We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Save Yourselves

Among Protestants there is less debate about whether we are saved by grace or works than there should be.  Since the time of the Reformation, our pulpits have thundered with the essentially anti-Catholic preachment that we cannot save ourselves.  We are saved by faith alone, by God's grace alone.  Sola fide, sola gratia.  This, our preachers have long claimed, is the message of the Bible.  The problem is, as I've argued before (here and here), that is only part of what the Bible says.  In other places, it says, assumes, or implies that we are indeed saved by works.

One of the most famous works righteousness passages is Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus famously divides the sheep from the goats at the last judgment, sending the sheep to eternal reward and the goats to everlasting punishment.  The standard of judgment is strictly moral.  If you do good things for those in need, it is the same as doing them for Christ, and you gain reward.  If you don't, punishment is your lot.  That seems clear enough.  We are rewarded for what we do and punished if we don't do it.  I suppose that we could rationalize the matter by saying that it is only by God's grace that we can do these things, but then we could also rationalize that it is only by God's grace that we can do anything, even the ugly stuff we do.  It is better not to play that kind of game with the passage.  It says we are saved by works.

It turns out that Matthew 25 isn't the only passage in the New Testament that makes salvation so dependent on works.  In a similar passage, Luke 3:7-14, John the Baptist makes the same point.  John was in the wilderness preaching the message that people must repent in order to be forgiven for their sins.  He called the people who came to hear him preach "a brood of vipers" and warned them that being the children of Abraham did them no good at all.  In verse 9, John is quoted in the NRSV as saying, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  In response, the crowd asked him what they should do, and John replied that they were to clothe and feed the needy.  He told tax collectors to collect only what they legally should.  He told soldiers they should stop extorting the public and learn to live on their salary.

"What should we do?"  Our Protestant answer has been that we should go through a process of repentance that includes becoming aware of our sin, feeling remorse for it, confessing it, and then receiving God's gracious forgiveness.  Then we should live faithful lives, which includes presumably helping others.  But, we insist—after having to do all of this work of repentance—that salvation is by faith alone.  Sometimes we will say that the good we do is actually God working in us and that this includes the work of repentance.  OK.  But, at some point we are involved, otherwise the whole process of salvation is nonsense.  Matthew 25 and Luke 3 are both clear.  Our salvation depends on our behaving with generosity toward those in need.

If by salvation, we mean here a full and meaningful life, then it is best to say that we are saved by God's grace and our own responses to that grace, which are measured in our generosity to those in need.  The choice between grace and works is a false one.  Faith and works come as a package deal.  We can't have one without the other.  Amen.