What does God want from us? Our time, our money, our good and just actions? Is it just our faith or belief or acknowledgment? What do we need to do to win God’s favor? ◊
There’s a commonly debated topic among people of all religious traditions. It’s the issue of Faith vs. Works. Of course, the underlying question is: What does God want? Does God want my faith and belief, or can I gain favor with my good works and deeds? More precisely: Is a person saved by their faith in God, or are they saved by their good works or actions?
To some people, this question has already been sorted out in their own mind. They apply clear logic to the matter and conclude that any good God, if he exists or cares, would see our good behavior or good works and grant us favor now and entry into heaven in the afterlife, if heaven even exists.
They figure they’ve got their bets covered and are free to act in accordance with good and reasonable human decency – certainly don’t kill, and try not to cheat, lie, or steal. The thinking is that if one’s good behavior tips the scales over one’s bad behavior, then God will grant them a pass. As God should, because they have been a pretty good person. For the most part.
This common rationale works for many people. And keeps things simple. No need for religion, or church, or guilt trips, or Jesus, or do’s and don’ts. Just be a nice person and God will take note.
Better yet if you could just give money to gain favor.
Giving or Buying Your Way to Heaven
Imagine if you saw a church leader selling tokens each week to his congregation with a promise that their purchase can win favor with God. Suppose that these tokens could even be purchased on behalf of dead relatives and friends as a remission of past sins and would be a benefit to them in the afterlife. Then imagine if that church leader gave a sermon with the punch line, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 1
One would be appalled, and rightly so.
Such was the case in 1517 when a friar named Johann Tetzel was selling “indulgences” near Wittenberg, Germany for the remission of purgatory (a supposed intermediate state for atonement of sins) but also to raise money for constructing St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. A young professor of Biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg named Martin Luther was infuriated at the sale of these indulgences. In scholastic tradition of that day, he posted on the church door his Theses on the topic for internal academic debate among other faculty members.
Luther came up with 95 provocative points for discussion, many associated with the issue of earning favor with God via works or performance. Some are as follows:
- (#1) Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying, ‘Repent ye,’ intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.
- (#32) Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their salvation, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
- (#37) Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share of all the benefits of Christ and of the Church, given him by God, even without letters of pardon.
- (#62) The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
- (#86) Since the pope’s income today is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than the money of indigent believers?
Written in Latin and never meant for public consumption, Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were nevertheless circulated among the populace and sparked the revolution that rocked the world and religious order. The Reformation had begun and, in his lifetime, dormant evangelical Scriptural doctrines resurfaced and changed the Christian Church landscape.
The repercussions still carry over today.
Shortly before posting the 95 Theses, Luther had begun studying the Greek New Testament, specifically the Letter of Paul to the Romans. His studies persuaded him that the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, meant a change of heart, not mere performance of outward works, as theologians of his day defined it.2
In his own words Luther writes:
I had been possessed by an unusually ardent desire to understand Paul in his epistle to the Romans…In spite of the ardor of my heart, I was hindered by the unique word in the first chapter: “The righteousness of God…” I hated that word “righteousness of God,” because…I had been taught to understand it philosophically as meaning…the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unjust.
As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless I felt that I was a sinner before God…Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.
Day and night I tried to meditate upon the significance of these words…then, finally…I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely, faith…the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith”…Now I felt as though I had been reborn… This passage from Paul became to me the very gate to Paradise.3
So, What Wins God’s Favor?
A good friend told me that he was raised in a church tradition that emphasized works and guilt. He said the ongoing burden of sin and guilt and insufficient good deeds weighed heavy on him his whole life. Even into marriage. His wife finally urged him to read the Book of Romans in the Bible. He said it was like a massive weight lifted from him, like the character in Pilgrim’s Progress he was weighed down to the depths of his soul with a burden he was unable to rid himself. Like Martin Luther, my friend said he finally felt unfettered and free.
And that is what Christians call the Good News. We are burdened by the weight of sin. All of us.
None is righteous, no one… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:10, 23-24).
We can’t free ourselves of the burden or buy our way out of it.
For by grace (God’s love and power through the atoning death of Jesus) you have been saved through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
That first step of surrendered faith or belief in Him, not ourselves or our actions, is the acceptance and receiving of this Divine gift of great substance. A gift for the taking. Then out of that freeing faith springs forth good and multiplied fruit and works with God-infused vitality and purpose.
Are you driven by good human works or a vibrant faith in God?
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:17
1 The Door of the Beginning and the End, The One Year Book of Christian History, E. Michael and Sharon Rusten, Tyndale Publishing House, IL, 2003, p. 106.
3 Ibid, pp. 630-631.