The relationship between saving faith and good works


“No one can be saved without good works.” Such a statement can cause Reformation-attached Christians to shudder. After all, among their perpetual mottos is Ephesians 2:8: “God has saved us not by works, but by grace, so that no man may boast.” And more specifically, Romans 3:28: “Man is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.”

Faith/works is an ongoing debate in some circles. It is certainly a perennial question: What is the relationship between individual, saving faith and good works? But then, how does our answer apply to the “routine drudgery of everyday existence” as one of my teachers described daily life?

Very simply, the longest-standing Christian interpretation teaches us that “works of the law” as St. Paul described them (circumcision, for example) do not save in and of themselves, that is, mechanically. There is, in fact, a New Testament distinction between ritual acts of the law and doing good deeds.

Salvation begins, technically, with ritual acts (baptism); and it is without good deeds that no one is saved. But the mystery of salvation is only fully realized with the companion statement “and no one is saved by them.” So, as St. James teaches, “faith without works is dead.” Or as Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” — among the greatest of which is to love even one’s enemy, blessing those who curse us.

To oppose faith and good works is as silly as to ask the question, “Do I have to kiss my wife?” After all, I told her that I love her on the day I was married, and she has a ring to remind her. Anyone who is married — or even has had any significant relationship — knows that “without works, it is dead.” But the kiss or a bouquet of flowers do not buy her affection; rather, they demonstrate mine.

In a relationship, if there is truly love, there will be outward signs of that love, not simply a once-and-for-all statement about it. A relationship of love is alive, organic. It is not legalistic or mechanical. For examples of the former, ask anyone married for 50 years or more. For the latter, ask a divorce lawyer.

More to the point, a biblical example might help. Once, Jesus was walking and talking with his students and followers and he told them, “When I was sick you visited me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was in prison you visited me, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink.”

His followers, baffled, asked him, “When did we do these things?”

Jesus told them, “When you did it to the least of these (the poor, the needy, etc.) you did them to me.”

The good works done by the disciples evidently weren’t done because they were trying to score points for themselves, temporally or eternally. Clearly, they didn’t even know or remember that they had done them. Why? Because such actions naturally flowed from their transformed humanity. They were simply loving and serving others as their master, Jesus, was loving and serving them and others.

Christianity calls its voluntary adherents to some rather unique actions. “Serve one another” is not unique to Christianity. “Lay down your life for another” is not unique to Christianity. Love, forgive and serve your enemy — who else believes that? In our day-to-day lives, the outward expression of our firm, individual faith, confirmed and grounded in the community of the Church, is to be demonstrated by acts of love and self-sacrifice, even to the least deserving, even to our enemies. This is precisely because, as Christians, each of us is the least-deserving enemy of God, demonstrated by our repeated turning away from his living, loving ways, tireless mercy and eternal long-suffering.

Fr John Parker is pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On Community of Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at frjohn@oca or 881-5010.