Thursday, April 24, 2008

18. Life in the Spirit: No Escaping the Importance of ‘Good Works’

Well, the concert in Macau was every bit as good as I expected it to be! Angela Hewitt really is a talented performer. What was a very pleasant surprise was how good the Macau concert hall is. It is on the small side, but modern and very comfortable. The only problem with going to Macau for a concert is that it takes a ferry ride there and back, which means that it is quite late by the time you get home!

I am now looking forward very much to Angela Hewitt's visit to Hong Kong in the Autumn. In Hong Kong she is booked for two nights and will be playing both book one and two of Bach's, Well-Tempered Clavier. I just hope I can get tickets!

18. Life in the Spirit: No Escaping the Importance of 'Good Works'

As I argued in the last blog, in Paul, as in the New Testament and Judaism, eternal life is given with reference to how we have lived in this life. This troubles many Christians for it seems to re-introduce ‘works’ as the basis for salvation. It appears as though we ‘earn’ our salvation after all. This is an understandable reaction, but equally we need to listen to what the text actually says rather than simply following our theological traditions important though these are.

I came again across a wonderful text from Acts the other day while preparing a sermon. It is Paul’s words in his defence before Felix:

‘But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept - that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people.’
(Acts 24:14-16)

Not everyone is comfortable with using Acts as a reliable guide to what Paul and others actually said, but this does seem a very good summary of Paul’s attitude. Paul did not see himself as departing from Judaism as such and accepted much that he had believed in his former life. As I have been arguing, how to become one of the righteous was a key idea in this. Paul disagreed with his fellow Jews and many Jewish-believers on how one became righteous. He did not disagree on the need to do so.

It followed for Paul, as again we have seen, that the righteous had to live righteously and God would judge whether in fact they had done so. This is why Paul does his best to have a ‘good conscience’. This raises the question of whether Paul allows a form of salvation by works in by the back door. Some think that he does and so embrace this by saying that the only works Paul is against are ‘works of Law’ - variously defined. He is not, they argue, against works as such.

At first glance there may seem to be some support for this in Ephesians. Again, it is worth noting that not all are convinced that Ephesians was written by Paul. I think we should accept that it is, or that at the very least it faithfully embodies his teaching. We read this:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10)

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace … (Ephesians 2:15)

It could be argued that Paul is simply against works of Law because these were what separated Jew and Gentile believers, but that he was not against good works, which were required of all believers. However, we need to remember all that we have said so far not least that when Paul discusses the Law. He dismisses an ongoing role for Law by reference to what is sometimes called the moral law. Notice too how here he stresses that this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no-one may boast. But surely our good works can be something that we boast in as well as Jewish works?

This has led some to argue that good works are evidence of faith and salvation but not the basis for it. John Calvin, who certainly cannot be accused of making works the basis for salvation wrote in his Commentary on Romans:

‘It is quite nonsensical to insist that there is a fire, when there is neither flame nor heat.’

This is certainly a way forward, but again, in Paul, works seem to have even more importance than simply as evidence. They seem in some sense to be the basis on which our future judgement will be made. Indeed, Paul does not assume at any time that the judgement will automatically be favourable for either himself or the believer. In Galatians, he seems to suggest that bad works, if we can put it like that, might actually lose a believer their salvation.

Consider this verse:

‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.’ (Galatians 6:7-9)

And this earlier. Having listed the works of the flesh he writes:

‘I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:21)

Taken together and with what Paul says elsewhere, not least in Romans, it does seem that Paul sees what we do as Christians as being more than simply illustrative of faith, though they are that, but more than it appears that they be the basis on which we will be judged.

If we are to take Paul seriously we will not receive eternal life without good works. Now someone who believes that good works illustrate faith will do good works and so the question of whether they are simply evidence of faith or the cause of a positive judgement is in a sense an academic question as in any case eternal life will be the result! It seems clear, even if we come to the conclusion that we will not receive eternal life because of our good works, that we certainly will not receive it without them. In this sense, Paul is a lot nearer James than sometimes it is thought. You will remember that James rejects the notion that we can be saved by faith alone without works.

Next I will try to be more precise about how I think Paul sees good works working!

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