Faith vs. Works: A meaningless argument
Undoubtedly the most influential
debate in the course of Christian history is “faith vs.
works”. It’s most popular effect was the cause for the
reformation, as Luther’s opinion on the matter differed from the
Roman Catholic Church. The argument has been around for almost two
thousand years, however, since both Paul and James thought it important
to write explicitly on it.
The argument, very basically, is about how a human being becomes
justified and saved from his sins in order to go to heaven when he
dies. One answer is that we work for our salvation through good deeds,
observing sacred rites and traditions, and being obedient to the
commandments of the church. The opposing answer (that was started by
Luther) is that we attain salvation through faith in God, so long as we
believe in what Jesus did and are repentant of our sins, we will be
saved. I am going to argue that both positions are fundamentally wrong,
and that the debate as a whole is a meaningless one.
The first reason the argument is meaningless is that the question
itself is inappropriate. The debate is focused around how we can get to
heaven, and as I argued in my post Afterlife and Egoism it is
immoral for the afterlife to dominate our theology. Since our afterlife
is supposed to reflect our life in this world, a Christian should focus
on this life and let that determine our destined afterlife, instead of
focusing on the afterlife and letting that determine how we act in the
present. A follower of Christ that seeks the truth does not ask
“How do I get to heaven?”, but asks questions like
“How do I become more Christ-like?”, “What does Jesus
want in my life?”, and “How can I live righteously?”
The second reason the “faith vs. works” argument is
meaningless is because it is impossible to have one without the other.
It is essentially impossible to have faith without works. James 2:17
states that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead.” It is
not just that having faith without works won’t get you to heaven,
but that a faith without works is dead, the faith becomes meaningless.
The man who asserts he has faith but does not follow all of
Christ’s commandments is a liar because there is no such thing as
a true faith that has not works (1 John 2:4).
Also, it is impossible to have works without faith. This is a more
radical claim than the last, but I believe it is just as
psychologically valid. All good works can be traced back to faith in
some overarching truth. Whether it be faith in Jesus (Christianity),
faith in Allah (Islam), faith in eastern religious concepts such as
karma and Ki (Buddhist etc.), faith in the value of morality (all
religions and secular philosophy), and faith that the good work will
help a loved one (all religions and secular philosophy). Furthermore,
all Christians who advocate a works-based salvation have some sort of
conception and belief in God. There is no such thing as works without
faith, just as there is no such thing as a faith that is without works.
The third reason the argument is meaningless is that it implies a
misconstrued meaning of the words “faith” and
“belief”. Reason two reveals the necessary marriage between
faith and works, and subsequently our conception of faith and belief
should reflect that. My point here is that the word “faith”
as it is understood today is different to how Jesus used the word. The
faith vs. works argument arose from a misinterpreted understanding of
what faith and belief means.
When Jesus said “believe on me to be saved”, he was not
simply saying if you intellectually agree with my divinity you are
heaven-bound. Look at the disciples, believing in the divinity of Jesus
necessarily meant a life lived in existential discipleship with Christ.
Belief back then was not intellectual but existential, if you truly
believe in something your life will reflect that truth in every
instant. Accordingly, if someone truly believes that Jesus Christ was
the son of God it is shown through his existence. It is the same with
faith. Paul Tillich said this concerning faith: "Faith is not a
theoretical affirmation of something uncertain, it is the existential
acceptance of something transcending experience. Faith is not an
opinion but a state."
The faith vs. works debate is meaningless because the two words mean
the same thing: a Christ-like existence. It is not that we get to
heaven by having both of these things, but that the whole debate
overlooks a more fundamental relationship with God that is shown
through the interaction Jesus had with his disciples. When Jesus called
men to believe and have faith in him, the men knew the faith in Jesus
was expressed and developed existentially; it had naught to do with
intellectual belief. James appropriately said “shew me thy faith
without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”
The existential nullification of the faith vs. works argument leads me
to the increasingly clear truth that Christianity is an existential
-- By Timothy Neal