By Mark Pilon

Are We Saved by Faith Alone or Faith and Good Works?

“I just felt like I was at the end of the line. I was down there by myself and I got to feelin’ that I took so many pills that I’d done it, that I was gonna blow up or something. I hadn’t eaten in days, I hadn’t slept in days, and my mind wasn’t workin’ too good anyway. I couldn’t stand myself anymore. I wanted to get away from me. And if that meant dyin’, then okay.”

He had entered that cave to never leave it. He’d gone there to end his own life. And then the story got really interesting.

Cash continued: “I took a flashlight with me, and I said, ‘I’m goin’ to walk and crawl and climb into this cave until the light goes out, and then I’m gonna lie down.’ So I crawled in there with that flashlight until it burned out and I lay down to die. I was a mile in that cave. At least a mile. But I felt this great comfortin’ presence sayin’, ‘No, you’re not dyin’. I got things for you to do.’ So I got up, found my way out. Cliffs, ledges, drop-offs. I don’t know how I got out, ‘cept God got me out.”

This story was taken from a LIfeZette article titled The Johnny Cash You Never Knew, by Lee Habeeb1. For those of you who are not as long in the tooth as I am - Johnny Cash was a famous country singer born Feb. 26, 1932 and died September 12, 20032.

However, let's step away from the story of Johnny Cash for a moment. I think most Christians would agree that we have to accept Christ as our Lord and saviour. So where do works fit in? I think many Christians misunderstand the Catholic notion of works to be that of a check list or a bucket list. Once we have checked off enough items, hallelujah! we're done! But that is not how it works.

To say that we believe and accept Jesus as our Lord and saviour is the first step. It is saying to God "I will love and serve you. I want to be part of your kingdom". So the next step has to be to put that love in motion by serving: To be part of Christ's kingdom we cannot simply just say "Hey Lord, mark me in your Book of Life and we're good!" Rev. 20:11-12,15 references this Book of Life:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done...and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Note in that passage that those who are damned are not in this "book of life" but those who are saved are not only in this book but they are judged by "what they had done." So what is this "what they had done" part? Once we accept Christ as our Lord he has work for us. We are not just cogs in a wheel, nor are we accidents or mistakes. God has a unique plan for every one of us. Each of us has gifts God has graced us with, which He wants us to use and has called us to use in service for His Kingdom and to build it up.

Once you are part of something much bigger than yourself such as Christ's kingdom you have a role to play. The "Yes" that is given is only the first step. God's kingdom is not a place where everyone just hangs out. A kingdom is organized, it has a government and a hierarchy. Everyone has a role to play, from top to bottom. To use a simple example - most people have had the experience of receiving a job offer after a successful interview. Once you accept the job you do not say to your employer "Thanks for hiring me! It's been nice meeting you but now I'm going on a world tour. I'll keep in touch though so you'll know where to wire me my monthly pay cheques." That won't fly. Rather one of your next steps would be to learn from you employer what your duties and responsibilities are...and these are the conditions you must accept on your own free will to remain employed. And if at some point you loose motivation and decide to run your own business on company time your boss is going to find out and fire you. As St. Paul says "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

There are several ways this idea of works is expressed in scripture. Scripture is full examples of men and women called by God to perform specific tasks - in both the old and new testament. One of my favourites is God calling Moses to deliver his people out of slavery in Egypt. "Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:10) Moses resisted and gave a number of reasons why he should not do this, finally saying to God "Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person." (Exodus 4:13) God however would have none of this and would not take "no" for an answer. There are many other examples of men and women called directly by God: Joshua - leading the conquest of the promised land (Joshua 1:1-9), Gideon - freeing Israel from the Midianites (Judges 6:14), Samuel - prophet to kings (1 Samuel 3:10), and others not so directly but knowing they had an important work to do: Ruth - Killing Holofernes, Head of the Assyrian army besieging the Israelites, Esther - saving the Israelites from the persecution of Haman.

This carries on in the new testament with the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph...'Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus... The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David: He will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end'" Mary's response was "You see before you the Lord's servant, let it happen to me as you have said." (Luke 1:26-38) Jesus himself continues calling men and women in the new testament Gospels many times such as the call of the Twelve (Luke 6:12-16), the mission of the seventy-two disciples (Luke 10:1-12), and there were women who accompanied and supported Jesus in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). In the case of the seventy-two, Jesus supports them, giving them gifts to deliver from evil spirits and heal (Luke 10:17-20). Then there is the great commission in which he promises the Holy Spirit to help (Acts 1:8).

Besides directly calling people Christ made clear the consequences of his servants ignoring the call through the parable of the talents where the master gave three men a certain number of talents "each according to his ability" to invest while he was away. The man given the one talent did not invest it, rather he buried it, and when the master came back and demanded an account of what the man had done, he received back the fruitless talent which then was taken away and given to another and he was cast into the outer darkness (Matthew 25:14-30). And Jesus is even more explicit in Matthew 25:31-46:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you cam to me.' The the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and fee you, or thirsty and and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'

The good works we are called to do are not always easy. This is what St. Paul at one point wrote of his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:24-28):

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.

So returning to Johnny Cash. As you can see from the opening story Johnny Cash was also a believer. Not only that, though Cash was known for his country music Habeeb points out in his article that nearly a quarter of his songs dealt directly with his faith or the Bible, and those that were not, were influenced by his faith.

I will leave with you with three things: First, some questions to ponder: Had Johnny Cash simply kept his faith private what good would that have done? Would he have been investing his talents or burying them? Second, some recommended further reading from an excellent series on this topic from a blog called "Between the Farm and the Cross": Faith, works and St. Paul Part 1, Faith, works and St. Paul Part 2, and Are All Our Works "Filthy Rags"?3 And last I'll close with this quote from Cindy in her blog post Faith, works and St. Paul Part 2, which I think sums it up:

1 Corinthians 13:1-2,13 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…..So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” If St. Paul were really an advocate of salvation by “faith alone” apart from love, how could he ever state that love is greater than faith? And that faith without love is nothing? This is very much an echo of St. James that faith without works is “dead.” (James 2:17)


Blog phtoto credit: Photo by Rolf Schmidbauer on Unsplash

References & resources

2. Johnny Cash - Wikipedia

Last modified on Thursday, 25 February 2021 19:40