If you have been following my posts on faith (or if you go and read them now) you have an important key to unlocking the mysteries of salvation theology. The motor that drives the order of salvation, or ordo salutis, is certainly grace; but the power from this motor is put into action through the instrumentation of faith. Thus far, I have concluded that faith, beyond merely inspiring good works, actually includes them. As we continue to discuss salvation theology a governing assumption will be that “works do in fact play a part in salvation.” I will clarify the place of works further as we move forward, but first I would like to round out our initial discussion of faith by addressing one of the greatest theological tragedies in the history of the Church: the false dichotomy of faith and works.
Martin Luther was not just some crazy beer swilling monk, as certain Roman Catholic officials made him out to be. He was a devout Roman Catholic with a keen spiritual sensibility. And Luther was not simply nit-picking when he called on the Roman church to reform. There were real substantive abuses that had grown up through the Middle Ages in the Roman church. Among the worst of these abuses was the state of Roman worship and some distinctive practices that had arisen in the medieval church. Luther’s problem was not that he was over-reacting (these abuses were real and substantive) or that he simply wanted to form his own church (Luther was excommunicated and almost burned at the stake as a heretic); he desired reform and was forcibly removed from the Roman church. Where Luther went wrong was in his salvation theology.
More specifically, Luther linked certain deplorable practices of the Roman church with certain Roman doctrines that were actually quite orthodox and unproblematic. To use an admittedly broad statement, it was as if Luther looked at the abuses of the Roman church and said, “all this exists because we have allowed works to seep into our conception of faith.” Luther strengthened this view with a selective reading of Paul and an almost total discounting of James (He was quite close to dropping this book from the Canon altogether). This resulted in a deceptively simple and seemingly pious mantra, sola fides, or faith alone. Actually, Luther would have agreed that salvation is by grace alone through the instrumentation of faith.
Of course, on one level, Luther is right. Salvation is by grace through faith. The problem is that Luther’s definition of faith appears to be anemic. He falsely separated faith and works and opposed the former to the latter. Luther, and Calvin after him, identified works as that which follow from faith. Calvin’s famous quip, “saving faith is never alone” sounds catchy, but it is less than helpful. Although this view seems neat and tidy, upon closer inspection, it is deeply flawed and incoherent. And, if you have read my last few posts, you know why. Faith is a choice. Yes, it is empowered by grace, but it is a free decision nonetheless. As we have seen, beliefs, even beliefs as lofty as “trust” are, for the most part, completely involuntary. The only thing that can be truly voluntary is a work or an action. The decision of faith is not a decision to believe, it is a decision to do something based on a belief one already has. Where Luther and Calvin’s anemic view of faith forces a showdown between Paul and James, a view of faith that includes works produces an easy synthesis. Yes Paul, salvation is by faith alone. Yes James, faith is not mere belief, but includes works. Salvation is by a faith of “grace empowered works” or “works of faith.” If only Luther and Calvin could have separated the harmful practices of the Roman church from their harmless theology.
As it stands, Luther, Calvin and their Protestant progeny, have to varying extents adopted a false dichotomy between faith and works. As a Protestant I do recognize abuses of the medieval Roman church and I still disagree with some facets of the contemporary Roman church. However, unlike most of my Protestant brethren, salvation theology (at least the general bulk of it) is not an area where I lodge significant protest. Unfortunately most Protestants see this as the main battle ground between them and high church traditions. This perception rests on an incoherent view of faith and the piety that flows from it. And, after all, the Lutheran concept sounds good and pious, “Far be it from me to do anything to affect my salvation. I am merely a helpless sinner, I can do nothing. Salvation is completely a work of God. No work of mine contributes one iota.” This sounds good, but ultimately it is bad theology.
That a “faith of works” takes part in salvation is undeniable (unless you wish to go the way of determinists, in which case you have bigger problems). This does not mean that one earns salvation. It simply means that God will not save us against our wills. He wants His love to be freely accepted and returned in works of love. Works of faith are simply the instrumentation of Gods grace. We could do nothing without grace and God has decided not to save without works. Who are we to question God’s wisdom and demand that we have no part in our salvation, that we do nothing that contributes to it in any way? God saves by grace through faith and this faith includes works (which are empowered, but not completely determined by grace).
This is one area where Protestants need to recognize that our high church brethren actually had it right. We need to relinquish the false faith-works dichotomy (as pious as it sounds) and adopt a more robust and coherent work-of-faith dialectic. Our high church brethren still have flaws worthy of protest, but salvation theology (at least this part) is not one of them.
Until next week, when we dip into grace and the beginnings of sanctification . . . peace.