Protestantism vs. Works
The central principle of Protestant Christianity, is that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide) and saved by grace alone (sola gratia). This belief is perfectly summed up by Protestant interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 which is, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by our works. While it is not given the same emphasis, the doctrine has been largely inherited in Pentecostal Christianity as well which, among other things, is evident in their understanding of salvation, the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and even deeply influences their defining feature which is their theology of the Holy Spirit. Since the Reformation itself, many have pointed out the serious difficulties with this understanding of works. Contemporary biblical scholarship has further exposed the profound shortcomings of the Protestant dogma.
Protestant theology fundamentally sets up “faith” and “grace” in radical opposition to “works”. Since work means some kind of external activity, it implies an understanding of faith which is completely interior, that is a state of the heart and mind, and not defined by any type of human performance. It also creates an understanding of divine grace that comes with no conditions or obligations. Since no one can work to receive the grace of God through their own merit, no matter how good those works are, there is nothing a person can do to maintain that grace. Therefore, grace is a gift freely given without any conditions. So in Protestant theology, human performance has no inherent merit before God and doing it will not grant you anything from him, especially salvation. Simply put, we are not saved by our good works.
Now all this does not mean there is no place for human effort in Protestantism at all. In fact, Protestants believe all human effort should be directed to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria) and not to boast in our own abilities since there is nothing that we have that we ultimately did not receive from God (1 Corinthians 4:7.) However, when it comes to spiritual matters, especially things involving eternal salvation, what matters is having “saving faith” in order to receive the “free grace” of God that brings everlasting life which cannot be earned. Works are regarded only as an external sign of grace or the evidence of faith but what really matters is the inner state of the heart.
Even if a person disagrees with the Protestant view of grace and faith contra works, their perspective does have its merits. The teaching emerged at a particular period in time where the Christian religion among the masses seemed to be just a hollow performance without any real conviction in the faith and therefore was seen to offer a necessary correction to the general spiritual malaise. It also provided believers strong confidence in God’s saving power with the understanding that it could not be earned but was rather received as an irrevocable gift. Now regardless of its perceived merits and even its significance within certain branches of the Church, the doctrine has some serious problems.
Now the belief that even our good works ultimately have no merit or worth before God is really quite strange considering what the New Testament says about the outcome of our actions. Paul, the great proponent of justification by faith and salvation by grace himself, clearly says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” That quotation from 2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV) is an example of the common dogmatic belief in the New Testament that the sum total of everyone’s actions will ultimately be judged by God (through Christ) who will reward us for our deeds, whether good or evil (Matthew 7:21, Luke 6:35, Romans 2:6-8, 1 Peter 1:17, Revelation 20:12-13.) As New Testament scholar Scot McKnight rightly observes, if Jesus himself teaches there is a reward for our actions that means our actions do have value.
Header image source: speccoll.library.arizona.edu