How Faith In Christ Becomes Secondary

6 May

Last night, during our after-dinner devotion, I read a passage from the writings of Martin Luther:

“Good works have always been valued more highly than faith.  Of course, it’s true that we should do good works and respect the importance of them.  But we should be careful that we don’t elevate good works to such an extent that faith and Christ become secondary. If we esteem them too highly, good works can become the greatest idolatry.  This has occurred both inside and outside of Christianity.  Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ.  They preach about and praise their own works instead of God’s works.”

It made me think about one of the current trends in the church (one which I have personally witnessed, as well as heard about), namely, the emphasis on “doing.”  It’s not that I’m against encouraging people to do good deeds, or to live differently in light of the Gospel–Luther, in the very same passage, writes, “After faith is preached, then we should teach good works.”–but rather, the pragmatic and detached way in which the current emphasis upon good works is leading people into a Christless Christianity. 

What I mean by “pragmatic” is that many people–including some that I know–see Christianity’s as good only so far as its value in practical terms.  Therefore, as long as it serves to provoke people to be kind, loving people who accept and serve others, then Christianity is good and useful.  From a pragmatic point of view, the Bible does not even need to be true regarding historical events and spiritual realities, so long as it presents practical solutions to problems we see in our own lives and in the world around us.  In fact, to engage in debate on the Scripture’s historical authenticity and the importance of key doctrines can be seen as unhelpful, and distracts us from the main purpose of the Bible: to affect how we live and to love other people.  

And this leads to my second concern.  What I mean when I use the word “detached” is that based on the above-mentioned, pragmatic presupposition, an emphasis upon faith in Jesus Christ, His perfect life, atoning death on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and its salvific implications become less important.  Christianity, in effect, becomes detached from Christ and His work, focusing more on how to apply the principles and ideas presented in the Bible to the lives of people both inside and outside the Church.  There is no need to be connected to, or study, creeds, confessions, and theological texts from those who have carried the banner of Christianity in centuries past.  All that is important is that we “do.”  And as Luther points out, these become the things about which we preach and praise.

Returning to Luther’s text, “People of the world, however, adore good works.  They regard them to be far higher than faith.”  This makes sense.  The things we do are measurable, and they have temporal benefits for us and those around us.  Its why Jesus, Paul, John, James, and Peter exhort believers to do good works; they are good and helpful for our neighbors.  Yet, let us not make the mistake of leaving behind the history of our faith or the truth claims upon which it is built, and let us never make Christ and His work secondary to any good works of our own.

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