Faith, Grace and Works (Part II)

A New Perspective on Faith

The fact that in the New Testament we will be judged according to works is a rather old objection to the Protestant teaching that human effort has no real merit before God. Now more recently, since the late 70s at least, there has been a sea change in New Testament scholarship which has seriously undermined the Protestant dichotomy between faith and grace on one hand and works on the other. The scholarly movement known as the New Perspective on Paul was the main catalyst for initiating this shift. By problematizing the old understanding of New Testament era Judaism as a works based religion, it opened new avenues for reexamining the meanings of faith and grace.

One of the arguments made by the New Perspective is that when Paul said negative things about “work”, he did not necessarily mean all human activity. In fact, an attentive reader of Scripture will notice that in context he is usually referring to the “works of the law” i.e. the Law of Moses. This is clearly not a wholesale rejection of the value of human effort (or even the law per se) (Romans 7:12.) Rather, what he is really teaching is that we cannot be justified and saved by the works of the law alone. (Romans 3:20-21, Galatians 2:16.) As I pointed earlier, Paul simultaneously teaches that we are saved by faith and that we will be judged by our works. This implies that our final salvation does not depend on just belief alone but on our actions as well (Romans 1:16, 2 Corinthians 5:10.)

The Pauline correspondence between faith and action is wonderfully represented in Romans 1:5 where he speaks of the “obedience of faith”. Obedience implies some type of outward performance therefore faith in Christ does require work. The value of our actions in our faith is even more apparent in Paul when we consider his appeal to the Philippians to be even more obedient in his absence and “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12.) Surprisingly, the inalienability of faith from works is perhaps best demonstrated where Paul says we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:9.) This is because in the very next verse he says we were created for good works. The purpose of the grace we have received through faith is to do good works. Elsewhere in the New Testament, beyond Paul’s writings, human works are not set in an antithetical relationship to faith and grace. There is actually a strong synergy between faith and work which is best represented in the Epistle of James. (It is quite interesting that James is allegedly the one book of the New Testament that Martin Luther, the Father of Protestantism, really disliked and wanted to get rid of but only begrudgingly kept.) The apostle famously said, “faith without works is dead” (2:26.) He says, “I will show you my faith by my works” and “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” (James 2:18, 24, italics mine.) Contrary to justification by faith alone, James explicitly teaches that faith without works cannot save and that faith is perfected by works (2:14, 22.)

Since about 2015, biblical scholars such as Teresa Morgan, Mathew Bates and others have led the way in providing a more accurate understanding of what faith was in the New Testament era. Morgan’s seminal work in particular demonstrates two important things that we need to recognise upfront. First of all, the Christian understanding of faith was practically the same as the general understanding of it in the wider Greco-Roman world where it did not have any special religious meaning. Secondly, while faith did have an interior cognitive or psychological dimension, it was certainly not the most important aspect of it. Rather, faith had less to do with belief or mental assent and was more about commitment to relationship and acts of loyalty. In other words, faith was really about external activity over internal dispositions. While what you believed on the inside mattered, what mattered more was your actions. In short, faith primarily consisted of manifest displays of trust and fidelity.

Building on the work of Morgan, Bates explains that the main idea underlying faith was allegiance which is something demonstrated through actions. So faith in Christ meant embodied acts of trust and loyalty in obedience to Jesus as Lord. The performative nature of faith is why Paul speaks of the obedience of faith and James says faith is perfected by works (Romans 1:5, James 2:18.) Furthermore, the fundamental reason Jesus gives for faith in him is his actions (John 10:37, 14:10-11, Luke 7:18-23.)

⇐Part I

Part III⇒

Header image source: CoinTalk

3 thoughts on “Faith, Grace and Works (Part II)

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