The Primary Paradox of Christianity: Faith & Works
There is one aspect of Christianity that causes more confusion and uncertainty than any other. At least, that has been my experience. In my life, and from what I’ve seen in the lives of others.
How do my actions contribute to my faith?
This is a heavy concept and I realize it will be so easy for people from all different backgrounds to read some of these words and come away with a different idea than what’s kicking around in my head. But I’ll try my best to articulate it clearly and plainly.
The Bible is a big book and there are times when one verse can seem to contradict another. And that’s why I used the term “paradox” in the title. By definition, a paradox is:
a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true
The key word there is “seemingly”. For a good overview of what makes a paradox, as well as contradictions and mysteries, and how they’re involved in Scripture, see this bit from one of RC Sproul’s books.
And the paradox I’m referring to comes down to faith versus works. There are many verses in the Scriptures exhorting readers to do this or don’t do that. Many passages are practical advice on how to live your life and get along with others. But there are also many other verses that clearly state that salvation comes from faith alone … and that faith is a gift from God. It is not something we can earn, but a gift. And as faith cannot be earned, nor can our salvation.
And so there is a paradox where the Bible seems to be saying two different things. One, my standing with God is dependent wholly on him. Two, my standing with God is largely affected by my actions. Two big ideas that appear to be saying different things.
Let’s back it up just a little. Hopefully, we all agree that our justification (being saved from our sins and declared innocent by God) is not our work. However, the process laid out in Scripture shows that once justified, a person will be glorified by God.
As Romans 8:29–30 points out, our path looks like this:
Foreknown -> Called -> Justified -> Glorified
But before that happens, the process of sanctification takes place. So I find the important question to be “how do my actions contribute to my faith?” For Scripture seems clear that my faith itself starts with God and is a gift, but what after that? Can I lose my faith? Do my actions affect my standing with God?
So the process I mentioned above ends with justification turning to glorification (which is just mind blowing). But something happens in between those two pieces, that is spelled out in many other places in Scripture. Before we are glorified, we are sanctified.
What is sanctification? I like this definition:
Sanctification is the process of being set apart for God's work and being conformed to the image of Christ.
This is the contribution I’m referring to in my big question. The question then, is this: is our sanctification our work or God’s?
I would say both. There are plenty of verses that show God is involved.
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.
But on the other hand, there are plenty of examples like this:
Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Throughout the writings of Paul, you cannot come away with a sense of his being lackadaisical. Far from it. While he strongly emphasizes the source of this faith (a free gift from God), he also clearly indicates that our very best efforts are required to make the most of this gift. To live for God, day by day.
Louis Berkhof sums this up well in his systematic theology, introducing the section on sanctification:
It is a work of God in which believers cooperate. When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit. That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: a) from the repeated warnings against evils and temptations, which clear imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life; and b) from the constant exhortations to holy living. These imply that a believer must be diligent in the employment of the means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvements of his life.
Kenneth Boa, in Conformed to His Image, puts it this way:
The biblical balance is that the spiritual life is both human and divine … we are responsible to work out, not work for, our salvation. On the divine side, God gives us the desire and empowerment to accomplish his purposes.
That matches so well Philippians 2:12,13 (emphasis mine):
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
We’re to work out our salvation, but it is God who works in us to give us the desire to do so and to enable us to act on the desire.
But trouble comes when we begin to lose sight of the original gift and focus instead on our efforts. It’s easy to go from living and doing through the peace that comes from a right relationship, to bearing burdens we were never meant to carry. To be law-focused, rather than Spirit-led.
So If I’m going to pursue a life of depth, if I’m going to actively pursue God, to seek him and knock on the door, how will I go about it? How can I follow the exhortations I see in Scripture, to be holy as he is holy, without moving my focus from him to my works?
These are exact questions I’d like to answer in 2017.
For newer readers, I shared the direction of this newsletter and the results of a survey last fall. My focus here is to encourage depth & focus for Christians in the digital age and that starts with identifying exactly what role our efforts play in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Our efforts do not save us from our sins. And they do not affect our legal standing with God. But they do have a part to play on our journey to joining Christ in the fullness of his kingdom and sharing in his glory.
Each month will have one newsletter that focuses on this primary theme. Where do we go from here? Find out next month!&