By Faith / Part 3 – Faith and Works

In this article I’m going to do something potentially controversial.

I’m going to disagree with both SP Teuscher and Martin Luther at the same time.  But not too much and not too harshly.

To start this story SP Teuscher wrote article in the Canadian Lutheran based in part on the story of busy Martha and attentive Mary:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.

And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.

And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

SP Teuscher makes the excellent observation:

what does this mean? Just this: you cannot really serve the Lord unless and until He first serves you. You cannot be a Martha, whose service is pleasing to God, unless and until you are first a Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to His Word.

This is spot on because –

..without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 

“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word” Romans 10:17

He then quotes Martin Luther:

The Reformer sums it up this way: “It is better to omit everything except the Word of God. In fact, nothing deserves to be fostered more than the Word; for the entire Scripture shows that this is to be in common use among Christians, and Christ Himself says that one thing is needful; that Mary sit at the feet of Christ and hear His Word often.

And on this I have to make a small quibble because faith and the Word of God doesn’t stop at hearing and learning – it also naturally results in doing. As James tells us:

Faith Without Works Is Dead
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. James 2:13-18

Faith and the working of the Holy Spirit in a person is not an inoculation against works, it is the source and means of all good things that God works through His people – including the works “we” do or are used of God to perform. If you “omit everything except the Word of God” then you run the risk strangling the very things that come about as a natural byproduct of the hearing and believing – namely walking and living in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

For example, if Martha was coming from a place not too far from that of the Pharisees and thinking that good works were some way to earn God’s approval – then she needed correction.  Service done as a “means of exchange” ie “my works for your approval” is wrong because nothing any human can do can “buy” God’s approval. Service done for the right reason with the right motivation is a good and godly thing. This is why Mary’s attentive listening that prioritized learning and understanding was “the one thing” – because it deepend and fed her faith from which all other good things – including works – would flow.

This “stepping out in faith” type of doing can lead to a virtuous circle:

  1. Believe, learn, and understand as the Spirit gives comprehension,
  2. Act in faith trusting that God is faithful to do what He has promised, 
  3. See for your own eyes that God is always faithful (you need to keep your eyes open for this!) 
  4. Faith is strengthened by direct experience and observation,
  5. Go back to step 1

This process is important because “knowing” and “doing” is akin to “theory” and “practice.” It’s one thing to read the “know” all the “in”s and “out”s  of God’s Word, be able to parse the syntax and grammar of the original languages, and be quite intellectual about things. It is quite another to live it out in practice when someone asks what you do on Sunday morning, when following what you believe puts something you greatly value at risk, or when you find yourself up to your eyeballs in a situation where there is no clear and Godly answer but a decision is required of you right now. This kind of “doing” as you live your faith results in struggling with the hard questions and that leads to many positives including an increased ability to discern good from evil:

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evilHebrews 5:14

On the other hand, I’ve seen all too many cases of people not paying attention to God’s working in their life, miss the opportunity to see how faithful God is, and so grow weak in their faith. For people like this their virtuous circle breaks down at “See that God is faithful to accomplish His goal”. It’s akin to the people that came to Christ asking to be healed and when He does what they ask they respond along the lines of “Never mind, I’ve got it.”

Ahem.

Really?

Consider the ten lepers that were healed and only one returned to say “thanks” – and he was a gentile at that!

Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:17-19

Backtracking a bit in SP Teuscher’s article:

And that is why the heart and centre, the chief and primary emphasis and activity of every congregation, of every Christian, is to be one thing and one thing alone: “to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it,” as the catechism explanation of the Third Commandment puts it.

Hear, learn, and then do as you walk in faith.

On the other hand, however, as soon as God’s Word is put out of sight and ignored, where the hearing of God’s Word is regarded as only one thing among the many activities that might go on in the church, errors in doctrine and faith, in practice and life begin creeping in so that little by little we lose Christ altogether. And what good will all our serving and doing then be?

Indeed!

Here endeth my dissent from Luther and President Teuscher.  🙂

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