Faith or Works? Both? Neither!
Remember when Christians used to argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a needle? Perhaps someone should have stopped to ask why angels would even want to dance on the head of a needle. I mean, if they weren’t dancing there because they had some desire to, getting them there to begin with would require some coercion. And really, should we be coercing angels into doing dumb things for our own entertainment? It seems like they were having all the wrong conversations back then.
I’m going to go ahead and posit that the old faith vs works debate is going to go down in the books as an equally misguided debate about what we are judged on. The reality about faith and works is that they exist in a symbiotic relationship with each other. True faith yields good works which increases faith so on and so forth. But if we’re actually going to be judged on the basis of either faith or works, we’re pretty screwed anyways.
Take works. How many “Feed the Children” commercials showing a small child climbing a garbage heap have you sat through without doing something? How many times has a friend or family member had financial problems that you did nothing to help with? How many homeless people have you passed by without giving them so much as a sandwich? If you are a faithful Christian, you have likely helped those in need on occasion – as often as you are able maybe. (If you’ve never done any of these things – or things like them – you may want to question your concept of yourself as a faithful Christian. I’m just saying.) But I know that I’ve sat through pleas for money to help get clean water to kids drinking sewage while licking cheezy-poof dust off my fingers. I’m gonna fail if we’re judged on works, I’m afraid.
OTOH, if faith is the measure, am I really to believe that Peter will be giving me a faith exam at the pearly gates to make sure I believe all the right things before letting me in? And what happens if I discover things about God that I didn’t know once I reach the great judgment seat? Can I say, “oops – changed my mind!” and get full credit for having the right answer? When Jesus says, “when I was hungry you didn’t feed me. When I was thirsty you didn’t give me drink. When I was naked you didn’t clothe me.” Does it help if I answer, “true, but I was so totally down with you when you said to do those things. Good call.“? I don’t think faith is going to cover for a lack of work, I’m afraid.
So if it’s not faith and it’s not works that we’ll ultimately be judged on, what is it? It’s simple really – who we are. What is our heart?
“The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. – Deuteronomy 1:17 “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” – Matthew 15:18-19 “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil.” – Luke 6:1 Guard your heart with all vigilance,for from it are the sources of life. – Proverbs 4:23
Years ago I heard John Ortberg teach on Matthew 7:21-23 and he noted a peculiar thing God will say to those who claimed to have done great deeds in His name. “I never knew you.” The idea that God would say “I don’t know you” fascinated me. Perhaps God was talking about prayer: “I don’t know you because we’ve never spent time together.” Perhaps God was talking about sin: “your sin has buried you so deep that I don’t recognize you.” And if God was saying to those who are sent away, “I don’t know you” it stands to reason that he says to those who he accepts into the Kingdom, “I know you. Come on in.” In time I came to see this issue of being known by God as central to our salvation – and therefore our judgment.
So why does God say to some people who have been working in his name, “I don’t know you”? Think of it this way; when judgment comes, all that is hidden will be revealed. All that has been unknown will be known. What will God see when everything I am and have done is laid bare? Will he see the person he created – the one who bears His image? The one who he purposed into being? Will he see his own workmanship in front of him? Or will he see something unrecognizable – a creation of our own making reflecting who we think God wants us to be?
Those who are sent away may have been acting in God’s name but have never stopped to say, “God, you made me in your image. Show me who you are so that I can see who I am supposed to be. Teach me to be that person.” These are the people who can give mental assent to the things that Jesus says, but haven’t actually given their lives over to it. They don’t produce “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, but never seem to notice their lack of fruit. They make excuses when they instead exhibit one or more of the following in their lives: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing. They may have recognized such things at work in their lives but respond by becoming less free, more restricted and constricted and trying to reshape themselves into what they think God wants. They did things their own way rather than God’s way.
Those who God knows bring their failings to God, trusting Him to work change on their hearts. They make themselves do hard things – spiritually and in the world – as they work out their salvation with God. God knows them because Love has been personally shaping them. As they take on the shape God created them to have, they learn to be more free and less constricted by fear. When in doubt, they chose Love over any other thing. As their hearts become more love shaped, their lives do exhibit the good fruit Jesus says his followers will be known by.
So, if you’re worried about the day of judgment, it’s not faith or works that need your attention. It’s heart. What will God see when he looks at you – the heart which he made in the image of Love itself? Or some other thing you have made for yourself?