Saved By Law, or Faith . . . or Both?
based on Philippians 3:4b-14
by Frank Schaefer
Our scripture lessons today
present us with two different, or maybe not so different ways, to salvation--one is
through the law, the other is through faith. The law requires of us to do live according
to them, to avoid sin and do good; and faith, to believe in God's grace despite of the
law. This difference between salvation through works or salvation through faith can be
found in many religions.
I have a good friend who has quite the faith story to tell. He was
driving his old VW bus one day when the red control light came on. The person sitting in
the front passenger seat asked him: "don't you think you should pull over? You seem
to have an engine problem." No said my friend, as a Christian I have faith in God's
protection." And he got out one of those round stickers that said "Jesus is the
answer!" and stuck it right over top of the control light, stepping on the
accelerator and doing three-thousand-dollars-worth of damage to his engine.
What his story teaches us is that faith and works need to go hand in
hand. My friend would have done better NOT to ignore the natural law that a machine
running without oil will break. He should have acted on the prompting of the control
light; because God's voice was in it as much as it was in the voice of the elephant
driver. And yet, faith is very important too, isn't it? At times faith prompts us to
ignore what seems to be natural law--such as the law of the survival of the fittest. Isn't
a core element of our belief that we trust that God at times intervenes into the order of
things to help his children and to show grace and mercy to those who failed to comply with
His holy law?
Christianity is certainly split along the lines of law versus faith:
for instance, you have your Catholic and Orthodox believers with an emphasis on works, and
you have your Protestants on the other hand with an emphasis on faith. Our sacred
book--the bible--can be divided along these lines: you have your works-righteousness in
the OT--the law of God--, and your faith-righteousness in the NT--the good news of
Christ's forgiveness if you only believe in Him.
What is the right religious way then--law or faith? I think every
Christian would agree that both aspects are important. The difference lies in the
emphasis. The question is: "what should come first, law or faith? Should good works
come out of faith, or faith come out of good works?
I believe what Paul emphasizes in his epistle to the church at
Phillipi is the priority of faith over the law. He speaks of an incredible hope--one not
based on our past conduct and actions in accordance with the law--but one directed toward
the future of Christ's kingdom.
He says in Verse 8b-9: "For his sake I have suffered the
loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be
found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that
comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."
Note that Paul is not saying here: "forget about the law--it's
not important." No, the law of God is holy and it is important that we strive to
fulfill it as Paul himself did. What he is saying here is that our spiritual vision should
be marked by faith, by a certain goal-direction: no matter what I did in the past--even if
I fulfilled the whole law at all times--that's nice, but that's not something we should
This attitude of a goal-directed faith has at least two advantages.
It clears the way to overcoming a sinful past. For dwelling on a sinful past can bog us
down, keep us captive to sinful patterns, and induce a low self-esteem and weaken our
faith. But not only that, looking to the past can also induce a sense of self-righteous
pride over our accomplishments, our good works, which often leads to a judgmental attitude
This reminds me of the story of the two monks who traveled
through the countryside. It had rained and there were some considerable mud puddles on the
dirt road. When they came to a crossing in the path they noticed a young village woman
trying to figure out how to cross--without getting drenched--a particularly big puddle
covering the crossing. One of the monks offered his service to the woman and carried her
across the puddle dry shot. This bothered the other monk considerably as they continued on
their way. Finally, after walking quietly for a mile, he said: "how could you have
carried this woman on your arms. Did you forget all about your oath of celibacy?"
After a while the first monk replied: "I have left this
young woman behind at the crossroads, but you are still carrying her in your heart."
Dwelling on the past--accomplishments and sin alike--can really blur
our vision and put down our faith. Faith in the goals that Jesus has set for us, however,
helps us to stay focused on ushering in the kingdom of God. It's a little like in the
illustration of the 4 lines, the children helped us solve: dwelling on the past is like
staying within the dotted field, having a goal-directed faith is like stepping outside of
that field. In Verse 13 Paul even says that it is better to forget what lies behind:
"...but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to
what lies ahead." We have a choice to either take our motivation (or lack
thereof) from the past or to take it from faith in Christ.
And what is this goal that we are striving toward? It is the kingdom
of God on earth. Amen.