For many Christians, the role of faith and works has always been difficult to grasp. Many read and think they comprehend Paul’s statement, “It is by grace through faith that you are saved not by works.” (Ephesians 2:8)
Then they encounter James’ assertion, “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:20), and they’re a bit confused. While there have always been Christians who retain both statements, it seems many have championed faith to the exclusion or denigration of works, agreeing with Martin Luther that the letter of James is a “right strawy epistle.” This has, unfortunately, often turned Christianity into a faith in ideas rather than a faith in ethics.
Let me explain. The gospel I grew up hearing was this: I can be “saved” by recognizing that I’m a sinner who will be sent to hell unless I accept Jesus as my savior. If I affirm that Jesus is God’s son, born of a virgin, who died for my sins and was resurrected, I am “saved” and will go to heaven when I die. If I don’t, I’m not “saved” and will go to hell.
Later, other theological concepts were added to the list of required beliefs, such as Jesus’ dual natures, the Trinity, a satisfaction atonement model, biblical inerrancy and infallibility and a literal 144-hour creation. If I accept these ideas, I’m orthodox and Christian. If I don’t, I’m heretical and possibly no longer a Christian.
A latent Gnosticism exists in this model because thoughts bring salvation. Lifestyle and ethics are obscured because one’s eternal destiny is decided by reciting a “prayer of salvation” that focuses on the moment of repentance, but not the life toward which one is repenting. One must choose between faith and works because faith is associated with theological concepts rather than redemptive ethics.
Yet, if we are saved by accepting ideas, why did Jesus continually emphasize a way – an ethic – of relating to one another called the Kingdom of God? What purpose did Jesus’ life and teachings serve if belief in his atoning death is all that matters? And how can a person be saved, or liberated, by faith prior to Jesus’ death? (Mark 5:4, Mark 10:52, Luke 7:50, Luke 17:19 and Luke 18:42)
Why did Jesus emphasize neighborliness, justice, mercy, non-violence and love and call people to do likewise? More pointedly, what would change if we removed the concepts of virgin birth and dual natures? I’m not questioning the validity of these concepts, but noting that one could reject them and still accept Jesus’ ethic as a valid and redemptive way of life.
Could this be why Jesus continually focused on loving our neighbor because this reveals whether we embrace or oppose the reign of the God of love? Could our destiny actually be determined not by intellectual ideas, but by selfless actions toward the least of these? (Matthew 25)
For a long time I didn’t ask these questions, yet I was on a journey that led me to the realization that Jesus never proclaimed a faith in ideas, but a faith in ethics. In other words, for Jesus, lifestyle took precedent over concepts.
A faith in ideas has to denigrate, ostracize and even murder (search “inquisition” on Google) those whose thoughts are not correct because salvation is linked with ideas. This would be acceptable if that was Jesus’ approach, but the gospels reveal a lack of concern about abstract theological musings.
When religious leaders tried to trap him in theological debates – for example, a question about whose wife a woman would be at the resurrection who had been married to seven different men – Jesus’ reply reveals that the discussion was pointless. (Matthew 22:23-33)
His response, in the immediate (Matthew 22:34-40) and larger (Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 15, 18, 23-25) context of the gospel narrative, seems to imply that we should focus on what Jesus proclaimed – the ethics of the Kingdom of God. Rightly understood, salvation means recognizing the reign of love in Jesus and living one’s life accordingly.
Redemption may be found regardless of one’s understanding or acceptance of obscure theological concepts because it is about the grace-filled ethics of non-violent transformation: Turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving more than is required, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, healing the brokenhearted, and bringing justice to the oppressed. (Matthew 5-7, 25 and Luke 4, 6, 7)
Simply put, Christianity is faith in the ethics of Jesus rather than in theological conceptions about Jesus. The gospels reveal the transformation of human lives as individuals witness the reign of love in the life and teachings of a man who was so open to and conscious of the Ultimate that he was caught up in, and lived out of, a transformational vision he called the Kingdom of God, where violence is renounced, injustice overturned, hatred neutralized and all forms of selfishness rejected.
Our faith in this ethic – this reign of love and rule of grace – is the good and liberating news of Jesus, through and by which we and our world, by some great and mysterious grace, may one day be saved. So is it faith or works? I believe it is both. More precisely, it is faith in works of love, in the ethics of the Kingdom of God.