The Epistle and Gospel for today help to bring balance to a subject that has been confusing to Christians in the Western world for five centuries. Ever since the days of Martin Luther the question of Faith and Works, and the role they may or may not play in the salvation and justification of sinners, has dominated a great deal of theological discourse. As you may know, Luther built his German based Reformation on sola fide, which translates as “faith alone.” This view, taken to an extreme, can take all of the statements by Saint Paul about faith, and make it the only factor in the Christian life. And, indeed Saint Paul does speak often about faith that justifies and saves us. But, Saint Paul never added the word “alone.” The only verse in the whole Bible that contains these words, faith and alone, in close proximity is James 2: 17: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” Because of Saint James’ teaching in his Epistle, Martin Luther wanted to have the whole Epistle cut out of the Bible. He called it “an Epistle of straw, compared to” most of the New Testament. What is the balance? What is the truth about faith and works, and the role of faith in our salvation?
Saint Paul never exactly said that by faith we are saved. Rather, he took it along a specific route that begins with grace. In Ephesians, the second chapter he wrote these words: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” In the very next verse he adds, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (This ought to remind you of the words in our prayer of thanksgiving after receiving Communion, about good works that God hath prepared for us to walk in.) So, if Saint James was full of straw for teaching that “faith without works is dead, being alone,” then Saint Paul was full of the exact same straw, because he taught the exact same thing.
In fact, today’s Epistle is speaking more directly to the problem of faith and works then either Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, or the Epistle of James. This is for two reasons. First of all, Paul never conceived of faith existing all by itself, cut off from the rest of the Christian life. In the most famous passage he ever wrote, the chapter about the love of God, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he lists the three most important virtues together: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” It is always at least somewhat misleading to speak of “faith alone” because faith never is alone. True faith that is planted in us by the Holy Spirit always has two other virtues at its side: hope and charity. It simply does not exist alone.
But, in today’s Epistle, Paul tells us of the distinction between the Law and the promise, specifically this promise that Abraham believed. And, Paul builds a lot of teaching on this promise and the faith of Abraham, basing it on these words from Genesis. “And He [God, that is] brought him [Abram] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” The Hebrew word for believed is the word “amen.” Amen (אמן) is a form of emet. Emet (אמת) means “truth” and so “amen” means true. Jesus, when He said “verily, verily” actually said, “Amen, amen, (ἀμήν ἀμήν) I say unto you.” When you say “amen” you are stating that you believe the words spoken to be true. When Abram (as his name was at that stage) believed God, what he believed, very specifically, was that God’s word is true. That is how Abram amened God, and so was accounted righteous. From this Paul teaches two things. First, believing in God’s revealed truth is essential to our being accounted as righteous, namely, that by God’s mercy our sins are not taken into account. He also taught that Abram, as yet uncircumcised, became the father not only of the Jewish people, but of all people who have faith, that is all who believe God’s word to be true, even Gentiles. All of this shows the absolute necessity of faith. The writer to the Hebrews teaches us that this faith in God’s promise was manifest when Abraham was ready to offer Isaac on the mountain. James, however, uses the same story to teach the importance of works. Again, this should not surprise us, because the issue never was faith versus works.
We are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. But, faith lives with hope and charity. You can separate faith from works only if you can separate it from charity. Your own good works cannot earn for you the forgiveness of your sins; but the faith that calls and empowers you to enter the whole sacramental life as a Christian is a faith that God’s word is true, and it is faith that lives with hope and charity. And, because it lives with charity, good works will be present in the life of faith. However, like the Samaritan in today’s Gospe, this charity can be quite spontaneous. The Samaritan saw a man who may very well have despised him were he not in dire straits. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as being a group of Gentiles pretending to be Jews. They were seen as being second class at best. This did not matter to the Samaritan in this parable, and why? The answer is that he was, as the Lord said, “moved with compassion.” He was not trying to balance out his sins with good works (which is impossible). The idea of trying to appease God by doing a good work is not indicated at all. Instead, the Samaritan simply has compassion, and acts without resentment against a Jewish man who, under other circumstances, he may have avoided. His charity is natural and spontaneous, not forced and contrived.
The other thing we learn from the Epistle is the true context of faith and works as a theological question. In the Western world, ever since the Reformation, the whole treatment of this subject has been misunderstood, recast as a difference between people within Christianity. But, this is not right. Paul was not teaching that God’s grace saves us through just any faith, rather through faith in something very specific. The faith that God’s word is true, the promise we must say our own “amen” to, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is now revealed through the Word made flesh as proclaimed by his Apostles. Any effort to be saved by works meant, as used by Paul in his Epistles, the effort to be saved by the works, specifically, of the Law. The Law of commandments that came four hundred and thirty years after Abram believed God’s promise, does not make you righteous. It reveals that you are a sinner. It reveals that you need the Savior from sin and death, the One who has died as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and rose again the third day to destroy death. Before his conversion, when he was Saul of Tarsus, he believed himself to be righteous, and his zeal to persecute the Church to have been the seal of his righteousness. But, when he saw the Risen Christ, and was blinded as he drew close to Damascus, he learned that this great crowning act of his own righteousness was actually the sin of persecuting the Messiah by persecuting His Church. At once he learned of his sin, and of God’s mercy in forgiving that sin. We was converted, and began to see only in his blindness.
So, the issue at the time Saint Paul was writing was never some quality called faith versus good works. These terms are used, rather, to speak of the difference between religion when it is without a specific faith in Jesus Christ, even the best religion- the truth of the Jewish religion based on the revelation of God to Patriarchs and Prophets- and a belief that God’s word is true as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the difference between trying to be saved by the Law of Commandments, through efforts of self-deception that you are somehow a good person, and the faith that embraces the entire new life of a Christian. I could say that it is the difference between Judaism and Christianity; however, I would say that only with respect. As Christians we do believe in Judaism, the Law and the Prophets. It is simply that we also believe in the promise, and we say the “amen” of faith that God’s word is true, specifically the word of the Gospel as preached by the apostles of the New Covenant, the word that is the foundation of the Church in every age and place about Jesus Christ.
Then, we must recall the words of James: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” That is, this faith will grow in us by the work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, and it will abide with hope and charity as we press on into the sacramental life by the grace of God, pursuing the goal and end of our belief, knowing God and His Son Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3).