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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 dwell on.

    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 toward others.

    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.