In the comments section of yesterday’s post, my friend Tom challenged me, as he often does, on the grace-versus-works question. My response is the classic Reformation one: Good works, including the ongoing repentance from sin—at least the desire to change—will naturally follow from saving faith. But this changed behavior and attitude contributes nothing to salvation. This is not to say we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing.
I appreciate that this answer can seem unsatisfying, even paradoxical, yet I’m happy to live within this tension.
His challenge reminded me of an analogy that I first heard in Mark Galli’s book God Wins, which is also used in the Law and Gospel book I’m currently reading:
Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”
Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!
In this analogy, as the last sentence implies, the good works we do are our way of saying “thank you.” It’s a natural response to being saved. If we don’t respond with changed behavior and thinking, however imperfectly, then we should rightly question whether we were rescued in the first place. As the Book of James says, saving faith is a faith that is lived out through good works. Otherwise, faith is dead.
Also, getting back to the life preserver analogy, I want to emphasize this: We are always “flailing in the water” in need of rescue—even after we place our faith in Christ and are justified. (Aren’t we? I am.) God is constantly having to extend grace to us because we’re constantly falling short of God’s glory; we’re constantly sinning. The good news is that the cross of God’s Son has made an endless amount of forgiveness and grace available to us. This is why I emphasize that the cross of Christ needs to be at the center of our lives and faith.
1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 73.