Faith or works?

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I once heard a minister remark, quite smugly, that Jesus’ sermon on the mount tells us nothing about what we should believe but everything about how we, as Christians, should live. However, on the contrary, the Apostles creed—the minister continued—says everything about what we should believe but nothing on how we should live. The subtext of his argument was that Jesus was more concerned about doing than believing, and so should the church. So, which is it? Is the authenticity of one’s faith measured by orthodoxy (correct belief) or orthopraxy (correct action)?

I’m going to put my cards on the table: both! I firmly believe that a correct belief authentically held will give birth to correct action. I also believe that when one embodies correct action, there underlies some semblance of orthodox belief. A Lutheran preacher of the 20th century, Paul Scherer, remarked that Christian preaching ought to emphasize the “indicatives of the Christian faith, where all the imperatives are born.” To speak in the “indicative mood” is to state what is factual, what is true or real. Discourse in the “imperative mood” is telling someone what they ought to do or ought not to do. Scherer’s point is simply this: the strength and efficacy of an imperative (what one ought to do) rests in the validity of the indicative (what truly is). Thus, we ought to love God, because God first loved us. We ought to feed the hungry, because God in Christ “gives us this day our daily bread.”

What about those who emphasize right belief but come up short on the “doing” end of the equation. Let me be clear that the “doing” is in no way a means to earn any favors from God. Salvation is a gift of grace by faith and not an achievement. Yet, on the other hand, a supposed belief without action is called hypocrisy. Good works apart from faith are possible, but a faith that does not lead to good works is deadly. As the apostle James has written, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

(Rev. Will Wilson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. Contact him at revwillwilson@gmail.com)

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