Faith or Works? A false dichotomy?

One of the most central ideas in Protestantism is the idea of Salvation by faith alone.  This was Luther’s brilliant re-examination of the letters of Paul which he then used to fight the oppressions of the Catholic church of the day – those who would exploit the masses by devising more “works” for them to earn their salvation.

It is taught assiduously to every new convert – including myself as a young pentecostal.  We were not to be like the down-trodden and  “religious” denominations, on a desperate and doomed mission to earn salvation through good works .  We were to be alive, freed and justified through faith in Christ alone.  Judgement based on works is anathema to a Pentecostal and this made perfect sense and appealed to me, there were plenty of scriptures to back it up.

Then a few years later some attitudes I saw in the evangelical circles began to cause me concern.  Although most evangelical Christians accepted the doctrine and continued to grow in good works and faith, there was a sizeable minority that disregarded works altogether as being necessary or even relevant to Christian life.  They would almost sneer at charities or organisations set up to help others, particularly if they had a Christian base.  In their view these people were trapped in a works-based ideology, unable to access the power of the miraculous that faith in Jesus and freedom from ‘works’ brings.

In some strange way the fact that these people know they are completely unworthy and unable to earn salvation makes them even more proud of it when they attain it.

I have had arguments on blogs with people who are convinced that they don’t have to do any works at all – even the ones proscribed by Jesus himself – simply because they believe in Jesus.  They interpret the exhortations of Jesus and Paul to good deeds to be mere rhetorical devices specifying unattainable requirements – for the sole purpose of underlining the fact that faith is the only requirement.

As I read the Bible, some passages kept jumping out that seemed to be about judgement based on works.  In fact a lot of what Jesus says seems on the surface to be about that, and also Paul has a lot of commentary in this vein.  For example Romans 2:

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ,as my gospel declares.

Most new Protestants will read that and then harmonise it with their doctrine along the lines of “Well he cant mean that people will be judged on their works, as all have sinned.  Therefore he must be highlighting how people will be judged according to the law (sans faith in Jesus)”  But is that really what is meant?  And what are we to make of the famous scripture “Faith without works is dead”

I’ve recently discovered the “New Perspectives on Paul” movement   of which N T Wright, Bishop of Durham is perhaps the most well known exponent.  These people are looking at Paul’s letters anew and trying to understand them from a first-century perspective and not necessarily from the perspective of a reformer of Catholic christianity in the 16th Century.  Many of the interpretations of terms that Paul used in his letters have been re-examined, eg. the terms ‘justify’, ‘gospel’, ‘works’ have all been re-examined and there are questions over whether the meanings given by Luther and Calvin are exactly the same as the ones intended by Paul.

For futher reading see NT Wright’s “New Perspectives on Paul” at his website.

14 thoughts on “Faith or Works? A false dichotomy?

  1. What is about ‘faith without works is dead’ – James, that these people you spoke to don’t get? We’ve been ordained for good works from the foundation of the world. As God foreknew those who would be counted amongst his family, so he wanted us to do stuff to demonstrate his kingdom to come. It’s pretty simple.

    Personally, I think those folk who shun any form of good deeds have a seriously, if not, fatally flawed theology. Maybe they’re in the camp who think that now I have my ‘fire insurance’ I’m just counting down the days until I can get the flock out of planet earth. That’s a completely wrong gospel, as NT Wright has attested to at some length.

  2. Paul was inspired as you or me.

    Eg 1 Cor 11:14 “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him,”

    Errr No.

    Which is interesting when you try to use Paul’s logic about homosexuality being unnatural.

  3. And to say I’m disappointed with Tom Wright is an understatement.

    More Like N.T. Wrong, Amirite?: How N.T. Wright’s Bigotry Causes Him To Contradict His Own Theology

    “In case you haven’t heard, N.T. Wright–author of theology books such as Surprised By Hope and Simply Christian, and former Bishop of Durham–recently did an interview in which he compared people who support marriage equality to Nazis and Soviet Communists.


    And Soviet Communists.

    While I’m not surprised that Wright is not on board with marriage equality (he’s brought up his opposition to LGB people in several other places), I was a little shocked to hear a man who is considered, according to Times, to be “one of the most formidable figures in Christian thought” stoop to arguments usually brought out by Fox News analysts and YouTube commenters. “

  4. If you read the actual transcript he is not comparing people who support marriage equality to Nazis. He is raising the point of the danger of redefining words to re-frame the debate.

    I dont agree with him, but it is a reasonable argument that I can respect.

    Its gotten to the stage where you cant mention Nazism at all on the Internet now – people yell Godwin’s law and shut down the debate, Which is a problem if another movement did arise which was like the Nazis.

  5. On the topic of hair, the Lord said :

    Numbers 6:5

    During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the LORD is over; they must let their hair grow long.

  6. “He is raising the point of the danger of redefining words to re-frame the debate.”

    You mean words like arsenokoites?

    Christians have done a great job of redefining words. Never see them referred to as Nazis though.

    Tom Wright isn’t stupid. He knew exactly what he was saying.

  7. OK, here comes the Lutheran … Yes, Luther was entirely right. We are saved by Faith alone and not by our Works. Luther thinking was to give the apparent contradiction between justification by faith alone and the James scripture “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (2:24) by placing a lower weighting on it:

    “”I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable although it was rejected in early days. It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law. …I do not hold it to be of apostolic authorship.” (Luther).

    My own thinking is that we need to be very careful when our (theological) logic is strong but it is one-sided as this can lead to unbalanced and limited perspective.

    I once recall somebody once told me that we are saved by Faith – FOR good works.

    I would assume that what was meant by good works is bearing fruit.

    Thus a Christian that has genuinely been saved by faith will manifest good works.

    Not works that are a tiresome back-busting burden, but rather a works that are assisted by the Spirit and a joy to undertake. (“My burden is light”).

  8. Simple.

    We are saved by grace through faith, not by good works, but for good works. The good works that follow salvation are evidence of faith, but do not save us.

  9. “We are saved by grace through faith, not by good works, but for good works. The good works that follow salvation are evidence of faith, but do not save us”.


  10. People generally work hard at making themselves look and sound like they do GREAT deeds.
    It’s too much hard work for some people to have faith.
    I Believe i Work?…Ha!, there’s faith and works right there……….RIGHT!…in this case i guess all you need is faith…or is that love?.
    Now even I’m confused.
    So here is what I will do,
    I’ll put my trust, hope and confidence (or FAITH, depending on what side of the brackets you grew up on) in the lord JESUS CHRIST for ‘THE RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (which is of course, GOOD WORKS.), ‘THE RIGHTEOUSNESS’ that comes from GOD and is by faith.
    Apparently, if you hunger and thirst for RIGHTEOUSNESS, then you will be filled.
    If you conform to GODs will in thought and deed, then you will be called GODs FRIEND.
    A man cannot become and be made and pronounced righteous before GOD by anything other then faith in CHRIST.
    Without faith it is impossible to please GOD.
    So DO (or work @) what is right, by FAITH.
    Yes, I am saying that it is GOD who works in you to will and to act according to his own purpose.Contrarily why then pray,” YOUR WILL BE DONE”.

  11. Just checked up to see if this place still existed.

    Good article Wazza. Thanks.

    And I’ll check out Wright’s link.

  12. From faith and works to Wright being called a bigot.

    Seems like gay marriage has to come into every Christian discussion these days.

    The author of that article was unfair in her criticism of Wright.

    But given that she said “For me, Surprised By Hope served as a gateway drug into feminist, liberationist, and queer theologies”
    maybe she really didn’t understand him in the first place?

    Okay , now that I’ve been sidetracked, I’ll go look at Wright’s article pertinent to this discussion.

    Good to see everyone is alive!

  13. Just read the Wright article.

    It’s been a while since I’ve had to read that slowly and think I’ll have to read it over another couple of times.
    Heavy going!

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