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:
5 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.6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 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.