I’ve been avoiding this post as it deserves about 5,000 words. There are three general views on the faith versus works debate in Christianity. The reformed view says that faith justifies, and there is no need to speak of the theological necessity for works or acts of charity, since we cannot merit grace. The middle view states that faith and works are compatible, and the Pelagian view argues that man can earn his salvation.
There are enough Christians (protestant and Catholic) who feel their salvation can be purchased, however, we will not discuss those whose faith is two-inches-deep. Any well-informed Christian knows better. The more legitimate debate that confronts reformed Christians and Catholics is the extent to which “faith alone” justifies. Some evangelicals foreclose debate by calling their Catholic brothers and sisters “works-based” Christians.
I have never liked this debate to begin with, because it shifts the kerygma (see post below) of faith away from Christ’s ministry and his passion, and towards a very subjective – and superficial – ideological expression of the faith. That ideological statement either takes the form “I am justified by faith in Christ” or “I have been saved by Jesus Christ.”
Fine, but the sum total of Christ’s ministry asks more of us than just mindlessly repeating (and taking out of context) something that Paul said in Romans. And Paul’s ministry asks more of us than to merely say “I am justified by my faith alone.” But getting back to the kerygma of the Gospels, consider what Jesus says in Matthew 25:41-43:
Depart form me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.
Matthew’s Gospel is highly works-based. Is this because Matthew was writing for a Judeo-Christian audience, or because Matthew was a good theologian who understood Jesus well? I don’t know, but perhaps Matthew never read Calvin. Speaking of meriting grace (which I do not endorse), consider what Jesus says (Mt 6:3-4) in the Sermon on the Mount:
When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
And then we have this gem at Matthew 10:42, again from the overtly works-based Saint Matthew, apostle of Jesus:
And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of the little ones to drink because he is a disciple- amen I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
Have I overstated the case? Perhaps, as the Church does not teach that we merit grace, which we might assume we do if we were to do something charitable. On the other hand, Christian ministry is a call to witness to the Gospel by being of service to others. I think Christ fully expects those in ministry (and that means anyone who is baptized) to actualize their faith. And, if I am reading Matthew correctly, our actualization of the faith will in fact be a measure of our worthiness for salvation. Speaking of which, lets return to Matthew on measurement:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which measure will be measured out to you. Why do notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, while the wooden beam is in your eye?
PS. If you see anything about “imputed justification” in Matthew, send me an email.