The battle lines used to seem so clear.
Religion taught that we earned favour with God by “being good” or “doing good works”.
Christianity, on the other hand, taught that we received favour from God by grace, through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9.
The case for the defence
It’s still a strong case, found in many places in Paul’s writings, for example:
- Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
- Romans 3:22-24, 28: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. …. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
But what about …..?
Jesus was not so clear about this. It is true that he showed grace to outcasts, he offered forgiveness freely (e.g. the woman in Luke 7:36-48), and he said he came to give his life to redeem many people (Mark 10:45). The parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32 – a classic story of grace and forgiveness) would fit with Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, even if Jesus doesn’t explicitly teach the doctrine. A.
But Jesus also taught (Matthew 25:31-46) that some would be in heaven because of the kindness they showed to the suffering, and some would miss out because they didn’t show this kindness and care. And his teaching on forgiveness is very stark – if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us (Matthew 18:21-35). We ought to take these teachings on actions very seriously.
Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be born again (John 3:1-8), but he told the rich young ruler to give away his wealth (Mark 10:17-25). His “gospel” message was certainly more varied than Paul’s.
And Jesus’ brother, James, was on the same wavelength: “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
How to resolve these apparent differences?
The time honoured way (in Protestant christianity, at any rate) is to accept the truth of the ‘grace through faith’ passages, and interpret the passages that seem to teach works-based salvation in some other way. But this ‘explaining away’ destroys the plain meaning of some of Jesus’ strongest words. There must be a better way.
Can we put the two sides together in some way?
I believe perhaps we can, though I wouldn’t say I was clear on the matter yet. I have a couple of ideas.
More than one way to receive grace?
There can be no doubt that we are all part of the problem, and only God’s grace, through the sacrifice of Jesus, can ‘save’ us. But how do we receive God’s grace? Paul shows that faith is required. James and Jesus suggest that our actions demonstrate our faith, and without them we are in trouble. Perhaps God is looking at the intentions of our hearts, and in different circumstances, our faith or our actions might demonstrate the ‘right’ attitude?
I’m not sure, but maybe.
Have we underestimated God’s purpose?
Protestant teaching on salvation by faith tends to treat the main purpose of life as being to get to heaven when we die. Whatever else we do or don’t do in life, we need to repent of our sins, ‘receive’ Jesus and be saved. It’s a very self-centred way of looking at things, and it doesn’t fit with much of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God.
Jesus showed grace and tenderness to those who were victims, suffering, guilty or marginalised, but was much tougher and demanding on those who higher up the social pecking order and thought their lives were good. Perhaps this gives us a clue?
The kingdom of God began with Jesus, and continues to be established on earth. Jesus calls us all to join him in living in that kingdom where many worldly values are turned upside down. He expects us, as much as we are able, to join him in putting things right by living as he outlined in the sermon on the mount. Those who live in the kingdom here and now will continue to live in the kingdom in the age to come.
So perhaps Paul and the message of salvation by faith is just the first step in God’s plan for us? Likewise Jesus’ ready forgiveness for the broken and broken-hearted. But God doesn’t intend for it to end there. We must continue to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), by playing our part in God’s grand plan of salvation – the kingdom of God on earth.
Perhaps those who refuse to live in the kingdom, where we must love our enemies and offer forgiveness as readily as it has been offered to us, where helping those in need is helping Jesus, put themselves outside God’s plan of salvation as surely as those who refuse to repent in the first place?
Again, I don’t know. But I’m going to keep praying that God will show me how he sees it.
What do you think? Please leave a constructive comment.
Original photo: Flickr Commons