On Grace, Faith, And Works

What happens after I believe? Many people find it all too easy to get the idea “that one can just believe in Jesus and then really do nothing else.” We have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and baptism that people have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about. It’s as though they were standing on one side of a deep, wide river, looking across to the further bank. On this bank you declare your faith. On the opposite bank is the ultimate result – final salvation itself. But what are people supposed to do in the meantime? Simply stand here and wait? Is there no bridge between the two? What does this say about faith itself? If we’re not careful this opening act of belief can become “simply a matter of assent to a proposition (Jesus is Son of God, etc.)” with no need for transformation. 

What am I here for? Transformation! Now there’s an interesting idea. But is it appropriate to think like that? Are Christians supposed to regard their lives in that way? Isn’t that suggesting that there’s a way across from the present to the future, across the wide river called The Rest of My Life – a bridge put up in the old days when people thought you could use your own moral effort to make yourself good enough for God? But if moral effort doesn’t count for anything, what is then the point for being a Christian –other than to go to heaven one day, and perhaps persuade others to go with you? is there any reason for doing anything much, after you believe and are baptized, except to keep your nose reasonably clean until the time comes to die and go to be with Jesus forever? 

Some people who ponder this also face another concern. Jesus himself, followed by the writers of the NT, seems to have made some pretty stringent moral demands on the early disciples. Where does all that fit in? If we are already saved, why does what we do matter? The bridge in question can go by many names – character, virtue, etc

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. To become the human beings God meant us to be --which means being concerned primarily with worship and mission and with the formation of our own character as the vital means to that double end. 

In a world where so much confusion abounds, how do we know what is “good.”? And how do we discover what being human is really all about? 

When I was first studying theology, some of the scholars whose works I read used to agonize over the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; different version of some of the same material in Luke 6.20-49). Everybody knew, of course, that in the great and glorious gospel preached by St. Paul people are justified by faith, not by works. So why, the scholars wondered, did Jesus appear to start off his preaching by telling people how to live, what to do and not to do? Surely giving them “rules for living” would simply encourage them into bad spiritual habits, into imagining that they could “make themselves good enough for God” by their own efforts. 

One answer that some theologians used to give to this question went like this: “Well, yes, it’s true that Paul’s gospel was about faith, not about ‘how we should live.’ But Matthew’s gospel wasn’t written as ‘primary evangelism.’ It was written for people who were already Christians. They had already accepted Jesus and the salvation offered through him, by faith alone. Now they need to be instructed on how to live – not to save themselves by their own efforts, but to respond appropriately to God’s grace.” I think, for instance, of the great scholar Joachim Jeremias, who took more or less this line. I think, too, of a lecture by the well-known Lutheran Gunther Bornkamm, who managed to demonstrate that, despite appearances, Matthew wasn’t actually a “legalist.” Why not? Because he was, after all not only facing Pharisees to the right of him, but also “enthusiasts” to the left of him, people who were casting off all moral restraint and who thought that because they were following Jesus, not the Jewish law, they could do whatever they liked. Matthew, it thus appeared, was warding off legalism in one direction and antinomianism on the other – just as Martin Luther himself had done. This conclusion was reached; it seemed to me at the time, with something like a sigh of relief. 

I remember being suspicious about this approach at the time (it all seemed to fit just a bit too well), but I didn’t have anything much to suggest by way of an alternative. Since then I have observed the way in which people who offer the same kind of reading of the text tend to frame everything in terms, not of what Jesus himself meant when he did the particular words under discussion, but of what the evangelist (Matthew, or whoever) meant.

This way of reading the gospels is still popular, and at some level it is healthy. Part of human maturity, after all, is learning to read everything with a questioning eye, whether it’s this morning’s newspaper (in which journalists may have misrepresented things in order to tell the story they wanted to tell rather than what actually happened) or somebody’s sacred text (can we trust it? who wrote it and why?). In the same way, many people suppose that learning to read the gospels involves learning to read between the lines and discovering that what’s actually going on isn’t really “about” Jesus at all, but “about” Matthew’s (or Mark’s, or Luke’s, or John’s) theology, about the life of their communities, and so on. 

This seems mature, sophisticated, grown-up. And of course at one level it is. Everybody who writes history, everybody who writes a newspaper article on “what happened yesterday,” and for that matter everybody who tells somebody else “what I just saw in the street,” selects and arranges the material. You can’t say everything, and if you try you’ll be at it all day, and very boring it will be too. So we all select and arrange, and anyone reading what we write can, in principle, try to discover why we’ve done it the way we have. 

But this appearance of sophistication can easily mask a dangerous sophistry. The fact that it’s all been selected and arranged doesn’t mean it’s all been made up. 

I say all this because I have become increasingly convinced that a method of reading the gospels which has been popular among Western scholars for many years is not only flawed in itself offering an apparently sophisticated reading while denying something quite basic (that Jesus really did and said substantially what the gospels say he did and said), but is flawed because the whole worldview driving the scholarship in question screened out the very possibility that there might be a larger truth that the gospels were trying to express but that didn’t fit into the categories the scholars had available. And that larger truth, in which the Sermon on the Mount makes the excellent sense it does, is this:

God’s future is arriving in the present, in the person and work of Jesus, and you can practice, right now, the habits of life which will find their goal in that coming future.