Faith does not make you a good person, your actions do.
So this morning, a friend of mine came up to me and said, “So I heard a beautiful saying earlier this week and I wanted to share it with you.” He then proceeded to give me the above quote. Now this friend obviously expected me to respond positively and when I didn’t he was surprised. Noting my lack of a positive response, he immediately said, “Now don’t over think this.”. At the end of the service, he came up to me and said, “You over thought it didn’t you? And now you are going to write a book about it?” Well it is not quite a book, but he knows me very well.
On the one hand, I am glad that he thought that I would respond to this quote positively. I try to emphasize the importance of practical expressions of God’s love in my life and it is nice to know that someone who knows me very well has noticed this aspect of my beliefs. On the other hand, I strongly believe that faith in Jesus Christ is vastly more important than actions and I don’t believe I stress this enough. Allow me, therefore, to take this opportunity to stress the most important truth that I know. Only a faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was born of a virgin and died for our sins on the cross and was resurrected by God the Father can make a person pleasing to God. Faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential and no good works can substitute for this faith if it is lacking. Though C.S. Lewis once tried to argue that faith and works were like two halves of a pair of scissors, I disagree with his position on this issue and believe in the disproportionate importance of faith. Why?
In my view, the whole purpose of the evil of this world is to teach human beings our need for divine assistance to be good and pleasing in God’s sight. Even the smallest expression of our recognition of this fact is enough to make us pleasing in God’s sight because His love, His power and His spirit is enough to make a good person out of even the worst sinner if God has that sinners permission to work in his life. If you admit your need of God’s assistance in the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross, then God’s power is able to help you to be a citizen of paradise. If you do not admit of your need of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross, then God cannot help you to be as good as you would need to be and you may not enter into paradise. Consider the thief on the cross. He freely confessed that he deserved to be crucified yet he made a single profession of faith and he will be in heaven while those who did “many mighty works” will not make the cut.
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ (Matthew 7:22)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Now this emphasis on beliefs doesn’t make sense to us as human beings and doesn’t seem “fair”. Why does God consider beliefs more important than actions? Allow me to illustrate the importance of beliefs with a thought experiment.
Let us imagine two men named A and B. Both of these two men have heard of a distressing situation in a foreign country which has resulted in a large number of orphans. Both men have appealed to the members of their society for funds to start an orphanage and both men have raised the necessary funds. Both men get on a plane to the foreign country and both men are killed when the plane crashes. Both men come before God for judgment. Should both men be treated the same? After all, their actions were identical.
What if B was acting out of a genuine love for the Lord and for these children while A was not motivated by good beliefs? What if A saw the number of orphans and was filled with lust in his heart? What if A said, “If I can only run an orphanage over there, then I can do whatever I wanted with these defenceless underage children?” As sick as this is, there are people out there like A. Only an amoral moron would say that A and B should be treated the same because their actions were identical. Despite his outward actions, A was a monster and deserves to have his actions count against him. B, on the other hand, was genuine in his love and his actions will have pleased God.
Now people will argue that this is an extreme case and, of course, such people would be correct. The purpose of a thought experiment is to examine extreme cases (what a scientist would call a boundary condition) to determine if a truth is generally applicable or to see if that truth is true only in a bounded domain. In this case, we have demonstrated that beliefs can be vastly more important than actions when the intentions behind the actions are nefarious. But what if the intention is not nefarious? What if A had genuinely good intentions and meant to help the children but did not love God?
When I consider this question I can only appeal to our common experience with our own parents. Chances are, your parents had great intentions, but even those who are guided by Jesus Christ often end up hurting their children through sin. If the fact that even loving parents doing their best often end up injuring their children doesn’t demonstrate our need of God’s guidance and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, then I do not know what does.
The bottom line for me is that I think that faith is much more important than actions for very base personal reasons. As a man who was a hardcore pornography addict for more than twenty years and who has only recently experienced lasting victory over this sin, I view all of my actions as being corrupt and only acceptable before God if they are cleansed on the altar of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (see my previous post “An Effective Prayer“). If even my best works done on my best day are “as filthy rags before the Lord” (Isaiah 64:6), how could I possibly believe that works are even close to important as faith? I need Jesus Christ and without His love and His patience, His guidance and His forgiveness, I would be a horrible human being unfit for any good work and certainly unworthy of entering into His paradise.