Faith and works

Apparently there is a good deal of controversy over whether good works are necessary to salvation, or if faith is sufficient.  I have heard from an Orthodox friend that she has been torn into by Protestants for the Orthodox belief in the importance of good works.  I know, myself, of Christians who not only feel that faith is enough in itself, but seem to actively despise several things that I would place under the heading of “good works.”

Then again, at the other extreme, I also know that some of the more liberal Christianities seem to almost take faith out of the game – it’s all right to treat not only miracles but God Himself as metaphor, as long as good works are done.

I’m new, so maybe I’m wrong about how obvious the answer is.  And it helps, I suppose, that I have the blessing of experiencing God as a person, which makes it awfully hard to regard Him as metaphorical.  Faith supported by experience is easier (just ask Thomas); being able to physically feel the settling-in of grace makes the importance of faith self-evident.

But it says in 1 John that faith without good works is dead.  My personal perspective on this is colored by the fact that I am a bhakti, someone whose path toward God is driven primarily by love.  I think that good works are not necessary to earn grace, but rather, that doing good works is evidence that grace is present. The presence of the Holy Spirit is meant to lift us toward holiness, and we are told repeatedly that holiness consists of loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Being human we are bound to continue in some errors, but if we are open to the Holy Spirit, we should find ourselves drawn to love both God and our neighbors more and more, and to express that love.  Conversely, if the evidence of good works is lacking, we might conclude that the Holy Spirit is being shut out – which would show a lack of faith, faith that is “dead.”

(This also explains why good works are not sufficient in themselves, as we tend to imagine or hope in secular life: there are plenty of motivations for doing good other than loving God, and we cannot expect God to gather to Himself those who do not love Him.  So faith opens us to grace, and good works express grace.  In faith we love God with all our hearts, and in good works we love our neighbors as ourselves.)

For myself, I also feel that whether or not faith was sufficient by itself, I would want to do what was pleasing to God – as it is abundantly clear that good works are – as an expression of my own love for God.  To accept eternal love and salvation and give back nothing but complacency is to be a spoiled brat.  It was an attitude that was annoying enough in Paganism, where some practitioners see their gods as little more than spell ingredients to be plugged in to get what one wants.  (I must add that there are also many Pagans who see this attitude as ridiculous and insulting and in defiance of the entire idea of religion.)  But when we are talking specifically about a God who descended into the flesh to suffer with us and for us, answering that sacrifice with the reverence of a rich teen who just got the Mercedes they thought they deserved for their birthday seems particularly awful.

Of course we can’t fix the world by ourselves, and we can’t give back God’s love in equal measure.  But that does not excuse us from making some attempt.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nicole
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 06:04:21

    I’m going to make an ass out of myself and assume that I’m the above referenced friend for the sake of this thought: I do remember that the Church taught that we should do good works. What I don’t remember at this moment is if they leaned on that. My brain wants to say we were taught that both were good, if not necessary.

    To me, now, I think it’s kind of like the Jewish concept of performing a mitzvah; you do it because you’re told to (do unto others, love one another, the “rule of return”, etc.) and because doing good is just The Right Thing To Do. And I freely admit there’s a selfish component to it too…it feels good. Even if you’re never noticed, acknowledged, or whatever, it feels good to Do for someone else.

    Basically, what you’ve said here sounds like what I was taught, even if I think I derailed myself above.


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