Which is more important – works or faith? Christian leaders and theologians have been fighting over this question since the beginning of the church.
Even in the pages of the New Testament, you find an intense conversation about the role of faith versus works. The Book of James seems to argue for the supremacy of works as the path to being in right relationship with God. Paul in his epistle to the Romans makes a strong case that faith, not works, is the foundation of life with God.
Why would the apostles hold such diverse views of what it means to live in faith? How could the early church lift up writings that seem to contradict themselves on this subject? Which is the true path to God – works or faith?
There must be something deeper going on here. Contrary to the opinion of some skeptics, the Bible is not riddled with contradictions. Not when it comes to substantive matters of faith and morals. However, it can often seem that way at first glance, because the witness of scripture is rich with paradox.
The core paradox of the Christian faith is that God is at once utterly transcendent and overwhelmingly powerful, yet he took on the form of a slave, suffering shame, agony, and death. The eternal Word of God, through whom the world was created, became a weak and helpless baby, and was nailed to a cross by sinful men. These two truths, as outrageously contradictory as they seem, are at the heart of the gospel.
These things don’t make rational sense. It’s the kind of truth I have to accept in order to understand. This kind of truth requires humility and submission to God. To receive it, I’m forced to abandon my own defenses and rational arguments. I’m forced to recognize that God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.
All this makes me wonder if the apparent contradiction between works and faith might be a similar divine paradox. What if faith without works really is dead, and good works without faith are hollow and sterile? Alternatively, could it be that neither “faith” (in the sense of right belief) nor good works (in the sense of right action) are sufficient for life in the kingdom?
Can someone to believe all the right things and do all the right actions, and still be lost? On the other hand, what if someone believes all sorts of wrong things and acts wrongly on a regular basis, but still finds themself walking in the way of Jesus?
In my experience, this happens. All the time.
Rather than pitting faith against works, it may be better to think of them as two sides of the same coin. Both works and faith point to something deeper.
I think that the story that best illustrates the holy center that animates both works and faith is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee held all the right beliefs. He also did good works – even tithing a tenth of his income. But he lacked all humility, all real trust in God. He thought that through his beliefs and his works that he had God figured out.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that he had neither works nor faith. His job was rooted in extortion and collaboration with foreign occupiers. His faith was limited to coming to the Temple and asking God for mercy, knowing that he didn’t measure up in any way.
Yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God, not the pious Pharisee. The tax collector had something that the Pharisee, with all his orthodox beliefs and righteous actions, did not. The tax collector demonstrated sincerity of intention. Despite his lack of works or faith, his heart was aligned towards God. He wanted to know God, to draw closer to him. He longed for God’s mercy, and was acutely aware of his need for God.
God readily moves into this broken space of humility. When we become aware of our need for grace and mercy, the Spirit intervenes. Our lives are filled with energy for good works. Our hearts are opened to faith. Sincerity of intention before God opens up the possibility of both faith and works. Through our living relationship with God, we discover the way of Jesus.
This is a liberating realization for me, because it means that I don’t have to fret about belief or actions. Instead, I can focus on opening my life to God and seeking him with sincerity and a willingness to change. He will give me faith I need, and he will direct me in all good works.
What is your experience of faith, works, and the role that God plays in both? Has God given you the gift of faith? Has he directed you to do right actions? Have faith or works seemed more important to you at one point in your life or another? What have you found to be the source of them both?