"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?"
I told you it was going to be a bumpy night.
But here is the reason I reminded us of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Scripture is its own interpreter. That means that we must test every Scripture by and with Scripture. Any verse taken in isolation can be made to say nearly anything. So I can immediately come up with a verse that says the complete opposite: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:20) And Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. "
Certainly, if anyone could be justified by his works, it would be Jesus. What are we to do with Jesus' teaching (it isn't really a parable because he's being pretty plain about his meaning) on the sheep and the goats, "Then he will answer them, saying, Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Keith Green's chilling ending to his interpretation of Matthew 25 haunts us: "And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this scripture, is what they did, and didn't do!"
The church, just like culture itself, goes through "swings". Over the past 60 years or so words like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" came to be associated with people steeped in biblical teaching but really short on social action. Meanwhile the word "liberal" meant people who rolled up their sleeves and got involved in social causes but whose theology was so general as to make many churches indistinguishable from chapters of The Lions' Club. Over the past 10 years or so that has begun to seriously change. A new generation of the church has grown up that is quietly reminding us that it isn't an either/or proposition. It has always been a both/and.
We must not do "works" in an effort to please God. That is what is clear from Paul's argument about Justification by Faith in Romans. But we must not presume that works are irrelevant or unnecessary to salvation any more than baptism is unnecessary or regular attendance at the Table of the Lord is unnecessary. At the very least, having the Spirit of Christ in us ought to so annoy us into "doing the right thing" for our neighbor that we can't walk away when need is before us.
Young Christians today are wearing the badge of "radical" proudly. This survey of the Scriptures on faith and works confirms that we do need to be radicals. We need to be radically balanced.
Pastoral Relief and Retreat
- Wethersfield, CT, United States
- I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.