Faith and Works

Paradigms are funny things. They can reveal the truth and they can hide the truth. When we attempt to explain salvation in terms of the courtroom (legalism, appeasement, penal substitution, transaction, etc.) we paint ourselves into some unfortunate corners. We end up saying things that rob the Scriptures of their life-creating message.

Take, for example, faith (grace) and works (law). Many of us have been taught that there is some kind of “either/or” relationship between the two. They cannot both be essential to salvation. One is and the other is “extra” so to speak. We somehow think that essential participation on our part in salvation is out of bounds or an affront to God.

But, is this true? If we are speaking in legalistic terms the answer is yes. It must be. We are relegated to the status of spectators.

However, if we are speaking in terms of authentic personhood and right relationship that is essentially one of union and transformation into the likeness of Christ, our real participation is essential. I remember one of my New Testament professors saying that the relationship between faith and works is essentially paradoxical. He said, “…to speak about it in any other way is blasphemy to the very heart of the gospel. For it is true that we cannot be saved by our works but we cannot be saved without them. What is more, we cannot keep our rulers when it comes to attempting to measure how much of each are involved.”

I remember how freeing those sentiments of my professor were to me. I realized that God was, in Christ, and always will, somehow be calling forth my essential participation in His saving work, however meager and misshapen. What is more, “my” salvation really wasn’t “mine” in some individualistic sense but participation in the salvation of all humanity and all of creation. So, there were myriads of essential participants in God’s saving of me. I also realized that salvation was not some nice neat “if/then,” “this and then this,” linear progression of cause and effect or something. Time and the progression of decisions seemed to become, what a new friend has called one big “pulsating point” that includes everything and everyone all at once.

Ascetic obedience in the form of self-emptying love is salvific for, at its very heart, there is the dynamic “movement” from life to death to life – death and resurrection. (See the chapter entitled “The Poetics of the Resurrection,” in The Grace of Incorruption, by Donald Sheehan.)

Thus, the demarcation between salvation and sanctification is artificial and does more to hinder our maturation in Christ Jesus that it does to foster it. This also applies to the false demarcation between grace and law. When rightly understood, faith, works, grace, and law are not at odds. They are facets of the mysterious salvific work of God and man — the God.man.

The Scriptures simply do not narrate a story of salvation as the work of God without the essential dimension of human participation and the requirement that we embrace it and live it as essentially “Mysterious”. The most obvious example is the Theotokos but there are many more… If faith and works are not essential to salvation then the incarnation would be impossible. Jesus would have to materialized out of thin air or some such nonsense.

Such a message of “both/and” when it comes to faith and works is risky. It can be misunderstood and misapplied. The temptation is to adjust the message to make it safe from such misappropriation to those who receive it. But, in so doing, we rob the message of its deepest power and message – the reestablishment of union in all relationships. This union recreates us as persons in every aspect which includes the exercise of the will and how we actually live our life.

St. Paul’s letters are fully of examples in which the apostle is having to reiterate the mysterious “both/and” relationship between faith and works not the articulation of an “either/or” relationship between the two.

St. John Chrysostom speaks to the “both/and” relationship in this way in commenting on the Epistle to the Ephesians:

“God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.”

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