Faith plus works or faith that works?
Picture this: You’re standing before the throne of God as his mighty right-hand angel retrieves your record of deeds from the database. Between you and God is a holographic screen upon which scenes from your life are replayed as your record is accessed, and every thought and spoken word is written out and scrolls behind the visual images. As you stand there suspended between heaven and hell, reviewing your works of obedience as well as rebellion, a counter in the corner of the screen is tabulating your “score” as each deed, word and thought is given a numeric value. Those that were according to God’s will increase your score; those that were not subtract from it.
The atmosphere is electric and majestic and the sights around you are magnificent beyond description, but your gaze is transfixed on that counter as it gets closer and closer to THE number…the one that upon reaching or surpassing will seal you for a blissful, pain-free life eternal with God in heaven.
Only a few points away and suddenly you notice your life in review is depicting the moments before you collapsed in your kitchen from a heart attack. Then you see it…your own death. And as the screen goes blank you look over at the number that means the difference between paradise and the abyss…and scream as you feel the trap door beneath you give way.
Just missed it.
If salvation is by faith plus works, as many Roman Catholics believe, then it seems to me there must be a quantitative as well as qualitative consideration regarding the works…a minimum requirement for number and kind of good works, and conversely, a maximum limit for the bad. It’s the “scale theory,” which I held myself when I was Catholic. I figured if my good outweighed the bad, God would let me in.
But wouldn’t this kind of salvation system necessarily lead to a scenario like the one above…where if you would have just given $10 more to charity or not lied to your boss about being sick that one day, you’d be looking at an eternity in heaven instead of in hell? Does it make any sense at all that the difference between infinite peace and joy and infinite darkness and despair can be a measly ten bucks?
This is one reason why the Reformers’ cry of “Sola Fide” – by faith alone – is the correct understanding of God’s plan of salvation. If our works counted as currency in securing our place in heaven, then there is a price to be met and this sort of payment plan would result in eternal injustices because of trivial shortcomings.
The gospel of salvation by grace through faith, not of works, which is spoken of throughout the New Testament…for example here, here, and here…does not negate the importance of works. It defines good works as the fruit or evidence of true, saving faith. So when James says in chapter 2 of his letter, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” he is calling out those who claim to be believers but demonstrate by their selfish, self-centered lives that their so-called faith is nothing more than a dead, useless, false profession.
And when James says that Abraham was “justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” he’s giving a clear example of how true faith results in action. Abraham was declared righteous by faith alone, as James reminds his readers in 2:23 and Paul expounds on in the 4th chapter of his letter to the Romans. But if Abe had stayed put when God told him to go, refusing to make the three day’s journey with his son and the wood for the offering, he would have demonstrated that he did not really believe and trust in God.
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” We are saved and sealed for eternal life by faith alone. But this faith is not mere declaration or simply an assent to the truth of God’s existence. It’s submitting to God as Lord with a holy fear so that we live to do his will and follow where he leads.
Though some lives will abound with good fruit and others will have a meager harvest, God is not keeping score. There will be no scale or counter when we stand before him. Only a book of life into which our names are written when we believe.