St. Paul: Faith and Works

St. Paul is either accused or credited with being the person who opposed works to faith or law to the Gospel.  Much has been written about the writings of St. Paul in this regard especially in the faith-works debates between Catholics and Protestants.

My own reading of St. Paul, no doubt better expressed by other scholars, is that St. Paul was not opposed to Christians doing good deeds, but rather he writes strongly against “formalized religion” as such.   For St. Paul the crux of the matter is that we each must respond to God’s own revelation – this is the faith that we are to have in God’s promises and prophecies.

When we respond to God’s revelation (whether to the Law or to the Gospel), our response is faith – we believe God and trust in His promises and act accordingly.  Thus Abraham gets praised as a man of faith.  He did many things in his lifetime, but his main response was to believe God, and his many actions are in response to God’s revelation.   The issue is not Abraham’s obedience to God, or Abraham’s willingness to follow commandments.  Abraham believes God, and as a result he chooses to obey or fulfill the commandments.  St. Paul particularly likes Abraham become Abraham precedes Moses and the Law, and for St. Paul’s purposes shows that righteousness can be done apart from the law.

For St. Paul the trouble with the Jewish law is one does not even have to believe in the existence of God to choose to follow the law.  One might decide keeping Torah is a healthier life style, morally superior, a good discipline/training, and all of these things can be without believing in God.   Paul’s complaint is that keeping Torah has in fact replaced faith:  those keeping Torah have even lost an interest in what God is currently doing (becoming flesh in Jesus, for example) because they are so focused on being religious and adhering to a complex set of rules.  In fact St. Paul thinks the way the Jews strive to keep Torah becomes totally focused on the flesh (for example circumcision) rather than on faith in God.

For Paul, the only reason to keep Torah or tradition of any kind is in a faith response to God’s revelation, and if one has that faith response one will understand that keeping rules and regulations is not the goal.  This is where I think Paul sees keeping Torah/tradition as a substitute for real faith which involves a real and risky relationship with God.   Keeping law becomes a way of safety and security – God must reward me or God will ignore my faults, whereas a real relationship requires discernment and choosing what to do rather than simply following rules and rituals.  So fasting or not fasting should result from one’s response to God’s revelation, not in obedience to some set of rules and rituals. 

Good works are not a bad thing, unless they become a religious substitute for responding to God’s revelation.  Obeying the law of Moses is vacuous when the Law is separated from God’s revelation, promises and prophecies.  When obeying the law becomes the substitute for watching what God is doing/revealing, then works becomes a hindrance to attaining righteousness.   Righteousness is not just about being ritually perfect, it is about remaining faithfully attuned to what God is currently doing.  This is where the Jews missed out – missed Christ; they became so focused on keeping Torah, that they stopped paying attention to God.

The reading of Scripture, the keeping of Church Tradition, attendance at worship, the reception of sacraments, are there to keep us alive and alert to God’s ongoing work and revelation in Jesus Christ.  However, they can become a safe substitute for paying attention to God, and can become in our minds the way we please or appease God.   Pray, pay and obey thinking is a substitute for believing in God and living a life of faith.  

Believing God is not foolishly tempting God.  It is however a reordering of priorities and values in life, and placing God ahead of self in the decision making.  Believing God is not equivalent to endeavoring to win His favor, nor to trying to get to heaven or earn some reward.   Believing God is making decisions and living according to what He has revealed to us, which might include forgiving others, loving others, tithing, attending church rather than doing other things, reading the scriptures, being charitable and generous, rejoicing in God, accepting suffering at times, sacrificing, putting others ahead of one’s self, humbling one’s self, begging forgiveness, being merciful, showing compassion, denying one’s self, reconciling with others, praying for enemies, giving expecting nothing in return, giving one’s life for one’s friends, etc.

A joyous feast to all who are honoring the memory of the Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul!  

(June 2010)