Faith, effort, works and the Protestant psyche

IMG_4489Last Sunday was the annual Maynooth 10K run. Yours truly participated, although ‘run’ is probably a generous description of my progress around the course.

The worst part of the run for a total running amateur like me was between kilometres 4 and 7. Up to 4km, no great problem. After 7km the course turned through the gates of the magnificent Carton House Estate and it felt like a (long) home straight back to the town. But between 4 and 7 was a dead zone of feeling increasingly knackered yet with a long way to go.

As I gasped, red-faced, the road felt a lonely place, even if surrounded by lots of other runners. I guess that is where the evening training runs kicked in. My simple goal was to finish without stopping in under an hour – achieved, just.

High speed motion capture
High speed motion capture

Each runner had their own race to run and personal goals to aim for – whether the guys trying to win or slow-coaches like me plodding on behind. But whatever sort of runner you are, no-one else can run a race for you. No-one else can do the training. No-one else can force you to keep going when it would much easier to stop.

And this got me thinking about individual effort and the Christian life (anything to take my mind off how I felt!)

1) The cost of discipleship

As I understand it, the ‘cost of discipleship’ is a summons to voluntary self-giving of one’s life to God out of thankfulness and worship. It does not take the form of coerced obedience but rather is inspired by God’s own self-giving love.

The depth of that discipleship will depend, to a significant amount, on the degree to which someone has experienced and appreciates the extraordinary depth of the redeeming love of God.

The shape of that life is imitation of Jesus, the risen and reigning Lord who washes his followers’ feet. The ultimate purpose of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8.29).

And while we don’t run alone and need the encouragement of other runners alongside us, the Christian life can’t be lived vicariously.

To live such a life day by day requires large doses of determination, personal responsibility and perseverance.

2) The necessity of effort and works

In other words, there is no contradiction in the Christian life between grace and effort; between an experience of unconditional love and a response of disciplined obedience.

Historically, Protestants have had a hard time reconciling salvation by the grace of God alone with the necessity of ongoing determined effort to live the Christian life in such a manner as to produce good works.

Instinctively in the Protestant psyche is a logical jump that goes something like this: – if we are justified by faith alone apart from works and salvation is all of God’s grace, then our ‘works’ are ‘secondary’ and, strictly speaking, therefore ‘unnecessary’ for salvation. Our effort and subsequent ‘works’ may be good in and of themselves, but they can’t and don’t ‘contribute’ to our salvation because that is completely God’s work not ours.

The problem with this sort of logical jump is that it doesn’t do justice to what the Bible actually says about faith, effort and good works.

Take Paul for example; in all his letters he demonstrates an overriding central concern for the moral development and transformation of the believers under his care.

To the troubling Galatians he says

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”

In 1 Cor.7:19 he says

‘circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping God’s commandments is everything.’

For Paul, moral effort, obedience, perseverance and good works are integral to God’s saving agenda for his people.

Living the Christian life, like running a race, requires effort and that effort actually gets you somewhere. It results in visible ‘works’ that are actual ‘hard evidence’ of an internal newness of life.

For Paul, such works and obedience are both expected and necessary. They are not an optional and secondary ‘add on’ but are intrinsic to God’s work of salvation (Phil 2:12).

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”.

This is why he (and other NT writers) teaches quite unambiguously that future judgement will be according to works (e.g. Rom 2:6, 13 and elsewhere).

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

13 “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Such works require effort, intention, active obedience and discipline. The NT knows nothing of ‘cheap grace’ that leaves people with little or no motive or desire for living a life pleasing to God.

But here’s the key thing – and where the parallel with the lonely slog of the runner begins to break down. The effort of living the Christian life does not consist of a solitary autonomous individual trying harder to be better. The problem with that image is that God is left out of the picture altogether.

Instead, the consistent message of the NT is that a Christian is someone who has, by grace, been united to Christ through the Spirit, the ‘empowering presence of God’. It is out of this living union with Christ that the Spirit enables believers to live a transformed life. Good works are the result of the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit’s presence in someone’s life.

Take Ephesians 2:10 for how God is the initiator and empowerer; a changed life flowing from union ‘in Christ’.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Or to finish Philippians 2:12 with 2:13; individuals work out their own salvation but it is

“God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”

It’s that tension of the Christian ‘race’ that I was wrestling with between kilometres 4 and 7. God elects, saves, redeems and empowers. But each Christian is called to obedience and moral effort. No-one else can decide to keep ‘working out your salvation’ or pressing on to the future prize promised in Christ. No-one else can make those daily moral choices that each of us face. No-one else can resist temptations that only you or I experience. No-one else can doggedly persevere when the going gets hostile and discouraging.

In other words, how much progress a Christian makes in ‘running the race’ of the Christian life is still, to a significant degree, up to the effort, discipline, passion and focus of the individual believer. The Spirit may regenerate and empower a believer to live the Christian life but he does not control or manipulate. God is deeply and essentially non-coercive.

The Christian may be saved by grace but still has individual responsibility in living a life of faith and good works that are both necessary for salvation and are the basis of future judgement.

That’s a message that I suspect tends to get glossed over in a lot of evangelical Protestantism. What do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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One thought on “Faith, effort, works and the Protestant psyche

  1. Good piece, the problem is “faith” becomes a singular good work that handles everything… I’m more of the opinion there isn’t much faith if you don’t want to do anything!

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