N.T. Wright on Faith and Works

Today’s ON FAITH question is an excellent one…

What’s more important from a faith perspective? Being saved? Or doing good works?

I would like to point out Bishop N.T. Wright’s response to the question. It is an excellent answer as well as another verification that he is in fact a very orthodox Theologian. I hope you enjoy the article. I have re-posted it on this blog entry below:

Start by Understanding Salvation

‘Being saved’ and ‘doing good works’ sounds like a low-grade version of the classic Reformation stand-off between Luther and the other reformers on the one hand and the Roman Catholicism of the late mediaeval period on the other — and, of course, Luther and his followers saw this stand-off as the re-run of the battles Paul had with his opponents, particularly the so-called ‘Judaizers’ in Galatians

This important set of arguments has become fairly thoroughly confused in the last hundred or two hundred years because it’s got muddled up with various others, including (a) the Romantic notion that genuine religion is all about inwardness rather than externals (‘How I feel deep down’ vs ‘What I do outwardly’) and (b) the existentialist notion that ‘authenticity’ consists in being true to what one finds within oneself rather than conforming to outward regulations etc. Unfortunately, these four things (Paul’s battles, Luther’s battles, Romanticism and existentialism) are simply not the same as one another, though it would take a long article, perhaps a book, to spell all this out (I have tried elsewhere: see e.g. my commentary on Romans in the New Interpreters Bible (Abingdon Press) vol. 10).

Part of the difficulty today is that most people who speak about ‘being saved’ in a ‘religious’ or ‘faith’ sense mean by it, quite simply, ‘going to heaven when you die’. Heaven is important, and our immediate destiny after death is important (I write from a Christian point of view, of course), but it is not the final destination, since in the New Testament the final destination is the ‘new heavens and new earth’ we are promised in Revelation 21, the renewed, redeemed creation we are promised in Romans 8, the ‘summing up of all things in heaven and earth’ we are promised in Ephesians 1.10. For this we will need, not disembodied immortal souls, though that’s one way we can talk about what happens to us immediately after death, but re-embodied, resurrected whole selves; and that, of course, is what both Judaism and Christianity promise, or rather what is promised by the creator God of whom both Jews and Christians speak.

And — and this is the point — this final destination, not the intermediate ‘heavenly’ state, is ‘salvation’; because the creation is good and God-given, so that to imagine that ‘salvation’ means being rescued FROM the world is to deny the most fundamental article of the creed. If ‘salvation’ means simply ‘leaving behind the world of space, time and matter’, then this is not really ‘salvation’ from the ultimate enemy, death itself, which destroys God’s good creation, but colluding with it. Rather, ‘salvation’ in the New Testament — though of course our culture has done its best to distort this — is all about God rescuing humans AND CREATION AS WELL from death — in other words, the redemption and renewal of creation, and of human beings within that, into a newly embodied world of which the present world is simply the foretaste.

If that is ‘being saved’, what about ‘good works’? From Ephesians 1.10 to Ephesians 2.10: we are saved by grace through faith FOR GOOD WORKS WHICH GOD PREPARED BEFOREHAND for us to walk in. Separating the two is like saying ‘which is more important, breathing or eating?’ Obviously if you stop breathing you won’t do much eating, but equally if you never eat you will find your breathing eventually in trouble. Not a perfect analogy, but the ‘salvation’ which is ‘by grace through faith’ is precisely the rescue of our humanness from all that corrupts it, including ultimately death, and sin which anticipates death — so if we are indeed rescued from sin and death then it makes no sense whatever to say ‘well, I’m saved, so I won’t bother about good works’. We aren’t saved BY good works but we are saved FOR good works — for the rich, wise, mature human life which reflects God’s glory into the world.

Much more to say but this is a start!

Posted by Nicholas T. Wright on June 8, 2007 9:49 AM