Works, Grace, and absolutes

So one of the churches I visited recently spoke again about works and the false doctrine of being saved by works. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t think it’s exactly false to think good works are putting you on the right track with God. But my view on it is somewhat complicated.

Works vs. Faith/Grace itself is complicated. First, does faith save or does grace? Ostensibly one needs faith to get grace. But some schools of thought imply that Jesus came to save all, and by dying saved everyone through grace. Confused yet?

Putting Faith and Grace aside for now, I want to talk about works. We are taught to believe works alone do not save. Every branch of Christianity I’ve ever heard of holds this to be true. Catholics are sometimes accused of trying to obtain salvation by works, but in reality the Catholic Church doesn’t teach this. It seems to be a common misconception based on the heavy focus on works pervasive in the Catholic church. When the idea of works dominates, people wind up seeing it as some kind of divine scorecard which they mark each time a good deed is performed. This can be really limiting, because it boils goodness down to a mathematical equation. It creates worry that one is never good enough. How many good deeds does it take to obtain heaven? It also allows those leading an immoral life to feel themselves safe as long as they visibly give enough money to charity. It doesn’t speak to emotional or metal states. It doesn’t need one to have good relationships. Works-based salvation only requires works.

I have also seen churches that take this too far in the other direction. When the focus is intensely on salvation regardless of works, works may fall to the wayside. People begin to see themselves as permanently saved, without a works requirement, and may ignore opportunities to do any works. Without requiring or even focusing on works, any person can then claim to be a saved Christian and expect others to see them as them righteous. If one has faith and expects works to naturally flow from that, it might make that person feel justified in being lazy. If God wanted works out of me they’d just pour out naturally, right? If they don’t, and I know I’m saved, it must be ok with God. This type of thinking is also problematic.

So how do we maintain a balance? I think it happens when we stop dealing in absolutes. The talk should never be whether works are the best thing to be extolled or the worst thing to be ignored. There will be a few people who don’t do works on their own and won’t push themselves to do them unless they are reminded. These people need to hear about the importance of works. Then there will also be those who do only works and drive themselves crazy trying to be good enough for heaven. These people need to hear about faith and how it is enough, so they can relax and stop worrying. And it’s ok too, to throw in a few messages about emotional well-being and good relationships with others. If you believe, AND do good works, but snap and shout at others, that’s not great.

Faith/grace and works aren’t the end. And they aren’t competing football teams. Churches need to stop treating them like absolutes and remember to balance what they preach. Because the church is a mosaic of individuals; all different. That means there’s no simple way to boil down every important lesson to a few key words, and we shouldn’t try it.

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