose and figurative sense that by doing them out of genuine faith we live as God would have us live and enjoy the kind of life He wants for the whole world.
Q7. Why does God want to do good to us? Because He loves us, which is to say that He wants to do good to us for our sake.
Q8. What does the sacrifice of Christ accomplish in all this? God sent Christ in the world to reconcile people to Him (2 Cor 5:19-21). What He wants more than anything is that His human creatures return to a life in harmony with Him. He doesn’t want anything to stand in the way of this project of reconciliation. Therefore Christ’s sacrifice makes atonement for the sins of all people. This means that no one can complain that their sins make them unworthy of God’s goodness, because God has undone our sins in Christ and in a sense treats us as if they had never happened. This also means that Christ’s intercession on behalf of human beings toward God is a dimension of God’s gift and outreach toward human beings through Christ.
Q9. What is salvation? Salvation has many senses, and in each case it is a matter of God’s improving the situation of human beings out of His kindness toward them.
(a) Salvation on the “legal” level refers to when a person’s sins are forgiven and atoned for. Christ’s death accomplishes atonement for sins, but God had already determined ahead of time to atone for sins in this way, so that one can say that, even before Christ comes into the world, sins are already forgiven by God in the sense of not being held against people. It is because God does not hold the sins of people against them that He sends Christ into the world.
(b) Salvation on the personal-transformative level is when a person is reconciled to God in his or her heart and begins to live in harmony with Him. It is when a person’s life changes vis-à-vis his or her personal relationship to God. For example, I think we find a paradigm image of this sense of salvation in the case of Zacchaeus. Jesus says that “salvation has come to [his] house” after Zacchaeus agreed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded (Luke 19:1-10).
(c) Salvation on the eschatological level is when a person is spared from punishment and welcomed into God’s kingdom at the judgment on the last day. Thus, Paul says that Jesus “saves us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1:10).
Q10. How do faith and works relate to salvation? Variously.
(a) Faith and works do not contribute anything to salvation at the “legal” level. They rather are a way of responding to this sort of salvation. God forgives us and accomplishes the atonement of our sins simply because He loves us, entirely apart from our faith or unfaith. He shows kindness towards us in this way precisely so as to motivate us to have faith in Him, i.e. to trust in His goodness toward us and to commit ourselves and our lives to Him.
(b) Faith as an attitude of the heart is the foundation of salvation on the personal-transformative level, and the works which this faith produces are the way that this salvation becomes manifest in time. We become reconciled to God when we begin to trust in Him and commit to Him, just as He invites us to do.
(c) Salvation at the eschatological level is not a reward for our faith and works in the sense that eternal life with God in His kingdom is not a proportionate “compensation” for the faith and works of human beings. But it is true that God welcomes us into His kingdom because we are the sort of persons who “belong” there in the sense that (i) we want to be there, since we love God, and (ii) we are not the sort of persons who will ruin it, since we are the sort of persons who live by His commandments and see the value in doing so.