We talk a lot about the difference between salvation by works and salvation by grace. I thought I’d spend a little time on the subject because in some Christian circles, it is a common to compare theology based on the perceived difference.
An oft-used explanation for “works-based” theology is that it is like a scale: Our good deeds and bad will be weighed, and whichever wins determines our fate. Arguments against scale theology are that we cannot ever do enough to earn G-d’s favor and that when asked, we would never put ourselves in the “didn’t do enough” camp. I want to go on record as saying that I believe both of those things to be true. However, there are some complications and I think they deserve some discussion.
First, we need to be clear about what we mean my “works.” Does that mean avoiding naughty behavior (personal morality), or does that mean feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and in prison (social ministry)? Evangelical churches, which are solidly in the salvation-by-grace-through-faith camp, emphasize personal morality as vital to our spiritual journey, but fail to include social ministry. This is a form of works-based salvation. It amounts to saying, “You may have said the magic words, but it’s clear from your behavior that you didn’t really mean it.”
Second, the emphasis on personal morality over social ministry is not Biblical. Jesus himself said that what we do to minister to our fellow humans marks the difference between the sheep and the goats. James said that “faith without deeds is dead,” and from the context, it’s clear he didn’t mean just personal morality. A failure to encourage both being good and doing good misses the mark.
To illustrate, imagine an elementary classroom. The students are learning the “silent e” rule for long vowels. Many children misunderstand and begin adding an e to every word at first. The teacher must spend time reviewing the concept until the students have learned it. Does the error mean that the teacher should throw out the e altogether, because it’s too confusing to the students? Of course not!
Yet that’s exactly what has happened to the idea of social ministry. Some people have misapplied the principle, wanting to replace faith and personal morality entirely. In response, some evangelicals have thrown out the principle entirely, wanting to emphasize personal morality as the key to or evidence of genuine faith. Sadly, it has led to inactivity on the part of Christians when it comes to caring for the world and people G-d has created.
There is a tension (in a good way) between social ministry and personal morality. How much do we emphasize one or the other? How do we carry them out practically? What role (if any) do they play in our salvation—from being necessary to being a reflection? We have to be able to talk about these things openly and in a healthy way in order for Christians to know what it means to live out our faith.