“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV
It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground. We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.” This was one of those hang out days.
When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic. I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better. We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.
The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations. The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches. Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.
It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church. They were a little older than us, but not by much. There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest. They asked us what we were doing. “Just hanging out,” we said.
They asked us what church we went to. We told them. They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym. “Sure,” we responded. I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym? Not common in my youth.
Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate. This was too good to be true. A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion. I was enjoying this very much.
The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”
A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say. Finally, one of us asked her. “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”
This sounded ridiculous to me. Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven? This was to much. “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?
“By believing in Jesus,” she said. “By putting your faith in Him. He died for your sins.”
Oh, oh, now I was getting it. Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins. But I thought she was a little confused. “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have to be a good person,” I said.
“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”
At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents. It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget. But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?
Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works. There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20
This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries. Are we saved by faith (Protestant)? Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.
Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route. Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument. I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.
As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me. “Faith without works is dead faith.” What did that mean?
As time passed, my discomfort over James grew. This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior. My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in. “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong. But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind. No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure. So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.
I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James. I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James. But I faced a dilemma.
The dilemma was this: Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.” Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good. Then how do you be good?
Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure. I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.” When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise. But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d. Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.
After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right? No, wrong. Faith is faith. OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one. Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t. When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.
One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good. How could it be otherwise? Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!
The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it. But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of? We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions. Uh-oh. What did Paul say again? “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”
So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good. But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while. This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak. And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith. Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
I started to become comfortable with James. I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak. Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.
When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing. How could it be otherwise?
So who is right in the faith versus works debate? Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right? Is faith alone sufficient to save us? The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”