Faith and Works


  • Question from LP, United Kingdom:

    Dear Mr freelance theologian.

    I am a little confused! I have been told that we are saved by grace, and that no amount of works will get us to heaven, it’s confessing Jesus as Lord, and accepting him as saviour. So why are we told that we have to be like Jesus? What if we are not, will we lose our salvation and go to hell? Why does what we do on earth affect what will happen to us in eternity when we are saved by grace and the ‘Price’ has been already paid?

    That’s a good question LP, and one that has divided theologians for a good number of years. The emphasis given to God’s grace and our faith being the only things needed to get us into Heaven stem from the Protestant Reformation when theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin reacted to the teaching of the current Church, which included the need to do penance, pilgrimage and other ‘good works’ in order to gain acceptance into heaven.

    Luther and Calvin and the other reformers rejected this as having little or no Biblical basis. From their point of view, if human beings can ‘earn’ their salvation (even if this is only theoretical) then that limits the importance of the crucifixion and the atoning death of Christ. Put simply, if you can work your way into Heaven than Jesus’ death is somewhat pointless. The reformers generally wanted to stress that it was only through Jesus’ death that we are saved.

    However, the question of how Christians should behave has been one that has troubled theologians since Paul first wrote to the Corinthians (if not before!). In the letter from James, the author – who may well have been the brother of Jesus – tells the readers ‘what’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions?’ (James chapter 2 v.14).

    That really is the key point to make. Calvin emphasised the idea that a Christian’s behaviour was a mark of their status before God. If someone did not behave according to God’s ideals (as laid out in Scripture), then it was clear they were not saved. Jesus warns his disciples repeatedly against hypocrisy – saying one thing and doing another. There are numerous incidents in the gospels where Jesus implies that right attitudes are vitally important to a person’s salvation (see Matthew chapter 23/Luke chapter 11 vs37 and following).

    One of the main reasons people struggle with this concept of faith and works is that we have a very static view of salvation. It is not clear from the New Testament that our salvation is something that happens once and for all at one single point in our life. Paul compares it to running a race several times in his letters and Jesus’ post-resurrection ‘commission’ to go into the world implies a life of service that does not stop.

    There is a tendency in some churches to misquote a Reformation phrase ‘once saved, always saved’ as implying that once a person has prayed the prayer they will be saved regardless of what they do next. In fact what the reformers meant by that phrase was that we could be secure in our salvation, knowing that we did not need to do anything more than accept Jesus Christ as Lord, but that results in a demand on us to continually recognise Jesus as Lord and therefore do what is asked of us.

    I hope that answers your question LP. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.
    If you have a question, email it in using the ‘email me’ button at the side of the site.

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