Works or Grace? – 02/06/2022

Romans 4: 1-12

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.

James 2:14-26

            What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

Sermon Text

 We begin our month of questions by looking at one of the most complicated concepts within the Christian faith. Where does the responsibility of our good works end and the abundant grace of God’s goodness begin? If we are saved by the Grace of God which is given freely in our life, then what is the purpose of God transforming us into better people? Where does our reliance on God’s grace become and excuse for us to do whatever we want without feeling bad about it? More specific to our life here in Clarksburg, how can we balance the active nature of North View United Methodist and the spiritual faith of North View?

This question is so natural to Christianity that it predates the Bible, I would argue that it predates the arrival of Christ in this world. It exists in the meditations of Rabbis and prophets throughout Israel’s history. The culmination of this tradition comes to us in the life we live after Christ has touched our lives. When the Spirit of God begins to transform us to resemble its own divinity. That is when Faith and Works really begin to mean something to us. Not as a theory we assent or dissent to, but as something we live and breathe.

To talk about how salvation comes to be, we have to begin with a darker truth. We are all of us sinners and we are all of us bound for physical death. No one makes it out of this life alive and no one makes it to the grave without some measure of guilt upon their soul. Sin, that ancient enemy of human life, corrupts the divine image within us and renders what was once glorified and good into something that is base and selfish. We, like Adam and Eve long ago, find ourselves cast out of God’s presence through our rejection of life and our rejection of righteousness. We put on the corruptible nature of convenience and selfish desire, and we refuse to put on the eternal nature of sacrifice and selflessness.

Or, in less theological terms. We all screw up and we are all on some level screwed up in ourselves. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, I mean it in an equalizing way. While there are pinnacles of virtue and vice that appear from time to time, your average person is a pretty even balance of both good and bad. We are average in the worst way, average in terms of morality. We are not motivated enough to do good and not brave enough to avoid evil. We simply do what is convenient or feels nice and cleave closely to the status quo except in extremis.

A person can realize that they are stuck in these doldrums and make changes in their life. Regardless of tradition or philosophic backgrounds a person can work hard and be better. They can remove the selfish inclinations from their heart and begin to live a life oriented toward others. The goodness that such a person develops is genuine, it is real in every way it ever could be. Those who deny themselves, who selflessly give to those in need and who love those around them serve God whether they know it or not through their kindness and generosity. In the same way that there is only one truth, the light of God shining out into the world, there is only one good, and that good finds its source in that selfsame God.

All people who realize the importance of goodness in their life glorify God through their actions, but the question necessarily arises over whether or not it is enough to do what is right. To put it in terms that Jesus’s contemporaries would have used, “Is a righteous Gentile more worthy than an impious Jew?” The question is not an easy one to answer. Add into it the many different understandings a person might have regarding ritual purity and the morality of certain specific actions, and the question of whether works have any impact on our status before God becomes very important. If works are what save us, then suddenly there is a lot more room for subjectivity in salvation. If works have nothing to do with salvation, then suddenly there is a lot more loopholes for an interested party to do whatever they want.

It is often at this point in a sermon that a minister might say something about our righteousness being rags to God, and to say something about all the “good,” people who are bound for Hell. However, having grown up with that framing of the issue, I think that is an awful way to present our loving God’s gift of salvation. The question of whether you need to be good to get into Heaven, to do the right things, or if it is enough to believe the right things, is something so much bigger than we ever let it be – and more than anything it is meant to liberate us, not to push down others! There is something crass about saying it is better for someone to never do a good thing in their life and have faith in Christ than for someone to do every good thing and never know that holy name.

The question as scripture puts it is oriented completely differently than we ever let it be voiced today. In scripture the questions of works and faith was oriented between people who were trying to limit the scope of God’s kingdom and those who wanted to include as many people as possible. Some among the Jewish Christians thought that Gentiles should have to convert, as much as was possible, to Judean or Hellenistic Jewish practices upon their acceptance of Christ. The “works,” were not necessary moral initiatives to feed people or care for the sick or any other objectively moral action, but was instead oriented toward questions of what a person should wear, how they should worship, or what they should eat. These matters are not essential to a person’s inner being, only the outward manifestations of that inner state.

Does that mean that there is a bifurcation between purity laws and moral laws? Yes, but not in so simple a binary as we usually cast the issue. As we have said before in our Sunday discussions of scripture, even seemingly superfluous laws in scripture can reveal moral truths. However, we need to be able to see that the way a person does what is right is secondary to the right thing they do in themselves. Do you have faith in Christ? Do you serve God in all you do? Do you admit when you fail at this and work to change for the better? Those questions are what matter in the life of a Christian, not whether or not you say “debt,” or “trespasses,” in the Lord’s prayer.

This is the kind of debate that happened in the early days of the Church regarding works and faith. Paul wrote Romans, Galatians, and several letters encouraging people to see faith in Christ as the way to identify a Christian, and not to get wrapped up in the details of how they lived out that faith – so long as their faith was authentic and proven through the fruits of the Spirit it yielded in their life. Paul argued then that a person who was faithful would live a good life as a consequence of that faith – not being perfect, but slowly getting closer and closer toward that perfection. We, like Abraham, had to have faith if we wanted to be considered righteous, because it was Abraham’s faith alone that made God consider him right before the Divine.

This teaching made its way across the Mediterranean and landed, by word of mouth, at the feet of James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem and brother of Jesus. Upon hearing this teaching, James seems to have seen Paul’s teachings as going further than what they actually were. James pulls from language similar enough to Paul’s to suggest that he wrote his letter in part to correct what he saw as a misunderstanding of the facts. James also uses Abraham as the foundation of his own argument. James argues that, while Abraham did have faith in God – that faith was not realized until Abraham took up the knife to kill Isaac. Faith was not enough, if that faith only resulted in passive moralizing. Faith had to be lived out, it had to be seen, not just heard.

I have to admit that I may have shown my cards a bit early with my argument here, but to me James and Paul are arguing the same thing in different directions. James begins with works and sees in work the fulfillment of faith while Paul starts with faith and sees works as an outpouring of faith into our life. More than that, both see in the same story the proof of their points. If you sat the two together they would probably argue that the other person was focusing on the wrong part of the equation, but taken together it is hard to see them as arguing anything significantly different from one another.

            That makes up a lot of our modern discussion of faith and works. We are so adamant that faith alone saves us that we forget to remind people that real faith manifests in obvious signs of commitment to God and one another. We are so adamant in our commitment to works that we forget to develop spiritually, we see the how and the what of our faith but don’t delve into the why and who. On one side of the equation is theologizing moralism and the other practicality at the expense of relationship. Faith and works become two sides of a rope being pulled back and forth, rather than the two sides of a single coin which we call “sanctification.”

            We in the Methodist Church are born out of Pietist Protestantism. As Pietists we believe in works of mercy and scripture study in community being the foundation of our daily faith life. As Protestants we emphasize the Lutheran tendency toward radical faith which removes all our sin. The two seeming contradictions manifest in a tradition that often goes to extremes. Sometimes we claim God’s grace such that we become useless toward those in need, trying to save their souls while actively ignoring or increasing their bodily needs. Other times we become so practical that the Church becomes a political action group or a public works project without any care of bringing people into the community of God, to let them know the salvation which Christ brings.

            I’ll be honest in my own limitations. I am a very works oriented Christian. I’m type A, and so it is in my nature to look for ways I can take action in a situation. I cannot easily see God’s gift of free grace in my life, and so I feel the need to be useful. I strive to feed all the people I can, to pray for all the people I can, to serve in definite ways whenever and however I can. Part of that is a passion God has placed on my heart, but part of it is also an insecurity deep within me.

I relate to John Wesley, who despite all the faith he had demonstrated throughout his life and all the good he did, still wrote in desperation to his brother Charles, “In one of my last [letters] I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…”[1] John had let the works God had placed on his heart to perform become an impossible standard, and so he needed frequently to drink from the fountain of God’s grace which Paul offered – of salvation regardless of works.

            Others may find a different problem. Unmotivated to do good, we might need to visit James more often and be reminded that if we are not becoming better people through our faith in God then we must question if we are really taking our faith seriously. If we believe Christ lived and died to free us from sin, why are we still clinging to it? If we claim to love our neighbor, why are we calling the cops on them for hanging around on the street rather than helping them to find food and shelter?

            In North View, we are a Church that can grow in regard to faith and works. We must devote ourselves more to accepting that God is the source of our salvation. We must proclaim that truth to all who will hear it, not because it makes us a lick better than anyone outside these walls, but precisely because we are on equal footing with them. Likewise, we must not be satisfied with our existing aid ministries. Food Pantry is great, Community Supper is fantastic, but more people need to get involved with them and if not with them then with other ministries. They do not even have to be explicitly tied to this building, so long as they accomplish the mission of God’s kingdom!

            Works and Faith, salvation is found not in one or the other, but in the meeting of the two. Faith is, at the end of all things, the one thing needful, but a faith that does not produce works is not possible. Thus, we are called by scripture to look to the example of people like Abraham and see, not a proof for our particular argument, but a challenge to push us from one extreme of one or another toward a more authentic and Christ-like way of life. Jesus lived a life that was begun and ended because of faith, but that faith was manifested in obedience and service and love and all manner of other actions that were proven through his resurrection.

            Today when we take the bread and juice we have gathered up, we receive God’s grace – if we have faith. Christ invites all people who are willing to repent of their sin, to live in peace with one another, and who love God. If you are willing to take on those charges, if you do love God in your heart, if you have faith in the saving work of Christ, then this meal is fuel for the road ahead. It is a foretaste of Heaven, a reminder we are not alone in the road ahead. It is something we do not need to work for, it is free to all of us gathered here, a sign of the salvation freely given to us by God through faith. Let it sustain your body for the work that that faith frees us to partake in, the joyful obedience we can enjoy because of God’s work in our life.

            If today you doubt you have done enough for God to love you, cast that thought aside. Christ died for you before you even knew any alternative. If today you feel that you have aimlessly sat at the same place in your faith for far too long, come to God and find the work prepared for you to take up from before the creation of the earth. God has given us James and Paul, Works and Faith, so that all may enjoy the Kingdom and all may know what it is to become like Christ in the here and now. Seize what God is offering and find in it a more excellent way of living. – Amen.


[1] Admittedly this letter is hard to find outside of other people referencing it (the best available online copy no longer being at a live-link.) However, this quote can be found with a reliable commentary upon it in Fred Sanders “Shorthand Despair, Shorthand Hope.” In Scriptorium Daily. Available at: https://scriptoriumdaily.com/shorthand-despair-hope/

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