At several points in the conference on Galatians last week, discussions touched on the relationship between faith and works.
It’s fairly typical to imagine that the opposing pair of “faith” and “works” has everything to do with the supposed absolute dichotomy between inward faith and outward action. Many assume that when Paul commends faith, he is endorsing human passive reception or human inaction.
And when he disapproves of works or “works of law,” he is condemning human action or human intentionality.
There’s an assumed ideological conception at work here, however, and it’s not a good one. That assumption is that the soteriological stage is something like a zero-sum game, with the sum total of all acting—divine and human—adding up to one hundred.
To allow for human action at all involves the marginalizing of divine action to some extent, however small. So, if we allow for even one or two percent of the sum total to be credited to humans, we have capitulated to “legalism,” “synergism,” and are diminishing God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.
The assumption is that any and all human acting gets in the way of God’s saving action in human affairs, minimizing God’s stage presence to whatever extent.
This conception dominates Western theological visions of the relation of divine and human acting in general, and especially when it comes to salvation.
In my opinion, this conception is mistaken. It leads to a misreading of Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, and it makes a mess of Paul’s discussions of the Mosaic Law and obedience.
Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world. Paul imagines the contrast differently.
On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act, and, on the other, holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way.
Or, we could say it this way; there are actions, behaviors, and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power, and there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize and diminish God’s presence and power.
There is human action that invites and allows God to act and that puts God on display. And there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, and ends up eclipsing God’s presence and action.
Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by a mixture of our Reformation heritage and divided-up conceptions of the individual.
Evangelicals—people who ought to be shaped more by Scripture than any human tradition—ought to develop a new vocabulary and a new grammar to speak of faith, works, and obedience so that we do not downgrade that which Paul lauds, or oppose two things Paul regards as near synonyms.