The topic of this post is the extent to which a Christian, in addition to having faith, needs to worry about performing good works. Sure, maybe it’s presumptuous for me to opine on such a profound issue, but let me start by noting that it would be a mistake to agonize over reaching the right answer, since (a) if there were clearly a definitive answer then someone smarter than I would have reached it, and (b) it doesn’t matter because only a fool would not try to do both — that is, have faith and also follow that faith by behaving as God has told us to — because, while I’m a Protestant, there’s too much in the Bible about works for anyone to be able to ignore that and be very confident about his status with God.
It is hard to dispute that Scripture says God wants both. Moreover, faith itself is a work, isn’t it? And love, too, is a work, and Jesus said we have to love God (and to love our neighbor as ourselves); a requirement that we love God has built into it both faith and works, does it not? On this point, here are a couple of relevant quotes (hat tip to Joseph Girzone’s Jesus: His Life and Teachings): “[W[hoever believes in me will do the works I do” (151), and “Whoever loves me will keep my words …. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words …” (152).
On the other hand, it is also clear that faith is more likely to be a reliable antecedent to the works God wants than vice versa (though, to be sure, works can help faith — see, e.g., note at end of this post — and, conversely, sin can undermine faith); also, perfection in works is laughably impossible. So Luther was right to emphasize faith more than works. There is also the little matter of verses like, most famously, John 3:16 — which mentions faith, but not works.
But here’s a third hand: How can you truly believe in God and not at least try to obey Him? The word “believe” must mean more than simply “acknowledge His existence”; as James says, the demons do that much; it must mean honor and respect in some way, too. (Cf. when we say we “believe” in someone or “have faith” in him, it means that there is something positive in that person that we feel we can count on. In his biography Paul — which I discuss on this blog site — N.T. Wright notes that the Greek word pistis denotes not just faith qua faith, but also an element of “loyalty” or “allegiance.”) On this point, let me reference a discussion in James & First and Second Peter: Faith, Suffering, and Knowledge by Mal Couch and Ed Hindson that says (41), “The two missing ingredients in ‘intellectual’ faith are repentance and personal trust.” It also says (42), “‘Vital trust’ is faith that depends on and acts on something believed.” (Regarding repentance, this is frequently included as part of an evangelical altar call, suggesting that, if it can be considered an act, it is also integral to faith.)
Plus: Good works can help others — and, in particular, can help bring others to Christ; and bad works can cause others to suffer — and, in particular, alienate them from others and from God. Acts do not take place in a vacuum. A similar thought I had when reading James: Sometimes works are needed to save a third party — to keep them alive, to argue with them and bring them to God, or to lead by example (cf. James 2:21). Is not the Great Commission a call to good work? All this suggests that a Christian who ignores works cannot be a satisfactory Christian.
One way to square the faith/works circle — suggested, for example, by Paul Little — is the possibility that faith determines whether you go to Heaven or Hell, but works determine the levels in each. The more godly you were here, the greater your reward there. That’s the unabashed message of Randy Alcorn’s book The Law of Rewards, which I discuss elsewhere on this blogsite. (One other thought: Maybe in some contexts “works” means, more narrowly, adherence to formulaic Jewish law — not broader behavior like loving your neighbor and God.)
Obvious conclusion: It is impossible to have true faith and ignore works. So being saved by faith alone doesn’t mean that you can ignore works, because then you would not have true faith. But focusing principally on works rather than faith is silly, because no one can be saved by works without faith, and no one with faith will not be saved because of a lack of works. So, while you can’t have faith and reject works, it’s also true that you can’t get into Heaven by rejecting faith and doing works. Thus, having faith is, logically, the principal focus and Luther and the Protestants were and are right about that.
Note (from third paragraph above), quoting Peter Kreeft’s Back to Virtue (174) (emphasis added):
We cannot see God until our heart is like an eagle instead of an owl, able to see the sun. Here is the point of life and of morality: to grow eagle’s eyes. Our lives are a process of growing the necessary organs for our destiny. That is the reason why God is such a stickler about morality, not because he wants to control our behavior, but because he wants us to become the kind of people who can see him and thus experience infinite joy. Love longs to spend itself, longs to give itself to a perfected beloved. We must learn to be holy to satisfy God’s desire, Love’s desire, to spend itself on us.