The Bare Minimum: Part 1 – Faith or Works?


None of us magically arrived at this point, with our beliefs, convictions, world-views and patterns of behavior arbitrarily or objectively assigned. The old “nature vs nurture” debate is typically foolish. “Why we are” is an interrelationship between who we are, where we are, when we are, and how we are. It is nature AND nurture, as well as volition (our own choices).

Now obviously, some things are more dependent on nature – how tall we are, the color of our eyes, our predisposition to heart disease, etc. Yet, even in those instances things like diet, exercise, stress management…and colored contacts are also calculated in the equation. We may be genetically predisposed to heart disease, and despite our best efforts that dna may catch up to us. However, the lessons we learn as a child about eating and exercise, and the habits we develop into adulthood can greatly impact our heart health one way or the other.

This also applies to philosophy, world views and religion. A person born to devout parents in a Muslim country is most likely going to view the world through what lens? If they’re born to conservative evangelical parents in the southern US? Communist parents in China? Awesome parents in Texas?

This series of posts isn’t really about moral luck, determinism or free will. I just need to set the stage by acknowledging that a number of interconnected systems, in addition to our genetic makeup and conscious decisions (which can certainly run counter to how we were raised) have tremendous influence – negatively and positively – on how we view the world and even how we view God.

Even the statement, “I don’t need any of that to determine my worldview, I just read the Bible and do what it says,” is largely dependent on things outside of us. The sentiment travels back most notably to the courageous work of our good German friend Martin Luther, not to mention the invention of the printing press. The idea that everyone should have their own copy of the Bible – and in their own language – is a relatively new development…upon which our staunchly independent brothers and sisters are deeply dependent.

Furthermore, there were teams of scholars who worked for years to translate the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic words into English phrases we can read. So, even if we literally sit in our closet to read, we do so in community with others – whether we like it or not.

There are a few inherited trait that I really want to address – because I think they deeply (and negatively) impact our attempts at discipleship, mission, and community – whether we’re in established congregations or church planting contexts.

We’ve been engaged in battle for many years on the issue of whether salvation comes by works or by faith. This was already a problem in the time that the New Testament was being written. The message of Scripture, boiled down, seems somewhat straight-forward; we are saved by God. Jesus is the hero. The Holy Spirit fills us with life.

“Yes, yes,” we say, “But how do we gain access to that salvation? By faith or works?”

And Scripture says, “Yep.”

“No,” you may say, “It is by grace we are saved, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Our efforts have nothing to do with it, God doesn’t care about that – its the blood of Christ covering us that matters.”

Well quoted my good scholar, but there is no faith apart from what we do. In Isaiah 58, the prophet reminds us (and prepares us for the message of Jesus) that the kind of fasting (descriptive of faith and worship in this section of the passage) which God desires is to loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, feed the hungry, provide shelter for the wanderer, and clothes for the naked.

James comes back later with “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Jesus, in Matthew 25 points to the day of judgement and says that people will discover that their faith, and their connection to Christ, is known because, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did [or didn’t do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [or didn’t do] for me.”

There is hardly any ambiguity on this matter in Scripture. What we believe and what we do are inextricably linked. So why does this debate continue to persist? I believe there are several reasons – but most of them are themselves still symptoms of deeper questions and deeper problems, just as is this debate. The real problem isn’t legalism vs cheap grace.

Richard Beck has an excellent, though somewhat academic, series of posts which address this matter. He makes the case that Paul’s point against The Law isn’t a problem of legalism but rather the weakness of sarx (the mortal, finite, frail, death-afraid “flesh”). You can read this series at his site – Experimental Theology and the post which specifically deals with aforementioned argument is Part 9 in the Slavery of Death series.

The problem isn’t faith or grace vs works. These go together, and when we aren’t being defensive I think most of us get that. So what keeps driving this argument? In the next post I want to continue digging deeper.

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Posted on April 2, 2012, in Missional and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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