Focusing on Galatians 2:15-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3
Since Martin Luther started the Reformation, a debate has raged in Christendom about whether we are saved by faith or saved by works….. This debate was sparked, in part, by the theology of St. Paul written in such letters as the one we hear today. In this epistle to the Galatians the Apostle wrote: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) And, again, in the Letter to the Romans, he wrote: “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28)
On the other hand, Jesus seems to be answer this “salvation by faith alone” argument by his remarks in Matthew’s Gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus contrasts the actions (the works, if you will) of a self-acknowledged sinner (the woman who washes his feet) with those of a self-proclaimed righteous person (Simon the Pharisee, who is his dinner host):
I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.
In telling the story of Jesus, Luke puts this event together with the healing of the centurion’s slave and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain immediately after the sermon on the plain, in which Jesus said, “”Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 ) Thus, these stories seem intended to be illustrations of the point that actions, works, deeds, whatever you want to call them, are in some way necessary. They are evidence of a faith in Jesus that does what Jesus says.
Thus, if you ask me, the argument about faith and works a false debate, a red herring. Faith and works are not an “either-or” duality; they are a “both-and” complementarity. Even Paul, in the letter to the Romans, admits that faith does not overthrow the behavioral requirements of the law:
“God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3:30-31)
So Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson contrasts the behavior of the self-proclaimed righteous with the behavior of the forgiven sinful: he does not compare their relative faith – he compares their visible deeds. And he rejects those who call him “Lord” but do not live in a manner that would indicate that he is, indeed, the lord of their lives. These are people whose religiosity is confined to words and never lived out in deeds. There are still plenty of such people around today. I’m sure you’ve seen the brochures, pamphlets, or web sites of churches or para-church organizations which tell you that all you need to do to be saved is “accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” These folks will tell you that all you need to do is say a prayer something like this:
Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins and I ask you to forgive me of my sins. I turn away from them and I turn to You. I ask You to come into my heart right now. I receive You as my Lord and Savior. Take control of my life and teach me how to become the person that You want me to be.
One such church web site goes on to say (with plenty of supporting “proof texts”) that after you have “received Jesus” by reciting this prayer the next steps to Heaven are:
1. Be water baptized.
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)
2. Find a church and be discipled.
Christ has commanded us who are already His disciples to disciple others in His commands. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20)
3. Be steadfast.
For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. (Heb. 3:14)
(From the website of Aledo Christian Center; What the Bible Says About Salvation)
Calling Jesus “Lord,” getting baptized, going to church, and being steadfast. Nothing more than that … nothing with regard to feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner or the shut-in, or clothing the naked. (Cf. Matthew 25:31-46) To which Jesus replies in Matthew’s Gospel “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” James, the brother of Jesus, would later write to the whole church, “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)
To the “salvation by works” crowd, on the other hand, he promises, “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:23) The second group Jesus addresses in these concluding remarks of the Sermon on the Mount are those who do a lot of apparently good works, those who “prophesy in [his] name, and cast out demons in [his] name, and do many deeds of power,” but who don’t have a personal relationship with him, those whom he “never knew.” Jesus seems to be saying that just as faith without works will not save us, works without faith cannot save us either.
In his commentary on James’ Epistle entitled Be Mature, Baptist seminary professor Warren Wiersbe wrote:
Even in the early church there were those who claimed they had saving faith, yet did not possess salvation. Wherever there is the true, you will find the counterfeit. Jesus warned, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21) People with dead faith substitute words for deeds. They know the correct vocabulary for prayer and testimony, and can even quote the right verses from the Bible; but their walk does not measure up to their talk. They think that their words are as good as works, and they are wrong. (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Mature, Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing,1978, page 79.)
The late Louis Berkhof, who was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary put it this way:
Just as the old life expresses itself in works of evil, so the new life, that originates in regeneration and is promoted and strengthened in sanctification, naturally manifests itself in good works…. *** There can be no doubt about the necessity of good works properly understood. (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 540)
The whole faith-vs.-works debate is a ridiculous red herring. Both faith and works are intimately interrelated. To quote William Law once again, “Christian faith and Christian works, are as much one and the same indivisible thing, as life is one and the same indivisible thing with its living operations.” Our goal as active, faithful Christians to be neither folks who rely solely on words, solely on hollow acclamations of Jesus as “Lord, Lord,” nor folks who do lots of good work expecting to be rewarded without having come to know Jesus as our savior. Our goal as active faithful Christians, is to be folks whose relationship with Jesus is lived out in our relationships with others, in the works which give witness and life to our faith.
Let us pray:
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Page 832, No. 57)